Olivia found herself in the antechamber, where an old tiefling met her with a graceful bow. His hair was white, tidy and held two twisted horns, dark red skin and a pair of eyes were so pale they might be all whites. His clothes spoke of his character: breeches and satin tunic, fitting his age, slightly hunched figure, were creaseless and spotless, his hands in white sleek gloves, his tail so discretely motionless one might miss its existence.
“Your Highness, I’ve prepared water and clean clothes, if you wish to change” he gestured towards a large ceramic bowl and a pile of fabrics on an ornate bench, as well as a pair of gold-laced sandals underneath. Everything in here smelled slightly of jasmine and smoke.
“Is my father alright, Bernhard?” Olivia ignored his request for the time being, but the servant, expecting this, answered with patience, as if soothing a child:
“The Emperor is quite alright, for the moment. There’s no cause for alarm. But I must warn you, his resting time has increased greatly and his reactions have slowed. You, my lady, will need to be slower in your speech and more patient in receiving his.” he smiled at her unconvinced face “you will see for yourself, my lady. Now please, refresh.”
And with that he left the antechamber through a veil of light curtain. Olivia felt first signs of relief flowing through her, thinking, as she took off her heavy brogans to wash her feet and hands in the bowl, that at least there’s no need for urgency. She slid into white summer dress prepared for her and put on sandals, revelling in how light she felt all of a sudden. Was it the water and new clothes? Or was it the familiar scent of jasmine that always followed her when she dreamt about father and mother.
She entered the study silently, relief and nervousness playing for control inside of her. Olivia felt just like a girl again, as she was a century ago, coming to see her father and report on her progress: nervous when she didn’t do well, relieved and eager when she succeeded. The Emperor’s study, where he also greeted visitors, appeared unchanged: same open arched balcony with night sea view, same bookshelves, stuffed with scrolls and books in expensive bindings, balls of light floating here and there, illuminating spaces in their path. A large fireplace was lit, with ornate wooden mantelpiece, showing figures of elegant elven maidens with flowers, fire crackling joyfully, throwing dancing lights onto soft carpet, handwoven in detailed, kaleidoscopic patterns. There was even a contraption, done with magic, no doubt, showing a golden orb being circled by one green (Olivia noticed that a large, rounded sapphire was used instead of the original ball) and smaller silver and all three were dancing in the air by the fireplace – this was the disputed Sol image that had many followers and sceptics, saying that the Sun Goddess was truly there somewhere, tangible and radiant, and all of the world was simply dancing around her in perfect circle, giving us changes in seasons. To Olivia’s mind, this was logical, but just as many, she learned to keep it to herself, as many angry clerical tongues spelled more trouble than was worth.
Olivia felt swept up and washed away by nostalgia, her heart fluttering even more when she saw a figure, back to her, with long long white hair, sitting on a tall chair by an elegant wooden table, one hand on the top of it that wore a large red signet ring. She stood there, mesmerised, waiting, she realised, for that elf to stand up and extend his arms to greet her in his embrace.
“Please, my lady, take a seat” the image whizzed away like dust in sudden wind, as Bernhard pulled another tall chair at the other end of the table for Olivia. She stared at the top of her father’s head a moment longer and sat down as requested. Then she was taken aback.
Her father’s skin, used to be bright teal, like water of Wasa in flood, now was pale, withered and colourless, his lips, used to be firm and commanding now thin with hints of blue on them. His eyes, although closed, seemed heavy and raked by wrinkles. His chin covered in white beard so long, it reached his knees, something that was very uncharacteristic of the Emperor she remembered. His ears were same length, but somewhat shrunk and dried, like autumn olive that wasn’t picked. She couldn’t help but feel sorrow and pity to this old, tired man, who used to command armies, address crowds of cheering thousands and mingle in banquets with grace and dignity. This elf once wore the crown of golden thorns with pride, carrying responsibility it represented with pride, but now seemed too weak to carry himself.
She wanted to reach towards him and touch his translucent, withered hand, but couldn’t, as at that moment Bernhard served two tiny cups laced with gold and a golden pot with thin spout spun in such a way it resembled snail’s shell and itself peeking out of it. The tiefling servant poured black liquid in the tiny cups, first to the Emperor, then to her. Olivia felt the earthen, musky smell of this new drink that came from the west of the empire and only now took root in Orcittian farms. In right dosages and preparation, it revitalised and shunned away any sleep one could possibly have. Dream Hunter, they called it, but the taste was bitter and Olivia couldn’t say she enjoyed the drink. Bernhard put down the elaborate pot, landed his gloved hand on the Emperor’s shoulder gently and whispered something into his ear. Then walked gracefully and left through the veil of the antechamber.
There was a silence in the air that even the joyfully crackling fire couldn’t fill. Olivia watched her father sit still, his once sturdy body covered in midnight blue robe, unmoving. She then gasped as suddenly his hand did start moving, shakily, but went straight for the tiny golden cup and slowly, carefully lifted the steaming drink to his pale, trembling lips. She watched him sip the drink, his throat moving with what seemed great difficulty. When he finished, his eyes shot wide open, he turned his head towards her and finally, in the amber eyes she inherited, she saw the powerful, wise man who was her father and the Emperor of the largest nation in history.
“My Olivia” Gohar’s voice chords crackled under the pressure and he had to swallow several times to continue “you’ve grown to look so much like your mother” Olivia felt tears cutting her throat, but managed to keep still: looking at her father struggle to speak was close to unbearable “I wonder if there’s any of me in you at all” he continued shakily “but then I look in your eyes and here I am, my two embers burning” he tensed his lips, forming a smile that couldn’t quite find his eyes.
“I missed you, father” Olivia couldn’t help herself. Gohar merely nodded, not taking his eyes off her.
“I dreamt often about you, my ember. I want to ask so much, alas” he looked down a the empty cup and Olivia sprung up immediately to refill it with Dream Hunter. He was already halfway done with the dose when she sat back down.
“Thank you. It is the only thing that keeps the dreams away, I’m afraid. It won’t be long until even it won’t be able to help me” Gohar did not say it with sadness, rather like stating a fact “that is why I called you here” he looked back at her, his eyes sharp, their blaze overshadowing the tired, pale face, bringing back the strength of character Gohar still steered the empire with, even close to his end. Olivia couldn’t help but admire him more and became painfully aware how big of shoes she will have to fill. But not yet, not yet.
“I am sorry we cannot discuss more mundane matters, but time is precious for me now and what I must ask you will have great consequences for the empire” he finished the rest of the drink and gestured for her to follow his example “please, drink. I’m afraid you will have long few nights ahead of you.”
Although suspicious and curious, Olivia obeyed and took a sip of bitter drink: it dried her tongue immediately, being much stronger than usual dose. She felt the effects – tremble in her hands, heart beating faster – almost instantly, but now she was sharp, smell of jasmine and crackle of fire even in this hot night and calming presence of her father not lulling her to sleep any longer.
“What must I do?”
“You must ride south, down the Pilgrim’s road. Don’t spare your horse. At the Palmira rest, go north into the desert” Gohar made a pause, closing his eyes. Olivia waited patiently, but minutes passed and she gently called out:
“Father?” that seemed to jolt the old Emperor, he cleared his throat and continued, not taking his eyes off hers anymore.
“Go north into the desert for about a day. You will find old ruins. Inside – an altar. If it is taken, leave and report what you saw. If it is empty” he felt silent again, but this time knocked on wood three times and Bernhard walked back into the room, carrying a bundle of white silk. He carefully placed the bundle in front of the Emperor and it made a heavy thud against the table. Bernhard bowed and left again.
“If it is empty, you must place this on it” with one hand he unwrapped the bundle to show a transparent blue crystal, about a size of elven fist, emitting a mesmerizing light. Olivia found it difficult to take her gaze off that bluish, otherworldly light.
“What is it?” she whispered. Gohar covered the gem with silk, hiding away its magical light. Olivia had to shake her head a bit to return her thoughts to the current moment.
“An old and dangerous artefact” the Emperor sighed heavily, as if a burden just dropped on his chest “it needs to be returned from whence it came. I trust you with it, but please, dear daughter, don’t look at it. Only very well trained sorcerers can gaze upon its magic and survive. Deliver it and leave it.”
“You said that the altar might be taken” Olivia pulled the bundle next to her, feeling unnatural warmth under her hands.
“I have my suspicions, they need to be confirmed” the Emperor shuddered as if cold, although the night was warm and the fire was burning fully “you must leave tonight. Everything you see and hear – bring it back to me.”
“Yes, father” Olivia stood up, eager to fulfill her task “will you then tell me what this is all about? I don’t really understand this” she nodded to the bundle in her hand “what does this have to do with the empire?”
Gohar sighed. He forgot how inquisitive his child can be. He wished to tell her, but felt his back sore from sitting, his skin feeling the chill, his throat aching from so much talking, his eyes dry as if full of sand. He hoped she would return swiftly, so he could tell her all she needed. He also hoped Olivia would deliver the stone and he could leave for the Sun Goddess in peace. But the Emperor was a man who could not, by any means, allow self-deception and so he saw what he’s really leaving behind: a young woman with a lot of power, little knowledge and great danger over her. Unable to speak the wave of thoughts washing through his mind, he knocked on the table again.
“Father?” Olivia took a step closer, but Bernhard stopped her midway, leaning over to listen to the Emperor whisper something into his ear. Gohar’s eyes were closed again.
“My lady, you have your task” Bernhard, even if he attempted to sound polite, it only came out as rushing her out “the Emperor needs to rest now.”
“But we’re not done talking!” Olivia felt anger at this scrupulous, old servant who forgot himself, clearly spending too much time at the Emperor’s side “I will say when we’re done! Father, please! You cannot-”
“Olivia!” the Emperor said but one word, loudly, clearly, precisely, without opening his eyes, as if commanding a soldier. That was enough. Olivia stood still, looking at the old man at the opposite side of the table, an unapproachable commander she had to obey. She bowed.
“I understand my task. I will execute it to the best of my abilities” and she turned around on the heel and left.
Olivia left the same night, hours before dawn prayers would call citizens to the city streets. She left Feducia and her hounds behind, taking one of the bays from the royal stables. Now Olivia was armed with a bow, a quiver of arrows, several morsels of food, a full waterskin and a lot of anger.
She rode fast, not spearing horses she changed every five hours down the Pilgrim’s road that lead through rocky road where desert met the sea. Olivia eventually caught up with a caravan that stretched far ahead, leading pilgrims to the Summer temple, where they will pray to the Sun Goddess and bless barrels of water they were carrying on camels and ox-driven carts for crops to grow strong and newborns to live healthy. Merchants were also travelling south to cities and villages, buying and selling rare and common goods and animals. Several circles of wizards were also making their way with the caravan, likely to reach the southern observatory to study summer skies. Like many, Olivia’s face was covered in black scarf, safe for the eyes, to protect her from scorching sun and cutting sand, so no one paid attention to a young woman driving her horse faster than caravan was moving.
In two days, as the sun just hid below the horizon, Olivia reached Palmira rest: a small village in an oasis, pointy clay houses scattered between palm trees, thin lines of white smoke licking purple red sky. The caravan she left behind will only reach it in the morning and will stop for the day’s rest and water refills. Olivia put another jaded horse, foaming at the mouth to exchange stables for a well-deserved rest and climbed the even rooftop of the stables that, with a help of her bedroll, would become a safe two-hour resting place, provided by two gold coins happily clinking together in the stable boy’s pocket.
Olivia laid on the rooftop, listening to the villagers gathering for communal prayer and meal, hearing them chatter, children laughing, men and women speaking among themselves in elvish, sound of clay clattering, filling the night air with the sense of comfort and cozy safety. Olivia’s eyes wandered through the evening sky, watching stars appear one after another and she tried to figure out the real motive behind this task. Was he testing her? Is this some way for him to determine if she’s fit to rule? If so, why didn’t he tell her? Why? And what is this warm artefact she’s not supposed to even look at? Why didn’t her tell her? Why?
Even meditation was difficult, questions ramping up in Olivia’s head and as she had another horse saddled for her in the dead of night, she rode unrested, but determined to see this through. She didn’t push the grey mare this time, knowing this horse will need to bring her back in a day’s time. As the sun rose and she made her way deeper into the desert, the sea breeze didn’t refresh anymore and the blazing sun rays became relentless. Olivia let the horse carry her slowly, knowing the only way she could make it in the time allotted was during the night. Waterskin was depleting fast in this heat and among sand dunes there was not a single creature, elf or beast, in sight, only fake images in the distant trembling horizon.
When the Sun Goddess made her way towards the lower end of horizon, Olivia hurried her mare to move in a trot and by midnight, she was galloping through open sand. Not long into the gallop, Olivia had to stop the mare to make sure what she was seeing was not another mirage, caused by heat, nor was it stars falling from the sky.
What Olivia saw was dozens of lights in several rows, as if floating in the distance, but looking closely, those lights were lined on a structure of eroded plain stone, with many arches in four rows, ball of light in each arch, towering high and blending with the night sky. Coming closer, there were fires burning on either side of the larger arch in the middle of the bottom row and some distant light was coming from within it. There were no horses, no footprints, just a very distant chant and vibration of drums, coming from deep within the structure. Olivia felt her mare tense up at the sight and she had to get off and leave the creature at a loose weathered stone, half covered by the sand some distance from the mysterious building. Suddenly, from the other side of the arched structure, a ball of fire shot into the sky and dissipated, followed by a cheer from a distant crowd.
This is it.
Author’s note: Orcittia is a fictional empire I’ve created in my head, set in a fantasy world also created in my head. If you find any name, person or location familiar, it is only by chance. This world has little to do with the real one.