“He's doing this for us the way he would do the Kiss of the Lake for you,” I whispered to Gannara. “But he said it was to prove the vote to us.”
“Yeah. He said it out straight in that speech.”
“He doesn't need to,” I said.
“I wonder which is harder?” Our eyes were fixed on Chevenga, Sera Eren’s ear was turned to the Temple.
“The Kiss of the Lake you only risk death once, not ten times,” I said. Chevenga danced before Anae, precise and delicate, the oldest of old formal dances. The crowd had quieted again, pressing close up the steps and to the line in the stones that marked how far they could come as the ritual progressed, each step further, following the Imperator speaking to and being spoken to by the Gods. “It’s really only supposed to be five risks, but the Goddesses also occasionally punish, though they don’t usually kill you.”
Gannara hissed an in-breath through his teeth as Chevenga finished his dance for Anae and the statue gently released the cradle into his hands. “This is so different,” I whispered to Gannara. “Look!” He took the cradle up the centre and laid it gently at Selinae’s feet.
“I remember you doing that dance, or something a lot like it,” Gan said into my ear. But he didn’t have to be that quiet because the crowd was cheering Chevenga's first success. Someone just behind me began the chant ‘First Ten, First Ten.” Meaning the first of Ten.
“Yeah. And last time he did that, Arko was swept clean. What this means I don’t know.” Chevenga paced solemnly back down the central aisle to kneel before the statue of Imbas. For a long moment he knelt quietly and then said ‘Yes,” in answer to a question none of us could hear.
He rose and laid his hands onto the massive stone lying across the Temple floor. He stopped, and the whole crowd… we all held our breath.
The Gods are with him… his shadow is multiple… “They’re with him,” I whispered. “…Can you see? They’re right there! Oh, Ten…”
“How do you mean?”
“It's like light... like a shadow made out of light instead of dark... they're with him like that. They're there!”
Gannara squinted and peered. Ili said “I like the God, he’s nice and so is the Lady Goddess.” Sera Eren was praying quietly, a song of praise, Ribbons purring a loud counterpoint to her soft old voice.
“Its hard... oh, Imperator... Arko is with you,” I whispered to him. You are strong. You can do all the Gods demand.
Without shifting his hands on the stone, Chevenga opened his mouth and a sonorous woman’s voice came out of his throat. “Second Husband would you help Us?” The whole crowd gasped. It was Anae’s voice.
“What’s that mean?” Gannara asked. “Why did he ask that and in that voice?”
“It’s the Goddess, speaking through him… very different from the first Ten Tens.” It was so changed I could almost not anticipate what would happen next. It was hard to see but it looked to me as though Chevenga expanded somehow, grew larger, grew more real.
“Oh MAN.” Gannara said. “Tell me he's not going to do that!”
“Oh MAN.” Gannara said. “Tell me he's not going to do that!”
The voice out of Chevenga’s mouth became male. “Yes... none of us can do these things alone.”
“Do you see someone else there? I sure as shen don't.”
“You’re athye don’t worry about it.” Then I realized. The Gods had changed because Chevenga had changed them. “Oh, that's right... They're married in a four now!”
“Imbas and Anae, Oas and Mella.”
“Because... Ch'venga set the slaves free?”
“Yeah... The Fenjitzas nearly had heart failure having to do it,” I hissed at him. “Look, Look!” My cry to Gan echoed all through the crowd as Chevenga strained at the stone, muscles bunching so hard we could see them clearly. With his own hands and the aid of the Gods he raised the stone from the floor. “I can't tell if they are all four there or just the two Gods,” I said to Ili.
“I don't... I'm trying... all I can see is my semanakraseye who's going to be flatter than a bug if his arms go… Forae, Ch’venga, forae! Forae! Kahara tenesa!” He was holding onto my shoulder, jumping up and down as he cried encouragement. Other Yeolis in the crowd were screaming similar things.
With a grind and a thump and a click that echoed all around us the stone locked into place. It normally took twenty priests to raise that stone and he raised it. I heard Gan yell ‘Holy SHEN!” and his voice was only one of thousands. I was hoarse already and this was only the first Two of the Ten. We were cheering madly, screaming, crying, praying. ‘Second Ten! Second Ten!”
“Now he’s going to keel over,” Gannara said. “When you do shen like that, you lose all your strength at once.”
Even as Chevenga began Imbas’s Kurain, the men’s dance with the sweeping arm gestures, the wild kicks and spins I thought, like Gan said, he should be collapsing like a burst waterbag, raising a stone like that. He’s spinning and kicking like he just got out of bed! But just ten steps. All as if he hadn’t just lifted up and set into its slot, a stone that weighed more than ten men, even if it pivoted in the floor. “There’s no darkness, threat or hatred in it anymore,” I said to myself under the cheering, clapping crowd. “The slaves are not there to hate us.” I swallowed hard. “We cannot do any of this alone.” My heart was knotted tight with desperate, hopless longing as if I could spring into Chevenga's place. I wanted it with all my heart and dreaded it just as much. I wanted to scream and sing and cry. I wanted it.
“He can't keel over... not now,” I said. “See, he’s shifted to the Dance before Mella and look… look at that!”
“Look at what? He’s getting red but he just moved a rock ten times his size! Of course he’s red!”
Chevenga knelt before Mella and one could almost see the heat pouring off him. His face and chest and abdomen and arms and legs were all hot. Sweat was pouring off his body, enough that he was glistening and the stone around him as well. His heart was beating so hard you could see him shaking with it... when he stopped in front of Her.
“Forae Ch'venga! Anseng'! Nepa tirae! Forae!”
“Come on, Chevenga.. You can do it. Calm. Calm.”
We were close enough to see his face fade from the absolute ecstatic to more anxious and then on to an impassive, meditative calm. He caught hold of his breathing, standing very straight after his last step to Mella. He vibrated like a harp string for a long time and I began to be afraid his heart or brain would burst with the strain.
“Anseng' Ch'venga... Kahara tenesa, nu tenesa...What's happening to him? Is that from lifting the stone, did it catch up with him?”
“I don't know.” But even if it was departing from the rite I knew, I knew the true answer. “No. This is Her doing. At least She isn’t going to melt him.”
“Melt him? She does that? A lot?”