CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (draft)

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CHAPTER 17

The Games official at the podium stands aside to allow the Priest of the Grail to continue presenting our Final Ceremony Instructions.

Miramis Opu steps up and looks around at all of us, and his fretful gaze definitely lingers on me. But he looks away and addresses all of us.

"Champions and Contenders! The Games are Forever! You will now stand and form a line, and you will follow me inside the arena. Remain silent and respectful of this ancient tradition, and wait your turn to be called before the judges!"

And without another word he raises the palm of his hand dramatically, motioning for us to rise.

I stand with the others and fall into line right after Brie, with Chihar directly behind me. Silently we follow the short but impressive figure of the Priest of the Grail in his formal ceremonial robes, as he leads us through a long, dimly-lit corridor into the thunderous crowd noise and bright lights of the arena entrance.

* * *

The Khemetareon stadium is one third smaller than the Stadion, similarly oval but, unlike the larger structure, it is completely enclosed by a permanent domed roof. It has even more tiers and rows of seats, stacked higher up, all the way to the ceiling.

There are no monolithic statues, but instead, grand pillars and fancy overhanging balconies intended for the wealthiest patrons. The Imperial box is prominent among them, occupying a low central balcony with the most advantageous view of the arena below. I recognize the great golden sunburst that is the symbol of the Imperial Kassiopei Dynasty, sculpted in relief along the balcony's front, and the row of high-backed seats sparkling with gilded metal under the day-bright artificial illumination. At the moment it's unoccupied, so I assume the Imperator, Aeson, and anyone else with them will be entering the balcony later, probably to make a dramatic appearance.

Meanwhile, the rest of the tiers and balconies are full to capacity with the audience crowds, and there are no empty seats that I can see in my quick examination of the whole immense venue.

The Priest of the Grail walks from the far entrance and enters the arena, accompanied by uplifting music and the rich choral sound of the Games musicians. At once a roar greets him, and only increases as we, the fourteen remaining Contenders, follow him, still moving in a line, heading toward the center, waving with all our hands uplifted to the audience. Looking up, I notice the huge smartboards located near the highest tiers, spaced evenly all around the stadium—they are alive with scores and live feeds of the arena, then closeups of our faces as we emerge.

The center of this current arena configuration includes an oval-shaped dais, with ten seats for the Category judges. They are already seated in place, stern and motionless, each holding up a circular sign flag with the color background and logo of their Category. I recognize the older woman judge in the Vocalist Category who gave us the singing tiebreaker task. She is looking directly ahead of her, not acknowledging me or the other Vocalists.

"Wixameret, to all the brave Contenders!" the Priest of the Grail exclaims in an amplified voice that resounds around the stadium. He stops before the dais and turns to face us. "Ascend the platform and stand before your judges to receive their final decisions!"

One by one we go up the five stairs leading to the dais and pause before our Category judge.

I find myself between Fawzi Boto and Sofia Veforoi, facing our judge. Nerves hit me, and I feel sick to my stomach. . . .

In that moment, the Games Choir sings, and everyone stares as the Imperator arrives in the Imperial box. 

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