The palanquin made the ritual circuit of the square and up the Temple steps, safely letting Chevenga’s feet on the top step, nowhere near the ground. Skorsas, the Chamberlain again, rather than that Yeoli who had no idea what kind of style the Marble Palace should have, and Kallijas, in his full red armour, lifted the Imperial robe off his shoulders, spreading it back over the palanquin seat, waiting the Imperator’s return. Under the robe Chevenga wore a loincloth and nothing else. He would go before the Gods wearing plain cloth, though his head-band was gold. Skorsas knelt down to remove the sandals. The Imperatrix, also in her armour, the grey sharkskin, guarded his other side.
The Fenjitzas and the Fenjitza awaited him, flanking a single Pretender. Even after he was voted back into the office there was one Arkan who had to try to prove he would be a better Imperator, more acceptable to the Gods. He was a fleshy man, with an Imperial paunch. He held out his hands, adorned with his version of new Imperial seals.
I couldn’t see Chevenga’s face but he moved almost as if he were already tranced. His hands came up and he touched them to the pretender’s. Then he turned his back on the doors and faced outward, gazing at all of us. “He's already half in the spirit world,” I said to Gan and Ili. Ili was on my shoulders, so he could see. We had a pair of little old men in front of us, as a kind of camouflage, and Sera Eren and Ribbons to my right. We must have looked like a family.
“How do you mean?”
“He's got the look in his eyes... he's looking for the Gods... can you see it?”
“Yeah, okay. He does look... yeah. Like he's seeing something that's not... or at least, that the rest of us can't see. If it were me, I’d be scared shenless.”
Oh, that is something you cannot be, Gan. You face the Gods terrified and you die.
Chevenga knelt down to wait for the Pretender to try his luck at getting the Gods to hear him and open the Temple. The crowd cheered and jeered. We all had an idea of exactly how futile it was going to be. The Pretender made a credible effort, even managing a good approximation of the opening word in the language of the Gods.
But the Temple remained sublimely indifferent to him. He tried again and was greeted with… nothing. The crowd’s cheers were turning derisive. He showed little likelihood of being able to become Imperator if he could not catch the God’s attention.
The Fenjitzas touched his elbow after his third attempt and spoke quietly to him, obviously pulling him away from the futile effort and guided him to one side. He would be allowed to attempt the rite again, once the Temple was open.
The Fenjitza called Chevenga from his kneeling position and he rose smoothly and turned to the sealed Temple. He raised his hands to the golden slab of doors and as he did so, something happened that hadn’t in a thousand years.
All of the religious documents I had ever read, referred to ‘The Temple’s Voice’, as if it were a true phenomenon, not a metaphoric one. But the Temple had fallen silent more than a thousand years ago and subsequent Imperators had destroyed various writings speculating how and why the Temple no longer spoke. Likely they thought it made them look bad.
The Temple said something in a voice that wasn’t human. It was a voice that echoed around the whole square, rumbling deep enough to be more felt than heard. It said. “Rak Ogniz Rajisteruuzer, Renel.” The whole crowd—we all fell silent. The portico that was normally in shadow began to glow a bright gold, shining down on Chevenga’s head. The silence grew deeper. The rumble of the Temple voice continued… a single low note, sustaining.
The Pretender, shaking, broke and fled. He’d made four steps before Kallijas cut him down in a spray of blood and a tumble of limbs down the stairs. He’d almost decapitated the man, precise enough to not make a mess by taking the head off completely. “Kahara,” Gannara whispered. “You take this pretender thing seriously, don’t you?” Ili patted the top of my head.
“That warrior, who cut the pretender down, was Kallijas.”
“Ohhh. He is good, isn’t he? But… Chevenga, I really do look like him, don’t I? But I thought he’d be taller…”
I elbowed him in the ribs for the taller comment, not taking my eyes off Chevenga. “Nyuuzer!” He cried, and the Temple responded.
“Uuzer Rak Ogniz, Ergas Ak nallag.” There was a crack that echoed again and the Temple doors broke open, down the centre and slowly, ponderously opened. Oh Gods, You see Him. You recognize Him.
As he stepped to the threshold he began to sing. That’s different. He had a light voice for a man but what poured out of his mouth was one of the most ancient of hymns; and the Temple… sounding like a glass instrument, joined in to sing with him. He faltered for a fraction of a moment when the sound started but picked it up again.
We were all startled dead quiet so we could hear every word, every chime. “What’s he singing?” Gannara asked.
“It’s old… it’s “Raise High Our Banner.”
“It sounds nicer than that.”
“Subreu teenree payyer sitm nishiey Etad, wahlk um yuuzer.” The Temple intoned. “Sabsak shoan abeohon.” Oh, Gods. The Temple is changed. It’s changed inside. The Temple was open, we could follow him inside, if we dared. It was the Ten Tens, however changed. It was almost impossible to fear. We poured up the steps, skirting around the bloody mess on the steps like a river flowing around a stone, dekinas coming forward to remove it. Gannara and I with Ili and Sera Eren were all close enough that we could step onto the changed platform. I couldn’t take my eyes off what Chevenga was doing, however. I was just aware that it had changed, that it was somehow more alive, more active.
The slave Gods were no longer enslaved. The chains were missing from their wrists and ankles and necks. The daifikas and okas Gods had marriage rings glittering upon their hands, the jewelry sparkling, somehow illuminated as if to show us. Chevenga had freed the slaves of Arko, so it seemed he had freed the slave Gods as well.
Imbas had his left hand out, over the space where one stepped in. Also different. Different from when the Temple had been sealed. No one could have gotten inside to carve or re-carve a statue like that. We had camped outside the whole sixty days. As we stood in the vestibule, the gigantic stone at Imbas’s side clicked and slowly, carefully, rotated down like a tree falling in slow motion, until it lay upon the Temple floor.
Chevenga stepped under Imbas’s outstretched hand, held over his head like a blessing, and faced Anae. She, too was changed. Instead of a broom in her hands, she held a cradle, as if she were a wet-nurse, preparing for a new child. Chevenga flung himself down in the full, fast prostration to the Goddess, arms outflung. He lay for a moment and then to a cue none of the rest of us could hear, he rose.
“Sinimas? Is this normal?” Gannara whispered in my ear. “Or is something going wrong?
"It’s not wrong... it's something I read about years ago... my religious teacher talked about the 'Voice of the Temple' I thought it was a metaphor..."
“Why's everyone flipping out then?”
“It hasn't been really heard in centuries and no one but me would maybe know about it... Look, he's fine...”
“Sure, but he won't be, and neither will we, if the whole thing comes crashing down or something. Why hasn't it been heard in centuries? I thought it was every new Imperator?”
“It’s not going to fall down... Look. No, this is different. Only one Imperator that I know of has done this more than once and he didn't say much about it.”
“Oh, because it's the second time? So this happens the second time?”
“That's what I think.”