I stood frozen. My skin prickled and burned all over as I burst into sweat. This was worse by far than any University defense. The professors might control one’s career but they usually wouldn’t kill you if you pissed them off.
I managed a deep breath, then another. Ten Gods I give myself into Your hands. Even in my head I stuttered feeling hot and light-headed and entirely outside myself. This singing sensation fell on me. Or perhaps it rose through my feet, or both. I couldn’t tell.
I had been practicing, as I had with very little exception, since I was seven, but practicing under the droning voice of the priest or Tobeas, or Second Amitzas’s gimlet eye was very different than standing under the vast gaze of the Ten Gods of Arko with the towering bulk of the Temple over you. Please, Divine Ones, I wish... I pray... I desperately hope that I can make this an offering to you instead of a rote piece. If it is merely rote, I offer my life for that failure. Better I be dead than not know You.
I stepped to the starting mark, the place worn into the marble where hundreds of my ancestors had placed the toe of their sandals to begin their reigns over Arko.
The Fenjitzas, in the roar of exaltation, was forced to wait before he read me the Exhortation, as he had read to Metkias.
“Beware! Thou who wouldst approach the Gods, do so with an open heart! Do so with diligent practice and diligent work! The Gods have given Thee life, and do not bear fools. Do not approach Them lightly. Death and the Smotherings of Hayel await the apostate who dares approach the Ten with less than perfection! The Fire—the Will—the Destructive Anger—approach the Gods with diligence and receive Their patient attention. Beware anything less.”
I heard my name chanted from the crowd the way I had from the night of the election. I also heard, very clearly – “You’re going to get smashed or melted, boy! Hands burnt off, bled out or burned through the ass! No God would stomach your line!”
I swallowed my fear and tried to pray for that stentorian-voiced man. I am here, oh Anae. May I be worthy of You.
I flung myself into the prostration, Aitzas style, offering my grace to the Goddess, stretching my hands above my head, felt my hands touch the golden marble. Meld with the Temple I am part of the Temple.
The Goddess, Her broom in my hands is glorious, smooth, the perfect tool for the perfect work, Anae Mother of the darkest jobs, Daughter to Darkness, the fertile soil from which all things grow. The most shimmering Decay and Mother of the Summoner. Drinker and Purifier of the blood of the slain. Eater of the after-birth. Sweeper, Cleanser. You, who scrubs the filthiest soul clean. The sweeping, circling dance for Her suddenly made sense to my bones, to my blood. She who would scrub the blood of the dead clean, however spilled.
Take me, Scourer. You whose Servants purified the world, Who filtered the ever-fountaining dross of the Earthsphere. Sterilizer. You Whose Breath disinfects the worst the Darkness has to offer. I embrace this work with You, oh Beloved. I love You.
I laid the broom in the Goddess’s hands and felt her smile singing through me. I was released enough to hear the crowd. ‘One, Ten! One!’
My heckler bellowed out ‘You won’t survive the other Nine!’ and I laughed. It was so funny. The boom of the great drum took me to Imbas’s Stone, as if my feet were the strikers and the Temple the drum. Someone laughed because I skipped across to the former slave’s God. The first move of Imbas’s ten had included a slap of opposite hand to wrists, one side, then the other, symbolizing His chains, but that was no longer there. I would not recall his former servitude though my muscles had been taught it. God, help me honour You, properly now, please?
Every Imperator’s Ten Tens is the same. Every Imperator’s Ten Tens is different. Ten men will dance the same hundred steps, perform the same hundred hand gestures, and each man will display his soul and his spirit to the Gods and to the crowd. My hands rise high over my head, unencumbered, unchained. This is now right, fling hands left, fling hands right as if casting off chains.
The sweat of toil that built the city, built the country, built the Empire. The humble God of labour, upon Whose back the Earthsphere rests and may be safely upheld.
I laid hands upon the stone, the roughened hand-grips so that fingers would not slide no matter how sweaty. I set my feet and exhaled. Inhaled. Metkias had done this. Virani-e had done this twice. I began to pull, felt my feet pushed hard against the tile, my calves and thighs beginning to strain, my arms, my muscles pulling tight corded and I let my breath out to tighten my chest. I... it would not budge. I must move it to dance the God’s steps. It would burst my heart in my chest to move it. So be it. If it burst my heart, so be it. I will surrender to the work till my heart fails, You Whose Arms are the Stones of the Earth.
There is a tingle once more. Imbas laughs, flexes His muscles and puts one hand down, pinching the stone between two of His fingers, and lifts.
A quiver in the solid mass of stone cutting painfully into my fingers. Where before it was rooted to its parent earth, pulled down with all the mass of the Earthsphere, fixed, now it comes up to my hand. The stone, to Him, the size of an Arkan pen should He choose, rises. The crowd, I hear His song, the silence that shifted to a cheer as they saw it move. The herald at the door narrating what he saw... no, don’t think of all that. Focus on the God.
My hands above me slide over the bottom of the rock, dressed slick on the underside as my feet dance through the stamping, tamping, solid Ten of Imbas. The floating rock... appears to be a thing made out of light. It glows and glitters and vibrates like my hands, shimmering at the same time, though my hands shimmer faster. I do not understand, I only see the floating block of light above me, then before me as it floats down and at the end it connects with the glittering floor with a single drumbeat that almost knocks me over. Knocks me back out of the iridescent, gleaming, flickering world where nothing is solid, back into myself, just as I humbly genuflect to Imbas.
I... did I just do it? Did I? Or? I... am stepping up to Mella and Oas's level of the Temple. I didn’t realize... I am drenched in sweat, soaked in it. I have no time to be afraid. Mella waits for my offering. My breathing thunders in my ears. No, that is my heart.