4 Lennitay, evening (continued)
It wasn’t completely dark, just really dim by comparison to the blindingly white buildings outside. The loenerel slid to a halt, though the collenna’s thumping continued, more quietly now that it wasn’t pulling anything, and Vorantor (we were all sitting in a couple of the senets filled with rows of seats) stood and went forward to the door, which is a thing that is hinged in the middle so it folds on itself, and opened it. It was almost like a ceremony, he and his mages looked so solemn, and they all remained seated while Cederic and our mages and I stepped out past Vorantor and into the chamber beyond. It was narrow, almost like a corridor, and low-ceilinged, and its shape looked as if it had been designed specifically for the loenerel. Cederic immediately began walking forward, which is to say toward the front of the loenerel, without waiting for Vorantor to catch up. We all followed him, me at the end of our little procession that had to go single file because the room (tunnel?) was that narrow. I kept close to Kaurin, who was immediately in front of me, and I would have held on to her robe if I’d dared, because the whole thing made me claustrophobic in a way the Darssan had not, even when I felt most oppressed by the weight of the mountain hanging over my head.
We came to a pair of double doors at the end of the tunnel, and Cederic pushed them open as if he had a perfect right to be here. I wished I had a good excuse to push past everyone and stand next to him, to have some idea of what to expect based on how he felt, but I guessed by how abruptly he was doing things, how rapidly he was moving, that he was trying to control his anger. I don’t blame him for being angry. Now that we were actually in the palace (or, rather, I assumed we were in the palace and not just wherever the loenerel could be stowed) it was nearly impossible not to remember why we were here, and the manner of our being brought here. I don’t think Cederic told any of our mages, the ones who came with us, what threats Vorantor had made—not something they needed to be burdened with, in my opinion, and not something they could do anything about. And I imagine all of them knew better than I did what kind of danger the God-Empress presented.
The double doors opened on a space even larger and taller than the cavern in the Darssan, and far more opulent. The walls were tiled with mosaics depicting all kinds of heroic deeds, again in colors that reminded me of jewels—a hero slaying a giant, another wrestling with a dragon, yet another holding back the tide from a city on the edge of the ocean. It took me a minute to work out what was wrong with the pictures, and then I couldn’t stop noticing it. All the mosaics appeared to be the work of a single hand, which was impressive—it must have taken a lifetime to create them, based on the size of the room—but the heroes’ faces had been put in by someone far less gifted, and they were all the same woman’s face. No doubt what had happened there, and whose face adorned each mosaic. If I hadn’t already been convinced of the God-Empress’s self-aggrandizing lunacy, this would have done it.
The floor was tiled with larger tesserae in gold and copper, making a pattern far too large for me to make out. Maybe if I could find a way up to the upper levels—there were four of them, all with balconies that had nothing but a single protective rail keeping an observer from plummeting to a painful, skull-cracking death. I saw no stairs, but five dark openings spaced evenly around the room separated the mosaics from one another, the one we’d entered by making a sixth. The room was completely empty except for us. Cederic walked toward the center of the room—no, I’m certain that, since he’s Sai Aleynten, it was the exact center of the room, and now I can say that out of admiration and not annoyance—and stood with his arms folded across his chest, waiting. After a minute or two in which the rest of us became increasingly nervous and fidgety, a woman emerged from the dark opening directly ahead of us, walking rapidly, her hand closed in a fist over her throat. She managed to bow, a sort of rapid bobbing of her head, as she walked, and as she neared us I could tell she was terrified and trying not to show it. “We apologize, Kilios, a thousand apologies. Someone was meant to meet you—Kilios, please forgive—”
“We require accommodations and the wherewithal to wash after our long journey,” Cederic said. His cold tone of voice made me shiver. The woman bobbed even more rapidly and waved her hands in the direction of one of the other alcoves. Cederic allowed her to precede him; everyone else followed in a line, with me again at the rear.
Now that I know that the palace has been built and rebuilt over the years, with sections being shut off and others rediscovered (literally; there have been rooms no one even remembered until a God-Emperor’s building project uncovered them), I can understand why the woman led us in such a circuitous route. I’ve had years of experience in remembering my way out of homes and castles made to thwart thieves like me, and even I couldn’t remember the path we took. I’ll have to do some exploring later tonight. At the time, I thought she was trying to confuse us, possibly in retribution for how rude Cederic was. But the servants here all seem thoroughly cowed, and while I don’t know why they called Cederic Kilios, and I still don’t know what it means, they definitely venerate him. And they’re uncomfortably terrified around me. I have yet to make one of them look me in the eye. How that reconciles with my suspicion that someone is spying on us, I don’t know, except that it’s unlikely all the God-Empress’s servants are this spineless.
The woman brought us through some narrow passages that smelled damp, which I thought was strange given how arid Colosse is in general. Then we went up a fairly steep ramp into a wider corridor made of yellow bricks twice the size of my head, lined with doors on both sides. The doors were made of the same metal the ones in the Darssan were, and none of them had locks, which made me less nervous than if they had locks that could only be locked from the outside, but not by much. The woman, bowing again (she’d stopped briefly while we were in the narrow corridor), opened the first door and said, “Please accept the God-Empress’s hospitality during your stay,” and beckoned to Sovrin, who was at the head of the line, to enter. Sovrin glanced at Cederic, who nodded just a tiny bit, and she went into the room and closed the door. I just had time to wonder how they’d get our things to us when the woman moved on to the next door and repeated the ritual for Jaemis. Ultimately, everyone got a room to him- or herself, until it was just me and Cederic left with the woman. Cederic still looked like a statue. I probably looked confused. The woman went through a doorway at the end of the corridor, where there were stairs leading up, and said, as we climbed and climbed, “Otherworlder, we have nothing that befits your status, I hope you will forgive our inhospitality, we will put you in the wing with the Sais, I hope that is acceptable,” and we came out of the stairwell into a long, broad hallway paved with giant gray flagstones that had a roof open to the outside, made of metal grilles that made diamond patterns of shadow and light on the floor. It wasn’t nearly as hot as the wasteland, but the air was very dry and smelled of dust and, more distantly, of magic. Doors more widely spaced than the ones where my friends had been housed, these made of new, planed wood and bearing shining steel plates with locks by the doorknobs, stood along both walls of the corridor. I wanted to run down the hall and see what was at the other end, but that would probably have given the servant woman a heart attack, so I decided to save that for later. I have a lot of plans for later.
to be continued