I’m gutted, emptied, alone. I sit on the floor in my cell, reeling from the news. My legs fail me as I try to stand. The pitcher of water on the nightstand seems to mock me and my thirst. I want nothing more than to cry out, but I have made the Promise of Silence. My hosts would be most displeased. I fall back onto the hard floor and pile blankets on top of my face. Muffling great, choking sobs will suffice for now. The screaming will have to wait.
It’s cold. Damn cold, but I do my best to stifle shivers. I can’t let them see my discomfort. Things have to stay in my favor. One false move would be seen as an act of aggression, or worse…one of weakness. This moment is ten years in the making and I am not about to let it all fall apart on account of being too human. The plinth rises and I see them face to face for the first time. I am permitted words now, but none come.
I pace my cell for what seems hours. I can almost feel a hole being born under the big toe of my right slipper. I’ve been gone too long. This wouldn’t have happened if I had never volunteered. I am helpless here. So far…so goddamn far… The news was months old by the time it reached me. I should never have volunteered.
I swallow hard and tense my muscles to stifle another shiver. I draw my cloak just a bit tighter around my chest. I can only hope they don’t notice. Hollow, lifeless “eyes” regard me with some emotion I don’t really recognize. I fear to break away from their gaze, but a star to my right tugs me away. I have stared at it every night since I got here. One among billions. That little light from home is millions of years old. The air gets just a bit colder and I feel the pins of their sight boring into my head. I don’t want to look back at them.
I keep trying to forget myself in the preparations. I bathe in water colder than any lake back home. Convulsing shivers wrack my body as I lower myself in. They soon subside and I simply vibrate and listen to the dripping of water interrupted by the staccato chatter of teeth. The robes are easy enough to get on, but the paint is hard and brittle in the cold. It crumbles in my shaking fingers and their warmth simply smears it with every attempt to apply. I think to call an attendant, but they would know. They would know I had help. It is imperfect, but I have done it myself. I light three candles and wait. So much pageantry and superstition…
I turn my head back to face them. I can feel tears welling up in my eyes. My throat burns with a lump of anger and sadness. The fear of failure in this moment threatens to wash it all away, but I shove it back. I just don’t care anymore. I look each one of them dead on and clench my teeth. I just don’t care anymore. I was the wrong person for this moment all along. I loosen my grip on the robes and let them slide from my shoulders. I am naked before them. They each move backward in unison. A movement so slight as to be near imperceptible, but I am watching them closer than I have ever watched anything. I kick the robes off the plinth. The shimmering fabric hisses its displeasure as it cascades off the polished stone.
“I am finished here”, I say through clenched teeth. “Send me home! I will not be judged this day, nor will my people. You cannot judge us for doing exactly what makes us human. Your metrics for justice are not our own. I will not hide myself from your sight anymore. Now send me home. I have lost too much.”
The air grows somehow colder. I feel the wind biting at my skin with thousands of needle teeth. The countenance of each of these judges grows darker than the deepness of the Void. One by one they vanish. From left to right in order. All but the final one on my right. It has not darkened, but instead seems to regard me with warmth. True warmth as the air around me loses its bitter edge and I feel my shivering stop. The plinth lowers to the floor again and I see a doorway before me. Through this doorway is the green of home. I have been judged.