“They are being very even-handed,” Sera Eren said quietly as everyone stilled to hear the count in Arko. She opened her lace sun shade and people all around shuffled a bit to accommodate her. “I thought there would be a bigger will to vote him back in but they like the Imperatrix’s work for them.”
“They aren’t upset by her being a woman,” Gannara said as he wobbled up to be with our group. He was still a little unsteady on his skates but that was going away fast. A Dyer girl with a butterfly dyed into the back of her head, sent a ripple of sound around us with her Jang drum as the herald held up his hand.
“THE TOTAL VODAI COUNT REGISTERED IN ARKO WAS TWO MILLION EIGHT HUNDRED NINETEEN!” We were so unused to the idea of our power, in our numbers, that the announcement of the number of us who voted raised a cheer in the square. Please Gods let us be sensible and vote the Imperator who really knows Arko back onto the Crystal Throne. A huge arguing point during the pre-vote campaign was the fact that Artira Shae-Arano-e had never learned Arkan of any stripe.
“SPOILED BALLOTS, SIXTY ONE THOUSAND, TWELVE.” Of course they’re going to drag it out. The crowd is going mad with noise. “THE VOTE AGAINST SHEFENKAS RETURNING TO THE CRYSTAL THRONE—“ Get on with it, man! Do all heralds have to drag it out like this? Are you paid by the word? “FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND EIGHTY SEVEN!” The roar as people figured out what that meant submerged his final bellow of “THE VOTE FOR SHEFENKAS, TWO MILLION, THREE HUNDRED THIRTY-EIGHT THOUSAND, NINE HUNDRED TWENTY!” under a wave of sound, cheering, screaming, chanting and many of the women present weeping, for joy I believe.
I had both hands in the air over my head... most of the crowd did as well, the expansive prayer gesture that dared to reach up to sky as opposed to just stopping at one’s head. My throat hurt and I realized I was adding to the noise as much as anyone, though I couldn’t hear myself.
Sera Eren had both hands clapped over her ears and Ribbons had his ears pressed flat against his skull as the thundering boom of fifty thousand people in the square, rolled on. They looked equally overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sound. Ili was jumping up and down on his skates even, Jia locked around his wrist, clinging for dear life. Gan’s grin split his face and I realized I was grinning just as wide. Chevenga, at least, understands us, I thought and then bellowed it. Why not? Why not say that out loud?
The noise ebbed back a bit into people’s throats and actually faded to startled silence when the two gongs at the top of the Temple steps, behind us, began sounding. It was the beat that the city had heard once before in this generation, when Chevenga had done the Rite of Ascension. The Ten Tens.
The two priests who alternated so there was an unbroken ringing, wore the black robes of cleansing, as did the two rows of dekinas filing out of the great golden doors, half of them now female... Maskers... so they would be dekina. They carried the great books of the Ten, that normally were open on altars before each God or Goddess in their hands, all bound in silver metal cloth... just the same as I had the Imperial Book and Ilesias the Great’s book wrapped in, at home on the bottom of my closet with the Imperial Sword. That wrapping I knew in my bones now, was impervious to water, never snagged and was impossible to tear, perfect to protect the God’s Books.
The Fenjitzas, and now the Fenjitza as well, came forward out from under the shadow of the portico into the sunlight on the top step and raised their arms to the sky. The gongs faded and everyone’s attention locked on the High Priest and Priestess in complete, befuddled silence.
The two turned to face the now-empty Temple, her raised right arm crossing his raised left so they looked like one creature. “Ergas. Rabi. Difment. Rogran.”
I found myself staring with everyone else. The Ten Tens was being called for. The Ten Tens. Again. In response to the sacred words, the massive golden doors began to close without being touched by any hand but the Gods. They shut with a BOOM that I felt through my feet and made my chest quiver. “My most high Goddess.” It was quiet enough, the crowd stunned silent, that I heard Sera Eren whisper behind me. “He is going to do the Ten Tens. Again.” The sun shining on all our heads seemed more intense, more real, pouring down over our heads.
I swallowed, realized my mouth was dry, raised our water jug from the bench next to Ribbons and drank without taking my eyes off the Temple.
As the Temple door sealed with a sound I had never heard before, as if they kissed each other, an almost moist noise, from the roof the okas,--not slaves—tipped the massive vessels, built into the edges of the roof, over and sent the black coating inside sheeting down over the building. It was not tar, nor paint. It seemed alive and spread as though the building welcomed it and drew it into every crack and crevasse. The priests now ringing the building began painting the base stones. It would take them the rest of the day but by the time the sun rose tomorrow the building would be entirely covered and the ceremonial guard pacing the sacred boundary.
They were there not to protect the Temple but to protect people from coming too close as the Gods burned the dross off the outside of their House on the Earth. The Temple would be glowing with forge heat as it cleansed itself over the sixty days.
I would have seen this... if Arko hadn’t been conquered... after my father died. I would have watched that from the Presentation Balcony, dressed all in black, my head dyed black, not bright blue. In sixty days, when the Temple was clean again – had cleaned itself over that time, I would have stepped up to the doors, raised my hands, newly weighed down with the Seals, to touch the hands of the pretenders who wished to attempt the Ten Tens and so, possibly, become the new Son of the Sun.
I would have opened the doors with the sacred word. I would have danced for the Gods... That was when my mind skittered to a halt. The Gods had showed me how much they did not want me. The Gods... if Father – the fat guy—was wrong and there were Gods -- Sinimas, my ancestors, please apologize to the Ten for my blasphemous thoughts, my questioning of Their existence.
I hiccupped to another stop. If the Gods did not exist then I was not damned. I did not have to believe myself forzak once I died. I would have to cease believing in Hayel... or Selestialis for that matter. I would have to become athye, like a Yeoli. It would be so good to not look at the end of my life and expect nothing after death, rather than eternal punishment for having been my father’s son.
But to repudiate the idea of my damnation, I'd have to give up my Gods... I feel them. They are real to me. I dream of Them. Aside from a few lapses, much apologized for, I haven’t dared pray directly to Them, since I realized how evil my soul must truly be for Them to hate me so much. I...must think on this. Gan would just say ‘You’re not evil, that’s just crazy. Why have Gods to punish you that much, just for being born? Because you were born to a bad man? If Gods are merciful and just they wouldn’t set babies up like that because it’s just mad... and unjust.”
All this flashed through my head, even as I stood staring at the blackening building, Ili hugging me around the waist, my arm around him. He looked at the Temple, then up into my face. What am I showing? I smiled at him to wipe the remnants of my thoughts away, like a napkin rubbing oil off my lips.
The trumpets from the Presentation Balcony cut through the rising, confused hubbub as people wondered aloud whether all this meant really that Chevenga, having been voted back onto the Crystal Throne, would truly be contemplating doing the Ten Tens a second time.
Our attention swivelled back to the Marble Palace and I said to Sera Eren, “It’s Ch’venga. He’s here, not in Yeola-e. He’s here and He is going to speak.”