To Mike’s right, two snakes slithered away through cracks in the wall. He’d been warned about the highly venomous reptiles in the briefing before landing on Mahjundar. Since the briefing he’d received said a bite was invariably fatal in mere minutes, Mike was happy to see the creatures were nonaggressive today. It was anybody's guess how well the generic antivenom shots in Johnny’s medkit would work.
Chittering in protest at being disturbed, a flock of gray birds circled the room in a mad whirl of wings right below the ceiling before flying out a central skylight. When the room was still, Mike made a rapid survey. The walls had at one time been painted a bright white, but were now grimed over, with peeling plaster.
Ten mystical symbols had been painted at intervals on each wall, at what would be shoulder height for Mahjundans. The red, green, turquoise and yellow drawings had undoubtedly been blindingly bright at one time, but were now faded into near obscurity from sheer age. Mike found his vision blurred if he tried to stare at any one of the symbols for longer than a moment.
In the center of the room was a raised dais, edged in bright turquoise tile, supporting a waist-high, square block of dull red stone. The same ten symbols had been painstakingly etched into the altar’s sides, highlighted at one time with yellow, bits of which could be seen in the deep grooves of the carving.
Shalira stepped forward, going up onto the dais, drawing Mike with her. She was holding his hand so tightly he couldn't have stayed behind without violently pulling free. But I want to stand here with her, support her.
Leaning over, Mike realized the top of the red stone was polished enough for him to see his reflection in the surface. “No dust?” How is that possible?
The top had two perfectly shaped oval indentations, each about a yard long and half a yard wide at the center. Although several messy nests were in the rotunda directly above, there were no bird droppings anywhere on the stone. Flicking the safety before holstering his gun, Mike reached out to touch the gleaming surface.
“What the hell?” His fingers stopped six inches above the block, as if he’d tried to press his hand through glass. Cursing, he yanked his hand away. His skin, reddened where it had met the invisible obstacle, felt if it had been scorched by open flame.
“Careful,” Shalira said. “The Altar of the Ten Gods deals harshly with the uninitiated.”
“I'll take your word for it. I meant no disrespect.” He blew on his fingers. “How old is this place? Why doesn't your father do something about fixing it up?”
“The temple dates to the earliest beginnings of civilization on Mahjundar. There used to be hundreds of these temples scattered throughout the empire. But the worship of the Ten Gods is fading, except perhaps in the most rural areas.” Shalira frowned. “Empress Maralika doesn’t believe in their power, preferring new temples, alternate beliefs.”
Mike considered the fading paint. “So she doesn't exactly encourage your father to spend money on the old gods?”
Shalira pursed her lips. “I was sure I heard my father approve funds for this work.”
Mike remembered what he’d been told in his briefing about the Empress Maralika's accounts in the big, secretive banks on New Switzerland. I bet I know where the authorized funds ended up.
Vreely was tapping his booted foot impatiently on the bottom step. “We’re wasting time. Get the key, Your Highness, and let us get on with the journey.”
“What do you need to do?” asked Mike, pivoting her to face him.
She faltered, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead. “I—I'm not totally sure. I observed the ceremony performed in reverse at my great-uncle's funeral, when my father commended the key for his tomb to the keeping of the Ten.”
Of course, she hadn't been blind then. This whole errand must be stirring up powerful memories for her—better get it over with as fast as possible. Mike glanced at the impatient Mahjundan officer. Maybe Vreely’s right about some things.
“We must make an offering.” The princess freed her hand from Mike's. “Could you open this pouch for me and set the items in my hands?” Fumbling at her belt, she detached a small red leather purse, which she held out.
Unknotting the rawhide strip at the neck of the purse, he removed ten different things loosely packed inside, carefully depositing them in Shalira's cupped hands. There was an iridescent feather from some rare bird, a sachet of rich perfume, an exquisite jade carving of a deer-like creature, ten tiny golden bells strung on a fine chain, and other miniature treasures he’d no time to examine. One for each god, I suppose.
“This is the last item.” He laid an enameled brooch encrusted with baroque pearls on top of the pile in her hands and tucked the small purse away in a pocket.
Tightening her fingers around the precious hoard, Shalira raised her arms. Bathed in sunlight streaming from the skylights, she chanted in a variation of the Mahjundan language that his hypnotraining hadn’t included. Her voice was lyrical, mesmerizing in the way the rhythm rose and fell. Realizing he was dizzy, Mike blinked hard, reaching to steady himself against the red block.
Within the chamber, a humming had begun, like an accompaniment to the chanting, but in a much deeper tonal range. The strange sound vibrated through his spine and behind his ears in an unpleasant way. As if a breeze had sprung up inside the room, the dust and debris on the floor shifted hither and yon, moved into small piles. It was as if he and Shalira were cut off from the others, isolated on the island of the dais by sound and a wall of wind. Now the princess lowered her offering toward the block’s surface. Mike reached out, guiding her hands toward the closer of the two oval depressions. Electricity tingled through his nerves, blue fire danced in the air and he couldn’t release her fingers. His hands supported hers.
This time there was no invisible shield to prevent him from touching the stone. Contact with the altar hit Mike like ice water. Shivering, he felt Shalira trembling violently next to him, but the princess continued her ritual with no break in the song, although her voice grew wobbly. At last, their hands separated, and he jerked his fingers back. Shalira held one final, lingering note, suddenly opening her cupped hands.
The gifts she offered drifted the last few inches into the stone oval. One by one, as if falling through thick glue, the items touched the rock and disappeared in showers of red, yellow and turquoise sparks.
Shalira fell silent, licking her lips and lowering her head. She took a step backward. Hastily, Mike reached out to steady her and prevent her from toppling off the edge of the dais. Head against his chest, she leaned into him. “Is the offering accepted?” Her whisper was so thready he could barely hear the words. “Is there a key in the other bowl?”