Amina wondered if it was considered rude to use the mirrors to check her appearance. She hadn’t been to the shrine often; her parents only took her at the start of spring to pray for a good summer. Was it considered rude? What purpose did those mirrors have, anyway? Could the Guardians even see their reflections? She had no idea.
Her father looked tense, standing in front of the shrine wearing his official cloak and pendant. Amina glanced at her mother next to her, but she couldn’t read the expression on her face. The shrine behind them was open, only four pillars each surrounded by a band of mirrors, and the large statue in the center. Someone from the village was tasked with cleaning it from time to time. Amina had no idea who.
She could see the Keepers on the road. The shrine was located on a hill in the dunes so from the top you could see anyone approach from miles away. The group of ponies was larger than Amina had expected, and they were, well, ponies. She had no idea what she had expected, but definitely not a group of normal ordinary women. At least, that’s what they looked like from this distance.
“They’ll be here, soon, Amina,” her mother whispered as she tugged on her cloak to straighten it one last time. “Do you remember your father’s instructions?”
Amina nodded. “Of course, mother.”
A few moments later the group arrived. The woman in front was clearly the oldest. She had her green hair tied up in a bun and was wearing some sort of tiara, although it wasn’t decorated with jewels or anything. Her father bowed slightly for the pony and Amina and her mother quickly followed, together with the other two officials who had joined them on this welcoming event.
“Welcome to the shrine of Iruld, lady Keeper. My name is Sar, mayor of this town. It is an honor to have the Keepers from the crown visit us.”
The green pony smiled at her father before checking if her entire group had made it to the shrine. “Please, mayor Sar, thank you for having us, and for welcoming us at this wonderful shrine. My name is Chanta, main Keeper of the Crown. Is that your village over there?”
Her father nodded. “It is, my lady. I hope you will find your stay comfortable. If there is anything you need, please make sure to contact us. I will leave one of my servants-”
“That won’t be necessary, mayor Sar,” Keeper Chanta interrupted her father. “I am sure we will be just fine. Now, if we may, we would like to say our prayers here before following you to the village.”
Amina tried to suppress her surprise. Nobody interrupted her father and got away with it. She expected him to lash out, but he kept his mouth shut and had a forced smile on his face as he stepped aside. Even her father knew how important these ponies were, Amina guessed as she stepped aside herself.
About ten ponies followed Chanta and they formed a circle around the statue. Amina watched as they all closed their eyes and started to hum softly. It didn’t take long for the prana to come to the surface and bask them all in a lovely purple glow. It was a wonderful sight, even if she had no idea what they were doing. Were they praying to the Goddess herself, or just to one of the Guardians? Amina wondered if the Keepers saw the Guardians often. If they were beings you just saw at all.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were busy… I will be back later.” The voice interrupted the humming and the prana quickly faded away. Amina glanced at her father who stared at a grey pony wearing a dull brown cloak standing in front of the shrine. She had never seen this pony before. She wasn’t from the village. She was probably just a poor girl living out in the wild somewhere. Her hair was a mess and she looked thin.
“You! How dare you interrupt the prayer of the Keepers! Did you not see?” her father barked at the pony, who took a few steps back.
“I… I’m sorry, it’s just, I was distracted and there’s usually nobody here and…”
“Silence! Get out and make sure I never have to look upon your sorry face again!” Amina flinched as her father yelled at the poor girl. She had seen her father react this way so often, but she still wasn’t quite used to it. Even if she wasn’t on the receiving end this time.
The pony was shaking and about to turn around when yet another voice stopped her.
“Young girl,” Chanta said as she stepped towards her, “would you like to join us in our prayer?” Amina hadn’t seen her leave the circle, but she had obviously done so. She had a soft smile on her face that made her look even older than she probably was, like a grandmother smiling to her young grandchildren who had hurt themselves.
“I… pray?” the girl stammered.
“Yes. That is why you came here, is it not?” Chanta asked. Amina looked at her father, who had fire in his eyes. She wondered if she had to do something. Stop Chanta, or try to calm her father? So far she hadn’t done anything but stand there, waiting until she got permission to do something. But she knew that wouldn’t come. Not now. Not when he was like this. Her mother looked like she had shrunk a few sizes.
“It is, my lady, but…” the girl’s eyes flashed towards her father.
“Well, then. I insist you join us. Anyone who prays at one of the shrines is welcome to join us. Come now,” Chanta said, still looking like a grandmother inviting you to a sweets shop. For a moment, Amina wanted to join in, too. What would it feel like to pray, to actually really pray and not just pretend you were?
Looking at her father though, she knew better than to ask if she could. She was here as his daughter, as a member of the mayor’s family and as the proposed next mayor, somewhere in the far future. Maybe later, though, she could ask him if she could meet the Keepers. They seemed interesting, and Chanta looked like she knew a lot.
The grey pony followed the Keeper to the circle and stood between Chanta and a young girl. Once again the ritual started and within moments they were all bathing in purple. Nobody interrupted them this time and the ritual finished after a few moments. Chanta opened a bag and took out a golden coin Amina recognized only too well; an official coin from the Crown.
“Thank you for praying with us, young girl. Please, take this.”
“Oh, my lady, no, I can’t possibly…”
“I insist. Take this, and get whatever it is you or your loved ones need most.”
“I, my mother, her medicine, how did you know?” The girl gazed in wonder at the Keeper, who simple smiled again.
“Go, now, young girl,” Chanta said and the girl took off, careful not to look Amina’s father in the eye. A golden coin. The keeper had just given a girl she’d never met a golden coin. Did the Keeper not know how valuable those were? Even in Iruld, one could buy three cloaks and two hats with one coin!
“We will leave toward your village now, mayor,” Chanta said as she flung a bag on her back.
“We will escort you,” her father said, his voice still sour.
“That won’t be necessary. We made it this far without you, I am sure we will be fine the final part of the way.” Chanta motioned her Keepers and without saying another word, the group left mayor Sar and the ponies he had gathered behind.
“That nerve! That rude pretentious woman! Who does she think she is!”
“Sar…” Amina’s mother whispered in an effort to calm her father down, but that would never work. He never listened, especially not when he was like this.
“No! No! I won’t have anything to do with those ladies! And neither will any of you! We can’t kick them out, but we don’t have to look them up. Stay away from them. That filth. Those rude ponies from the Crown!”
“But father… Won’t it look bad if we just ignore them like that? I mean, they are Keepers and it will reflect badly on us if-”
“No, Amina! I said to ignore them. They’re not worth our time. Let them mingle with the commoners if they so wish, I won’t stoop to their level! And you won’t either, you hear me?”
Amina sighed, remembering how wonderful that praying circle looked and how nice that Keeper had been to the commoner pony, who by now was just a speck on the path in the distance. Amina wondered what was up with the girl’s mother. Her father probably didn’t, she realized. Wasn’t he the mayor? Why hadn’t he cared? Why hadn’t he offered her help, a girl who obviously needed it so much more than Keepers from the Crown, who could take perfectly good care of themselves?
She knew the answer. Of course she knew the answer. Yet Amina quietly followed her father back home, wondering why the keeper had invited a perfect stranger into her praying circle, and why she had been standing on the side once again.