5 Lennitay, way too early in the morning (continued)
I followed him back to where the rest of our mages were staying. They had either already received their instructions or knew how to behave without being told, because they fell silently into line behind us. Terrael gave me a look that said he wished he could tell me something, but there was no chance to exchange words. Our white-sheeted procession retraced our earlier steps, and even now it makes me shudder to think of how much we looked as if we were going to a funeral. This was when I memorized the route, which only deviated from our earlier path when we were near the mosaic chamber. Cederic made a sharp turn to the left and we ascended a very long staircase that had landings opening off it at intervals. I guessed (correctly) that these landings led to the upper levels of the mosaic chamber, and filed that information away for later use. I went back, last night, but even with the see-in-dark pouvra there wasn’t enough contrast for me to make out the pattern on the floor. That’s really starting to bother me, not knowing.
We kept going until I was panting and there was a horrible stabbing pain in my side. Even Cederic was breathing heavily. Just as I knew I was going to collapse on the stairs, we went through an arched doorway and into a round…pavilion, I think I should call it, because it was open to the sky on all sides, its domed roof held up by pillars of the same yellow stone as the passageway below. The underside of the dome was painted in an abstract pattern of green and black and orange that was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Hot wind blew across the pavilion, carrying with it the same smell of arid dryness and magic I’d smelled outside my room, and it made all our sheets ripple, revealing the hems of our colorful robes. It was much higher than the roofs of Colosse, so high that it felt as if we were floating above the city and that clouds might drift past my knees at any moment.
The pavilion was already occupied by Vorantor and his mages, though they wore brown sheets rather than white ones. I learned later that the brown sheets designated mages in direct service to the God-Empress, because ours were exchanged for brown ones after this meeting, though I don’t remember saying anything explicitly pledging my service to her. And I remember almost every detail of this conversation. It was too surreal to forget.
Again, Vorantor and his mages were already there, surrounding a dais with ten steps leading up to a golden throne. Tacky, but a standard display of wealth and power. The God-Empress Renatha Torenz sat on the tacky throne, and it seems the one thing no one had bothered to mention is that she’s stunningly beautiful. I have no idea why she’s worried about anyone, male or female, outshining her. She dyes her black hair gold—she was due for another treatment, I could see her roots—and it doesn’t look cheap on her, it looks like she’s wearing a crown of gold, because it was pinned up on top of her head in all these elaborate loops with emerald-tipped pins that were faceted to catch even the indirect light of the pavilion. She wore the same kinds of clothing I was wearing under my sheet, but they were all cloth-of-gold trimmed with emeralds, and around her neck was a choker of more emeralds set in gold bezels, and emerald bracelets—ten or twelve of them on each wrist—glittered like her hairpins. Her perfectly oval face is made more perfect by strong but feminine cheekbones and full lips that didn’t need artifice to be red. And her eyes…they’re dark with long lashes, and I’ve just re-read this and realized I sound as if I’ve fallen in love with her, or at least want to sleep with her, and that’s not it. She has the kind of beauty you just want to look at all day long. I’m not attracted to women, but even if I were I wouldn’t dare think of her in a sexual way. I am so glad I knew in advance that she’s insane, because I might have fallen at her feet and given her anything she wanted otherwise.
Cederic gestured at us to stay where we were and took a few steps forward. “Kilios,” the God-Empress said, and I swear I’m not exaggerating when I say that her voice sounded like a heavenly flute. Honestly, I’m not attracted to her! Just because she seems to be the embodiment of female perfection! And I don’t even feel jealous of her, probably because I know she’s madder than a barrel of ferrets, and who can be jealous of that?
Anyway, Cederic dropped to one knee, though he kept his eyes on the God-Empress, and said, “God-Empress, thank you for your welcome.” He stayed in that position for the whole time we met with her, never wobbling, though there were a few times I think he wanted to leap to his feet and argue with the woman. He really is the most self-controlled person I know.
“You choose to heed my summons now,” she said, and it was obviously both a question and a rebuke.
“The time is right, God-Empress, as I am certain you know, since you in your wisdom renewed your invitation at this exact time,” Cederic said.
“I did, didn’t I,” the God-Empress said with a trilling little laugh. “Come forward, otherworlder.”
to be continued…