Chapter Five – Her Eminence

Dread.

That was the first thought in Sarai’s mind when she walked into the Empress Jamyl’s opulant palace.  It wasn’t the Paladin escort, despite the perfectly clean and ornate battlearmor they wore.  Nor was it the military escort complete with armored vehicles and horses.  Nor did she have that feeling when they and their entire entrouge were deposited on the Grand estate, which required almost an hour to walk from the where they were dropped off to the main castle door (her and her parents got to ride in a horse driven carriage).

No, the feeling came the moment she entered into the huge palace doors.  The ceiling looked unbelievably high, with pastel colored mosaics that dotted the cathedral ceilings, but the windows sent down only a little bit of light.  The base of the golden columns were easily larger than the carriage she came in, horses included, and each of them stretched up far into the ceiling.  Still, it felt like the roof was just waiting crush you, at the slightest whim.  The air seemed to have a sickly moist quality to it, and one could taste the wax from the large burning scented candles that were arrayed throughout the room.  The vast room seemed cold, despite it being a fairly warm week.

All in all, Sarai felt she had just been drug into a giant, metal, golden box.  It also didn’t help that they had not gotten to the ballroom yet, where the rest of the distingished guests would be waiting.  Her nerves were barely being held in check by the training Meira had given her, and it took a lot of effort not to turn around and run.  She was sure that if she tried to run, the solemn Paladin soliders that stood guard throughout the hall would stop her.  Though, she quietly had to admit.. she wouldn’t have minded getting stopped by a couple of them.. especially that one who stood guard at the third gate.  The thought made her chuckle.. and relaxed her somewhat.

Their group finally entered the Hall of Ruins, which had ancient white, grey, blue, and green marble statues of former rulers of the Amarrian Empire.  Each of them were buttressed against the wall of the cavernous, but well-lit room.  Enormous sparkling chandeliers hovered far above the crowd that had assembled there and Sarai along with her family was ushered to a seperate, red carpeted section near a blue jade and gold throne.  Sarai assumed a humble position on her knees, her eyes locked on the ground as she was instructed by one of the Empress’ servants.  She could hear whispers, and knew that quizative eyes were staring her way, but she remained as she was told.  The position would work well with the first dance she would do too.  Sarai was also glad for the red and gold pillow for her knees while she waited.

It must had been at least a half an hour before the background music began to die down, and Sarai could feel the nervousness, tension, and excitement rising.  She could hear the heavy steps coming from her side, and an eerie hush came over the crowd.  She reflexively flinched when several long horns suddenly blared behind her.  Still, she refused to give in to curiousity and focused as hard as she could toward the floor.

“All Bow!  The mighty Empress Jamyl, protector of the Amarrian Empire, ruler of all that is holy, shall now enter.  All bow to her greatness and divide beauty!”  She heard everyone bow and also the kneeling of the Paladins as the Empress entered.  Out of the corner of her eye she could see the people moving off to the sides.  She still kept her head down but she could hear the soft yet sure footfalls of the Empress getting closer, and behind her the varied footsteps of counselors and the hard footfalls of the armed Paladins behind her.  With each step, Sarai’s heart beat faster.  It nearly exploded out of her chest when the footsteps stopped.. just in front of her.

Soft, strong hands gripped her chin and lifted her head.  Sarai did not resist and was soon staring directly in the eyes of the Empress herself!  Her heart was now beating uncontrollably as she felt the raw power in her presence.  “Ah, what a beautiful creature you are!”, she said.  “I look forward to seeing your best.”  With that she smiled kindly, and walked to the throne.

“Servants of the Empire!  I bring for you a treat from one of our outer colonies, a dancer.  One who shall represent us at this year’s Empires Art Tournament!”  Cheers came from the crowd.  Sarai’s heart, however, had stopped cold.  The Empires Art Tournament was a tournament where each major nation, the Amarr, the Caldari, the Gallente, and the Minmatar sent one, and only one, dancer to compete.  The competition was unusually cutthroat and there were still several court cases still ongoing in Gallente space regarding a series of murders that involved some of last years contestants.  The prize.. well.. was honor and glory for their nation.  Much, much more was often hinted at as well.  She could still recall the names of past winners, each and every year, and none were destitute in any sense of the word.  The losers, well, you only get one chance to represent your nation.

The rest of the speech was a blur as Sarai forced herself to refocus on her upcoming routine.  She recited a simple mantra to get her breathing back to normal as she gracefully walked to the center of the floor.  Her almost sheer dress, while provocative on her homeworld, was certainly not a problem for most of the guests.  That was a strange comfort as she moved into her starting position.  Out of the corner of her eye, she began to see a stage move into position.  She had been so distracted by the presence of the Empress that she hadn’t registered that there was a symphany in the room.

The bass intro was barely audible, but that was intended as she began to move.  With her eyes closed she focused on balancing the beat and sway of the music, following the the sounds in her heart as the flutes began to play.  Above the music, she could only hear her heart beating as she pushed fear aside with each successful step.  Suddenly, above the music, came a woman’s voice so pure, so angelic that it caused Sarai to miss a step.  It was a small misstep.  She noticed it quickly and she regained her composure to flow to the next one.  But the woman’s singing was so uplifting and inspiring that Sarai had trouble keeping her focus.  She found herself just wanting to dance for the seer joy of dancing to something so wonderful.  Her body actually seemed to resist the routine she had in her head, to truly break free.  The thought of her trainer, Meira, came flooding in.  Sarai knew the sheer joy Meira would have dancing to someone like this.

Sarai continued to fight the urge to just dance, the urge to call for Meira to come and enjoy this moment, the urge of pure fear she felt dancing in front of the Empress herself.  Each hand movement, each placement of the foot, each twist of her body was a contest of wills.  It was strangely surreal to Sarai that here she felt she was in a constant battle against freedom,  joy, fun, and happiness.  She almost missed the fact that the dance was over.  Still, she didn’t open her eyes as she ended in her crouched position.  It would be rude to look up and expect accomendation by anyone without first either some applause or, at the other end of the spectrum, insults.

However, there was no sound.  She could hear the people around her breathing and barely audible whispers.  Fear started to take hold in her heart.  In rapid fire, questions appeared in her mind, “Did I do badly?”, “Did something go wrong?”, “Have I failed my trainer and my family?”.  As fear sank into her young heart, the questions turned into accusations and tears started to form, “I failed.”, “I should have trained harder.”, “I should have kept my mind on things.”, “I shouldn’t have missed that one step.”  She felt her fears confirmed when she thought she heard weeping in the crowd.

Her fears began to overwhelm her, “What was going to happen?” she cried to herself.

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