There was another heartbeat of silence before the whole Temple erupted in sound and Chevenga was hoisted up on the massed shoulders of everyone around Him. Gannara stepped forward and was one of those at his back. People were singing… chanting… praising Him, praising the Gods. “HAIL, IMPERATOR! HAIL THE ONE BELOVED OF THE GODS! HAIL, ALL HAIL THE SON OF THE SUN!” and a new cry in Arko… “HAIL THE VODAI! BELOVED OF THE GODS! HAIL THE VODAI!” Because of what You have done here today… and the years before, Chevenga… It would take war and bloodshed to destroy the vote in Arko now. It has become ours because of You.
Chevenga threw Himself backward, trusting the crowd completely to catch Him, to carry Him and Gannara thrust out his hand and caught the back of his head, one of many. “Aigh, Ch’venga, tyana -- be careful!” I heard him clearly. “Semanakraseye mya! Semanakraseye mya!”
By this time I was on my feet, with Ili pressed against my legs. I wouldn’t let him go for fear he would be trampled in the crowd as they, bearing Chevenga poured out of the Temple and carried Him to the people waiting outside.
They’d parade Him through the streets in His triumph, in His new cleansing and acceptance and they would bring Him back to set him on the Presentation platform, or on the Step… the open framework step that would keep His feet off the ground should he choose to move His carving station… and He would, as He had the first time, carve some of the cattle roasted for the feast. They would have been cooking in the Marble Palace kitchens since yesterday.
A frugal feast. If the Imperator succeeded at the Ten Tens, a Joy Feast. If He did not… a funeral feast… but still a feast of Joy for the Successor. Either way, a feast would be eaten by the city. I had to smile at the practical irony. But the Head chef wouldn’t be ripping his hair out with the logistics of what to do with all that roast meat.
“No, Ili, no! You cannot go too! You’re too little and will get stepped on!” Sera Eren backed me on that and someone stepped on Ribbon’s tail as if to prove our point. But even his offended screech and him rearing up to rest his paws on our shoulders though we were all too short and slight for him to climb, didn’t put Ili off.
“Oh… come on! I am too big enough! Look the crowd is almost all gone!”
“We’ll follow along and watch from the steps. You’ll be able to see and hear fine from there!”
“Ilesias, why don’t you come describe the scene for me?” Sera Eren touched his shoulder.
“Aw… all right.” He agreed with bad grace but we were all full of the glory we’d experienced so his pique was half-hearted at best. He had his glass star of Imperator’s glass clutched in his glove… I turned to Sera Eren.
“Sera, you didn’t get any Imperator’s glass… even though you were so close, here… you should take mine – “
“Nonsense, lad.” She opened her glove to me as we stepped out of the Temple doors and the odd light under the portico caught it so the crystal glittered like gold. “Ribbons snatched one for me… I’m sure he thought it was a good pounce.”
I hadn’t even noticed it. “I’ll take Ilesias with me, shall I? We’ll meet you later… at the feast, at the Heir’s obelisk… in a bead or so?”
“Oh, all right. Thank you.” I examined my own piece of Imperator’s glass, finding it was made up of what looked like a handful of tiny clear quartz crystals, like an Arkan made version of the natural ones that Yeolis wore. I tucked my tiny piece of sacred beauty into my glove pocket and wiped my face with the backs of my gloves, the only part that had a chance of drying my face. My eyes were still leaking tears. Most people’s faces shone wet, even as they sang and chanted and cheered.
Chevenga was half-way around the square by now… being passed from hand to hand upon the raised mass hands of all the Arkans who had seen or heard this ritual and who had seen the Temple miracles that no one had ever seen before. I could still see the bright stripes of Gannara's head in the knot of people near the Imperator, behind Him.
I looked down at my feet and found I was standing on the step where Kallijas had cut down the pretender, the stone stained a ruddy, rusty colour, already fading. The step-stains were not maintained like those actually inside the Temple itself and the steps tended to fade to pure white, apparently. I shivered all over and tried to step away from the patch.
I am a pretender. In hiding, but a pretender to this glory nonetheless. How dare I be moved by this? How dare I even see this? How? The knot in my chest is so tight I almost cannot breathe and my mouth is full of the taste of my own blood where I’ve bitten the inside of it. Like people all around me… I fell to my knees on the wide step, raising my hands to my temples.
Ancestors… Sinimas… please intercede for me… pass along my most abject apologies to the Gods, would you? I do not wish to offend any with my presence, with my willingness to be so close to the sacred ritual in my spirit… anything that might anger the Ten… or, now, Eleven?... I shook my head, shivering all over my body. …anything that might anger the Ten. Please and thank you.
I rose to my feet again and looked in time to see Chevenga carried off down the Avenue of Statuary. The whole roast oxen and sheep and pigs and even spits of poultry were being wheeled out of the Marble Palace and set up in their traditional places around the square. The gigantic double spit that held two oxen roasted head to head was being placed carefully on the Presentation Platform where the Imperator would be. The feasting would go on all the rest of the day and the night… when the Imperator came back and graciously carved the first meats.
I caught a glimpse of my shadowy, blurry reflection in the polished white stone pillar next to me, the bright blue hair suddenly a mockery. It was a sham and a shame. I had been enjoying myself. Indulging myself in pretending I was no one but either Minakas or Sinimas. I was a blot and a danger to these people as long as I kept running, kept playing.
My nightmare of a ruined city, burning far worse and far longer… the uncounted dead on Finpollendias… the boy who was 2nd Amitzas’s get, with the grim face and the willingness to kill Arko to inherit it… it swam in front of my eyes, a horrific and stinking cloud over the heads of all who danced and sang and prophesied in the Square, real enough I could almost smell it over the mouth watering aroma of the feast.
Prophecy. People were so sometimes so seized by the ritual that they would fall in convulsions, prophesying. “… the Eaglet walks where he should fly… the chalk and the charcoal are yours now Arko! Hold tight to your freedoms!... a boy, held by an older man, shook and grinned and spouted prophecy, his eyes rolled up into the back of his head. Priests came at a run down the steps, coming to see to him… to make him a Temple novice… Oh… Arko! The Ten! The Ten! And the One. Are One! Oh, Arko!” He didn’t sound like he was in pain but rather joyful.
I closed my eyes as he began to sing in the language of the Gods, a hymn I didn’t recognize. “Bless you!” I cried to the man who seemed to be his father rather than his lover. All around me people were blessing them. The man gave up his son to the priests’ and dekinas’ support but followed close behind as they carried the boy back into the Temple, his face a study in joy and grief, both together. What plans did you have, that the Ten picked your boy away from?
I couldn’t stand it any longer and closing my eyes, putting my hands over my ears, wasn’t enough. There were too many tears behind my eyes and I needed to get into private to howl them into my bedding. I could only press through the crowd so quickly and it was enough time to make me half frantic. I wouldn’t be able to get out of the crowd and back again before I had to meet with Ili and Sera Eren.
Perhaps I’d be able to find a fraction of space behind the Heir’s obelisk… the slab of stone before the Heir’s balcony that hid the secret way in… that had been covered over. It was far enough away from the Marble Palace that the public could still access it, but close enough to make most people too nervous to go in behind.
I stepped around it, set my back to it and found myself looking at a chalk drawing by Banaksias. It was the iconic drawing of Chevenga… When the Ten had chosen Him to be the new Son of the Sun… He’d dreamed that Selinae had come to him and picked Him up in Her Hair… one of the things peculiar to Her… the hair that could grasp and penetrate.
Chevenga was suspended before Her, held wrapped in and enveloped and floating before Her upheld by Her silver/gold locks of hair. The image had been picked up by those who always supported the Imperator and there were many, many variations on it, painted, drawn, sculpted….
This one was chalk, like all of Banaksias’s work, and so detailed I could see that the Goddess’s hair had Chevenga everywhere… and that he was as naked as in the Temple. I shuddered as my groin tightened again. Was I not going to be able to get away from that vileness today?
Then I read the caption, in iridescent white and gold letters, gleaming bright as every highlight in the Goddess’s and even in Chevenga’s hair, making his black curls even darker. It said…
“If the Ten never forgave, then Selestialis would be empty.”