It was only my long practice that drove me through the first two steps for Aras. My heart was shrivelling up inside me as I began the absolutely precise moves for Aras under Second Amitzas’s withering blue eyes and then I told myself No, that is the God. When the Mahid was my teacher there was some prayer to Aras there, whether he willed it, or not.
I took my shaking breathing and my muscles twitching and cramping and cringing in memory of the switch, and the beatings, and the pain and the memory of Obedience.
Everything he’d caused me weighed my limbs down like lead. My body fought me both ways, the memory of pain from Amitzas, and the memory of endless beads of practice doing these motions. My body had two sets of memories in its muscles.
The point of the sword began to dip as I struggled to feel the security of holding it. If it fell out of my hand, if it fell out of alignment enough I would fail and Aras would skewer me through the heart before the weapon finished shattering upon the golden tiles.
I remembered the swing of the Imperial sword in my short fight against the bandits, the security I felt when the motion was right, when it was part of me. When I became the sword. I was the Sword of Arko, if Aras was called by the High God to fight. Even if I never fought in my own right. If Arko were attacked, if the Empire were threatened, it was I who must choose the correct generals, promoted by merit, let the rejins defend the Empire, not treat the solas with contempt or ignorance. That made me the Sword of Arko.
The weight of the sword in my hand, the smoothness of motion even in the middle of the massive confusion of any fight, I could suddenly feel. The tip came up as I struggled to not fear and tried to remember my lifting soul in the Aras chapel where the setting sun illuminated my death-rites to murdered solas priests.
That was when my shaking finally stopped. When I remembered the eyes of the God as I lifted the chapel sword and the other Mahid singing with me, singing souls home to the Fields of Honour. However much pain my teacher had given me, he had also given me the keys to those Fields. Even the overly rigid Bellicose Arts had some of Aras’s will and power in them.
My eyes were closed as I completed the fifth and sixth steps. Kallijas as my teacher handing me a basket of kittens, demanding that I observe. Chevenga, laughing as he took me through the loosening up exercises, teasing me if I looked as though I was getting too constipated in my moves.
I sang as I raised my glass sword over my head in salute, ‘Let Me Be As Gold’ on my lips as the glass weapon vanished out of my hand. Even in pain and fear, you were there, oh Aras. In stinking darkness and in searing light both. Painted over in innocent blood, I remembered Chevenga’s tears in the Mezem, shining gold in a sink of blood. Aras, Defender, let us pray You for peace. Let us pray You for an end to the strife that brings out our absolute best and our absolute worst.
I let the verse for the Hymn fade on my lips as I opened my eyes and sank into the peculiar, strained position between Aras’s two pillars. His face was still that of Second Amitzas but the expression was unlike anything I’d ever seen. A smile. With soft eyes. I heard the silence in the Temple now as if it were a living thing. The whole crowd was still. ‘Can you, without hatred, or fear, pray for those who are crippled in their spirits, even when they try to hurt you?”
I took a deep breath and let it out. “I have so far failed, Father of Steel.” That was the honest truth. “It is so much easier to pray for those we love.” I bent my neck a fraction more and it was good that I did. The swords sprang out of the stones with a crack that almost shook me. If I had not bent my head that extra straining bit the sword, that now lay across the back of my neck, might have cut my spine. There was a stinging sensation as if a hair-fine cut ran across, barely parting the skin. I could see a single drop of blood run down my chest, from the back of my neck and turn onto the sword blade under my armpit.
“It is.” I could not raise my head. My legs were surrounded by steel blades, one lay against my outstretched palm as if it clung there like armour to the Tunnel wall. In the cage of razor sharp steel I could not even draw a deep breath. The God’s voice rang through my bones and through the swords pressing on all sides. How on the Earthsphere had Chevenga ever fit in here? He was a bigger man than I, especially across the chest.
A blade pressed hard against my instep, cutting that sandal off my foot but had not hurt me at all. There was no room for error here. No room for imprecision. I burst into a sweat once more, fighting to be soft; fighting to be loose and still. If I tightened I’d start shaking and that would kill me. “Learn to honour the war injured, whether in body or in soul or in mind,” the God’s command was the whisper of drawn steel.
“I will Father of Steel.” Somehow I managed to whisper that.
Silently as a long-held breath, the swords withdrew into the stones, without drawing any more blood, without marking me any further.
“Continue, Student.” I couldn’t help it. All the shame that was trying to flood up from my guts burst out in a kind of wild joy and the hand leaping to my brow in the ancient salute was crisp and precise. “Reypartin ferdu tay, SER!”