‘The Exile Gate’
Chapter 3: The Palace of Posacam
by Duo Radon
Once again setting foot on a new world, Wikus enjoyed a good, long stretch in the warmth of a typical Maj afternoon. It felt splendid to be out of that chilly, shipping crate of a cabin after four days in transit; even better to be so close to his goal.
The Western Continent was a hot, arid place made up of wind-scoured rock and short, tough scrub plants. But the Capitol made no notice of the hostile environment and what Wikus saw before him was a thriving expanse of markets and homes. It was a peculiar, eclectic style of habitation, its skeleton composed of familiar poleepkwan technology with a veneer of ornate decoration. There were no skyscrapers but plenty of traffic in the air and on the ground. Tapestries and lanterns seemed to be a favorite marker, and the people themselves were also dressed colorful and showy. Everywhere vendors sold jewelry, scarves, furnishings and exotic animals. And speckled here and there, Wikus saw the comparatively plain features of poleepkwa, both soldier and drone alike, tending to their daily tasks.
Wikus was feeling tremendously pleased with himself as he strolled out of the shuttle port and into the crowd. He'd taken a trip from one planet to another entirely on his own, something that would have been impossible even a year ago. He'd made it to his desired destination, and thanks to Haltherian subtitles on all the main signage, he knew precisely where he was headed. After a quick stop to sample the local fare, he climbed aboard a crowded city transport headed for the Palace. The strange, furless alien garnered more than a few curious glances, yet no one engaged or dismissed him. He knew the next step would not be quite so effortless.
Eventually, the bus dropped him off in view of the West Palace. Had he not done a bit of research before he left, Wikus might have thought the stop was labeled erroneously. The structure itself was not visible to the public, but sat safely incased in a huge stone cover, like a bagel under an overturned cereal bowl. The capsule was engineered to look natural, if not oddly symmetrical, and could have been mistaken for a solid hill of weather-smoothed rock. Beneath it, the Palace did not exceed three stories, but its layout was a sprawling Celtic Knot of corridors, chambers and grand halls.
The structure had four entrances, one at each marker on the compass, and Wikus was facing the largest. This front door was busy, a fairly constant stream of pedestrians and vehicles passing through the poleepkwan-manned checkpoint, moving in and out of the gateway. This was definitely not the way to go.
So the Earthling marched onward, making his way around to the side entrance. When it came into view, he sat himself down under a beverage tent, pretending to rest from the sun, and watched. There was only a single guard at this gate, and he didn't appear to have much to do. The soldier was a typical poleepkwan warrior: huge, gray, intimidating. He wore bands of violet and gold about his limbs, with matching insignia painted neatly on his thorax and neck, branding him as a Royal guard. He also carried a serious weapon but it seemed unlikely he ever used it. Very few visitors approached, none of them hostile.
Wikus sat for a quarter of an hour, telling himself he was waiting for the right time and not that he needed to work up his courage. Even if he couldn't gain entrance, what was the worst that could happen? He'd be sent away......they certainly wouldn't lock him up just for asking. Then he'd have to go home and explain to Yeen why he'd made him worry for nothing.....
"Well," Wikus muttered, getting to his feet at last, "let's do it."
Not surprisingly, the guard saw him coming and watched the man's approach with interest. As he drew close, Wikus waved and smiled as congenially as he could. "Hello! My name's-"
"Wikus of Earth. I know of you," the soldier replied, looking down on the human with an even expression.
"Oh! Well, good, I won't have to explain all that, eh?"
"What brings you to the Palace of Posacam?"
"Right. Well Sir, I need to speak with Princess Abayomi, you see...."
"I was not informed of your appointment."
"No....ah, I don't have one. I didn't know the formal procedure to get one, but it's very important that I meet with her....see, I ran into her a while back but we didn't get the chance to talk then, and I have some questions, that's all."
"You'll need to make an appointment, then."
Wikus rubbed at the back of his neck as he scanned his brain for a solution. He wasn't accustomed to this side of the bureaucrat's legislation. "I would....but I haven't got much time. I had to leave work, and I came all the way from Patakatifu....I just need a few minutes, then I'll be on my way..."
As the soldier considered this, his large eyes wandered down to the glowing violet flame hanging on its sparkling chain, just as Wikus had hoped. The Ulu Mahan was a rare but universally respected symbol for poleepkwa, and it offered its recipient widespread benefits. Wikus was never permitted to pay his bill when he ate at a poleepkwan restaurant; he hadn't been charged for the ride to Maj. Once, a shopkeeper had tried to send him home with a flock of boisterous bird-like pets simply because he'd been admiring them. Fortunately, Wikus wasn't the sort of person who would take advantage of this outpouring; it usually made him a little uncomfortable, in fact. But the success of this half-baked mission hinged entirely on today's single exception.
"I'm not armed," Wikus offered, holding his arms out wide, "feel free to check."
The guard fidgeted his antennae as he considered the alien before him, then made his decision. "That won't be necessary. You may enter, but I will log it in the visitor's register."
"Of course! I'll be quick, I promise you."
The warrior stepped aside and opened the heavy entrance door for the unannounced guest. "After you enter the Palace, go forward six doors. Then turn to your right and follow the corridor. Abayomi's quarters will be framed in white."
"Yessir. Thank you!" Wikus bowed slightly and hustled inside, eager to get moving before anyone else turned up.
Inside the stone encasement, the atmosphere was not at all what one would expect, in that it didn't appear to be inside anything. Wikus noted the same illusion he'd seen in Ruwala's chambers covering the entire massive ceiling of the dome; seamless screens that projected a bright blue sky overhead. It was probable that it wasn't a recording and he was seeing a broadcast of the actual sky outside. The trick was entirely convincing; anyone would have mistaken it for the real thing if he didn't know better.
It wasn't the sight he'd come to see, however, and Wikus walked as quickly as he could down the entrance path while still trying to appear nonchalant, should anyone be watching. As he approached the Palace door, it slid aside for him, then slid shut once he entered, sealing out the afternoon sun and white noise of the Capitol.
The foyer in which he found himself was surprisingly dark and sparse, not to mention quiet. A round, stained glass window above cast a colorful puddle of light on the floor where he stood, but it was the only light of any real use. The hall arced off in either direction, tunneling away into obscurity. There was only one door ahead, a sturdy, darkly stained work of art. It resembled polished walnut, covered in extravagant carvings that looped and flowed toward its centerpiece. This focal point was an opaque chunk of glass that appeared to be lit from behind, or perhaps, emitting its own glow in an entrancing aquamarine hue.
"Okay," Wikus thought out loud, "six doors forward. How do I...." He looked over the door closely, but there was no handle or hinge of any kind. It wasn't until he inadvertently placed a hand against it that it opened inward for him in a fluid and silent sweep.
The next hallway he entered was very much the same as the first, but even more dimly lit. It, too, didn't seem to have anything in it, and led away to the left and right towards who-knew-what. The only help his human eyes received came from more of the glass ornaments along the walls, leaking soft and meager halos of greenish blue down each path. "These guys must have pretty good eyesight," Wikus mumbled and he moved cautiously through the next door as well.
After he'd passed through the sixth, he turned right and followed the corridor uneasily. He knew, if he needed to make a hasty escape, trying to find the correct door in this darkness would probably be his undoing. Even the glimmering Ulu Mahan didn't contribute enough additional light to make navigation much easier. Wikus walked for what seemed like far too long without seeing anything like a door framed in white. He was beginning to think he'd miscounted when a small blip of light appeared far down the hall. Squinting, he hurried toward it, hoping it wasn't an anomaly in his eyesight, and at last, Wikus knew he was in the right place.
A circle of white lights in the ceiling cast a luminous oasis outside the chambers of Princess Abayomi. Her door was structured the same as the rest, though its glass was lit in a rich violet. Twisting bundles of pure white carvings framed the door just as the guard had described, and these met similarly ornate alabaster benches on either side.
His heart thumping, Wikus plopped his duffle bag on one of the benches, then made some attempt to straighten his clothes and hair. With a deep breath, he rapped on the door and stepped back a pace, waiting for whatever might greet him.
After half a minute of silence, Wikus ventured another knock, and waited again. Still nothing. Although he was quite sure it would be locked, he took a shot and pressed a hand against the wood. Quietly it swung open and he was met by a subtle but unmistakable fragrance of incense, or perfume, possibly both. From what he could see through the gap, the chamber within was brighter than the halls had been, but still intimately lit. Could she be asleep? Or not at home?
Wikus gingerly pushed the door open further and, against his best judgment, let himself in. "Helloooo?" he called in his best Haltherian. There was no response and no one to be seen, but the allure of the princess's quarters were enough to satiate his curiosity for the moment. It was a cozy space, not very wide but it seemed to go back quite a way. The light was provided by numerous colored lanterns hanging from the ceiling, interspersed with a wide variety of elegant tapestries and hanging silks. To the left, a huge bed or couch sat against the wall, draped in fancy, tasseled coverings and cushions. It seemed much too large to suit a human; the flat of it must have been 10 feet long before it curved up at its ends like a sleigh. Further back, a desk and some cubbies could be seen laden with interesting trappings and instruments.
And to his right, a sparkle caught Wikus's eye, begging to be inspected. In the corner, a cavalcade of thin cords hung from the ceiling in ascending lengths, each one ending with a curious little stone. Wikus drew close for a careful look; they resembled smooth bits of quartz shaped like tear drops, each about the size of the end of his thumb, but with an unnatural glint. The plush cushioned chair underneath the arrangement told him this was more than just eye candy. He reached up and faintly touched a finger to one of the stones and it sang out a single, melodious chord.
"Oh!" Wikus uttered in surprise, stumbling back a step.
The cheery note had no sooner faded than an unmistakably feminine voice called from somewhere in the back. "Allu....mahthi li mas?"
Wikus recognized the words as Majhatughan, though he didn't understand their meaning. He felt the urge to flee, but this is what he'd come for and he wasn't about to leave without some kind of resolution. So he held his hands together and waited for the resident to confront him.
When the voice didn't receive a response, soft footsteps drew near, and then Abayomi materialized from the shadows, pushing the iridescent hangings out of her way. She stopped short as soon as she caught site of her visitor and the pair stared at each other with wide eyes and slack jaws.
Princess Abayomi was every bit as human as the woman Wikus had first seen, and even more lovely. The gentle colors of the lanterns cast a soft illumination on her deep sepia skin. Her waist-long hair was neatly twisted into uniform dreadlocks and tied behind her head with ropings of gold hung with little gems. Similar jewelry adorned her ears, neck and arms as well as the assortment of green silks she wore around her body. They began with a pale grass at her chest and gradated down to a deep emerald around her legs.
"I knew it!" Wikus exclaimed, his shock morphing into elation.
For whatever reason, he spoke those three words in English, and was completely flabbergasted to hear her respond in the very same language. "What are you doing in here?! You have no business- you're going right back the way you came!"
Before Wikus could even grasp what she'd said, Abayomi marched over to him, wrenched him roughly by the arm and began leading him through the room. She took an abrupt turn and dragged him through a side door into another dark hallway.
"W-wait, I'm here to-"
"Enough! I won't hear it! I don't know how you managed this..."
"I can explain!"
"Quiet!" she barked, keeping a swift pace, her slender fingers digging into his bicep. The princess ducked through one door, then another, taking a path Wikus couldn't hope to retrace.
His chances of making it back out quickly, as he'd promised the guard, seemed dismal now and he couldn't guess what he ought to do. She wouldn't even let him get a word in edgewise. It was as if he were tumbling down a steep hill, desperately wanting to stop and right himself, but he was so confused and disoriented that all he could do was wait until he reached the bottom.
At last Abayomi stopped in front of a door that was different from the rest. It was more mechanical, lacking in style and grace, and evidently locked. The princess tapped at a keypad of some sort, still maintaining a death grip on Wikus's arm, and after a finger scan the access panel unlocked the door for her. She yanked the baffled man into an empty alcove with her where they faced yet another entranceway. These double doors, though, were glass and Wikus could see whites and greens beyond. He made one more attempt at open dialogue but without a further word Abayomi shoved him out of one of the glass doors, then pulled it shut on him.