The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 26

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

A meeting with the family and a secret is kept. A tryst is discovered and a deal is struck. The Slavers Guild takes action and a rescue is arranged. A serum dart finds the wrong target.


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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 26
 
 
One advantage of being a woman is being able to cry without too much comment. If a woman is known to be dry-eyed, then she is assumed to lack emotion, an important quality that makes a woman exciting and, to some extent, unpredictable. Having seen it from both sides, there is nothing less attractive to a healthy, vibrant man than an unemotional, predictable woman. Men, I have found, like to be kept slightly unsure of their women; a measure of independence means that she is unconquered; and emotion means passion, which can reward, as well as annoy.

As Queen, my subjects expected me to act as a woman in all ways. My rare display of tears and fury that afternoon had reaffirmed my womanhood, making me more attractive that evening, whereas a performance like that from Franco would have been ridiculed. Strangely, it was even a sign of strength. A woman’s emotions are closer to the surface. When I reappeared perfectly unruffled and coiffed, attired in rich silks, looking as beautiful as a serum girl, I was admired as a strong woman, able to utterly overcome whatever offense it was that made me fly into a royal tirade an hour or so earlier.

I rejoined my husband’s arm before the feast in the hall began, arriving casually, just before time. From his eyes, I knew he approved. He acknowledged me with a grin, and I smiled back demurely.

We sat on the dais in the middle of a table of twenty, the table of the highest lords and ladies in the valley. Twenty other tables were arrayed below us. The hall that evening had turned to magic in my absence. All the wall and column lamps were lit, blue and green glass filtering some, the floor exchanging colors as each flickered, while others, burning the finest spermaceti, cast a pure white.

At Franco’s solemn nod, it began.

Flutes, and tiny silver bells snapped the silence with the sweet ethereal music of the founding song, and the doors opened. Temple drums pounded a soft beat, and twenty Virgins of the White Temple, ten to a side, pranced forward, singing the song of blessing. The Priestesses of the White Temple were chosen for their abilities and appearance; they sang superbly, and all maintained slim, youthful bodies, their nipples small and, yes, virginal, beneath the lightest linen that flowed and teased the air with every movement.

The High Priest entered among them, although he declined to prance, staying to the middle of their swirling advance until he reached the exact center of the hall, where a brass stand and gold bowl awaited. The High Priest, in his finest white robe of shimmering pounded cotton, his head freshly shaved and glowing with beeswax, faced us with his arms raised and gave the invocation, blessing the valley, the King and Queen, the nobility, and its other inhabitants for another year. A pop-flash followed a motion of his hand, and a tremendous puff of white smoke rose from the bowl, dissipating into a refreshing incense mist before it reached halfway to the high arches.

Franco squeezed my hand, and we rose together, whereupon the King pronounced his verdict:

“Tulem is blessed for another year. Start the festivities.”

The Virgins danced away, followed by the High Priest and another, a burly fellow in a green robe, who carried the brass and gold stand and bowl. As they departed, bands in two corners of the hall started to play and conversation and laughter began again as everyone settled down to eat and drink.

I found my children at the end of the table. Stefan met my eye. He picked up a knife in his hand by his plate and made a small motion with his fingers, as if to throw a spear, all the while grinning at me.

In my mood, nothing bothered me, least of all a playful show from my son, and not even the man seated beside me, my best friend’s murderer.

I smiled. “Lord Nikolai, a pleasure.”

Nikolai had learned patience and tact over the years as leader of the Borodins. “Majesty. A fine day in the valley,” he said pleasantly. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”

I murmured some inanity about the festival. We discussed the weather, and then the role of the aristocracy in Tulem compared to other cities, a favored topic on all occasions. Neither of us fooled the other. I would have been bone dumb not to suspect him of trying to kill me and he knew it. It was a form of irony that custom seated him by my side every year on Founders Day.

No doubt Nikolai felt safe after so many years. The official investigation had turned up nothing except a morass of suspects and motives. If he were still plotting against me, as I was sure he was, he was being careful. There was nothing to be gained from either Nikolai or me by letting on that anything was less than cordial.

I performed my duties easily at the table that evening, which is to say that I sat serene, pretty and committed no major social errors. The manners I’d learned from Lady Katrina those years before served me well, the soft glance, the appreciate nod, and the finer arts of being polite. Even how much I ate, and my pace, were all analyzed by ladies and a few lords. Over the years, Franco rarely had cause for complaint with my public persona, and after nearly twenty years of marriage, my role as Queen was second nature.

The real action came after the feast. Outside, in the rest of the valley, private and public celebrations ranged from the Temple's night vigils to revelers in the streets and private parties with rented siolat girls. In the great hall, however, servants cleared the tables at the ninth hour and moved them to the side or from the hall itself, and lords and ladies of the valley and distinguished nobles and mundanes from neighboring city-states prepared for the dance.

Franco and I started the affair, entering the open spaces to a stately melody. Franco swung me around the smooth marble floor, or planted his hand firmly on my lower back.

“You seem much better now,” he said. “The spear again?”

“Yes. Sometimes thrusting a blade into an enemy is better than a long cry. Did you notice how Kat was getting along while I was gone? I allowed her to meet some of our guests, with Kim along to chaperone, of course.”

“Hmm.” He frowned, considering the matter. “She seemed happy enough. Are you sure that it was wise to allow her this?” He put me into a spin, spreading the dress away from my legs, my knife sheath removed for the occasion.

I grinned up at him when he brought me back. “I like it when you speak like a protective father. Would you prefer that she receive her first experience with eligible men when she reaches her majority? Kim will watch her closely, I assure you.”

“I think Katrina takes after you. She’s a romantic girl, lost in the clouds. I noticed that the Royal Inspector enjoyed herself, too.”

Now by his side, we danced forward together in a Tyrellian skip-step, his hands by his sides, mine lifting my hem up just off the floor.

“Then I’m happy for Kim. I don’t think she’s had someone for quite a while. Now if I could only find your mother a man, say ... Nikolai....”

“Now that would be a match made in the deepest part of Hades.”

“I’d settle for having a table set aside for them next year.”

We faced each other again, passing to each side gracefully, inclining our heads in a half-bow as we did so.

“Tempting as that sounds, it would start a war, my Lady,” he said, bowing to me properly as the dance finished, while I curtsied. He collected my hand in his, and I met his eyes just before we left the floor.

“You are a fine king, whatever our differences.”

“May we always be friends, Dana.”

I was used to it by now, else I might have cried. His voice held only the barest trace of the love he used to have for me; it was nearly over. I’d seen where his attention was that evening. He’d tried to hide it, but he was never good at that sort of thing, at least not with me. He and Daphne had exchanged enough looks to make me want to get up and slap both of them. Mixed with the hurt was anger; if he was going to cheat on me, I would damn well demand discretion.

Kat and Kim had used their chances to mix successfully, I saw. Several guests who knew them by name, and a few of the nobility asked them to the floor, including my younger brother, who danced with them both. Not a shy man, he danced with several of the ladies.

My daughter enjoyed herself, too, almost too much. I recognized the signs. Her movements and touches, the way her face blushed at a glance, and her instinctive femininity were all reflections of my natural slave urges, not that Kat was a natural slave, just a normal girl testing the manly waters and finding it to her liking.

It was late before I had a chance to get my family alone. I chose a place by the fountain because its waterfall was sufficient to cover our voices. Others strolled the grounds that evening, pleasantly cool after the heat of the dance. The sky was clear and the moon was high, its light subduing colors into shades of gray, setting a fine mood for a reunion where secrecy still meant the difference between life and death.

Mother still stared at me as she might an apparition or a stranger who claimed kin. I didn’t know how much time it would take to convince her absolutely, so I moved on.

“Father,” I said, relishing the word I’d been unable to say for twenty years, “I’ve tried to stop swearing -- with mixed results.”

He turned to the others. “That’s her. This is how she looked when she left Batuk.” Moving his attention back to me, he said, “Tyra, there are so many questions … Are you happy?”

“Mostly, Father. Two decades is a long time to go through and I only have a few minutes. I have some good friends, a husband who’d rather I were more like a lady, two excellent children, and a fair amount of intrigue.”

“And Ketrick?”

I’d thought of this moment for years, but I couldn’t tell him about Ketrick giving me Ruk’s Serum. My father had exiled my older brother long ago and no one had heard from him since. I thought he was dead. For my father to hear that he’d exiled Met by mistake would have destroyed him.

There was a bitter irony to it: Ketrick had claimed that Met would have killed me, so he had “saved” me by making me a serum girl. Now I was allowing Met to take the blame again by allowing the falsehood to stand. Met was a rhadus, and had likely deserved exile for other deeds, but if Met ever returned, he would have reason to hate me, and I doubted my father would forgive me easily for not telling him about Ketrick -- if he ever found out.

“Ketrick and I had a falling-out. I haven’t seen him for nearly twenty years.” The way I looked at him discouraged more questions on the subject.

He stared at me intently under those black bushy eyebrows, but let it lie.

“Tyra,” my mother said hesitatingly. Her hand reached tentatively for my arm, touching it as if I were barely real.

“Mother?”

“Over the years we’ve heard about your children, of course, but…”

I smiled, and spent the next three precious minutes telling her about her grandchildren, finishing with, “Talk to Ron about Kat. He danced with her twice tonight.” I flashed a grin at him. “Mother, where’s Tisa?”

“Tisa didn’t want to come. She wouldn’t say why, but she seemed nervous about meeting you.”

“That’s ... unfortunate. If you would, please tell her, from me, that all debts are paid.”

We could only talk for several minutes before I judged it too risky, valuable moments that would have to last for years. I gave then all parting looks, pouring my heart into it, for I could not embrace them without comment: my father, dark and taciturn, but no finer man; my brother, handsome and strong — he'd grown in twenty years and now looked a natural leader; my mother -- I understood her more now and we finally had something we could talk about. We said goodbye, and I went back inside.

My husband danced with Lady Daphne, the second time I’d seen him with her that night. The signs were subtle, a touch, a look, but I knew Franco better than anyone. I watched closer until I was sure from the way he held her and the rapture on her vacuous puss, that they'd been finding each other in the silks. My eyes latched onto my ersatz sister for an instant and burned away her euphoria, and she looked away in shame.

It hurt, but if Franco wanted a pampered appendage, then he could have her. I wouldn’t compete, but I wouldn't be one of those women who pretended that nothing was wrong. In a way, I was glad. There had been too many secrets and deceptions. Kat now knew about Lady Katrina, Kat and Stefan knew about their mother's unladylike habits with the spear, and none of it mattered — we were all the stronger for it. Why not have this in the light of day and be done with it? But if my husband preferred Daphne to me, there would be conditions, and one would be a matter I should have dealt with long ago.

I waited until we returned to out apartments. As soon as the door shut behind us, I snarled, “What in Hades do you think you’re doing? How long did you think it could go on before I found out?”

Taken aback at my unaccustomed vehemence, he stuttered, “I was going to tell you, Dana. I…” He broke off the explanation with a start, straightened, and began again with an air of authority. “I have a right to a mistress if my wife...”

“You have no right! I’ve never refused you; I’ve given you the services of a passion slave, and you need more, with my own sister?” I assumed the slave pose, “regret,” and began to cry.

“You know it’s not like that.” He stepped towards me and reached.

I shrugged off his hand. “Save it, Franco,” I said coldly. “You not only made a tryst, you didn’t have the suren to tell me, or the sense to keep it quiet. After that exhibition tonight, half the valley thinks that you’re brolling Daphne. You go too far!”

He ran his hand through his hair uneasily. “I’m sorry. I never meant it to happen…”

I folded my arms and glared. “I don't want to know the details. What do you intend to do about it?”

“I’ll be more careful,” he muttered.

“How nice. Do you love her? Do you want a divorce to marry her? I’m sure the priests would grant it; all it would take is a little gold.”

That caught his attention, and he jerked his head around. “Now wait a moment. You’re making too much of this. Our marriage is has been one of convenience for years.”

“Your convenience, not mine! With Daphne, I've reached my limit. From now on I go where I want in the valley, when I want, and no guards unless I want them.”

A flush started at his face and worked its way down. “Your safety is my…”

“No longer.” I lifted a finger. “And another thing: I want to reassert my authority over marriages in the valley.”

“What? Whatever for?” he exclaimed.

“I'm not going to sigh at the wind while you're with your passive woman,” I sneered. “Besides, it's necessary. It's a matter of allowing new blood in the valley to fix birth defects from inbreeding.”

”No Tulem lord or lady has married outsiders in over five hundred years. Are you insane?”

“The threat is real and I have the study. All I want are the same rights you and I agreed to when we were married.”

I waited as Franco thought about it. It wasn't as bad as he was making it out to be. The lords had been asking permission to marry outside the valley since before Lady Katrina was killed. He had no choice if he wanted to be sure that I wouldn't cause a scandal, but I didn't want to overtly threaten him, after all, I would still be sleeping with him.

“Agreed,” he said grudgingly.

“One last thing: keep that bitch away from me. I don’t want to see her unless protocol demands it.”

He raised his hands in the air. “All right! And you, in turn, will cause no problems for Daphne or set barriers between us?”

“You may proceed with Daphne — with greater discretion.”

We discussed what that meant and settled on a suitable arrangement.

Later, I undressed and lay beneath the covers in the cool of the early morning. When Franco settled in beside me, he didn’t bother to hide that I was no longer his favorite; he took me like a siolat girl, thrusting as if his twyll were a sword stabbing an enemy. Being a natural slave slut, I enjoyed sheathing his blade anyway I could get it, and my body surrendered blissfully until his needs were slaked. When he finished, he simply turned away, like the final page of a chapter. Sliding out of bed, I went to the bathroom to clean up. The naked woman in the mirror who looked back was not dissatisfied.

***

Two years passed. It was at that time of the afternoon I usually spent in the east garden where stately flowers concealed my place on a certain marble bench. I’d let it be known that I didn’t wish to be disturbed except for family and emergencies. My enforced solitude served a dual purpose: it was a respite from the lords and ladies who might desire my attention, and it allowed Franco a few hours twice a week where he might share tea with, or brol, Lady Daphne without fear of any embarrassing “discovery” from me.

I was absorbed in an historical novel based in the golden age of the Atherian Empire, when I heard the soft patter of footsteps and the rustle of silk.

“Mother, do you know where Scholar Ann is?”

“I have no idea. Shouldn’t she be teaching you and Stefan now?”

“She’s over an hour late.”

I snapped the book shut and faced her. “When was the last time you saw her?”

“Just before lunch. She went out shopping.”

“Did she go alone?”

“I think so. She mentioned that she was going to buy something special. Zhok would have stood out like a big dog in a sea of cats at the women’s market, so she probably left him behind.”

I sighed. It was probably nothing, but any irregularity where Ann was involved worried me. A quick glance at the marching shadows told me that Franco had more than an hour to go with Daphne. I had a view of a rear window in our apartments. The curtains were drawn, Franco’s signal not to be disturbed. It was just as well — I might have had to answer some awkward questions. “Find Kim and tell her what you told me and tell her also that I’m going to Tulem's gate. She’ll understand.”

“Mother,” she said, completely exasperated. “I wish you and Ann would tell me this big secret of yours. I’m nineteen now. It’s not as if I were a child.”

“Kat, this secret is so great that if it gets out the very fabric of life on Zhor could be changed forever.”

She stomped her foot. “You always say that! When will you be serious?”

I smiled, but only a little. “I’m serious now. Find Kim and tell her what I told you. Do it quickly.”

She nodded, and her gray-blue eyes blinked at my rarely used command voice. “Yes, Mother.” She hustled off at a trot, lifting her skirts as she went.

After a rapid change into a riding dress at the stables, two guards and I galloped down the road past the Giovanni castles. As the wind rushed by my face, the guard ahead yelled, “Move to the side! The Queen is coming through!” making a path through the clutter of carts, horses, and pedestrians. In Batuk, we would have had several accidents with citizenry already, but the subjects in Tulem were more used to unquestioned obedience. After nearly twenty-five years in Tulem, I barely thought about it, but as the road cleared before us for mile after mile like a wake ahead of a boat, the differences were like a slap in the face.

It took us less than a half-hour to climb to the gate. I leaped from my exhausted horse just outside the commander’s office. The Watch Commander was already outside and bowed as I approached. I recognized him as Derlin from the days leading up to the aborted invasion of Batuk. He was a solid man with cool black eyes beneath a pronounced brow.

“Commander Derlan,” I said after we entered the privacy of his office, “I have a missing person who might have been taken through the gate within the last two hours, Scholar Ann.” I described Ann and mentioned that I suspected that members of the Slavers Guild or others in their employ might have abducted her.

“We have logs, Majesty, of all who have passed in either direction and a list of all foreigners in the valley.”

“Of course. Make a copy of the outgoing logs for the last two hours and give me the names and descriptions of all members of the Slavers Guild in Tulem. Search all outgoing shipments for anything large enough to hide a small woman and detain any members of the Guild leaving the valley. There is one in particular I want to see: Slaver Abul. This may be a false alarm. If so, I’ll send a messenger to you.”

He bowed. “This will be done immediately, Majesty.” He instructed two members of his staff, then returned to me. “May I offer you some tea while we wait? As I recall, you enjoy a strong Batuk blend with a little sugar.”

I smiled graciously. “Thank you, Derlan. You have an excellent memory. I’m not surprised; you impressed me long ago as a fine sub-commander who had a knack for detail.”

He grinned, pleased to be remembered after more than two decades. “It’s easier for a junior officer to remember the Queen than the reverse.”

I nodded at this compliment, for it was the truth, but it was the business of any commander to know his men, or a queen to know her subjects. We spent the time pleasantly, speaking of family and affairs in the valley until the copies were transcribed about ten minutes later. My guards had acquired a fresh set of horses by then and we left immediately, returning to the palace at a more sedate fast trot.

Kim was waiting for us as we rode into the stables. The entire way back I’d been hoping I’d had a wasted trip, but her face told me otherwise.

“Majesty, Ann is still missing,” she said rapidly as I dismounted.

“By the Goddess!” I had to assume the worst now.

“She never made it to the women’s market. Slaver Abul and his apprentice, and the spy who watched Ann are still here.”

I wasn’t sure if that was good news or not. If Abul and his apprentice had tried to leave then they we would have been certain of their guilt. Staying behind meant that they were innocent — or confident.

“Kim, I have something to show you.” I brought out the paper with the names and descriptions of the last fifty who had left the valley, and the much longer list of foreigners in Tulem.

She nodded as she looked it over. “This might be very useful,” she said.

“Any ideas?”

“Ann is either inside the valley or outside. Ann was gone about an hour and a half before Kat told you. Your ride to the outer gate was much faster than anything Ann’s abductors could have managed. If she’s already outside the valley, then they acted very quickly indeed, but they probably haven’t had time to force the knowledge from her.”

“I agree.”

She watched me closely. “If Ann is still in Tulem, then whoever took her has had some time with her.”

I bit my lip hard enough to hurt. Once the Guild had what they needed, there would be no reason to keep her alive. I had hoped that the Slavers Guild would have left her alone or weren’t sure about her, or that they would have come to Ann or me to make some sort of deal. I was nauseous about being wrong — it could mean Ann’s death. “Kim, is there any chance that she is simply hurt somewhere or…” I shrugged helplessly.

“Not likely. She’s been missing for over two hours now, and Ann knew what would probably happen if she disappeared. Dana, how long do we have?”

“To tell everything she knows? I’d guess about an hour. It really all depends on how strong she is.”

“Then we have very little time. I’d suggest that we get all three of them together and interrogate them separately.”

“Right. I’ll secure Abul and his assistant. You take the spy who watched Ann, and bring him to Abul’s. His office should be large enough to handle it.”

“Should we notify the King?”

I added up the times. It was possible that Franco had finished brolling Daphne, but I wasn’t certain. “Will the few guards we have here be enough?”

“They should be sufficient.”

“Then I’ll tell him later,” I decided. Flinging back my hair, I remounted. Turning to the pair of guards, I’d just returned with, I said, “Follow me. Be ready for trouble.” I twisted to the pair guarding the stables and motioned towards Kim with my jaw. “Go with the Inspector. Do what she tells you.” I rode off through the palace gate with my guards, weaving through the crowded streets as fast as I could without knocking over anyone, with the guards yelling to make way.

We hitched our horses to a rail two shops down; I wanted as little warning of our coming as possible. When I entered Abul’s shop, bursting through the door, something was wrong -- it was all far too normal. Abul was behind the counter with a customer gesturing to a rack of slave collars, at ease in his black leather. A woman in black I hadn’t seen before, a very tall and pretty blonde, turned and smiled automatically until she realized who I was. Her eyes widened at the guards who appeared after me, and then looked aghast at my expression.

“Your Majesty,” she said nervously, managing a curtsy that strained slaver leather.

I pointed towards the office, a small room to the right. “Get inside!” I screamed at her, grabbing a guard to make sure she did just that and behaved herself afterwards. She moved off without protest under his hand, her expression adrift, as if caught in an incomprehensible dream.

Abul was a little better. His customer forgotten, he seemed more wary than surprised. His typical slaver impassiveness yielded something to my not entirely feigned hatred. He, at least, knew why I might be here. “Take the fat slaver into the office,” I said to my last guard. “Tie them both to chairs facing away from each other. Gag them and blindfold them. Stuff their ears with cotton. Do not allow them to communicate with each other.”

“Majesty, I don’t understand…” began Abul.

I smiled. It’s rare to see a slaver when he is not in complete control of events.

“Really? Then I accept the burden of educating you, Abul,” I said sneering through my teeth. “Know this: I could kill you now, and it wouldn’t bother me.”

I imagined a twinge of fear behind the heavy lids. The guard double bound him with cords from the wall made for slimmer wrists, and gagged him with a perfumed tunic from a display. He tried to extend an aggrieved image, but he couldn’t match my disgust and soon gave it up.

The customer, a wealthy merchant by the look of him, had remained frozen the entire time, his hands holding a pair of collars. I considered him briefly while my anger cooled. As Queen, I tried to be gracious to all my subjects, and I had just threatened another man with death. Conceivably this might have him nervous.

“What are you looking for?” I asked him politely, once Abul and his assistant had been secured in the office.

He cleared his throat. “Majesty. I, ah, was looking for a collar.”

“I assumed as much. For what purpose?”

“My slave is in need of discipline. She sulks past the point of amusement, as if to test me. I came here to purchase a stiff collar to remind her of her status.”

I examined the collars in his hand, envisioning them around my own neck.

Selecting a belled collar with an embroidered design and soft inner lining from the wall, I said, “Here, take this. It would look quite fetching around the neck of a blonde or brunette, and the price is reasonable.”

He took the collar from my hand and bowed. “Thank you, Majesty.” He placed the payment on the counter and left with a final bow. When he left, I drew the curtains shut, and placed the “Closed” sign in the window. Abul had just made his last sale for a while.

I waited by the window until I saw Kim walking up the sidewalk with her two guards and a bound man trailing behind. I opened the door, letting them all through then closed the curtains altogether.

As the guards bound our latest prisoner into a chair, I sneered at him like he was filth. He shook with fear when he saw me. In fact, this black--haired, hirsute baboon who stank of dried fish and fresh urine seemed fearful of everything. Kim interrupted my leers and snorts of disgust to bring me to the side.

I told her what I’d found when I had entered Abul’s shop, and their reactions. “I don’t like it, Kim,” I said. “I don’t think the woman knows anything. Abul knows something, but even he was surprised to see me.”

“The story is just unfolding,” she replied. “His name is Piljer, the latest of three spies the Guild has used over the years to watch Ann. This one is more passive than the others; as far as I can tell, he simply looked out his window to monitor the northeast gate of the palace, the one Ann uses most of the time.”

I threw him an extra glare. “I’ll bet he had something to do with it.”

“He probably did.” Her eyes narrowed. “Regardless, I’ll have everything he knows.” She took my arm. “Dana, let me handle this part, unless interrogation is one of your hidden talents?”

I shook my head no. “What do you want me to do?”

“Continue to look like you want to torture them all without mercy. Do you know anything we can threaten them with legally?”

“Nothing… Well, Abul knew the type of serum we gave Merton. I told him that I would be displeased if word ever got out about Merton. He told me that he would keep it confidential, but he must have lied; likely he told the guild about Ann as soon as he knew who she was.”

“His first oath was to the Slavers Guild; he must have felt impelled to tell them about the threat they faced.”

“Tough. I was the Queen at the time, the sole sovereign of Tulem. When he told me that he would keep it confidential, it was like making a pact, a contract, between he and the city. I couldn’t care less about his obligation to the guild, but I can make sure he follows the law here. And the penalty is up to me.” I smiled, savoring the thought: “I can make him a whore in the stinking whale port of Kalneva if I want. Even the slippery lawyers of the guild couldn’t get him out of this -- not while he’s in Tulem.”

“That might do it. All right. I’ll start with Arondhetti, his assistant.”

As Kim demanded answers from the tall blonde, I did my part and glared at Arondhetti from time to time through the large office window, while amusing myself with my knife, throwing it into the far wall at targets around Abul and Piljer, who sat tied, gagged, and blindfolded into their chairs. They flinched, and Piljer whimpered occasionally whenever he heard the solid “thunk!” of the blade as it entered the wood by his head or shoulder.

A few minutes later, it was Abul’s turn, and Arondhetti replaced him on the wall. Kim shrugged when I met her eyes, and teetered her hand in a gesture that meant mixed success. I took it easy on the terrified woman, concentrating my efforts around Piljer.

The stolid unfeeling nature of the slaver served him well under interrogation. It had to be unsettling to have a serum girl control his fate, sort of a slaver’s view of Hades, but, although he paled under some of the threats Kim screamed at him, he remained strong. Despite myself, I started to respect him. I knew well the price of conflicting obligations and didn’t think he was an evil man. But that wouldn’t save him if he had anything to do with taking Ann.

As the guards struggled to carry Abul back to the wall in his chair, Kim motioned me to her side. “You were right about Arondhetti,” she said. “I learned very little from her. She’s only been Abul’s assistant for about six months and I doubt that she even heard of Ann before today.”

I sighed. “And Abul?”

That normally unflappable face cracked for a second. “I’m sorry, Dana. I don’t think he had anything to do with Ann’s abduction. If I’m any judge, he was surprised to hear that Ann had been taken.”

“Damn!” I closed my eyes for a moment to control my emotions; crying wasn’t going to help get Ann back. “All right, Kim. While you’re in there with Piljer, I’m going to talk to Abul and try to get his cooperation. He might be keeping something back, hoping to cut a deal.”

She nodded. “I’m going to ride Piljer hard, but it can’t hurt at this point.”

A minute later, as Piljer began his screaming, heard faintly outside the well-muffled office, I removed Abul’s blindfold and gag and pulled up a chair. We were alone in the far corner, away from the guards, two of whom I’d sent outside to keep passersby away. Abul blinked a few times as he focused. From my own experience being gagged, I knew his mouth was dry, so I freed one arm and handed him a cup of water.

“Abul, the God of Luck might be smiling on you today.”

After emptying it in a few quick gulps, he regarded me. “Then the rest of the day must hold great treasures, as the first part was distinctly substandard.”

I discovered that I wasn’t up to clever conversation with the man who had betrayed Ann to the Slavers Guild.

“I want Ann back unharmed. I’m willing to make a deal with you.”

“Majesty, I don’t know who took her.”

I leaned back in the chair and examined him. With his stoic countenance I couldn’t tell if he were holding something back or not. “If you can’t help me, then I promise that lusty, demanding men from ships just back from long voyages will penetrate you in slave alcoves. You started this when you told the guild about Merton. You’ll be the first to take Ruk’s Serum.”

“Majesty, I understand your anger, but I had nothing to do with her abduction, and surely you don’t intend to punish us all? Arondhetti didn’t even know Ann existed.” His eyes darted briefly towards the blonde tied and gagged in her chair.

“I’m not a monster, Abul. I don’t think she had anything to do with it. But I will find out who did. There simply aren’t that many possibilities. The Inspector has cut the list down to twenty-five possible men and women who had the time to take her outside the valley. I’m sure we can trim that number down to ten or so. I have the men and horses at the outer gate to track down that many people.

“If Scholar Ann is still in the valley, then whoever took her will be found eventually. She was abducted somewhere on a short section of streets at a known time in broad daylight; there will be witnesses and my investigator is relentless. Once they are found then any knowledge gained from Ann’s torture will never leave the valley. Your guild has already failed.”

Privately, I wasn’t at all that certain. If they had been lucky or very clever, there might be little or no trace of her capture. If Ann was outside the gate, then they might have already switched tired horses for fresh ones and gotten away. But I doubted Abul knew all the details of Ann’s abduction. If he did, then after he became a slave girl, Abul would be pleased to tell us everything.

I waved idly towards the office where Piljer’s shrieks penetrated the thick glass. “You’d better decide quickly. If Piljer gives us what we need before you help us then you will leave this store with your manhood dwindling.”

“You must hate the guild very much, Majesty,” Abul said, observing me steadily.

“Not at all. The Slavers Guild serves a useful purpose. Your guild is worried about the way I stay free, and they’re concerned that I taught Ann the trick of it, but if you know that much then you have an idea why I made an exception for her, and know that I haven’t taught anyone else during the twenty-three years since then.” I leaned forward and glared. “The Slavers Guild could have come to me and discussed the matter. You would have found that I had a sympathetic ear. Instead, you bastards decided to steal her, and through her, you were going to destroy me.”

I selected a scented blue slave tunic from a rack and laid it over his heavy stomach. “Isn’t it amazing that Ruk’s Serum can take a large man — you for instance -- and reduce him to the prettiest, most feminine slave girl? Would you like me to tell you how it feels to submit to a man with a large, firm twyll, or would you prefer to find out for yourself? You know, I wonder if your master will prefer you in pink. Such a pretty color for a petite blonde with large breasts, wouldn’t you say?”

“Majesty! I warned them not to do it! I argued for coming forward and talking with you. I described you as reasonable and fair.” Lowering his eyes, he said, “Truly, I didn’t know they would take her.”

“I believe you,” I replied after a time. I glanced at Piljer, who had just screamed; it seemed that the assisting guard had just broken his arm. Kim, in the meantime, had opened her writing pad. “I don’t think you have much time left. I don’t hate you, Abul; when you wake up, I’ll make sure that you’re fully trained, then sold to a fine dominating master. Perhaps I could have your assistant train you. I’ll bet she could wield the whip to your round bottom effectively. You’d be disciplined and docile in short order.”

He closed his eyes and the formerly impassive slaver sagged in his bindings. “Arondhetti is my daughter. The idea is obscene.” He looked at the floor for a moment, and then shook his head. “Where are those lists again? I don’t know who did it, but maybe I can help you somehow.”

I brought them back from the office, curling my lip in disgust at Piljer as Kim handed me the papers.

I gave Abul the list of those who had departed Tulem first. He skimmed through it rapidly, marking through about two names in three, explaining, “I last discussed Ann with two high in the guild, a large man with stiff red hair named Infumay Pederast from far Terkman, and a powerfully-built woman with short brown hair and piercing black eyes. Her name is Elsbeth Lin and her home is the mountain city of Sha’nell. They came to me two months ago. From their leading comments about you and Scholar Ann, I’m assuming that they are the ones who organized this. If they did, and if they are here, then they almost certainly have changed their appearance and names. In any case, all the people on these lists who came into the valley over two months ago can be thrown out.”

When he’d gone through the list, he shook his head nervously. “Majesty, I don’t see anything here. The names and descriptions are unfamiliar.”

I took a look. He’d reduced the possible names from twenty-five to eight, just two groups of merchants.

Kim joined us, leaving Piljer tied-up in the office. I showed her what Abul had done and she crossed-off three more names that she recognized, showing me the result. The five names left were together, shown as a team of one wagon with one woman, four men and four extra horses. We shared grim looks. If they were the abductors, they would be tough to track with those extra horses. They could abandon the wagon and head away rapidly in any direction.

“Now look at this.” I handed Abul the much longer list of several hundred foreigners in the valley.

He did the same, running down the list rapidly, marking only the possibilities. When he was about halfway through, he stopped.

“Hmm,” he said, stroking his cheek with his fingers. “This is interesting. This woman’s given name is Opine Lesure. A lesure is a type of bird found only in the Verdante Mountains, where Sha’nell lies. Her description is fairly close to the Elsbeth I knew. Opine is shown as a woman with long blonde hair and brown eyes, tall and powerfully built. Few women would choose such a body, but Elsbeth prefers it. She’s comfortable with size and strength; I believe that in her mind it partially compensates for a lack of suren when handling the slaves.”

“Lesure is a fairly common name, Slaver Abul,” Kim interjected. “There are other women on the list as large.”

“That’s the only thing that leaps out at me from the page for the moment.”

I nodded calmly, but underneath I burned. I wasn’t learning much that was helpful. While we dithered, Ann was likely being tortured or carried far away. “What did you learn from Piljer, Kim?”

“Next to nothing. A large man with red hair talked to him over two months ago wanting to know Ann’s habits. He told him everything he could and never saw him again.”

Kim looked to me. That sick feeling in my stomach was back. “All right!” I yelled, getting everyone’s attention. “Harley and Bersis,” I said to two of the guards, ”ride hard to the outer gate.” I handed the list with the group of five to the taller guard. “Give this to Commander Derlan and tell him to hunt down these people, search for traces of Scholar Ann among them and bring them back.”

“Majesty!” They bowed and departed.

I glared hard at the slaver. “You can do better than this. It’d take days to find all these foreigners in the valley. We have a few hours. Think!”

He shrugged his thick shoulders. “Do you think I want to be a serum girl? If I knew more, Majesty, I assure you, I would tell you.”

If that were all, then as little as it was, it would have to do. We’d need an army of men to search house to house, turning Tulem upside down. I’d have to call Franco and explain everything, but it would be a small price to pay for the chance of getting Ann back alive. Just then, the door to the store swung open and shut. I turned at the sound. It was Kat.

She looked around the small store, noting the bound and gagged woman, the weeping man with the broken arm, Abul, still bound into his chair, and my knife stuck in the wall.

“Mother?” she inquired.

I’d always tried to set a good example for my daughter, but at that moment it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t sure with whom to be angrier, my oldest offspring or the guards who let her through the door. “Kat,” I said too sweetly, “I hope you have a very good reason for being here.”

She walked until she stood beside me. “I think so, Mother. We may have found Ann.”

Kim and I looked hard at each other. “Tell me about it,” I said.

“I saw how worried you were about Ann and told Stefan. He wanted to do something. As you know he likes her -- a lot.” She smiled indulgently, as an older sister speaking of her younger brother’s adolescent love interests. Here, I sympathized with Stefan. If I had had a teacher as beautiful as Ann when I was seventeen, I wondered if I would have had his self-control. But that was neither here nor there.

“What about Ann?”

“Stefan suspected that someone had abducted Ann to introduce her to the collar and brand. We changed into mundane clothing, sneaked out of the palace, and rode to the outer gate, following you, although we didn’t ride as fast, of course. We arrived maybe twenty minutes after you left and spoke with Commander Derlan, who was pleased to satisfy our concerns. He told us about the precautions you took. It sounded quite thorough, although we couldn’t figure out how the Slavers Guild could be involved.”

A quick look at me determined that no explanation was forthcoming, so she continued.

“We started back down the road into the valley and noticed a wagon turning around several hundred yards in front of us. Stefan marked the spot and looked back; it was at the bend in the road where the staging area for the outer gate is first seen. From that place, they would have noticed that all wagons and horses were being inspected. We became suspicious.”

“And you followed the the wagon.”

“At a distance. Stefan followed first with me far behind him. They turned off the road into Burgen Village. Stefan kept on going and hid out of sight, directing me towards them. I caught up with them turning into a farmhouse. They saw me, but didn’t concern themselves with a lone mundane girl passing by. This time, I hid and told Stefan where they were when he caught up to me. I watched the front and Stefan crept around the back of a neighboring farmhouse. Stefan saw them unload a sack of the shape and size of a small unconscious person from the underside of the wagon and bring it inside.”

“Wonderful, Kat! What did they look like?”

She stood still, her eyes looking inward. “Three men and a woman. Two average-sized men in ordinary mundane brown and black work tunics, one with sandy brown long hair, one with shorter dark brown, a larger man with wide shoulders, black hair and a floppy hat, and the woman, a big blonde, built almost like a man with large breasts.”

“That last sounds like Opine to me,” Abul muttered from his chair.

“It does,” I said, giving the slaver his due. “Kat, where’s Stefan?”

“He’s still watching the farmhouse from a tree across the road. I came back to find you.”

That didn’t sound safe, not with that group. “From a tree? Is he…”

“He’s well concealed. Even knowing where he was, it was hard to see him through the leaves.”

I had to hope that she was right, and put that aside for the moment. “Abul, what kind of people are Infumay and Elsbeth? Would they give themselves up? Would they kill Ann?”

“Neither is a coward, Majesty. They’d do anything for the guild.”

“Would they bargain with me for her?”

Abul appraised me, his wily slaver’s eye long accustomed to judging women. “I don’t know, but I offer my services as an intermediary. Zhor has enough sluts, Majesty. I’d be more valuable in this role.”

If he wanted a commitment from me then he would go unhappy. “You’ll be rewarded appropriately for any help you give us, Abul. That I promise you.”

I paced the slaver’s floor furiously. There was no time to waste. I had already pushed my authority to the limit; I couldn’t order an attack on a farmhouse by myself, the guard would simply, quite properly, ask the King if it were his will that his wife command an assault in the valley. But if I told Franco now, I’d have to explain everything. After Franco’s ranted for a while, he would tell the Captain of the Guards, who would organize; a commander would be chosen; I’d explain everything again; a team would be selected; the Lord who controlled Bergan village would have to be informed -- and all the while Ann would be tortured and likely die.

But there might be a way…

“Katrina, return to the palace stables and bring back three horses. After that, go back and explain to your father that I will likely be out for dinner, but take your time doing it.”

“Whatever you’re planning, Father is going to be angry,” she said, shaking her head slowly.

“Probably, but he’ll understand later when I tell him,” I assured her with confidence I didn’t have. “Now go.”

I didn’t wait to see her leave before I turned to my remaining two guards. “Release the prisoners’ bonds,” I ordered. “We all ride to Paoli’s castle as soon as my daughter returns.”

Lord Paoli’s castle, formerly Lady Gina’s and before her, mine, owned Bergan. One of the smaller farming villages, its inhabitants numbered barely a thousand. It lay near the eastern mountains; I’d been there several times myself, as both Lady Dana and Queen.

When Kat returned with the horses, we rode to the castle together, stopping just outside the gate.

“Majesty!” exclaimed the lead guard in brown and green.

I recognized him fondly from long ago; he had forced me to his will many times when I’d been known as Amelia. “Hiddle, please inform Lord Paoli that I’m here and must meet with him right away.”

This was done, and Paoli ushered me into his quarters, handing me a strong tea he knew I liked. “You are always welcome to my castle, Dana,” he said smiling. “But the cast of your entourage tells me that it might not be a social call.”

I allowed all the anguish I’d held back to come forward, and reached for my old friend, a man a woman could count on in a time of need. “Oh, Paoli! I need your help.”

He held me, uncertainly at first; I was his Queen, after all, no matter what our history, but as I let myself go, he pulled me closer.

“This isn’t like you, Dana. What’s wrong?”

“Scholar Ann, my children’s tutor, went missing late this morning. She has ... sensitive knowledge that could hurt me badly. I suspected that she was kidnapped, and took measures. This afternoon, the Royal Inspector and I had our worst fears realized. A half-hour ago, we discovered that she’s in a farmhouse in Bergan Village. Paoli, I must rescue her immediately; she’s probably being tortured as we speak!”

“Your husband could help, surely?” he replied, his concern mixed with confusion.

I shook my head, looking up into his handsome face. “At the time I found out about Ann, he was,” I flushed, “busy.” His face showed me that he knew, or at least suspected what I meant. I walked the room, moving my hands angrily. “I don’t have the time left to make the explanations. You are my hope, Paoli. You have jurisdiction here, too. You must save her!”

“Franco doesn’t know anything about this ... sensitive information?”

“He knows some of it.” I sighed. “Paoli, it’s about how I stay free. Over twenty years ago, Ann was Merton, the Librarian, and suffered from Selyf-Digon. He did me a great service. For that I taught her the way to stay free. Naturally, I kept this a secret from everyone, even Franco, but especially the Slavers Guild. They're the ones who took her.”

Drawing myself up to my full height, I looked him in the eye. “I’ll tell you all, Paoli. Ask, and I will answer, but in the meantime, please get the guards prepared for an attack!”

It took him only a second to decide for me. “Who are these kidnappers; how many are there; and where exactly is she being held?”

My urges stirred at his masculine resolve and assumption of authority, and I told him what he needed to know. “My son is watching the farmhouse from a tree,” I added proudly. “He can tell you what they’re doing.”

Paoli called a guard and gave him the orders to prepare. When the guard departed, he crossed his arms and regarded me. “I have a question or two. I don't need to know how you managed to stay free, but why is the Slavers Guild involved?”

I told him why. It didn’t bother me too much: I had a feeling I could trust my old friend and fighting companion of long ago.

“These slavers you brought with you would back up your story, of course.”

“Abul knows. I brought him along because he knows the leaders inside.”

“Your word is enough for me, Dana. I’ll do it, of course. I’ll kill any foreigner that dares take a subject in my own demesnes.” His took on a suspicious mien, perhaps remembering another time. “Do you expect to lead this force?” he asked me sharply. “I won’t permit it.”

I brushed aside his concern with an idle hand and smiled vacantly, as it were the furthest thing from my mind. “Of course not, Paoli. I’m just a woman, fit for having babies and little else.”

“I mean it, Dana.”

“I don’t care who leads. I just want Ann back alive and well.”

“After this is over, I expect that you’ll tell your husband everything. If you don’t, then I will. To keep this from him any longer would be disloyal.”

I tilted my head forward. “I will tell him as soon as this is over.”

Very soon we were away. I left Arondhetti and the worm, Piljer, back at the castle where they would be kept out of trouble, but I brought Abul with me.

Paoli brought eight guards, fine warriors all, and we staged in a field behind a small orchard a few hundred yards away, the smell of apples and freshly tilled ground thick in the air. There, we dismounted. All, save for me, wore the matte-black of the night fighter, sacrificing armor and hard boots for stealth and speed. I wore a black cloak with hood over my riding clothes, which sometimes caught my elbows as I crawled along the slick, shallow drainage ditch that paralleled the road, but I managed to keep up with the rest, who, save for Abul and Paoli, were burdened with crossbows and javelins.

We made it to our position, by a giant oak just out of sight in the ditch across the road from the farmhouse. The sun had just cleared the snow-capped peaks of the eastern mountains, a towering slab of black and gray only a few hundred yards away. The twilight would be with us for the next fifteen minutes, even under the cloudy sky.

The tree, the only one in the area, was impenetrable enough in the fading light. I touched Paoli’s leg to alert him and slid closer. “My son is in this tree. I’d better talk to him first,” I whispered.

He nodded, his eyes in his coal-blackened face bright and clear. “Right. Find out what you can.”

I crept silently towards the base and stood against its side facing the ditch. “Stefan!” I hissed. “Stefan!”

Faint rustling disturbed a few leaves about ten feet above. “Mother?”

“Yes. Where are they? Where are the guards and what are they doing?”

“Thank the Gods you’re here. There are two guards, one each on the east and west ends of the house. They keep against the wall and in shadow most of the time. I don’t think they guard so much as watch. I haven’t seen them carry anything larger than a large knife.”

“And the others?”.

“Two are inside, a man and a woman. I see the man walking sometimes through the window on the left. The woman has Ann in the middle room.”

“You’ve seen her?”

“I don’t have to see her,” he said in a voice quavering with hatred, a pitch I’d never heard before from my son. “I hear her. You will too in a minute. They keep her gagged most of the time, but take it out when they ask her questions. They stop for a few minutes then start again. Mostly it’s the blonde bitch who does it.”

I exhaled hard and closed my eyes. It was our worst fears coming to pass. “Oh, Goddess,” I said softly. “Stefan. You'll have to stay in the tree for now. If you come down they might hear you.”

“I understand. Don’t wait too long,” he said, his voice breaking. “I don’t know how much more she can take.”

I crept back to the ditch and made my report. When I was done, I heard Ann scream, a horrible, muffled wail that went on and on, stopping for a breath and then starting up again. I gripped the dirt between my fingers and squeezed. Even with my eyes closed, I rained silent tears.

“Gods and Overlords,” came a shaky voice to my left -- one of the guards.

I glanced in that direction and spotted Abul. He lay on the ground next to me, a great lump of lard in black wrapping. “Well?” I demanded. “What in Hades are your people doing? Do they think they can actually get out of the valley?”

“Majesty, Infumay and Elsbeth aren’t stupid. I’m sure they planned well for this. They would have back-up plans, possibly more than one.”

“And if we rushed them, would they kill her?”

“No question about it. Elsbeth, in particular, thinks of Ann and you as abominations.” He glanced at me. “No offense meant, Majesty.”

“Is there anything we could say that would get them to stop or release her?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry, Majesty. I can’t think of anything.”

I looked away, disgusted with him. After a terrible few minutes, when the screams grew faint, it stopped. I poked my head over the ditch, keeping the hood just over my eyes. The scene looked so normal, just a medium-sized farmhouse with three rooms. Two iron reinforced windows in stone to the left, a smaller window high up to the right that looked to be the kitchen from the small flue next to it. I cursed myself, trying to find some plan that allowed us to cross the fifty yards or so unseen, close enough to kill the guards silently. The alternative was waiting for darkness -- hoping it would come before she broke, which would mean her death, or until her strength gave out and she died anyway.

The screams began again, and I lowered my head below the level of the road, pressing my back against the slope.

“Steady on, Dana. We must be patient; give us about ten minutes for complete darkness, then we’ll give it a try,” Paoli said, resting his large hand on my shoulder.

“Paoli,” I said, “I think we need a new plan.” I nodded up. “Look.” He followed my eyes. The moon, only a quarter full but bright enough to doom Ann, was emerging from the thinning clouds. Our eyes met for a moment. He was a handsome man. Even in the light of that terrible moon, my slut urges enjoyed looking at him, making me wonder what it would feel like to be beneath him, being dominated, making me scream all the way to my natural slave female core. These were inappropriate thoughts, and I looked away, glancing back over my shoulder. The moon, I noted, was on the other side of the farmhouse.

I considered it critically, but could find no obvious flaw with the plan that had just leaped into my head. Insane as it seemed on the surface, it wouldn’t hurt to try it. “Paoli. I have an idea. And I hope you’re up to it.”

Ten minutes later, I rode beside Paoli as he drove a buckboard loaded with straw and wood down the road on the other side of the farmhouse. As sometimes happens in the country, a man and a woman will spread a blanket beneath the stars, light a small fire, drink, laugh, and when the embers die, do what lovers do. There was no one around. Most of the fields in that area were left to fallow most of the year, most crops growing poorly in the reduced sunshine by the mountains. Paoli pulled up by the road and we made a roaring fire that burned high and very bright with copious quantities of straw and pine. As I sang an old song and swiveled a dance for him, he waved a bottle around for show, as if he had been drinking, but mainly he looked at me. Contrary to local custom, he didn’t wait until the fire died, but took me in his arms in front of the fire.

“Dana, I’m sorry,” he said as he kissed my neck, tingling my skin and sending warmth and desire to points below.

I laughed. It was impossible to resolve his words with what he was doing to me. “Don’t be. I’m a serum girl, Paoli, and most of the time I’m glad to be one. Go ahead! Tell me you haven’t thought of taking me -- because I’ve had thoughts about you.”

He couldn’t tell me that and be true to himself. I whipped my hair back and kissed him, begging him with my lips and hips to bring me to my back.

“You don’t love me, Dana.”

I looked him in the eye, willing him to feel what I felt, to know what an insatiable slut I was.

“I will tonight. Now take me, brol me, and make me submit. Make me scream like a natural slave! I want it, Paoli,” I growled low and hard, rubbing against him like a cat in season. “I want you inside me.” Somehow, I convinced him.

With the fire burning like a beacon, he took me in full view of the stars, the moon, and two interested observers at the farmhouse. Light is a strange thing: too little and one can’t see; too much and the same is true. As Paoli made me howl, our guards, sheltered from night blindness by the farmhouse, crept up to the wall, slid around it to the side and slit their guards’ throats before they knew what was happening.

They waved to us from the side, reflecting the fire with their knives. We dressed quickly and left in the buckboard, leaving the fire to burn out. That was the last thing that went according to plan.

Three of the guards broke the glass in the great room at the same time to shoot down Elsbeth and Infumay simultaneously, but the blonde wouldn’t cooperate. She had remained in the middle room with Ann behind a closed door, the room’s only window shuttered tight from the inside with a sturdy iron latch.

When Paoli yanked the buckboard brake by the front of the farmhouse, three bolt fins peeked from Infumay’s chest -- and Elsbeth was shrieking:

“Come on in, you bastards! Come right through the door. Who’s the first to be a slave girl?”

“What’s the hold-up?” Paoli demanded.

Abul cleared his throat. “Elsbeth has a spring-loaded device with a Ruk’s Serum dart, Lord Paoli. I saw it in her hand just before she closed the door.”

Ann screamed in unspeakable pain.

Elsbeth laughed. “I’m killing her! You want to save the abomination? Well, what are you waiting for? You call yourself men? You’re all cowards, brolling each other!”

My son had left the tree when the guards were killed and decided it was a good time to approach. Even by the light of the moon, I could see his eyes gleaming mad with grief, and something else, perhaps; he’d been listening to Ann scream an hour longer than the rest of us. “Give me a spear. I’ll go in and save her,” he said, not as false heroism, calling attention to himself, but as a simple declaration of his will.

The pride in my son made me want to weep, but there was room for only one serum girl in the family. “Like Hades you will! What are the routes to Elsbeth’s room?”

“Majesty,” spoke a guard, “the door into the main room is open; the other to the kitchen is blocked tight.”

“I saw a window to the kitchen.”

“Too small, Majesty.”

Ann screamed again, a blood-curdling thing of horror.

“Damn it!” I ran to the window, eying its height and width. It was about seven feet off the ground. The guard was right in a way: the window was too small — for a guard. “Abul, come here!” He sauntered over reluctantly. I placed a finger in his thick chest and pushed. “You are going to walk through that door.”

“Majesty!” Abul’s eyes lost all trace of slaver detachment and opened wide. “Majesty, you can’t ask a man to become a serum girl!”

“You won’t become a serum girl if everything goes as planned. Elsbeth will be surprised to see you and won’t shoot right away. I’ll finish her off from the other side.”

Ann screamed again, making me crazy. She sounded very bad this time, with a gurgle, as if Elsbeth had pierced a lung.

“Ho! I don’t she’s going to last much longer!” came the cruel cry from within.

I pointed to a guard. “You. When Abul walks through the door, he will name himself. When you hear his name, lift me up and throw me at the window. I’m pretty sure I’ll make it through if you throw me hard enough.”

“Majesty,” Abul protested.

“Abul,” I raged into his face, “You’re making it very easy to decide what to do with you. If a man has no courage or honor, he is no man, and neither will you be after this!”

“Very well, Majesty,“ he said angrily. “I’ll do it.” He walked around the side. I motioned a guard to watch him and make sure he followed through. Then I went below the small window to the kitchen. Covering my knife and hands with my cloak to avoid gashing myself on the glass, I ordered the guard: “Lift me and put me through hard when you hear Abul’s name.”

Paoli shook his head. “I’ll do it. It’s my responsibility.” He lifted me over his head easily, placing his hands under my hips.

But Elsbeth wasn’t through yet. “I weary of this,” she screeched. “There are no men here. I’ve been talking to sheep! The next cut slices her throat!”

I heard the door open, and a scuffle, as Abul was likely pushed through.

“Elsbeth, don’t shoot me! I’m Abul, your friend.”

Not the words of a hero, but it would do. As Paoli ran with me toward the window, I stiffened my spine and arms, praying that the window wasn’t as strong as it looked. It nearly was, and I hung by my waist before Paoli could push me through. I tumbled to the floor too heavily to roll, and staggered to my feet.

Elsbeth burst through the door, a bloody knife in her right hand and a tube in her left. I hoped for a brief moment that she’d already used it on that worthless slaver, but the God of Luck was with Abul that night. “What?” she screamed at me, and fired at the same time I threw my knife.

My blade found her impressive right breast, and buried in to the hilt. She shrieked like a she-beast, and tried clumsily to remove it with her left hand, but Abul clubbed her with a double fist behind her neck, dropping her like a sack to the kitchen floor.

“Come in,” he called out to the guards. “It is safe now, I have subdued Elsbeth.”

I bit my tongue on that, but granted that he had done something right. I stumbled towards the door to get to Ann and looked down, wondering at a new pain in my thigh. It was Elsbeth’s dart. I yanked it out quickly and looked around, but no one had seen it. I had to think fast; it didn’t have the drug to put me to sleep as the dart I’d used on Drago, else I would have been on the floor. But the distinctive nausea was there. It was Ruk’s Serum, and I had at most several minutes.

I had to see Ann first. She looked awful, with several gashes and cuts being near fatal by themselves. I wasn’t sure if she would live and came close to crying, but there was no time for that. Stefan was there. He wept while he cut her bonds with his knife as a guard versed in aid attended her wounds on the floor.

“Stefan,” I said, taking his arm as he rose to his feet.

“Ann will live, won’t she?”

“I think so,” I said looking up at him, “I was very proud of you today, you and Kat both, but especially you. There’s something I have to tell you. Elsbeth hit me with her dart.”

“By the Gods, Mother!” he cried, taking my shoulders and probing my face.

“I’ll be alright, Stefan! I’ll just ... look different for a while. I need you to talk to your father about what happened, and make sure I get back to the palace in secret. Nobody should know about what happened here except you, Kat, your father, Lees’n, and Kim.”

“I won’t tell father about everything that happened,” he said, giving me an eye.

I put my hand to my mouth. “Oh, Goddess. You would have seen that from the tree. Stefan, I…”

He shook his head violently. “Never apologize for it, Mother. It saved Ann’s life.”

I touched his face. “Thank you for that. You have a right to know what’s going on with Ann and why she was abducted. I can’t keep it a secret any longer, not after this.” I sighed. “And your father will be furious and demand answers, too. Talk to Kim. Tell her that I told her to tell you, Kat and your father about Ann. There. Now I have to talk to Lord Paoli.”

Paoli was outside with Elsbeth, searching her. The blonde behemoth was unconscious, snoring, in fact, and healthy enough, except for the knife wound in her breast. The serum was working faster than I thought and a wave of dizziness forced me to lean against the wall. “Paoli, she hit me with the dart,” I said.

He leaped to his feet. “Gods, Dana. Will you be all right?”

I shrugged. “I think this will inconvenience me more than anything. I need to get back to the palace secretly; I can’t let anyone know I’ve been hit with the dart. Leave me behind with Stefan when you go with the buckboard. He’ll get me back. Take good care of Ann and keep her presence a secret for now. Please keep Elsbeth locked up tight and allow Inspector West access to her. I have plans for that one…” I staggered and nearly fell.

“Dana.” He picked me up.

It felt comfortable and warm to be in his arms, and I was so tired. I smiled. “I’m fading fast,” I said sleepily. “But one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“I enjoyed you tonight, Paoli. You took me well.” Then I passed out.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
I hope you enjoyed this chapter. It sets things up for most of the end game and causes all sorts of problems — and more, for in chaos lies opportunities.

Thanks for the comments! I love to see them. :) ~Aardvark



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