The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 19

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark
Tyra must outwit the mysterious Spymaster to save herself and Batuk.

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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 19
 
 
When the noonday sun was high in the cloudless sky, the Fortress appeared as a black dot in the distance, the most prominent feature of the north, rising proudly from the flat, craggy plain in front of the dusky background of snow-capped mountains. I came close to tears; for a long time, I wondered if I would see her again.

“Impressive isn’t it, Majesty?” Thermin asked, mistaking my homesickness for awe.

I remembered then, who I was with. “It makes a crude statement, but it doesn’t compare to Tulem’s magnificence. The Borodins can have it.”

“Wait until you see the Fortress up close. You’ve never been to Batuk, have you, Majesty?”

I shrugged. “In an odd way, I feel I know it well. I encouraged my former slave to talk about it, and we had some fascinating discussions before I sold her — and, as I've said, I studied the war plans and know the districts and main streets, too.”

“There's no substitute for the experience. Life in Batuk is undisciplined to our eyes.” He considered me thoughtfully. “Majesty, you haven’t asked me any questions about what we'll do there.”

I bowed my head, and raised my eyes slowly, obsequiously, as if to a superior. “You are the Spymaster. It’s your choice what to tell me, and when.”

“How much of this ‘soft new woman’ is really you, and how much is an act?” he snapped.

“Darn it, Thermin, I’m trying. I have a lifetime of habits to overcome.”

“Majesty, if I might make a suggestion?”

“If you wish.”

“Be yourself. It’s much more convincing. Practice false modesty later if you want.”

“Very well. One change is in order. It would be best if you stopped calling me Majesty this close to Batuk. I was not always the Queen, and I won’t chew your head off.”

“That’s much better. Just a touch of your normal arrogance.”

I laughed, startling my horse.

A faint smile pushed its way to his lips. “Your name in Batuk will be Lina l’Sura, and I will be Han t’Fast. Inside we will be man and wife, although I doubt anyone will ask. Say nothing if you can get away with it. I’ll do the talking.”

“Lina l’Sura and Han t’Fast,” I repeated. “So, you’ve decided to enter Batuk with me.”

“It’s worth the risk. By myself I might be recognized, but no one is looking for a man and woman together. We’ll go directly to one of the cell leaders. Our actions after that will depend on what we find there.”

I pointed down the road to Batuk, still hours away. “Lay on, Thermin. I will follow.”

He glanced at me curiously. “You aren’t worried? This is dangerous.”

“Certainly. But if anyone can get the network working again you can.” I inhaled the fresh air of the plains with the familiar sharp scents of scraggly bushes, grasses and weeds. Turning to him, I grinned as if I didn’t have a care in the world. “This is easier than I thought it would be, giving you the responsibility. Now, no one would hold me accountable if we fail.”

“I see,” he said, and his face grew taut. I witnessed for the first time his twitch, an odd involuntary jerk of the left corner of his mouth.

I sighed, annoyed at myself for upsetting him. A sovereign should never threaten her subjects, not even in jest.

“I’m sorry, Thermin, it was a poor joke. I am not so dispassionate as that. We’ll do what we can, of course, and with any luck we shall succeed. I have confidence in you, and know that you will do your usual excellent best.” I met his eyes squarely to make it easier for him to judge my words. “Forgive my blithe remark. When fate decrees that you become a serum girl, it destroys your world; nothing is quite so sure again, no victory or plan secure.”

“I think I understand. It’s a wonder you didn’t kill yourself in despair when you awoke.” He shuddered, pursing his lips as if he had swallowed an insect. “To wake up and find yourself a woman…”

“I suggest that you ask a few born women if they would like to die. It’s not the body that's so bad; that can be tolerated with practice and a good attitude. It’s the urges that destroy you. But even succumbing to them is better than dying. Remember that if the gods decree that you lose what dangles between your legs.”

He smiled marginally. “That was the Queen speaking.”

“It’s the truth. If it happens to you, you would be wise to profit from my experience.”

“Forgive me for hoping that I’ll never have that chance.” He pointed to a small stream to the right that wound into one of the many small gullies that made travel nearly impossible off the roads. “We’ll pull off here and get ready for Batuk.”

We dismounted and led our horses down the shallow embankment to the narrow swift-flowing water, following it until we were safely out of sight of the road. The banks were rocky and rough but dry enough and we let the horses drink their fill. Thermin untied a small box from his saddlebags, opening it to reveal a built-in mirror and kit with a variety of wigs, tints and colorings.

I decided that it wouldn’t do any harm to reveal my real hair and eye coloring, that is, if he didn’t know already. “Thermin, my hair is really blonde. I can wash the coloring away and make my eyes blue if that would help.”

He didn’t pause with his preparations, but his casual ease acknowledged what he wouldn’t say: he had known. Thermin was a man who kept his secrets close -- a dangerous man.

“Go ahead, Lina.”

Calling me by my spy was as good a measure of trust as any. “Right away, Han.”

***

It was mid-afternoon when we approached the huge black doors of the Lion Gate. We entered with a mix of travelers and farmers. The sweat stench of a laborer after a hard day, and the colorful language of insults and irreverence was a tonic to my senses. I was glad for the white veil at that moment when we passed the guards’ muster, for I should have looked nervous, but it was too much of a homecoming. The smells of cooked meat and spices brought back more memories. My hands tingled; I wanted to pull the reins right and follow the Wall Road to Eagles, but Thermin had turned left, and I followed dutifully.

We came to a private stable, where we left our horses. After shouldering a pair of backpacks filled with clothing and necessities, we left on foot. The way became steadily more crowded as we left the Wall Road and came nearer to the city’s western market.

“You’re doing very well so far,” Thermin said when we were relatively alone. “Don’t be concerned. The men and women here are often aggressive and rude. You might be jostled.”

I took his arm as a wife might do with her husband. “I’ll be fine. My slave spoke of this chaos. This is like an adventure!”

He gave me a sideways look at the touch, but did not remove my hand. “Stay close; we’ll be there in a few moments.”

Our destination was three streets away, but we took a tortured route, turning left or right, waiting at corners of in the security of a doorway or stack of articles, and then cutting back. A direct walk of less than five minutes became twenty. After passing through several streets of bustling buyers, shops of every kind, and vendors noisily hawking their wares, Thermin was finally satisfied that we weren’t being followed, and he led us to a small stone shop, part of a row of shops and stores strung together like a set of mismatched pearls. I’d been in the market many times, and remembered the shop vaguely, but had never been inside.

A sturdy wooden sign of a stylized needle and thread hung from a pole thrusting above the street. Lettering beneath the picture declared the owner, Mil t’Fin, Expert Tailor. Thermin opened the door, and brought me across into the shop’s quiet sanctuary.

Two men stood inside. One cut blue fabric on a table in a back room. The other arranged a tunic on a hanging bar behind an assortment of men and women’s clothing. He looked up and slid between the racks towards us, grinning like any proprietor who sensed a sale. The lean man had a measuring tape draped over one shoulder, and the handle of a pair of well-worn shears peeked from a device on his belt. His eyes darted between the two of us before settling on Thermin.

“How may I help you?” he asked in a surprisingly deep voice, clasping his large hands together.

“I’m looking for a swirling pattern from Olander, in grays and black.”

The tailor blinked at the phrase, and recognition twitched his face as he pierced Thermin’s disguise, but he answered calmly enough. “I might have the style in lavender,” he replied, glancing at me, questioning my presence.

Thermin looked toward the rafters. “Mil, we need a private place.”

“Right away.” Mil twisted halfway around towards the rear of the store. “Flem, take over the front. I have business.” At his assistant’s nod, he returned to face us, his sharp features more pronounced and serious. “I’m glad to see you. Please follow me.”

He led us to a staircase in the corner and up, into a suite, a bedroom overlooking the street, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room with comfortable couch, a few sturdy chairs, and a serviceable table. He took a chair and turned it towards us on the couch. Thermin sat on its edge leaning towards our host. I reclined into its welcome depths; it had been a long day in the saddle and my butt hurt.

“Mil, the last few messengers never arrived in Tulem. What happened?”

“By the Gods,” he muttered, closing his eyes for a moment from those whose fate must have been death. “I had feared it could be something like that. Four days ago, Gar failed to make a pick-up. The next day was a repeat of the same. I followed standing orders and left the scene, waiting for further instructions. It became moot when I found out Gar had died.”

Thermin puffed out his cheeks and blew, but it was what we'd expected. “How do you know?”

“I watched his funeral from a distance two days ago. He was buried yesterday. I didn’t get a good look at his face except through a hand telescope, but it looked like him. Thermin…” He stopped at Thermin’s hand.

“My name here is Han t’Fast and this is Lina l’Sura, an untrained volunteer. Go ahead, Mil.”

“The story is that Gar was poisoned.”

Thermin nodded. “The poison tooth. So, he was found out. Mil, why isn’t Batuk taking this seriously? I watched for extra men at the gates when we came through the Lion’s Gate, or something more than the casual screening that passes for security here, but I saw nothing out of the ordinary.”

“That’s puzzling to me, too. If Batuk knew who Gar was, and are intercepting couriers as they arrive or leave, then it stands to reason that they must know we are here. So why isn’t there more activity?” He shook his head wearily. “It makes no sense, even for Batuk. They should be raising an army and stiffening their defenses. What could be their game?”

Thermin's blue orbs nearly glowed. “We have a traitor, someone who knows what our couriers look like and who knew our dead spymaster.”

“If what you say is true, then why didn’t the traitor alert Batuk?”

“Maybe he tried but wasn’t believed. We have someone placed high in their council who would block any attempt to take precautions against us. More likely, the traitor is waiting for me to meet with the cells to reestablish the network. If I were him that’s what I’d do.”

“You are the only one we all know on sight,” Mil said. “He would only need to meet you once, and then follow you. He would soon find most of us, perhaps all.”

“Quite. He picked the perfect time, too, just before the attack. He knew I wouldn’t have the chance to change my appearance before I came here. He’s a clever snake, whoever he is.” He grinned, pointing to me. “But we have an advantage: our untrained volunteer, Lina l’Sura, better known as Queen Dana.”

I shot him a dirty look; I saw no reason for him to name me. The fewer people who knew who I was, the fewer who would want to remove me in Tulem's ‘best interests.’

“Han, dear husband, this is an unexpected revelation.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are. After all, you accepted me as your Spymaster. Or did you, Majesty?” he finished, this last an angry question.

I nodded slowly. “I see.” I looked to Mil, who gaped like some strange land fish. “Mil, Spymaster Thermin has full authority over operations here. This includes me. While I’m in Batuk, I’m just Lina l’Sura, a raw recruit under his able command. This decision is irrevocable.” I smiled sweetly at my Spymaster. “Is that what you wanted to hear, Han -- dearest?”

“Yes, and it was graciously done, Lina,” he said with great satisfaction, as if he had decanted a rare wine and found it precisely to his taste.

So, he hadn’t forgiven me; I hadn’t groveled enough yet to assuage his stupendous ego. It was outrageous treatment to his Queen after I'd given him my word to forgive his demands of me in Batuk. It was as if he wanted me to fight him — or perhaps he didn’t believe that I would do what I said and be more feminine. A test. Regardless, reacting as a man would only verify what he thought he knew, and that way led to danger.

Fine. If Thermin wanted to order me around, then I would oblige, but with dignity, as a woman, expecting him to behave as a man should towards a woman. If he had any decency in him at all, it would play into my hands. I stood, brushing my dress flat. I had noticed a few labeled jars in the kitchenette.

“Mil. Do you mind if I make some tea?” I asked the still—goggling man.

“Uh. No. Not at all,” he sputtered, still staring at me.

“Thank you. Would either of you like some?”

“Make tea for both of us, Lina,” came Thermin’s command.

“Right away.” I moved off to stoke the hot coals to life and draw water.

A period of silence when I imagined eyes on my backside, then:

“Lina! Mil and I will return in a few minutes.” I heard sounds of men getting up.

Thermin had sounded irritated. Judging by his expression, there seemed to be little doubt.

“Tea will be ready when you return,” I responded airily as they departed, but there was no answer. While they were out, I hummed a song of love and the fickleness of men I’d heard women sing in my childhood.

I was sipping tea when they returned. The cups and condiments of sugar, cinnamon, and rhesh, a local spice, had already been set out on the table, so all that was left was to pour for them. The tea was good -- Mil liked a decent brand -- but Thermin made no comment, preferring to watch me impassively.

“Lina. I have a job for you. I want you to walk by Gar t’Pen’s house and tell me what you see. I want to know anything suspicious: any visitors, people who shouldn’t be there, and especially, people who might be observing the house.” He gave me the description and location, a block east from a famous temple. “Do you need directions?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head. “If I recall the map correctly, the house should be eight blocks south and a block west -- about halfway between here and the Lion’s Gate.”

A flicker of surprise crossed his face. “Yes, that’s about right. Go now and return. You should have plenty of time to walk there and back before dark.”

I rose and started to clean up, but Thermin grasped my arm. He motioned towards the door. “Go now. Clean up after you get back.”

“Very well.” I put the tray down and attached my veil, and a very short time later I was on the noisy street.

I stood and watched the street just outside the shop for a minute or two. Leaving, I headed north, away from my destination, moving slowly, like so many women on the street, stopping to look and examine clothing and wares.

I shopped patiently, and bargained for a scarlet scarf, paying for it with some of the Batuk silver I’d brought with me from Tulem. On the way, I looked in the windows and walked both sides of the streets. When I found the man who shadowed me, I walked west and south, on course to pass the deceased spymaster’s house. I made one more turn into a side street just ahead of a cart, rearranged my hair into a shorter fall, and tied the scarf over my head. I ducked back into traffic just ahead of a woman of size and slowed, staying just ahead of her.

Not long afterwards, my man walked rapidly past, looking ahead worriedly. I pivoted promptly and walked straight back to the shop. Thermin knew something was amiss instantly: I had returned far too early.

“What happened?” he demanded.

“I was followed from the moment I left. It was a small man about my height, in a brown and gray tunic, with the look of a day laborer. I have a better description, but I think you know whom I’m talking about. After all, I’m fairly sure you had him follow me.”

Thermin turned to Mil, who observed me with interest, arms folded on his chest and chewing on a strip of beef jerky.

“He’s one of mine,” Mil said. “How did you know?”

“I assumed that you would have me followed, so I looked for it. The only question was whether he would be tailing me from the shop or waiting for me close to Gar’s house. There is still time to get there and back. Do you still want me to go?”

Thermin nodded. “Yes. His name is Decker. If you see him again, greet him using my Batuk name.”

“I will,” I replied, smiling.

“You did well to spot him,” Thermin said grudgingly.

“Thank you. I’ll see you in about two hours.”

This time I made no detours. On the way, I thought about what Ketrick might be doing now. As a former spymaster, Ketrick must have anticipated that Thermin would come to reassemble the spy network.

Ketrick’s problem would be locating the cells. Since only Thermin knew where they were, that meant finding Thermin. At the very least, he would have paid the guards at the gates to watch for Thermin’s arrival and to have him followed -- not so unusual a practice -- it was something that citizens with grievances and the constabulary did on occasion.

He also might watch Gar’s house, just in case Thermin might try to see Gar. It was even possible that Ketrick would be watching Gar’s house now.

I passed the dead spymaster’s house, a typical two-story stone structure built in the flamboyant style of a century ago, with fluted columns supporting an open porch in the front, and large protective beasts carved directly into the base, the idea being that the house rested upon strength and provenance. Located in a nicer section of the city where the Merchant’s Guild tended to settle, it was private enough to make any loiterers suspicious.

Doing what I was told, I watched the people on the street, the few pedestrians and greater numbers of horse traffic, who was doing what, and looking for anything unusual, thinking that this was a test, and that I might be questioned later. But Ketrick wasn’t there -- although my shadow was, about fifty yards distant behind a marble statue of some family’s favorite deity.

I turned around several houses later, and passed Decker by an open-air stand specializing in leather goods. As he fingered a softened jacket suitable for riding, I greeted him with a gentle slap on the back.

“Afternoon, Decker. Han t’Fast sends his compliments,” I whispered.

He sighed, and returning the jacket to the pile with a regretful look to the owner. Up close, he was difficult to describe. Small for a man and fairly slim, and with no distinctive features, he would be difficult to spot in a crowd.

“I thought you might have made me,” he said, his voice as average and unremarkable as the rest of him.

“I thought I might be followed before I stepped out,” I explained once we were on our way.

“That would account for it. I understand that you’re new here.”

I looked up quickly and caught a glimpse of cold intelligence behind his smile. Although I didn’t know why, I disliked him instantly.

“How much did they tell you?”

He laughed. “All right. Enough. We’re on the same side. All I know is that your name is Lina l’Sura and that you’ve just arrived. You must be new to the game because they wanted a tail to watch you perform some simple instructions. I know no more than that.”

Decker’s words were reasonable, but they felt like lines in a play, artfully designed to create a certain impression. Further, his eyes seemed -- empty. My female center shivered looking at them. This was a real killer; one who could murder and not feel, and I wanted nothing to do with him.

“Why don’t you tell me what you know about this area while we walk back?” I asked.

He complied, filling the time with details of markets, some history, Batuk habits, and the best time to buy fish. I didn’t care about the subject; I was happy to keep him talking.

He left us soon after speaking with Thermin and Mil in private. Evidently, what he said wasn’t too derogatory because neither looked displeased, and Decker even winked at me on the way out when he left with Mil, passing me like an ill wind.

They’d left me to clean up, as I’d expected. Then I cleaned the rest of the kitchen. Thermin watched me the entire time, but the entertainment in watching someone some one scrub a stove, even when a Queen does it, runs its course early on.

“We’re going out for supper,” Thermin said as I was wiping my hands dry.

I smiled. “Excellent! Give me about twenty minutes to get ready. I smell like an old horse.” I turned to pump water for a bath.

Thermin held his tongue. It would have been priggish to deny me a bath after riding all day. It was a reasonable, essential request for a woman. He still played the aggrieved party, but that only worked if he maintained the high road.

“Would you like some hot water for a bath too?” I called from the bathroom.

“Yes -- thank you,” he grunted.

As the water heated, I decided that I liked Thermin, just a little. Before long, I relaxed in the tub and sang a happy song of flowers in spring.

I finished dressing in the bedroom while Thermin took his bath, selecting a clean cotton dress. Brushing my hair out, I admired myself in the mirror. If I had to be a woman, this was a fine body to be in, and we had been through much together. Although I rarely did, this time, I applied a touch of perfume.

When Thermin emerged from the bathroom, he wore a towel around his waist. Thermin had the strong shoulders and wiry arms of a swordsman. An old friend and enemy warmed at the sight, tingling me in familiar ways. It hadn’t been that long -- not yet two days -- but my hot natural slave blood was already rising in the excitement.

Thermin chose a small tavern with privacy alcoves. The smell of broiling steaks and fried vegetables filled the air. A woman flutist played lively compositions in the far corner, well and loud enough to provide suitable atmosphere for conversation or dance. Our place was in the opposite corner, where Thermin had taken the bench against the wall, the better to see the rest of the room.

For a time, amiable talk was out of the question as Thermin devoured a rolled up mix of ground meat, onions, potatoes and a pungent sauce. I ate a smaller version, but I took my time, while the Spymaster attacked his as if his intended purpose was pure sustenance. I said nothing until he sat back, belched, and reached for a large mug of ale.

“Han, how many times have you been in Batuk?”

He regarded me at last. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curiosity. I wonder what you think of the city.”

He gave the room a quick glance before speaking. “Why concern yourself? In a short time, the city, as we see it, will be gone forever.”

“I care. What about the character of the people? My former slave said that resistance to my blond cousins would prove exceptionally difficult, that they might be in danger for many years.”

He made me wait while he drank a long draw, and then to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. “I would believe your slave. Properly organized, the people here would be formidable. The young here are raised to believe that they have no limits. Citizens actually believe that the city serves them and not the other way around. They would show umbrage to anything restricting their wants and desires, especially, aristocratic rule. I don’t envy Nikolai or the citizens under their thumb.”

“They were warned.”

He permitted himself a small grin. “Yes. I understand that you had a hand in their education before you were -- changed, although I suspect it was more for your amusement than for their elucidation.”

I tilted my head, a nod to his sources. “You are well informed.”

He looked at me closely for a few seconds, then appeared to come to a decision. Upending the last of his ale, he waved to a woman with a tray of drinks, pointing to his mug. She nodded, and a moment later, she poured him a fresh drink.

“I know what you’re trying to do, you know, being more of a woman,” he said after the waitress left.

“I’m doing what I said I would do. Don’t try to figure me out, Han. I’m a moving target, changing and adapting as I come to know myself.” I smiled. “By the way, whatever I’m trying to do, is it working?”

“Time will tell,” he said, his ice blue eyes looking me over. “We should say no more here; this restaurant is becoming too crowded. We'll finish our drinks and leave.”

The evening had cooled. Familiar Batuk street sights and sounds brought back recent memories: a drunk singing a lewd song off-key; couples laughing and arguing; a political discussion; a pair of dogs padding down the cobblestone street, roaming free. I decided that I didn’t want to return to the room to discuss how we were to end it.

“Han, let’s walk. I’d like to see more of Batuk before we go back.”

“We have time. Batuk at night can be pretty. There’s a place where you have a good view of the entire southern quarter. It’s called Mark’s Point.”

I knew it, a place where one could see the lights of towns and villages many miles away. I’d been there before with a girl years ago when I was short of money, hoping to impress her with the scenery with an eye to better things. As I recall, it hadn’t worked.

“Let’s go there, then.”

We walked, leaving the western market and moving east, towards the black hole in the sky that was the Fortress. We passed near-empty streets of neat stone houses, most with lamps lit inside. Shadows passed in front of windows, and the air stirred with dimly heard conversations, laughter, and the cawing of amorous night birds. The houses became buildings as we approached the center of town. A set of lights to the south captured my attention, and I slowed to look.

“What is it?”

I pointed. “I’d like to go there, Han.”

He thought for a second or two. “I think that’s a small park. We can go there if you wish.”

“I would.”

The lights were specially made lanterns, oil lamps with thick glass housings and a curved mirror backing. Mounted on poles, they illuminated a small field where boys and girls played. They laughed, ran, tossed balls, and yelled at each other. The boys mainly played rough games, although a girl or two mixed with them, those not yet of an age to know or care what the years would bring, defining their differences with nature’s certainty.

Mothers and fathers stood to the side at the edge of the light, often with an arm or hand placed around their mate as they watched their offspring like treasures. There were few children on Zhor. The Overlords had given us the anti-aging drugs. In exchange, the Overlords discouraged overpopulation, sometimes with a heavy hand, and a woman with more than three children in a lifetime was rare.

For long stretches I could nearly forget who I had been, and then a sight like this would bring it rushing back, where, for an instant, my breasts hung heavy, my hips seemed too wide and made for an alien purpose. As much as my body was telling me that all was as it should be, I had grown up a boy, and I understood the boys’ tough, straightforward games. I had never been a girl. I looked to the parents. The father’s role seemed more a vague dream -- it was the mother’s that had the feel of reality. What could be more basic than making life and nurturing? my body asked, but for that moment, I knew to my core that it wasn’t meant to be this way. My destiny had been ripped away, and a new path forced upon me.

Through habit, I drove the useless bitterness back, and the moment passed: my body felt normal again. The dress rested securely over my hips, and the breeze blew it against my legs as it had for a year; the halter once again supported me comfortably; the pinned-up tail of my hair brushed against my back, swishing as I moved my head. I could once again imagine myself in the mother’s place. Even if I couldn't understand a daughter, I understood a passing beam of pride, a tender touch to a daughter’s hair, and felt a twinge of concern when a son fell heavily. I comprehended the expression in one young woman’s face, the need to have a child of her own.

I still fought for my city and the men and women who lived there, but, as a woman, especially for these children. The adults had had their chance and had made their choices. By Zhor’s unforgiving ways, they might legitimately pay the penalty for choosing the wrong leaders who allowed Batuk to be unprepared for an attack, but the children were blameless. I would that they grew up strong and free, not under the boot of anyone determined to bend them to their will. A tear rolled down my cheek when I thought of what would happen to them if Ketrick and I failed, and my throat tightened.

“I want go back now,” I said huskily, wiping my eye with a knuckle.

“Is there something wrong?”

I shook my head. “No. I’ve just seen enough.”

“Lina, what’s wrong?”

“I’ll be fine. Emotions affect me at the strangest times. I’m sure you have much to tell me about tomorrow. Let’s go back, Han.”

“Very well,” he said, but he looked at me curiously.

***

Living with the Spymaster was proving inconvenient. I’d brought pen, paper, and ink with me, but I was finding it extraordinarily difficult to write notes. I lay on the bed while he nodded off in the couch in the next room, but he was a very light sleeper, and I didn’t dare write in the open. I went to the bathroom, the only place in the apartment with privacy, hiding the writing materials under my nightgown.

It was too quiet. Even the faint scratching noise of pen to paper had to be disguised with sounds suitable for my environment, and I left the bathroom embarrassed after finishing two fast notes.

Father,

Ketrick did not abduct me. It was a way to get me into Tulem to prevent an invasion. It sounds insane, but it is so. If you see Ketrick, believe what he says. To know it is me, Tisa has a small mole on her left breast. You spit when you first saw me changed. Tell Ketrick that Mil t’Fin, a tailor in the western market, is a cell leader in Tulem’s spy ring.

Tyra l’Fay, freewoman

Ketrick,

Mil t’Fin, tailor, shop in western market, is a cell leader. I’m here with Thermin, staying in Mil’s shop. We’ll probably leave by the Lion Gate. Blonde, now, with black pin in hair.

Tyra

Thermin had heard the noise, of course, and was awake and looking at me when I came out the door. Alarmed, I wondered if I had overdone it with all that grunting and straining, but he simply rolled over and went back to sleep. With all the tension, I wanted to touch myself that night, but Thermin made that difficult too. Our relationship was already complex, and I had no wish to wake him up with the moans of a hot serum girl, so I suffered in silence, pretending the pillow in my arms was Ketrick.

Thermin woke me the next morning with a gentle nudge to my shoulder.

“Lina,” he said too loudly, “it’s time to get up. Are you feeling better?”

I don’t sleep well when I’m in heat, and it took a moment to remember what he was talking about. I rolled over and sat up, brushing the hair from my face. “Yes. I’m fine and ready for espionage,” I said groggily.

“Good. We have a lot to do.”

I looked up at his tone. I’d hoped that we’d come to an accord the previous night, but the deep chill was back.

After a fast breakfast, we walked through the market, slow that time of the morning, past the shortening shadow of the Fortress. Thermin walked far too close to me, like a jealous lover. I had no opportunity to do what I wanted most: to find a way to deliver the notes I’d written to my father and the guards. After he’d bumped into me for the third time, I stopped and glared at him.

I hissed, “If this is for my protection, it’s misplaced. All you’re doing is attracting attention!”

His eyes narrowed to slits. “I’ll explain this once. I’m acting like a jealous bastard to keep people away from us. You are a noble.” He jerked his chin sharply towards a group of masons on their way to work, and again to a pair of women walking together while having an animated discussion. “You’re not like these people. If someone is looking for us then your aristocratic mouth could give us away. Is that clear?”

He either despised the nobility to the point of recklessness or he was looking for an excuse to dump me outside the walls. I considered the last briefly, as I could have the messages delivered easily then, but I still didn’t know who the other cell leaders were.

“Clear. But try a little harder not to step on my feet.”

He growled under his breath, but he was better after that.

We stopped at a small, private tea and siolat tavern a block away from the Slave’s Dream, close enough for old memories of domination. Tightening in my bodice reminded me constantly that I would need a man soon. Even Thermin was looking better than usual.

The tavern was almost empty that time of the morning. It was better than most of its type, clean, lined with soft wood siding and filled with gleaming tables. The keeper, a neat man in an apron, put away his polishing rag and made to come to us for service, but Thermin motioned to the back, where a purple curtain hung half-drawn. Past the curtain was a private room, large enough for a dozen. In a corner, by a single lamp burning bright yellow, sat Mil t’Fin. He pulled at his favorite snack, strips of beef jerky, and we settled to places opposite him.

Thermin told me, carefully enunciated each word of his instructions: “There is a furniture store a block east of here, called the Bed and Back. The owner is an average sized man with a thick black mustache, brown eyes and long hair that he likes to part to the left. His name here is Rett t’Nyl. You will meet him, verify his name and say, ‘The business at Fern’s is slower in the summer.’ He will reply with, ‘Only in the fur trade.’ You will bring him back here directly to this room, saying nothing. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” I repeated the instructions back to his satisfaction.

“Good. Go now. Mil will watch, making sure nobody is following you coming or going, as well as making sure that you stay out of trouble. Stay in plain sight, and don’t reveal in word or manner that Mil is tailing you.”

It went as planned. Rett barely showed a reaction to the code phrase except to break off a roaming examination of my body; he’d been expecting someone to contact him after he’d heard that Gar was dead. Back at the private room in the tavern, Thermin kept me away, and the men lowered their voices enough so I couldn’t make out anything. It was maddening. I wasn’t sure if Thermin was putting me in my place, or if it was his practice never to tell anyone anything more than was absolutely necessary, and it was clear that he wasn’t going to tell me anything more than he had to.

Regardless, it was easy to work out what they were doing. It was a secure plan, ensuring that only Thermin, Mil, and I would meet the cell leaders. When the order to sabotage Batuk came, if there had been a traitor, one cell, at most, would have been disrupted. But being watched all the time gave me no chance to deliver my messages.

Whatever they were discussing, setting up meetings, drops, or plots, they were finished in a few minutes. We three left, watching to make sure Rett wasn’t following, and then moved on northwest, towards the Fortress. Mil left us at the small temple of a minor god, Hector, the God of Adventure. We sat on a bench, killing time in the shade of the bronze god, his powerful arms held high in exultation, and I glanced up at my supposed husband, a question on my face.

He nodded slowly, noting his Queen’s curiosity. “Mil has gone on ahead to set up another place for a rendezvous. With any luck, we’ll be finished late this afternoon, before Hadrian’s gong strikes again.”

“You intend on doing this four more times today?”

“Five. You’re forgetting our pet, the administrator.”

“I see. You have this very well organized.”

I did see. I saw that I had less time than I thought to get the messages sent. How on Zhor can I pass anything when I’m being watched all the time? I certainly wouldn’t be allowed any time to visit Eagles or speak with any guards without suspicion. And yet, “The gods usually leave a way; it is for mortals to find it,” as the saying goes.

There were two roads to the only entrance to the Fortress: each the mirror image of the other. They both began from the east and west sides, steep roads cut from solid black rock that wound their ways around the base to the massive Fortress entrance on the south, high above the northern plain.

It was a point of pride in Batuk that everyone save the gravid and the infirm walked the road. It was steep enough to cause problems for horse teams; in fact, only special wagons were allowed. As they toiled up the incline, wooden pegs snapped noisily, gears against the wagons’ wheels that held heavy cargoes from rolling backwards, and giving horses a chance to rest and feed. We passed several, but the way was trafficked mainly with people on foot like us, separated by pace and group traveling up or down.

Soon, we reached the enormous Fortress gate. I wasn’t winded after the half-mile climb, although I wasn’t as strong as I remembered. Of course, when I’d last trod the road, I was Tyr. A few well-attired men guarded the gate, more of a formality in time of peace. The city’s administration and reserves lay inside, as well as the finest apartments, a few built high on the walls overlooking the plain, and in the majestic towers.

Except for the most hardened cynics, the first time view of the city inside the Fortress makes the heart skip a beat. To natives of Batuk it does more. Imagine an ancient oddity of nature, a huge hill of solid rock, thrust through the crusty plain like a black finger of an immense god. That is what my ancestors saw two thousand years before when they settled the harsh region. It drew them to it as an eagle looks for high places in which to nest, or like a man after an attractive mammary, as some historians preferred, alluding to its ancient name, “The Teat”.

My ancestors had labored in the sun, wind, and cold for more than a century, chipping, hammering, and carving away the top to form a smooth surface. They had smoothed the huge walls that could not be scaled and made the unbreakable gate of solid steel, forged in a great fire that had exhausted a year’s supply of coal and wood.

It was originally built to withstand the barbarian northern tribes, whose life was to raid and kill. It was the only settlement in the north that had never paid tribute. If Batuk was the strength of the plains, the Fortress was its heart. As Batuk’s wealth and population grew, the city inside the Fortress had grown to its present day heights. Buildings of trimmed and polished black, gray, and white stone gleamed in the sun, filling city blocks that elevated beyond the level of the walls, separated by straight streets. Bright flags flapped dizzyingly high overhead from lofty towers in the constant wind.

Some thought the view too clean and sterile. Save for window plants and colorful trim it was that. The space left no room for interior parks or fields, except for a small patch of grass in front of the entrance surrounding a fountain. At the time it was made, the council couldn’t agree on which god or goddess to honor. By popular vote, a statue of the original hill as it had looked to our ancestors was planted in the water. My ancestors had been right to name it so. From the right angle, it did look like a nipple teased erect. The cold water of the fountain only reinforced the illusion. I had to smile through my tears.

“Lina, why are you crying?” my spymaster asked me.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, an inadequate word to express what I couldn’t tell him.

His face softened for a second before hardening again. “Come. We have much to do.”

Why was I crying?

I had tried to be more feminine the last couple of days. My body, as always, was my guide. Whoever this woman whose DNA I shared was, besides being a natural slave, she was a woman with instincts to protect children and was not averse to crying at unexpected beauty or loss. I didn't think I was changing, more that I had it within me to feel these things and was letting them through. The voice that was Tyr told me to, “Stop being so emotional and focus on the greater need.”

We met the four cell leaders in the Fortress with barely a hitch. I was calm enough on the outside, but there was only the administrator to go, and so far I hadn't been able to pass my letters to anyone. I plead a need and entered a public lavatory. Waiting as long as I could, I squatted in a stall, adding the rest of the cell leaders’ names to the letters while I was at it, but no one else came inside.

At the last rendezvous, another tavern, I risked Thermin’s ire with a final trip to relieve myself, but the woman with whom I shared the environs wouldn’t talk to me even when I offered her gold. She even warded me away with a gesture to Ashtar as she scampered off like a frightened rabbit!

“Bitch!” I exclaimed under my breath, but only after she had gone.

I waited a little longer, but no one else came in. I reported back to my Spymaster determined and angry. I detested being watched constantly. It was as if the Gods were playing games with me. I was in my own city; by all rights I should have been able to deliver a note to somebody!

Thermin was no happier.

“Are you finally empty?” he demanded. “I would have thought that the woman who killed the King would be a little tighter in the bowels!”

I ignored him. “Who’s next?”

“Our last man is Administrator Ker t’Karl. It’s late; he should be home by now.” Thermin gave me the code phrases and directions. I wanted to kick myself when I heard the name; I’d voted for the traitor in the last election.

I walked the two blocks leisurely, passing men and women in groups walking the other way after the workday, for most, towards the gate and the city below. I didn’t see Mil, but he couldn't have been far behind. The administrator’s home was a black apartment building with white imitation columns around the door. Ker and his wife owned the ground floor. I waited across the street from the address, wasting time until the traffic cleared.

That would be my strategy, I’d decided in the lavatory. Hadrian’s Gong rang that time of year at the 19th hour. All I had to do was delay until the city gates were closed, when the morning would give me another chance to deliver my letters.

I strolled across the street, made my hair and dress more presentable, and banged the knocker. The door opened halfway, and a woman in brown and black looked me up and down with peculiar gold-flecked brown eyes. I dropped my veil.

“Well?” she inquired, trying to place me, as a politician’s wife might do after meeting a thousand voters.

It was Ker’s wife; I recognized her from a campaign portrait by the Lion Gate. She wasn't as confident or happy as she was in her picture: strands of auburn hair were in disarray, and stress had drawn lines on her forehead and in the corners of her eyes.

“My name is Lina l’Sura, Jen l’Rey, may I speak with your husband? This won’t take long, but it’s a matter that shouldn’t be delayed. There are a few release papers from the water project he must sign as soon as possible.”

Her face fell like snow in winter, and she leaned against the door jam, tears shimmered in her eyes.

Her voice cracking, she asked me, “You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“My husband has been missing for two days.”

I didn’t smile, but, truthfully, I had no sympathy for a woman who would marry a traitor. If she didn’t know his treasonous heart, then she must have suspected. As for Ker’s disappearance, I discerned Ketrick’s very active hand in this. I quickly adopted the slave pose “sorrow.”

“I’m very sorry. I had no idea. Do … do you think he might be back?” I asked softly, pouring as much sympathy into it as I could.

She shook her head helplessly and wiped a tear away with the back of her hand. “I don’t know. He’s been gone before, but never this long. I notified the constabulary this morning when he failed to return for duty in the council. He’s very rarely missed a meeting. So far they’ve turned up nothing.”

I shed a few tears myself and sniffled. I held up my hand while I pulled a handkerchief from the pouch attached to my waist chain, dabbed my eyes and blew my nose. She looked on in surprise, her mouth open at my display of grief.

“I’m sorry, Jen l’Rey, it’s just that it brought back cruel memories,” I said. “Men,” I declared bitterly. “My former husband would leave me sometimes for a day or more. I was worried at first, until I found him with a slave. I’m sorry. I’m sure your husband will turn up sooner or later. If you’d like to talk about it...”

It was long odds that this would get me inside. I’d just met her, and women weren’t generally fools, but one never knew.

“Yes. I’m sorry for your loss as well, Lina, was it?” she said mildly in a way that told me I'd worn out my welcome. I rubbed my eyes and moved to my next plan.

“Well, I won't trouble you any further.” Turning away to hide my movements, I tried like Hades to rip the hook from my veil as I pretended to reattach it, finally succeeding in snapping it after a struggle.

“Oh,” I cried, spinning back to her in consternation. “I broke my veil. Do you have a pin or hook? There are men on the street whom I would not care to meet with my face revealed.”

She pursed her lips in annoyance, but she could hardly turn down a virtuous woman in distress. “Very well. Come in. I’ll have my servant fix it for you.”

“Thank you.”

By the time the poor servant had reattached a new hook to my satisfaction, I had wasted another half-hour. I found out from her that Ker t’Karl had left for an early morning walk and had never returned, and one other interesting bit, Blut t’Oh, the other senior administrator, the one I had suspected of treason, had also gone missing from the council meeting that morning.

I left the apartment making a dramatic thank you to the mistress. So effusive was I in my condolence for her husband and gratitude for her help that she practically pushed me out the door. I walked away without a backward glance and strode easily back to the tavern, taking my time.

Naturally, Thermin was furious. He growled and cursed me for taking so long, but he gave me a chance to explain.

I said, “When I found that Ker was missing, I thought finding out when he left and where he might have gone would be valuable information. It turns out that Jen l’Rey knew little, but I figured it was worth the effort. Was I so wrong? What would you have done?”

He spun on his heel in anger, presenting his back to me as he grumbled and cussed. I thought his rage was excessive; even if he hated me, he should have behaved better. What is wrong with him? Damn the man!

He controlled himself finally, and turned around. “I would have done the same thing in your place,” he said with a sigh. “But I didn’t want to waste another night here. It’s already too late to get our horses and leave before the gates close. At least we know who our man is. It’s obvious what happened. In the end, Ker t’Karl found that he couldn’t betray his home city, but he couldn’t tell the council that he was a traitor. He tried to snuff out the network himself, probably with help, but he could only kill those he knew, the former Spymaster and the couriers who tried to meet with him. All attempts to interrogate them to find more were defeated by the poison tooth. The coward is probably a hundred miles away by now.” Thermin nodded and declared his final judgment: “I’m satisfied. Ker t’Karl has done as much damage as he could, and we’re still in an excellent position to bring Batuk to her knees.”

He clapped Mil on the back and even granted me a reasonable smile. “Let’s go back. We leave in the morning as soon as the gates open.”

***

For our final dinner in Batuk, Thermin brought Mil and Decker with us to celebrate. All through the meal, though, his smile never made it further than his lips. This should have been his moment, but he chewed and swallowed, and drank his drink until he decided to leave, saying goodbye and gruffly ordering me back to the shop.

In the meantime, all through the day, my needs had built. For once I was glad of them; it gave me an excuse to leave the apartment above the tailor shop.

I decided to cross town to visit my old standby, The Slave’s Dream, a half-hour away and bliss. Although the evening crowd tended to drunks and rough men, I could already feel their hands on my breasts and my nipples surely looked like the Fortress in ancient days. Most important, either there or on the way back, I would finally pass my letters to a man who would surely deliver them for a gold.

As soon as Thermin unlocked the door I made for the bedroom. As I lay down on the bed, I needed only a moment to reach that calm place. There, I reinvented an old fantasy of being abducted from Batuk and sold to the Slaver’s Guild.

I walked towards the door, expecting some protest, but confident that I could handle whatever Thermin chose to place in my path.

“Lina, where are you going?” he demanded, blocking my way to the exit.

“To put it in its simplest terms, I need to get brolled.”

“I see. The urges have come to you at last,” he said thoughtfully.

“They have. Move away from the door. I need to leave now.”

He shook his head. “You shall not leave this room. I can’t protect you outside.”

“What? Our business here is done. Get out of my way! I am your Queen!”

“We agreed that I would be in command until we left Batuk,” he said, his face taking on a stern mien, “and we are still within its walls. My duty is to protect you; I can’t risk you outside this room in your condition.” He smirked suddenly. “I have, however, an option that should suffice.”

“What do want, Thermin?” I demanded, as angry as I’d ever been in my life.

“Majesty, I intend only to keep you from harm.” He lowered his face to mine and grinned indulgently. “I assume that you were planning to brol a man from the streets?”

His changing moods had my head spinning like a top. “No!”

“Ah. Then you intended to drop in on one of the two serum girl establishments,” he reasoned. “It’s safer, but not safe enough. You see, Majesty; they cater to Batuk men. Once word of your escapade in a Batuk brothel leaked out, your reign in Tulem would be over. You may have hoodwinked the entire valley with your ‘discovery’ of the tablet, and twisted the arms of your nobles to make them accept a consort, but once the valley learned that you frequented foreign cat dens, your time as Queen would be over.” His voice had grown progressively louder the entire time. Leaning forward, he leered down at me from his far greater height. “There would be nothing to save you then! Even the mundanes would be glad to kick your pretty serum girl rear end out of the valley, naked and branded!” he shouted, spraying me with spittle.

I wasn’t frightened; the man had changed emotions so many times, I would surely only have to wait for a better one, but while it lasted, I marveled at his rage. “You really hate me.”

He laughed thinly, almost a painful sound. “No, Majesty. I wish I did. I’ve even come to like you a little, hard as that is to believe.” He shrugged elaborately. “Another time, another place. Here is my option: I’ll bring in Decker. He is a man born in Tulem and ready to serve your needs. He can brol you in the bed and I will wait in the next room.”

Even through the more or less undiscerning filter of a hot serum girl, I recoiled at the thought of intertwining limbs with that one.

“The man is a reptile. I’ll take my chances in a Batuk serum girl club.” I tried to move around Thermin, but he countered my motion easily. I sighed in disgust and looked up. I was in his power and he knew it.

“Here is my second option: Order me to brol you.”

It made a little more sense now. For some bizarre reason, perhaps to be able to kill me, he needed to despise me. He actually wanted me to be the slut-bitch of his imagination. I wasn’t insane; to order him to mate with me could have only brought me his hatred, so I folded my arms on my chest and shook my head. “I told you that I wouldn’t do that.”

He bowed solemnly. “You must, Majesty,” he said desperately.

I took his hand with my own. He suffered my touch, but did not withdraw his hand. “Thermin, you were right. I will not force a man to brol me. It demeans him. Open the door and let me out.”

“I can’t, Majesty,” he replied, shaking his head rapidly. “I’ve given orders. You would be watched as soon as you stepped foot out the door. They would know where you went and report it. I can guarantee that soon all Tulem would know. You must choose.”

I clenched my fists. I also wanted to stomp the floor, but I knew from experience how ineffectual that looked.

“Damn you, Thermin. You have no right!” But it was like pounding the ground; he stood easy, even amused. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that passing the letters to Ketrick was the most important thing; I’d do it somehow in the morning. I’d get sick at every lavatory on the way out of Batuk if I had to, but I’d find a woman somewhere who would deliver my letters. Even mating with a demon like Decker was infinitely preferable to failing, and I would consider Thermin’s fate later, when thoughts of twylls, submission, and strong hands at my breasts were not so uppermost. “Very well.” I said, producing the words like bile. “I choose Decker. Bring the lizard in. If he wants me, he can have me!”

His fierce blue eyes widened. “What? You want Decker?”

“Thermin, there’s a saying that women have that I didn’t understand before now. It goes: ‘Save me from complex men.’” I shook my head wearily. “I don’t understand you at all. You’re stubborn; I’m not sure that you like women; and there’s something important you’re not telling me. But maybe this will help you understand me. I wronged you and just want to make it right. If needs be, to make amends, I must brol one who surely slithered in his previous life then I will, but I warn you…”

He grinned abruptly, and reached for me. Taking me in his arms, his swordsman’s hands brushed aside my arms like sticks. Once in his grasp, I couldn’t stop myself from reacting -- I was a natural slave in thrall after all. My hips pressed forward and my breasts flattened eagerly to the warm contours of his chest as if they had minds of their own. My insides were already warm, wet, and far too vacant, and demanded a straight, firm, dominant male thing, which, unless his knife was carried far forward from the usual location, he could supply immediately. He lifted my head up to face him at the exact angle he desired. But before his lips crushed mine, I imposed a finger between us and glared. “Thermin, you are a rhadus,” I whispered angrily.

“Yes, Majesty.”

It was my last clear thought for a while.

When I woke early the next morning I realized far too late that I hadn’t started the fantasy. It would have been odd, anyway; my fantasy of a girl sold to a slaver would have confused Thermin and had him asking me uncomfortable questions. It frightened me to think that I could have been in a collar, but it is always easier to think of dangers in the past tense. Importance then was an urgent bladder and the man beside me.

Thermin was an enigma. He had potential for cruelty. He had nearly ripped my clothes off and, when he positioned and controlled me, it was just on the wrong side of painful. Most men learn that unless there is reason to discipline a girl, it is counterproductive to frighten her. Firm dominance is enough. I forgave him his exuberance, though. He had wanted me for some time, it seemed, but on his terms. He still hated something; he'd taken me hard, as if I were more than his desire, or less, an object, perhaps, a hot vessel in which to pour his anger and, for a time, his face was terrifying.

Later, once it was plain he had me totally in his power, a change occurred: his rage cleared, as a clouds rising over mountains, and his entire demeanor turned solicitous, treating me very well — perhaps too well -- restraining himself as a man would with a free woman he loved so dearly that he was afraid to touch her. As a natural slave, I would have preferred it somewhere in between the two extremes, although the only true test was how I felt afterwards. He had been adequate, and his stamina had pleased the slut in me. For once, he was tired enough that I managed to creep from the bed unfelt and unseen. Donning a shift, I put on a pot of strong tea and considered the morning.

There is nothing better than a good brolling to calm one’s fears. I’m not sure I actually think better then, but there is much to be said for reasoning without worry, and I find that if you don’t allow the hazy aftereffects to overcome you, it can concentrate the mind. I couldn’t help feeling that I had missed something the entire time I’d been in Batuk. Ketrick was extremely experienced. If I were in Ketrick’s place, what would I have done and thought? How would I have planned to disrupt the spies in Batuk?

Ketrick had killed Spymaster Gar and every courier Tulem had sent, including Donal -- probably taking most of them down somewhere on the road outside Batuk. The couriers had known nothing of the cells, and Donal had probably had killed himself with a poison tooth. Ketrick knew about the administrator spy in our council because I’d told him. He must have moved to seize him. Not knowing which senior administrator was the traitor, in his typical audacious way, he had captured both. They probably knew little as well.

If I were Ketrick, what would I have done? He likely assumed that Thermin would want to investigate personally, and he could have paid guards to watch for him, but Ketrick would have known that Thermin could probably evade the guards with a good disguise. The Spymaster could then stay anywhere and reestablish contact with the cells at his pleasure. To find Thermin in Batuk would have been a nearly impossible task.

And yet, I reasoned, he knew there were cells in the Fortress. It was suddenly blindingly obvious. With only one entrance to the Fortress, Ketrick would have merely waited for Thermin to show up at the Fortress gate, and then followed him.

He would have seen me at the gate too. A thin veil was a poor disguise to one who had slept with me and my twin. It thought it nearly certain that Ketrick had followed us back to Mil’s tailor shop. I resisted an urge to go to the window; he might be outside right now, waiting for us in the dark.

I poured two cups of tea and added some sugar and cinnamon to one, the way Thermin had preferred when I’d made it before. Carrying them both into the bedroom, I sat on the bed as softly as I could.

“Thermin,” I said, wafting the rich cinnamon towards his nose.

His nostrils flared at the pungent sweetness, and his eyelids rose. His eyes were pretty when viewed properly, I judged, and I’d seen plenty of them earlier that night from below.

“Majesty?” He awoke startled, then became wary, relaxing as he saw my smile and offering. He sat up and took the cup with a nod. “Thank you.”

I waited while he took a few sips.

“Good tea,” he said with a nod.

“Thanks. I’d guess it to be less than an hour until dawn.”

He glanced at the night candle to see how much of it had burned down. “I think you’re right.” He set the tea down beside the bed, sighing. “Majesty, I put you to a test last night. I should not have.”

“You went too far; in the main, I think I understand why. But this can't be all about me. There’s something else on your mind.”

“I have questions, Majesty.”

“As do I. Is Decker really outside?”

“He is, but he is watching the shop, nothing else.” He grinned. “I would not have summoned him last night under any circumstances.”

I regarded him coolly. “To threaten me with him was more than presumptuous.”

“I was sure that you would prefer me, your Majesty. I did not consider it a threat. I saw your revulsion when you looked at Decker.”

“Prefer you over Decker, yes, but I really wanted the anonymity of a serum girl club.”

“You jest, Majesty. It is unthinkable for a noblewoman raised to class and privilege to mate at random in a foreign city. You were making a point by trying to visit the club, but your natural preference was me. Besides, I could hardly allow you to leave to face the city by yourself in your ... situation.”

“I see.” I leaned closer and affixed him with a glare. “You were wrong. There are good reasons why I might desire a nameless man rather than someone I see every day at the palace. You would have understood that if you’d pulled your head from your noble-hating sphincter. If you valued my security, you could have called off your rat and come with me to the club.”

He blanched.

“I apologize, Majesty, but plead confusion. I had no referent for you. I think I know you better now.”

“Last night I felt we made some solid progress in that direction.” I held up my hand to stop him from saying anything embarrassing. “And yet, something is troubling you, something beyond referents and confusion. Tell me, Thermin.”

At my persistent stare, he forced a phrase through his teeth: “I do my duty.”

“I’ve never doubted that. Tell me, what is bothering you?”

The muscles of his jaw worked as he considered his words. “Majesty, there are only twenty-three Borodins in Tulem.”

He wasn’t counting the ladies, but I let that pass. “Yes, and thirty-nine Giovanni lords, a considerable reduction of even a month ago.”

A faint gleam entered the pale blue. “This war is about finding a home for twenty-three Borodins.”

“It does seem a bit excessive for an overpopulation problem of less than two dozen, doesn’t it?”

“It would seem so.”

I stood and drained my tea, now warm. “We’ll discuss this more on the way back.”

He nodded, looking me over. “Yes, Majesty.”

We had time, so I took a bath before we left and dressed inside the bathroom. When I came out, I went to my bag and found the cloth I’d put over my possessions disturbed. It was very slight and I wondered for a moment if Thermin or I had jostled it in passing. Fortunately, I’d brought the notes with me into the bathroom.

We left as the sun was rising. After a quick breakfast at a stand just around the corner from the shop, we walked through the market, just setting up at that hour, and down to the stables. I spent the time looking for Decker. Thermin must have known what I was doing, but merely looked on in amusement, my efforts a diversion to enliven his morning.

Instead of the loathsome man, I saw Ketrick. He had made it easy, wearing the same disguise he’d worn in Tulem when I’d ordered Tam Polgher’s death. Riding a black stallion with a white blotch between his eyes, he made no attempt to conceal himself. He smiled at me as he approached, holding his right hand on his thigh in the Eagles “where?” sign. Thermin turned to follow my look, but only saw a man appreciating a pretty woman, a bold thing to do with a man by her side, but not an unusual sight in Batuk. I causally shifted my body, making a motion in the dirt with my foot, scraping a line south towards the Lion Gate. Ketrick winked at me and moved on, his horse breaking into a trot.

I let out a deep breath; I would be fine.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
This is the end of the set-up. To follow, there'll be action and much ... well, I won't say exactly what, but I'll say that I think that chapter 20 is one of my better chapters on a couple of levels. And perhaps you'll get some insight into what's been bothering Thermin. :)

Keep those comments coming. I love them. ~Aardvark



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