The Palace was the greatest that the world had ever seen. Constructed by an army of slaves over the course of an entire century, the huge golden structure shone in the light of the suns, proclaiming itself capital of the Empire, and soon the world. Within the Palace and its grounds thousands of slaves laboured on behalf of the Empress and her staff. Few of the slaves were thankful for the honour, but they had all learned from bitter experience not to complain.
Before the Palace stood seven stone towers, more than two whole spans across at their bases. The summits of the towers were far higher than the spires of the Palace itself. All but the newest, which was still under construction, shimmered with a dazzling brilliance that outshone the very suns.
This brilliance made the golden domes and turrets of the Palace shine with an ethereal glow at night and made them even more magnificent by day, but that was not their true purpose.
The Palace was the centre of the Empire, and the towers maintained and expanded its power. The crystals at their summits relayed the sorcery that kept half of a continent enslaved, in the name of the glorious Empress Alcenia.
Alcenia, powerful, aloof and coldly beautiful, was the world’s mightiest ruler, loved and feared by millions. Her merest word was her subjects’ command.
The Empress’s rule was absolute.
Or so her subjects were told....
In a shadowy room in a secret corner of the Palace sat several dark-robed figures.
The figures were poring over a report. The seventh and tallest tower was nearly complete, and the enormous crystal that would be housed within its summit was being carefully cut to the Empire’s exact specification, so that it would relay the telepathic energy from the two Stones of Power. The tiniest irregularity could cause its power to be weakened or catastrophically distorted, and so the greatest care was being taken to ensure that there no such irregularities existed.
Once the tower was complete and its crystal activated the range and power of the Empire’s telepathic transmissions would be almost doubled. Millions more would fall under its spell. Dissent would be impossible.
The shadowy figures nodded in satisfaction. Their plan was going according to schedule, and nothing could stand in their way.
They called themselves the Servants of the Empress, but the title was ironic. They were the true power behind the throne, and the mighty Empress a mere figurehead.
It was true that their figurehead had been showing an unfortunate reluctance of late, but she could be dealt with - in good time.
The dark figures smiled and saluted each other. Soon the entire world and all of its people would be theirs to do with as they pleased. There would be no dissent, no Resistance, and none of the irritating acts of sabotage that had so inconvenienced them in the past. Within a few short years the entire planet would be their toy ball, and nothing, no one, could do anything to prevent it.
Elsewhere in the Palace, a slave girl was being groomed for her new duties. That was a matter of no interest to the robed figures. If there was one certainty in their world, it was that no mere slave could ever disrupt their carefully-woven schemes. No slave could ever disturb the Stones of Power.
Shíkra stood stiffly beside the golden harp, nervously flexing and unflexing her fingers. In a few minutes the Empress Alcenia, the most powerful ruler that the world had ever known, would enter the room and command her new slave to entertain her. If her singing should fail to entertain the Empress, the consequences for Shíkra scarcely bore thinking about.
After the Slavemaster had delivered her into the care of the Empress’s handmaids, they had looked her up and down disdainfully, pointedly ignoring her attempts at conversation. As far as they were concerned a mere slave was beneath contempt. They would sooner have struck up a chat with the wall. For that reason she never learned their names, so she just thought of them as Fat and Ugly.
“You will stand by the harp and await the Empress’s presence,” Ugly informed her.
“You will stand straight and keep your shoulders back,” added Fat.
“You will sing when the Empress commands and not before, said Ugly.
“You will sing what the Empress commands and nothing else,” said Fat.
And so they went on, alternating their sentences in a manner that might have been comical in other circumstances, while poor Shíkra was forced to turn her head rapidly back and forth between them like a spectator at a game of bat and ball.
“You will cease to sing when the Empress commands and not before.”
“You will not speak unless you are spoken to by the Empress.”
“Should the Empress deign to speak to you, you will bow your head when replying and refer to the Empress as ‘Highness’.”
“You will at all times show the Empress proper respect.”
“The slightest insult to the Empress, by word or gesture, will be severely punished.”
“Once the Empress departs, we will return and escort you back to the Slave Quarters.”
“The Empress will give a full account of your behaviour and your singing.”
“Rest assured that any failing in either regard will be punished.”
“Do we make ourselves plain?”
You don’t need to, thought Shíkra. The gods did that when they made you. But her face betrayed no sign of her rebellious thoughts as she meekly replied, “Yes, Mistresses.”
Next they took her into a room of white marble. Like all the rooms and corridors in the Palace, it was lit not by oil but by sorcery. Panels set into the walls and ceilings gave off a steady bluish light that made the interior of the vast edifice almost as bright as day.
High upon one wall were set a pair of small round projections, below each of which was a brass animal head with a gaping mouth. To her astonishment, the maids demonstrated how turning the round projections caused powerful jets of hot and cold water to emerge from those mouths.
The maids had made her stand beneath the hot water jet until she was almost scalded, and then the cold water jet until she was almost frozen. While subjecting her to this water torture they also rubbed her all over impersonally with a block of some sweet-smelling substance that left aromatic foam all over her body until the jets washed it all away again. Then they took her, still shivering from the cold jet, into an adjoining chamber where jets of warm air dried her hair and body.
The maids inspected her again and then exchanged glances with each other. “Clean,” said one, and the other nodded in agreement. Shíkra could hardly argue with that. She had never felt so clean, and she had to admit there was something to be said for Imperial inventions like hot baths. If only the common people could afford such luxury....
Then the maids sprinkled her body with a powder that smelled of flowers; they painted her lips and cheeks red and her eyelids green with black outlines, and they filed her finger- and toenails down to nubs and painted them gold.
In the next room a large bowl with a wooden rim stood upon the floor. A smaller bowl, overhung by two more animal-headed water outlets, was attached to the wall, and beside it a woollen towel hung on a peg.
“The floor bowl is where you piss and shit,” Fat told her. “Better go now, because you won’t get another chance until your duties are finished. There are dried leaves to cleanse yourself with when you’re done. Then drop them in the bowl as well, and it will empty itself through waste pipes that lead to the river. And then wash your hands in the wall bowl and dry them on the towel.”
Oh well, she thought, sitting on the rim of the bowl, it’s better than the trough in the Slave Quarters.
And then she thought: If human waste gets piped into the river, then it’s no wonder the delta smells so horrible. And that’s where many of the poor are forced to live.
Once she was through with her ablutions they placed a wig and jewelled coronet upon her head. The ensemble was a little heavy, but Shíkra thought she could get used to it.
“Not bad,” Ugly admitted.
“Quite presentable,” said Fat.
Then they ushered her out into the hallway just as she was.
I’m still naked as a beggar, she thought, apart from the headdress. Don’t I even get a loin apron to preserve my dignity before the Empress?
As if reading her mind, Fat told her: “The Empress wants to see you as well as hear you. It’s partly a safeguard against hidden weapons as well, although there are lots of other precautions that make that redundant. Mainly it’s just because the Empress likes pretty things, and you’re a very pretty thing.”
A few minutes later Shíkra was led into a room that would have dwarfed many a house in the city’s slums.
“This is the Empress’s Retiring Room,” Ugly told Shíkra. “This is where she comes to relax after dealing with the day’s Imperial business. Your sole task will be to entertain the Empress with your music and song. Do you understand?”
Shíkra inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“Good,” she said. “Remember, if your singing fails to please the Empress you will be beaten, or worse.”
Surely if anyone deserves to be beaten it is these sour-faced hags, thought Shíkra. But she was careful to keep her expression passive as she glanced around the room.
Colour was everywhere, more colour than Shíkra had imagined could exist, from the ornate rugs upon the floor to the wall paintings that depicted all manner of exotic scenes. One that caught Shikra’s eye depicted a pale-skinned nude girl embracing a stone statue of herself. Another depicted a naked youth crouching beside a fierce black beast.
Even the ceiling was decorated with swirling intricate patterns, which seemed to repeat themselves on smaller and smaller scales, giving the viewer a dizzying glimpse of infinity.
The room’s only item of furniture was a reclining chair of polished hardwood with curved arms and legs, upholstered with deep, scarlet cushions. To sit in such a chair would be luxury itself. And if that was the Empress’s chair, then how much more luxurious must be her bed!
Near the doorway, facing the chair, stood a small dais upon which stood a finely-wrought golden harp.
“Oh, what a beautiful instrument,” gasped Shíkra, unable to keep silent.
“It’s worth a thousand slaves,” said Fat, responding to Shíkra for the first and only time. “Just you remember that, girl. Not that anyone’s going to steal it, mark you. Every object in the Empress’s Quarters is protected by spells.”
Shíkra glanced at the harp nervously. She had heard of sorcery, but had no great desire to experience it first hand.
“And while we’re on the subject of spells,” Ugly told her, “one of the Empress’s former slaves behaved rather foolishly a while ago. She actually tried to attack the Empress the moment she arrived. Seems the slave had managed to conceal a length of fine, sharp wire in her mouth and was planning to garrotte the Empress with it. Her tongue was cut to shreds. She’d had to swallow the blood so it wouldn’t trickle out of her mouth and give the game away. Not that it did her any good, of course. It goes without saying that the stupid girl was dead before she came within an arm’s length of the Divine Empress. Nevertheless, the Empress’s advisors persuaded her that extra security precautions were in order, as you will discover when you ascend the dais.”
This revelation only made Shíkra even more nervous. She felt like running away, but it was too late now.
“It’s time to take your place,” Fat told her. “The Empress is at her bath and will arrive shortly.”
The handmaids watched as Shíkra ascended the dais and stood beside the golden harp.
The moment Shíkra’s feet touched the dais she felt a strange tingling sensation in her legs and buttocks. An instant later they stiffened into immobility. Shíkra gasped in alarm and ran her hands over her thighs. Her legs still had feeling, but were as rigid as stone. From the waist down she had become as inanimate as the harp itself. Above the waist the stiffness lessened by degrees. Her upper torso had just enough mobility to allow her to lean forward while playing, while her arms and hands remained fully mobile.
“Good,” Ugly told her. “Now you understand what we meant by ‘precautions’. If you were thinking of running away, it’s far too late. There’s nothing you can do now except sing and play the harp, so you’d better do it well or we might just leave your legs frozen forever.”
And with that the maids departed without a word or a backward glance, leaving Shíkra rooted to the dais, able to do nothing but await the Empress’s arrival.
Shíkra was terrified. The parts of her body that could move were trembling. If her maids were so cold and arrogant, then how much more so must the Empress herself be?
Shíkra forced herself to remain calm. Her task was merely to sing for the Empress, and she had no doubt as to her talent. If the Slavemaster had not considered her voice fit for a queen’s ears, Shíkra would never have come within a hundred paces of the Royal chambers.
While Shíkra waited, she tried out the harp. Much to her relief, the instrument was not just made for looks. Its tone was as golden as its appearance.
A few moments later, the door at the far end of the chamber opened and the Empress Alcenia entered. She also wore a headdress, golden and bejewelled as befitted her status, but was otherwise naked save for a lavishly-embroidered towel.
Shíkra had seen the Empress once or twice from a distance, looking immensely grand and dignified in her robes of state. Yet seeing her at close Quarters Shíkra could scarcely believe that this woman controlled the fate of millions with her merest word.
To begin with, she seemed much younger than Shíkra had imagined. She appeared to be in her early twenties, only a few years older than Shíkra herself - although she might well be older than she looked, her youthful appearance preserved by sorcery.
The other thing that surprised Shíkra was the Empress’s expression. Almost all of the Royal household treated slaves with the same haughty, sneering contempt as Fat and Ugly, yet as the Empress looked Shíkra up and down her face wore an expression of quiet melancholy.
“So,” said Alcenia, “you are my new singer.”
The Empress’s voice was another surprise. It was quiet and musical - the Empress could have been a singer herself, in Shíkra’s professional opinion - and there was no trace of arrogance or cruelty in her tone. Astonished, Shíkra thought: Why, she sounds...sad. Can it be so?
Shíkra was so taken aback that it took her a moment to stammer a reply: “Y...yes, mistress...I mean, Highness.” Since she could no longer bow from the waist, Shíkra inclined her head and spread her arms in a gesture of supplication.
“Oh, don’t worry,” muttered the Empress. “I’m not going to have you beaten. At least, not unless you sing really badly, and from what I’m told of your talent that seems unlikely. What is your name, child?”
“Shíkra? It’s a pretty name,” said the world’s most powerful monarch.
The Empress let the towel fall at her side and sank into the velvet-cushioned chair, stunningly naked save for her headdress. Shíkra thought: She’s just a girl, like me! And then she thought: Oh, yes...just a girl like me, apart from the fact that this girl has the power to make entire nations do her bidding on pain of death, and I don’t even have the power to move my own legs.
“Very well, Shíkra,” said Alcenia. “I have had a most tiring day, what with affairs of state and all, so sing me something relaxing. Something that can make me forget the cares of the world for a while.”
Shíkra had never imagined that an Empress could have cares, but she dutifully set about her work, beginning with a song that had been written by one of her countrymen inspired by birds languidly circling above the great plains of the south. The Empress did not seem displeased by the song; she sighed languidly, sank back into her seat and smiled for the first time. Her eyes slowly scanned Shíkra’s body from head to toe as the singer gently plucked the harp strings. Shíkra suspected that she was pleased by what she saw as well as what she heard.
That impression was confirmed a few moments later, when the Empress rose from her chair and walked slowly around Shíkra, studying her from every angle. Then she came up behind Shíkra and slipped her arms around her waist.
Shíkra had been half-expecting something of the kind, but was still so startled by the sudden touch that she almost stopped singing. Fortunately for her, she only hesitated for the briefest of moments...and then carried on as if nothing had happened....
As if the Empress were not stroking and fondling her semi-rigid body in an openly erotic fashion....
As if her body were not beginning to respond to the silken touch of the Empress’s fingers....
“Your legs are hard,” muttered Alcenia. “They’ve put a spell on you, haven’t they?”
Shíkra said, “Yes, Highness.” What she did not say was: Yes, they have put a spell on me so that I cannot resist your touch, cannot pull away when your fingers caress me in my most intimate places...and yet, why would I want to, when your touch is making me feel like I have never felt before?
And while the Empress continued to caress her Shíkra did her best to keep on singing normally, but eventually her sensations became too great to resist and she found herself emitting a long, piercing wail. Someone without musical training (like Fat and Ugly) might have taken it for part of the song; only Shíkra and the Empress knew better.
Once the song and the caresses had finished, Shíkra stood silently for a long moment, but her body continued to sing.
“Oh, Highness,” she breathed, “I have had some small experience of love, but that was....”
Alcenia gently kissed her cheek. “As Empress I have access to certain arts known to few ordinary mortals. I seldom share them, save with those I consider...exceptional. Your origins may be humble, Shíkra, but my instincts tell me that you have the power to shape the destiny of the world.”
Before Shíkra could protest that she was powerless to affect destiny, the Empress kissed her again and said, “My handmaids will be listening. You’d better start singing again before they get suspicious.”
Alcenia stepped off the pedestal and yawned, turning and stretching in front of Shíkra before unhurriedly walking back to her seat. The sight of the Empress’s perfect body in all its glory made Shíkra tingle all over
Almost without thinking, Shíkra began to sing a medley by Iskella, the ancient poet whose love songs were supposedly addressed to her female friends.
The song cycle began with discreet, even shy, declarations of love, but deliberately became more explicit and erotic as it went on. Of course, the lyrics were in a long-dead dialect which Fat and Ugly wouldn’t understand, but Shíkra suspected that if the Empress was really as powerful and omniscient as was claimed then understanding ancient languages would be one of her more basic skills.
As if to confirm Shíkra’s suspicions, the Empress rose from her seat as the cycle neared its ‘climax’, and then walked behind Shíkra again. Slowly and with infinite patience, Alcenia began to caress and fondle Shíkra’s body once more, her touch becoming increasingly sensuous as the songs became increasingly explicit.
Alcenia’s timing could not have been more precise. At the exact moment the last song reached its crescendo, so did Shíkra’s pleasure, and for a long time she could barely think or move at all.
Eventually her ecstasy faded to a warm euphoria, and as if from a distance she heard the Empress complimenting her on her singing. Then Alcenia slid her hand languidly over Shíkra’s back before leaving. The mere touch of the Empress’s hand, combined with the sight of her nude back as she walked away, was enough to bring Shíkra to another blissful orgasm.
Outside the Retiring Room the Empress was met by the two handmaidens. Without preamble, the one whom Shíkra had called Ugly said:
“One recalls the tale of the Emperor Sadriskan, who fell in love with a servant to his everlasting regret.”
Alcenia looked Ugly unflinchingly in the eye.
“Indeed?” she said, looking down her nose at the handmaiden. “As we recall, the Emperor Sadriskan was a drunkard and a fool, and had a particular weakness for a pretty face...not to mention a pretty behind. He also lived in a far more tolerant era, as a result of which he became far too complacent about the longevity of his reign. We certainly fail to see the relevance of this anecdote to our present circumstances.”
If Ugly was taken aback by the Empress’s outburst she gave no sign of it. “Pray forgive this humble servant,” she said. “A foolish recollection, nothing more. No offence was intended to your Imperial Highness.”
“None is taken,” muttered the Empress dismissively, and turned to stride away. Naked as she was, she nonetheless managed to convey the impression that she was robed in Imperial dignity.
Just as she reached the hall, she turned to face the handmaids again, and as if by way of an afterthought said: “By the way. The singer: I find her...adequate. You will send her to me again tomorrow.”
The handmaids bowed and departed. Watching them leave, the most powerful human being in the world breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief.
Alcenia entered her magnificent bedchamber where her domestic slaves awaited her. Declining their offer to bathe her, the Empress slumped onto her huge bed and sighed.
Adequate, she thought. Oh, yes. Little Shíkra is more than adequate to satisfy my need for real human companionship. I just wish I could reward her adequately for it. I wish I was adequate to deal with the Empire, instead of just being used as its figurehead.
Half of the known world was in the grip of Imperial tyranny. Tonight, before they slept - some of them in hovels, some in Imperial barracks, some chained to the oars of heaving ships, some huddled in dusty doorways; certainly none of them upon such fine sheets and soft mattresses as their divine Empress - millions would curse (in silence, lest any Imperial guards should overhear) the name of the one responsible for their fate: Alcenia, mistress of the greatest and most hated Empire the world had ever seen.
I didn’t want this, thought Alcenia. All those people hate me, and it’s not my fault. I’ve been used just as much as they have. If there was any way to end the Empire’s cruelty I would, but how can I? In my own way I’m just as handicapped as poor Shíkra. She was fixed to the base of her harp, and I’m fixed to my rôle as Empress. How can either of us ever hope to break free?
The domestic slave girls begged Alcenia to honour them with her lovemaking, but she gently demurred. “I am very tired,” she said. “Tonight I fear you must be content with each other.”
And so the girls left Alcenia alone and made love on their own small bed. But she could not sleep right away, and so she pleasured herself a little to the accompaniment of their sighs and moans, and eventually fell asleep dreaming of Shíkra and her beautiful voice.
Meanwhile, the handmaids had finally released Shíkra from her captivity, retrieved her expensive headgear, and escorted her back to the Slave Quarters in the vast, pillared cellar of the Palace.
The Slavemaster looked over her nakedness with a lustful glint in his eye. “I hear you’ve become the Empress’s new pet,” he grinned.
“I was ordered to sing for the Empress, Master,” she said with as much deference as she could muster. “I am to return tomorrow. May I have my garment now, Master?”
The Slavemaster grinned and slapped her buttocks, secure in the knowledge that she could make no complaint. But he knew also that he could take no further liberties with one who had been chosen by the Empress, and so he handed Shíkra her smock and left her alone while he went off in search of a slave whom he could manhandle with impunity.
Dressed like the other slaves in her coarse knee-length garment, Shíkra walked to her straw-lined wooden cot and sat down. Her legs were still stiff, so she spent some time rubbing them vigorously. While she was doing so, Zuvrin came and sat beside her, rubbing his calloused hands.
He was a little older than her, a rugged, muscular youth, and she had occasionally harboured erotic fantasies about him. But the dungeon-like Slave Quarters were hardly conducive to romantic encounters, and in any case there seemed to be a spell on the place that dampened all sexual urges. Only the Slavemaster seemed immune to its effects.
“I’ve been transferred to another work gang,” said Zuvrin without preamble. “They say they need more hands to help finish the new tower on schedule. This one will be higher than any of the others. Once it’s finished it will be used to broadcast the Empire’s sorcery further afield than ever, in order to subjugate even more distant lands. Doesn’t it make you feel so proud to be an Imperial subject?”
“But we’re not Imperial subjects, are we?” she said. “We’re Imperial property.”
“Right,” he muttered. “When some of us fall to our deaths, die of heatstroke or get crushed by falling masonry we can easily be replaced.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that,” she said.
“Sorry, Shíkra, I don’t mean to upset you. But when you’re working in the heat of the blazing suns and the heat from the crystals in the other towers, and you’re on a rickety scaffolding gods know how many man-heights above the ground transferring heavy stone blocks from a pulley onto the top of the tower, and the light from the crystals sometimes dazzles you...considering all that, it really doesn’t pay to forget the danger.”
They both sighed.
After a while, Zuvrin leaned closer and whispered, “Things may be changing soon.”
“What do you mean?” Shíkra replied.
Zuvrin leant even closer and whispered so quietly that Shíkra could only just make out his words. “There is a Resistance movement,” he told her. “It’s quite small right now but it’s growing daily. And some day...ah, some day....”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Shíkra. But she already knew why.
“You work in the inner Palace. I hear you’ve been chosen to sing for the Empress....”
“Yes, word does get around, doesn’t it?” said Shíkra. “I suppose your Resistance would like me to kidnap or assassinate the Empress under the noses of the entire Palace staff. Besides, she’s protected by sorcery. No one can get near her.”
“But you get near her,” Zuvrin pointed out. “The two of you were alone while you were singing. Just the two of you, alone in a room....”
“Yes, we were. Alone in a room. And, by the way, yes, she did fuck me. That is what you were tiptoeing around asking, isn’t it? Two girls alone in a room together. What else could they have been doing? Well, that is what we were doing. I sang to her, and she fucked me blind. That’s all. And it was really good.”
Zuvrin reddened. “Look, I didn’t mean to pry, really I didn’t. Only...I don’t suppose, while she was...intimate...she happened to mention the Stones of Power at all?”
Shíkra snorted. “Oh, by the gods, Zuvrin, have you any idea how foolish that sounded? Do you imagine that while I was, as you so delicately put it, intimate with her, I’d just happen to ask if she could tell me where the Palace’s secret magical power sources are located? I mean, even if I’d been interested in knowing, don’t you think that would have aroused a certain amount of suspicion? Oh, gods, Zuvrin, what am I going to do with you?”
Zuvrin was silent for a moment.
“Well, then,” he said eventually, “maybe you could carry some spell to her, on your skin or hair maybe, so that when she touched you....”
“They make me wear a wig,” said Shíkra. “The handmaidens, that is. And they make me wash all over. Even if that didn’t wash the spell away, they’d be sure to detect it. Anyway...I wouldn’t feel comfortable about killing her.”
“Wouldn’t feel comfortable?! Shíkra, this woman is personally responsible for the greatest tyranny the world has ever known. Millions have died or been enslaved thanks to her. Do you think she ever feels uncomfortable about that?”
Shíkra looked Zuvrin in the eye. “Yes, Zuvrin, I think she’s uncomfortable about it.”
“Yes, I’ve been intimate with her,” said Shíkra, “so close that I could almost feel what she was thinking. Zuvrin, I don’t believe the Empress is the true ruler. I got the impression that she’s just a figurehead - that the true power is lurking in the shadows somewhere. Alcenia is just a puppet and she hates what they have forced her to become. She hates being the focus of all of the world’s hatred, and she is deeply afraid of what she might become.”
Zuvrin considered this for some moments. Finally he said, “Look, Shíkra, don’t you see, it doesn’t matter if the Empress wants to rule or not. The fact is that the only way the Empire will ever fall is if its figurehead is seen to fall. Shíkra, we have to do something. We can’t let the Empire succeed or the world will never be free.”
“I won’t kill her, even if I could, Shíkra insisted, “and anyway I can’t because it’s impossible, so you’d better tell your friends to think of something else.”
Zuvrin sighed. “Look, Shíkra, nobody is better placed to do this. If not you, then who could we...ask?
Shíkra had a feeling he had been about to say, who could we use? and she didn’t like the idea of being a mere tool of the Resistance.
“Look,” she said, “I may be in the right place, but while I’m there I’m powerless. I can’t carry a weapon - not even in my mouth, somebody already tried that and died for it - and while I’m standing at the harp they put me under a spell that turns me rigid from the waist down.”
“Rigid?” said Zuvrin. “You mean...you can’t move at all below the waist?
To his surprise, he was aroused by the thought, so much so that it was almost enough to overcome the cellar’s sexual dampening spell.
Almost. But unfortunately, not quite.
“Not a muscle,” said Shíkra, who had not noticed his reaction. “My legs and hips might just as well be made of iron. Even if I could do anything to the Empress - anything apart from getting intimate, that is - I couldn’t escape. They’d just find me standing there and kill me or worse. No, Zuvrin, your Resistance will just have to come up with another plan.”
Zuvrin sighed, but to her relief he said no more on the subject of rebellion, and they both settled down to snatch whatever sleep they could get on their uncomfortable wooden bunks.
“Rigid,” he muttered.
He kept concentrating on the image of Shíkra standing by her harp, her lower body rigid as a statue’s, and eventually his arousal became great enough - just - for him to experience the kind of pleasure he had been denied for many moons, while the object of his fantasy slept peacefully nearby.
The next day Shíkra was sent for again while Zuvrin went back to his work gang. So while Shíkra stood rooted to her pedestal, singing for the Empress and receiving her caresses in return, Zuvrin and his fellow workers toiled upon a scaffold some twenty man-heights above the rocky ground. From time to time, when the supervisor wasn’t looking, Zuvrin would whisper to one of his co-workers, a secret leader of the Resistance, telling him piece by piece all that Shíkra had told him.
The Resistance leader looked thoughtful.
“This sounds like just what we need,” he said. “If the girl is really that close to the Empress, then we’ve got her.”
“Yes, but don’t forget what I told you,” said Zuvrin. “The girl can’t carry any kind of weapon. They search her everywhere. And while she’s standing on the pedestal she can’t move a muscle below the waist. There’s no way she could attack the Empress in that state. Anyway, she doesn’t want to. She’s fallen in love with her.”
The other man snorted. “Oh, great. Love. Why can’t women just go for meaningless physical gratification, like men? Love only complicates things. Damn, this would be a lot easier if we could simply destroy the Stones of Power, but they’re too well concealed. Still, a weapon doesn’t necessarily have to be physical, and while the Empress is busy fucking the girl she’ll be distracted and potentially vulnerable.”
“You’ve got something in mind, then?” said Zuvrin.
“Oh, yes,” his companion grinned. “Just give me a few nights to prepare it.”
Some days later, Alcenia was summoned to the shadowed room, and stood at its centre before the gaze of the robed and hooded council. Their faces were invisible beneath their cowls, and she was certain that they disguised their voices so she could not recognise them.
She suspected that they were people she met every day in the Palace. In daily life they might be humble guardsmen, scribes, cooks, cleaners, or even handmaidens. What better way to keep track of the Palace’s activities, and hers, than to be part of the Palace’s staff?
Here in the shadowy room, however, their rôles were very different, like that of Alcenia herself. Here their true nature was revealed, if not their true faces.
They were the masters of the world, and Alcenia was their puppet.
Just as her mother had been, and her mother before her, and untold generations of her family before them.
Alcenia hated the fate that history had thrust upon her, and there seemed to be no escape from it. Here in the shadowed room she felt as if the council’s gaze was indeed rooting her to the spot just as solidly as Shíkra’s feet were rooted to her pedestal. If she were to speak or show her impatience she knew they would punish her - always, of course, in ways that would leave no outward sign. The Empress was, after all, untouchable.
At least as far as the rest of the world was concerned.
After they had kept her waiting in the centre of the room for an uncomfortably long time one of them spoke without preamble. There was no rule as to which of the grey figures should speak first, nor any ceremonial phrasing. One would simply begin to speak in a half-whisper, impossible to identify as male or female.
“The tower is very nearly complete,” the figure said. “In fact, barring any more foolish sabotage attempts the crystal should be ready for installation by tomorrow afternoon. The whole of the Central Continent and more than one third of the Western Continent will come under our dominion. The Empire’s population will be more than doubled. What is more, the resonance between all seven crystals will so greatly increase their power as to completely eradicate our subjects’ ability to act against our will.”
The figure paused as if waiting for an answer.
“That is...excellent news,” said Alcenia, doing her best to sound enthusiastic.
After a long pause, another of the figures said, “Yes. You will be Empress of more than half the world. The greatest ruler in history.”
The greatest tyrant in history, she thought, ruler of a world of living puppets. I will be reviled by people in more lands than I could ever visit in a lifetime. My name will be cursed by people whose names I will never know, yet they will never be able to lift a finger against me.
Her stomach churned at the thought, but she forced herself to keep smiling.
Another of the hooded figures went on: “Once the subjugation of these regions is complete we can then begin construction of relay towers in the South Cape Mountains and the Stony Desert. These will further extend our range, and by continuing in this way we shall eventually construct a network of towers that will encompass the entire world.”
“An awesome prospect,” said another. “The whole world will be our demesne, and it will come to pass within our lifetimes.”
“Still,” said the first, “it would perhaps be as well to take matters as they come. For now, there is to be a grand celebration within the Palace as soon as the new tower is completed. Feasting, singing, dancing, the usual programme of events.”
“Speaking of singers,” said the one who had spoken third.
Oh, here it comes, thought Alcenia, and her stomach seemed to tie itself in knots.
“The new slave who has been singing for you,” the figure went on, and then paused.
After the silence had stretched uncomfortably, Alcenia realised that an answer was expected of her. “Yes,” she muttered. “She...is an excellent singer. I commend the Slavemaster in recognising her talents.”
“One of her fellow slaves has been seen consorting with a known troublemaker,” one of the figures told her. “It may not mean that she herself is a troublemaker, but...we would caution you against over-familiarity, Empress. We are well aware that it is not just her singing that you enjoy.”
Alcenia was taken aback, but still refused to show weakness before her jailors. “May not the Empress use her slaves as she desires?” she asked, as deferentially as she could.
“It is the Empress’s desires that concern us,” one replied. “We believe the fate of Emperor Sadriskan has already been mentioned to you.”
Had her handmaiden told them that, Alcenia wondered, or was she one of them? She would have liked nothing better than to tear the shutters from the windows and the hoods from the faces of her so-called Servants, so that she might know whose pride and ambition was ruining so many millions of lives. But should she even attempt it she knew that her own life would become a living torment.
“Have a care, Alcenia,” they told her. “We are always watching you.”
“I know it,” she breathed, finally allowing her bitterness to show.
“Then go,” they said, and with a feeling of immense relief she went.
They had cautioned her about Shíkra but had not taken any action against her. Not yet, at least. For that Alcenia was profoundly grateful, although if they did decide to do something about her Alcenia knew there was very little she could do to protect her.
That afternoon Shíkra sang for the Empress again, and the Empress held and caressed her so fiercely that she cried out.
“I’m sorry, Shíkra,” said Alcenia. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s just...the stress of ruling the Empire. There are more problems and pressures than you might think.”
And she whispered in Shíkra’s ear: “I’m worried for you, Shíkra. I fear those who rule in my name will try to punish me by hurting you, and I’m not certain I can protect you.”
Shíkra muttered, “I am a slave, Highness. I’m used to punishment”.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” whispered Alcenia. “If there was any way to change it I would. But in spite of all my luxury I’m just as much a slave in my own way as you are.”
Shíkra thought about what Zuvrin had told her. If the Resistance succeeded in its goals there would certainly be change. The lot of the slaves as a whole might improve, but the Palace would be the front line of any conflict and neither the Empress nor her singer would be safe.
And Shíkra’s own life might be forfeit if she were to breathe a word of the Resistance to the Empress.
And so she merely whispered, “We must face the future with courage, Highness. It is all that any of us can do.”
The Empress nodded, and after a moment she began to make love to Shíkra more gently.
Meanwhile, Zuvrin and the Resistance leader stood upon their platform, hauling stone blocks into position while doing their best not to look down.
“Come on, you lazy frenniks,” the Supervisor bellowed. “This thing’s supposed to be finished by tomorrow, and you’re still more than three man-heights short of the top. And for those of you who can’t count, I’ll explain what that means: it means, ‘get a chagging move on or you’ll be flogged’. Got that?”
Annoying as the Supervisor’s rants were, they did at least drown out Zuvrin’s whispered conversations with his contact.
“All right,” the Resistance leader told him. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Your friend is the Empress’s singer, so we can get at the Empress through song.”
“What do you mean by that?” Zuvrin asked him.
“It’s very simple. A spell concealed within a song. All your little songbird has to do is sing it to the Empress and it will drain her physical and magical strength, rendering her helpless while the Resistance storms the Palace.”
“Sounds too easy if you ask me,” said Zuvrin.
“Our best sorcerers have been working on the spell for years,” the Resistance man told him, “but this is the first time they’ve had an opportunity to use it in earnest.”
“So...how do you get the spell to Shíkra in the first place?”
“Nothing simpler. In a few moments I’ll start singing while I work. That’ll be the tune with the spell. All you have to do is memorise it - it’s made to lodge in the memory - and then sing it to the girl while she sleeps. She won’t remember where she’s heard it, but next time she’s with the Empress she won’t be able to keep from singing it. And that’s when the spell will take effect.”
“Look, I don’t want anything to happen to Shíkra,” said Zuvrin. “I’ll do this only on condition that she won’t be harmed by this spell of yours.”
“You have my word,” said the Resistance leader. “The spell will only make her a little dizzy. And if what you told me is true, she won’t even fall down.”
“Well, all right, said Zuvrin. “But you’d just better be right, that’s all.”
Presently the Resistance man began humming in time with his work, and it was such a catchy tune that several of the other workmen joined in.
“Grebbing noise,” muttered the Supervisor. But since the men seemed to be working faster to the rhythm, he did not order them to shut up.
Zuvrin memorised the tune - he could hardly help but memorise it, since it was magically designed to lodge in the memory - and when the shift finally ended he climbed wearily down the tower and made his way back to the Slave Quarters.
His companion followed as far as the entrance and then went to his own bunk in another part of the cellar. Shortly he was joined by another man.
“Does he suspect?” whispered the newcomer.
“Of course not. I told him it’ll just debilitate them for a while.”
“And did he believe you?”
“Of course he did, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken the bait.”
The newcomer looked thoughtful. “Weren’t you taking a risk, singing the spell out loud like that? The Empress and her cronies might get to hear of it.”
“And what if they do? Lots of men sing while they work. What’s one more song more or less? And if anyone who happened to hear it should, for some unknown reason, sing it to the Empress while she’s in her chambers, it’ll have exactly the same effect. Anyway, our bird’s taken the worm, and tomorrow the Empress and all her staff will be dead.”
“At last. Tell me...will it be a painful death?”
“Oh, yes, my friend. I guarantee it. The screams will echo as far as the southern mountains.”
They both grinned widely at the thought.
“Tell your people to be ready. By this time tomorrow we’ll be wearing the Palace’s finest silks, bathing in its finest wines, and weighed down with its gold and gems, while we piss on the piles of ash that will be all that’s left of our former masters.”
By early next morning, much to the Supervisor’s astonishment, the final stone of the tower was cemented into place. All that was left was the installation of the crystal.
That was far too delicate an operation to be entrusted to slave workers. The slaves had been ordered to dismantle the scaffolding, and once that was done they had been told to stand well back from the tower and observe the proceedings.
Nobody minded that. It was not often that the slaves were ordered to stop working.
Zuvrin found himself standing next to the Resistance leader again. He suspected that that was no coincidence.
“Not long now,” said the man, and Zuvrin knew he was not talking about the crystal.
Presently the Palace’s great doors were swung open and seven red-robed sorcerers emerged. Behind them, upon a pallet that floated a hand’s breadth above the ground, was the seventh crystal, more brilliant than any diamond in the reflected sunslight even though it was not yet generating light of its own. It was almost three times the height of a man, more than two cubits larger than any of the other crystals. The crowd gasped and applauded. The sorcerers paid them no heed.
Each of the sorcerers took up a position at the base of one of the towers. The one at the base of the new tower was accompanied by the crystal on its floating pallet. They raised their staffs, and the light from the other crystals was dimmed as their energies were channelled by the sorcerers.
Slowly and majestically the seventh crystal began to rise. After a moment it could be seen to float a finger’s breadth above the ground; then another; then another; then another...
There was more applause, which gradually died down as it began to dawn on the slaves that this was going to take some time.
Eventually the crystal did speed up a little, until it was crawling up the side of the tower at about a finger’s breadth per heartbeat.
At that rate it was still going to take at least an hour before it reached the top.
The slaves had been ordered to stand and watch until it reached the top, and so they did, thankful that the suns were not yet at their peak, and that the other crystals were no longer shining at their full intensity.
Once more Shíkra stood at the golden harp, her legs frozen, eagerly awaiting the Empress’s presence. A new tune had come to her while she slept, and she was eager to sing it for Alcenia.
She was of course completely unaware that it was the spell-song devised by the Resistance. Zuvrin had told her nothing of that plan, but had quietly hummed the tune to her while she had fallen asleep.
Just as the Resistance had planned, the tune had lodged in her mind and driven out the memory of where she had heard it.
Presently the Empress entered, slipped out of her bath towel and reclined upon her velvet cushions.
“I have a busy schedule today,” she told Shíkra. “There’s a ceremony to mark the completion of the new tower and the activation of the crystal. I have to stand at the base of the tower and chant some words which will supposedly make the crystal ignite. Of course, in reality I’ll be taking a cue from one of the sorcerers who are tapping the crystal into the St...”
Alcenia stopped, as she suddenly realised she was giving far too much information to a mere slave, however intimate she might be with her.
Shíkra knew she had been about to say the Stones of Power. Once again it came down to the mysterious Stones, whose whereabouts were known to none save, it was claimed, the Empress and her most trusted servants.
“Well, never mind all that,” said Alcenia. “There’s the ceremony, and then the celebratory Palace banquet and dance this evening, so I’d like to hear something relaxing before all the official hurly-burly begins.”
Shíkra smiled. “I think you will enjoy this song, then, Highness. It has no words yet, but the tune is pleasant.”
And Shíkra’s fingers glided smoothly over the golden harp’s strings as, in all innocence, she began to intone the Resistance’s spell-song.
The song that was designed to kill the Empress, and all who were close to her.
More than an hour had passed by the time the slowly rising crystal finally came level with the top of the tower. The slaves watched, mutely obeying their command to stand and wait.
They were not aware that once the crystal was activated its power would make them even more obedient, like it or not.
All seven sorcerers were still standing like statues at the base of the towers. Channelling the energy to lift the giant crystal must have taken an enormous effort, yet despite the heat of the day and the thickness of their robes they were not even sweating.
The sorcerer at the base of the new tower gestured with his staff and seemed about to speak, when something unexpected happened.
The entire Palace seemed to glow, first red, then green, then finally pale blue. The blue light then lanced out to the summits of the six older towers. Their crystals took up the light and began refracting it, so that the entire landscape seemed to turn blue.
As the blue light struck Zuvrin he was filled with a powerful sense of vigour and well-being. For a moment he wondered if the spell he had sung to Shíkra had anything to do with it.
And then someone cried out in alarm and he looked up and saw that the sorcerers’ levitation spell had failed. The new crystal was falling.
Without a moment’s hesitation the crowd turned and ran. Zuvrin ran with them, grateful for the sudden vigour that had come upon him. It seemed that the rest of them were feeling it as well.
There was a sound like a thousand windows breaking, and the ground shook so violently that the running slaves were knocked off their feet. Lightning-like discharges crackled about them, making them feel as if insects were crawling over their bodies.
Once the discharges had stopped and the dust had settled, they picked themselves up and turned to see the extent of the damage.
The crystal had struck the ground so violently that the stone was cracked for tens of cubits in every direction. The crystal itself had shattered into millions of shards ranging from twice the height of a man to the width of a child’s finger. Fortunately the shards had rounded edges, possibly because of the crystal’s magic properties, so it was possible to walk over and around them without risk of injury.
There was no sign of the sorcerers. They seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Not all of the crowd had run. Zuvrin was puzzled to see many of the slaves and what looked like all of their Supervisors still standing where they had originally been. Not only had they remained where they were, but the crystal’s impact had not knocked them over. It was as if they had been rooted in place.
Zuvrin approached one of them, and realised that he was looking at the Resistance leader.
The man was standing like a statue, which was not surprising as his body seemed to have turned to dull grey stone. He was rooted in place: his feet were fused to the cracked grey stone of the courtyard.
“They’ve turned to stone,” said another of the slaves nearby. “They’re all statues!”
“But why them and not us?” said another. “Was it because they didn’t run?”
Zuvrin said, “I don’t think they could run. I think they were frozen the moment the blue light struck.”
“But then why weren’t we all affected?”
Zuvrin looked at the towers. The crystals were still glowing blue, although their intensity had faded.
“Maybe because we’re not evil,” muttered Zuvrin.
He stared at the Resistance leader’s impassive stone face.
“You lied to me. Your spell was supposed to kill the Empress, wasn’t it?” said Zuvrin. “And Shíkra too. You didn’t care who else might get hurt, just as long as you brought down the Empire. Well, I don’t know what your spell has done to Shíkra or the Empress, or the Empire for that matter. But just look what it’s done to you.”
The Resistance leader had no choice but to stare back.
“You’re not dead, are you?” said Zuvrin. “I sense it somehow. You’re alive and trapped in stone. Well, maybe you deserve it and maybe you don’t, but one thing’s sure. There’s nothing either of us can do about it.”
And with that Zuvrin turned and left his former colleague forever.
Picking their way carefully over the shattered courtyard, the slaves approached the Palace. As they passed the towers they discovered what had become of the sorcerers.
“Good gods,” said one of them, “it’s even worse than the others.”
Each of the sorcerers was encased within a large upright crystal shard. Somehow, when the crystal had shattered the shards had absorbed their bodies, leaving their robes and other clothing outside. The sorcerers were as rigid and motionless as the stone people, and also seemed to be alive, despite the impossibility of breathing through crystal.
Several of the slaves had reached the Palace doors and were heaving and tugging at the handles in an apparently futile attempt to open them.
Some of the workers then began attacking the huge wooden doors with hammers and crowbars. The blows sounded curiously muffled, as if the doors were made of cloth rather than wood. Not only did the doors not budge, but the tools did not even scratch the paintwork.
“It’s sorcery, that’s what it is,” gasped one of the men after several minutes of useless exertion. “Maybe if we tried a battering ram...”
“I don’t think that would work,” said Zuvrin. “I reckon whatever’s causing this is the same thing that froze all those people. Our friends in the crystals might have an idea what’s going on, but they’re not talking either.”
Some of the slaves were not satisfied with Zuvrin’s opinion.
“If we can’t get in here we’ll break down the side doors or smash the windows,” they told him. “This place is full of gold and jewels and we deserve payback for what we’ve been through all these years.”
“And what will you do if you succeed in getting in? Will you kill the Palace staff for the gold?”
This made them pause for thought, but only for a moment.
“No,” one of them told him. “I used to hate them for making me a slave, but now...no, I don’t have any taste for killing.”
The others murmured in agreement.
“Anyway, he continued, “I reckon they’ll all be turned to stone like the others. Can’t wait to find out.”
This brought a louder cry of assent, and the party set off around the Palace in search of another entry.
Zuvrin watched them depart. The palace was more than two thousand cubits wide, so getting around to the other entrances would take a little while, and Zuvrin was sure they would have no more luck there.
But what if they were right about the Palace staff being turned to stone? Was Shíkra also standing stiff and helpless like the living statues in the courtyard? He had to admit that it seemed likely, but there was no way to find out for certain.
Burying his head in his hands, he sank down upon the marble steps. “Oh, Shíkra,” he moaned. “What’s become of you? What have I done to you? Oh, if only I could see you.”
Had some sorcery given him the power to see into the Empress’s Retiring Room not half an hour before, Zuvrin would have learned the truth....
Shíkra smiled. “I think you will enjoy this song, then, Highness. It has no words yet, but the tune is pleasant.”
And Shíkra’s fingers glided smoothly over the golden harp’s strings as, in all innocence, she began to intone the Resistance’s spell-song.
The song that was designed to kill the Empress, and all who were close to her.
At first there was no sign that anything was amiss. Shíkra sang wordlessly and played her harp, and Alcenia closed her eyes and let Shíkra’s heavenly voice transport her to a state of tranquil euphoria.
But then a subtle unease began to creep over her, and she realised something was wrong. She opened her eyes.
The harp strings were beginning to glow where Shíkra touched them.
Alarmed, Alcenia tried to get up, but an unseen force pushed her back onto the couch.
“Sh-shíkra,” she cried, “S-stop s-s-singing! Y-you... h-h-h-have... t-to... s-s-stop... n-n-n-NOW!”
The entire harp was now glowing red.
“I... want... to... stop... singing... but... I... can’t...” sang Shíkra.
In other circumstances that would have sounded funny, but what was happening to them was no laughing matter.
“Some... thing’s... ma... king... me... fin... ish... the... song... High... ness...”
“I-i-it’s... a... s-s-spell...” gasped Alcenia.
The air seemed to be growing stale. It was becoming hard to breathe.
Shikra sang, “High... ness... your... couch... is... glow... ing...”
And so it was. Both the harp and the couch were shining like red hot metal, yet were quite cool.
“I-i-it’s... th-the... S-s-stones... of... p-power...” groaned Alcenia. “Th-they... a-are... t-t-trying... t-to... f-f-fight... b-back... ag-g-gainst... th-th-the... sp-p-pell...”
Shíkra’s eyes widened as she sang, “Stones... of... Pow... er...? You... mean... the... harp... and... the... couch... are... real... ly... the... Stones... of... Pow... er... in... dis... guise...?”
But Alcenia could not answer. She felt as if a great weight were pressing down upon her, threatening to crush the life out of her. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe.
The song, thought Alcenia. The spell is embedded within the music. Did Shíkra know? Would she betray me like this after all the pleasure we have shared?
But Alcenia knew the answer. Shíkra would never betray her. Somehow she had been tricked into singing the spell, and now it was killing both of them and attempting to destroy the Empire’s source of power into the bargain.
So it ends, she thought. The Palace will fall and the people will be free.
Her only regret was that Shíkra would die too. The poor girl deserved better, even if she had inadvertently brought destruction upon her Empress.
Oh, gods, if you can hear me, she thought, I don’t care what happens to me, but save Shíkra, I beg you. She doesn’t deserve to die like this.
As if in answer to her prayer the pressure seemed to ease slightly. The light was turning green. Alcenia tried to stand but her limbs were still being pressed against the cushions.
Shíkra was no longer singing. It seemed the spell was complete.
“Shíkra,” gasped Alcenia, “C-can you speak?”
“Y...yes, Highness, but I feel so strange.”
“It’s the Stones,” said Alcenia. “They’re trying to fight the spell.”
“W-w-what’s going to happen to us?” cried Shíkra.
“I don’t know,” said Alcenia. “There are powerful forces in conflict here, and we are trapped between them. There is no telling what the outcome may be. We can do nothing but wait, and hope we survive.”
“I’m sorry, Highness,” said Shíkra. “The spell was not of my making. I don’t know how I came to hear that song. If I’d had any idea...”
“I know, Shíkra,” said Alcenia. “I don’t blame you. Somehow you must have been tricked into singing the song.”
“Zuvrin,” breathed Shíkra. “I never would have believed he could do such a thing. Unless someone else tricked him into doing it...”
“Treachery, lies and deception,” muttered Alcenia. “The very things upon which the Empire was built. How ironic that they should also sow the seeds of its downfall. If anything good comes of this, Shíkra, it will be the end of the Empire. Your people - all the people - will be free again.”
“I...I’m glad, m-mistress,” said Shíkra.
The pressure was lessening, but Alcenia still could not rise from the couch.
Shíkra was no longer playing. Her arms had grown as still as her legs.
The couch and the harp were now glowing an incandescent blue. Both women felt that something was about to happen.
There was a sudden flash, and their bodies jolted as energy lanced through them. It was startling rather than painful, and once the wave had passed they were left feeling surprisingly tranquil. A moment later there was a rumbling like distant thunder. Both the chair and the harp were shaken by the vibration.
Outside the Palace, the great crystal had fallen.
The glow had faded to a pale blue. It was now the only illumination in the room, since the glowing ceiling panels had been extinguished.
Is it over now? thought Alcenia. Once more she tried to stand up.
She couldn’t move. She was sitting like a statue. She could not even feel herself breathing.
She could do nothing but stare at Shíkra, who appeared to be equally frozen.
And then she found herself looking from a different perspective at a young woman with a stunning body and a melancholy expression who reclined in an ornate chair....
It took a moment to realise that she was looking at herself through Shíkra’s eyes.
+Highness?+ thought Shíkra. +What’s happening?+
And Alcenia could hear her thoughts.
+Somehow the magical energy within this room has linked our minds together,+ thought Alcenia. +We can communicate without speaking.+
+But I can’t speak,+ thought Shíkra. +I can’t move at all. It’s as if the spell that froze my legs had moved up to the rest of my body.+
+Neither of us can move,+ thought Alcenia. +I think the spell that held you got mixed up with all the other magic that was flying around the room and became much more powerful. And this is the result.+
+But...mistress, your skin! It’s changed colour! It’s...+
+Yes, Shíkra,+ thought Alcenia. +So has yours.+
It was true. In the blue light of the Stones of Power, their flesh had taken on a metallic sheen.
+We’re not flesh and blood any more, Shíkra,+ thought Alcenia. +We are no longer truly alive.+
+No, mistress, it can’t be. It’s impossible!+
+With magic, Shíkra, nothing is impossible,+ Alcenia thought gently.
+Our bodies have turned to bronze. We are statues, Shíkra. Living statues. We will never move again.+
The party who had set out with the intention of looting the place had eventually returned empty-handed and humiliated. The Palace was sealed by magic. There was no way in or out. The doors could not be forced off their hinges and the windows could not be broken.
It was just as Zuvrin suspected. “You shouldn’t feel too bad about it,” he told them. “There’s no fighting sorcery. Even if you’d managed to get in somehow, all the valuables would have been protected by spells anyway. They’d probably have killed you or turned you to stone as well, or something worse.”
Only the Slave Quarters were still open to the grounds, and the slaves who emerged from the cellar spoke of their experiences, confirming some of Zuvrin’s suspicions.
“There was this blue glow and all the Palace staff stopped moving,” they said. “It affected some of us too. Those of us who weren’t affected felt compelled to make our way to the cellar, and once we were all down there the doors to the stairways closed behind us. Some of the slaves down there were also frozen. Anyway, you can’t get back into the Palace that way either.”
“You didn’t see Shíkra?” said Zuvrin, and gave a description.
“All of the slaves who could move got out of the cellars,” he was told. “If she’s not up here already, then...well...”
Zuvrin moaned and sank to his knees.
“Poor little Shíkra,” he sobbed. “Turned to stone. Paralysed forever. And it’s all my fault.”
The other former slaves comforted him as best they could. After a while he stood and took one last look at the Palace. Then, with a muttered “Goodbye, little Shíkra,” he walked away and never looked back.
It was approaching midday. The six crystals in the towers were still glowing with pale blue light. Instead of enslaving the Empire’s subjects, their power was now freeing them.
“What can we do now?” someone said, speaking for all the slaves. “We have no homes and no possessions except the clothes on our backs, if any. At least the Palace kept us fed, but we can’t even get to the kitchens now.”
Another spoke up in reply: “We can work, that’s what we can do. That’s what we’ve been forced to do all these years, but now that we are no longer slaves we can offer our services to people who will give us food and clothing and shelter in return for work. I have a feeling that none of the Empire’s former soldiers will object to the formation of a new economy based on honest toil. I’ll admit it may be hard for a while until things settle down, but we can survive it. If we survived being the Empire’s slaves we can do anything.”
Throughout the former Empire as the blue light washed away the Palace’s control, similar speeches were heard as former slaves prepared to strike up new relationships with their former masters.
The Empire was gone. Most of the people never learned how or why it was gone. They merely rejoiced at its passing.
The society that replaced the Empire was not paradise.
But it would do.
A year passed. Deep within the Palace Shíkra and Alcenia stood and sat like the statues they were and watched the blue radiance slowly fading away.
Helpless as they were, they took great comfort from each other’s company. They told each other everything about themselves, of the places they had seen, the things they had done, the clothes they liked to wear and the food they liked to eat, and their favourite songs and stories.
In this way they remained sane and relatively content.
+Why hasn’t anyone found us, Alcenia?+ thought Shíkra.
It had taken some time, but she had finally broken the habit of calling her Highness.
+Why has no one entered the Palace to find out what happened here?+
+I don’t know, Shíkra,+ thought Alcenia. +Maybe sorcery is preventing it.+
+Oh, I hope someone finds us soon,+ Shíkra thought. +The light from the Stones is almost gone, and I don’t want to stand in the dark forever.+
Outside the Palace the light from the crystals was also fading. The Palace grounds were deserted now except for the stone figures that lined the courtyard, and the seven encased in crystal. Few people ever came to the Palace any more. The place had too many unpleasant memories for most people, and nobody had ever managed to break in and steal anything.
Eventually the new Government decided that the Palace should be treated as an architectural treasure, and so a few official guards were posted to keep an eye on the place.
The people joked that the guards were there to try and stop anyone stealing the building.
Then one day one of the guards happened to check one of the Palace doors.
The guard went flying to his officer, who went flying to the Governor, who immediately ordered a platoon to ring the Palace in case anyone else found out it was no longer sealed and decided to loot the place hollow.
A little later the Governor decided the Palace’s treasures should be removed, catalogued and placed under lock and key until such time as the Government decided what to do with them.
And so teams of treasurers and art historians began moving through the Palace, picking their way between the stone bodies, carefully retrieving and cataloguing everything of value, from jewelled brooches to marble latrines.
It was the greatest collection the world had ever seen, plundered from the entire territory of the Empire. Deciding just what to do with it all was proving a major headache for the new Government.
And so it was not until another whole moon had passed that the cataloguers finally entered the room at the heart of the Palace and discovered two astonishing life-size statues of nude girls.
+They found us!+ thought Shíkra.
+At last. Now perhaps we’ll see daylight again.+
Alcenia was right. For the next few days they were studied and sketched and surreptitiously fondled by the Government’s art experts. They didn’t mind the fondling very much. Then a group of thickset workers, many of them former slaves, carried them slowly through the Palace’s broad corridors, pausing to add a few fondles of their own whenever they had a chance.
The Palace’s once-magnificent corridors were now stripped of their fixtures and fittings and lit by oil lanterns. From time to time they passed the stone body of some Palace servant or official. The frozen people were all fixed to the floor. Try as they might, the workers had found it impossible to shift them, although they had been able to remove most of their jewels.
+Stone,+ thought Alcenia. +They’re all stone. And they’re alive like us, I can feel it.+
+Yes,+ thought Shíkra, +but they’re trapped in their heads. They can’t even talk to each other like we can.+
+Gods,+ thought Alcenia. +Even after all they did, I’m not sure they deserve this.+
+There’s nothing we can do for them, Alcenia,+ thought Shíkra. +There would be nothing you could do even if you were still Empress and had all of the Palace’s power at your disposal.+
+It was never really at my disposal anyway,+ thought Alcenia.
Eventually they were carried through the Palace’s great entrance hall and out through its huge portal. Shíkra of course had never passed that way before, and she was impressed by the size of the place, even though it had been stripped bare like the rest of the Palace.
The workers carried the two statues out into the overcast courtyard and carefully set them down. A dark-clad Government official walked over and consulted a list.
“Ah, yes,” she said. “Item number G-126-001: ‘Bronze statue of a nude girl standing at a harp.’ Item number G-126-002: ‘Bronze statue of a nude girl reclining upon an ornate couch.’ I must say the descriptions don’t do them justice. They could almost be alive.”
And she could not resist adding her own caresses to those they had already received, under the pretext of examining their surfaces for flaws. Needless to say she found none, but Shíkra and Alcenia appreciated her thoroughness.
The official was then called away by her supervisor, and the girls were left alone for a moment. From where she sat, Alcenia could see some of the sorcerers encased in their crystalline prisons.
+How ironic,+ she thought. +They probably know the spells that could release them, but they’re not able to use them.+
+So what do you suppose will happen to us now?+ thought Shíkra. +Will they put us in a gallery?+
+I expect so,+ thought Alcenia. +I just hope they don’t put us in a glass case. I’d rather we were somewhere people could still touch us.+
+Oh, Alcenia, I hope they don’t separate us. I couldn’t bear to be parted from you.+
+I don’t think we’ll ever really be parted, Shíkra. Even if our bodies are far apart, our minds will always be linked.+
+Im glad about that, Alcenia. Wherever they put us, you know that I will always...+
Just at that moment there was a break in the clouds, and for the first time the girls’ bronze bodies were exposed to the light of the twin suns.
What they felt was more than mere warmth. It was an astonishing feeling of pleasure and well-being that continued to build and build until it surpassed the most intense orgasms they had ever given each other.
+Oh...oh, Shíkra, this is wonderful,+ thought Alcenia. +It’s like making love with you, only better.+
+It is lovemaking, Alcenia,+ Shíkra thought. +It’s our love for each other, transformed into physical pleasure. Somehow the suns shining on our bodies have unlocked it.+
+Oh, it’s so beautiful! Shíkra, I wish it could last forever!+
And she felt Shíkra laughing in her mind. +It will, Alcenia,+ her lover told her. +It will!+
The Government official and her supervisor were in the middle of a boring policy discussion when a sudden gleam caught their eyes, and they turned back to the two statues.
“Well, will you look at that,” said the supervisor.
“I don’t understand,” said the official. “The manifest quite clearly states -”
“Well, the lighting in the Palace is a bit dim,” said the supervisor, surreptitiously sliding a hand down the harpist statue’s back. “The assessors obviously mistook what they were seeing.”
“But I could have sworn they were bronze when I first saw them.”
“Well, whatever you may have thought you saw, there’s no doubt now about what they are.”
And indeed there was not.
In the light of the suns, the two nude girls were shining with the unmistakable sheen of pure gold.
From Tyler Kojen on June 12, 2004: