Celeste stood upon the dias at one end of the great hall wearing an elaborate white costume flanked on the right by Lord Maritan, his Lady Intiti and the Fathers and Mothers of Celeste’s adoptive family Adukwe, and on the left the regional officials of the Reach of Ashitlan.
Her costume was heavily starched and internally framed in wicker to maintain its shape, fluted to the ground and arched extravagantly upwards from her shoulders, precious pearls from the distant coast of Danke dangling like dew drops around her head. Its entire surface was covered by thin white Cithra petals, each painstakingly applied by hand. She resembled a great white flower, her head within the petals, her hair bound up like black filament, her arms elegantly raised to either side like sepals. It was all show, of course. Celeste had been helped into place, and only with supreme effort could she push against the shoulder-yoke and lift the entire costume herself. It was like wearing a heavy tent. The rehearsals had not accounted for the midday heat and a hall full of dignitaries, and being the first time she had worn it at a state event, droplets began to prickle on her skin, sweat soaking into the chemise. Thankfully, the white base mask applied to her face seemed to block her pores and cover the blushed exersion of her face.
“We can not compete with the Inner Ring,” Yidran had said. “So no magic, no masqs — real not rax!”
Celeste patiently held her pose, remembering only to breath through her nose. She had to keep her jaw ajar while keeping her mouth closed, in order to bring just the right hollow indent to her cheeks. To avoid puckering, a red sticky balm applied to her lips helped them stick together, accentuating their lush and full character. She resisted the urge to lick her lips and even to blink. Her eyelashes were coated with crystal filaments, a sparkling effect which echoed the great hall’s stained glass windows behind her, and she was afraid of repeating the disaster during rehearsal when the lashes had become entangled and one of her eyes had become sealed shut. So she retained her poise, not blinking, hardly breathing, her eyes completely still.
Below her, filling the hall, were the extended Royal family of Adukwe, assorted dignitaries and well-to-do from the city of Bizapul, all dressed in their feathered courtly apparel, shimmering in a magical haze of colour. The banners of Ring Adukwe were displayed prominantly across the dark walls and hanging from the rafters high above: a row of three black mountains.
“Of the Royal Ring Toloese, Lord Mbolo, Third Father of Terabiz,” announced the usher loudly, and a hush descended upon the hall.
Leading his retinue of attendants, the imposing stature of a Solozo Lord wearing such attire as put the local Royals to shame, a sequined kaftan embroidered with gold thread and countless tiny gemstones. Light did not just reflect off him, but emanated from him, a beguiling shimmer that brought to mind the effect of running water. He flowed through the middle of the court with such an aura of superiority that those he passed reflected on their mundane clothes by comparison and visibly wilted. The Lord climbed the three wide steps alone to stand before Celeste.
“Please accept the full hospitality of Ring Adukwe, and Family Adrienne,” said Celeste, faultering slightly as she spoke, then placing her hands before her to welcome him. What she wanted to do was tear her way out of her own costume, a flimsy thing made of sticks and starch, a tawdry affair in comparison to the garment her guest wore and the authority with which he wore it. It was the first time she had used her family name formally, family Adrienne, and despite all the practice she had faultered, hardly noticeable to anyone else no doubt but like thunder in her own ears. And Yidran, her tutor in courtly etiquette, would be furious. All this boiled in her mind as she stiffled in the heat of her costume. Real not rax, indeed!
“I hope to find them adequate,” Mbolo said barely laying his hands on hers, and without pause addressed an official to her side. “Are you the Ashitlan Sheff?” The man addressed gave a quick glance at Celeste and seeing that her face was shielded by her flamboyant shouldermounts, he stepped forward and bowed his bald head. Before he could utter a word, Mbolo continued: “Show me my quarters.”
The man gritted his teeth, bowed and stepped back to allow Mbolo to pass. He then dutifully followed Mbolo with a curt nod to excuse himself from the Prince-Elect’s reception. Mbolo clearly knew who he was addressing, thought Celeste, and to treat Aclimas like that… with such contempt, and ignore Maritan and Intiti, indeed the whole Adukwe court… This was not Bunto. Certainly he was from an Inner Ring and deserved the proper respect for it, but this was not what she had learned Bunto to be.
“Of the Royal Ring Beredin, Prince Mboktiz, second son of Bizasbuk,” called the usher.
A tall young Solozo strode purposefully through the crowd of dignitaries, managing to hold his own after the majesty of Mbolo before him without striking those around him with his wealth or ostentation. A handsome man, laid out in Imperial Guard battle kit, his less lavish retinue behind. He stepped up the dias and close enough for Celeste to see his clear and handsome face, his striking green eyes which shone with a lightness of joy and strength. He smiled confidently and bowed low before Celeste.
“May the luxuries of Bizapul delight the Prince on his visit,” said Celeste, her hands palms up to him.
The Prince smiled warmly as he laid his hands gently on hers, saying, “The delights are already evident, Princess-Elect.” He bowed and made his way to one side, addressing Lord and Lady Adukwe formally.
Celeste felt assured by him, calmed. She pondered on the Prince’s eyes. They were alluring, like falling into a spiralling tunnel of green crystaline light. Despite living amongst the Adukwe as one of theirs, she had never met royal blood like this. As a child she had heard stories of the Solozo, the imperial race of the Adukwe and all royal families, the divine confidence they possessed, their dignity and warmth. Unlike the masterful power of Mbolo, here was what she had dreamed of: a deep and benevolent authority. Celeste felt a shiver run down her back, the pearls suspended from threads on her costume quivered.
“Of the Family Adrienne, Master Dliston,” declared the usher.
And here was her brother, smiling brightly, wearing his formal dress with pride though Celeste noted it did not carry the Ring Adrienne emblem, an oversight to be corrected before the festivities that evening. He stepped quickly ahead of his attendants eager to cross the distance to the dais. As he skipped up to the platform, it was easy for her to superimpose her father’s face on her young brother: the narrow chin, almond eyes, high forehead.
“Welcome home, my brother, we have much to talk of!” said Celeste, and resisted the urge to step forward and hug him, which her costume would prevent should she try.
He paused, deciding whether to alter his prepared greeting, then said: “My sister shall make a home of wherever she is,” and he lingered there gently squeezed her hands. There was brightness in his eyes, excitement in seeing her, and also a nervousness. What was he afraid of? Was it the occasion? Was he overwhelmed? She squeezed his hands in return, to assure him that it was his sister beneath all this extravagant pomp. Dliston moved on and Celeste was pleased to see how Lord Maritan’s formal greeting was softened with an expression of familiarity. He had taken special delight in Dliston as his favourite, to which Celeste had never taken offence.
“Of the Magestry,” declared the usher. Whether it was the word or the manner of enunciation, the hall fell into a deeper note of silence, as if every movement and motion of the assembled royals and dignitaries was stilled all at once.
A thin man wearing a plain grey feathered kaftan walked alone, lightly handling a sabalwood staff topped with an opaque white stone. For all the splendour of the Major Houses, and the warmth for receiving their own in Dliston, there was an unmistakable intake of breath from the whole court at the simplicity of the man who walked between them. Inspiration as well as trepidation, for there was no greater indicator of the changes to come than this man who was to take their Princess-Elect, whose part to play as her primary advisor would bring prosperity or ruin to the Adukwe family and the Ashitlan region as a whole.
Once he had carefully walked up the three long steps to the stage, Celeste was surprised by the man who confronted her. He was younger than she expected, sallow skinned as if he had lived most of his life indoors, or below ground she thought. She observed him acutely, trying to discern some clue of his thought or feeling upon meeting her, but his face was expressionless, his eyes vacant.
“Your servant awaits your instruction, my Princess-Elect of Family Adrienne.”
He bowed and remained there, subservient, revealing the self-seal tattoo on the back of his head, a blue triangle.
“The Princess-Elect of Family Adrienne welcomes her Mage, Celestsel” she said formally, and hesitantly laid her hand on the tattoo. It felt smooth and cold, like wet stone, not like skin at all, before withdrawing her hand. He raised his head and Celeste suddenlyt felt cold and isolated, as if shrunk, the warmth of her body far away, the many people around her distant. She somehow felt sealed within, and cold fear gripped her shrinking her further within herself.
The Mage Celestsel lifted his hands and placed them on the starched shoulder flutes and pulled them apart suddenly. The starched cloth material tugged and tore. Celeste returned to the present, frozen in place, shocked.
The Mage grabbed another two parts and tore them apart again, ripping the chest cavity open. Celeste remained frozen, horrified. What was he doing? How could he be doing this? Calmly he ripped open the dress again.
Celeste looked around and saw everyone still in place. Nobody came to her rescue. They seemed as shocked as her, hands to mouths, their eyes wide.
The Mage placed his hand flat on her face and pushed, pressing the makeup across her cheek, her mouth smeared, the crystals of her eyelashes caught on her eyelid and scratched her skin.
Finally, the Mage Celestsel stood back from his destructive work, took up his staff and found his place in her royal retinue, behind her and to the left. She wanted to turn and look at the Mage, but the costume’s structure prevented it. He stood behind her. For the remainder of her life, he would be there, making a shadow of her, and she knew that even face to face his deepest motives would be hidden from her. For it was well known that the motivations behind the Magestry were inscrutible.
Celeste stood upon the stage, her costume in tatters. She felt naked though the inner chemise remained intact, her face a smeared mess of makeup and tears. She felt exposed, violated, and alone.