Chapter 10: The King
Well, that’s the story. I hope it was worth waiting for.
There was no answer.
There was a light snore from the next stall.
I thought you didn’t sleep well in captivity. “Alright love, goodnight.” I said softly. “You’ll probably need it tomorrow.”
I tried to sleep as well, but it was no use. I tried to work my way loose, but that was also unfruitful. So I just laid there and allowed my thoughts to run their course.
I wondered what was happening to my little rebellion, which would have been discovering my absence right about then. Would they pack up and go home or find a new leader? Who would that be and what would he do? I prayed it wouldn’t be anything stupid.
I also wondered what had happened to Chang, Windridge and his squad. Were they able to find Jen and get her out safely? I found myself hoping that somehow they would find out where Ari and I were and come and free us. Now would probably be their best, if not only opportunity.
Finally, light began to leak into the stable and I heard stirring.
Did you have a nice nap?
Yes. And the most wonderful dream! You were…Just a moment, my arms are still asleep. I heard some flopping and thrashing, grunting and chain rattling. Tails were not made for turning on a dry bed while all trussed up like a Christmas turkey. There! That did it. Ow! The tingles. How about you, sweetie?
No dreams and no sleep.
She made a sympathetic sound.
Then, Dri, there’s something I have to say. I know it’s not a good time or place, but I don’t want to lose the chance to say it. I love you!
“I love you too.” I said aloud.
No doubts, no reservations, no matter what happens today or any other day. I heard a muffled sob. I do so want to sing it to you!
You will, and soon too. I’m looking forward to it.
I heard voices, the sound of a padlock being opened and the lifting of a bar. Dazzling sunlight streamed in as the doors were swung wide.
I won’t let them make me forget you, Dri!
Half a dozen armed Rii entered the stable. They were wearing the same yellow sashes that marked the King’s men, but I recognized none of them. They unwrapped my chain from the post and carried me outside; then deposited me in the back of a horse-drawn wagon and fastened the chain to a metal bracket. They did the same with Ari.
This was the closest we’d managed to get to each other in quite some time.
I turned to face her and smiled. You’re a sight for sore eyes!
More like an eyesore.
Not a bit! You’re perfectly gorgeous!
Her eyes were red and tired, but still managed a little sparkle. You really know how to talk to a lady! I bet you say that to all the mermaids.
Indeed, all the ones I’ve ever met.
Two men climbed into the wagon’s bench. One picked up the reins and cracked a small whip. The wagon started moving toward the gate.
“Where are you taking us?” I asked.
One of the men glanced back, but said nothing.
“I say! Where are you taking us?”
He looked back again and frowned. “To see the king. I would advise a bit less lip!”
The wagon trundled through the gate, where a number of men fell in with it and marched along side. I noticed that the sides of the vehicle were tall. No one could see us but the two drivers whose backs were turned.
Ari, can you sing softly enough that only these two men could hear?
Perhaps, if I could sing at all.
Let’s see. I leaned over her, grabbed the wrappings on her mouth with my teeth and tugged. There was a flash of pain across my shoulders.
“Here! None of that now!” The assistant driver shook the whip at us. “They was gettin’ a bit sparky back there Erd!”
“Nooo!” said Erd, his eyes wide. “Some people!”
“Cain’t says I blame ‘im much,” said the first. “She’s a pretty one she is. Hey you!” He waved. “Jump up on the back and keep an eye on these two before they start propagatin’.” One of the guards hopped onto the tailgate and sat, curiously staring at us.
Well, it was worth a try.
You all right, Dri?
Just stings a little. I’m more pissed and embarrassed than hurt.
After a long, bumpy but otherwise uneventful ride, we arrived at the palace. It was the same gate by which we had entered less than forty-eight hours before. Our chains were undone and left on the wagon while we were carried in. Instead of being taken directly into the throne room we were carried to separate chambers. I was sat down upon a couch in what must have been a waiting room. One guard covered me with his rifle while the other cut my bonds.
I rubbed my wrists and ankles. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said as he put away his blade. “Thank his majesty, the king. It’s his command.” I could tell by his accent that he was one of Edgar’s Free Worlders not a Rii. “Put that on.” He pointed to a chair where my uniform shirt and jacket, which I’d left in the palace, were folded. My boots stood on the floor next to it.
My uniform pants were rather the worse for wear and smelled of stable, but I managed to make myself somewhat presentable and was escorted to the passageway. Ari was already there. She was unbound, except for her mouth which was still tightly covered. She had on the dress, which she had abandoned during our escape. They had even managed to find a wheelchair for her.
Well Dri, how do I look?
Can’t say I like the ‘veiled’ look. Other than that, quite devastating as usual.
Thank you! I have to agree about the ‘veil’ but they tell me such mouth coverings are the latest fad in Edgar’s court.
“Bring forth the prisoners!” It sounded like the same baritone voice that had announced us the day before yesterday.
That’s our cue, sweetie! Thought Ari.
The large double doors opened, I straightened my jacket and then pushed her into the throne room.
Edgar the First Van Zant, King of New Aragon and President of the Free Worlds Alliance, stood in front of what had been the Keeper’s throne. The plain marble seat was now draped in cloth-of-gold. Edgar stood in a suit of yellow power-armor, different from those worn by his elite troops only in having a green laurel wreath and crown painted on the chest. He was not particularly impressive in appearance; with average height and build, short curly black hair and a rather coarse face. He had however an indefinable charisma that crackled about him like static electricity. He would likely have been a force to be reckoned with on any world in any walk of life. He had with him a number of followers; some in armor, some in naval-styled uniforms others in more or less elaborate civilian clothing, including women. He looked up from a tablet he was reading and smiled pleasantly.
“Lady Ariadne Spindrift, Imperial Diplomatic Service and Lieutenant Rhodri ab Owain Morgan, Imperial Navy I do believe. I have so looked forward to meeting you.”
Let’s play nice, Dri. He seems to be in a good mood. I bowed and Ari dipped her head politely.
“I’m glad to see that you are well.” He gave Ari a concerned look. “Those mouth bindings look uncomfortable. Are they?”
“If you give me your word of honor that you will not attempt to sing a charm, I shall have them removed.”
Ari hesitated for just a moment and then nodded again.
He motioned to one of his guards, who approached Ari, drew a knife and cut the knot on the back of her neck. She unwound the long wrapping, rubbed her cheeks and lips and breathed deeply.
“Thank you, your Majesty,” she said hoarsely.
“Mind, if you break your word…” Edgar motioned another guard forward. “If she starts to sing, shoot him.” He pointed at me.
“Now.” He smiled again. “I suppose you’re wondering what I intend to do with you. Well, I won’t keep you in suspense.” He put his hands behind his back and turned to Ari. “I’m afraid, my dear, it’s to the mindflayers for you. Even if you were willing to divulge all you know, I can’t risk the possibility of you ‘forgetting’ something vital. There’s too much at stake. I hope you understand.”
Ari sat perfectly still, only a slight quiver of her tail fin betrayed any emotion.
“As for you, young man,” He turned to me. “I can’t imagine there’s anything a junior-grade lieutenant would know that would be worth the time and expense of a mindflaying. I will however, ask of you some questions. If I like the answers, I shall give her back to you when we’re done with her. Of course, she’ll have the mental capacity of a two-year-old, but,” He shrugged. “That’s war.”
“And if you don’t like the answers,” I said.
“I shall have no choice but to mindflay you as well; just on general principle.”
“Before you get any heroic or romantic notions,” Edgar continued. “After mindflaying she’ll need someone to take care of her for the rest of her life. Wouldn’t it be better for her if that someone were you?”
He’s right. Thought Ari. Don’t sacrifice yourself needlessly. If you can answer without betraying your oath, do so; for my sake if not for yours.
Edgar turned and said, “Bring it in.” At first, I thought that the soldiers were carrying a body, but it was a suit of armor, Imperial power armor. The only damage was a ragged hole in the chest. I swallowed hard. Ari put her face in her hands. “The original bearer of this armor will receive full military honors. You can rest assured,” said the king. “The suit itself is our prize.”
“We were quite impressed with the improvements,” Edgar continued. “Especially the chameleon camouflage. Defeating your squad was very difficult and costly.
“We know that an access code is necessary or any attempt to wear or operate this suit will result in electrocution. What is the access code, Mister Morgan?”
In this case, I knew the best answer was the plain truth. “The access code is individual to each trooper and is known only to that trooper and his armorer.”
The king nodded. “It’s a system very similar to our own. I suppose we shall have to back engineer the code ourselves.
“That was very good, lieutenant; now, tell me the disposition of the Imperial fleet in the Rimward Prefecture.”
“That is information a junior lieutenant is not privy to.”
“True, but you would know some things. The Agamemnon is a heavy cruiser; such ships do not usually sail alone.”
“We were sailing alone none the less.”
“She was alone when we arrived in system. I’ll give you that,” said Edgar. “No, I won’t make your situation impossible. You can have your wife back when we’re finished with her. I’m feeling rather magnanimous today.”
“May I impose upon that magnanimity, your grace?” Ari said quietly. “I would make a final request, while still in my right mind.”
“You may make your request.”
“I would like to sing to Rhodri one last time.” She glanced at me sadly. I felt my throat tighten.
Edgar frowned. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Please, your grace. I could do it away from others. In an isolated room, like the one where I dressed. Perhaps it could be sound-proofed?”
I hated to see her beg, but I wanted the same thing. I didn’t know what to say.
Edgar turned to the ladies that had attended to Ari. “What of that room?”
“The walls, floor and ceiling are stone, Sire,” one of them replied. “There are no windows, and only one heavy door.”
“We could rig up the same sound-dampening system as the one covering your private quarters.” Said another.
“How long will that take?” He asked.
“About a half-hour.” Replied another male courtier.
“Very well.” Edgar smiled. “It is against my better judgment, but I have a weakness for the pleas of a pretty woman, even a chimaera.
“I am most grateful.” Ari bowed her head.
“A half-hour you said?”
The man nodded. “Yes, Sire.”
“It is about time for lunch. Madame Ambassador, you and your consort will dine with me. After which, you will have a half-hour to sing to him.”
In a few minutes, we were seated at a large table in a slightly smaller hall. King Edgar sat at the end, Ari and I faced each other a little ways away. We were the only guests. Two armed guards watched our every move.
We were glad for the food; it had been a long time since either of us had eaten. Ari quickly drained two tumblers of water. “I was quite dry,” she apologized. We ate in silence for a few minutes, and then the king spoke.
“Your father was Owain Morgan?”
“The same Owain Morgan who was chief engineer on the Star Empress?”
I’m so sorry Dri. I should have made the connection. Thought Ari.
“He saved a lot of passengers’ lives at the cost of his own. Your father was a hero.” The king saluted with his wineglass.
I nodded. “Thank you. That was how I got my appointment to the Imperial Naval Academy.” Of course even that was not enough to make up for being fatherless from the age of four.
“The emperor does know how to show gratitude. I’ll give him that. I know how to show gratitude as well.” He folded his arms and leaned toward me. “I’m only a few years older, but I could be like a father to you.”
I just stared. He’s planning to destroy my Ari’s mind yet he wants to recruit me? The man’s arrogance was breathtaking.
“Think about it.
“And you, my dear,” he turned cheerfully to Ari. “I’ve heard of your father as well, the great Senator Thesios of Spindrift. How is he?”
“He’s well, as is my mother. They are retired and living on Syrenka,” she said calmly.
“I imagine they won’t take the news of your mindflaying very well, but don’t fret yourself too much, dear lady,” said Edgar. “I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve undergone mindflaying, most are quite happy afterwards. Perhaps they (and you) can take comfort from that.”
I knew little about mindflaying other than that it’s a deep and damaging interrogation by powerful telepaths who are trained to dredge and sift a human psyche for information. I wished I knew less. It’s considered a war crime by the Imperium and is used nowhere else in civilized space. I wanted to say or think something comforting to Ari, but there just didn’t seem to be anything. I’m here. I finally thought.
She looked at me and smiled. I know. I want to remember you just like that. I won’t forget.
“A most curious thing,” said Edgar, putting down his knife and fork for a moment. “When were the two of you married? We found no record of such a ceremony. It would have been a notable social event, even on Terra.”
“It was a private ceremony,” I replied. “We wanted to avoid the hoopla of the social scene.”
“I see. Very wise, a human/chimaera union might not sit well with some people. And I hate paparazzi myself. I have a few hung now and again, just to keep ‘em in check,” he said, almost absently.
Later, we were sitting and sipping sherry, while Edgar blathered on about something we were no longer interested in, when one of his servants knocked and entered. “Preparations are complete, Sire.”
“Well, that’s that,” said the king. “It’s been delightful, but it must end.” More guards entered the hall. “Now follow these gentlemen.” He glanced at his watch. “You have half an hour. Don’t tire yourself out milady. You have a very busy few days ahead of you. Goodbye.”
I stood up. Ari wheeled herself away from the table. I pushed her down the passage. The guards offered no opportunities, even if we could both run.
We stopped in front of a thick, wooden door. There was some equipment and a small antenna array across the hall along with a small crowd of people.
“There you go,” said a man who seemed to be in charge. “All soundproofed. You can sing all the charms you wish. No one else will hear.” He opened the door. “There’s even a couch in case you want to do something other than sing.” There was a ripple of laughter from the guards and servants. We entered and the door was closed behind us.
Ari wheeled herself to the center of the room and turned toward me. “Now don’t do anything stupid when they come for me.” She sniffed the air. “I don’t want to see you die!”
She then wheeled herself here and there about the room, sniffing.
“What are you doing?” I wondered if she had finally snapped.
“No time to explain.” She pointed at a wall. “Notice the discoloration in the marble. There was a partition there. This used to be two smaller rooms.” She rolled to one corner, leaned over and sniffed again. “I want no nonsense about you not touching me afterwards. I can’t imagine them doing anything to my brain that would keep me from enjoying an occasional orgasm. That is,” she paused, “if I’m still appealing to you afterwards.”
“Of course you will be. I don’t think I could keep my hands off of you!”
Ari smiled. “Why thank you, Dri!” She removed a footrest from the wheelchair and used it to tap one of the stone floor tiles.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to make this whole conversation moot.” She took the footrest in both hands and brought it down hard on the tile (whack!). “I sure hope their sound proofing is as good as they think it is.” (whack!) “I don’t think I’m quite strong enough. You try it, Dri.”
“All right.” I took the footrest. “I think I know what you’re doing now.” (crack!) The thin marble shattered like glass. I pulled out the shards and scooped away a layer of sand revealing a manhole cover. “How did you know that was there?” I said in awe.
“I didn’t. When I was in here before, I smelled water where there should be none. I saw the discoloration on the wall then too. I prayed to God that I wasn’t just grasping at straws, that here was a fifth maintenance well, and He answered! Now, let’s get the hell out of here before our time runs out!”