|Credit: Roy Lathwell|
“There.” Anlayt pointed across the room, to where pieces of the throne lay scattered. “Go and see if I am right.” He looked pale.
Jira, accompanied by some of her honor guard, crossed the room. She too, remembered what this place once looked like, and her mind kept trying to superimpose the was over the is. She saw a dismembered corpse among the rubble—Her Sublime Majesty, greeting her from the Pearl Throne—shreds of red and gold strewn across the dais—the robe of state—a hand outstretched in welcome, wearing the Three-Gem Ring—a dried hand on the dais, the Three-Gem Ring dangling from one finger—
“Oh gods,” Jira gasped, staring at the torn hand. She turned to the others. “What happened here?”
“Speculation is unhelpful, at this moment,” said Anlayt, but without his usual force. “Protector, do you verify that those are the remains of Her Sublime Majesty?”
In a year of difficulties, Jira would later write, the most difficult moment of all was this one, the hardest thing was to keep the tears from her eyes and the sob from her voice. “I do,” she said, letting her voice echo through the ruined chamber.
“Then let us gather her remains,” Anlayt suggested. “We can lay her in the tombs. Then, we can see about finding a successor.”
“A dim hope, that,” said Phylok. “But the attempt must be made.”
“And so, to the Western Road? Protector?”
Jira hesitated. “I wish to visit the Imperial Keep first. It’s a slim hope, but perhaps the Eye of Byula, that was in Nisodarun’s keeping, is still there. Having two Eyes, this one and Kontir’s, would let us hold together what is left.”
The Imperial Keep was another place where Jira’s memories kept trying to impose themselves over the present reality. That it was High Summer now, the time she had always come to share wisdom with the other Protectors (as other mages gathered in Stolevan), did not make it easier. A musty smell, the odor of disuse, had long replaced the familiar scents of tea, sweaty apprentices, and that storm-like smell of Air magic in use. She thought about sharing tea in the sumptuous Meeting Hall with her peers, laughing over a forgotten trifle, and a wistful smile came to her.
“Protector?” Phylok brought her back to the present. “Lead the way.”
“Where should we look first?” Anlayt asked.
“The First Protector’s private chambers,” said Jira. “I know not where Nisodarun kept the Eye, but his work area would be the logical place to start looking. Protector Kontir likely spoke to him regularly, as he has an Eye. That is the place to start.”
Unfortunately, those chambers were up ten flights of stairs. They set a marching order, Jira behind the Captains to guide, and began the climb. As they reached the first landing, Jira laughed.
“What about this situation is amusing?” Anlayt scowled.
“The First Protector used to run up this staircase, at least once a day,” said Jira. “He said it kept him young and fit. Indeed he was fit, for a man past his sixtieth summer.” On the other hand, a year of heavy burdens had left Jira and the others fit as well. So they marched, stopping halfway up for a brief breather, until they reached the final landing.
“This entire floor is—was—the First Protector’s chambers,” Jira explained, gesturing at the overturned furniture. The dented remains of a tea service lay heaped in one corner. As with most other places here, it smelled of disuse and decay. “This first room is a public receiving area. I only visited his work area once, but I doubt he moved it.”
“What should we look for?”
“A small box, about a span each direction.” Jira frowned, thinking. “I don’t think it’s ornate.”
“Could you not just scry for the Eye?” Anlayt asked.
Jira gave a sad laugh. “One would think so,” she said. “But the Eyes only find by magic. They cannot be found by magic. Odd, but powerful enchantments often include such oddities. Not always by design.”
“What was that?” a soldier asked.
“A tremor,” said Anlayt. “Perhaps the foundations have been undermined. Let us find what we came for.”
“This way,” said Jira, leading them through wide doors. “Oh!” She stopped, as a stronger tremor shook the Keep. “Captains, I suggest you lead your strikes down and into the street. I can protect myself if—” The tremors became a constant shaking. Tumbled furniture slid across the floor, tapestries swayed. “Captains, go!”
Too late—the floor in front of them burst upward in a shower of rubble. Something that looked like a maw of pointed teeth, at the end of a ridged tube, reared above them.