Celeste reached over the silver-engraved stone ledge and caught a glimpse of the royal retinue disappearing into the east barbican. It contained the dignitary Mbolo who had the authority of Ring Toloese to seal her future as first Gal Princess-Elect, Haradan to the Pharohim. Today was the Day of Appraisal, today her life would change forever.
She had climbed onto an archer’s alcove between two huge crenellations which provided a view over the east wall. She had managed to give Lady Yidran the slip earlier and had shooed away her servant, while the patrolling guard had taken a position further down the wall out-of-sight. Amid the cheering crowds lining the walls and peaking from windows, Celeste was alone. Soon the formal welcome to receive Lord Mbolo, a final lesson with Yidran, and the excruciating preparations for the festivity and feast that evening.
The landship’s sails had been furled revealing its arched masts, the crow’s nests in line with the height of the wall, men crawling over the rigging like ants. After its windspeed across the eastern plains, it had been sluggishly towed into place, its massive flat wheels designed for far-off sands groaning under its dead weight. A gangplank four-men wide had slid from the upper decks and the landship was disgorging the remainder of the Royal retinue directly onto the upper rampart which lead up to the Fortress of Bizapul. Celeste observed the five-sun banners of Ring Toloese flapping above the orini which cantered impatiently side to side, the gold painted armour of the Royal Guard flashing in the sunlight. Somewhere in the offboarding passengers was her brother and she immediately felt her spirit rise. It had been over a year since she had seen him and she couldn’t wait to hear about mother. For a whole year she had lived alone, to help her grow independent they had said. Not for the first time Celeste suspected there were other reasons behind her mother’s departure, but she quickly pushed aside the thought; she did not want to cloud her special day.
A pendant slipped from the chemise beneath her cote and hung from her neck by a silver chain as fine as thread. Her hand involuntarily caught it and instead of tidying it away, she rolled it gently between her fingers pensively. It was a gift from her mother on her eighth birthday soon after she had been chosen. It was a simple thing: two silver branches intertwined and tipped with a little clear gem seed. She had received much more expensive jewelry since, but this reminded her of all the changes in her life since moving to Bizapul, taking the city as their home, the tiny precious moments of joy during the interminable lessons, regulations, courtly duties. Moments like this, alone, at the edge of the mighty city of Bizapul, a city at the edge of the Urb Empire; so she was at the edge of her own childhood, a child at the beginning of adulthood.
At this moment she felt small and young, like the eight-year-old who knew nothing of the future that awaited her. If she had known, would she have chosen this path? Had she even chosen….? Of all the luxuries of her station, choice was not one of them. She hadn’t made one decision in her life, not what she ate nor when, not clothes nor how her hair was done up, certainly no affairs of state, none of it. It was all decided for her, even when her mother had been there. She had been foolish back then, had secretly resented her mother’s overbearing presence, but now she understood her mother meant to protect her. Without her mother, Celeste became a tool, a maniquin, a puppet caught in the catscraddle of state ritual and routine for the role she was to perform as Princess-Elect. And it was all to culminate in today’s ritual of Appraisal.
She gripped the pendant, felt the indentations press into the skin of her fingers. Memories of her mother holding up the pendant between them, her eyes fierce yet loving, warning her: “May your heart remain whole, my daughter. Whoever they teach you to be, may your heart remain whole.”
Celeste’s eyes were drawn to the horizon, the green undulating plain eastwards under a warm blue sky. Her destination lay beyond, across dry plains under a sun which never set, to the hollowcity of Terabiz to be reunited with her mother, and together they would venture into the homeland of Urb, to the capital. All her years of training to become an Imperial Princess of the Pharohim, the progenitor of a royal lineage. Would her heart withstand the awesome gaze of the Ever-Giving? Would her Gal blood survive the fearsome divine power of the God-Emperor?
She tightened her fist around the pendant and prayed to the ancients. For if she failed, it would not only be her family who would suffer, but her people. Her native beliefs had been replaced with a mindset suitable for her role amidst the Solozo, nevertheless she retained an awareness of her blood-tie to her people and the Sickness which was now tightening its grip on the land. And so, feeling like the eight-year-old peasant girl she once was, she prayed to the earth-angels to give her strength to fulfill their mutual hopes.