Chapter Seven -- Into the Belly of the Taj

             When Raynelle was young, she drowned in the world, suffocated by Man’s emotional hues. Their colors a force too pressing to be denied. As a child, before her parents understood her gifts, she would wail when they made to take her from the home, even for a simple afternoon stroll. She shut herself in. She burrowed her head in her closet, seeking solace amidst the garments’ layers. It was only after her mother and father fought, over her mysterious affliction as it happened, and their obvious raw, blood red and omnipresent anger confronted her, did she begin to connect her affliction with the troubled minds and hearts of those around her, and in so doing she began to find a way to temper and control her Empath’s gifts. Through the years, she matured into a self-taught master of emotion.

            And then the Suzerain found her. Cor seduced her. And things were never the same.

            Be careful Raynie. Markus had told her as she left.

            Aren’t I always?

            Yes, but… He wouldn’t say it, but she knew, and he knew she knew. His concern was not just about her safety, but her sanity. He worried about the powerful emotions, the connection between these her and Cor. Even after all these years, it would not be so easily forgotten.

            Now, as a cabbie pulled her through the wide streets of Aankh, A’al’s capital, the Taj’s glittering jewel from where Corinda ruled his empire, the colors were muted. His wheel cart dragged over the cobble stones, the fraught lives of men and women around her a mere murmur. Her cabbie pulled her along with the well-muscled legs of an ox, bore his pain with a silent placidity. One who had accepted his life, and the necessary difficulties therein. She sensed an amorous pink in him, and the pale blue of grief, and wondered what lover, or lovers, he had, and who he had lost. He did not proffer small talk and she did not begrudge the silence. All the better to prepare herself for the night’s coming confrontation.

            What do you want, Cor? What do you need so badly you would turn to me for it?

            In her mind she returned to that morning’s painting, poring through the image. Its nuances. Its hallmarks of damnatiom Was it a coincidence that she pulled something of such ill-portent from the Id just as Corinda, a woman for whom once made her heart race at the slightest touch, arrived at her door? Such destruction, such horror pared with a woman of such ambition. What eschatological path did she choose by attending this meeting? What was at stake?

            She continued to watch the evening, darkening, quieting with the setting sun. But the universe provided her with no answers. She offered up a silent prayer to Wysheid, God of wisdom, compatriot of A’al’s birth God Angaama.

            “Wy the wise,” She said aloud, “Guide me to the right path, as you have always done. Light my way in this darkness. Grant me the tools to protect me from those that would do me harm. From those in the shadows, those monsters, who would drag me into the night.”

            From Cor. She added in thought, for she might well prove to be a monster herself. Who knew what path her old lover would force her down? All Raynelle could say for certain was there would be no escaping this meal unencumbered, without becoming burdened by Corinda’s passion, her patriotism. The weight of the Taj behind her, Corinda spoke with divine agency. The influence of Angaama bore down on her tonight. His will would not be denied.

            Finally she reached her destination, paid her fare, tipped the cabbie generously for the discretion implied in his silence. He must have known, if not the details, the general import of her meeting tonight. How often did he ferry his fares to the holy seat of Governance? He murmured his thanks, and disappeared back into the evening gloom.

            And so it sat before her, the Palace of the Taj, an illusion of austerity. Despite the ascetic conceit, the grey walls, the squat flat roof, the simple gravel pathway that lead to a rusted gate in mimicry of Wysheid’s legendary mountain recluse, she knew inside lay many wonders. That the Taj’s reputation as a man of the people, as one unconcerned with pomp and flash, was a convenient lie all in service of making a man who had not been seen in public for over a decade seem accessible still. She knew of the Palace’s catacombs, the treasures and dangers buried within. Cor had shown her much when they were together, they had delighted in those passageways once. They had…

            Raynelle shivered, though she could not tell if it was from pleasure of loathing.

            “Wise choice,” Cor’s current pet’s blistering bluster interrupted her sensate memory. “Had you not come…”

            He left the threat hanging, it was all Raynelle could do not to laugh. This fool, looming as tall as he did, muscles bulging as they did. She was sure he served Cor’s needs well, but he was no more threat to her than a fly. And so she ignored his boast, smiling warmly instead and offering her arm.

            “Would you escort me inside, Mr…”

            She could tell, he was taken aback by the breeziness with which she dismissed his menace. “Sterk.”

            “Just Sterk?”

            He took her arm and didn’t reply as they approach the Palace Gate.

            “There’s power in that name.”

            He grunted, but still did not speak. The red of his anger and black distrust faded for a bit, revealing a touch of blue. He was warming to her in spite of himself, or at the very least, his passionate distaste had cooled. Even strong men melted before a woman’s mollification. She scoffed inwardly as his weakness. A few words, and he would crumble before her, a few more to rebuild him, and then he might even turn against the Suzerain he held so dear.

            But first, she had to know what Cor wanted. What service could only an empath render?

            Arm in arm they entered the palace. Even to Raynelle, who knew what to expect, the transformation from modest exterior to extravagant interior stopped her breath for a moment. Powerful dreamweavers built this place centuries ago, and as such the palace, which appeared from the outside to be only a score yards wide and ten or so feet high, opened into a miracle of a marbled entranceway, stretching vast distances in both directions. Its ceiling as high as the sky. They descended the stairs, which lit up beneath them as they past, colors more varied than the rainbow, almost as diverse as the colors of life itself.

Hanging on each side of the stairs as they passed were rich arras, decorated to abstraction, the images swirling, only hinting at solidity. The eye easily lost itself in the complexity, drawn inwards… inwards. One could spend a lifetime, several lifetimes, on these stairs, pondering the meaning of the hidden truths in the wall-hangings. But Raynelle moved on, not once slowing her step to admire the artwork, though its makers possessed skills beyond even her dreams. She knew what lay beyond these draperies, the absolute darkness in which these unnatural stairs hung, as they descended from the façade and into the Taj’s true palace. His dark guardians, unseen except by those who attempted to do him, and the Suzerain, his mouthpiece to the world, harm. Only one who knew to look for them could hear them muttering in the void just beyond, and Raynelle had no desire to tempt their foul appetites.

Eventually they reached the bottom, to a door carved out of black, rocks harvested from the dead volcano that loomed over the city, opposite to the side lining the shore. It melted seamlessly into the black of the walls, and the tapestries, once so colorful and playfully abstract, faded to gray and darkened, darkened. To descend the staircase was to descend into night. Sterk held her back, and knocked on the gnarled door, once, twice, announcing, “Raynelle of Aa’l!”

He then turned to her and smiled, not unkindly, but a streak of sadism yet remained in it. She could see, also spooling into his tableau of blunt emotions, a trickle of bright yellow fear. Though it did not touch his eyes. She thinks: Perhaps I underestimated this one. He’s smarter than he seems.

“You must enter alone,” He said, almost a whisper, and began the long ascent. Before he got too far he turned back to her: “Good luck.”

She lingered at the door, and as she did so it swung open as if of its own accord. Exhaling deeply, she still did not enter. Here was the threshold. She stood, she knew, upon the precipice of no return. To cross into the dark—she could see nothing on the other side—would be to commit, entrusting herself to Corinda’s scheme, and Cor… she was not one to trust.

She closed her eyes.

Let it end, and begin again!

She heard her dream's words echo through the stairs. On the other side of the door lay that moment, back up the stairs there was… nothing. Nothing but the past, her apartment, her paintings, her attentive and doting Markus. She could be happy there, she knew. She could be content, and grow old, and die in blissful ignorance. And yet…

And yet…

She walked into the darkness. Into Corinda’s clutches. Into the belly of the Taj.