I return to the acropolis just in time, weaving past the attendants and guards who stream up the temple steps around me, carrying full baskets of fresh fruit and rich gifts for the solstice. I look myself up and down as I race through the colonnade, my cloak streaming behind me like a dark wing, hoping that I’ve kept myself in good enough condition for the ceremony.
When I reach the top of the stairwell, I immediately see Akantha pacing around, and when she sees me, every fibre in her body deflates with relief. She’s already dressed in full priestess garb, golden paint smeared across her tanned, peppery skin in swirling patterns. Her veil is swept from her hair across her shoulder, ready to be done up across her face for the sacred solstice rituals. Compared to her, with my lower legs a shade darker with dirt and my hair pulled by the wind out of style, I’m nowhere near ready.
“Netea, where have you been?” Akantha says breathlessly,
“I’m sorry,” I say sincerely, “I was in the village. I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to my mother, I just -,”
“Oh, never mind about that,” she says unexpectedly, leading me by the hand to the dressing table where everything is already set out for me. “You’re here now, I suppose I can at least be thankful for that.” She pulls the cord of the cloak and slips it down my shoulders, pausing to look at the apprentice clothes that I decided to wear instead of the elaborate dresses offered to me.
“Well, I suppose this is the last time I’ll see you as my apprentice. Strange…” she trails off, gesturing that I strip off behind the wooden screens in the corner of the room.
“What is?” I ask, tossing the chiton over the top of the screen, “did you think I’d never graduate?”
“Oh, no, I always knew you would.” I freeze, disbelieving with my sandal half unbuckled. Is that true? She always believed in me? Even when I didn’t… I’d always thought that I was the biggest burden of all to Akantha, nothing but an apprentice that was surely selected by Ideon by mistake, unwanted by any sponsors because I couldn’t recite or remember anything about the great poets. And even Akantha told me how useless I was, or so it always seemed in the way she’d sigh at me after every failure. Now, her words fill me with courage, and I begin to feel, for the first time, that I might be ready.