Like mice scratching and scraping in the walls in the small hours, strange sounds emanated from the furthest corners of the palace. Heneguya knew that the most eager of the plunderers from Tricilve had reached them. Crashes echoed and the sound of splitting wood could be heard, though slightly muffled by the walls in between. Laughter, running feet and loud cries could be made out in passages where until recently groups of high-born aristocracy had paced in earnest conversation. The Empress watched and listened, keeping distance from the events like the audience in a theatre – even if she would soon be forced to take to the stage herself. Suddenly someone tried the lock on the door to the throne room and she involuntarily jolted up, awoken from a dream already exhausted. She was inclined to confront the intruders, for she had been a formidable regent, but managed to suppress the impulse. How many years had she worked and negotiated for these people’s betterment in the place of her unfit spouse? How many years trying to help the same people who would now defile and destroy her world? To what end?
The palace was soundly constructed and the Chalkland guards had barricaded the entrances as well as they could in the few hours given them, but neither the doors nor the walls were designed to withstand an attack. It was only a question of time until the plebs found their way in. The Empress lifted her age-old ancestral pendant from her neck band, opening the front to look at the silver ring and its fragile chain. The pressure in the room rose, a sign that the air spirit Basenanji was ready to carry out whatever she might order. He had always been there, powerful but invisible to all. Maybe the being could protect her. In her youth the bards of Trastamara had sung ballads telling of how these slaves of generations had gone into battle for her ancestors, crushing armies under flying blocks of stone and blowing whole armadas to splinters. Air spirits were strange creatures that nobody really understood, but through the years she had been left with the impression that Basenanji was a peaceful sort who reluctantly showed his violent power only at her behest. He was perhaps even a touch melancholy in these older years of his thralldom. She did not have any great desire to sully this servant who had obeyed her and her ancestors for hundreds of years with the blood of thousands of people. Even if she could escape, where would she go? Neither Chalkland nor Trachoria, nor any of her other old friends would want anything to do with her. No, she was a Trastamara and would not be humiliated. Her old combat tutor had told her that the Knights of Bansikan could never be beaten; only crushed as a single intact entity. Should she, an Empress of the oldest blood, fare any worse?
“Basenanji”, she said as tools were put to work on the door to her sanctuary.
“Basenanji, we require a final and great effort on your part, our servant. In exchange you may then rest for as long as you should like, in a place and manner which suits you at your leisure.”
A low murmur whistled through the room, a sign that that air spirit was listening attentively.
“We have always desired to meet the clouds eye to eye, just as you yourself met them when you were young and free, but we shall travel as befits us with our entire palace. Can you manage it?”
It became so oppressively silent for a moment that even the looters outside the door stopped what they were doing. Then the whole building began to shake. The empress rocked back and forth on her throne, afraid she had asked too much. Then everything levelled out again and she felt a weight push her stomach down into her hips. Out in the corridor cries could be heard, but this was not the Empress’ concern. Heneguya stepped dignifiedly down from the throne and over to the largest of the room’s stained glass windows. It was impossible to open but the empress took hold of a poker from the fireplace and beat out the glass and lead frame. She and her palace were in the heavens, the warm wind of the mountains flowing into the room as a surprised albador looped by. Far below she could see the Coimatri River weaving its ways east, clear as a mirror until it reached the great waters of Lake Malossi. There was only the odd cloud to be seen in the sky, which was perhaps the reason Basenanji had been hesitant, but a tiny cluster glided towards them, barely larger than a haystack. It thudded softly against the palace walls, at which point the air spirit turned the building so that the empress could reach it from the window. The cloud felt cool and fluffy to her touch, and she had a sudden urge to climb out onto it and to see if it would hold, sweeping over the earth for all time up where nobody could touch her. In the meantime though she had other plans.
“Basenanji, turn the palace so that we can see the city!”
At once the world around them rotated so that her head would have been sent swimming had she not been used to the movements of the building. A few people, presumably having clung to an outer staircase, fell screaming to the ground far below. She did not command the air spirit to rescue them though, for they had come to plunder and had only themselves to blame.
Heneguya had to shield her face against the afternoon sun with her palm in order to glimpse the capital city as never before. Tricilve seemed tiny from above, and not even the imperial palace on its little mound could impress any more, though she knew how much the craftsmanship had cost as a gift in kind for the privileges granted them by Radassabar. The street kitchens must already have begun preparing for their evening diners judging by the sickly yellow colour hanging over the city. The empress toyed with the idea of ordering Basenanji to direct the palace over Tricilve to bid a final royal farewell to her subjects, but lost the urge, perhaps because from that height the place seemed so small and poky. She felt endlessly wearied by it all, as if the perspective gained by such a view had reduced in importance her life and everything she cared about. A familiar shaking of the walls indicated Basenanji’s powers were waning and the air spirit would soon need to rest; despite his strength he was aged. Heneguya walked over to the toolbox her guards had borne in at her request before disappearing and drew out a heavy pair of pliers. She sat on the throne and opened up the pendant with the silver-link chain shackling the air spirit. It must have been cast at least five hundred years before, yet the metal resisted more than she expected. Only by clasping both levers of the pliers firmly in her hands could she muster the force to clip through it.
“You are free, Basenanji! Thank you for everything!” she shouted as the bonds were broken. Then all she could do was laugh as she was struck by weightlessness, kicking off of the throne and floating in the middle of the room. “Look Basenanji, I am free too!” she cried. I am a floating cloud!”
From the deck of the Chalklandian stanelast, Legate Ludenbrand had watched the air spirit lift the palace higher and higher into the sky, until the people standing at its windows, or clinging to its doors balconies and climbing plants, became impossible to make out. He held perhaps a vague hope that the empress and her home would float away out of reach of the plebs, but also a foreboding knowledge deep inside of how the flight would end. In any event, he howled in terror as the chain was cut and Basenanji departed from service, leaving the building to fall. By that point the vessel had made enough progress out into the bay that no screams could be heard. The palace seemed to fall so slowly that the crew could not take the whole thing seriously, until they heard the roar of impact roll out over the water a few seconds later and a dust cloud surged up into the sky. Pik Tambra, where the building made landfall, was an overgrown sandbank, but the sheer height of the drop meant what lay beneath was of little importance. Ludenbrand sunk to his knees against the balustrade with a copy of Retribution jerked closed in his lap – his closest companion in mourning.
“Justice shall be done”, he whispered over and over. Just an ounce of shame accompanied the thought that his chronicle might now contain a climactic conclusion.