The Taj Demands
Angaama the Just loved his children. Like a Father, his only wish was to show them the way. He led them to the sea, a long journey that cost many lives. A test of their devotion, their belief that his way was right. Was the only Right.
'The Right must act as Beacons in the dark', he said as he raised the Kingdom of A’al into being with a thought. Buildings grew whole from the ground, magnificent estates, buildings of gold and ivory, painted with all the world’s colors. ‘Here is the seat for The Right. Here, my children, we will show the world the way.’
Angaama the Just loved his children, but he did not trust them to always do Right. They were not an avatar of justice as he was. Their wants, their human foibles, would lead them astray. So he conspired to place himself among them. He conspired to guide them in secret, and, as it always is with Gods, he found a way, and named his duplicity righteous.
Familiar as she was with the Palace's wonders, Raynelle was still awestruck by the opulence of the room before her. Its walls peaked, collapsing towards each other as they rose in the shape of a pyramid, lined the whole way with abstractions etched in gold and silver. When you stared straight at the images, whatever wonders they depicted, they stood static. But out of the corner of Raynelle's eye, they swirled and danced, their movements licentious, enticing and… dangerous. The flickering candlelight from the chandeliers that hung and swayed gently only highlighted this odd effect. Raynelle tried and failed to banish them from her mind as she approached the table at the room's center.
Seated there, on the opposite end from the side she entered, were two figures. The table was carved from one impossibly long piece of what looked to be ivory. Ivory from the tooth of a creature that would have stood hundreds of feet high. Raynelle shuddered to think of the nightmare this beast had been harvested from, and yet saddened to think of the fate that must have befallen it. It was faint still, muted by death, but the pain and anguish of its passing still resonated in this room. No pain truly disappears, but simply fades and, with time, is half-forgotten. But the scars from the wound it left on the world always remain.
Corinda was dressed in regal finery, as befitting one who was Queen in all but name, a glittering dress wrought from diamonds, smelted by the finest from the impossible fabric of the Dreamscape. No doubt she had it harvested by a team of Pullers—those who could reach into their dreams, or the dreams of others, and remove something into the real world. Her earrings were color and shape-shifting wonders, their off-putting aura mimicking that of this dining room's walls.
Beside her sat, or rather was propped, The Taj. Also regally dressed, but his robe seemed merely a shroud draped around a corpse. Once he had been a proud and capable ruler, a conqueror who greatly expanded A'al's borders. Very little remained of that man, merely a shadow, merely whispers of his former greatness.
Raynelle bowed before the spectacle these two inhabited. In spite of her annoyance at the summons, her mistrust of Corinda and her fear at what she might be compelled to do, she was still awed by the audience she'd been granted and by the new wonders she had seen. Every trip to the Taj's Palace surprised.
"Please, be seated," It was Cor who spoke, Raynelle would be surprised if the Taj himself said a word during their dinner, much less acknowledged her presence.
As she sat, two servers entered from a door melted seamlessly into the wall to her right, bearing their meals. A succulent feast of meats and cheeses, Raynelle wondered how the Taj would handle the rich fare, but only two place settings were laid. One in front of her, one for Cor. A glass was laid before them both, and filled to the brim with ruby red wine. Then came something she did not expect, the Taj spoke.
"Please, madam, eat. I may not do it much myself these days, but the food is good and through your consumption I might enjoy it vicariously."
His voice, though quiet, was not frail but clear and sharp. His eyes sparked like cold flints beneath the wrinkles. His countenance was cogent, and though he was small, Raynelle could see now the competence and confidence radiating from him in proud golden waves. Raynelle paused. Something was wrong. Last time she met The Taj, a brief audience to be sure, he had seemed a doddering, senile fool, grasping to the throne with the strength of his reputation and countrywide admiration. No doubt the fear that he left behind no heir, leaving succession after his death very much in doubt, also played a part in his extended tenure.
Something had changed. Either over the past ten years The Taj, ruler of A'al had managed a miraculous recovery, or…
"Please Raynie, eat… we insist." It was Cor who spoke now. She smiled after. But there was no mistaking the ice in her stare, or the edge in her words.
So she did, and for a moment was distracted by the food. It was delicious. Despite her unease, she found she was famished and in short order she cleared the plate in front of her. It was reloaded by the server beside her, the other stood beside Cor ready to serve her should she need anything. That plate too was emptied.
"Good, eh?" The Taj chuckled good-naturedly to himself, then coughed and muttered wistfully. "It's been so long since I enjoyed a good meal. Nothing but liquids and pastes these days. My doctors are very strict, you see."
Her hunger sated, Raynelle took a sip from her glass and had to stifle a gasp. The wine was almost better than the food, but she did not let it distract her. In The Taj's amber confidence, she sensed it. Though subtle, though quiet, there was apprehension within him as well. A thin yellow line of… fear?
"You didn't bring me to the palace discuss your nutritional needs, majesty," Raynelle said, with a courage she did not feel. "Perhaps you might tell me what your lordship requires."
"Ah, direct and to the point. Delightful." He turns to the suzerain next to him. "You were right about her Cor."
"I have my moments," The suzerain demurred. Raynelle noted Cor's own golden aura, pure, with no fear, no doubt. Despite The Taj's improbable cogence, there was no doubt to whom the true power in that room belonged.
"Would you do me, the honor, my dear, of explaining to your 'friend' why we invited her here?" His voice, thin like a reed, needled at Raynelle. She was uneasy, he was hiding something… but what?
Cor distracted her by speaking, in spite of how she distrusted her, in spite of the wounds they had visited on each other, Raynelle had to admit, she was still beautiful. Treacherous, but beautiful. “Raynie, how familiar are you with Dauphin, and the legend of its usurper God?”
Where is this going? Raynelle wondered.
“Everyone knows the story,” She began cautiously, “Jethro, the chosen king of Eleazar, defied him. Stole a piece of the divine for himself and made himself immortal, named himself a God. But the love of his life… Anna, I think. She was struck ill and lapsed into a deep rest. Perhaps the trickster God’s retaliation. And despite the king’s immense power, he could only preserve her, not heal her nor wake her. Over the centuries he became mad, and gave himself over to despair.”
“That’s correct!” Cor smiles, “You know your history.”
“But… what does any of this have to do with me? Or with A’al at all?”
Corinda leaned forward, despite the length of the table that separated them, lending to her words a conspiracy’s air. “Well there’s what you don’t know, what we’ve just learned from our spies in Dauphin. A coup is imminent, if not already underway.”
Raynelle’s breath stopped in her chest. “What?”
“Jethro will soon be dead, or overthrown. After a long convalescence, Eleazar strikes at last.” The Taj spoke now, mostly to himself, unaware of shock and disbelief this registered in the Empath.
“In Dauphin, rumors fester,” Cor said, leaning back, “Rumors of a Dreamweaver, or even two, emerging from among the ranks of Dauphin’s nobles. They grow dissatisfied with the mad Godking, who has little interest in politics or in the growth of his kingdom. They say he hasn’t left his castle for decades, maybe centuries. Generations of idleness fomented unease. They fear they have become vulnerable to assault from us, or from kingdoms of the Steppes to their south.”
“What does that have to do with you? I’m getting to that.” Cor frowns at her interruption. “Before we can move, we must have more information. We need someone of you skills. Someone who can read people better than most can read books. Who will go unnoticed. Someone…”
“Expendable?” Raynelle finished.
“I would prefer to say… ‘not directly tied to A’Al’s autocracy’. But in either case, we need you, Raynie, to go to Dauphin and keep us informed on who is really in power. So that we may know how to act.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
“Use those abilities of yours, cozy up to these insurgents. And simply report to us on their movements.”
Fear settled deep in Raynelle’s gut, out of the corner of her eye the shapes on the wall continued to move and shift, almost maliciously.
“And if I refuse?”
This question the Taj answered, standing as he did. “My dear Empath, what makes you think you have a choice?” A sudden darting movement distracted Raynelle from the table for a moment, a dark shape on the wall left its confines. A silver tentacle extended, grasping for a server who stood mute by their empty dishes. He did not even have time to scream before he disappeared behind the swirling masses on the Taj’s dining room walls.
“You will do as the Taj demands,” The old ruler continued, as if nothing had happened as if death to him was as regular as the passage as time, bearing as little notice as the rising sun. “Or you will never leave this palace. Simple as that. Now… will you serve?”
Raynelle gulped, and despite the invisible noose closing tight around her neck. Despite the warning wails of her dreams. Despite the painting that promised oblivion, and the sense that to head to Dauphin was to head further down this path, she nodded her head and acquiesced. What choice did she have?