The ceremonial peplos feels incredible on my skin. I swish and twirl secretly behind the screens, watching the skirt blow out like a spinning top glistening with golden thread. I clip in the fibulae, polished to perfection and encircled by black gemstones and opalescent pearls before I step out for Akantha to see me.
"Well I never," she sighs, her eyes scanning me up and down with precision. Her hand goes to her hip and she smiles, "you actually look like a lady."
I smile back and approach the mirror. I don't know whether I'm pleased or not at looking like a lady, I don't look like myself, but at the same time, I look better. Akantha hands me accessories, simple circular earrings that I slip into ears that, until yesterday, hadn't been pierced, and a strange ornament on my left arm. It comprises of a ring on each upper knuckle, each attached with a thin gold chain that runs up to a cuff on my wrist like a skeletal hand, then to another cuff just below my elbow. No doubt a revolutionary invention for highborn ladies, and as odd as it is, it looks good.
"Let me fix that hair," says Akantha, pushing me down onto the stool by the shoulders as she takes all the beaded pins from my hair so that it falls in a flourish around my face, taking each individual strand, looping, plaiting and twisting it into a complicated and ornate style that would probably have taken me hours.
"I don't look ridiculous, do I?" I ask. Sitting in silence while she works on me, just glancing at my dress, my face, doubt creeps in, my voice sounding pitiful and afraid.
"Netea, you look beautiful," she says, her tone strong, like she's ordering me to believe it. "And you have no reason to be nervous or self-conscious. Amaryllis tells me you're prepared for the routine, and I've heard good things from Mistress Calliope about tonight. Apparently she feels magic in the air,"
"That's just 'cause it's the solstice," I say, meanwhile tapping my feet to the rehearsed ceremonial rhythm beneath the table.
"You have such little faith in yourself, Netea. Do you really think I would have allowed you to graduate if I didn't trust you were ready -,"
"But I can't even remember the first verse of the Odyssey, and that's first year material!"
"Netea, we don't make you study and recite them so that you remember them for the rest of your life. We do it so that you understand them, so that you realise that inspiration is difficult, and this task that we set you won't be easy. But it can be done, as all those texts can prove." She leans in closer with a mischievous smile, "little Illiana might be able to recite Ovid inside and out, but you don't think I know it's all a way to charm another sponsor." My eyes widen, so she does know how much of a brat Illiana is. So much for her having seen her day...
"If my apprentices can accomplish anything, it's that those stories leave their heads and enter their hearts. That's what the poets would have wished, and so I carry on their hopes,"
"And you think I've been able to do that?"
"Well, quite like you rarely listen to me," says Akantha, finishing off my hair and taking my hand to help me up, my outfit complete and me ready for the ceremony. "I think there's a lot that your heart tells you that you try to ignore. I think right now, it would probably tell you the same that I always have,"
"And what's that?"
"Shut up and pay attention!" She chuckles, everything that she's built up as a strict and powerful mentor melting away in front of me, and I laugh too, before I can't stop myself from embracing her, all embarrassment for it disappearing when I feel her welcome me.