The Crystal Pyramid – Mia Ram

The Crystal Pyramid – Mia Ram

August 2022

There’s not a soul in this city-state who hasn’t heard of the Crystal Pyramid. It is the lost wonder of the ancient world, the point where the lines between history and legend blur. Countless scholars, writers, and artists have imagined how it must have looked.

I do not need to imagine. I have seen it with my own eyes.

I remember it stood lonely among the pale dunes, its every edge sharpened to perfection, its crystalline facade so pure it reflected the sun’s rays back to the sky. Was it the most beautiful thing I had ever seen? Perhaps, but given the circumstances, that was no shining endorsement. I had just travelled across hundreds of leagues, riding through nothing but sand wastes. I had sailed the malicious seas that churned between our continent and theirs. I had dragged myself across a desolate land with no one but my horse for company. After all that, even a rotting shack would have looked beautiful to me.

“Take a whiff of the air, Fig.” I patted my horse’s neck as she trotted toward the pyramid. “You know what that smell is?”

Fig whinnied.

“Success, Fig. It’s the smell of success.” I rode her to the very edge of the pyramid before bringing her to a stop and swinging off of her. “Well, there’s nowhere to stable you. But you’re not going to be stupid and run off, are you?”

Fig huffed.

“Smart girl. You just wait here for me until I find the entrance for us, and when all this is over, I’ll give you all the lettuce you can eat.” I grabbed my satchel off her saddle and slung it over my shoulder, then shot her a final salute. “Wish me luck, whatever that’s worth. We’re about to be very rich, Fig. Very rich.”

Granted, I was already very rich by that point. But I wasn’t the richest. And the sun is not content to rise only halfway up the sky.

I began as a little wailing nobody, born to another nobody beneath a nameless bridge in the city-state of Summer’s Edge. My mother believed in playing life’s game fair, and little good it did us living as street rats. Ours was a life of barely enough. Barely enough to eat and drink. Barely enough shelter, barely enough clothing, barely enough to exist.

Then she died. In the cold of that first night alone in the gutter, I asked myself questions. What would it be like to have more than just barely enough? What would it be like to not have to slave and beg for scraps, to simply take what you want?

To leave uncrackable vaults empty. To con the sharpest merchants out of every coin. To fill coffer after coffer, eventually with enough to buy my way into the aristocratic circles.

What would it be like to have everything?

I discovered it was like flying.

The greatest of flights began a few months before I arrived at the Crystal Pyramid, in a narghile lounge in the gold district. I’d been invited there by an old friend. Akeem was a fellow thief turned merchant, one who had also played the game well enough to climb from the low streets to the high towers of the city-state. We had run more than a few cons and thefts together. A childhood disease had left him unable to use his legs, so he’d relied on mine to sneak into wealthy windows or through crowded markets, just as I relied on his lightning wit to craft escape routes and elaborate frauds when my own wouldn’t do. He was the only person I’d met since my mother that I trusted.

The lounge was spread across the roof of the district’s highest tower, all satin cushions and rugs imported from island states to the south. Even the narghile supplied to me was ringed with rubies along the base. They were poorly set in the gold, though. I was able to chip them all off and slip them into my pockets before Akeem even joined me on the sofa. I watched his attendants carry him in on a silver palanquin, then help him onto the seat across from me.

“Thank you. Wait for me below,” he told them, shooing them away. Once they’d left us, he turned his attention back to me. “And thank you for meeting me here, Bazi.”

I blew some smoke aside and shrugged. “You ought to be thankful. I’m rarely this generous with my time. I’m a busy woman.”

“But never too busy for a smoke with a good friend, surely?” Akeem smiled.

“Not when I’ve only got the one,” I said with a wink. “But really, this better be good. I’ve got plans that need attending to.”

“So the rumors say. I can’t go down two streets in the rich districts without hearing something about you. Rather surprising things.”

“You ought to know better than to pay any mind to rumors about me. Half of those are merely venomous lies spread by the many who envy my fortune. And my talent, wit, and beauty. Why, it’s no wonder I have enemies.” I grinned and tried to keep my tone light-hearted. “Let’s not waste time. What’s this proposal you wanted me to hear?”

“Well, that has to do somewhat with rumors as well. They say you’ve aspirations toward the royal families,” said Akeem, drumming his fingers on his knee.

“Do they, now?” My grin tightened. Akeem shouldn’t have known that, especially not second-hand. It’s much harder to slip your way into a circle once everyone knows you’re trying to get in. It must have been that damn Naji, my lover at the time, running his mouth around the pleasure district. Some men you can’t tell anything.

Akeem grabbed the pipe from my hand and took a leisurely inhale. “As esteemed as you’ve become, Bazi, you must realize that such a thing would be nigh impossible for you. Even the richest merchant would never be considered for marriage into one of the seven royal families.”

“Nothing is impossible for me.” I snatched the pipe back. “And I certainly need no advice on the matter from you. What do you know of the royal families, anyway?”

“In general? Not more than expected. Of Prince Sef in particular? Quite a bit.”

I froze. “Prince Sef? Of the Dram family?”

Akeem’s grin widened. “Ah, now I have your attention.”

I fought to keep myself collected. Sef’s family was the oldest in Summer’s Edge, its founding family. As the eldest, he stood to become the most powerful, wealthiest person in the city-state. Along with whatever woman could manage to marry him.

Akeem leaned in, his eyes alight. “I happen to have befriended the prince’s former tutor at this very lounge, mere months ago. After a few drinks, he told me that Prince Sef has long been seized by an obsession with the history of the Empire of Heaven, as well as its last empress, Eru. And her tomb, the Crystal Pyramid. Do you know what they say she was buried with? Enchanted automatons, wax wings that flew, and even a pair of lenses that would allow the wearer to see the future.”

“Magic lenses, hm?” I laughed at the thought. “Oh, the things I could do with that.”

“Legend says these are but a few of her treasures, and the prince would give his arm for even one of them. Any woman who could bring back a relic for him would win his heart enough to overcome his feelings on status and blood.”

“All well and good if I could ever find such a thing,” I scoffed.

Akeem held up a hand to silence me. He turned to the satchel beside him and pulled bundles of papers and books out from his satchel, selecting one sheet to hand to me. I took it and stared down at the world in ink. I traced one of the routes with my finger, eyes going wide.

“This isn’t our continent.”

“Indeed not. It is the one that lies across the Carmelian Seas. Few have even voyaged to its shores, much less traversed it.”

That’s what this is?” I snapped, though I couldn’t tear my eyes from the map. “Of course few voyage there. Even I’ve heard how dangerous the Carmelian seas are, and those who’ve survived say nothing lies on the other side but sand.”

“Sand, and the ruins of the lost Empire.” Akeem kept his eyes steady on mine. There was no mirth there, no hint of a jest at my expense. “I can trust no one else with this, Bazi. I’ve reached across the farthest, most shadowed corners of the continent for the information you now hold in your hands. What lies within the Crystal Pyramid could make us both rich beyond our wildest dreams. I can provide the ship, the supplies, everything you could need for the expedition. The only thing I cannot do is sail myself. I need you.”

And so there I was months later, my expedition guided by the maps and texts from Akeem. The theoretical inventory of Empress Eru’s burial chamber was admittedly the least useful, but I couldn’t seem to help myself from reading it constantly, imagining those treasures as I journeyed to a forgotten land. It was a comfort through the tempests that rocked my ship, and on the endless nights when the dunes went cold. I clutched it close to my heart when the worst of the thirst hit and the only oasis near was a mirage. I traced its letters when the sandstorms kept Fig and me trapped in my tent for days. Through all these torments, the promise of the burial chamber was my only comfort. And always, I dreamed of the magic lenses. Surely there wasn’t a problem in the world that couldn’t be solved with them. Like the problem of the door.

“This is madness, Fig,” I told the horse on my third circuit around the pyramid’s perimeter. “There has to be a way in. Damn me to Hells, I should have just brought along some explosives. Just take out this wall right here, and the trouble would be over with!”

I rifled through the tools I’d brought in my satchel, hoping that perhaps I had packed something combustive and somehow forgot. No such luck. The closest thing to useful was my hammer, one of few tools I had packed, but even that barely managed to penetrate the crystal wall when I tested it.

Fig whinnied behind me and tilted her ear. She beat her hoof against the sand.

“Oh, quit your whining, spoiled beast,” I snapped at her. “You haven’t been waiting long.”

Fig paid me no mind. She whinnied again and broke into a trot around to the other side of the pyramid. I ran after her, hurling every curse in existence at her as I did.

“Fig, there’s no room in the Heavens for ungrateful curs!” I yelled as she slowed to a stop by the pyramid’s north-facing wall. I caught up and wagged my finger in her face. “If you think for one second that this is acceptable behavior—”

I paused as a ringing sounded behind me. I turned, stunned to find that the walls of the pyramid were slowly parting behind me to reveal a mirror twice my size and height.

“—then you are absolutely correct. Well done, Fig.” I patted Fig’s neck and stared at my reflection. Hopeful that the mirror functioned as a door, I tried pushing against it with my full weight. It didn’t budge an inch. I was about to ram myself against it again when I saw something faint in the mirror, superimposed over my reflection. I pressed my face to the glass and squinted. On the other side stood a silver lion.

He stepped closer to the glass. “Name yourself, strange traveler.”

“What in the name of all Hells!” I stared at the creature, stunned to my core. I had seen many oddities in my day, but a talking lion was a first. “What are you?”

“I am Malak,” Malak answered, baring his fangs. “Imperial messenger and guard, bidden to deny entry to the unworthy. As you must be if you lack even the faculties to identify yourself.”

“I’m Bazi.”

“Of what House?”

I shrugged. “I need no house or distinguished blood. I was born beneath a bridge in Summer’s Edge and found it to be a perfectly fine starting place.”

“Well, Bazi of the Bridge, if it is entry to the Empress’ chamber you seek, you must prove yourself.”

“Well, isn’t that how it always goes. Straight out of a fairytale,” I snorted. “Are you about to present me with some twisty riddle?”

Malak paused for a moment before answering. “You are already familiar with the trials of the Pyramid?”

“Call it an educated guess,” I said. “Let’s hear it. I didn’t get to where I am by being stupid. I’ll make quick work of whatever riddle you have.”

Malak nodded. “Very well. Who is the one who drinks yet is ever thirsty, eats yet always hungers, who walks in shadows through every door and window, and shall inherit the world with a sleight of hand?”

I stared blankly for a moment, the words dancing about in my head as I tried to make sense of them. Always thirsty? Walks in shadows? I thought for another moment before the answer became clear.

“It’s all nonsense!” I declared. “There is no true answer, the riddle only exists to waste time and confuse the listener. I see right through it.”

“No, there is a single true answer—” Malak began, but I waved a hand to shush him.

“Of course not. If there was, I would have thought of it already. I’m sure that false riddle has turned others from your door, but such tricks won’t work on a sharper wit, Kitten.” I opened my satchel and dug until I found what I required. “Hah! Let’s try this beauty again.”

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Malak’s eyes widened as I struck the mirror with my hammer and began to fracture its surface.

“Exactly what it looks like.”

“This is not how things are done!” Malak snarled through the glass.

“It is now!” I gritted my teeth. Each strike against the glass took all my strength, to my amazement. This same hammer had blasted my way through dozens of windows with ease, yet the glass of the mirror seemed as difficult to break as iron.

“You’re not even going to attempt to answer?”

“I already told you, if there were a clear answer, I’d have thought of it. I won’t lose hours playing your little game. I’ve already lost months just to get here,” I said as I continued to fight against the glass. “I’ve starved, nearly been blown overboard and drowned, and wandered the desert for leagues. You want a damn answer? Here it is!”

The mirror shattered. One swift kick and the glass rained down on the other side.

I stepped inside. “There we are!”

Malak beat his paw on the ground. “That is not how this is intended to proceed! You’ve ruined the entrance. I was not designed to repair broken doors.”

“Designed?” With the mirror gone and the blue glow of the lanterns lining the walls, I could see Malak clearly. The silver was not of fur but actual metal, his dark eyes were marble stones, and the gears within his body could be heard with his every move. An automaton.

I poked him with the hammer. “What an odd specimen you are! I’ve half a mind to take you apart, see what makes you tick, then build copies to sell in the market square.”

“Try that and I’ll take you apart!” Malak snarled. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t suppose you have a stable around here?” I asked after I whistled my horse over. I swept the stray glass aside with my foot as Fig gingerly stepped through the gaping mirror, which was just wide enough for her to fit through. “No? No matter, she can wait here.”

“This is the Crystal Pyramid, not a horse stable.”

“Seems like you’ve plenty of room for her anyhow.” I looked around at the vast, empty floor until I saw a grand stairwell on the other side of the level. “Now, on we go.”

Malak sulked by my heels as we ascended to the second level of the Pyramid, clearly displeased at having been outwitted by me. He grumbled about fate and worthiness, but I couldn’t be bothered to listen. Far grander things occupied my mind. For, if Akeem had been right about an enchanted automaton, what other artifacts of legend lay hidden in the Pyramid? I thought again of the magic lenses. With a view into the future, anything could be within my grasp.

“Tell me, my feline friend, what sort of treasures did that Empress of yours lock with her in her burial chamber?” I asked Malak.

“Of what concern is that to you?”

“Oh, mere curiosity.”

Malak huffed, his marble eyes rolling my way. “It sounds as if you are thinking of taking something from Her Majesty’s chamber.”

“Why, never! I’m only a humble explorer, Kitten.” I stopped short as we finally reached the top step. Just ahead was a wide entryway that split into multiple paths, one to the right, one straight onward, and one to the left. “What’s this? A maze?”

“Yes.” Malak nodded. “This trial is intended to test your patience and memory.”

“Believe me, my patience has more than been tested,” I said. I stared at the entrances a moment, tapping my foot as I thought. “Hm.”

“Begin from any point,” said Malak. He stood and watched beside the left-most wall.

I turned to him, an idea forming. Any point, eh?

I quickly jumped up on his back before he could move out from under my feet.

“What are you doing?” Malak snapped.

“Just stay still a moment,” I replied. I reached to grasp the top of the maze wall and hauled myself to the edge. High above me was the ceiling, its shine heightened by the legions of lanterns lining the maze walls. From here, I could see the entire maze stretching all the way to the other end of the room, where the next stairwell waited. I considered walking the walltops, but given their relatively slim width, I figured the balancing act it would require would waste more time than it would save. From my satchel, I grabbed one of the maps and a worn charcoal stick. I proceeded to sketch a rough map of the maze on the back, as well as outline the path that led to its exit. It was quite an easy maze to solve when seen from above. Amateur, even.

“This is not how the puzzle is meant to be solved!” Malak called up at me. “Have you no concern for honor or integrity?”

“Honor and integrity never awarded anyone riches,” I said curtly. “Honor and integrity are fine things to have when you’re already born with your every need and desire met, but when you’re born destitute beneath a bridge, you cannot afford such childish ideals.”

“You need not sacrifice those ‘childish ideals’, as you call them, to improve your station in life.” Malak growled. “Have you even tried?”

“Have you?” I snapped back at him, and naturally, he had no reply. “My mother did. All it earned her was a knife in her back, and her final moments wasted in the dark of an alleyway. Her blood still stains my nightmares. It was a city guard that did it. Honest work for honest pay, he told her, until she dared to ask for the pay. If she’d have just stolen it off him, she’d still be breathing.”

“And so now you steal?”

“To thrive. I have as much of a right to do that as those born to golden cribs. Don’t you see? Life her way was misery and boredom. Life my way is endless thrills, luxury, and adventure. Taking what I want has set me free.” I winked down at him.

“Greed is its own chain,” he replied.

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told myself on my first night as an orphan, Malak: I’ll never have a knife in my back. I’ll never live and die in the dark of an alleyway. I’ll live in the palace towers, where nothing can touch me, where I can take whatever I want. Only that will be enough.”

I finished my map and lowered myself back down to the ground as gently as I could manage.

I nodded to Malak. “Keep up, Kitten.”

Malak was silent for half of our journey through the maze, likely bitter that I had outwitted the rules once more, but that didn’t bother me. I was eager to make my way to the next level and waste as little time as possible. Had I not been in a rush, I would have spent more time looking at the walls. Beautifully detailed scenes had been engraved on each one. There were scenes of coronations, battles, and rituals. As I passed through, I saw the portraits of what must have been Empresses past, halos glowing around their stately heads. Put together, it all seemed to tell a story, though I couldn’t parse what the story was.

“What are all these things engraved around us?” I asked Malak.

“Scenes of the Empire’s history,” he said. “Had you solved the puzzle properly, you would have recognized each as a historical event, tracing your way from the rise to the fall.”

“Well, that would have been impossible,” I said, idly running my fingers along the scenes. “There’s not enough known about the Empire now to reconstruct all its history.”

“Nonsense! The Empire of Heaven was the greatest in the world,” Malak growled.

“A few thousand years ago, sure. But now it’s buried in the sand wastes and mostly lost to history.”

Malak glared at me. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Your ancestors were poor record keepers and near-savages. They could not comprehend the glory of the Empire. Have you heard of Dassin the Sunborn?”

“How would I? I’m a near-savage,” I drawled.

“She was a genius sorceress descended from the sun goddess. She conquered this unruly continent and built it into a paradise. She poured her plundered riches into observatories, alchemical forges, and universities.”

“Wonderful, Dassin!” I clapped wildly before stopping to cup my hand to my ear. “But what was that word I just heard? ‘Plundered’? Weren’t you yapping earlier about ‘honor’ and ‘integrity’?”

“That is not the same,” said Malak. “Empress Dassin did what was necessary for the greatness of the Empire.”

“Greatness, is it?” I snorted.

“Yes. To look beyond your own fleeting, material needs, to reach for the height of what you could become and of the change you could create.”

“My material needs aren’t fleeting.”

Malak bared his fangs, the metal of his muzzle grinding as it lifted. “You would not joke if you understood what was lost. We had no sickness, no hunger, no pain. Every house was a palace, every fountain overflowing with crystal waters, every garden singing. We could project pictures across the Empire with the blink of an eye. Our automaton horses outran the wind. Our cities pierced the clouds. We could fly.”

I raised an eyebrow. “If you say so, Kitten. But, if your empire was capable of all that, how did it fall?”

Malak went silent. I would have pressed him further, but by then we were at the maze’s end, and the next stairwell awaited.

“I’m impressed, Malak. This is the creepiest thing I have ever seen.”

I stood at the entrance of the third level with hundreds of marble eyes staring at me. The shining white figures filled the pavilion. Every statue was a flawless replica of a person. Every human of every stripe was present, from soldiers to princesses, to butchers, to scholars. It was as though an entire village had been gathered there and frozen in time.

“There’s got to be hundreds of these,” I said.

“Yes, but you need only one.” Malak lifted his paw and pointed toward the center of the pavilion. Peppered across the pavilion were unoccupied tiles of every color and shade. “The trial is simple. Move the correct statue to that crimson tile in the center left, and the door shall unlock.”

“How can I possibly guess which statue is the correct one?”

“Look down and work from there.”

I looked down and realized that words were engraved on the tile. Indeed, all the tiles across the pavilion were host to either brief sentences or people’s names. I stepped back to read the words on which I’d been standing.

WHO IS THE ONE WHO

I grinned. “It’s the first words to that silly little riddle of yours. I only need to find the next line, correct?”

Malak said nothing, but I knew I was right. It was the only solution that made sense. Luckily the riddle was still fresh in my mind. I looked around at all the surrounding tiles until I finally spotted the next line a few steps away.

DRINKS YET IS EVER THIRSTY

“I don’t even have to get creative this time,” I called over to Malak with a laugh. “This is ludicrously easy!”

About seven steps to the right was the tile with the next line.

EATS YET ALWAYS HUNGERS

“I would have thought that the greatest empire would at least know how to craft a challenging puzzle. You ought to let me design the next Crystal Pyramid.” Another tile five steps ahead.

WHO WALKS IN SHADOWS

“Even my dimwitted Naji could solve this.” The next tile was a mere two steps to the left.

THROUGH EVERY DOOR AND WINDOW

“I hope the burial chamber lives up to the legends. Wouldn’t want to have gone through all this for some vases. Ah, there’s the next one.”

AND SHALL INHERIT THE WORLD

“You’re dead quiet, Malak. Cat got your—” I stopped short as I stepped on the final tile.

WITH A SLEIGHT OF HAND?

I stared at the statue that stood before me, her face pulled back in a wry grin, a satchel slung over her shoulder, and her boots dusty from a journey to a forgotten desert. At her feet were two words.

THE THIEF.

I stumbled backward from the statue of myself, a soft gasp escaping my lips. It was so detailed in its carving that I half expected it to reach out and grab me.

“Malak, what is this?” My voice broke as I spoke. I turned my head to find Malak padding toward me.

He tilted his head. “The answer to the riddle.”

I turned again to stare at my statue, utterly shaken. How could I be the answer to a riddle crafted before my birth?

I then noticed the faces of the statues standing behind it. To the left, a marble replica of Naji. To the right, Akeem. Behind them, my mother.

Malak nudged me with his nose. “All that’s left is to move the piece to the red tile that bears your name.”

“No! I demand an explanation, immediately!” I told him, but he was already padding away to the door. “How does this thing have my face? Why do you have copies of Naji, and my mother? Answer me!

Malak didn’t. He merely waited by the door at the pavilion’s edge.

Again I looked at my double. A psychological test, designed to break me. It nearly did. Every fiber of my body screamed to turn and run, to hop on Fig and never look back.

But I had come this far. If this did allow me entry to the chamber and its treasures, all that I had ever wanted could finally be mine.

I braced myself against the statue and slid it to the red tile that bore my name. As the tile sank beneath the statue’s weight, a click echoed through the pavilion. The door was open.

The stairwell to the burial chamber was the highest yet. The easy confidence with which I’d ascended the lower levels had evaporated now, supplanted by a quiet, creeping dread. I was half certain that cursed statue was following behind, laughing silently with my every step.

The door at the top was open, a pale glow reaching out of it and cascading down the steps ahead of me. It grew brighter the higher I climbed. It was like walking up to a star, dread intermingling with wonder, knowing with each step that I was reaching for something that wasn’t meant for human touch.

Finally, I was at the door. I blinked against the siren light and stepped into the Empress’ burial chamber.

Three of the walls were translucent, so that I could see all of the desert stretched out before me, even the sand-worn peaks of smaller pyramids, buried by the ages. The fourth wall was thicker than the others, opaque and cool to the touch. When I peered into it, I saw the barest outlines of a woman frozen with her arms across her chest. The Empress in endless sleep.

Within these walls were coffers overflowing with gems of every cut and color, robes of silk woven from clouds, and golden coins minted with ancient visages. There were six of Malak’s automaton kin standing guard at the corners, though they were not lions. Among them were a giant eagle, an ox, and even a human, all in silver. He wore the wax wings that Akeem had spoken of, pressed against his back. There were crystals that could summon moving images from the air, a mirror that spoke, and clocks that tracked the cycles of the moon and planets. Everywhere I looked, another marvel awaited.

It’ll take a fleet of ships to take this all back to Summer’s Edge, I thought to myself.

Naturally, I first targeted the jewels.

Malak was nowhere in sight, and the other automatons neither moved nor spoke as I spirited away every precious thing I could into my satchel. All the dread and fear from the pavilion flew from me as my satchel grew heavier. A few of the most valuable things I had to save for Akeem, as per our agreement, but the rest was all for me.

I grabbed a ruby-ringed crown from the top of one of the coffers, swinging it around my finger. My wedding gift for you, Prince Sef.

“You seem to have made yourself quite at home, Bazi of the Bridge.”

I jumped at Malak’s voice, nearly dropping the crown. “Kitten! I hope you don’t mind me nosing about. I couldn’t contain my curiosity.”

“Explore to your heart’s content.” Malak padded closer. “You have passed the trials. All that you see here is yours.”

“What? Truly?” A smile lit my face, and I crammed the crown into my satchel. “Well, that makes this all easier. I intend to return with a caravan of wagons, once I’ve secured the ships and crew. I was also going to hire some mercenaries in case … well, perhaps I’ll hire some regardless, to ward off thieves on the journey back. What of these automatons? Can they walk alongside my horse to the eastern shoreline, where my ship waits? I’ll require servants once I’ve—”

“You’ll have to convince them yourself once they reawaken,” said Malak. He looked at me with a tilted gaze. “I notice you’ve filled your bag with all manner of gems and gadgets, yet neglected the single treasure I would have thought would most intrigue you. It is the only thing in this chamber that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Handed down to Empress Eru by the gods themselves.”

“The gods themselves?” I asked softly.

Malak nodded to a pedestal that stood before the opaque wall. On it was a small, wooden box, so plain that my eyes had passed it over before.

I walked over to it and cracked open the lid. Inside were a pair of lenses. I lifted them into the light, breathless. They were not a typical pair of transparent lenses. They were round prisms, with each sparkling facet changing color with the light, and were held in place with a golden frame.

I turned to Malak. “Are these what I think they are? The lenses that tell the future?”

“It is not as simple as that, I’m afraid,” said Malak. “Rather, the lenses show you all probable futures from your point in time, where a particular question or event is concerned.”

“Incredible! How do I use them?” I tapped the side impatiently and shook it, searching for some sort of lever or latch.

“That depends. What would you like to know?”

I paused and mulled his question over, debating possible questions. I figured it would be better to first test the lenses with a low-stakes inquiry.

“That harlot Naji has been harassing me to marry him. What would the future hold if I did?” I slipped the lenses over my face. The world fractured through them.

“Shut your eyes. Imagine his face. Imagine the ring on his hand. Imagine the contract signed. Then open your eyes,” said Malak.

I did as Malak bid, imagining it all in as vivid detail as I could. I’m embarrassed to admit that the idea made my heart flutter. He would have looked nice beneath the light of a temple’s oculus with a glint of gold on his finger.

Then I opened my eyes and saw through the lenses—

Naji and I in a lonely house by a great river, with three children until one falls in—

Naji and I, but we never had children or a house by a great river. We live in the gold district of Summer’s Edge, in a grand house with everything money can buy. And I grow bored, and Naji grows bored and spends more and more time staring out the bedroom window, until one day he is gone—

Naji and I, but we never had a house, because I lost our money on a series of gambles, and the baby is hungry, and there’s never enough of anything—

Naji and I, and we’re never in one place long, I’m taking him to see the wonders of the world, but there are bandits on the road, one with a knife, a knife that he presses against Naji’s throat and—

Naji and I, but he becomes entangled with another woman, and in a jealous rage I—

Naji and I, and we—

I ripped the lenses off with a gasp.

“What … what did I …” My hands were trembling so fiercely that I nearly dropped the lenses. It was as though I’d just lived seven different lives, decades of joys and tragedies packed into an instant.

“You saw the probable futures that would await you if you were to wed Naji,” said Malak. It took me a moment to realize he’d even spoken, as I was still glancing around the chamber and trying to remind myself that I was in the Crystal Pyramid, not a house in the gold district or an inn in some foreign land.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “How can I know which one would be the true one?”

“This is a science even Empress Eru and her council struggled with,” Malak said softly. He padded to the wall in which the Empress was entombed. He stared up at it with longing, as though he were speaking not only to me but to her, his voice drifting across death’s veil. “She would use the lenses to see not just one divergence in time, as you did now, but dozens. Even hundreds. Through these exhaustive gazes into the futures, Empress Eru charted the events and decisions necessary for the best possible threads of time.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Not well enough, clearly. Her empire is dead.”

“Dead?” Malak tilted his head, and his metallic face seemed to shift into a grin. “Or sleeping?”

“ ‘Sleeping’ would be a rather optimistic thing to call it.”

Malak laughed and nodded to the right-most wall. “Look out into the sands again. What do you see?”

I looked out again at the desiccated peaks that peppered the dunes. I shrugged. “Pyramids buried in the sand.”

“And in them, the Empire’s millions, dreaming in their own glass cases.” Malak looked away and again spoke up to Empress Eru. “She holds them in sleep with an enchantment that requires every fiber of her. When she takes her final breath, they shall wake.”

“Final breath? She’s dead!” I snapped at him. Malak said nothing, only continued to gaze into the crystalline wall. I turned my head to look as well, peering closer than I had before to prove to myself that Malak was talking nonsense.

Yet, encased in the crystal, I thought I saw the faintest rise and fall of her chest.

Malak spoke again. “She looked far into the futures, perhaps too far for her own good. She saw a great evil waiting a thousand years into every future. Something that could consume the world, Bazi.”

“What could possibly be big enough to consume the world?”

“It is difficult to describe in terms you will understand.” Malak paused and thought for a moment. “Imagine a grand house composed of countless rooms and chambers. They are built all around and on top of each other, with the base rooms supporting all the ones above. Now, imagine what would happen if a bitter carpenter were to take a hammer and begin making cracks in all the walls and beams of the base rooms, striking until they tore through. What would happen to the house?”

“Why, it would collapse, of course,” I said.

“Precisely. Our world is one room among many. As we speak, a bitter carpenter in your continent is forging her hammer.”

The words sank into my mind like stones. I couldn’t think, couldn’t speak. I merely stood dumbfounded until Malak spoke again.

“Empress Eru saw only a few hundred futures where the Empire survived this, but not one wherein she or her direct kin ruled. There were only a few hundred possible replacements suitable to lead her people out from the darkness.”

“But why freeze everything? Why not just hand the crown off to them?” I asked. I watched the Empress breathe. The more I looked, the more of her I could see. Her eyes darted beneath their lids.

“They were not yet born,” said Malak. “If she allowed the Empire to continue naturally until the candidates for the crown were of age, then she would someday die and events would spiral out of her control. There might be civil wars, deranged successors to the crown, or successors who would be either unwilling or unable to craft the time threads necessary. She could not exert sufficient control for those lands beyond the Empire’s reach to narrow things down to a single perfect thread, but she could grant a fighting chance to the few hundred that would ensure the Empire’s survival.”

My breath caught in my chest as the truth loomed. “Those statues …”

“Any one of them could be where you stand now. Akeem, if he had not caught his illness as a child. Naji, if he had followed through on his fancy of stealing away with the maps the last night you spent together. Your mother, if she had never had you, and had instead apprenticed with a cartographer in her youth.”

“Stop,” I rasped. I turned away from Empress Eru and began pacing back and forth in the chamber, the lenses still dangling in my hand. The possibilities upon possibilities whirled in my head and drowned me. Had my years of efforts been meaningless, nothing more than bouts of cosmic luck? Had I ever had any power in my life at all?

“As I said, the Empire reawakens when Empress Eru draws her final breath. That final breath is drawn when you break the wall.” Malak padded over to me. “You may attempt to do so with your hammer, or anything else in the chamber.”

“I’m not attempting it at all! This is madness!” I stumbled away from him.

“Have you not spent all your life longing for wealth? Have you not craved power?” Malak continued to advance. “Every decision you have ever made has led you here. I know. I am the messenger, and my Empress has shown me all paths, yours included.”

“You may have known I’d come, but you can’t know my mind now. You can’t know what I’ll do.”

Malak laughed, then nodded to the lenses in my hand. “Oh, Bazi. Of your path, we were the most certain. In every future from this point in time, you choose to take the crown. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.”

I hesitated, the lenses poised in my hand.

“All you need to do is slip them on, imagine the crown upon your head, open your eyes, and see the futures.”

I slipped them on. I imagined the crown upon my head. I opened my eyes. I saw the futures.

Every single one.

Every single blood-soaked battleground beneath my feet, every star stolen from a crimson sky, every daughter forged into demigod, every sword in my hand, every hollow laugh and savage cry, every added century welded to my life with sorcery, every death and rebirth and world upturned as I watched an empire rise from the ashes beneath my outstretched hand, wonders and terrors in my palm as I became something else.

And I screamed more than I ever had in my life.

I did not break the Empress’ tomb or take the crown. I stashed the lenses into my satchel and fled. I didn’t stop until I was out of the pyramid and riding away with Fig. Malak did not attempt to stop me, but I could hear his laugh following me all the journey home to Summer’s Edge. I have not returned since.

But what I took in my bag was still enough to be life-changing. My old friend Akeem used his share of the riches to found the greatest trade company on the continent, managing it from the highest tower of the gold district. As for myself, well, look around. We sit together now on the balcony of the High Palace, with all the city-state sprawled out far below our feet. Terrified as I was of the lenses after my journey, I warmed up to them over the years and used them to craft the life I enjoy now.

No one in Summer’s Edge is my equal. Not in wealth, not in power, not in love, not even in fame or esteem.

Sef, my husband, is gloriously handsome, charming, and fine, perfectly fine. They tell me my eldest daughter looks exactly like me, but she’s got his fat nose. And the youngest does the same little snort when she laughs as he does. Horribly grating. I suppose I shouldn’t speak ill of my family, though. I’ve been told they’re perfect.

It’s all very perfect, isn’t it? I’ve reached the highest of heights in this city-state. I could smash the lenses right now and miss nothing. And you know, I thought about doing so, just a month ago. But first, I wanted one last look. For curiosity’s sake.

I imagined the crown upon my head again.

And would you believe it, I wasn’t anywhere near as terrified by what I saw as when I first did, fifteen years before. In fact, I was exhilarated. For here, in the palace of Summer’s Edge with my family, I realize now that I am still only halfway up the sky. The material needs were fleeting after all.

And that’s why I’ve brought you here. I’m told you’re the best merchant to seek for supplying a long journey. Several hundred leagues across the sand wastes and all the Carmelian Seas to sail lie ahead, so I want the highest quality from your stock. Fig’s not what she once was, so I’ll be needing some new horses, ships, a sand-faring carriage …

Your thoughts?

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