If Heaven existed, then it might have looked something like this, Sol thought. There were endless fields and meadows filled with colourful flowers and vast lakes where horned horses grazed and drank from the clear water.
When the room started to slow, Sol looked ahead and saw a grand building with white crescent walls and a bulbous golden dome.
"Have you ever been to the Palace, detective?" asked Tiruk.
"I don't believe so," said Goone.
"Don't touch anything. And don't wander off."
"You don't have much faith in me."
"That's because I know you too well. When you meet the Emperor, you will kneel and refer to him only as 'Your Greatness'. And speak only when he speaks to you."
"Kneel. Your Greatness. Don't speak. Got it."
The glass room drifted to a hover outside the Palace entrance and lowered gently to the ground. As it touched down, its walls became dust once more before dissolving into the still air.
The Palace looked twice the size from the ground as it had from the air. The circle of guards spread out as Tiruk led the two guests towards a flight of wide marble steps which slimmed as they neared the Palace doors. The doors opened as they approached, allowing them into an open-roofed atrium which was more like a garden than a room, with flowered vines wrapped around tall pillars. Water poured from the mouths of strange statues at top of each pillar, filling a large fountain of water in the centre of the atrium. Despite the constant flow, the water in the fountain did not rise.
"We will wait here," said Tiruk, coming to a stop beside the fountain. Sol looked into the pool and found he could not see the bottom, despite the clearness of the water. He did see a shadow moving within it, however, like some kind of large fish was stirring deep below the surface—and it was swimming straight up. As it grew nearer, Sol was amazed to discover it was not a fish, but a girl, with pale skin and silver hair—and a tail.
She surfaced with barely a splash and gazed up at Sol with large blue eyes.
"Hello," said the girl, smiling.
"Hello," Sol murmured. He couldn't take his eyes away from her.
"Not now, Anyel," said Tiruk. "We are waiting for the Emperor."
Anyel propped her elbows on the fountain's ledge and rested her head on her hands as she stared at Sol.
"I've never seen a human before," she said. "You're quite handsome."
"Leave him alone, Anyel," said a man's voice, and everyone turned to look at the man on the far side of the atrium.
He was dressed in a blue and gold cloak and looked no older than sixty, though his most discernible quality was his height—or lack of it. He must have been no taller than four feet tall, even with the fez perched on his head. He was flanked by two women dressed in identical white and gold gowns, their faces hidden beneath lace veils.
Anyel smiled coyly at Sol before sinking below the water. Her tail curled upwards as she propelled herself down into the fountain's shadowy depths and disappeared.
"You're back sooner than I expected," said the short man as he arrived before the party. Tiruk knelt, prompting Sol and Goone to do the same. "Please, there's no need for that. Stand! Stand!" They got back to their feet. "I'm not sure I recall humans being quite so tall! You must be Solomon."
"Yes, si—Your Greatness," Sol said.
"Please, I hardly expect you to bother with our formalities. Call me Farahl. So few people use my Elder name these days that it gives me great pleasure to hear it. Thank you, Commander; you may leave us now."
Tiruk nodded before leaving the way he'd come through the Palace doors. The Emperor waited until the Centaur was gone before continuing.
"I've been trying to recall the last time I saw a human in this world, but it was so long ago now that I cannot be sure it wasn't a dream. I only wish we were meeting under kinder circumstances. It was quite a shock when Ephera informed me of Pan Magal's passing. I probably wouldn't have believed her had it not been for Maeyana's vision several nights ago. She predicted his death, you know."
"But not how he died," said Goone. "That's still a mystery."
The Emperor looked at the detective sharply. "Yes... and one I hope to solve quickly. You are the detective who discovered him?"
"I am, Your Greatness."
"What is your name?"
"Arthur? That is a human name, isn't it?"
"How did you acquire it?"
"My mother was a Warlock for the Order before I was born. She heard the name and always liked it."
"It sounds as though she had a streak of rebellion in her, also."
Goone said nothing.
"Have you ever met my daughters, detective?"
"I don't believe I have."
"Ofana. Ifrita. Lower your veils."
The two women on either side of him pulled back their veils, revealing themselves both to be twins. Every aspect of them was identical, from the subtle pigment of their hazel eyes to their short fringes of chestnut hair.
"Ofana and Ifrita are my personal protectors." said the Emperor.
"They must be very skilled fighters," remarked Goone.
The Emperor smiled. "They are the finest Warlocks in my entire guard."
"Have they ever been to the human world?"
"The human world? Of course not; they have no reason to. Why do you ask?"
"He doesn't believe we've ever been in a real fight," said the daughter on the left.
The Emperor frowned. "Is Ofana correct in her deduction, detective?"
Goone cleared his throat. "I was not doubting your daughters' skill, Your Greatness. I'm sure they are both excellent Warlocks."
"Just not as good as you," said Ofana.
"I didn't say that."
"But it's what you meant."
"Stop tormenting him," said the Emperor. "The detective is our guest. Have you ever visited the Palace, detective?"
"No, Your Greatness."
"Then you must have a tour! Ofana and Ifrita will escort you, won't you, girls?"
"Yes, Father," said the two women in unison, and they left the Emperor's side and flanked Goone instead.
"Come, detective," said one of the daughters, and they marched him away through an arched doorway.
"That looks like dragon-skin," remarked the Emperor, eyeing Sol's coat.
"Uh, yes," Sol replied. "The Tomlins made it for me."
"Tomlins? Ah yes, of course. I can't imagine how strange this all must be for you, to be dragged into another world—and in the midst of such a terrible event. You must feel as though you've gone quite mad."
"I'm hanging in there."
"I wonder... Has anyone explained to you how our worlds came to be connected?"
"No, not yet."
The Emperor smiled. "Then follow me."
YOU ARE READING
* Next chapter this weekend * Manhattan, 1929. The City is on its knees following a devastating crash in the stock market. Thanks to the Prohibition, criminals are making a killing off illegal bars while thousands of honest labourers can't find a si...