“The God is harsh,” I said. "Chevenga, be strong.” I wrapped my arms around Ili's legs and he patted me on the top of my head. Thank our ancestors I had listened to Chevenga when I'd first asked him about little brothers, else I would not have had him now, nor he, me. His weight on my shoulders was a tremendous comfort. I could hardly go into paroxysms of self-doubt or self-hatred in front of my little brother. It would not be proper. I took a deep breath. "How are you doing, Ili?"
"Oh, good! This is great!" I caught myself from tumbling straight into rage. It wasn't flippant. He hadn't been hurt the same way... he wasn't minimizing the rite. He was taking it in as good and nothing but good. So should I, but I didn't think I could. I took another deep breath and Ribbons coiled around my feet, even as Chevenga stepped up toward Aras.
I was anchored to the Temple floor by the weight of love, caught between my little brother on my shoulders and an insensate animal on my feet. Sera Eren had hold of one of elbows... when had she taken hold of me? I couldn't remember. And Gannara had me by the other. Beyond them the press of the crowd held us all close, all of us together, watching the Gods approve of our vodai and re-approve our choice of Imperator.
Chevenga answered something the God said to him that we could not hear. "I accept it." He reached out to the empty air before the Steel-Armed God and accepted a weight into His hand, hefting it as if the air He took up were a sword. That made sense. He sank into a fighting stance I recognized from years ago, in the Mezem. A stance so minimal it was hard to call it a 'stance' at all.
"Who's he fighting?" Gannara hissed in my ear.
"Aras, of course."
"Oh, shen!" His grip on my elbow was convulsive. "He cannot win against a GOD, if they exist!"
"Nice of you to admit that they might... He doesn't have to win. Just fight to the best of His ability." But Chevenga wasn't fighting full out. He was sparring someone we all could not see. One stroke, two... the moves were restrained, restricted. "I hope the God told him to." Aras would test him, again, somehow. "No one else can, here." Chevenga staggered sideways, jolted, his head snapping over as if he'd been struck, or slapped on the side of the face and fought back harder, but still restrained. We were close enough I could see the worried crease on his brow.
"FIGHT HIM, CHEVENGA!" I bellowed, before clapping my gloves over my mouth. He couldn't know that that was what the God wanted. For him to fight to the fullest of his ability. To fight him to the limits of glory. I shouldn't have done that.
But Chevenga was fighting suddenly as if He'd heard me. I kept my hands over my mouth in awe. Was this what the duel against Kallijas had looked like? Even though I could not see Aras I could see Chevenga's counters and it was as though the God's moves were images burned on the air by Chevenga's responses. Four, five strikes... I could see His golden smile... deadly in its intent. Six, seven, eight so fast I could almost not see them... they were all moves I had learned... for Aras. Formal. Slow. Presentation moves. Not this clash of wills.
It didn't matter that I could not see the God. Chevenga made me see Him. Nine, ten... then He froze in place, the look on His face as though He'd heard something startling, surprising though not life and death. His hand opened and His sword of air vanished into the air it was called from. The shock on His face was more... inward. He went to His knees a second time.
This is far more than for the first Rite of Ascension. This is all different. He gathered Himself and was fighting as if for His life now, the sword of air snatched up at His will, from the clearness around Him. One.. twothreefourfive... sixseven... eightnineten! "Be strong," I said. "Chevenga. He is there for you."
Gannara's fingers were so tight on my upper arm they might leave marks but I didn't shake him off. This was important. This was above mere body aches and pains. My tears had spilled over and trailed hot over my face.
The imprint of the Imperial sword in my hand itched with the memory of its weight, echoed this glory, this contest. It was the sword that would have deserved to be wielded here... if any steel sword did. But Aras would not allow anything less than His own given weapons here in the Temple. Both Chirel and the Imperial sword held faint echoes of the swords of air that Aras granted. I gulped and managed to swallow my tears back, to not shame the Imperator, or the God. This rite had me in tears now, twice. I would have to try harder to not shame myself before the Gods.
Chevenga stepped back and straightened and bowed to His invisible opponent. "You touched something in me that... I don't understand... and that I fear," He said quietly. We were all silent enough that the whole Temple full of people could hear Him.. He will test you hard, Chevenga...
"Thank You," He continued. "I'll remember." Be strong. The Imperator reached out both of His hands to the space before the Steel-Armed God and was enfolded in invisible arms, His own arms tight around a torso we could only see by how He held onto it. "I am honoured beyond honour." Gan shot a look at me and I answered his unspoken question.
"The God is prophesying for him. I think."
"What's he saying?"
"I don't know, you'd have to ask Him that."
The God... you could see Him easing Chevenga back into the odd pose called for by the first Ten Tens, and the blades in the floor and in the walls shot out with a crack, quivering, to encase Chevenga in the same web of steel as the first ritual.
The one blade over His head actually cut one of His curls off and a blade that had shot up from the floor pressed against His heel and the calf above though no blood was drawn. The other blades left enough space for a much larger man but His arms had to be high enough to allow the passage of steel. The God had set Him into place perfectly with His embrace. The roar from the watching crowd was enough to shake me to my bones, drowning out the choir and the Temple and everything but the sound of humanity. Cheering. "EIGHT TEN! EIGHT TEN EIGHT TEN!"
I desperately wanted to take the same position. I wanted it enough that I bit my lip, drawing blood. I should cease practicing this. I profane the Gods by practicing this.
"HOW in FIK can he handle this when I barely can!!????" I didn't even try to answer Gannara at first in all this noise. I'd barely heard him and his lips were right at my ear. I had my hands pressed together in front of my chest over my heart, Ili's legs draped over my arms rather than me holding onto them. A good thing, I think, I would have held on too hard and hurt him.
My teeth were pressed together hard enough to hurt my jaw. He's Imperator. I thought, but didn't say. He proves it over and over again. That's how. But I tried to explain a little. "He's done this once before and the Gods led him through it then. It must have been harder then, not knowing what kind of thing to expect." There. That sounded mild enough.
"Aigh... man... if he didn't have every bit of him in exactly the right place, right then.... some bit of him would be skewered! I remember..." his voice trailed off. He couldn't say he remembered me practicing that odd pose. Not here. He couldn't say 'I remember when 2nd Amitzas beat you into place with his corrector if you were so much as a hair off.'"
"Yeah." I answered both the spoken and unspoken words. I realized suddenly that I still had tears on my cheeks. I hadn't stopped them at all. But almost every other face around me was wet as well.
"Oh. My. The High Gods... He's coming to the High Gods and I don't know if I can bear it." The blades pulled back, vanishing into the floor and wall and pillars and Chevenga straightened, turning to face the two Highest Gods.
"Thank You, Fearless One." Chevenga said, his voice full of emotion. Was his face wet? Surely not.
"What? What? Is he fikked?" Gan shook my elbow a little in the urgency of his asking. I couldn't help myself. I covered my face with my hands.