Beyond the door was a long narrow stairway, and at the bottom a locked wooden door of thick oak and iron. Disan put his hand on it and closed his eyes. Deep within it he felt the semblance of life.
"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?" he said.
"I uphold them, O king," the door said in a voice like creaking oak.
"Then open for me."
There was a rustling in the lock like whispers, or like a distant scratching, the knob turned, and the door opened. There was another long stairway with a door at the bottom, although this door was unlocked. Beyond that door was a long hallway extending both to the left and to the right with several doors widely spaced from each other; there were torches along the hallway that sprang to light when he stepped into it. He considered trying one of the doors at random, but then the door at the end of the hallway, facing the corridor, caught his eye. It was not of wood but of an exquisitely sculpted iron. The picture it displayed was of khalkythra, its lionlike body leaping upward, twelve wings spread widely, its long-snouted head, reminiscent of a crocodile turned to the right. There was a diamond of fine water, about the size of your thumbnail, twinkling in its eye. Perhaps most remarkable of all was that the dark iron had been polished or sealed by some means so as to have a kind of rainbowy sheen in its darkness, much as silk that is dyed Sorean black has an iridescence in its depths, to suggest the many-colored brilliance of the original beast. As he approached it, he already felt a vitality and vigilance emanating from it. It was not an ordinary living door, such as one might find in every neyat, fortress, and palace in the Great Realm. It was a guardian door, made not merely with the finest smithcraft but also with unimaginably many layers of chantments, and it was vested in the power and authority of kings. He put out his hand to open it, but found he could not even reach his hand far enough to take hold of the doorknob.
"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?" Disan asked it.
The guardian door spoke not in a wooden, creaking voice like that of the first door, but in a strong and mellifluous one. "I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea, husband of Baia and son of Rezan the son of Belan," it said.
"Then open for me," said Disan, not expecting a result.
There was a pause, and then the door said, "You are known to me, anointed king, and you may pass," and swung open.
The door was a side door in the corner of a great hall, which was brightly lit as if in sunlight, although no source of light could be seen. The floor was lightly coated with dust. The vault above was painted deep blue and painted with twelve large twelve-pointed golden stars arranged in a long oval. The decoration on the wall was more stylistic and geometrical than was common in the parts of the palace Disan knew.
"I must have passed out of the Khalkythra Palace into one of the other parts of the Porphyry Mountain," Disan said aloud to himself. He did not say it very loudly, so he was startled by the return of a slight echo.
"Apparently this room needs carpets and tapestries," he said. The hall echoed 'carpets and tapestries' back to him, clearly and distinctly enough that he found it unsettling, and walked, footfall echoing the entire way, to the great archway at one end of the hall. There was only another hall beyond it, but this hall had no echo at all. From there he passed through several more archways and several more large, long halls, each of which much like the previous and each of which had an open archway into another, until he finally came to a hall that had archways on all four sides; instead of continuing through as he had been doing, he turned into one of the side rooms. It too opened into another room, and that into another, but these rooms were smaller and more interesting. Sometimes the walls were painted with various designs or scenes, sometimes they had mosaics, sometimes they had a sort of embroidered wall fabric glued or nailed to them, and sometimes they had hanging tapestries. The painted scenes were faded enough that he could not always make out what they were, and the wall fabric had been hanging long enough to look shabby and faded, but the mosaics and the tapestries were truly remarkable. One room that Disan particularly liked had a fountain in it, sculpted like dolphins, and mosaics of fish on the walls done so skillfully with small stones that they almost seemed real. Another, this time with a statue of what Disan guessed to be High King Ardalan, had a mosaic on its walls that made it at first seem when you entered the room that the walls were growing with ivy. The tapestries were mostly geometrical or floral, although very brilliantly colored, the chantments with which they had been woven having preserved them through the years; but one very beautiful scenic one showed Emdalan on his flying wooden horse, a vivid blue sky around him and a mountain scene below.
Eventually the rooms came to an end. The last room, larger than the others, had no decoration on its walls at all, but in the middle of it was a large pyramid and humaniform statue, both of gold, and somewhat oddly situated with respect to each other. They had something of the stylized character of all the art that Disan had seen, but after walking around it, his footprints very clear in the dust, Disan guessed that it was supposed to represent Trethin flattening the land around the Porphyry Mountain. They were not very interesting. On the wall on the other side, however, there were two guardian doors, and they were very interesting.
One was of gold and deeply engraved with the figure of a ruby-eyed phoenix bursting upward from the flames. The background was yellow-gold, but the embossing had been done in such a way that the relief was somehow more reddish, and seemed to flicker as you moved. The other was silver and embossed with an emerald-eyed crowned serpent rising from grass, or perhaps waves; the serpent itself was shiniest silver, but the spiky grass or waves in the relief had a patina of blue-green. The patina had perhaps once been lighter, but the style of the door was very old, and despite its preserving chantments had probably darkened through time.
He tried the golden door first. "Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"
"I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea, son of Rezan the son of Belan, who shall surely be the first of a great and royal house," it said. It spoke in a rich, warm voice, like you might expect of sunlight over the hills.
"Then open for me."
But the door responded as he had expected the iron door to respond. "O king, anointed you may be, great you may be, but I am sealed by the order of the High King Endaran, and none may open me who is not High King." Disan tried to recall what he could about Endaran, but despite knowing all of the genealogies of the all the royal houses of the Great Realm, in the moment could remember no more than that there had been two or three of that name, the most recent one many generations back.
He then tried the silver door. "Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"
The silver door spoke in a cool and ringingly clear voice, like you might expect of moonlight shining on a lake. "I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea, husband of Baia and son of Rezan the son of Belan, who shall surely be the last of his great and royal house."
Disan paused, but did not know what to make of the comment. So he continued as before: "Then open for me."
There was a pause, and then a sound like a bell ringing in the distance, and the door said, "You are known to me, great and anointed king, and you have long been expected. You may pass."
The room beyond was not a room, or at least not a room in the ordinary sense. It was dark, and at first the only light that could be seen was that which came through the door, which did not last long, because the guardian door swung closed behind him, leaving him in the dark. The air was cool and humid. As Disan's eyes adjusted, he found that it was not wholly dark; there was everywhere a kind of bluish light, very soft, like moonlight filtering subtly through a cave. He was standing on a sandy shore, and a large lake quietly rippled up the sand. Across the lake, he could see the dark form of an island. There was a wharf nearby, and tied to the iron ring of the wharf was a boat, about the size of a rowboat. Who knows how long the boat had been there, but when Disan put his hand upon it, he felt the semblance of life within it.
"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"
"I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea," said the boat.
"Can you bear me across the lake to the island?" he asked.
"I can bear you," said the boat, "for I was born in long years past for this very bearing."
So Disan climbed into the boat and untied it from the iron ring, although the rope was rotted enough that it might have broken at a pull. The boat began to glide along the surface of the lake, the water rippling out from it with liquid sound and stirring up a luminescence like that which sailors call 'fire of the sea'. As the boat moved, Disan remembered a few things about the last Endaran. His father had been very long-lived, so he had come to the High Kingship late in life. Disan could not remember any monuments built by him, nor any great feats accomplished by him; he had had the kind of reign that historians pass over as uneventful and died of old age in bed perhaps seven or eight centuries before. The golden door had been sealed a long time.
The boat slid onto the sand of the island and Disan disembarked. The island rose steadily up; it was mostly gravel under the feet, and there was a path leading up to the top, where there was a kind of forum surrounded by seven large columns. The columns were strangely proportioned, squatting around with no obvious purpose. As he walked to the center of the forum, the gravel crunching under foot, the wind seemed to pick up. At least, the sound of the wind grew; Disan felt nothing, but there was a strange huffing, gusting sound, like wind blowing in and out through several holes. Then he realized that the columns were growing in height; then he realized that the squat columns were hollow and that what he was actually seeing in the bluish light was the rising of pale white columns from inside the squat columns; then he realized that the columns were not rising straight up but were swaying like supple trees in a gentle wind, or, better yet, like grass in a river current. They grew taller and taller, like tall trees, but Disan only understood what he was seeing when the lightly swaying column in front of him opened its eyes and unfurled its hood.
It was a serpent. But it was a serpent like nothing Disan had ever seen, or indeed had ever imagined, a great, gleaming white, cobra-like serpent as large as a tree, looking at him with serpentine eyes and flicking out a vast forked tongue as it swayed. There were seven of them, one to his front, three to his left, three to his right, each large enough that it could crush him into nothing, but the one in front larger than the rest. And he knew what the sound of the gusting was, for gusting is the sound of a serpent's hiss when the serpent is as tall as a house.
Disan went white, and it seemed as if all of his breath had left him. His hand reached instinctively for a sword that was not there, because who belts on their sword for a nighttime walk in a palace? But he stood his ground and said, trying to make his voice not shake, "Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"
There was a long pause in which Disan could feel his heart beating in his ears. Then the Queen Serpent spoke with a voice like a hale old woman's, if a hale old woman could speak from every direction at once: "My sisters and I uphold them, O Disan, of Sorea sovereign, but the question that concerns us is this: Do you?"
"I uphold them," said Disan, relaxing a little.
"We shall see," said the Queen Serpent. "Men are unsteady creatures and their words do not always seal a bond. But we have waited for you for centuries and we are glad that you have finally come, for we have long wished to flee the flood of sorrow that from the future pours, and our nightmares are filled with the abominable abyss."
"Why have you been waiting for me?"
"The Powers of the world set us a mission, and we sealed it with a vow, that we would show you a sight and give you a word."
He opened his mouth to ask a question, but found himself, to his great surprised, in another place entirely, looking down at himself. Elea and Antaran were there, too. It was the evening before.
The other Disan said, "You need have no fear on my part, Princess."
The High King lifted a finger, speaking to the other Disan. "Not a word of it unless Elea has cut off all possibility of eavesdropping." The other Disan nodded, and Antaran went on, "Well, we will not keep you from your evening rest. No doubt it has been a long day."
The Princess, who had been gently beaming at the other Disan the whole time, said, "I will need to open a doorway for you in the shield," and she rose. The other Disan went with her to the door. Disan tried to follow them, but found he could not move. When the Princess returned, she sat next to Antaran and leaned against him. "I wish we could do without him."
"We need him," said Antaran. "We always have. He suggested Disan specifically, and I have argued from the beginning that he was the best option."
"I do not trust him. I can catch no glimpse of his mind."
"He is an anointed king; you cannot see into my mind, either, nor Zalan's, nor the mind of any other anointed king or queen."
"I still would prefer that the whole plan were not shaped by your having a crush on your childhood friend."
Antaran, who had been smiling and looking abstractedly into the distance, looked angrily at her at this. Elea smiled sweetly back at him, but he did not soften.
"Do we need ships or do we not?"
"As you know...," Elea began, but Antaran cut her off.
"Do we need ships or do we not?" he said again, louder.
She sighed. "We do."
"Can we trust Andra to deliver what we need?"
"Did he not suggest Disan to begin with?"
"Then stop trying to provoke me. Disan will come through. We will open the gate, we will conquer the world, you and I will marry, and all will be well. The days of the Orikhalh Tablets will be done, and a new age of progress and light will begin, with you, me, and Disan shaping it to our wishes."
"I just wish," Elea said, "that we could be more sure. He is an enigma. He does not react to things like I expected him to act. He is the only king who has seen the world outside the Great Realm, and there is something strange about him. And he did not marry into royalty or nobility, but he married that common Sorean girl."
"Have you seen common Sorean girls?" said Antaran. "I might marry one myself, if there were any to be had." Now it was Elea's turn to look at him angrily, but Antaran only laughed at her. "Besides, Soreans are strange, anyway, and from what I understand, she's a shipwright's daughter, and you know they have the odd custom of treating shipwrights like nobility. And even if it weren't so, we are building a new age; old ways are behind us and an enlightened future ahead."
"It is not the deviation from custom, but the inexplicability of the deviation...," Elea began, but Antaran cut her off with a wave of his hand.
"You are simply making things up, now," he said. "I've known Disan a long time; he is exactly the kind of man we need with us." He picked her up and slid her so that she was sitting on his knee. "And he agrees, so your grousing is pointless. Let's have no more wasted time."
Everything went dark, and Disan's eyes had to adjust again to the bluish light that lit the lake. The great serpents swayed around him.
"How could you see that?" Disan asked. "They had said that Elea's pendant prevented eavesdropping."
"Your kind are a foolish kind. You see up and down, so you put a ceiling and a floor. You see left, right, forward, backward, so you put walls. But you do not see before and you do not see after, so you do not put walls before or after to block the eye that can see through time. The High King and the Princess toy with things they do not comprehend. We were brought here long centuries ago to have this place as a refuge from the Court of Night. In the early days your kings sought our counsel, and were made the wiser for it. But you are the first king who has come in many generations, and within the walls of the Porphyry Mountain the folly of your people has brought an abomination even the Court of Night feared. We have hidden from its ever-seeking thought for the sake of our vow, but we are tired, my sisters and I, and we have one last word to give before we can flee to safety. We give it to you now. Disan, of Sorea sovereign, hear the word of the Powers that guide the world: The storm of judgment draws near; the earth will resound with its fury. You must build a fleet, not for the work of the abomination, but that all will not be lost when the folly of your people has opened the door that must not be opened. Thus speak the Powers that guide the world, and our vow is fulfilled."
"What does that mean?" asked Disan, baffled.
"The meaning is irrelevant," said the Queen Serpent. "The word has been given."
"But how can I make use of it if I do not understand it?"
"Your understanding is irrelevant," the Queen Serpent replied. "Our vow is fulfilled, and we may leave."
The swaying of the seven sisters grew more pronounced and there was unsettling intensity in their bright blue-glinted eyes as they looked down at him. Disan began to think that perhaps he should not press his luck. He bowed, turned, and walked back the way he came. But at the edge of the forum, a thought made him stop and turn again. The seven sisters were still swaying, their hoods wide, looking at him with their utterly inhuman eyes.
"You have been here a long time," he said. "Do you know what is behind the golden door?"
"Yes." Disan waited for more, but no more was given, so he went on.
"Is it a secret that I can know?"
"Every door opens to a future of some kind. Behind the golden door is a great future indeed, but one that will now never come to pass."
"Is it the door which should not be opened?"
"You do not even know enough of what you speak to know the question you must ask. When your High King opens the door that must not be opened, every door will close, every future vanish away. The golden door is but one of infinite possibilities that were given to your people, but your people were fools and it is now a possibility that no longer matters. And you, too, are foolish for trying to know a future that can never be. Delay us no more."
Disan went down to the boat and crossed the lake again to the wharf. The silver guardian door stood silently open for him. He went through it and looked long at the unopenable golden door, then went back through the rooms, and through the long halls, and through the echo hall to the iron guardian door, and up the stairs to collapse on his bed, angry and exasperated at the seemingly endless riddles. But he was exhausted, as well, and soon was asleep.
When he awoke in the morning, he looked behind the tapestry again, but there was no door there.
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