As smoothly as they can, with the drummers beginning a rhythm above our heads, the attendants slide open the double doors to show marble stairs rising up to the cella and the waiting audience. Akantha goes first, not looking back at me - undoubtedly still under the trickery of whatever Amaryllis did to her. She is escorted by two attendants, and as they ascend each step, quietly at their own pace, my mentor disappears from my view. Their footfalls nothing more than air, the rest of the attendants line up appropriately, their rows of eight each with a candle, the male attendants with their bronze chests hard like clay and visible to me at eyeline, holding their thuribles in their hands so they make no noise.
Meanwhile, my heart beats its own terrified rhythm, du-dum, du-dum, making it impossible to breathe with ease or walk properly without feeling like a sloshing skin of water. I am handed what is needed, the scroll, the quill and the sand, I hold them as Amaryllis told me to, the quill and scroll in one hand, the vial chain wrapped around my wrist so it swings freely as I walk. Amaryllis takes me by the hand and pulls me into line behind her, nodding and smiling in approval as I try to get a final look at myself, no hairs out of place, no accidental smudges on my body paint. I can't convince myself, no matter how hard I try, that everything's ready, that I look presentable and I know what I'm doing.
From up in the cella, we hear the shake of bells, Akantha's signal for the procession from her place at the altar. I try to envision it as the attendants move forward, whilst I wait for moments at a time with my foot poised and shaking in the air. Calliope will be there, exactly as she was at Marissa's ceremony, so beautiful as she anointed her, only now that will be me. I will come closer to the most famous Muse in all of Oneirus than I ever have in my life, and then I will stand before a god and then...I have no idea.
What exactly happens? Do we disintegrate as we always seem to? Do we wake up in the human world and begin once again? What will I become, spirit or mortal, and how will I know which is the best decision? I have to push these questions away, as suddenly I'm moving. The male attendants flanking Amaryllis light the thuribles, straight away the scent surges up my nose as they begin swinging gently like pendulums. Amaryllis glances over at my shoulder, probably to make sure I haven't passed out or I'm not bursting into tears. Her hand reaches for me in reassurance, but I'm too wary after Akantha, and I let our fingers connect for just a second before I pull away and let my arms hang slack at my sight, my fist crumpling the scroll that's probably a couple centuries old with my luck.
My foot finds home on the first step, my golden sandals peeking out from the skirt of my peplos, the arch lined in shimmering, colourful gems, and I keep moving, right foot, left foot, up, up, until I am revealed in the open, under the light of the full, rising moon, and the eyes of hundreds.
Breathe, stupid. Just breathe.