All the Ghords ran out of the cookshop. They bumped into one another, running around the corners of the pyramid.
“What’s going on?” Aahz asked.
“The queen! The Pharaoh Suzal. She didn’t tell me she was coming. Hurry up. Follow me!”
Samwise leaped onto the ramps and flew over the top of the uppermost layer of the pyramid. Aahz shrugged. I furnished us with magik, and we took to the air after him.
My heightened vantage point gave me a good view to the eastern part of the valley. At first I couldn’t see what was approaching us for the massive cloud of dust that surrounded us. Suddenly, the roiling mist disbursed.
Undulating toward us across the sand was a parade. At its head were dancing girls in sheer robes, undulating and spinning. Behind them was a covey of musicians, puffing into or strumming away at a marching song. Drummers pounded the tops of skin-covered tom-toms in time with the beat. Magicians threw balls of flame into the air and conjured rainbows. I thought that they were responsible, too, for the stream of knives that flew in a circle at each side of the procession, but it was a troupe of jugglers. All of them stood on Djinn-woven carpets that conveyed them over the smooth surface of the dunes.
Behind them wafted the most impressive carriage I had ever seen. At least thirty feet high, it had a curved, gilded back like that of a chair, but as wide as a street. The sides sloped down to carved arms of black wood. At the ends were finials in the shape of red hearts. It was pulled by a team of eight creatures with the bodies of lions and the heads of Klahds and massive, golden-feathered wings.
At the center and riding high enough that her head was just below the upper edge of the chair was a slender female Ghord. Over her headcloth, which the shimmer told me even as far away as I was standing was made of silk, she wore a golden circlet that supported a golden snake’s head. Cascading from underneath her crown tumbled tresses of long, blond hair. She had high cheekbones, a slender neck, a lovely nose, large blue eyes and a decided mouth.
I realized suddenly that I was the only one in my immediate vicinity still standing. All the Ghord workers and all the Scarabs were on their knees, foreheads touching the ground. Hastily, I knelt.
The carriage swept up and over the pier and the And Company office, and came in for a landing at the foot of the pyramid. The entourage hastened to catch up. The musicians finished the marching tune with a flourish, and launched into a regal melody. At the top of the carriage, the lady rose to her feet and began to descend the steps.
“What a babe,” Aahz murmured.
I had to agree. The fine linen of her robes outlined a figure that while slender was furnished with plenty of the usual female attributes. Not only that, she walked with a sway that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
From the rear of the structure came girls carrying fans and Ghords of both sexes wearing chains of office around their necks.
“Hail, in the name of all the Ghords of Ghordon, Eternal Ancestors Who Give Life and Light to All Creatures. Blessings upon Suzal, daughter of Geezer, she who is Pharaoh and Queen of Aegis from the Underworld to the Overheaven. All hail!”
“All hail!” echoed the Ghords around my feet.
Samwise dashed over the paving stones to be at the foot of the carriage before Queen Suzal got to the bottom. He threw himself to one knee and bowed his head. She touched his shoulder and he rose, talking with his usual animation. Suzal listened with a regal tilt of the head.
Samwise turned and beckoned enthusiastically for us to join him. We made our way to his side. Under the Pharaoh’s eye, we bowed deeply.
“These are the ones I told you about, your majesty,” Samwise said. “This is the Great Skeeve and, er, Aahz.”
Aahz rose and bent over her hand like the practiced courtier he was.
“Hey, doll,” he said.
“Hey, yourself,” Suzal said, fluttering her eyelashes at him. “You have a noble face, sir, reminiscent of our scaly river Ghord, Sober, He Whom Rivers of Drink Do Not Affect.”
“He and I have a lot in common,” Aahz said, modestly. “I’m on my second barrel of the day. Would you… care to come around to the office and knock back a couple?” He raised his eyebrows suggestively. Her ministers were shocked, but Suzal looked pleased.
“You are too kind, Sober-faced one,” Suzal said. “Perhaps another time I will be able to accept your hospitality. This is just a casual visit.”
Casual? I wondered, glancing at her entourage. I counted at least thirty dancing girls, twelve musicians, a pair of conjurors, and two files of courtiers in pleated linen and fancy striped headdresses.
My mouth dropped open when I spotted one of the courtiers. He stood at least two feet taller than the rest of the nobles. His body was covered in thick purple fur, and his two, large moon-shaped eyes were different sizes.
“Big Crunch!” I exclaimed.
“I beg your pardon?” Queen Suzal asked, puzzled.
Behind her, Chumley cringed. The Troll hastily patted the air with both big palms. ‘Big Crunch’ was his nom de guerre as a monosyllabic enforcer in most other dimensions, but clearly not here. I immediately tempered my statement.
“I mean, your majesty, we’re on a big crunch for time here, trying to get the pyramid done, but I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to meet you. Samwise here has been telling me what an honor it is that you have given him permission to build. It’s an amazing structure. I am eager to see it finished.”
“As am I, O great Skeeve,” she said. She turned to smile upon Samwise, who turned brilliant pink with pleasure. “He shows honor to me that had been heretofore withheld. I, too, would see it complete.”
“Who would dare refuse to give you whatever you wanted, beautiful lady?” Aahz purred.
Suzal’s long lashes flicked as she eyed him up and down, but her blue eyes flashed.
“Why, that ignoble wizard across the valley from here,” she said, aiming her nose toward the eastern mountains.
“You mean Diksen?” I asked, puzzled.
“Speak not his name!” Suzal snarled. “I call him accursed. And selfish.” Her lip quivered slightly. Indignantly, she put her nose in the air. Like all of her features, it was unusually pretty. Chumley realized I was staring and cleared his throat audibly. Sheepishly, I lowered my gaze.
“But I am very pleased to give you what you want, your majesty,” Samwise said. “Everyone knows that this is the Queen Suzal Pyramid. When it is finished, it will be the wonder of Ghordon and, er, many other dimensions.”
“When will it be done?”
I jumped. This unexpected question came from somewhere around my waist. I looked down.
Another official in striped headgear stood at the queen’s side. He was only half her height. He peered up at the Imp. Samwise gestured impatiently.
“When it’s done, Gurn, I have told you that a thousand times.”
“And I will ask you a thousand more times, on behalf of my lady. She would like to see it finished long before she needs it. So…when will it be ready?”
I felt my stomach churn. Gurn had a face like a handful of squashed dung. No, that didn’t come close to approximating the misshapen quality of his features. Each looked as if it had been designed by a sculptor with less than no talent and who had failed to communicate what he was doing to the others. I thought I was used to ugly. After all, I hung out with Pervects. But Gurn was something above and beyond the dictionary definition, a degree past where two drunken master magicians would have kept daring one another to go. It actually hurt to look at him. He leered at me.
“So you are on a big crunch to complete this enterprise, Klahd?” he asked. “Do you think it will be done in your lifetime?”
“If Samwise says it will, then it will,” I stated boldly, not knowing whether or not it was true. The Imp had been notably vague on his estimate of a completion date of this or any other pyramid in his plans.
“Her majesty is not accustomed to lies and half-measures.”
“So, she doesn’t have anything to do with politics at all?” Aahz asked innocently.
“I don’t deal with politicians, either, Pervert.”
Gurn looked up at him and wiggled his hand back and forth. “Not so much. Do you have an answer for her majesty?”
“Do you, Sober-faced one?” Suzal asked. “My favored Imp here is coy with his answers. I would like to see my stone erected in as little time as it took that excrescence there to the east to be completed.”
“And how long was that?” I asked, curiously.
“Five years and two days,” said Gurn. “How about it?”
“Well, your majesty,” Samwise said, fingering his collar and sweating more than the heat might account for, “my financing is of a cooperative nature. Diksen was able to pay for his entire bloc by himself….”
“Perhaps, majesty, you were not wise to give a license to an underfunded architect,” Gurn said, his voice velvety with menace. “I see it – one day he will come crawling to you for alms to complete your own monument.”
Aahz slapped him on the back and sent him staggering. “I can tell we’re not gonna like each other, pal. Come on back again some time. When we’re not here.”
“Sober-faced one, do not abuse my courtier,” Suzal chided him in her soft voice.
“Looks like Mother Nature did the job for me, majesty,” Aahz said. “But if that’s what you want, who am I to refuse you?”
I stepped in. “I bet you’d like to see how the project is going, your majesty. May I escort you around the site?”
“You may,” Suzal said. She lifted a finger, and two of the Sphinxes separated themselves from the others. They brought over a sedan chair with poles sticking out to either side. The queen stepped into it. The Sphinxes fluttered their wings, and the structure lifted off. Using a coil of magik, I pushed off from the ground and followed. To my dismay, so did Gurn. He clambered onto the leg of her mini-chair, scaled up and made himself comfortable on her chair arm. I frowned at him. He leered at me, or perhaps that was just the way his face worked.
“You think I don’t belong here, do you?” Gurn asked.
“I think your head’s higher than the pharaoh,” I commented mildly. “When I was last a court magician, the queen just hated that.”
To my surprise, Gurn hunkered down a few inches. I decided he wasn’t all bad. After all, he didn’t work for me.
“You were a court magician, O Klahd?” Suzal asked. “Tell me which of my sister monarchs you served.”
“Hemlock of Possiltum,*” I replied.
Suzal nodded. “I have met her at the Royals and Despots Convention held in Zoorik.”
“Uh, how did she look?”
“Imperious,” Suzal replied.
“Uh, that’s good.”
I fell silent, not wanting to say the wrong thing about my former employer, since we had since gotten on better terms than when I left the job, and Suzal might be a friend of hers.
It took no time to rise above the finished layer of stones.
“Uh, as you can see, your majesty, we’re up to level three.” I did a quick calculation. “Only eighty-six stones to go, then we can move on to level four.”
“That’s nice,” she said absently. She was staring over her shoulder at Diksen’s pyramid and let out a heartfelt sigh of longing. Everyone reacted like that. Poor Samwise had a tough act to follow.
“I doubt that your master could ever produce anything as well-proportioned or sleek as that,” Gurn said to me. “I mistrust his skills. Stolen dreams never prosper.”
“His dreams aren’t stolen,” I said. “And it’ll be great, you’ll see.”
“I command that we should go down,” Suzal said suddenly. “I do not feel well.”
Her lovely skin had taken on a green tinge and small drops of sweat broke out on her brow. Gurn shouted an order to the Sphinxes, who wheeled around and headed for the carriage.
“Make way for the royal ejecta!” Gurn bellowed as we landed. Aahz looked up from his talk with one of the Sphinxes at the cry.
We landed as softly as a leaf falling, impressive under the circumstances. Scantily clad ladies in waiting hustled toward their mistress. One held a bejeweled golden vessel shaped like a pail. Eight others bore fans made of enormous waving white plumes. Suzal staggered somewhat ungracefully from the small chair toward the girl with the bucket. The others surrounded her, shielding her from view, but the sounds that issued from within the makeshift place of concealment were unmistakable. I felt sorry for her.
“Is she usually airsick?” I asked Gurn.
“Never,” he said, frowning. “She has always had a magnificent head for heights.”
“Rest of her’s not bad, either,” Aahz commented.
Gurn sneered at him. “It is only recently that these spells overtake her. Our court magician is baffled. I see your master’s hand in this.”
“He’s not my master, he’s a business associate,” Aahz said. “Making queens sick is not in my job description.”
“Then you must be freelancing.”
“Look, pup, if seeing you every day doesn’t make her sick, then a face like mine’s not going to affect her. You heard what she called me. Noble.” I could tell Aahz liked that. Gurn wasn’t convinced.
“Because she is delirious.”
Samwise bustled up, frantic. As soon as the queen emerged from her place of concealment, he tried to usher her into his office.
“I think not, kind Samwise,” Suzal said, applying the back of her hand delicately to her forehead. “I wish to return to my palace. I thank you for the tour, Master Wizard,” she added, with a wan smile at me. “You will be welcome if you should choose to visit.”
“I’d be honored,” I said.
The ladies helped Suzal up the golden steps to her seat and fussed over her with cold drinks and more fanning. I wanted to talk to Chumley, but he gave me a warning look. Instead, I went to join Aahz. The Sphinx lay on its belly with its tail wrapped around its haunches. Lying down, its head was still higher than my own.
“This is the partner I told you about,” Aahz said to the Sphinx. “Skeeve, meet Tweety.”
“Tweety?” I asked, astonished, looking at the huge creature. He outweighed me and Aahz put together. “Uh, is it an old family name?”
Tweety eyed me. “What is it that is dark in the morning, pale at noon and gone by sunset?”
Aahz looked concerned. “You’d better answer him, kid. It’s an important test. Sphinxes don’t get to know anyone who can’t solve their riddles.”
“What happens if I can’t answer him?” I asked.
“I eat you,” Tweety said simply, compelling golden eyes fixed on mine. “Please answer the question.”