The crystal stair was a wonder among wonders. It was perfectly clear, but light sundered within it so that the entire breadth and span of color could be viewed there. With no support other than its own spiralling frame, it rose from a pyramidal structure to the sky like ceiling.
A mechanical beast guarded the pyramid, much of its inner workings visible through the gaps in its armor. Shinji was reminded of the timekeepers some of the noble immortals kept as signs of wealth and connection. This creature, with its numerous limbs and mouths, surely required no winding. It rose up as they approached, twice as tall as an ox, and then bowed.
"What does this mean?" Shinji was arrested by the sight of whirring gears and springs.
"It believes we are wizards." Umiko said.
The beast gave no further challenge as they ascended the stair. None of the denizens of the city had made to stop them either, instead averting their gazes as the trio passed. The "children", as Bawn had called them, were dressed drably, and their deference was quite like what Shinji was accustomed to receiving as a prince. He reasoned their culture might not be so different from that of Nihon. He watched for reactions from Umiko, but she was utterly engaged with a passing study of the city and the tower itself. It was not so long since she had been a servant like them, and Shinji smiled to himself to see the changes in her.
The climb was not easy, and Bawn led them with a tireless stride, taking two or three stairs at a time. Umiko would not complain, but Shinji saw that it was wearing on her before they were half ascended.
"I will carry you awhile." He said, and before she could protest he had swept her into his arms. Bawn took no notice of them falling a few paces behind. Shinji pretended he did not notice her blush.
A face of wax watched them out of the interior of the glass, nodded, and moved on.
At the termination of the stair they came up into the center of a large, star shaped room with a door at the end of each point. The doors were smooth ivory, each painted with an animal in minute detail. The style was much like that of Nihonese wall scrolls, the firm strokes of a master, ink as dark as the skies behind the star flowers.
"How do you know the way?" Umiko asked.
Instead of responding, Bawn sat cross legged against one of the walls. He closed his eyes.
"Do you notice the animals?" Shinji said.
Umiko slowly turned a full circle, taking them in. "The noble beasts." She said.
"All twelve houses are represented here," Shinji said. "The houses the emperor founded. Why?"
Umiko bowed to each direction. They shared some bread and water while they waited for Bawn to explain himself.
A door opened, and the man who came through it walked to the central stair without seeing them. He was handsome, expertly groomed, his hair fell to his cheeks in a cascade of artful waves and curls. He wore an exquisite slate jacket.
Shinji put the edge of his katana against the man's neck. "Don't move."
"Your accent," the man said, "it's so authentic. Who put you up to this?"
"We have questions for you." Shinji said.
"Was it Gargamel?" The man was perfectly still except for his mouth. "Or is Malsh playing a joke?"
"Quiet." Shinji shifted so that a thin red line appeared on the man's skin.
"Enough." The man stepped through the blade, his body suddenly as insubstantial as a mist. He produced a charm bracelet from under his jacket, and dropped it on the floor. Each charm was white gold, coiled serpents, and they began to writhe and grow when he waved his hand over them.
Shinji stabbed him, his sword passing harmlessly through the mist, and then the serpents were on him. Their bodies were tougher than the thousand folded steel of his weapons. He slashed them as they hissed and snapped, rewarded with only scrapes and sparks, and narrowly avoiding being bitten. Umiko was well clear of the strange melee, having already ducked down another hallway. She tried to take the measure of the man, but his aura was a swirling mass, impossible for her to read.
"Crude." The man said. "Tell me what this is about before my pets finish you."
Bawn wrapped an arm around his neck and crushed him against his muscled chest. "What is your name, wizard?"
The wizard spluttered, tiny quills of lightning arced from his fingers and danced along Bawn's forearm to no effect. He was still insubstantial, but Bawn didn't appear to care about that. "Grave..." he said, "names... Dorian... Grave."
Bawn eased his grip enough for the man to breath. His legs stopped kicking. The serpents had fallen as if dead, shrinking to their original size.
"What are you?" Grave said.
"We play a game,"Bawn squeezed again, "you understand?"
"Yes, a game, of course."
"We were sent to find the Star." Bawn said. "Do you know where it is?"
"That's easy." Grave said, "the Star is in the Consul's private sanctum. What kind of question is that?"
"You will take us." Bawn lifted the wizard a few inches off the ground. His legs started to kick again.
"Fine!" Grave struggled against the arm, wild bursts of magic loosing in his panic. Birds made of ice appeared, and shattered. A small windstorm burst upon them. "Let me go."
Bawn pinned his arms, no longer choking him, still holding him close.
"The boar." Grave slumped in resignation. "And tell Gargamel I'm impressed."
Behind to seal of the boar was a stone hall extending to either side, curving forward and out of sight. Ramps leading up and down cut out of the hall at regular intervals.
"Where does this lead?" Umiko said. She shut the door after Bawn carried the mancer through. Shinji went ahead to check the nearest ramps, making sure they were unoccupied.
"Let me go." Dorien said, "and I will lead you where you want to go. I have no mind for being manhandled."
"We will bind your hands." Bawn said.
"Well enough." Dorien flipped his hair out of his eyes, grinning rakishly at Umiko. "As long as it's you that does the binding."
Shinji was back. He produced a thin, braided cord and wove it around the mancer's thumbs, fingers and wrists so that he could make no signs with them.
"Are you going to tell me who sent you?" Dorien said.
"The emperor of Nihon." Bawn said, then, "Take his jewelry."
Shinji plucked off the mancer's rings, and his earring, a thin silver necklace, and his slippers, stowing them all in a pouch. Dorien pretended to ignore his losses, as if Shinji were a servant preparing him for bed. "The Emperor doesn't take part in our games. Unless there is a mancer using that as a pseudonym. That would be interesting."
"Where are we?" Bawn said.
"Beneath the arena." Dorien bounced on his heels, looking up as if the world through the stone was clear to him. "The Consul usually attends the finals, if you want to get to the star, you'll need him."
"Show us." Bawn said.
"How many bases is this?" Dorien led them up the second ramp onto another curving hall, then a stair. "One for capturing me. I imagine I'll lose a base for not trying to escape. If I took the star for myself, how many bases would that be? I always thought it was off limits."
They allowed him to ramble. Shinji didn't totally understand why this was going so well, but he accepted the role of being Bawn's second, as the barbarian had experience with the wizards.
It wasn't until they reached the open that Shinji considered how odd it was for Dorien to be speaking perfect Nihonese.
They were above a square arena a hundred paces to a side. The audience was scattered into colorful clumps, rather like the camps of the noble families before taking to battle. It was easy to cypher servant from served. The slaves were in uniforms, or else hardly clad at all. There was one group of identical women, with hair like flax, and healthily rounded forms, and only small silk triangles to cover themselves. Their mancer sat an iron throne, he was hugely fat, and ate and drank with abandon. Precious gems and rare materials bedighted his rotund majesty, and ale sprayed from his mouth as he exclaimed over the contest below. There were a score or so other mancers, more or less refined, but nearly all obese, and all male, with a male's indulgent appetites. Their slaves were men as well as women and children, some in armor, or robes, or more exotic costumes. All were beautiful.
Between the factions, lumbering, gear jointed machines kept watch, and huge, shimmering beasts that paced with hungry eyes. There was a walk at the back of the stands that could be traversed without crossing any dangerous boundaries. Dorien took them to it.
"The Consul is Gravferyth Tab." He said. "He's the man with a thing for blondes."
Shinji tracked to the arena below. A giant was wrestling a young kulu in shallow water. He had never seen a living example, its twelve barbed tentacles moving with a volition of their own, binding the bellowing giant and drawing it closer to its mouth. These were both creatures of myth, even the emperor had but one giant in his menagerie. How did one keep a kulu? The giant struggled to regain his bladed mace, he had dropped it in the water, and now he could not break loose of the many barbed limbs. He bled from a thousand dagger wounds. In desperation, he bit at the rubbery flesh that bound him, tearing open one writhing limb as he himself was inched closer to the sea beasts maw.
"They're going to let them die?"
"Today," Dorien said, "yes. It's the finals, so we raise the stakes."
"We could be messengers," Umiko said, "carrying word from the Emperor."
"He would listen." Dorien said. "The emperor hasn't made any moves in decades."
"Good." Bawn said, and punched Dorien at the base of his skull. The mancer dropped. "Lead us, courier."
Shinji looked at Umiko, and she took a position between and ahead of them. As they progressed around the arena, the guardian spirits and machines took note of their presence, but the mancers were absorbed with the end of the duel. The giant had found his weapon, and smashed it against the bulbous head of the kulu, resulting in a gush of bloody fluids. His thigh was already being macerated in its maw, and red life was spilling from him so quickly that the mace slipped from his fingers on his second blow. The giant cried once, desperate, agonized, alone. Shinji had never imagined such a pathetic sound would come from such a mighty being. His stomach twisted.
The mancers applauded as the kulu fed.
They turned off the walk to join the Consul's party. A blazing eagle blocked their path.
"We are messengers, great spirit." Umiko knew twenty seven kinds of bows, each appropriate to a context and station. For this she chose foreign dignitary, public function. "The Emperor sends us."
The eagle shrieked, and its refulgence took on a razor heat. "The emperor was crucified. From where do you come?"
Umiko maintained her bow. "My deepest apologies, great spirit, I am ashamed, I meant to say the Emperor of Nihon has sent us." She had no idea there was any other emperor to speak of, but she would have made a poor servant if she said so to the burning eagle.
Its light dimmed, and Shinji relaxed his hands upon his hilts.
"He will see you." The eagle said, and rose so they could pass beneath it. The shriek had drawn the Consul's gaze. He idly petted one of blonde slaves that crouched beside his throne as Umiko approached.
"My guardians tell me you hail from Nihon." He called. "My eyes tell me as much. What does the emperor have to say?"
Umiko bowed to him as she would a king. "Greatest majesty, we humble bearers are not worthy of your patience, but out message is more worthy than we, and so we beg a private audience that we might share it with you."
"Are we not private?" Consul Tab made a fist in the hair of the woman he was petting, pulling her head back and exposing her throat. "All you see is mine, and so is an extension of myself. I need keep no secrets from my children."
"Your logic is impeccable, Greatest Majesty, " Umiko said. "Forgive me my baseness, for it is not I that makes this request, I am but a vessel for the words of the Immortal Emperor, and can but act as he demands. The message is so sensitive that it is to be spoken only in the private sanctum of the Consul, else it will die with me, as it pleases you."
Consul Tab crossed to Umiko with a lightness that belied his ponderous body. "Stand up straight." He said. "I would see your face."
Umiko complied, her eyes never travelling above his wobbling chins. "There's something special about the grey blossoms of Nihon." He said. "Marcus sent something he knew I would like." He touched her cheek. "Very well, to my sanctum. We can finish before the next performance."
Consul Tab moved past them, out of the throng of servants, and toward a passage that opened in the wall of the coliseum. The eagle shrank into a starling, and landed on his shoulder. It glared back at them when Umiko did not immediately follow, its eyes like candles. The passage led to a steel door, such a wanton waste of metal as was never seen in Nihon outside of the emperors palace. It opened as Consul Tab approached, revealing an empty shaft and a platform of neatly fitted marble squares.
Bawn and Shinji entered after Umiko, and the door closed behind them.
"Magnus," Consul Tab said, "take me home."
A wax face formed on the wall, winked, and sank away. The platform rose, momentarily startling Umiko out of her reserve, it was faster than a man could run. The eagle preened.
The platform slowed smoothly, allowing them to choose between nine more doors. Unfamiliar sigils surrounded each, and unfamiliar spectrums flickered among them. Consul Tab went to the brightest of these doors, produced a key, and tapped it against the wood. The sigils bloomed silver, and the door opened.
The Consul's apartments were heavy with luxury, they walked upon thick rugs that the children had labored over for months or years. Paper tapestries of incalculable value hung as a canopy from the high ceiling, and flames like coins floated beneath them. Consul Tab took his seat beside a round table, and they came to stand before it.
"The Emperor sends his regards, Greatest Majesty," Umiko said, "he sends his humblest servants to ask after the star."
"Enough of that," Consul Tab dismissed her. "Bawn, what brings you to my tower?"
"You know me?"
"Yes," Consul Tab said. "There are certain facts passed from Consul to Consul, your existence is one of them, as well as the fact that you turn up from while to while, whenever you remember too little or too much."
Bawn's cloak clung tightly about him, the golden fur ruffing around his neck. "I have been here before."
"Yes, Bawn." Consul Tab said. "Though the last was before I accepted this position. It is fascinating to finally meet you, merely seeing the webs of mancy that bind you is inspiring."
"The emperor offered to free me." Bawn said. "His price is the Star."
"The Star of Empery." The Consul was placid. "Many have asked for that, and all are refused, even Emperor Marcus, even you. It doesn't matter, he can't break your curse any more than I can. Timothean is the only one who can do that."
Bawn's fists clenched at the mention of the name. "If he lies, I will destroy him."
"The Emperor?" Consul Tab said, "or Timothean? In truth, they have both worried me of late. Why don't you and your companions join me for dinner, and we can speak more fully of where you may go from here."
Women of rare beauty appeared from an adjoining room, they brought chairs and covered dishes, crystal glasses of pale wine. Shinji warily accepted their hospitality, but he did not taste the wine. Umiko followed his example. Bawn remained standing.
"I must have the Star." He said.
The dishes were uncovered, cooked squid and raw pink slices of fish on seaweed. "I thought you would enjoy these shades of home," Consul Tab said to Umiko.
"I must have it." Bawn said again.
"Are you certain?" Consul Tab said. "I can tell you much about yourself, about your past. There are things I would learn from you as well. There is no need for haste, from you least of all."
"Take the bird while it's small." Bawn said, "I will hold the mancer."
"Now really," Consul Tab had raised a glass, he paused, as if to demonstrate how ridiculous his guests were being. Then his glass was cut at the stem, and the tip of Shinji's wakizashi went through it into the starling. The bird spread its wings to fly and was opened at the chest. Its insides were all pent thunder and flame. It exploded.
Shinji and Umiko were both thrown back from the table by the eruption, and the dishes went everywhere, shattering into dangerous shards. Bawn lunged forward, reaching over the table to seize the mancer by his collar and pull him back. The fire had not touched Consul Tab, who vanished before he could be grappled, reappearing in another corner of the room.
"They wrote you were like this." He said, his hands creating intricate gestures, dragging with them ribbons of multicolored light.
"I told you as the Consul, I am privy to certain secrets of yours."
Bawn bounded across the distance between them, his fist flying for the mancer's face. It froze an inch from Consul Tab's eye, the muscles of his arm locked to immobility. He strained, his whole body rippling with power.
"Your curse prevents you from harming me," Consul Tab said. "Will you not talk, now that you see the futility of fighting?"
Bawn's feet pressed the stone flags beneath the rug, and the sound of them cracking snapped through the chamber. His fist crept closer until it was a hair's breadth away from Consul Tab, who was himself frozen in fascination.
"Avaea preserve us." He said. "You're shredding the weave." With a few quick gestures he brought a lambent hand against Bawn's chest. The barbarian's eyes flashed gold, and with a tremendous effort he seized that hand and crushed it. Consul Tab screamed as fragile bones fractured and came out of joint. Bawn fell, unconscious in the next moment, giving the mancer the space to absorb his own pain.
"Twin cocks that hurts!" Servants came into the room at his cry, but he waved them away. He snapped the fingers of his good hand, and an emerald spider appeared in it. "Fix me." He said, and it scuttled to his hurt. Its legs ended in tiny claws that penetrated his skin with ease, numbing the area before going to work resetting it. Consul Tab dropped his arm, then surveyed the damage to the room. The explosion had ruined one of his bookcases, and many hanging scrolls were burning. Bawn's two companions were unmoving on the floor.
The boy had shielded the girl with his body, Consul Tab smirked at that. He could have gotten under the table for protection moving that fast, and been able to fight on. A number of glass shards were embedded in his back, which was also severely burned.
"Awful assassin," Consul Tab said, "passable guard." The girl was largely unharmed, a concussion had disabled her, but she was coming round. She looked up at him with two lovely black eyes.
"You," he said, "I will keep."
The sunflower may rule the day
and starflowers the night
the moon remains the queen of each
copper first, then silver bright
Hollen the Bard
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books
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