The trip to the Aerie’s pinnacle was uneventful. The magically engineered lift rose smoothly, and Strin could see the shadow of buildings drop beneath him through the misty glass. The sun seemed to gather intensity as it passed through the Aerie; Strin felt like a silhouette thrown against a canvas of light. They rode in silence as if in reverence of the rippling light, except for one brief conversation.
“You didn’t have to punch him.”
“I am loyal to my Empress.”
The lift slowed and stopped. A small spiral stairway led into an octagonal room. Each of the eight walls was white as marble and carved with landscapes from various parts of the Kingdom. These were gifts to the present Empress given to commemorate her birth. The Horizon was not represented.
The Cria touched one of these walls, and it split and opened slowly outward. She led Strin through the receiving room, where he had had tea with the Empress the night before, and into a narrow corridor. Its walls were covered with smooth lines representing birds and flowers. The corridor curved sharply, and they entered a side door and passed into the Empress’s private dining room.
It didn’t look like a dining room.
There was no table in the center of the room, no high-backed chairs of elegance. Instead, there were two cushioned chairs that resembled beds set upright, fluffy and wine red. Each had a small, swiveling table attached to the arm. The Empress leaned deep into hers, and the cushions wrapped around her body. She opened her eyes as Strin entered. The sun fell on her. Her eyes flashed happily.
“Strin Telnok. How pleased I am to have you join me. Please, sit.”
If Strin had exercised less self-control, he would have stared. He feared he did even so. He had been taught that the Empress—all of them, from first to last—wore a magical veil. Last night the Empress’s face had been a blankness of flesh, a featureless oval beneath her hair. The veil created a sense of mystery and distance. Legends said that the veil kept her beauty from blinding the unworthy.
But Strin saw her eyes now—large pupils of a color changeable, purple in some lights, blue in others, a color that reminded Strin of pristine caves of glass—above an otherwise empty face.
Strin nodded slowly. “I am pleased to be here, Your Majesty.” He sat carefully, concerning himself too much with the act of sitting. He sank deep into the chair. The cushions felt like shackles wrapping around him. He looked across the room at the Empress. “Very comfortable, Your Majesty.”“They are nice, are they not?” The Empress laughed.
It was not just the eyes, Strin decided. The intricate arrangement of braids was gone. Her hair hung loose and cascaded down her shoulders, down the creases of the cushions, down the curves of her body. Her yellow dress rivaled the sunlight for warmth. It flowed down through shades of color, down the length of her legs, and collected in a pool of blue on the ground. Strin spotted a tiny, bare foot.
For the Empress, the dress was simple—and elegant in its simplicity. “Ani!” the Empress called. A thin Cria entered, ushering in two trays of stacked food. “Ani cooked my favorite today. You’ll love it.”
“I’m sure I will, Your Majesty.”
Ani served the Empress before setting a tray before Strin. He thanked her, and she smiled, nodded, and left the room. He was alone again with the Empress.
That, too, was odd. There were always Cria near the Empress.
The Empress lifted a fork to her mouth in a dramatic gesture and ate. “Ah! Delicious!” she declared. Strin nodded automatically.
He could feel plans being laid like bricks in the emptiness of the room. Against his will, the Empress was trying to force a moment on him, the birth of a memory and a turning point he would always remember. He may not have had much experience in the world outside of the Horizon, but of people, he had had plenty. He knew what a moment like the one she wished to create felt like.
It was an unknown boy named Fred, bloodied and beaten, attacking a Sertrima with his entire being, ignorant of blood and pain and death, of everything but the battle and the victory he could not win; it was the black wall of the Horizon, the stagnant, swirling depths of nothingness pulling back for just an instant, like the lifting of a veil, and something beyond; it was the steady, hard, unreadable stare of Leo Deniril, seen so often, no longer attached to any memory except its own.(1)»
It was not the beauty of the Crystalline Castle, nor of its surroundings, nor of its Empress, who was beautiful enough to prove that the legends had some basis. Those were majestic and wonderful, but they impressed the mind, the emotions, not the soul.
“You are hungry.” It was not a question, but a reminder.
“Yes, of course, Your Majesty. I was only thinking of something.” Strin swallowed a mouthful of the massive pastry before him. It was too sweet for his taste.
“What were you thinking about, Strin?”
He did not look at her. “The beautiful things in life.”
The Empress’s eyes flashed with delight.