We were outside.
I could tell before opening my eyes. A sea breeze, cold and briny, tugged and loosened the braids of my hair, painstakingly arranged by Mia an hour earlier. Slowly, my vision adjusted to the aggressive brightness, a sharp contrast to the dark elevator shaft.
The entire eighty-fifth floor was one giant open-air disc the color of charcoal, made completely of stone. Giant pillars rose up around the perimeter, as thick in diameter as red-wood trees, together holding up the giant roof of the palace’s great spire. Many of the columns were inlaid with small wooden doorways leading down to additional lift gates. Small processions of people funneled out of each entrance.
The stone pillars held up a hollow, vaulted roof like a monochrome circus tent. There were catwalks and ladders lining the network of rafters, giving the entire design an unfinished, still-in-construction feel.
Mia caught me gawking up at it. “The attic and roof levels. The lifts, they all stop at the Sky Throne. Only the builders may go higher, very dangerous this is.” She took a small, short breath. “It was up there where the last queen fell.”
The wheels of my chair rumbled across the uneven stone of a central walkway, marked by two lines of torch lamps. Soon, a domed chapel came into view before us, sparkling like a diamond against the cloudless afternoon sun. As we neared, it became clear that the walls of the chapel were made of glass, tens of thousands of transparent, blue panes, like the walls of a greenhouse.
We made our way through the heavy iron doors of the glass chapel, standing ajar, which were somehow both welcoming and foreboding at the same time. A dark velvet carpet ran down the center isle, ending at a dais which displayed the central focus of the room: a pair of giant, symmetrical thrones. The seats were made of clear white glass padded with dark velvet cushions, sleek and curved. The sunlight refracted through the glass furniture, shooting concentrated beams of glare onto several unlucky benches.
The room had an impressive 360 degree view of the entire valley. From this height, the buildings of the city below appeared as small as toy models. But the field of vision extended well beyond the city limits and onto the expansive outer landscape of the Kingdom; to the east and west were rolling green hills and Mountains, to the south the flat plains and forests, to the north the shimmering waters of the sea.
“They build it this way to remind the King where his duty lies,” Mia said, sweeping her hand across her body. “You like it?”
“It’s very beautiful,” I said, holding up a hand to shield my eyes. My thumb brushed my sweat-slicked forehead and felt the run of make-up. “But…also very hot. And a bit too bright.”
“Yes, many complain of this.” She pointed up towards the ceiling, where dark velvet curtains were rolled up between each pillar, matching the center carpet. “So now when the King enters, the curtains go down.”
My eyes followed her finger up the wall, then immediately darted to the painted mural they found on the ceiling.
It was in a mid-century Renaissance style, not unlike a religious fresco one might find in the Vatican. The focus was a pearly white city sitting in the clouds. As I gaped up at the painting, I realized that the skyline was familiar.
It’s Manhattan, I thought with a jolt, except not…
It’s much, much cleaner.
I squinted to take in the finer details of the mural, to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. No, it was definitely New York City. The tallest buildings might not have been in exactly the right places, but they were all present: the needle of the Empire State Building, the sleek obelisk shaped World Trade Center, the iconic crown of the Chrysler Building.
The artist had even included some of New York’s more recent skyscrapers: on the far right of the mural stood the residential tower I knew to be 432 Park Avenue, standing in solitary defiance of its shorter neighbors. It jutted up out of the otherwise flat right side of the painting, pencil thin and boxy, looking isolated and very much out of place.
Perhaps most interesting were the color schemes for the buildings, which consisted entirely in shades of whites and golds. It was as if the city was composed entirely of marble doused in bleach, then outlined with gold leaf. Missing were the ugly grays, the overcast haze of smog, the factory chimneys spewing clouds of black smoke into the air; clearly the artist had never visited New York City before.
The Hudson river stretched underneath the white-washed skyline, made with strokes of dazzling white mixed with shades of cool blues, sparkling with painted sunlight.
Took a bit of artistic interpretation with the river as well, I thought. It’s missing the Hudson’s trademark slimy greenish-gray hue…and all the floating garbage.
My eyes wandered below the row of cumulus clouds concealing the bottom of the river. Here, the color scheme shifted abruptly to burning reds and blacks, depicting some type of fiery, underworldly hell-scape. It had all the cliches of a renaissance artist’s depiction of hell, with fire and jagged cliffs and glowing volcanos. There were horned demons with skin the color of soot, giants with burning red eyes and mismatching limbs, endless lines of animated corpses with flesh sloughing off their white, naked bodies. A lone general stood at the top of the highest cliff, looking out over his army of tortured souls. He was wearing a black mask with its features twisted into an expression of intense agony, his right hand pointed up towards Manhattan in the clouds.
There were large stylized letters scrawled across the scene beneath the river, which read,
Deliver Us From Bahn’ya
“Hello? Miss, where will you sit?”
Mia was speaking to me. My head snapped back down to the rows of benches.
I spotted Hendrik sitting near the front of the room. He was holding a handful of small edible nuts, which he was tossing up in the air and trying to catch in his mouth. There was an empty seat next him, the ground underneath it already littered with his failed attempts.
“Push me over there,” I said, pointing towards him. She nodded and wheeled me over.
“Jillian the Angel, what an honor!” he said, as Mia struggled to position my bulky cart next to him. “Next thing you know, people will say we’re in love.”
“Nice to see you too, Hendrik.”
“Can I just say that you clean up rather nicely? I mean, if you squint really hard, you can almost pass as some of your competition.”
“Thanks…I think?” I nodded my chin towards the ceiling mural. “Interesting painting they put up there.”
Hendrik shrugged. “Yeah, who cares? Another ‘original’ piece by some stuffy old curmudgeon with a hard-on for the Old Holy Texts. You seen one, you seen ’em all.”
“I think it’s cool.” I pointed up at Manhattan. “Any idea where the artist got the idea for that city?”
“Jillian Reynolds,” -Hendrik twisted around in his seat and locked me in a serious gaze- “I would rather have the King sit on my face while Alynsa shrieks obscenities at me than have a talk about religious imagery right now.” He motioned around the room as scantily clad suitresses started to fill the hall. “Never again will so many beautiful women all gather in one place. Let me enjoy this historic momen- hey, check that one out!”
We watched as a very curvaceous woman strutting down the aisle past us, auburn curls bobbing up and down with each step. “Do you think that’s naturally how she walks…or is she just trying to show off?” He pressed both his pinky fingers to the corners of his mouth and made a sharp cat-call towards her. The suitress turned on her heels and shot us a look that could have curdled cream.
Instinctively, I turned away and blushed.
Hendrik caught my embarrassment out of the corner of his eye, and put an arm around my shoulder, leaning back in his chair. “You’re going to get eaten alive in here. You know that, right?”
“The people here. They’re drawn to weakness like wolves to blood. And you my friend, are the sweet little lamb that everyone wants a piece of right now. The ones that get walked all over usually don’t last very long in this palace- just ask the last queen.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know enough. I know that Caollin has you assessed as timid, weak-willed, and controllable, which is why he gave you his blessing and turned you over to the King. I know that you are the only woman in this entire hall that doesn’t want to be the next queen. And,” he smiled sheepishly, “I know you probably have more of a connection to the King than either of you is willing to let on. Angel from the Outside? Yeah right.”
This guy is smarter than he looks.
“Fine,” I said. “Maybe you have a point. But in that case, I need some advice.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You want council from me?”
“You are on the Royal Council, yes?”
“These days, it’s effectively a festival and banquet planning committee. But sure, I will offer my experience to the hopeless lamb who has wandered into the lion’s den.”
“Okay then. First things first: out of everyone here, who should I be most afraid of? Alynsa?”
He began to shake his head before I had even finished my question. “You’re thinking about it the wrong way, kid. See, you pose a major threat to the established hierarchy, and you don’t exactly have any friends, so any bastard with half a drop of noble blood sitting here would kill you given the chance. And hey, don’t give me that look…I’m common blood too, so the only threat I pose is if the King picks the upset and names me the next queen over you.” He winked. “No, the thing I would fear most would be alienating your only means of protection.”
“Same thing that’s kept me alive for so long: The King.”
“Hendrik,” I said, “you see the King pretty frequently right? During Royal Council meetings?”
“More than most.”
“Well, are the rumors true? Do you really think he killed…”
“Probably,” Hendrik finished for me. “He’s as mad as they come. Scares the living shit out of me at times.” He shifted in his chair. “His temper is as fickle as the wind; say the wrong thing to him on a bad day, and he’ll end you without a second thought. Well, maybe he’ll have a second thought, but by then your head will already be rolling across the floor at his feet. Kind of surreal to think that a man like that is the only thing keeping me from rotting in a cell.”
I shook my head. “Well, you’re wrong about him.” I twisted a strand of hair in my fingers. “Any idea when you first thought he started going…um…mad?”
Hendrik shrugged. “Since he became radicalized. It was Father Caollin that started the radical movement that’s devoured the capital’s churches, you know. The King was a student of his. Before that, he was a nobody, living a quiet life like the Ageless tend to do.”
“Wait, Caollin was the head of the Church’s radical movement?”
“Yeah, of course. Before Caollin got involved, the movement was nothing. The church barely even recognized them as their own sect. But Caollin was really well respected in the church. Once he took the reigns, people began to see it as legitimate.”
“So then…why isn’t Caollin the King?”
“Simple. The public spotlight of the King is one that he does not want. He’s an overseer at heart, likes making day-to-day decisions, keeping himself busy without distractions. So he selected his most devoted apprentice to be the figurehead for his rebellion, then convinced the High Pontiff to give Malstrom the traditional blessing of the ‘First Priest Reborn’ and fix him up accordingly. These days, Caollin and his goons basically run the entire Kingdom, now that the church has de-clawed the royal council.”
“What about the King though? Is he okay with that?”
“Right now, the King is only interested in fanning the flames of his conflict with the Royal family.”
I chewed on my lip. “In a deadlock between the two, who would the church back? Caollin or the King?”
He flicked another nut up into the air and tried to catch it in his mouth, but it bounced off his chin and rolled to the floor. “The King, without a doubt. He’s the face of the movement, after all. Caollin sacrificed that supreme authority so he could work from the shadows, away from prying eyes. But Caollin and the King are extremely close anyways…although they have been fighting more in recent days. Makes the council meetings uncomfortable at times…”
He trailed off a bit. “And of course…there are the King’s episodes…”
My ears perked up. “Episodes?”
Hendrik suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Yeah. Real scary shit. He likes to claim that…well…that Caollin can read his mind. Whenever he thinks it’s happening he’ll just start screaming bloody murder in the middle of the council. Starts throwing things around and ends the meeting immediately. Eventually he’ll calm down, but lately it’s gotten worse.” He crossed his arms behind his head. “Poor, crazy bastard.”
“Or maybe he’s not crazy,” I said quietly. “Caollin can influence minds, somehow. I saw him make people confess to things they didn’t wish to reveal, back in his cathedral.” I shuddered at the memory. “Plus I felt like he clawed around in my brain, after the Trial of the Mind.”
“You mean the Trial of the Body?”
“No, the Trial of the Mind. You know, the first part of the Baptism?”
Hendrik gave me a funny look. “Jillian, the Trial of the Mind isn’t part of the Baptism process. Only the Trial of the Body is.” After an awkward silence he said, “Tell me you didn’t agree to do the trial of the mind with that nut-job?”
My words were coming faster. “How was I supposed to know! I don’t know anything about the traditions of your stupid religion, which is run by an atheist priest by the way, just in case you follow any of it too.” I was seething, more at myself than anything else. “He said it was part of the process, and I believed him.”
“Well he’s a liar, and you are unbelievably naive. The only time that people do the Trial of the Mind is when they exchange marriage vows, and they do it with their spouse, not some quack priest. It’s a very personal thing, impossible to lie within the trial, so it should only be done with someone you trust completely with your deepest, darkest insecurities. It can scar you for life if you do it with someone with a really traumatic past.”
“That…he…” I trailed off, scrambling to find the right words to express myself.
If he did something to Malcolm…then…I’ll…I’ll
I took a deep breath. “I might be able to help the King with his episodes, if that’s the case.” I looked back at Hendrik. “Thank you for your council Hendrik. You know, you’re much more helpful than you give yourself credit.”
“Anytime kid-” Hendrik cut himself off and pointed over my shoulder- “oh look, here comes your best friend now.”
I twisted my hips around in my chair to see Father Caollin walking towards me, wearing that same obnoxiously wide grin on his face. “Jillian!” he boomed. “My, my, you look ravishing indeed. Clearly a champion befit for the faith that you represent.”
Looking at him now made my skin crawl. “I know what you did,” I said. “Tricking me into taking the Trial of the Mind so you could read my thoughts.”
The smile never wavered, but his eyes narrowed. “Jillian, you are mistaken. The Trial of the Mind is not part of the Baptism. It was never administered to you.” He reached out to put a hand on my shoulder, but I flinched away. “The neurotoxin has been known to cause side effects, one of which is very lucid dreams. Perhaps this ‘Trial of the Mind’ which you seem to remember was a fabrication of your subconscious.”
I wanted to punch him in his stupid face. “Does your church know you’re an Outsider?” I asked. “Can’t say I’ve seen many motorboats in this Kingdom so far, but then again, maybe I just fabricated that too.”
His grin faltered, if only for a moment. His tone lowered to something softer than the usual deep rumble, something more threatening. “Careful Jillian. Do not burn the bridge you stand on before you have learned how to swim. The waters here are quite deep.”
The moment he finished speaking, I could taste lake water in my throat, and my lungs stopped functioning. He turned on his heel and strode away, taking his place near the front of the room, directly across the aisle from me, his eyes pulsating in color.
Hendrik turned to me startled, as I clawed at my throat. “Jillian! What’s wrong? Is it the toxin?”
I sucked in as much air as I could, but it was like trying to draw breath from a straw the size of a pinhead. Dots began to dance at the corners of my eyes, my fingernails digging into the arms of my chair.
Then, as soon as it had started, the sensation ceased, and air rushed back into my lungs. Caollin waved back cheerily from across the aisle.
“Jillian, I like the effort, but you need to be way more subtle than that,” Hendrik warned. “The last thing you need right now is more enemies, least of all the most powerful man in the entire Kingdom.”
I stared down the priest, breathing stertorously out of my nostrils like an angered bull. “You mean second most powerful man,” I said. “And he was always my enemy.”