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*5*

Well, thought Afsan, among other things, meeting the Empress herself could be more frightening than my singing.

Afsan had seen Empress Len-Lends many times, but always from a distance. Her stern visage oversaw most official events and she often greeted returning packs. But now Afsan was to have an audience with her. He would never forget the expression on Saleeds face when he had arrived at the astrologers office that morning.

"Young Afsan," Saleed had said, a tremulous note in his voice, "the Empress commands your presence at her ruling room right away."

Afsans nictitating membranes danced across his eyes. "The Empress wishes to see me?"

"Thats right," Saleed said with a nod. "Youve either done something incredibly bad or incredibly good. I dont know which it is."

Afsan headed up the wide spiral ramp into the light of day, then crossed the courtyard to the ornate building that housed the room from which the Empress ruled. Guards flanked the entrance ramp, but they were there only to fend off wild beasts that might wander into the city. They wouldnt think of challenging another Quintaglio, even one as young as Afsan, for to challenge ones territory was to force a fight, and civilized beings did not fight.

Instead, Afsan merely was expected to nod concession to the guards, and he did just that, hurrying up the ramp and through the vast archway that marked the entrance to the main palace building.

There was no sign of decay here. Yes, the landquakes hit this building as hard as any of the others, but it, at least, was repaired quickly after each tremor. Afsan made his way down the Hall of Stone Eggs. Its walls were lined with thousands of rock spheres that had been cut in half and polished to a lustrous sheen. The inside of each hemisphere was lined with beautiful crystals. Most of the crystals seemed to be clear or purple, but some were the same bright bluish-white as the sun itself and others were the green of Quintaglio hide.

Afsan had heard of this great hall. Its beauty was legendary; even the priests of Carno spoke of it. But Afsan had no time to pause and enjoy its wonders it would not do to keep the Empress waiting. He hurried past the hemispheres of sliced stone, wondering how something as plain as an uncut egg could contain such beauty within.

The Hall led into a vast circular chamber, its round floor banded with polished rocks of different colors. There were four doors leading from the chamber, each with the cartouche of the occupant carved intricately into the rich red telaja-wood from which they were made. The Empresss cartouche was used on every official proclamation including even the notice Afsan had received summoning him to Capital City so he had no trouble recognizing which door he wanted. But before knocking, he paused to admire this particular rendition of the cartouche. Five handspans high, it was carved in exquisite detail. The symbols of the Empress were rendered in bas-relief and the background, carved out to take advantage of the rich grain of the wood, represented the swirling, mesmerizing Face of God.

At the top of the cartouches oval boundary there was the egg, said to be that of the Prophet Larsk himself. Its shell was marked by a thin reticulum of cracks, showing that it had at one time been open, but now was resealed, signifying that the prophet might indeed one day be born again, might return to the people to make known more new and wondrous truths.

Below the egg was the serrated sickle of a hunters tooth, and, to its right, the tighter curve of a hunters claw a reminder that whenever a Quintaglio hunted, the Empress went with him or her in spirit, for it was through her strength that even the most ferocious of beasts would end up as food.

Beneath these was a field of wavy lines, representing the great River upon which Land floated, and an oval shape in the center, representing Land itself.

And at the bottom were two profile views of Quintaglio heads facing away from each other, bowed in territorial concession, indicating that no matter which side one moved to, all territories found there were the Empresss. Usually the heads were rendered in silhouette, and Afsan had always taken them to be generic faces, but here they were brought out in striking individual detail. Afsans heart jumped when he realized that the face on the left, wrinkled and mottled with age, was none other than Tak-Saleed, court astrologer, and that the one on the right, with its long muzzle and high earholes, was Det-Yenalb, the chief priest of the temple. What Afsan had interpreted before as saying all people will concede to the Empress was much, much more: even the stars and the church must bow concession to me. Afsan swallowed hard and drummed his claws against the metal plate in the doorjamb, the linking sound made louder by a hidden hollow behind the copper sheet.

Afsan waited nervously. At last, a reply came: "Hahat dan," a short form of the words meaning "Permission to enter my territory is granted."

Afsan worked the lever that opened the door and stepped into the ruling room. It wasnt what hed expected. Yes, there was a throne, an ornate dayslab angled perhaps a tad closer to vertical than normal, mounted high on a polished basalt pedestal. But in front of it was a plain, unadorned worktable, covered with papers and writing leather. The figure lying on the throne slab had her head tipped down, drawing glyphs. Afsan did not want to interrupt, so he stood quietly just inside the doorway.

There was no doubt that this was the Empress: the great dome of her head was richly tattooed. Afsan noticed that the worktable was mounted on little metal wheels. It could apparently be easily removed when official functions were being performed here.

At last the Empress looked up. Her face, although youthful, was weary. A ragged band of brown skin ran across the top of her head and down over one eye an unusual pattern, clearly visible beneath the tattoos. She squinted at Afsan. "Who are you?" she said at last, her voice thick and cold.

Afsans heart skipped a beat. Had this all been some terrible mistake? Was he not expected here? "Afsan," he said in a soft voice. "Apprentice to the court astrologer, Tak-Saleed."

The Empress tilted her head in acknowledgment. "Ah, yes. Afsan. Saleed must like you. Youve been here, what, four hundred days?"

"Four hundred and ninety-two, Your Luminance."

"A record, I should think." There was no humor in her tone. "And in that time you have become a friend of my son, Dybo?"

"It is my honor to be so, yes."

"Dybo tells me you wish him to undertake the pilgrimage and the hunt with you."

Afsans tail swished nervously. Had he overstepped propriety in asking this of Dybo? What punishment would befall his impertinence? "Yes, Empress, I have."

"Dybo is a member of The Family and prince of this court. But, of course, he does, at some point, have to go through the rites of passage."

Afsan didnt know what to say, so he merely bowed concession to the Empress.

"Come closer," she said.

Should he run to her, his tail lifting from the ground? Or walk more slowly, thus letting his tail drag? He opted for the latter, hoping it was the right choice. Normally one could approach to within the body-length of the larger of the two individuals in question without prompting a reflex reaction. Afsan felt that coming that close to the Empress, though, would be wrong. He stopped a good ten paces shy of her.

Lends nodded, as if this was as it should be. Then she held up her left hand, the three metal bracelets of her office clinking together as she did so. "I will allow him to go with you, but," she unsheathed her first claw, "you will," and then her second, "be," the third, "responsible," the fourth, "for his," the fifth, "safe return."

She let the light in the room glint off her polished claws for several heartbeats as she flexed her fingers. "Do I make myself clear?" she said at last.

Afsan bowed his agreement, then left the Empresss ruling room as fast as he could.


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