By Vicky Morgan-Keith
Her Most Excellent Grandness Messilina IV, Beloved Daughter of the Divine Firstmother Aoth, Wielder of Life and Death, Foremother of all Neira, and Empress of the Neiran Empire furrowed delicate feathered brows to scowl down from her hovering throne of alabaster marble. She watched her Grand Oracle’s slow and stately approach intently. The Empress’s throne, inlaid with precious gems and gold, was carved with beautiful scenes depicting the various achievements of her young and privileged life. Few could look upon its pale and glittering surface without feeling at least a touch of awe.
Alas, Grand Oracle Azhia was one of those few. Now blind, she couldn’t see the throne. The Empress doubted her ancient counselor would be impressed even if she still possessed her vision.
Messilina narrowed her luminous amber eyes. As always she marveled at Azhia’s ability to “see” her way about despite her sightless eyes, clouded over forever by prolonged use of Fahz Jiin, the holy dust of their goddess, Aoth.
Instead of being roused from sleep as Azhia had feared, Messilina had been enjoying a series of private gladiatorial bouts arranged in her honor by Orenatha, Jamad of House Tur-Saf. Several high ranking Jamada had also been in attendance. Despite being an obvious ploy by the Tur-Saf Foremother to curry Messilina’s favor and that of the elite Neiran Houses, the bouts had proved quite entertaining. Orenatha had spared no expense on her gladiators or her guests’ refreshments. The young empress smiled, but whether it was at remembering a particularly bloody battle between the exotic combatants or the exquisite vava pear wine served at the event was anyone’s guess.
Stopping precisely five strides away from her sovereign, though how she knew this was a mystery, Azhia curtsied deeply. She bowed her head on an elegant neck amazingly unwrinkled with age, gracefully spreading her long and slender arms wide, palms up. The folds of her feathered robe rustled softly about her as she made her obeisance. She wore no weapons, but with the power of The Deep at her disposal, the Grand Oracle was far from defenseless.
The Empress studied her Grand Oracle and chief advisor a moment, noting the lack of a headdress or any other adornment in her hair except for a simple string of fire pearls. The precious pearls were woven within a loose braid that fell straight down her back. Nor were Azhia’s robes the most official or formal, although Messilina found herself admiring the pastel green plumes which adorned them. They were the feathers of a picaki songbird, found only in isolated mountain jungles of the Shrinaar home world, Shrinaa. Very rare and difficult to obtain. Her Oracle did not carry her stave of office, although the finely wrought and bejeweled metal belt binding the robes at her waist was inscribed with the holiest symbols of the High Priestess of Aoth. Azhia had come before her garbed to remind the empress of the elevated place the Oracle held as the chief interpreter of Aoth’s will, but also as Messilina’s advisor and confidant. Her intent was not to intimidate or threaten, but to evoke trust, camaraderie, even…friendship. And the hour! That the Grand Oracle had roused herself to come before her empress in this way, at this time–Messilina was intrigued.
Smoothing her brow, she crooked a long, slim, delicate finger. “Rise and speak with us, Grand Oracle. What does our Chief Counselor wish of her Empress? And,” she added, ever so softly, “with such urgency it could not wait until the morrow?”
Azhia straightened. Her pale vacant eyes met Messilina’s in an unnervingly direct stare. “My Empress, I have received a vision from the Firstmother.”
A vision! Messilina felt annoyance sweep through her. Only her knowledge that Azhia was not prone to the petty trickery and shams of lesser priestesses kept her from dismissing her advisor outright. She sighed impatiently. “And you wish to discuss this now?! Surely it can wai–”
“No!” Azhia shouted, then caught herself, shocked at her own impertinence. The Empress’s infamous guards, the Praetoris, had immediately drawn their weapons and advanced from their positions around her throne and along the throne room walls. Messilina held up a hand to stay them, then flicked it once, sending them back to their posts.
“This dream must be disturbing indeed,” Messilina grated. Her expression dark, she leaned forward on her throne. “You dare interrupt your empress, Azhia? You forget your place!”
The Empress deliberately omitted using the Grand Oracle’s title, calling her by her familiar name only. A Jamad would have had no choice but to draw her jekara and attack to avenge the insult and implied threat to her House, but Azhia was an Oracle, Grand Oracle, and therefore technically houseless. She advised the Royal House, true, but above and beyond that her responsibility was to Aoth Firstmother and the Neiran people as a whole.
Azhia flinched slightly, then resolutely set her jaw. Her duty to warn Aoth’s Daughter and protect the empire was greater than the threat to her life. However…again she bowed very low. “Forgive me, Most Beloved Daughter of Aoth,” she replied with deference. “I meant no disrespect to Your Majesty. And my Empress is correct–the vision was most…disturbing. I have no doubt it is a warning from Aoth. It should not–can not–be ignored…despite its history.”
“History?” Messilina snapped irritably. “You have had this vision before? Why have you not spoken of it before now?” She was regretting her overindulgence in wine that evening. Fatigue was finally catching up with her. “We wish to retire. How much longer will this matter delay us?”
“First Daughter,” Azhia replied. “Aoth has not shown me this vision before, but it has been shown to other Oracles in the past. It was,” she continued in a hushed voice, “the vision of…the Destroyer.”
Messilina stared at Azhia in shock. That of all Aoth’s many priestesses, oracles, and acolytes, the Grand Oracle herself would come before her with such news was almost beyond comprehension. The Destroyer Prophecy had existed for centuries, and nothing–nothing!–had ever come of it. All those who had pursued the vision in the past had eventually fallen victim to ridicule, and she feared for her aged advisor. Messilina admitted herself fond of the Grand Oracle, but if Azhia persisted in folly, exposing the throne to derision, the Empress would not hesitate to destroy her. She wanted to laugh, to wave aside the Grand Oracle’s concern and dismiss it forever before it could become a problem, but found she could not. The weight of certainty in Azhia’s expression wouldn’t let her.
Frustrated with her impotency against this intangible threat, the Empress’s temper flared. She slammed a fist against the arm of her throne. “Visions! Dreams! Legends! Myths!” she exclaimed, angrily hurling her scepter to the floor. “Sands in the desert wind! If it were anyone other than you, Grand Oracle, I would name it so!” An Illyrian slave scuttled forward to retrieve the scepter and meekly proffered it to the Empress with bowed eyestalk. She snatched it from his grasp, waving him away, then turned back to Azhia, her voice still incredulous. “You profess Aoth warns our empire is to be brought low by a mere houseless arnt?” She indicated the slave with an angry swing of her scepter. “A miserable, pathetic non-Neiran?!” The question almost choked her.
“Indeed, so She warns, my Empress,” Azhia replied. “The Destroyer comes! What Aoth warns is the truth! I have seen it! I swear it! By all the Foremothers of my former House, may it fall to ruin if I speak falsely! The empire faces destruction unless we can find a way to deal with this threat!”
“I will not allow all the Firstmother built to be toppled by a mere arnt!” Messilina declared, all thoughts of sleep forgotten. She gestured sharply to a slave. “Bring my steward!”
“At once, Empress,” the slave replied as he scurried off.
“I will gather the Jamada,” Messilina informed the Grand Oracle, “Meditate further on Aoth’s vision for clues to aid us in our search, Grand Oracle. We will hunt this Destroyer down,” she assured Azhia with a grim smile, “and we will get the arnts to assist us.”
The Grand Oracle bowed low with all the grace she could muster. “My Empress.”
Messilina waved her away. “We thank you for Aoth’s warning, Grand Oracle. Now leave us.”
Azhia bowed once more, then swiftly departed. There was much to do.