Hami’s eyes were on her now. He wasn’t going to let her wander off again.
“I told you we shouldn’t have picked him up,” Mehrak whispered.
“He was protecting me,” Sammy said, although she wasn’t sure she believed that any more. The violence he’d unleashed on that woman sent shivers down her spine. Her dad was an aggressive man. She’d heard the stories. But now that she’d witnessed that kind of aggression in real life, it upset her to think of him inflicting the same kind of force on another human being.
“Protecting you from that defenceless old woman?” Mehrak was struggling to keep his voice low. “Did you see what he did to her neck?”
“My dad would have done the same thing if he saw someone grab me.”
“From what you’ve told me about him, I’m sure he would. What would your mum have done?”
“What does my mum have to do with anything? She doesn’t like violence.”
“Good for her.” They turned a corner in the road. “Anyway, who was that woman?”
Sammy stopped. Thoughts of her father vanished as her heart lifted in wonder at the sight before her.
Below them sprawled a vast plaza filled with a dense grid of shimmering lamp posts. Further off, in the centre, sat the palace,
overlooking the lamp posts. It was perched on a steep cone of rock and fused with Honton Keep’s ceiling at the top.
Sammy jogged down the steps into the plaza.
The lamp posts were sculpted to look like trees. Some were of the traditional vertical pole variety, a few had branches, some forked and some only had a slight bend or crooked section in the middle. Those that had multiple branches had lamps at the end of each limb. And no two were alike.
The place had a magical quality. The feeling you get when Christmas lights go up and you know the holidays are coming, filled with sweets and presents. Sammy moved through the posts, weaving her way in and out, and hanging off the metal branches. Hami’s eyes remained on her and she spied him bristling the further away she got, but she didn’t care.
Mehrak caught up to her. He had a big, cheesy grin on his face, and the lamplight sparkled in his eyes. He followed her to a square, hidden among the lamp posts, where a group of men were raising buckets of water from a well.
They both stopped a moment to watch.
“That’s where the Keep gets its water,” Mehrak said. “There’s an underground river that runs below Muniment Rock.” He walked on while Sammy stayed and watched the men hauling water. All she had to do in the Mother World was turn on a tap. She wondered if she’d ever use a tap again. Maybe she could introduce taps to Perseopia. Make a few quid for herself. Maybe she could ‘invent’ other modern gadgets that she’d had back in the Mother World. In a few years’ time she’d be rich. How did you build a PlayStation or an iPhone, anyway? Thinking about it, there wasn’t actually that much she knew how to build. Could she even build a tap?
“Sammy!” Mehrak called from up ahead. “Look at the palace!”
She ran to catch up. She’d figure out how a tap worked over the next few days. Once she’d gotten that sussed out, she’d move onto games consoles and tellies.
The palace loomed above the metal forest on its cone of rock. At a glance, it seemed that the building was perched on top of a hill, surrounded by a steel forest, but in reality the palace and mound probably joined the ceiling to the floor as a colossal load-bearing structure.
Hami and the Marzban caught up to Sammy and Mehrak and led them up the stairs to the palace.
At the top of the mound, two men in crimson uniforms, navy robes and red conical hats stood to attention on either side of tall, golden doors.
Narok went to talk to them. There was a brief exchange and the men parted to let him in. Everyone else waited outside.
Even high up by the palace, market traders could be heard echoing across the Keep. Sammy gazed up at the expansive stone ceiling bearing down on the palace. She still couldn’t get over the size of the place and how all of it had been carved into the top of a mountain.
The palace alone was an impressive piece of stone work. It stood at three storeys high, with a row of gold-rimmed windows on each floor. The architecture was heavy and functional, all right angles, thick lintels and there were bars over the windows. Probably throwbacks to when the city had been a prison. An attempt had been made at some point in the past to soften the flat, blocky surfaces, but it hadn’t entirely worked. The balconies, lintels and columns had been engraved with intricate carvings to give the impression they were covered in wildlife. Balustrades on the balconies were covered with twisted vines and leaves. Columns had been turned into coiled snakes with heads at the top. The walls had spiralling patterns of dragonflies and butterflies, and spider webs had been carved under window ledges. The stone masons had tried hard, and the carvings were beautiful, but it brought to mind the phrase ‘putting lipstick on a pig.’
Sammy watched Hami. His eyes were bloodshot and watering. There was no honour in what he’d done to Esther. Her dad would never have acted that way. She refused to believe it.
Hami dry-retched and noticed her looking. He smiled insincerely, showing his teeth slick with black slime.
Strolling through the lamp post forest, Sammy had temporarily forgotten about the significance of Esther being here in Perseopia. The woman must’ve followed her after she’d unlocked the bracelet. But how? And why had she acted as if Sammy were a stranger?
“I can’t believe we’re about to enter Honton Keep Palace,” Mehrak said. “Do you know how often I’ve dreamt of this day?”
“Seven times?” Sammy replied. She was still watching Hami and not really listening.
“Hundreds, more like. Honton Keep Palace has the largest surviving library in all Perseopia. There are hundreds of rare books in here. There’s bound to be information …”
Hami’s eyes narrowed to slits.
Mehrak faltered, cleared his throat, “… information that will be useful for my studies.” He rubbed his hands together. “The years I’ve spent scrounging around in second-rate markets for the slimmest whiff of a book. My grandfather told me there are six storeys of books in the library here.”
Hami’s eyes were burning holes into the back of Mehrak’s skull as he wittered on about the trials of amateur book collecting, but then Narok reappeared and gestured everyone inside.
They crossed the threshold of the palace and the doors closed behind them, silencing the sounds of the Keep outside.
The lobby was large enough to fit Sammy’s entire house. The floor was tiled in an extraordinary light brown marble that looked like it had swirls of smoke captured inside, and columns of the same stone lined either side of the room. Grand arches connected candlelit anterooms, and at the far end of the hall a wide staircase rose from the floor and split in half, each section curving up and
around to a galleried landing above. Two sentries dressed in red stood at the bottom of the staircase.
“Luggage to the south wing,” Narok said to Leiss and Borzin. The men bowed and carried the bags away through an adjoining arch.
Narok led the rest of them along a narrow red and gold embroidered carpet the length of the lobby, and up the stairs. They took the left-hand fork to the gallery, then down an adjoining corridor. At the top of a second staircase, they travelled a grand corridor, passing lecterns, urns and sculptures of royal-looking people, and arriving at a thick set of gold doors at the end.
Narok pushed the doors open and let everyone inside.
They entered a plush office the size of a five-aside pitch. It was filled with brightly coloured divans and dripped with lavish ornaments that sparkled in the candlelight.
Against the back wall sat a single wide desk.
Mehrak began examining each of the ornaments in turn. He made it halfway round the room and stopped.
“Look at all this wood!” he said. “I’ve never seen so much in my life. It’s beautiful.”
On one of the long side walls hung a large piece of carved wood. It was the size of a sitting room rug and around three inches deep. The scene carved into it showed hundreds of finely sculpted soldiers fighting in a monumental battle.
“It’s just a piece of wood,” Sammy said as she sat down on a pink divan. “What’s the big deal?”
“All the trees in Perseopia died over a hundred years ago when the skies clouded over,” Mehrak said over his shoulder. “Then they went rotten and there was a plague of ambrosia beetles. All the bugs left behind was mush. The Fungi Forest grew from the mush and only treated wood, a few books and some paper survived. There are only a handful of museums and private collectors in possession of wooden artefacts now. I had no idea it could be so beautiful.”
“Hami’s staff is wood,” Sammy said. “And what about all this furniture?” She gestured around the room. “The desk? The chairs?”
“How can you not know what furniture is made from?” Narok asked. “And yet you’ve heard of wood?”
Hami sat down next to Sammy. “The child comes from a neglected background,” he said, before she could answer for herself. “She’s had an unconventional upbringing.”
“But …” Sammy said and stopped. Hami’s arm had slipped up behind her and his hand gripped the back of her neck. He applied pressure, and while it didn’t hurt, it was enough that she knew to stop talking. Neither Narok nor Mehrak could see Hami’s arm behind her or his fingers concealed in her hair.
“Mushrooms,” Hami said to Sammy, turning to face her, locking eyes. “Furniture is made from mushroom stalks. The stalk is the toughest part. Cut them into sections, dry them, then varnish several times to harden. You were right about my staff, though. It’s wood. But that’s because it’s over three hundred years old and has been well-preserved.”
“I wondered why you asked me if I liked having green furniture,” Mehrak said, as he continued to stare at the wooden carving. “Sammy, look.” He pointed at one of the figures in the scene.
Sammy shoved herself away from Hami and darted over to him.
“This big guy here with the four spikes on his helmet, that’s General Azim Azertash. The General. He was the giant warrior I told you about that fought with the Association. Look at the size of him. That must mean this is the Assault on Aratta.”
“That scene is of the Second,” Hami said.
“The Second?” Mehrak asked. “As in the Second Battle? No, it isn’t. The General died when the palace blew up during the assault.”
“He didn’t,” Hami said. “He survived and joined the Order. That carving represents the Second Battle. After he’d turned.”
Mehrak frowned. “Turned?”
“Look closely,” Hami said. “The men he’s fighting look like Marzban. They have the same cloaks and turbans because Marzban uniform is based on the Association battle robes. The General is killing Association men in that carving.”
The figure of the General was a lot larger than those of the other men. He had the neck of a bull and an undulating cloak which had been expertly cut into the wood to make it look like it was flowing behind him. In each hand he gripped a spiked club, one of which had connected with the neck of an opposing soldier; a soldier who looked a lot like a Marzban guard.
A door at the far end of the room opened then and two guards in red conical hats marched in. Their right hands hovered by their sword hilts as they entered, but a quick glance around the room softened their postures and they gave the nod.
A round man, dressed in multiple layers of red, orange, yellow and gold, pranced into the room. He had small hands and narrow shoulders, and if his frame had also been slight at one time, he’d long since beaten his metabolism into submission. Attached to the bottom of his puffy head dangled a short, neat beard, and perched on top was a fussy gold and orange turban with gold chains worming in and out of the folds. Behind him scurried three timid servants dressed all in white. They moved when he did and stopped when he did, too.
“Our illustrious Regent Mustafa Shahab,” Narok announced.
Mehrak bowed. Hami just nodded. Sammy wasn’t sure what to do, so did nothing.
Narok dipped his head and excused himself from the room.
“Hami!” the Regent said. He shuffled over and pulled the magus into a hug. “It’s been too long.” Then he let go and stepped back. “Is everything alright? You look awful. The brotherhood working you too hard?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Hami said.
“But what’s happened to you? It’s been a year since you last visited.”
“Things have been … difficult. You are well yourself, Majesty? Honton Keep remains prosperous?”
“As prosperous as it can be with the crabman population what it is. I’m excellent, though. Fighting fit. My mother has been poorly of late. Currently bedridden, but she’s still her usual chipper self.”
The Regent turned to Sammy and Mehrak, who’d remained over by the wooden carving. He approached them, followed closely by his scuttling entourage.
“You’ve neglected to introduce your companions,” he said to Hami. And his face lit up. “You have beautiful hair,” he said to Sammy. “I’ve not seen anyone with a golden yellow quite like yours in a long time.” Then he bowed. “Regent Mustafa Shahab.”
Sammy curtseyed. “Sammy Ellis,” she said in reply.
The Regent moved on to Mehrak.
“Mehrak Omid,” Mehrak stammered.
The Regent took his hand and shook it enthusiastically, flapping his arm up and down like a windsock. “A pleasure,” he said, beaming. “Please be seated.”
Sammy took the divan furthest from Hami.
The Regent took a seat behind his desk and rested his hands on the surface, knitting his fingers together. The servants took up their places behind him.
“So what’s the adventure this time?” he said with a smile and a glint in his eye. “Much as I enjoy your visits, Hami, I know you don’t often visit without good reason.”
“No adventure,” Hami said. “Mehrak and Sammy picked me up in the forest and gave me free passage here. If possible, I’d like to repay their kindness by replenishing their supplies and providing them lodgings at the palace.”
“That’s it? Nothing exciting?”
“I have news on crabman activity.”
The Regent harrumphed. “We can get to that in good time. First, I insist you get fed. A feast befitting a sultan. Then you may return and educate me about the latest crabman activities.”
A servant led Sammy, Mehrak and Hami back through the palace. They passed the lobby and went through one of the connecting arches and down several more corridors, before finally arriving at a pair of tall, red doors.
“Painted mushroom,” Mehrak said, tapping a door with his knuckle and raising his eyebrows.
“Yeah, I get it,” Sammy said in a tone that she hoped would convey utter disinterest.
The room on the other side of the mushroom stalk doors was stunning. Throne-like chairs surrounded a long polished table. Above it hung a grand crystal chandelier filled with candles, and painted silk hangings covered the walls.
“This will be your accommodation for the duration of your stay,” the servant said, and left.
They found their bedrooms through three separate doors off the communal dining room. Sammy had a contender for the largest bed she’d ever seen: a four-poster with blue silk curtains. Through an arch was a hole-in-the-floor style toilet, gross, but making up for that, a bath that could have bathed an entire football team, including subs, coaches and manager.
Hami was still in the communal dining room when she returned. He was staring at a painting of a bald, bearded man dressed in a black cloak similar to his own.
“Aren’t you going to check out your room?” Sammy asked.
“No,” he said, then coughed. “I’ve stayed here before.”
When the servant returned, he offered to serve lunch. Mehrak assured him that, “that would be fine,” and the man disappeared again.
“Well, I am, even if you’re not,” Sammy said as she took a seat at the table.
“Excuse me?” Mehrak said as he sat next to her.
“I’m looking forward to eating,” she said.
“No one said anything.”
Hami turned from the painting. “I didn’t say anything,” he said. His mouth drew into a line, but then the red double doors burst open releasing servants in all directions.
They held aloft dishes containing meats, vegetables, fruit and cheeses, and went rushing back and forth, weaving in and out of each other like dancers in an elaborate ballet. Cutlery, plates, glasses, jugs of water and carafes of wine zipped onto the table in front of them as if someone had dragged away the table cloth with everything on it, but in reverse. The overflowing platters were up in the air one moment, the next they were on the table and the servants had gone.
Hami regarded the food with disinterest, then announced he wasn’t hungry and had business with the Regent to attend to, and left.
“What’s his problem?” Mehrak said as he began tugging at the leg of a suckling pig. “He seems pretty tense. What do you reckon he’s going to speak to the Regent about?”
Sammy hadn’t considered that Hami could be worked up about his meeting with the Regent. But now that she thought about it, something about his body language had been off. She’d put it down to his sickness, but was there something else?