The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter 13 A

“Yes, that’s very interesting,” Her frizzy red hair spritzed here and there in wild tufts over pins and clasps tossed hugger-mugger in rioting braids, tresses, and flowing waves that comprised her eclectic and electric style, or, more like, the studied lack of one, as if she had opened up the borders of her head with a come one, come all, then celebrated the democratic masses of hair that had arrived.

“Yes, yes, yes.” As her insistent head-bobbing undermined her sarcastic tone in a jarring way, and, moreover, as his hands were manacled to his cot, Leonidas didn’t know how to take this irreverent, overeducated Ardemian. As Lord Andercruik, he would have broken her fingers for such insolence, then paid King Algus’s fine with a smile. Algus claimed it went to the roads, but Leonidas had known better. And if it did go to the roads, well, Leonidas liked roads.

“Oh yes, that will give our readers something exciting. But it’s not what I asked for.”

“Isn’t that your job?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you write for this rag because you have nothing to say? Are you a writer, or not?”

“We’re getting off the subject.”

“When you ask the wrong question, and I tell you what’s really on my mind, that’s the news.”

“Here’s a better idea. Why not stick to the questions assigned by my editor?”

Leonidas snorted. “Don’t call them questions when they already tell a story. They might as well be chapter titles. I’m not telling that story.”

“It’s not like anyone you know will read it,” said Lulza. While Leonidas had hated her on sight, her contemptible name, obviously a stupid nickname, made his hate a matter of good taste, something to be cherished. That said, his smile was sincere. While she was despicable, Leonidas liked a good laugh. “Algus used to burn our paper at the Vanoori border,” she continued, warming to the subject, “and the Emperor forbids the discussion of a free press on pains of death.”

“Being already shackled, I care neither for my reputation nor for your free press.” Having delivered this in a sour, scathing tone, Leonidas jolted upwards against the manacles, rattling his cot in its bolts.

Lulza’s eyes widened, and she scooted her chair against the wall. “I don’t care about your reputation either, which you might have thought of before choosing to be so uncooperative, Lord Andercruik. I’ll just write this story the way it should have gone, top it with a pseudonym, and sell it to our competitors.”

As Leonidas smiled and paced the length of the cot, the chain dragged between his legs and scraped against the rusting springs. “Was that so hard? A little truth and a little respect. That’s all I ask. Now, put away those questions, and ask me your questions.”

“Respect?” When she tossed her head, her marvelously hedonistic and chaotically obscene tresses slithered around her shoulders.

“You called me Lord Andercruik.”

“I’d call that a matter of fact, but we can have different points of view.” Lulza made a great production of rolling up the bright vellum scroll, inserted it into the tube at her belt, and extracted another sheet of lower grade hide. Having flicked up the false gem in her bright silver ring, she dipped her pen into the open setting so that it came away gleaming with bright blue ink, then spoke slowly, at the speed of her scribble: “What...crime...have...you...committed...against...the...Ardemian...people?”

Once scratched onto the skin, the drying ink dulled to dark blue. Dipping the quill back into the ring’s reservoir, her eyes flicked up from the page to examine Leonidas.

“Are thoughts and feelings illegal here?”

“No,” said Lulza. “We don’t proscribe any kind of speech. Our founders wanted Ardem to remain a free and open forum for ideas.”

“Wonderful.” By rolling the Ns and Rs, Leonidas savored them with a saucy malice to underscore the true depth of his disdain for Ardemian ideals. “Then the answer can only be no. For while I have resented Ardem with a murderous rancor since arriving here, and every Ardemian I have met, present company included, is an onerous and contemptible burden I would sooner murder than avoid, I have no committed no crime against the body of Ardem.”

The skritch-skratching pen paused. Lulza eyed him, blowing up a glinting patch of red hair. “You find me an ‘onerous and contemptible burden?’”

“Is that a question?”

Lulza leaned back in her chair, and her lips contacted to a pouting moue. Overly red lips, blotted blood red from the sticky oils with which Ardemian women anointed their lips. “If it builds your character in the piece, we’ll call it a question. My lord,” she added acerbically.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Leonidas mimicked her sing-song. “I despise you. Writing is a necessary function, like speaking, breathing, eating, or voiding your bowels, so why make a living out of it? Should I set myself up as a professional eater, or breather for hire?”

“Writing a check is a function, as you put it, but my writing is a craft, my lord.”

Leonidas snickered. “Scribbling a craft? Make me a sword.”

“I could say the same thing about lording, or king-ing.”

“My friend the Emperor might disagree.”

“Let’s talk about that. First of all, he’s hardly your friend.”

Leonidas sneered down his nose. “He’d be more inclined to grant me a favor than you.”

“He put you here. And he granted me this interview. Are you sure?”

“That’s not entirely true. Upon our arrival, he surrendered me to your dean.”

“If our dean took you into custody, it was with the understanding that you would depart with the Emperor. You’re only Ardem’s problem for the time being.”

Leonidas smirked. “I should be the one writing for your newspaper. I’m getting more answers than you are.”

As she sighed and glanced upward, her exasperated breath puffed her tangled hair. “Even though I don’t like you, that doesn’t mean we’re not on the same side.”

Leonidas smirked. “You’re my follower? How nice. It’s been forever and a day since I led a minion into a trap.”

“Listen, Leonidas. We don’t want you here. Do you understand? This is imprisonment without due process of law, an egregious precedent. When our democracy falls, it may name this day as the beginning of the end.”

“I’m flattered that you think me so important,” said Leonidas.

“Important, yes, interesting, no.” Dropping her pen into her lap, she flexed her fingers, yawned, and brought her arms so high over her head that Leonidas guessed she must be double-jointed. When this exaggerated posture doubled other attributes as well, Leonidas snickered.

“Did you like what you saw?” Even to Leonidas, whose imagination was at that very moment undressing her, Lulza’s forlorn tone was very far out of place.

“I saw nothing,” he said, “being too preoccupied by my unjust captivity. When you said we, who did you mean?”

She shifted on her seat. “The Ardemian people.”

Leonidas snickered. “As if you speak for the Ardemian people. You’re not the dean of Ardem. What interest do you represent?”

“The students.” Her glare was hot and confident. “The true people of Ardem.”

“In Vanoor, students don’t even vote. You have to be 21 to sit on Algus’s council. Well, had to be. I don’t exactly have the Emperor’s ear for how he does things now.”

“Didn’t you share a coach?”

“He only wanted to talk about cuisine and recipes.” He chuckled. “Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have a doozy of a delicacy, one I served the well-to-do of Vanoor. Not that it was received in a pleasant spirit, seeing as the entree was a dinner guest, and the desserts enjoyed by me only.”

“This isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “You’re not ready to make a deal.”

“Why deal when I want it all?” He looked her square in the face. “I sold my kingdom for gold.”

“Were you paid?” When he did not answer, she ranted on: “if you weren’t paid, you didn’t sell anything. You were duped, Leonidas. The Emperor pays his fools more than he paid you!”

“Have a care, scribbler,” scowled Leonidas.

“Being free and democratic means we speak our minds without fear. Not only can I say anything I want, I can yell it as loud as I want from any vantage point in Ardem.”

“Even your dean would throw his doors wide?” Leonidas chuckled.

“Do you know why he brought you here?”

“I can only speculate. Perhaps to accustom you to taking orders, in preparation of his push against Ardem.”

“Exactly! And that is what we’ve been reporting. Why should we accommodate Klyrnish prisoners in Ardem? On becoming the Emperor’s prison state, we’ll soon furnish his work force.”

“You forget your value as shock troops,” smirked Leonidas. “Even the overly educated stop blades and arrows.”

She sighed. “Why won’t you take me seriously, Lord Andercruik?”

“What would you have me do, Lolli?”

“Lulza.”

“That’s what I said. And you’re ignoring my question.”

“What do you think I want? Grant me this interview!”

“What could that accomplish?”

“It would educate Ardem to the dangers posed by Klyrn.”

“As I’ve pointed out, you Ardemians are already overly educated. I’ll pass...unless...”

“Unless what?”

“Will this hurt the Emperor in any way?”

“Oh yes.” Her head shook up and down fervently.

“Let me be clear. It isn’t enough that he’s inconvenienced, as I have no ambition to nip at the Emperor like a bloodless gnat or a journalist. It’s better to be a good example than a despicable pest anyone thinks they could squash with their heel. Even a withered, bored lion rotting in a cage makes a good show. So what I’m asking is less ‘how will my words make the Emperor suffer’ than ‘what is the entertainment value?’”

“Still, you want revenge. And a creative revenge at that.” She nibbled on the end of her stylus. “As if I could help you with that. Aside from running this piece, which will no doubt irk your Emperor.”

“He’s not my Emperor either, Lolli. And revenge is much too strong a strong word, as I’m too uncaring for that. That said, I would feel intensely gratified if he fell down a grate. How well do you know the layout of the Grand Exhibition?”

“Why must you be so complicated?” She threw her pen into the air, then caught it. “Will nothing motivate you?”

“There is one tack you haven’t tried.” As he vented an ogrish glare and a tomcat grin, Leonidas felt his own cheeks burn, no longer restraining his anger, but instead letting it feed into his lust, the more clearly to spotlight the offer on the table. While Leonidas had never been a great wooer, as a landlord and petty tyrant he had found more success in bringing women to bed by cracking the lash of his naked lust than by flattering the wenches. For having hired only the vilest people, it was easy to harvest evil deeds from not only those murderers on his payroll, but their salacious wives, so that he need only pluck whichever wicked fruit he desired.

When Lulza’s head ticked a little to the left, her shoulders shied back to the wall. While many wouldn’t have caught this shiver, terror and its signs were not only Leonidas’s hobby, but a favorite pastime.

“What a charming offer. You’d rather play the stud cow than embarrass the Emperor? He might let you go, you know. I don’t have that power.”

Leonidas laughed. “You’re easy on the eyes, but you don’t know statecraft.”

“Having been part of some student productions, I know a little stagecraft, and can sense a ham playing to the wall. While you don’t know Ardem, your Emperor does.”

When she glared at him, he beamed back. “If I have anything in common with the Emperor, I’m certain that it’s a disdain for knowing things.”

“Just because he’s a dictator, it doesn’t mean he’s a tyrant.”

He laughed in reply. “He wouldn’t even bother to learn your name. Is it Floozie?”

While her nose wrinkled in amused annoyance, she retorted, “this is his alma mater.”

“What?”

“It means he’s a graduate.”

“I know what it means.” While this revelation had taken him aback, he again composed his mask of cool scorn and rolled his eyes. “No doubt to sow his royal oats.” He looked at her savagely. “Is that why you’re here? Repaying a debt to an old friend?”

As if his gloating was a bright or thorny thing, she flinched from Leonidas.

When a screech pierced the hall and shivered in the bars, Lulza jumped to her feet and smacked at the back of her dress, as if to swat away the scream, but finding nothing but bunched up fabric, turned to grasp the bars and peer in the shadowed corridor.

“You’ve met my flat mate? The honored Lord Vargun?” Leoni/das snorted a short, mirthless laugh. “I’d have said honorable if she wasn’t anything but, and called her Lady if she hadn’t striven so hard to affect a Lord. Upon locking her husband in a tower, she slenderized every feminine smithereen, smothered every maternal instinct, and sheared away her womanly wiles. It may be a man’s world, but it saved a seat for Lord Vargun. She was nearly as good at Lord-ing as I was, if rumors are true. And by walking into a mace blow, she’s even pulverized her girlish chatter, and any though of gossip, to mad gibberish.”

Perhaps from Lady Renae having heard Leonidas’s booming slights, the screech became even more incensed. “See there? Just a pinch of woman, not that she’s more than a shambles of a man.” Lying back on his lumpy palette, he frowned over his bitter smile. “Why not see what she has to say. Not only will her report amuse your readers, it will be one hundred percent original.”

“While I have heard that her speech has been, as you so colorfully put it, impacted by a tragic wound, her understanding can only be better than yours. Perhaps I might make better use of my time there.” Lulza rattled Leonidas’s door. As the guards came, she stood to one side, and fixed him with a wicked grin. “But I admit my difficulty. With her being so inarticulate, and you being so dishonest, it’s like choosing between two mimes.”

***

When Lulza turned her back on Leonidas, the rough scrape of his chain, a squealing clink, and a strangled groan indicated that he’d reached the limit of his slack, and as he bellowed, and the jolted links rattled and clanged, she only managed to suppress her fright and mirth by summoning every ounce of restraint she possessed, allowing herself only a singularly unpleasant convulsion that fused a shudder and a chuckle.

Having swung the door shut, the guard wrangled its heavy padlock, then hastened to her side. “My apologies, miss.” The Klyrnish guard was so short that he had to jog to keep up with her leggy stride.

“You have nothing to apologize for.” While she feigned a yawn, her heart hammered, she blinked rapidly, and each breath tripped over the next, until the rising pressure of hyperventilation bulged her eyes, and filled her so full of fearful breath that her chest seemed to merge with her neck. For long moments she was too pent-up to speak, until she released a long breath by which she seemed to sink back to earth. “Thank you for fulfilling my request.”

“I’m only sorry he wasn’t more tractable.”

“Were you listening in?” Her fearful breathlessness now raised the pitch of her retort to a shrill squeak. “Why should you care? Your bribe is the same.”

“Yes.” It was a bland but ingratiating smile. “But I had hoped his conversation would be so enriching that you might grace my palm again.”

“Then you’re in luck.” Stopping now in the corridor, she adjusted her skirt, leggings, and cloak. While Leonidas didn’t seem to care about her appearance, the Lady Vargun was famed for her draconic snark, and Lulza didn’t care to show her the chinks in her armor. “I’m not so flush as to double your fee, but we might agree on some honorarium should you introduce me to Lady Vargun.”

“You mean Lord Vargun,” he snickered. “She won’t answer to anything else.” He rubbed his scraggly beard. “It’s not that I mind helping you. It’s hardly work, despite the additional risk to my livelihood. If your presence here didn’t threaten my employment, I would feel obligated to introduce you without said honorarium.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.” She scowled, swallowing the swell of her fear. How had Leonidas gotten under her skin? He was not only caged and chained, but a bound-up parody of Vanoori biases

which wouldn’t fly in Ardem, where each commoner prided themselves on being commoner than the next commoner: not only his puffed-up masculinity, stale virility, and bitter snobbery, but a pinata of hubris she longed to eviscerate in a proper interview. Why hadn’t he spilled his guts? Having worn her best outfit, plied her flirtiest coquetry, and vamped until his manhood rose in the rags of his lordly raiment, something should have spilled.

The guard beamed. “Thank you! Praise is so uncommon in my profession. Everyone takes jailers for granted.”

“Oh, I think you know your worth.”

He chuckled. “Agreed. And it is demeaning to argue over these trifles. But necks aren’t trifles.”

“Necks?”

“If it isn’t work to stick one’s neck out, it is a tremendous risk to leave it under the headsman’s axe.” He smiled ingratiatingly. “And two visits in one day doubles your chance of discovery.”

While one visit was in the past, and beyond the possibility of discovery, Lulza didn’t feel like entering into a disquisition on probability with the ill-informed guard. Still, she couldn’t let pass such offhanded ignorance, not when she might educate and tolerate at the same time. “While that’s hardly valid, given that we can’t be discovered fifteen minutes ago, I can’t deny we might be found out fifteen minutes from now. I can spare another fifty--let’s say fifty-five.”

“Let’s say seventy-five.”

“That’s ridiculous. Even if I get anything out of that madwoman, she might brain me on the bars of her cell.”

“I can’t be sure, not being a physician, or a highfalutin Ardemian graduate, but I would swear she has her lucid moments. Just yesterday she called me--well, let’s just say her curses were too obscene to be nonsense.”

“Which makes my interviewee hardly quotable. Fifty-five is too much.”

“You’d rather jot down her drivel?” He snickered. “Fine, fifty-five. But you only get ten minutes.”

Lulza blew her red mop of hair out of her face. While this her a long-held habit, she had never blown it so high, and had the satisfaction of seeing his eyelashes quiver in the force of her breath. While this greedy Klyrnish was overcharging her, as she couldn’t deny she wanted a chance at Lady Vargun, she suppressed her itch to haggle over the price. “Fifteen.”

He laughed uproariously. “That’s much too low...”

“I meant the time. Fifteen minutes.”

“Deal. Starting now.”

As he half-ran down the corridor, his scale armor jangled and his boots echoed on the cobblestones. While Lulza was young, she was a well-heeled young lady, which is to say that she fashionably teetered on five inch heels and struggled to keep up with the guard. While he panted in his heavy armor, she huffed and puffed over her stilted tread, wobbled side to side, and nearly tottered onto the stones.

Despite that the lamps were hooded, the windowless corridor brightened, at first to a slate gray,

then to a whitening light indicative of the first glint of dawn, until the flecks of obsidian and volcanic glass in the cobblestones gleamed a roseate gold. While the dead volcano had long gone ash grey,

long before Ardem’s dreamers and architects built their university and conjectured castles in the sky,

and had not glowed since Lamuna’s fires had pulsed deep in the core of that world, it burned with a bright fire now.

“Douse that light!” When the guard turned, he warded his eyes with his outflung hand, as if Lulza was the source of the overwhelming radiance.

“It’s not me.” Flabbergasted, Lulza hiked her skirts, turned on her heels and gazed into the blazing light, which stretched into the corridor for about ten paces before retreating from the enveloping darkness. “Is it?” As Lulza continued to turn, making a complete circle, she saw that the light indeed made the pattern of a star, so centered on herself and so completely over her head, that she raised her eyes in exasperation, and also literally, over her head.

It was like looking up from underwater at the shimmer where blue touched a brighter blue, but from this rippling bubble a searing golden light poured, spraying off Lulza to scour throughout the chamber, alighting on cell bars, locks, the volcanic walls, and the larger cobblestones.

As the light flicked faster and angrier, the bubble rippled as a disgruntled growl warped this enchanted transparency, warbled through the bright sphere, then echoed into a roar, stopping Lulza and the guard dead in the corridor.

Having observed this pause for a respectful moment, Lulza scampered down the hall, until the guard followed even more respectfully, so respectfully that his timid tiptoes tripped over each other, thwacking his head on cell bars, to slump to the ground.

The bright bubble’s next fearsome convulsion seemed to promise a violent commotion, when it resolved into a jocular cackle, kindling the distinctive sound of laughing friends.

Her heart pounded.

Who are you? she thought, but the light only clarified to a whiter light, throwing the cobblestones and corridor walls into stark relief, revealing breezy cobwebs dangling from the corners and the mortar lines between the stones.

“It’s only Lulza.” This laugh tinkled, not girly or womanly, but feminine, like a gifted alto hovering at a stilted soprano, a false pitch Lulza recognized.

“Cozy?”

“What are you doing?” At the disembodied hiss, the chaos resolved, until it was no less noise, but a flock of familiar voices. There was Xerla’s nasal whine, Tyronius’s annoying drawl, Gerspla’s howling laugh, and Oravia, whose calm, placid tones attempted to restore order.

The light had now whitened to a dazzling brilliance, then pushed past white to an effulgent gold that flooded the corridor with the light of day. Now that the shadows were utterly banished--leaving absolutely no trace of shadow in the long hall, not even under Lulza and her five inch heels--she took her hand from her eyes and wiped her brow, for the sweat had collected there nearly instantaneously. “You’ll be expelled, but I won’t live to see the day--because I’ll be blind, Cozy!”

“Speak for yourself! What did you do to that guard!”

“And I didn’t do anything to the guard! That was you! And keep your voice down!” she shouted.

“What’s he going to do? Snore on you?”

Down the hall of empty cells came a jangling and a whistling sing-song that recycled a monotonous, little ditty as it ghosted in and out.

“No, but you might spook Lord Vargun!”

"Lord Vargun?” snorted Tyronius. “You mean Lady Vargun? Or perhaps Lord Andercruik?”

“You don’t know the story,” Lulza snapped. “Half a second after you called her Lady Vargun, he’d likely bite your tongue off, Ty.”

“She’s likely do that after I sang her praises. She’s loony.”

“Here’s your chance, if you come on through. I just paid for fifteen minutes with Lord Vargun.”

“Is this some new exhibit at the Grand Exhibition?”

“When I say paid, I mean bribed, Xerla.”

“You bribed the guard?” Tyronius chuckled. “Looks like you got your money’s worth. He isn’t getting up anytime soon. In fact, you might be able to get back your fee...”

“Yes, and my fee for Andercruick besides that. So you aren’t coming through?”

“What makes you think we can come through?” mused Tyronius. “It could just be spy crystal.”

“This--” Lulza made a grand gesture as if to embrace the bright light flooding the corridor. “This is not a spy crystal. This is something else.”

“Back up a moment. Did you say Lord Andercruik? As in the cousin of Ilmar Andercruik, whom we saw fifteen minutes ago, taking in the sights at the Grand Exhibition?”

"Keys." It was a dry croak, more sand than mud, and it was not repeated, although it was echoed along the corridor. ”Ease...ease...ease.”

“What was that, Lulza?” screeched Xerla, “you sound horrible, like you have a frog in your throat, but a mummified frog.”

“That wasn’t me.” While Lulza could gaze easily down the whole length of the hallway, Lord Vargun’s cell seemed partially occluded, as if it had been boarded up from the waist down. “I think it was Lord Vargun.”

Tyronius cleared his throat tetchily. “By that, I assume you mean Lady Renae.”

“Have it whatever way you like. Turn this off. You’re going to get me caught. Us caught. What do you think they’ll do to you for using the dean’s scrying portal?”

“Likely nothing,” snickered Tyronius, “given we’re cozy with his daughter.”

“Fine, then. Stay here if you like. I’m taking my fifteen minutes now.”

“You think we borrowed this thing only to back away from our first real good opportunity to be nosy, Lulza?”

While she would never have owned to the fact, Lulza hoped they would continue to spy on her, so long as they were illuminating the corridor, and the Dean’s men were none the wiser.

As she tiptoed along the empty cells, the cobwebs and dirt were thrown into stark relief by the intense light which still streamed from the scrying portal, but her friends’ commotion only thickened to a boisterous noise as Tyronius whistled, cutting through Xerla and Cozy’s catty remarks, she thought upon her shoes. Why would they be slighting her shoes?

When one of her heels snapped off, she lurched forward, grabbed the bars, and kicked off both of her shoes.

“Why?” She grumbled, and continued down the hall.

“We were trying to tell you.”

“A little warning would have been nice, but what I meant was, ‘why are you spying on me now?’ What are you looking for? And why am I suddenly so interesting if I’m not it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” said Tyronius, in a very mild voice, fat with the milk of human kindness, and only a little rancid from the rankling of human sarcasm.

“Of course she’d like to know?” snickered Cozy. “This is Lulza we’re talking about, after all. We’re looking for something too, Lulza.” Their voices now barely carried, as if they were actually down the long, lighted corridor, and not through a magicked cobblestone in the ceiling, too.

“I know you’re looking for something,” she sighed. “That was my question, remember? What are you looking for?”

“Justification.” Cozy said it with a biting glee, just tinged with spitefulness, as if the pleasure here for her were more in bringing someone low, and not in any social justice or personal accomplishment

“You mean mischief.”

“I knew you hated me, Lulza.”

“Why ever would I hate you, Cozy? It’s not like we’re competing, or anything.”

“So you don’t take me seriously.”

“What’s to take seriously? You’re the dean’s daughter. And you’re not even trying. There’s already a place assured for you here after graduation.”

“Don’t dignify that, Cozy,” said Xerla.

“It wasn’t even an insult! It’s only the facts.” By habit, Lulza affected a bored expression, although she had by now nearly arrived at Lord Vargun’s cage, and unless they had moved the enchanted portal, there was little chance of her sarcasm registering.

“It’s an implication, Lulz.”

“No, it’s an inference. You can infer a lot from the facts, Tyronius. Such as, three or more students are using a highly-guarded, hush-hush magic to no good purpose, but with Ilmar Andercruik on their mind, and some justification-cum-mischief they’ve imagined. What could they possibly be after? You were hoping to catch a glimpse of Leonidas.”

“Wrong, Lulza!” Cozceccia shouted.

“Don’t say anything!” growled Tyronius.

“On the contrary,” said Xerla. “I think we should tell her everything.”

“Of course you would say so,” he huffed.

“Well, do you want to go through?”

“Maybe, if I knew how.”

The next length of corridor was of a darker, denser stone, and their voices dimmed to a muffled roar when she stepped into it, across from Lord Vargun’s cell. Lord Vargun, aka Lady Renae, laid flat on her stomach on a ragged cot, her face so rubbed in the coarse wool blanket that stray threads stuck to nose, cheek and chin.

"Keys.” The word rang shrilly in the hall, as if actual keys had been dropped to the cobblestones.

Lady Renae was bedraggled, with distraught eyes sagged by stress marks and cheeks chapped pink and raw from tears, which she lifted now to stare at Lulza accusingly, as if the young snoop had had anything to do with her imprisonment there.

“Why do you look at me so, Lord Vargun? I am here on your behalf.”

“Keys.”

“I have no keys,” said Lulza, and she took a step back in spite of herself, suddenly feeling the dishonesty of persuading such a wounded mind. Of course she had no keys. She shouldn’t even be there.

“Halfsies.”

“What?”

“You...feel...him...too.” Each word was so wrung from her dry lips that it seemed that the Lady Renae had forgotten how to speak. It was as if they were her first words.

“I don’t know what you mean. Do you? That is, do you know what you mean?”

“Here.” Lord Vargun nee The Lady Renae pushed herself from the cot, causing surprisingly large muscles to ripple in her shoulders and upper arms. While Lulza had seen larger muscles at the docks, it was a disturbingly powerful frame for one so confined, and for one so near oneself, and so obviously not in her right mind, no matter how many steel bars stood in the way. Also, she had gone looking for the well-muscled dockhands out of a randy curiosity, while she now had no desire whatsoever to find strength or potency in this madwoman. If she couldn’t tear her eyes from Lord Vargun, it wasn’t lust, but fear, that held her eyes in their forward stare. “Here!” Renae shouted.

“Yes,” she managed to stammer. “Yes, you are.”

“Here!” When Lady Renae reached through the bars, Lulza took a step back.

“Don’t! I’m trying to help you.”

When Renae cackled, Lulza squirmed away all the more from her groping hand. “I get it. You want the keys. Not only do I know where they are, but I think you’re being unjustly imprisoned, Lady Renae. Not that you’re innocent, but you’re not guilty of any crime against Ardem.”

“Crime.” Renae snickered. “Halfsies. You too.”

“What do you mean?”

“You too.”

Lulza was beginning to feel exasperated, not only with the Lady Renae, but with herself, for she wondered what she had ever expected to pry from this insane brain. If she was a little more forthcoming than she had feared, the mad Vanoori was nonetheless still a sealed tomb, with the meaningful part of herself still largely dead.

Only, she wasn’t quite so mad as she was rumored to be. She had heard that Lady Renae wasn’t even sensible, that she could no longer properly match words to meanings. And this woman was definitely passing on her cruel meanings, if only in the form of a puzzle. What were halfsies? Had she meant to say that Lulza was halfway to Renae? Almost there, meaning halfway mad? The search for truth often meant you found things that had better ought to stay hidden, and even the search for news meant you had your nose rubbed in a darker future than you might have lived had you let sleeping dogs lie.

Speaking of dogs, her feet suddenly throbbed with a red-hot ache, as if her five inch heels were driven into the soles of a feet. Suddenly she began to feel aware of how much time had passed. She had no idea how long it would be before the next shift would come, relieving the guard and discovering her mischief, getting her not only expelled but perhaps setting herself up in accommodations just across from Lady Renae. She thought she heard the distant thump thump of boots, the light in the corridor showed npthing nut uninterrupted stones, save for the cobwebs furring the ceiling and the high corners.

When she took a tentative step back, Renae took a scrambling lunge for her bars, as if she could fragment into a pile of bones, reassemble herself on the other side of her cell, and take her slow revenge upon Lulza.

Lulza made a madcap dash for the light of the scrying portal. Once she had crossed from the region of darker denser stone to the lighter area with better acoustics, her friends’ conversation again resonated in the hall.

As she watched, the sphere of light wavered from its spot in the ceiling, slid down the hall, then jerked left to right, then inched back to where it was, as, all the while, the skittering lightsqueaked and squawked with groans and grunts and squabbling, all of her friends’ pretensions to the composure of a godly pantheon forgotten in their lust to steer the scrying portal.

“Give it here”

“It’s my turn, cozy.”

“You’ve both had it long enough, Ty.”

“No!”

“Don’t you dare! That’s my father’s!”

“And this might be my only shot! Especially with you and Gorilla Hands playing keep away”

“Gorilla Hands? It’s not my fault my hands are hairy, Noodle Arms.”

“What!”

“He’s not lying.”

“Cozy!” While Lulza had remembered Xerla as a gangly, noodle-armed girl, more acerbic than sweet, she now produced a deep-bodied growl that would not even be at home in a bass-leaning man forty years her senior, being more likely to bellow from something bull, horse, or tornado shaped.

“Stop it!” hissed Lulza. “That’s not funny!”

“What on Earth?” Tyronius’s comical groan of dismay felt somewhat forced. “She’s turning into a mad, noodle-armed loon!”

“That wasn’t me!” Xerla’s voice warbled, as if on the verge of tears. “You’re cruel, both of you. I just wanted a turn.”

“Who are you talking to?”

Lulza froze. “Who was that? I don’t know that voice.”

“Who’s that!” Xerla shouted.

“It’s me! Well, us.” The voice was quizzical but friendly, and just behind Lulza’s shoulder. While it wasn’t a fearsome voice, she dreaded discovery, and stayed hunkered down, facing the scrying portal.

“They snuck up while we were fighting over it,” said Cozy.

“Not only that,” Tyronius said glumly, “they beat us to it. At least we got a gander of it.”

“A gander of what?” said Lulza, her dread of expulsion and arrest becoming tinged with a shiver of mortal fear.

“Sorry, Lulza.” It was Cozceccia. “We didn’t want to be spotted. Not even by you, actually. Be a sport, and forget you saw us.”

While the white light winked out instantly, the illumination in the corridor took a few moments to dim to its shadowy gray, streaked only by the pricks of gas light roaring here and there along the corridor.

“Got a stiff neck?” This voice lilted at a rapid tempo too chaotic for music, a kind of atonal syncopation that showed a voice used to breezing its way past subtleties and certainties equally. “Or is your feet that challenge you?”

Lulza’s teeth raised on edge, as much irritated as terrified as she slowly turned on her heels, which is to say, her one remaining heel, and the stub from the other one, so that she shifted in a very unsightly way, rather like a mad scientist’s hunchbacked assistant, a wobble emphasized by the red flash of her hair flip as her bangs snapped back over her brow.

If she was frightened before, she was stunned now. Not that the woman was particularly extraordinary, despite that the burning color and curl of her red hair was even more distinctive than hers, and that she was bonier and beefier than Tyronius, and about nine out of ten Ardemian men--no, you couldn’t call such a one extraordinary, however sensational an appearance they made; nor the man, who was so slim and aquiline that he could be called feminine, if it wasn’t more accurate to call him serpentine, otterine, or an amalgam of the human and some other sleek, curvilinear animal; no, it was the third face, propped high on a mountain of grass-green skin and horsehair, that was only able to come down the corridor by hunkering down and trotting with its knees half-bent.

“Is that...I’m sorry, please forgive me the faux pas...are you?”

“Is he a faux pas? That seems uncommonly rude, and I should know, having been more than commonly rude on many occasions.” Having uttered said flip expression, the boy-faced man rolled his eyes and took a dancing half-step around Lulza, as if he had not just insulted her, but graciously accepted her offer to dance.

“A centaur!”

“Not a centaur, occasion. Think event, happening...”

“I know what occasion means! I’m a journalist.”

“A what?” He feigned a bemused look, as if she had just called herself a dragon. “Now a centaur I can understand in Ardem, seeing that we get all kinds here, especially on a Grand Exhibition. But did you say a journalist? I had sooner expected to see a minotaur today.”

“I know that’s you, Roric.” She sighed, scowled, and pressed her fists to her waist as she considered her ex-boyfriend, who was not one to let a gibe go by, especially when they were dating.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize you?”

“Well, it is dark.”

“Actually, we were following a light,” said the outrageously-red redhead. How dare she, really, fumed Lulza, giving her bangs another unconscious puff. “Was that you?”

“You mean, am I incandescent?” Lulza couldn’t help a smug grin. “Or perhaps fluourescent? Perhaps I grew here on these stones, a bioluminescent cave moss?”

“Forgive her,” Roric said, a little too hastily for Lulza’s taste. “She’s usually sharper than this.”

“It’s alright,” said Lulza in a breezy way, then noticed the way Roric’s smile seemed to cut her, and not the gigantic redhead. Was she Vanoori? How dare she even exist? “Oh, you meant me?”

“Yes, you’re not only being quite rude to my new friend, you’re letting down every expectation I had of you with such crass overcompensation. As if she wouldn’t know such words.”

“I don’t know. She might be too tall to see them. You’re both overlooking the elephant in the room after all. Or rather, the centaur. Now it is your turn to forgive me”--she stretched her hand toward the centaur--“as I trained him better than this.”

As she neared the green-skinned half-man, the shockingness of his bizarre attributes was less a revelation than a strange clarity that cut through the dim corridor, as if the centaur shed not only a shadow, but his own sublunar illumination.

His shaggy, green eyebrows, trailing wispy ends that wrapped to near his ears, knit into a scowl, and he clattered forward on his large, clapping hooves.

Lulza realized the nonsensicalness of the mythic monster, for while it looked like a mammal, it was undoubtedly an insect, given its hexapodal structure, its two burly humanoid arms, as thick as human legs, topping its second set of shoulders, and its second abdomen, with abdominal muscles tight as travex rails, perched over the horse body, reminding her of some kind of thorax. Were she half as educated as she was, or ten times more ignorant, she might be able to see the horse-man of myth, but instead all she saw was a bizarre, furry insect, who had an endless green carpet of fur instead of an exoskeleton, and who had two large, limpid hazelnut eyes, and not buggy, multifaceted eyes, but science said, by rule of scientific law and by the logic of fact, that this was an insect-man, not a centaur. Not for the first time, she contemplated the power of an education to irrevocably translate the raw sensory information of experience, and lamented her inability to enjoy the appearance of a storybook character from the fables of her youth.

“Is he a prisoner here?”

“He might as well have been.” Roric’s soft tones became crisp in that subtle way he used to when they argued; for Roric, this slight emphasis was shouting. Roric was angry, even if he didn’t want to show it, for whatever reason. Perhaps he was thinking of the redhead’s feelings, or perhaps he was thinking of the savage. “We took the B corridor, Lulza. You know the one.”

One of the many things they had in common was their fascination with the maps of Ardem, which overlaid the old city over the first generation’s secret laboratories, then later underlaid the undercity under old Ardem. For Lulza, it was only journalistic and historic interest, but for Roric, as in all things, he was thinking of the usefulness of the data. While she had wondered then as to his ambitions of being a sneak thief, she supposed it made more sense for one of his unshakeable moral fibre to be interested in undermining criminal designs, and become a peace officer. It dovetailed well with his interests in fixing things and helping people, both of which she had often suspected he liked to do only out of his deep wellsprings of egotism, for it showed his patent superiority.While she had never so slighted him, her little cuts and barbs had accumulated to the point that he had gone, in that fluid and flowing way he did everything, just as water always takes the path of least resistance, slipping and sliding ever lower in its progress to the foundation. Still waters run deep, but loose waters run loose, and Roric had soon made his splash in Ardem. Graduating summa cum laude two years early, and already a captain in the peace officers. She still resented him for how everything came to him, as if it was just one body of water joining another.

In such a fluid manner he had absorbed the maps of Ardem, so that he retained them instantly, with perfect memory. When he said the B corridor, Lulza had a dim recollection as to what he referred, but it came fuzzily to memory. “You mean the one that bridges the jail with the animal hospital, the morgue, and the peace station?”

“And the College of Architecture.” Roric yawned. “Did I mean nothing to you, given how easily you’ve forgotten our misadventures, Lulz?”

“On the contrary, everything I’ve forgotten has only been by force of will and with great difficulty, Roric. It was the time of my life, and I know that you know that. As it’s too painful to retain such pleasant memories, when they still want to be lived in at the cost of my current livelihood, I keep my mind on present circumstances. So you’ll forgive me if I haven’t dusted these thoughts off in a while.”

“And you’ll forgive me if our encounter proves abrupt,” he said, giving her a much too curt nod for one who had just heard a bared soul shudder, “for while I have the right to walk these halls, or, for that matter, anywhere in Ardem, my presence here would require much explaining, and, I fear, end with the law being rewritten, rather than enforced, for this noble centaur’s no doubt extravagantly wealthy would-be owner.”

“Well, there’s little chance of that now, is there?” Lulza cocked her head and looked at him angrily. “If you hoped to rumor and run, you’re going to be grossly disappointed, because I’m going to be sure to publish this in large print, probably as an extra edition, today.”

“I hope you choose to do so,” said Roric.

“Wait a minute!” said the red-headed woman. While no doubt younger than Lulza by at least four years, there was no possibility of Lulza thinking her a girl, not even in her head, not when the other woman was so tall, thick, and chesty. “Won’t that be bad for our friend?” While her voice had become somewhat more strident, she forced a smile, and strove not to look at the centaur.

“How could the truth be bad?” asked Lulza.

Roric sighed. “Forgive my overly-idealistic friend, Elessa. Speaking to the particulars of this creature--I might even call him friend, as you do, for it is a noble conceit--either we have liberated a prisoner, if he somehow thinks as we do and is deserving of his captivity, or we have set free a caged beast back into the wild. While you might call this naive of me, how could it be bad, and how could others think so.”

“I understood her,” said Elessa, her brows knitting in a scowl. “Actually, I understand everything she said.” When her lips worried up and down in a frown of displeasure, Lulza realized that the giant redhead entertained designs on Roric. While her heart went out to the large woman, her mind crossed out poor girl and settled on poor thing. It could only ever be puppy love, couldn’t it, when a beast loved a man?

Roric was oblivious. “I’m very glad, Vanoori. Your ears should be an asset in the lecture hall.” He sighed. “Well, if you’re on our side, Lulza, come with us then.”

Lulza shrank inside herself. Regardless how well-intentioned, sneaking into these off-limits area would get her expelled, especially considering this wasn’t the first time she’d be caught out of bounds in Ardem. “I can come with you most of the way, Roric. Actually, I should think you’d be glad of my company by now, with that savage in tow.” While there was only one savage in actuality, her eyes flashed to Elessa.

“I should think you’d be more sympathetic to that savage,” sniped Roric, “when that savage has a gentler heart than any I have met.”

“As if I cared.” Lulza’s nostrils flared. “You can ride whatever beast you like.”

Elessa’s scowl furrowed deeper. “Why would we ride him, Lulza? He’s so shaky he can barely walk. Who knows what they fed the poor creature.”

Lulza only tittered, and favored Elessa with a condescending smile. “Shouldn’t you know how creatures get so large?”

“Why, because I’m a farmer?” When Lulza rolled her eyes, Elessa frowned at Roric. “What did you tell her about me?”

“When did I have a chance?” Roric snickered. “Why would I tell my ex about you? Even if I had any designs on you, that would only give her ammunition.”

When Lulza cackled, and Roric allowed himself a snide smile, realization dawned on Elessa. She should know how creatures get so large, not because she was a farmer, but because she herself was large.

“I can’t understand why you’re not still together,” said Elessa. “You two deserve each other. It would be torture to inflict either of you on anyone else.” When she turned her hurt scowl to the centaur, he laid an understanding hand upon her shoulder, and stooped to the corridor floor with an unmistakable intent.

If the Vanoori farmgirl was a bit naive, she was neither slow on the uptake nor short on courage, for no sooner had the centaur knelt than she availed herself of his offer, and no sooner had she straddled his horse half than the beast tore down the corridor, leaving Roric and Lulza standing there staring at each other with mouths agape and eyes wide. While only a few feet stood between her and Roric, she felt they were very much left to themselves, and by no means together; moreover, she read the pang of regret that flashed across his face, and knew his heart not only went out to the Vanoori woman, but raced after her with a speed that would rival a centaur’s.

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