The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 12

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

The new Lady of the castle takes control. A narrow escape proves fortuitous. Marco finds Tyra more trouble than he'd imagined. Tyra vs. Angel or how not to free a slave. The final battle plans are made.


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The Legal Stuff: The Warrior from Batuk  © 2004, 2007 Aardvark
 
This work is the property of the author, and the author retains full copyright, in relation to printed material, whether on paper or electronically. Any adaptation of the whole or part of the material for broadcast by radio, TV, or for stage plays or film, is the right of the author unless negotiated through legal contract. Permission is granted for it to be copied and read by individuals, and for no other purpose. Any commercial use by anyone other than the author is strictly prohibited, and may only be posted to free sites with the express permission of the author.
 

This work is fictitious, and any similarities to any persons, alive or dead, are purely coincidental.

 
Photo Credit: 3.bp.blogspot.com


 
Chapter 12
 
 
I went to bed alone as Lady of the castle that night in Dana’s nightdress or, more probably, her former nightdress -- as slaves are not permitted to own anything. She might have been learning the basics of how to please men under Wanda’s able direction or, it being late, perhaps she was in Ketrick’s arms now, understanding what it was to be a natural slave. She was happier, I told myself over and over. I'd done the only thing I could. Thinking about her with Ketrick, my hand strayed to my breast. I had to force it away and cursed Met yet again for the urges. It was long before I slept.

Breakfast was civil on my first full day as Lady of the castle. With each day, the ladies and lords granted a little more respect and familiarity. Malfree, a lord I’d barely known, assailed me with words of beauty and admiration, a new experience. Privately, I applauded his enterprise. For a young lord, I was likely to be his only chance for power, and if his advances insulted me — well, I would probably be a slave soon anyway.

After breakfast, I walked to the guard’s quarters, finding Malchor huddled over his desk, busy with some routine.

He looked up at the shadow at his door. “Lady Dana, what can I do for you?”

“I’d like a tour of security, Captain, at your convenience.”

His eyebrows lifted a fraction. Dana had always stayed out of the day-to-day arrangements. “If you wish, Lady Dana, we can do it now.”

“I would like that, Captain.”

The Captain was a handsome man in a warrior's body with doe-brown eyes and a face that could laugh, smile, or glare in an instant. As he pointed out details of the guards at practice and the castle defenses, I thought of his hands on my breasts and how my fingers would delight in his thick brown hair. Like most warriors, Malchor lacked the servility so prevalent in most of the valley. I thought he was a good leader; he cared for his men but could be hard as necessary, and he kept a degree of separation; he was one of the few guards who hadn’t used me.

While we were alone outside, checking the perimeter, I told him the important points from the meeting with Niccolo.

He rubbed his face while he read what he could from a woman who wore a veil. “We should be extra vigilant until the Borodins leave Tulem if someone is trying to start a war.”

“Those are my thoughts as well.”

He grunted, and for a moment became distant..“Lady Dana, we have been friends for a long time.”

“Yes.”

“Let me tell you a story of a far-away land where a Lord and his slave were struck down with Ruk’s Serum, both being injected with the exact same DNA-changing variety. It was an embarrassing situation. The new Lady veiled herself and changed her eyes and hair to conceal this. When the urges struck, to save herself she changed places with her slave, who already frequented the guard’s quarters, a horrible risk.”

My blood didn’t quite freeze; Captain Malchor’s demeanor was protective, not threatening. “A terrible tale, Captain. And what happened to the Lady?”

His face held only concern. “I don’t know. If she had only known that a friend in that far-off place, a Captain, as it happens, would have helped her satisfy the, ah, pressures, she might have had an easier time of it.”

It was the kind of gesture that made one weep. He'd taken a grave risk to tell me, and more to offer himself as his Lady’s outlet. It was brave, gallant -- and it had been made for another.

When I looked up again there were tears in my eyes. “How did you know?”

“I saw gold in your hair, and recalled a few remarks about Amelia’s latest visit. You can’t keep doing this; it’s too dangerous. That was you a couple of nights ago, wasn’t it?”

“The … the urges are strong.” I counted myself a lucky fool -- if Marco had discovered the blonde roots, I would have been in a slave wagon by now. I really didn't have much of a choice. I drew back my veil and smiled. “If we are to know each other better, please call me Dana.”

“You are beautiful, Dana,” he said, as sincerely as if he was the first man to ever say the words. “I am at your service.”

My urges, never far away, ignited like a brush fire. Before I could stop myself, I said, “If you should try my door around midnight, you would find it open.”

He bowed his head the smallest amount. “I’ll be glad to adjust my schedule.”

Hot blood filled my cheeks. The way his eyes kindled as they roamed my body, I had no doubts at all.

I spent the rest of the morning with Dana’s routine, meeting with the department heads briefly, and then it was back into my rooms to train with the darts. Late in the afternoon I walked across the courtyard to Urban’s office. The saturnine man sat upright behind the broad polished wood of his desk, the papers arranged just so. A rich black carpet in the shape of a “T” directed visitors across a spotless marble floor to places of his choosing: a single chair before his desk, and chairs to either side.

I took the center chair as he looked up. His sour disposition was too practiced to be real, I thought, and I waited, saying nothing, while he tapped the back of his pen against the desk. Finally, Urban placed his pen back into a brass penholder very deliberately, and turned to me.

“You are always welcome in my office, Lady Dana. May I ask why you are here?”

“I need your help,” I said, and went on to describe the meeting with Niccolo. “Lord Niccolo wants to hide and hope the killing goes away, but I don’t think this is a vendetta; I’d say that someone is trying to start a civil war before the Borodins depart. If I’m right, this could mean a massacre on a scale never before seen in the valley.”

He sighed and closed his eyes, thinking his own private thoughts of the aristocracy. “I see. Thank you. It’s never good to be caught unawares. Still, I don’t see how I…”

“The Giovannis aren’t behind it. It has to be either a bad batch of Borodins or the King. I want to know who killed my father -- and who did this to me.”

He nodded, curbing his disapproval of his serum girl Lady, at least for the moment. “And how would you do that, Lady Dana?”

“What happens next will determine who is responsible. If a group of angry Borodins hired assassins to kill Giovannis as a last parting shot, then we can be reasonably sure that no more Borodins will die. I also doubt that too many more Giovannis will die: Lord Niccolo is a cautious man, but we’re close to a civil war now.”

Urban frowned. “I see. And if the King is the cause?”

“After the Borodins rule Batuk, King Bruno will have to be worried about the Giovannis. The Giovannis have sworn fealty, but with no Borodins in Tulem to counter the Giovanni side, the King would be in a weaker position. A civil war now would suit the King’s objectives by either weakening the Giovannis to the point where they wouldn’t be a threat, or it would kill enough lords in both families so the Borodins would no longer need to leave the valley, preserving the status quo. Either outcome would be satisfactory to King Bruno.”

“The King is a Borodin. He would kill his own kin?”

“Who knows? He has been the King for over fifty years; he’s unpredictable, a power unto himself.”

“Could it be Batuk?” he asked me after a pause.

“Batuk is taking no measures whatsoever to protect itself -- no talk in their Council -- nothing. I’ve already spoken to Captain Malchor this morning about increasing security. We Giovannis plan to keep our heads down and emerge when the Borodins depart. If the King wants to start a civil war now, he’d likely seek the easier target, the Borodins, and find a way to blame it on us.”

“Why don’t you just tell the Borodins your theory? If they were attacked, they’d blame the King.”

“Coming from me, the Borodins would just think that it was a Giovanni trick.” I shook my head. “No, Urban. If the killing starts, I have to be with the Borodins, willing to lay down my life to prove that it wasn’t the Giovannis who were doing the deed. I need to know when the Borodins meet or form in numbers, and be there.”

“You actually want to be with the Borodins as they are being killed?” he asked, leaning back and forming a triangle with his fingers under his chin.

“If it happens; I’m not sure that it will. When it comes down to it, I’m just a serum girl likely to be a slave someday. I think it’s worth a little risk to make sure the right person is blamed, don’t you?”

“I’ll do my best to find out when and where the Borodins meet, Lady Dana.”

“I expect you will. You’re my Chief of Staff, aren’t you?”

He nodded slowly. “I am until you decide otherwise.”

***

I spun to my left and threw a dart chest high into the back of the chair, then dropped to my stomach, on the way flicking low into a wooden case set at calf height. I sought speed, silence, and accuracy more than velocity, assuming low light and no armor. I’d done this before in Batuk, had prepared for this, I thought, but each time I hit a target another man died.

At least assassins have an excuse. They were taught to feel nothing for their victims. My warrior instincts raged -- I trained to kill men without giving them a chance to defend themselves -- with poison!

I snarled to clear my head. “Do your thinking before the battle, Tyr,” my father once said. “If you can’t kill efficiently when you have to, without thought, you might as well cut off your suren and join the Temple of Ashtar.”

I slammed home the last dart of the set and rolled onto my back, heaving and sweating like a horse ridden too hard. It was damned annoying being so emotional: the only clear thoughts in my tangled female brain were that I hoped I wouldn’t have to do what I trained for; that Ketrick could start a civil war, we could all go home, and somehow I would fix things with Tisa and my family — uncomfortably girlish thoughts when I needed to be strong.

There should have been another way. But the warrior in me didn’t have a clue how it could be otherwise. Wishes were fine things, but could only come true if the world allowed it.

By the Gods, maybe I just need a good brolling.

After supper, I bathed once more, washed my hair thoroughly and re-dyed it. After a moment’s indecision, I found a scent I liked among Dana’s perfumes and applied it. I smelled like a bouquet, so unlike the freewoman I imagined myself to be that I nearly washed it off, but I let it stay. If Malchor was going to risk his life for me, the least I could do was smell nice for him.

The midnight hour approached. I had done what I could to make our meeting secret by greasing the door hinges and reducing the interior lights. The rest was up to him. Malchor’s footsteps on the stairs outside were almost silent. The bar on the door slid sideways with the slightest grate of iron to iron, and swung inward, bringing a light draft. When the bar slipped back into place, I stepped out of the shadows.

The Captain struck a striking profile in the yellow glow of the single oil lamp I’d permitted to burn. The rustling of my dress made him turn. “Lady Dana, I…” he began then stopped, likely surprised to see my hair already down. I swept forward quickly.

“I’m not a lady tonight. I’m just a woman who needs you very badly.” I held him, pressing the curves of my body against him. This brought measurable success, and I looked up, meeting his lips as they descended. His kiss was tentative at first, and then more demanding as I yielded.

I let him take the lead in all things, encouraging him with small cries when he did well, which was often. At the end I wasn’t completely satisfied, he was only fairly dominant. Doubtless, brolling what he thought was his former lord and drinking companion was an adjustment, and I was sure he could do better. Afterwards, I nestled comfortably in his arms, waiting for him to speak.

“You are not the Drago I knew,” he said finally.

“Yes. That’s very true.”

“I remember a time when you and I…”

“Malchor,” I interrupted gently, “that is the past. It's just me here, the woman you just brolled.”

Malchor turned his head, looking down at me strangely. “You can’t reject the past. Within it lays our friendship.”

“I don’t reject the past, but I remember it as if it happened to someone else. My feelings, the way I see the world -- and you….” I stopped to touch his face with my fingertips. “I perceive those old memories through a woman’s eyes. The friend I once knew has become handsome, strong, and a man in a way you were not -- could not have been with me before.” I slid my hand slowly down his chest until it rested in his palm. “My name is Dana. Accept me for who I am, for Drago is no more.” I wrapped my arms around him. The tears flowed easier than I thought they would. He held me until I sniffled an ending. “Please, let’s not talk about him. I’d rather think of the present and the future. I would talk with you of that if you wish,” I said.

His return smile was bemused, probably still recalling my compliments. I smiled. The Captain was caught inside his honor; he could not deny me my wish to let the old days go, and the reminiscences that could have caught me were now harmless.

Fortunately, men and women have other ways to amuse themselves than speak of the old days.

He tweaked a nipple, making me gasp. “During the day, you are the Lady of the castle, a ruler in all ways, but now you show me this side of you. What am I to think?”

“Think whatever you want, but I think that if you are brave enough to sleep with me, then my bed is yours until the Borodins leave Tulem.”

“Your life won’t stop when the Borodins leave,” he said, looking down at me with an expression I’d never seen before from a man -- at least not directed at me.

With that look of love, meant for another, I cried a few real tears, even knowing it to be a foolish sentiment. I had stolen Dana from him, but even if they had found each other, Ketrick and I would have probably killed them both so that I could take Dana’s place.

“Dana, what are you planning to do after the Borodins leave?”

“I’m giving the castle to Marco. Then I’ll leave Tulem.”

“I thought it was something like that. Where will you go?”

I shrugged. “Zhor is a big place. I’ll find a city, but it won’t make much difference in the end. The urges are too strong. Try not to be unhappy for me. It is said that slaves are the happiest women. After what I’ve experienced with you, I believe it.”

I did not think he was unhappy; his interest re-manifested itself before my eyes. It was time, I thought, to try a technique Wanda had taught me. Flushing under his gaze, I tossed back my hair, shifted my hips in a certain way, and dared him with my eyes.

“We will speak later,” he decided, and took me. This time I had no complaints.

***

Two days later, well-brolled and rested, I took a walk in the morning before breakfast. It began pleasantly enough. It was irrational, but for as long as I had the power, I found it easy to imagine the castle to be mine. Unlike the first days, as I strolled towards the garden, noblemen met my eyes more often than not, and ladies bobbed their heads politely as if they had all arrived at a secret consensus.

This was the day that Ketrick said he would contact me, but I didn’t expect anything until at least late morning. I stood on the bridge over the waters of the garden stream, still now with the winds quiet. This had been Dana’s favorite spot. I could see why. The mountains a few miles away rose over the castle walls like giants protecting the peace of the valley.

“Enjoying it while it lasts?” Marco asked me. I had missed his approach somehow, again, which annoyed me.

“Yes, while it lasts,” I said, determined that he would not spoil my ambiance.

He joined me at the rail. “I was angry when you took the castle, you know. You should have spoken to me first.”

“I won’t apologize for claiming my birthright, but under the circumstances I should have told you beforehand. I apologize for that.”

“It was personally embarrassing.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll rule here soon enough, and everyone will forget all about me.”

“I’m not so sure. I heard what you did in the meeting with Niccolo after Mario was killed. You created a scene. You’ve created a few scenes, Dana.”

I turned and looked up. Even from a suspicious brother, Marco’s comments were rude, incredibly rude to the ruler of the castle: he questioned my actions as if I were a little girl. His face was pale, his demeanor tense, as if he concealed some strong emotion. And he was confident. He was working up to something, and I knew I wouldn’t like it.

He had, as far as I knew, only one concern about me: my chastity. He’d always held the threat of my banishment and slavery like a boulder poised above me at the edge of a cliff. With those few poisonous sentences he had shown me the fulcrum in his hands. Suddenly furious, I became weary of cowering. Marco had just crossed the line where I could tolerate any more from him.

“Come with me. There is something you should know.” I stepped off the bridge briskly, and started across the courtyard towards my quarters.

His longer strides caught up to me quickly. “Can’t it wait?”

“We have a half-hour before breakfast. That should be sufficient.”

Once through the door of my apartments I locked the door, removed my veil, and faced him. “I haven’t been forthcoming with you. As heir, there is much that you must know.” My calm words did not reflect what I felt. Marco, in the brief time he had been there had glanced twice at my bed. He knows about us!

“What do you mean?”

“Sit and I will explain.” I brought him up-to-date on the meeting with Niccolo.

“The King,” he said unsteadily, licking his lips. “Niccolo thinks that the King might be behind this?”

“We both think that it’s possible. If I’m right, there could be a lot of dead Borodins in the next week or so, and I plan to be there to stop a civil war. Marco, you seemed distracted in the garden. Did you have something you were going to tell me?”

Eyes narrowing, he rose to his feet and stepped forward where he towered above me. “Damn you. Malchor brolled you last night. I warned you what would happen!”

“Yes, the urges are here,” I admitted sadly, lowering my head. “I did what I had to do to control them. I’ll leave when the Borodins leave Tulem, but I must finish what I started.”

“You’re finished now. You will transfer the castle’s authority to me, and then guards will escort you away immediately afterwards. This stain to the Giovanni honor must never come to light.”

I had my answer. He wanted to banish me, but he was afraid of a scandal. I covered my face with my hands and sank to my knees. “Please, Marco. Don’t send me away. I had to do it. Don’t blame me, blame whoever gave me Ruk’s Serum.”

He hands gradually unclenched as he watched me blubber. “Really, Dana, I thought you were stronger than this.”

I wailed and collapsed on the floor, just a girl lost to despair. I whimpered there for at least a minute.

Marco muttered in disgust, but took pity on me and pulled me to my feet. I cried miserably and clung to him. He bore it briefly, then sighed. “Stop embarrassing yourself. You will have to leave. I have a document you will sign and stamp, and then you will be brought to a city far from here. I hope you find a good master who meets your needs.”

“I’m sorry, Marco. I didn’t want to do it. Oh, Gods!” I leaned back and laughed as if were insane. “I thought I was clever! Malchor and I planned this so well. How ever did you find out?”

He snorted. “Clever? You were pathetic. I merely had my servant watch the entrance to your apartment.”

I released him; he had told me what I needed to know. Then I kneed him hard in the suren. He bent over, gasping for breath. I leaped to the wall, ripping a curtain rod from the window, and clobbered him with it just behind the ear, dropping him to the floor. A few well-placed blows to the ribs, arms, legs, and back immobilized him. Securing him in curtain cords and gag was the work of less than a minute.

While he struggled in his bonds, I prepared four letters at the desk, signing, and then sealing them in paraffin with the castle’s stamp. Making no attempt to hide what I was doing from my wriggling guest, I stuffed them into a leather folder. Before I left, I checked Marco’s bonds -- not that I was too worried, years of experience with slaves had taught me knots -- and locked the door behind me just in time to hear the gongs for breakfast.

“Choose wisely, for what is done is forever out of reach.” and “Look to the present and the future, for that is your life.” go the old sayings from the sage. On the way, I went over the details, looking for ways Marco could break the bars of the cage I was constructing for him. Once seated at the table, I watched to see if Marco was missed, but other than the occasional glance at his empty seat, no one seemed to care.

Gradually, I relaxed. That morning I favored my “sister,” Gina, seated by my side, with polite conversation. Dana had detested her, the first-born by ten years. Gina had resented Drago’s birth and had spared few opportunities to emasculate him until he reached his majority. Sleekly beautiful, talented, and clever, it usually took some time to discover her cruel side. Unfortunately for her, anti-aging drugs provided just that. I could not imagine a worse choice for ruler of the castle.

After breakfast, I sought out Urban in his office.

“I have some letters for you to keep,” I said, pulling two from the folder and handed them over. “If I disappear or die suspiciously, open them immediately and make them public. After the Borodins leave, destroy them without looking at them.”

He raised one eyebrow precipitously. “Lady Dana, as your Chief of Staff, I can hardly help you if you keep secrets from me.”

“It’s a family matter, Urban.”

He winced at the word “family” then cast a jaundiced eye onto the documents in his hand, speculating on their sordid contents. “I assume this to be a means of protection, Lady Dana?”

“It’s insurance.”

“Yes,” he replied, his tone cool. “This is alarming. You will let me know when I can be of service -- other than as a letter holder.”

I smiled, although he couldn’t see it behind the veil. “Finding where the Borodins meet will be more than enough for the present.”

***

I found Malchor on the practice field engaged in a match with sword and shield. The arms that had mastered me earlier wielded his weapon with equal efficiency. The dance of death, the deadly edge, the bravery in the face of danger: I still missed it. My body, with hips made now for birthing and breasts for suckling infants, even now swayed to it, recapturing the ghost of what had been stolen from me. It was one reason I rarely watched men practice anymore.

Malchor finished with a thrust to his opponent’s chest. Pounding the loser on the back, he parted with a few encouraging words. He spotted me and smiled, a warrior confident in his abilities, a dominating lover who would protect me at the risk of his own life, a man many woman would be proud to be with.

“Lady Dana?”

I liked his self-control. Many men would have assumed a greater familiarity after brolling a woman. “Walk with me, Captain Malchor. We walked to a copse of trees far enough from curious ears to be safe.

Malchor grinned. “Lady Dana, I didn’t expect to see you so soon. You must give me a chance to redeem myself. This time I promise that I will force you to writhe and squeal in orgiastic abandonment.”

So much for self-control and familiarity. “You were far from inadequate, but I’m not here to discuss matters of the silks.” I told him about Marco.

“You actually tied Marco up in your apartments?” he asked, staring at me.

“Gagged and secured in slaver knots. I’m giving you these papers. Keeping them safe should keep Marco in line, at least until I leave Tulem.” I reached over and touched his arm lightly. “I’m very sorry. This means that you must leave Tulem, too. Marco will be unlikely to forgive either of us.”

He laughed. “I should say not. You completely humiliated him.”

“I regret this. I’ll provide you with gold to aid you wherever you decide to go. It is my fault, after all.”

He shook his head. “No gold. I made the offer. I’ll take responsible for my own actions.”

To insist otherwise would have insulted him, and to tell the truth, I was proud that he didn’t want to mix the memory of our night together with coin. “You’re taking this well,” I said.

“I’m not as displeased as you might think. My father was exiled a half-century ago. I have a home in Rudyer.” He leaned against a nearby tree and shook his head slowly, looking me up and down. “You have Marco wrapped and sealed. I still find that hard to believe.”

“It’s not my place to bring this up, but I hope this hasn’t affected our relationship. I’m still willing if you are.”

He laughed. “By the Gods, you’ve changed.”

“I hear that a lot lately. I don’t know why people keep saying such things.” I handed him the folder with the letters.

He flipped them over front and back, glancing at them briefly before tucking them away inside his tunic. “I’ll have Marco watched while he’s in the castle just in case. Likely he won’t do anything, but….” He shrugged.

“Thank you, Malchor. As you say, just in case. Well, it’s time to cut him free. I hope to see you soon.”

I returned to my apartments in a better mood. Marco, by contrast, had thrashed himself red. Maybe Dana would have understood his petulance, but I had no patience for it. As far as he knew, I was the Lady of the castle, and he should have respected me more. All I’d asked for was three weeks! The rhadus should have been helping me instead of doing his best to bring me down, justifying it with a ludicrously strict interpretation of family honor.

“Marco, you are an idiot, but I’m in a position to forgive you. I’ve written certain letters: some disinheriting you, making Gina the heir; some exposing my scandalous conduct. In case I disappear, they will be opened. This is your own fault, you know. You lack perspective. You think it’s more important to make sure no one brols me than to save Tulem from a civil war. I will finish what I started.”

“I’ll kill you for this, Dana!” he shouted as soon as I removed his gag.

“No, you won’t! You’ll be watched until I’m gone. You’ll have the castle when I leave, but only if you behave, and you will not interfere with Malchor and me. In fact, you’d better hope everything continues very damn smoothly.”

His eyes flashed. “Release me, serum girl!”

I had hoped for better.

“I will release you, Marco, but listen to me first. If it helps, I apologize for doing you in with a woman’s trick. You’re doing what you believe is right, as misguided as I think it is, but so am I. Can we agree on that, at least?”

The muscles around his jaw tightened, as if death were preferable to answering me.

“You disappoint me,” I said. I went to the kitchen and selected a small knife. With it, I cut his restraints.

I tie my bonds tightly; he staggered to his feet in pain as circulation returned to his limbs. His eyes wild, he raised his fist stiffly and shook it in my face.

“I don’t care how long it takes! I’ll track you down, slut from Hades! You won’t get away with this!”

That does it!

I leaned forward and slapped him with all the rage and fear I had accumulated in the last few months. “Fool!” I screamed in his face. “Do you think I care bat shit about your threats? Don’t you understand? I’ll probably be dead or a slave anyway!” I picked up the heavy wooden curtain rod, twirled it until it hummed, and stopped it pointing towards the door. “Get out!”

His backwards glance was murderous but laced with fear at the sight of the rod. After I kicked the door shut behind him, my hands shook with reaction. I stayed inside the rest of the morning, not trusting myself to face others until lunchtime. I unwound with the darts, imagining every target with Marco’s face, and my aim was uncommonly good.

Urban visited me in my apartments in the early afternoon. He took notice of the damage to the curtain mountings and curtains, but said nothing.

“Lady Dana, I have the information you requested. The Borodins will meet together in three nights in Lord Alexander’s castle.”

“Wonderful. How many and who will be there?”

“All the Borodin lords and ladies, a final meeting and celebration before they start serious preparations for war.”

“You don’t seem happy. Why? Will it be difficult to gain admittance?”

He shook his head. “No. I should be able to secure an invitation from my counterpart at Alexander’s castle. From what I’ve heard, you and Niccolo will be the only Giovannis attending. If your suspicions are correct, it would make sense to strike then. After that night, the Borodin men will be primarily with their military units.”

I cocked my head, not quite sure of his point. “And that’s exactly why I must go. Do you disapprove? Are you worried?”

“I see an aura of fatalism surrounding you.”

I snorted. “Perhaps I should ease the strain by marveling as Maggie the barbarian graces the pole. And I haven’t been seriously drunk since my last visit to an alcove girl.” I placed the back of my hand to my forehead and swayed. “Yes! I feel it, Urban; I long for her arms.”

“You should get out and have a few drinks. Relax. You’re like a taut string.”

“Thank you Urban, I’ll take your advice when I have the opportunity.” I waited, but he did not depart.

“Is there something else?”

“Your brother is very angry with you.”

“He encountered some unpleasantness in my quarters earlier today. He’ll get over it in a couple of weeks or so.”

He gave me a careful going-over. “I wish I were as sure, Lady Dana.” He turned and left.

I closed the door and waited for a sign from Ketrick, throwing a few small darts into the back of a chair to pass the time. I had expected a messenger since mid-morning. When mid-afternoon came, I wondered for a while if I shouldn’t take a horse and ride outside for a time, making myself more available. Before too long, though, I saw a bright wavering light on the wall. I rushed to the window and saw the brilliant flash of a mirror by a tree in the distance. Marking the spot, I waved until the flashing stopped.

It had been a long three days. I rode out to the castle gate, stopping to speak to the four guards there -- it would have looked odd if I hadn’t -- and explained that I wished to ride alone.

I rode from the gate, setting a good pace, relishing my freedom and the wind in my hair. I galloped down past the twin gardens and swung right down the trim gravel path, slowing as I reached the road to Tulem, then headed for the tree I’d seen from the window. The main road was busy with farmers with produce on carts, couples in riding dress, groups of riders, mainly men, often in thick leather military garb, a few who walked, and individual riders like me.

I found the tree easily enough and tied my horse to a low branch of a tree closer to the water. The grass was dry there, so I spread my dress beneath me in the sun and waited, alone amidst broad oak trees and a view overlooking the idyllic lake.

I stood when I heard horses. When I saw Ketrick, I removed the veil. When I saw who followed him, my smile evaporated. My DNA twin wore a short slave tunic and had a vaec on her left thigh. I looked to Ketrick in shock.

“Tyra, wait. It’s not who you think it is. It’s Angel.”

After a moment’s reflection, it made sense. Ketrick had injected Angel with the same Ruk’s serum Dana and I had, almost immediately after I had left his store, I realized. She was to have been my relief, substituting as Amelia so that I could visit the guards when I needed to. It was a good idea, but one that had been made obsolete with Malchor.

It was no wonder that she was unhappy: Angel had awoken this morning confused and hurt that her master preferred her to look like me. More than that, her transformation had stolen the body of her birth. Angel had been proud of her original beauty; she would never see it again, and seeing me as a freewoman, she would realize that our time together as slaves had been a lie.

“Good afternoon, Mistress,” she said in a small voice, barely able to look at me.

I wanted to say or do something, she looked so betrayed and hurt, but what could I say that wouldn’t make it worse?

“Angel, stay here,” Ketrick said. Taking my arm, he led me away. I glanced over my shoulder to see her look after us sadly. “I’m giving her to you, at least for the time being.”

“As to that…” I explained the lapse that brought Malchor into my bed, and then the rest of it: the meeting with Niccolo, the complications with Marco, and the upcoming meeting with the Borodins, the last of which, it turned out, he’d already known about.

“May you live in interesting times,” he said under his breath.

I looked at him curiously, but he didn’t elaborate. “Is Dana all right?”

“I brolled her until she crossed her wrists to me that first afternoon, and I tattooed her that evening. She is generally a well-behaved girl, but she won't be safe or truly submissive until she feels herself helpless, far away from Tulem. I keep her chained most of the time. For now, Wanda stays with her.”

A few tears escaped my eyes. “Gods, I wish her a happy fate with a strong master. Ketrick, what about the risk?”

“As long as she doesn’t know about us Dana isn’t that dangerous, and so far she’s been worth the trouble. I have diagrams of Alexander’s castle, and Dana pointed out a few key details. She thinks I’m a contractor, so she wasn’t suspicious. I’ve arranged to do some work there two days from now.”

“Alexander’s castle? Then … then you couldn’t?”

“I couldn’t get to them,” he said, and for the first time, I saw lines of strain in his face. “Niccolo and Alfredo are hiding within their castle walls under heavy guard. I might have killed one, but I wouldn’t have escaped. When I go to Alexander’s castle, I’ll bring in some weapons, including your darts. I’m sorry.”

With that, my last hope faded. I had pledged to give my life to Batuk if necessary, and I thought I had steeled my heart to my death, but at the critical moment it played me false.

As soon as I knew my fate, why did the sun feel so good upon my face? The wind in my hair, the way it brushed my dress against my legs, the ground beneath my feet, became connections to the world. For a fey instant my awareness stretched to the grass, the farmer in the nearby village and his wife; I became the people in the valley, their dreams, and hopes; and passed beyond, past thriving towns and green valleys to the dry, craggy plains -- even to far Batuk.

Like a spirit, I swept through the streets and markets, sensing, exhilarating in it -- life! But bound to this wondrous vision was the ache for what would not be. I covered the place where a child would never grow. I would not have that house and quiet place with the man I loved.

Gods! As Tyr, when my death was a question, I took strength knowing that my cause was just, that my sacrifice would serve my family, city, and those who would live on and preserve what I loved and held dear. When facing an enemy, I left it to the Gods to decide if I fell or lived. It was the warrior’s way.

With this woman’s body, I had become one of them, whom I had protected, a preserver of life. This was, I understood now, what had destroyed my equanimity while practicing the darts. The deepest part of me, the core of my being, needed to create and nurture. The clean death of a warrior would not be for me! I would die, not with a warrior’s glory, but as a woman whose destiny to be a wife and mother had been denied.

No! I will not cry!

I reached back for those reasons why I was there: to preserve thousands of lives, to keep my home free, and to save my family. It was a cause worth dying for, and I seized it, clasped it to my breast until it was once again a part of my being. Thusly armed, I fought my womanly instincts to a standstill, and then submerged them. When I opened my eyes again, it was as a warrior.

“So, you were unable to get to Niccolo and Alfredo. The Gods have decided. I will kill as many Borodins as I can, and hope it is enough.” Warriors understood the inevitable. If I had still been a man, Ketrick would not have looked like he had failed me. He hurt for me because I was a woman. I could do nothing about that, but I would not make it worse by giving him tears in return. “No one could have done more. I regret nothing. Ketrick, I have a way inside that night, but you…”

“I’ll be there with you in the castle,” he said, his visage hard as iron. “Actually, it’s not getting in that has me worried, it’s getting out. Alexander’s Castle is too easily sealed, and security will be tight.”

It was enough for me that he would be there at the end. The fight would at least be memorable. A recent memory tugged at my mind, and I clutched his arm. “Ketrick, I think I saw another way out besides the front gate.”

“Indeed? Tell me about this other way.”

“When Drago took me to Alexander’s castle, I noticed the shape of the bars in one of the windows in the dormers on the roof. The sides were thicker than the other windows, as if there were an interior window on a hinge.”

“Which dormer?”

“The one closest to the entrance.”

It was much too far away to see any of the detail, but he took his time examining the castle’s front, nodding a few times. “It could be. It isn’t on the original plans, and Dana wasn’t aware of it, but it could be a later addition. The surrounding gardens and pools were added less than a century ago. Ladders long enough to reach the roof would damage sections of the garden, so it makes sense to have at least one window available to access the roof for maintenance and repairs. Of course, if it exists, it would be locked from the inside, opened infrequently, and maybe rusted shut, but it’s something.” He rubbed his chin. “The location is terrible, right over the gate, but the window itself can’t be seen from directly below.”

“Could we use it?”

“Possibly, if we can get to it and get the window open. Dana told me that most of the top floor is storage.”

That sliver of hope was all I needed. I stepped forward and hugged him. He held me, and for the moment I was satisfied to forget the world; then he spoke softly to my ear. “You know, this still isn’t going to be easy.”

“I know that! But, admit it, we have a chance.”

He shrugged, and the old, confident Ketrick was back, grinning me a crooked smile. “The odds are slightly better now.”

“That’s all I need to hear.” I looked past him to Angel, still standing by the tree. “Ketrick, can you still give me Angel?”

“What for?”

“I want her, but not as a loan. I want to free her before we leave to go to Alexander’s castle. It would give her a chance to choose her own master in case we don’t return. I’m assuming the vaec is a temporary stamp?”

He shook his head. “Always, this talk about freeing natural slaves. Yes, the vaec is a temporary stamp. Hmm. As the Lady of the castle, you probably have a better chance than I do of making sure she’s safe if events don’t go our way.”

“That’s what I intend to do.”

“Then she’s yours. I’ll work on a plan tonight. Can you meet me here tomorrow at the same time?”

“Yes, but I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be followed. You could come to my castle. Tell the guards you were hired to repair the curtain fixture in my room. I’ll let them know to expect you.”

“Even better. Are you ready to meet your new slave?”

“Yes.” We started walking back. “How much have you told her?”

“Nothing. But she must have figured some of it out by now.”

Angel watched us approach sadly. Ketrick would be forgiven anything, I knew. She loved her Master, but me…. I stopped before we came so close that Angel could hear us.

“I want to tell her everything, from the beginning,” I said.

“It can’t do any harm now,” he decided; then considered me. “You mean to keep her safe by freeing her, which is well, but I think to you, freeing her is as much personal -- you want her to understand why you had to deceive her in the stable. I'll give you some advice. You are both superb. In her own way, Angel has nearly as much strength and spirit as you do, but be warned: if you free her: Angel is unpredictable. You and she are as different as the eagle and lynx.”

Although he didn't quite say so, Ketrick once again referred to the notion that an experienced man can grasp the true nature of a natural slave. I held my tongue with an effort. Although he’d been right about Dana, I didn’t care to be evaluated that way, even for “helpful advice.”

When we were all together, he said, “Angel, Tyra is your new mistress. She owns you now.”

It was like a turn of the screw to see Angel’s hurt and confusion. She swallowed hard, but managed a fair bow towards me. “Yes, Mistress. You own me.”

“Tulem knows me as Lady Dana. Call me Dana in private, Angel. In public, I will call you Amelia.”

“Yes, Mistress,” she said, giving Ketrick a long, sad last look.

I said goodbye to Ketrick and led Angel’s horse on a leash back the way I’d come. There was too much traffic to talk. It wasn’t until we turned down the path to the castle that I brought her horse forward.

“Angel, the guards at the gate will be happy to see you. When I pretended to be Dana’s slave, they brolled me frequently. Smile nicely as you pass. They are fine, dominating men and brought me much pleasure.”

“Yes, Mistress.” She did well enough, and we passed through uneventfully.

We turned to the stables where I saw Captain Malchor waiting for me. He leaned against a post, displeased with me, but I had expected this. “Good afternoon, Malchor,” I said cheerfully.

“Lady Dana. Good afternoon.” He looked to Angel, then back to me. Seeing her, he would have questions, of course.

Dismounting, I handed the reins to the stableman, waiting until he walked away with my horse before speaking. “I missed her, Malchor, that’s all. I’m not resuming my former activities with the guards. Nothing has changed between us. My pledge to you is the same, and my gratitude is undiminished.”

He relaxed a fraction. “I’m glad to hear it. I was concerned when you didn’t take an escort when you left.”

I frowned. He had brolled me well, and I was appreciative, but that didn’t make him my keeper. On the other hand, he was a man, and he meant well. “I’m a serum girl. Who would want to kill me?”

He looked as he wanted to argue, but he let it go. I might have moved to his tune at night, but during the day, I was still his superior. “Lady Dana.” He bowed stiffly. “Good afternoon.” He strode away without waiting for a response.

“Good afternoon, Malchor,” I replied to his departing back. I shrugged and turned to my slave. “This way.” I led her up to my quarters and locked the door.

Once safely inside, I removed the veil. The friendship Angel and I had developed so tenuously was gone. The barrier between slave and mistress was up like a steel curtain. As much as I wanted to explain myself, to recapture our closeness, kind words would have only frustrated her. In the meantime, she waited for orders.

I sighed. “Make me some tea, Angel.”

“Yes, Dana.”

While she was busy, I worried about my next move. I would tell her all, or nearly all, of course, but what then?

“Here is your tea, Dana.”

I took the cup, took a sip, and sat cross-legged on the bed, pointing to a place beside me. “Angel, sit down. It’s time to tell you why we’re here.” I composed my thoughts and began. “It all started several months ago, when I was Tyr, on the raiding party that took Ketrick …”

Over an hour later: “… when we go to Alexander’s castle, we might not survive. We don’t want to leave you alone in Tulem.” I didn’t like the distracted look on her.

“Dana…”

“Call me Tyra for now, but only when we’re absolutely alone.”

“Tyra, why do you tell me this?”

I blinked back a tear or two. Was she so lost? We had been friends and now she seemed completely unconcerned about anything. “We want to do what's right for you. What do you want, Angel?”

She looked down. “I am only a slave. I am pleased to serve.”

This cool servile creature wasn’t the woman I had known! “Angel, I could free you. You could do what you wanted.”

“I want to belong to Ketrick.”

She would think of him first, naturally. “Of course. If we survive, then I would give you back to him. He would be pleased to own you again.”

She bit her lip anxiously. “Tyra,” she replied, hesitating, “if you don’t survive, how could you give me back to him?”

“If I don’t survive, and he does, then you can submit to him if you are free, Angel,” I said impatiently. “The point is that neither of us may live. If you were free, I could give you money and give you a place to stay until you could leave Tulem. Then you could go where you wanted and submit to whomever you desire.”

She held her head in her hands and cried. I took her hand before I realized what I did. I thought I understood her: it must have been frightening to think of freedom and risks, choices, and the death of the master she loved.

She stopped after only a few sobs and regarded me with sudden resolve. “Tyra, I would like to be free now. Would you free me please?”

I wiped away a tear. I would speak with her as an equal, at least for the moment, explain myself and hopefully recapture something of the old friendship, no matter how short-lived. “Of course.”

I applied the solvent to her thigh. Her eyes grew large as the vaec disappeared. I unlocked her collar, and her hand rubbed her neck in wonder. Going to her knees, she spread her legs in the submission position. I placed a cord around her wrists loosely and smiled. By the Gods, I had missed her so much! Soon, she will be with me again!

My heart swelled as I spoke the simple words of freedom: “I release you from bondage. Rise, freewoman.” I undid the loose cords and she rose to her feet.

Eyes blurring through tears of happiness, I opened my arms and moved forward for an embrace. The barest moment later I was on the floor holding my jaw, reeling from Angel’s blow.

“Bitch!” she screamed and kicked me in the side.

My ribs hurt like Hades, and I gasped for breath. The next kick connected, too, but I managed to roll with it. I cursed myself for a fool! Angel had always been an excitable woman. Her fire and passion was what attracted me to her in the first place. At that moment it was less appealing. She bent to grab my hair, something I’ve always hated. Spread out as it was on the floor, she managed a handful, but so did I of hers.

“Aiii!” she shrieked. Her free hand went to scratch my face. I barely blocked it, grabbing her wrist. We rolled on the floor where she had the advantage in her looser clothes, and she tore at my hair with everything she had. I yanked her own face close and snapped a blow to her nose with my forehead that gave her pause. With that edge, I rolled on top of her and bent her free hand back.

“Damn it, Angel! Let go of my hair or, by the Gods, I’m going to have to hurt you!”

She pulled my hair hard enough to bring more tears, and I bent her wrist to the breaking point. Yet she still fought! Her face reeked of hate and determination. I had little option if I wanted to keep my hair. I pressed my elbow to her throat and leaned, cutting off her air. She released me, but only to make another grab for my hair the instant the pressure was gone. This time I eluded her, staggered to my feet, and tore my dress for combat. My hair ached and my ribs felt like the time Ketrick had hit them with the heavy spear. Furious, I threw my disheveled hair behind me and glared at my former slave and lover, inviting her forward with an extended arm as I took a fighting stance.

“Come on, Angel! Try me now!” I hissed through clenched teeth.

Once she had her breath back, she looked at me sorrowfully and cried. I recognized it as a variation of “regret,” a slave pose Wanda had taught me earlier, and I laughed at her pathetic deception. Enraged, she launched herself at my face with arms outstretched, her claws flexing, eager to score and rend. Prepared for it, I slipped to the side easily, beat her closest arm safely down and away, and took her by the throat from behind. I gave her a disabling blow to a kidney with my fist, arching her back. We dropped to the floor together and I made very sure she hit the ground hard and flat. As she lay gasping, I grasped the cord I had just used to free her with, and soon had her hands tied behind her back. She screamed obscenities and tried to kick me, so I took her by the throat again and held her nose shut until I wedged a nether garment between her teeth and tie it down.

Soon, she squirmed on the floor pelts, completely secure and severely displeased at her predicament. If I had been a man, I might have found her efforts attractive. As she tired, I checked myself in the mirror. Angel had grabbed the tail of my hair, it being the most convenient. It had spread the strain over my head and only a few hairs had actually been torn away. My jaw would be slightly swollen, but again, it was struck with the flat of her hand, a blow that spread the damage. My side was bruised and would color, but nothing had been broken. There was a tiny scratch just below my eye where a fingernail had tried to slice or gouge, but that was easily washed away. I’d been very fortunate not to suffer worse.

When I returned, I knelt over her, turning her outraged face from side to side to examine it from different angles. She was relatively unharmed as well. The blow to the nose had been the worst, but I had placed it carefully and I doubted that it would even swell to any degree.

“So, who is first girl?” I asked her pleasantly. I grinned at her answering glare.

I should have known better. Without the restraint of slavery, her passion had been released. She loved Ketrick. She saw me as a rival. And that had been enough. I had heard of such things before, but slaves were so rarely freed, I had disregarded it.

I looked into her eyes, a fierce blue match for my own brown. “I will allow you to speak, Angel. If you misbehave, I will punish you.” I removed her gag and was pleased to see that she had calmed enough to remain silent. “I’m not your rival, Angel. I don’t want to be a slave.”

The fire was back. “I saw you with him! I’ve heard your screams in the night. You submitted to him. You love him, you bitch!”

I frowned. “We’ve already been through this before. I told you. I love him, but I want to be his wife, not his slave. And I’m not his slave -- I never really was. You’re a freewoman now, at least for the moment. Act like one!”

“I never asked to be a freewoman!” she wailed.

“Yes, you did!”

Chagrined for a few seconds, she retorted, “Well, that was only to get at you!”

I considered her very carefully. Her anger seemed to be mostly spent. “If I let you loose, would you attack me again?”

“No. You would just beat me again,” she sighed.

“This time I would break your arm. If you persisted, I would break your nose. When Ketrick saw you again, it would be gross and twisted.”

She glared at me. “I will not attack you. I will behave myself.”

“Good.” I rolled to my feet and released her bonds a few seconds later. She stood to rub her wrists and feet, and bit her lip, looking at me sullenly, but she remained gratifyingly non-violent. I pointed to the floor. Grumbling, she sat again.

I joined her a moment later. “We still have to decide what to do with you. We’ll probably be dead in a couple of days. Ketrick gave you up because he wants you to be happy. If he lives, he’ll own you again.”

“I feel that I should be grateful for a choice,” she said, “but it is a cold thing. I love him, and it’s all I can think about. I would die in his place if I could.”

I moved to hold her. This time she allowed my embrace and cried in my arms.

I went to supper alone. I returned, bringing a man from the kitchen carrying a tray of food and a jug of fine siolat. It wasn’t long before the jug was opened.

An hour later:

“Buuuurrrrp!” Angel lay on her back in the floor pelts and rubbed her protruding belly. “Ah, that felt good,” she sighed.

“You ex-slaves have no control. You ate at least three times your normal allowance.” I handed her another small cup of siolat. She grinned and took it carefully.

“When the masters away….” She drained the potent beverage through her lips, savored it for a few seconds and swallowed. Her hand stretched in my direction with the empty cup, and looked up at me hopefully -- again.

“Angel, you’re drunk.” I poured her another cup, using extreme care not to spill anything.

“Like you, you mean?”

I laughed. I couldn’t deny it. With identical DNA, we’d matched each other cup for cup and the jug was mostly gone. I held it close in my lap like some treasured possession. “I’m taking my chief of staff’s suggestion and having a few drinks.”

She rolled to her side. Propped up on her elbow, she poked my arm with her free hand. “I’m sorry, Tyra, this must be hard for you, too. I’ve been so worried about losing Ketrick that I haven’t thought about you very much.”

I shrugged. “I understand. I’m not your master anymore and he’s possibly the finest on Zhor. Of course, you love him, too.”

She rolled her head in the hand supporting it, a nod, I supposed. “I want to belong to him again, but I’m free now, and I should use that time to gain perspective.” She giggled. The last word had sounded like “pershpective.” “Tyra, why did you want to be my friend when we were together? I wonder that I didn’t question it more then. Slaves of the same master are rarely friends, especially if they are rivals. You could have beaten me easily and become first girl.”

I embraced the jug like a lover and sighed. “I still remember how you submitted to me in the plains, and when you ignited in my arms. Even with Ruk’s Serum, those memories are still there. I didn’t give you up, you were taken from me.”

She looked into my eyes blearily. “And you still feel that way to this day, even as a serum girl.”

I shrugged. “I don’t want to brol you any more -- not that I could, anyway -- but there is still something when I look at you.”

She collapsed onto her back. “Ah, Tyra! Perhaps it’s easier for me because I see you changed with breasts and saer, whereas for you, I look the exactly the same, at least until Ketrick changed my body. I’m a natural slave and happy to be one. I have room in my heart for my master and little more unless he wills it so. In this brief interlude of freedom, I remember how much I loved you as Tyr, but Tyr is gone. I can’t hold onto you like that, Tyra.”

“I know. But I had hoped that you and I wouldn’t be enemies, at least.”

“If I were a normal freewoman, we would be friends. If you were another slave in Ketrick’s stable, we would fight, you would be first girl, and I could live with that. We shouldn’t be around each other, though, not as free and slave. Ketrick loves you, and, I think, me. Someday he’ll have to choose between us, and the loser will be miserable.”

I sighed and lay back down, placing a pillow behind my head. I hated it, and the tears flowed, but she was probably right. “If we survive this and Ketrick chooses you, I’ll leave. If he chooses me, then I’ll make sure that you’re sold to a fine master.”

She rolled her heads towards me and took my hand. “I’m truly sorry. It’s best this way.”

Malchor did not appear at my door that night at midnight. I waited several minutes then slid the bolt home. For once I did not regret not having a strong man in bed with me. Whether he was displeased with me or just assumed that brolling the Lady of the castle every night was a poor plan, I was glad for the rest.

The next day I informed the guards in the early morning to expect a workman to repair my curtains. In the meantime, I wanted to take a last look around Tulem. Angel had never seen much of the valley, so I led her on a ride. Both of us had hangovers, but I had plenty of afkal. Angel brewed it as a painkilling tea that morning and it proved effective enough.

I took the road by the north side of the lake to the Borodin side of the valley. The traffic on the flower and tree-lined road wasn’t too heavy there, not like the roads that led to Tulem. We rode slowly, keeping our distance from the clusters of horses ahead and behind us for privacy..

I breathed in the fragrant morning air to clear the residual wooliness from my head. The sun had risen enough to just cover the base of the mountains in the west. It was warmer than usual for the spring, and fog hung thickly over the lake.

“Ketrick never took you away from Tulem, not even to see the lake?” I asked.

“No. I understand, though. With so many people in the valley there are fewer slaves here than the average city. Our presence would have been remarked. And you know how Wanda likes to talk. She might have blurted out something to another slave that would have cast suspicion on our Master!”

I laughed. Angel had always been the chatterbox of the two.

She looked at me curiously. “What?” she asked.

I waved it off and pointed to a castle coming into view. “That’s Ivan’s castle, or it used to be before Ketrick killed him. It belongs to his son, Tyrone, now.”

It was similar in structure and design to Alexander’s Castle, essentially a courtyard surrounded by a square gray stone building three stories high. The main difference were four small towers, one in each corner. Alanna would be inside, I considered idly.

“It’s beautiful, like most things in Tulem. Is this why we came this way?”

“No. I wanted to give you a chance to see some of Tulem, but I really wanted to look at Alexander’s castle. There might be something I missed about it earlier.” As we passed Tyrone’s castle, I saw Alexander’s through the trees. Several minutes later we were in front of it, a few hundred yards away across a field. I stopped and stared. The sun had just reached the front, giving it a wonderful sharp glow in front of retreating shadows. It looked beautiful, not at all like a potential slaughterhouse.

Angel interrupted me. “Did you want to go inside?”

I shook my head. “I don’t have a reason, and it would look strange to simply appear at the gate. I’m looking for anything I missed before.” I suddenly thought how odd we must have looked to passersby. “Let’s stop down by the lake.” We crossed the road and tied the horses to a tree. I spread a quilt on the dew-wet ground and sat facing the castle. I had no idea what I was looking for. A few carts turned to go down the path to the castle. I wondered what they were for.

“Those are from Frank’s workshop.”

I turned to Angel abruptly. “What?”

She pointed to the carts. “Working in Ketrick’s hardware store, I met most of the craftsmen in Tulem at one time or another. Those are from Frank’s workshop. He’s a carpenter.”

“They must be preparing for the final celebration inside. Keep watching, Angel. Let me know what you can about them.”

We watched for hours until it came time for lunch. I paid close attention to everything, but especially to the way they entered the castle. Only a few more carts and several workmen on horses arrived, but I noticed with interest that the guards treated certain carts differently.

When the sun filled the entire valley, it was time to leave. Angel packed the quilt and we started back faster than our leisurely pace earlier that morning, hurrying to make it back in time for lunch. Angel pulled up beside me when there was no one around.

“Tyra, you don’t think you’re going to live, do you?”

I disliked being reminded of that fact unnecessarily. I had accepted it, but it was a private matter. “Didn’t you listen to anything I said yesterday?”

“I understand, but if you don’t live, then it means that Ketrick will probably not survive either.”

I sagged in the saddle and just looked at her. Why do I even bother?

She blushed. “I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I do care about you, Tyra. I’ve been Ketrick’s slave for so long, though…”

I shrugged. “It’s all right. What were you going to say?”

She took a deep breath, as if what followed was of the greatest importance. “I want to help.”

I blinked in surprise. I had no idea how she could help us, but she did love Ketrick, and she could be brave when she wanted to be.

“Let’s talk about it when Ketrick arrives.”

Her eyes lit up euphorically. “Yes! When we see him.”

“Angel, have you noticed that you’re not acting like a slave? You fight me, get drunk, volunteer to help us -- are you thinking of staying free?”

She stared at me in horror.

“Fine. But if you don’t start acting like a slave again, you could give us away.”

She groaned and mocked me in singsong: “Angel, act like a freewoman. Angel, act like a slave.”

Lunch was a curious affair. My acceptance as Lady of the castle continued to grow. Marco had returned to the table, although it was a gesture, I was sure, to keep me off-balance. His knowing looks and odd expressions at strange times were to make me pay attention to him, to acknowledge his disturbing presence. I countered by speaking with Gina, his older sister and the bitch who would take my place if I died or disappeared unexpectedly.

Soon after I returned to my quarters, there was a knock at the door. “Lady Dana, the craftsman you requested is here.”

I winked at Angel, who stood nervously. She had been Ketrick’s slave a bare twenty-four hours before, but one might have thought it years. I opened the door. Behind the guard stood Ketrick, in the same disguise with the higher cheekbones and darker hair I’d seen him in before on the street. A heavy wooden workman’s box was by his feet.

“Thank you,” I said to the guard, dismissing him. “Well, come inside, there is much to do!” I said to Ketrick, smiling.

He hoisted his box and entered. “Yes, Lady Dana.” Once the door was closed and latched, Angel ran past me into his arms, crying with happiness. I supposed that her passion could have been spontaneous, until she stuck her tongue out at me.

I should have broken her nose when I had the chance.

Ketrick rubbed her back with his hands. She looked very comfortable pressed against his chest.

“Ah, Angel, I miss my little slave already.” He smacked her rear smartly and released her. She left his embrace pleased. I was less enthusiastic.

He favored me with a disarming smile that brought forth the slut. I sighed at the power he had over me. “We have much to discuss,” he said, bringing us back to the point of this meeting.

“Angel has volunteered to help us,” I said reluctantly, knowing that she would be brought into the planning and discussion.

He grinned, and gave Angel a nod. “It appears there are advantages to freewomen, after all.” I disgraced myself when I succumbed to an urge, sticking my tongue out at her when he wasn’t looking.

He took a roll of heavy gray paper from his workman’s box and spread it on the dining table, holding the edges down with tools. We stood to either side of him. “This is the plan to Alexander’s castle.” He pointed to the first floor diagram. “I’m not sure how many guards will be at the celebration, but I estimate about thirty. I figure about ten at the main gate. About a dozen or so would guard the courtyard with the rest on the perimeter outside. The meeting will be here.” He pointed to the room in the corner, to the left of the main gate.

“That’s where they had their last meeting, the last time I was in the castle,” I said.

“Right. There will be about twenty to thirty Borodin men inside: Markus, the Borodin heads of the castles, of course, and key members of the Borodin invasion force.”

There were two entrances into the room. The smaller one exited to a nearby staircase. I mentally assigned two guards to the main entrance and one to the other door.

He pointed to the third floor and slapped my back softly. “There is a window that swings inwards for access to the roof. I have no idea what condition it’s in. If we get out, it will have to be through that.” He pointed to the storage room’s diagram. “Dana wasn’t sure, but she thinks that all the rooms on the third floor there are connected. It would make sense as a floor plan. This door closest to the entrance is our best bet, though.”

Usually, I could see the beginnings of some devious plan forming after hearing the main points. Often, many options suggested themselves. This time, there wasn’t anything. I saw my role very clearly: I would kill a guard or two, kill as many Borodins as I could, then sneak to the third floor, get into a locked room, open a locked window, get down a rope just outside the main gate of a castle that would undoubtedly be teeming with furious Borodins and get away, knowing that the entire valley would be looking for Dana Giovanni. It was insane. I wanted to cry.

“I’ll bet you have a few questions,” he said.

The confident way he said it disentangled a large knot in my throat. “That couldn’t possibly be all of it.”

“It isn’t. I go into the castle tomorrow for repairs. Once there, I plan to open the door to the storage room, plant the weapons, the escape ropes, and tackle.”

“Well, that’s ambitious.”

“All I need is an excuse to get into the storage room. I’ll break a privy fixture. Castles always have duplicate items like that handy. With all those people there the next night, they’ll want everything working. If I can’t get in it’s all off. Your weapons will have to be there.”

“And the window?”

He grimaced. “That’s the weak point. The Borodins would at least check to see if it was secured before the meeting. The window will have to be opened on the way out. We’ll just have to hope it opens easily.”

I didn’t like it, but it was better than nothing. “How are you going to get inside?”

“That’s going to be difficult. I’ll either kill a Borodin and take his place, ride in along with a carriage or throw a line over the roof and climb up.” He shrugged at the shock on my face. “The last really might be possible: there will be no moon that night, and the air pressure is dropping. It’s likely to be cloudy and very dark with possible rain.”

“Ketrick!” None of those options gave me much hope. My part would be extremely dangerous, but getting in for him would be close to impossible. The thought of him climbing three stories outlined against the wall by torchlight ran through my mind like a fever. It was possible to do it undetected, but by the Overlords, not damn likely!

“I’ll get inside,” he stated confidently.

I believed him. Even if he had to kill half a dozen guards at the main gate, something, with surprise, he was capable of, he would do what he said. Timed right, and bloody enough, it could conceivably create a diversion, but he would surely die. I turned away to keep him from seeing my tears.

“If you can get me the weapons, I think I can do it alone,” I lied.

He grabbed me and swung me around, forcing me to look at him. I’d never seen him so angry. “You can’t do it alone. Trust me, damn you!”

“I do trust you! I just don’t want you to die. Ketrick, it’s just too risky. Let’s think this again.”

He seemed ready to explode and his grip on my shoulders tightened painfully.

“I might be able to help.”

We both turned to Angel in surprise. She glowered at our skepticism, and put her hands on her hips. “Well, I think I can! If you smuggle me into the storage room along with the weapons, I could do a lot.”

“It might be possible,” I said. “We were watching the castle this morning and noticed a few things.”

“That’s right! I could work on the window to open it quietly, all night, if necessary. If you get to the roof, I could let you in. I could let Tyra in through the door.”

With a great effort, he submerged his anger; actually more like worry, as I could see now. “Go ahead, Angel,” he said.

Angel smiled beatifically. She had Ketrick’s attention, and he approved of her. “Best of all, if Tyra and I could change clothes. If she covered her face, while she was out killing people, I could take her place at the celebration. If … when she escaped, nobody would think she did it.”

He grunted noncommittally. “How would you plan to smuggle yourself inside?”

I responded: “They didn’t check everything going into the castle. The guards were lazy; the heavy things that would make inspection tedious, like masonry and tile, were barely looked at.”

He nodded slowly. “It might work.” He appraised his ex-slave. “Can you really pretend to be Tyra?”

She furrowed her brow. “Well ... as long as I don’t have to do anything complicated.”

He raised an eyebrow in my direction, leaving it up to me.

“I like this better. With most of the men in the meeting, I’d probably be expected to be with the women. If I can make them believe that I am really Lady Dana before the fight, then when Angel comes out, she shouldn’t have to do or say very much. With some instruction, Angel might do all right if she can be taught to hold her tongue.”

“Huh!” Angel exclaimed indignantly.

“We’ll do it that way, then,” Ketrick said, ignoring her. He rubbed his chin. “Strange,” he said to me as an aside, “I thought that if you freed Angel, her jealousy would have started a fight.”

I frowned. If he had known this, he could have warned me. Of course, in hindsight, that is more or less what he did, warning me about her unpredictable reaction to me with his dominant male insight into our “natures.” I refused to give him the satisfaction.

“I have no idea what you mean. As you can see, Angel and I are both uninjured, and are the best of friends.”

“I am ecstatic to be wrong. Doubtless, the bruise on the bridge of Angel’s nose is due to some misfortune.”

I dismissed it with a wave. “She is clumsy, always bumping into things.”

He peered closely. “Is that a slight swelling on your jaw?”

“Pay it no heed, Ketrick; the lighting here can be tricky.”

“Yes, the sun is like that. I think we have a fighting chance. There are details to work out, but, with luck, we might both survive.” He pulled me in and kissed me as if it was our last, and for all I knew, it was. I wanted him desperately. Then I groaned.

“What’s wrong?”

“Captain Malchor. There’s no time for this. He worries about me, and is probably having the room watched right now.”

“Then I’ll start my work.” Ketrick repaired the wall and reattached the fixtures with smooth efficiency. In a half-hour he was finished.

“Tyra, I’ll need Angel at my rooms tomorrow before the lunch hour. Will that give you enough time to prepare her?”

I nodded. “It will do. Fortunately, she won’t have to pretend for very long before our activities make things interesting.” I gave him my darts, poison, and carrying pockets and he stored them in his workman’s box.

“While I applied the mortar, I thought of a way into the castle for me.”

“Oh?”

“You should like this. It will make it less dangerous for me to get to the roof. It uses a winch and pulleys and will require your assistance.” He told me the details. “What do you think?”

I pictured it in my mind; forcing myself to be dispassionate. It was daring, and tricky. The warrior in me loved the idea; the woman was horrified at the risks.

“Unless it was a dark night, it would be insanity, but otherwise, it’s crazy enough to work. Have you actually done something like this before?”

“Not under these conditions, but if done properly, it’s quieter, and the ascent is three times as fast.”

I could see no better way. Plans like that were all or nothing and should be executed with the correct attitude. I grinned like a feral cat. “I like it, Ketrick!”

“I thought you would. I’ll see you tomorrow at my apartments.” He motioned Angel to his side. He said a few words to her that warmed her, and then gave her a master’s kiss so powerful I felt the heat of it, but in my heart I could not begrudge Angel her pleasure. She, too, would be with us that night. And then he was gone.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
I hoped you liked this chapter. The next chapter is kick-ass. I guarantee it. ~Aardvark



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