I could now run all the way around the clearing, do a set of push-ups and then run again without throwing up more than the once and as I did my warm-up circuits I could see a half dozen of the Mahid marking out the middle with cords and stakes.
Amitzas supervised both the work and my progress and after I had done ten circuits he called me over. “It is necessary that you resume your Ten Tens practice.” As though I had not mentioned it to him just this morning. I stared at him. Beyond the laboring Mahid I could see my betrothed sitting on a silk carpet, in the shade of the massive trees. To the side on the brown needles, Binshala sat on a low stool. In the shadows I could see Gannara running for some errand a Mahid had ordered.
The instruction book, that was normally in Tobeas’s hands, was now in 2nd Amitzas’s. Father had not seen fit to send me my dekinas, presumably since he thought I had sufficient training in how to use religion to fake piety for the masses.
The book in Amitzas’s hands described every move of my Ascension ritual down to the position of fingers and toes and where one was to breathe in and where to breathe out and where it was essential that I hold my breath that the Gods not kill me. He obviously would have me do my sacred practice where everyone who cared to could see. Just like I would do the rite in front of all Arko.
Amitzas slapped me across the shoulder with his corrector, raising another welt so I must have let my emotion show too much on my face. “You will practice every day from now on, as if we were in the Marble Palace.”
“Of course, Mentor.”
The lines of chalk on the brown needles and the cords staked out to give me my spacing. In my mind I could see the practice corridor from the Marble Palace overlooked by the statue of Muunas. Here there was only a massive tree. I took a deep breath and called out the opening Word, the Word in the language of the Gods, that would open the Temple. The word stuck in my mouth.
“That cannot happen on the day you do the Ten Tens, Spark. Again.” 2nd Amitzas’s dead voice at my shoulder. There was no ritual reading overtop my practice this day.
I managed to force the word out clearly and bowed to the ground to begin. Even the new Imperator bows to the Gods. Amitzas walked beside me as I went through it and if I hadn’t hated him before my emotion deepened for him as he strolled beside me reading the instruction very carefully.
He was a machine presuming to train me on my connection to the Gods. It was something so mechanical, so hideously rigid, I realized how my father must have made it through, not believing in the Gods at all. Devotion by rote or the Temple would kill him. He must have done his own training, precisely this way.
My thoughts and my anger distracted me and I did not take the position to Mella perfect and Amitzas leapt to slap the offending hand into position.
I was suddenly terribly self conscious, even if I had been doing this for the past seven years. The women were watching me and it was very different from having my companions with me. It was the women. And Gannara had finished whatever errand he’d been sent on and knelt down beside where Ilesias lay on his belly, his chin on his fists, watching me too.
There was something else different at Aras’s station as well. Ten Mahid standing, waiting, all armed with straight swords. Ah, they would be taking the place of Aras’s blades in the Temple. The practice corridor in the Marble Palace didn’t have them. In the Temple itself there was an archway before Aras where I was told the blades would emerge. Kurkas had a slight scar on the side of one foot, from his Ascension, where he'd been cut. Or did while he was alive.
I wondered what the Gods would do, since no one would ever do the Ascension ritual again. I could not imagine anyone but an Arkan doing it. Though Chevenga had more sacredness in his little finger than Kurkas had in his whole body, than I had, than we had, in our whole Empire. It was why the Gods chose him to be the new Imperator.
I moved through the Ten Tens, dancing the motions, saying the prayers, singing the songs, smoothly enough until I got to the ten blades. The Mahid waited until I sank into the position then extended the ten blades around me, one at a time, under Amitzas’s direction from the book and I had to hold the awkward position much longer than normal.
Amitzas’s face appeared and disappeared out of my vision, as he measured my final position, felt the pressure of the blade across the back of my bent neck and eased my head forward a fraction. Ah. It was less practice for me, but to teach him how the ritual should look, disguised as him instructing me.
I kept my countenance and held my position. I couldn’t fight him every moment, or let him know that I was fighting him. He was actually so locked into his own attention, his own view of the world, he didn’t see any slip of mine that would betray my true attitude, my true intentions.
After my practice Gannara ran up with my armour and even though I was breathless I stood to have it strapped on. Then I was allowed to rest. I flung myself on the grass between Binshala on her stool, and Gannara kneeling on the ground. Ilesias ran over and started thumping on my armor, making it ring and bang. “Hey! Hey! I’m not a drum, Ilesias, I’m in here!” I was too tired to try and tickle him but he sat on my rigidly armored chest and drummed his heels on my protected sides. “I should have started wearing plate armor moons ago since it saves me from you!”
He looked down at me, grinning, and slid down to sit at my side, between my arm and my chest.
“Minis! You’re a warrior!”
“No, Ilesias. I’m just learning.” I looked up at the heavy tree branches, hiding us from the sky beyond and just tried to catch my breath. The Mahid were taking the rope markers up, to not leave any sign of our presence.
Amitzas loomed over me, a black column shutting out the peaceful view. “Up! On your feet, Spark.” Binshala caught up Ilesias. My brother looked at 2nd Amitzas with a thunderous look on his baby face as I heaved upright.
“Shh, Coronet. Shh.” She hustled him over to Kaita, just as he began roaring. “WANT MINIS! WANT MINIS NOW! BROZZER NOW NOW NOW!” Flailing his arms and legs, he fought to get out of her arms as he yelled.
2nd Amitzas had focused on me, ignoring the women and the baby. He actually began to turn toward the screaming little boy as I jumped up. “Ready, my guardian!” I unsheathed my borrowed sword. He checked and drew his own.
“Good.” He raised his sword to an enguard position. “Woman! Women! Make the Coronet be silent. He will endanger our position!”
I stepped back. “My guardian. May I attempt something for my brother?”
“It is the women’s work. Defend!” He swung, overhead and I blocked, forced to use the same moves he’d made me practice earlier. The shock rang through my hands and he knocked the sword out of them. “This is not your dance-master’s class Nor ‘the so-called’ Bellicose Arts’.” He said calmly and stepped back. My Go—left foot, he and I agreed on something, that my sword-master was an idiot? In the background I could hear Ilesias hiccup as someone managed to distract him to silence. “Pick it up.”
I did and tried to block as he came after me again. He knocked the sword away a second time, this time staggering me. I tottered sideways, dragged by the weight of the armour. I managed to reel over and grab the sword up, and lurched back trying to get the heavy blade up in time but he was a machine and bludgeoned it out of my hands a third time.
Angry now, I dove for it and scooped it up in both hands, fingers full of needles, rolled onto my back just as he brought his blade down a fourth time and the blades cracked together just over my forehead. I held it, teeth set. “Better. You need to realize how much your will is part of your sword training.”
“Get up. Your conditioning is still abysmal. Run the perimeter again, then we will resume.”