The halls of the Floating Palace grew stranger by the day. Servants and generals alike routinely lost their way in the labyrinthine corridors, and sometimes, the slaves whispered, they were not found again. Scheza had insisted that Aliya move her sleeping quarters to a small room adjoining her own. Aliya had been hesitant to acquiesce, but when she'd discovered that the brass tub had been emptied of its vile contents and the Princess's apartments cleaned, she had given in. After all, she was a slave. What choice did she have?
On a warm summer day, just before the first of the Month of Light, the guards barred the palace doors and there was fighting in the streets. In Scheza's chambers Aliya combed her mistress's hair with shaking hands while through the open windows came a summer breeze, the clash of steel and the screams of the dying. Scheza sat on a low padded bench in her solar, her usual stained and threadbare robe hanging open over an equally filthy cotton slip. The midday sunlight bathed both women in lurid gold. “Mistress,” said Aliya, dipping her comb into a bowl of rosewater. “Perhaps-”
From the foyer came the sound of wood splintering. Aliya froze, her heart pounding in her chest. She dropped her comb, remembering the day the slave merchant's men had broken down her father's door and clapped him in iron shackles. A dirty, toothless man had dragged her out from under her sleeping mat and tied her to the back of his mule while she screamed herself hoarse and the men and women of their slum looked on in silence, just so many empty faces. “Mistress,” she said.
“Be silent,” said Scheza.
Wood groaned and broke. Aliya heard the voices of men and the scuff of their heavy boots in the hall outside Scheza's apartments. She clasped her hands together to hide the tremors.
“He's moving faster than I thought he would,” said Scheza.
“Who, Your Serenity?”
Scheza stood and brushed dust from her robes as with an echoing crash the door in the foyer broke and the trample of booted feet on the tiles began. “My father.” She turned back to Aliya, her eyes a burning, feverish violet. “Stay out of the way,” she said as the door burst open and the first of the Tranquil Guard pushed open the door and strode into the solar.
“Princess,” said the soldier, hefting his ax. He was huge and burly, his grey hair cropped close to the lines of his skull. More men spread out behind him, axes in hand.
“Guardsman,” said Scheza, her voice cool. “What is the meaning of this?”
“His Immensity's orders,” said the man. He moved forward, raising his ax. Aliya screamed.
Scheza moved so fast she blurred into color and sound. The guardsman's arm exploded at the elbow. His ax flew up and back in a lazy arc, trailing his own blood. Scheza, bending backward like a bridge, drove a delicate foot into the wide-eyed soldier's chin. He hit the ceiling with a sickening crunch as Scheza blurred forward, dropping beneath the ax of another guardsman to sweep his legs out from under him. The man dropped, arms waving, just as the first guard slammed into the tiles in a burst of blood. Aliya scrambled back, watching in horror as Scheza ripped the fallen man's throat out in one smooth motion. The Princess was an engine of destruction, her slender frame moving with inhuman speed in among the suddenly panicked men of the Tranquil Guard.
“Kill her!” shouted a voice from the foyer. “Maintainer's eyes, just kill her!”
Blood splashed the walls as Scheza drove her foot through a fat guard's chest and then yanked it out amidst a gout of gore and ichor. The man sagged to his knees, muttering to himself. Aliya pressed herself back against the wall, unable to look away. Limbs broke. Blood ran. Intestines coiled like serpents on the floor while cold steel swung and found nothing but the sluggish summer breeze. Soon enough the guardsmen ceased to fight and began instead to run. When it was over Scheza stood alone in the middle of a spreading pool of blood, broken bodies all around her. Blood painted the walls and dripped like a fitful spring shower from the ceiling. A leg twitched near the bench where Aliya had combed the Princess's hair not a minute before.
The Princess turned to Aliya, her hair matted with gore, blood running in rivulets down her lovely face. “Water,” she husked. “Please.” Her eyes were golden once again, sunken deep in waxy sockets. She sagged against the door's frame while heavy footsteps dwindled into the distance.
Slowly, Aliya made her way to the basin built into the room's northern wall. The clash of arms in the streets below the Floating Palace on its high hill still drifted through the window. With shaking arms she primed the pump until cold water splashed into the fired sink. She filled a mug and brought it to the Princess, helped the other girl to drink. Scheza's skin was dry and hot, hotter than the sunlit floor. She felt like a griddle to the touch. Cold water dripped down her throat as she drank, and then the mug slipped from her fingers to shatter on the floor. “Hide me,” she whispered.
Scheza's eyes rolled up into her skull. Aliya caught her as she fell, knock-kneed and still feverish. For a long while Aliya stood, clutching Scheza against her chest while her own breath whistled in her ears. The air reeked of iron.
What am I going to do?
She was halfway to the stables before she realized it, her arms sore with the effort of dragging Scheza down flights of stairs, empty halls and through echoing baths where women floated face-down in the water. In the kitchens she had seen Mulkut, the Palace's head chef, hanged from the ceiling beams like a fat chandelier. Twice she passed beheaded slaves in the halls, and soon she was numb from the shock. It was all just one long nightmare, as everything had been from the day Chamyde assigned her to clean the Princess's chambers. She lost her way time and time again, familiar corridors twisting back on themselves or leading to strange rooms where strange things swam in dark, shallow pools of water that smelled of salt. Once, through an open door, she saw a little ape made all of flames clambering over the body of a washerwoman. Its feet left little burn marks on her skin.
“What have we here, my darling?” it said.
Aliya moved onward, dragging Scheza after her. The sounds of riot in the streets echoed weirdly in the halls. The windows they passed looked out seemingly at random at a myriad of different places. The foundries on the heights. The half-built towers of the Divided Temple. A flower seller's stand upended in the plaza, its aged owner sobbing over marigolds, violets and lilacs strewn across the dusty street. He looked up and his eyes met Aliya's, but he said nothing. Aliya moved onward until, in the echoing emptiness of the Imperial Concourse, she met Lord Captain Commander Azhar Khalid of the Tranquil Guard. The captain, who had been so kind to her in the hall not a week before, lay slumped with his back against a silent fountain. His eyes were glassy, his sherwani and trousers red with blood, torn where Scheza had ripped his abdomen open during her mad dance. A long snail's trail of red led from the far door to where he sat, breathing through his nose with a lit pipe clamped between his teeth. He saw Aliya, dragging Scheza with her like a sack of meal, and said nothing.
"I'm sorry," said Aliya as she passed him by.
"It's nothing," said the captain.
"It's nothing," said the captain.
At last, when her feet were raw from walking and her arms trembled with the strain of supporting the Princess's weight, she heard the cries of galluses and the bass rumbles of hadrosaurs somewhere close at hand.
Nothing makes any sense, she thought. Nothing in the Palace is as it should be.
A door loomed before her. She knew it for the door to the stables, but in the pit of her stomach she wondered if it now led somewhere else. She wondered if the monkey thing awaited her behind it, its burning arms spread wide to receive her into its embrace. What have we here, my darling? it would say as she burned.
She drove a shoulder hard against the warped planks of the door and staggered, wheezing, onto the stone steps that led down to the dung-smelling dimness of the stables. Most of the galluses were gone, their stable doors thrown open. Saurian dung and blood smeared the straw-covered stones of the floor and the light that filtered in from the open arch leading out onto the cliff road had grown dim. Aliya limped to a pile of fodder set aside for the hadrosaurs and lowered Scheza down onto the moldering straw. The Princess's skin was still unnaturally hot. She muttered nonsense in her sleep, limbs twitching. Aliya straightened, her back screaming in protest, and looked out over the stables. A few loose galluses were nosing through a trough of spoiled fruit while a lone gelding hadrosaur snored in its open pen, bellows sides rising and falling ponderously.
The cliff road, chalk dust drifting over its surface, seemed a different world. Aliya's mouth felt dry. She imagined riding out of the Palace, abandoning her life there. I could even leave Scheza. I could leave her here, and whatever demon she has inside her. The thought of it, after so many years prostrate in silence while the nobles passed by, so many years scrubbing pots and sweeping cobwebs from the corners of unused rooms. I could be free. Suddenly the sounds of bloodshed in the city seemed distant and the blue of the sky called to her. She saw pterosaurs circling the market district and wondered what it was like to shed the earth and its dust.
Shackles snapped shut on that world. Aliya turned back to the fodder heap where Scheza, bleary-eyed and filthy, swayed like a drunk. “Saddle the hadrosaur,” said the Princess, slurring her words as she groped for purchase in the straw. “Get me out of this...fucking city.”
Aliya tried to refuse her, to defy the pathetic girl before her. Her face twitched. She pushed back a stray lock of hair from her tear-streaked face. “Yes, Your Serenity,” she said, though the words stuck in her throat like burrs.
I will never be free.