The Floating Palace was a warren of empty rooms and hidden passages. Dusty chambers sat unused behind sealed doors. Heated baths in the Thulhun style, leftover ornaments from the Imperial Governorate's long and storied reign in Carnassa, gaped like dry stone mouths in deep vaults excavated from the living bedrock of the cliff. Near the crest of the southeast tower, a great blocky structure sheathed in marble and overlooking the Sinner's Gate from its corner of the Palace's crumbling bluff, there was a ballroom that had stood unused for better than forty years, according to the oldest slaves who still remembered the days before the Hierophant's revolution. Aliya, like most of the younger slaves, had walked through a hundred dead places and gone hunting for others, plumbing the depths of the Palace after its masters had taken to their beds. Once she and Moana had found a room with a gold-banded polearm thrust deep into the floor and strange words carved deep into the walls, but neither of them could read and the gold bands around the polearm had unnerved them.
The room that Scheza had sent her to investigate, an unused scullery on the ninth level, well below the clifftop, was different. It had the same air of abandonment, the same dusty counters and stained floors, but there was something cold and slow to it that made the slave's skin pimple. Broken crockery was strewn around the dry washbasins and on the floor in the shadow of the granite counters. Mice had nested in the rotting cabinetry. In the center of the sloped stone floor was a grate of cold iron, waiting to drink spilled dishwater that would never come. Aliya swallowed. The sound was loud in the silence. Nowhere in all the cobwebbed corners and dank cupboards of the scullery had she found the thing that Scheza had sent her to find. An egg of gold filigree hinged with leather and within it a smaller egg of pure obsidian, the untransmutable stone. Why such a wonder would be left in a scullery Aliya had no idea, but she had spent an hour searching for it in the wreckage of the room.
Life as Scheza's handmaid was full of strange errands. Once the Princess had even sent her down into the sewers, her only instructions to sit for an hour on the bottommost rung of the iron ladder leading down into the pipes and listen for a song sung by a fish. She hadn't seemed disappointed when Aliya reported that she'd heard nothing. Another time they had gone together to the coops beside the stables at the base of the cliff where the Floating Palace's chickens and compsognathi roosted. Scheza had taken one of the chickens from its nesting box and slit its throat there in front of the slaves and servants. The other chickens had watched, silent and merciless, as one of their own bled out onto the straw. Scheza had dropped the twitching body with a snort of disgust and they had left.
Sometimes Aliya almost missed the monotony of slavery, the shouted imprecations of the taskmasters, the evenings spent bathing the Prophet's half-wild concubine. She blew out a long breath and sank down onto one of the scullery's moldering stools. She rested her head in her hands. The smells of grease and pepper lingered in the air, and for a moment Aliya could almost see the gross form of Mulkut, the Palace's ferocious head chef. She had slaved in the kitchens before Chamyde had chosen her to bathe the Son of Heaven's concubines. The wiry, temperamental woman had been little better than the bellowing Mulkut, but at least her hand had been lighter. Once Mulkut had broken Aliya's jaw for dropping a tureen of onion soup.
A slave's dreams were small, mean things. Chains and lashes beat them down, drained the glory from them until they longed only for dreamless sleep and a crust of stale bread at the end of the day. Aliya could hardly remember a time when she'd imagined freedom, her own freedom, as something attainable. Sixteen years of shuffling beneath the yoke of servitude had cracked some part of her. She rubbed her stinging eyes and stood. She would just have to tell Scheza she hadn't been able to find the egg. Aliya turned to leave. She froze. In the doorway, coated in dust as though it had sat there for years, was precisely the artifact Scheza had described. The craftsmanship was incredible, hypnotic in its complexity. It was ten times the size of a chicken's egg and rested comfortably on four stubby claw feet. Aliya clutched at the front of her dress, suddenly unsure. The second egg Scheza had told her of was just visible through the golden filigree of the first, and something about its smooth blackness made Aliya want to turn and climb into one of the cabinets rather than stare at it a moment longer.
In the end she wrapped it in dusty rags and fairly fled back to the Princess's chambers. It had taken some practice to locate them reliably. The halls around them, like the halls surrounding the Shah's apartments, seemed to shift and distort. Sometimes it almost seemed one stood in two places at once, so great was the sense of disorientation. Scheza was alone in her washroom, dressed in her usual stained and open-fronted black robe. She looked up as Aliya slipped into the porcelain-tiled chamber, decorated with symbols and patterns of Scheza's own contrivance.
Aliya clapped a hand to her mouth, choking on bile as a vile stench assaulted her nostrils. The copper bath was nearly overflowing with runny, flyblown dung. Insects buzzed around it in a miasmal cloud. Scheza, apparently unfazed by the appalling odor, held out a hand. “You found it?”
“I...I did, Princess,” Aliya managed to choke. She placed the cloth-wrapped egg in Scheza's outstretched hand. The Princess took it and for an instant she looked her age as pure joy pulled her plump lips into a smile and she clasped the golden egg against her breasts. Then, without a thought, she opened the gold filigree cage, withdrew the smaller obsidian egg and cast the glittering contrivance aside. She dropped the egg into the bath and watched as it settled atop the miniature hill of shit, sinking half its height into the offal.
Something small and so like-colored to the dung as to be almost invisible rose from the refuse. Aliya watched it, eyes watering in the foul air. It was a fat grey toad, its eyes yellow and evil, its skin gross with boils and warts. Slowly, it struggled up the hill of dung until it bestrode the egg. Then, with a vile gassy sigh, it settled down like a brooding hen atop the obsidian curio. Scheza clapped her hands together. “Beautiful,” she said.
For an instant Aliya could almost see what her mistress meant. A weird, pustulant glow seemed to surround the toad and its egg. A low, dull thumping resounded in the air. Like a fat heart beating time. The smell redoubled. Aliya fled the washroom, retching. She made it to the hall before falling to her knees and vomiting. A passing slave looked at her, scowled and moved on before the puddle of bile and half-digested gruel could foul his shoes. Aliya knelt shivering on the cold stone, hugging herself as fresh tremors wracked her body. What had that egg really been?
Aliya choked, sobbing for breath. She threw up again, watery vomit splattering over the flagstones of the hall. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut as the world spun around her.
“Are you alright?”
A man's voice, not cultured but finer than the rough tongues of the slaves. Aliya looked up, still gasping and saw a slim, goateed man of medium height looking at her with concern. He wore his hair short and slicked back and his uniform was the plain sludge-grey of the Tranquil Guard. “Please, agha,” Aliya whispered. “I did not mean to offend you.”
“You haven't,” said the man. He offered a hand and Aliya took it. Her stomach turned over as he helped her up, but there was nothing else in it to come up. She took a deep, ragged breath.
“You should see the surgeon,” said the man. His hand was warm on her shoulder.
Aliya looked down at her feet. “Please, agha.”
The door to Scheza's apartments swung open and the Princess moved into the hall. “What are you doing with my handmaiden, Captain Khalid?”
The officer took his hand from Aliya's shoulder and sketched a quick bow. When he straightened his face was composed into a statesman's mask, but for an instant Aliya thought she saw disquiet in his dark eyes. “The lady is ill,” he said.
“I am no lady, agha,” mumbled Aliya, silently begging the man to go, to leave before something terrible happened.
“Get out,” said Scheza. Her hand twitched and suddenly it held a phial of blood.
The Captain's eyes darted to it, then back to Scheza's. He licked his lips. “I was just going.” Slowly, arms stiff at his sides, he backed toward the steps. “It has been a pleasure, your Serenity.”
Scheza watched the man until he vanished down the stairwell. Aliya huddled against the wall, sick and miserable. Her skin felt slick and clammy and her nostrils were choked with the memory of shit and the acid reek of her own vomit. “Please,” she said. “Don't hurt him.”
“Men are swine,” said Scheza, and her voice was hard and cold as black iron. Her gaze lingered on the empty stairwell. “I'm going to kill every last one of them.”
Aliya retched again and sick spattered over her shoes. Her last feverish thought was that cleaning them would be a nightmare when her knees buckled and darkness swallowed her.