Suddenly I became aware that light was descending on us from above. With every step upward it became brighter, until finally it was as though a noonday sun shone in upon us.
There came an exclamation from Harry, and we ascended faster. I remember that I counted a hundred and sixty steps—and then, as a glimmering of the truth shot through my brain into certainty, I counted no more.
Harry was crowding me from below, and we took the last few steps almost at a run. Then the end, and we stumbled out into a blaze of light and surveyed the surrounding scene with stupefaction and wonder.
It was not new to us; we had seen it before, but from a different angle.
We were on the top of the column in the center of the lake; on the spot where Desiree had whirled in the dance of the sun.
For many seconds we stood bewildered, too dazed to speak or move. The light dazzled our eyes; we seemed surrounded by an impenetrable wall of flame. There was no sensation of heat, owing, no doubt, to the immense height of the cavern and our comparatively distant removal from the flames, which mounted upward in narrow tongues.
Then the details began to strike me.
I have said the scene was the same as that we had previously beheld. Round the walls of the immense circular cavern squatted innumerable rows of the Incas on terraced seats.
Below, at a dizzy distance, was the smooth surface of the lake, black and gloomy save where the reflections from the blazing urns pierced its depths. And directly facing us, set in the wall of the cavern, was the alcove containing the throne of gold.
And on the throne was seated—not the diminutive, misshapen king, but Desiree Le Mire!
She sat motionless, gazing directly at us. Her long gold hair streamed over her shoulders in magnificent waves; a stiffly flowing garment of some unknown texture covered her limbs and the lower part of her body; her shoulders and breasts and arms were bare, and shone with a dazzling whiteness.
Beside her was a smaller seat, also of gold, and on this crouched the form of an Inca—the king. About them, at a respectful distance, were ranged attendants and guards—a hundred or more, for the alcove was of an impressive size. The light from the four urns shone in upon it with such brightness that I could clearly distinguish the whites of Desiree’s eyes.
All this I saw in a single flash, and I turned to Harry:
“Not a word, on your life! This is Desiree’s game; trust her to play it.”
“But what the deuce is she doing there?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“She seems to have found another king. You know her fondness for royalty.”
“Paul, for Heaven’s sake—”
“All right, Hal. But we’re safe enough, I think. Most probably our introduction to court. This is what they call ’the dizzy heights of prominence.’ Now keep your eyes open—something is going to happen.”