Chapter 3: Ungracious Hosts
I swam the surface of a misty lake, looking for someone. Ari’s head popped out of the water a few meters ahead of me. Her face was full of worry.
“There you are! You had me scared for a bit.”
“Now who would want to do that?” I responded. Just then the mist started to spin again, making my head hurt. I closed my eyes.
I opened them again to see a khaki-colored stuccoed ceiling. Ari’s face reappeared, still worried but upside down this time. My head pounded.
“How do you feel?”
“Like someone dropped a house on me.”
“Close, they whapped you with the barrel of one of those Mk III’s we’ve been talking about.”
“And I thought they were only good for shooting people.”
“Now that you’re conscious, take these. It’ll help.” She held up a couple of tablets. I was lying on a bed, my head on a damp cloth which was folded on her lap. “Let them dissolve under your tongue.” She dropped them in my mouth.
“Hush! Don’t talk ‘til they dissolve. We’re still somewhere in the palace. An interior room, not a dungeon, I’m guessing.”
I waited for the tablets to dissolve, and then sat up, slowly to keep my head from exploding. It was a modest room, but clearly not a cell. The door was too flimsy for that. In addition to the bed we sat on, there was a chair and a small wooden table, upon which stood a clear carafe of water and two cups. The only illumination was a single taper in a candle-holder hanging from the ceiling. Ari’s hoverchair was just within her reach.
“How long was I gone?”
“About two hours.”
“Damn! That long?” I felt my ear. “And they took the communicator. Any idea what’s happening out there?”
She shook her head, “I thought I heard some distant gunfire when they were bringing us here. We’re probably too deep in the bowels of this place to hear anything now.”
“Damn!” I repeated. Are we being overheard?
Doubt it. I checked the place out pretty thoroughly once I figured out you were probably going to live.
It’s being watched. I don’t know by how many or how they’re armed.
There was a knock at the door. We looked at each other for a moment. I nodded.
“Come in,” said Ari.
It opened. The man I had presumed to be the chamberlain entered. I got a glimpse of one of the Keeper’s guards carrying a battle-rifle. The official pulled up the chair, sat and removed his hood, revealing close-cropped, silver hair and steel-blue eyes. There was a predatory, almost wolfish air about the man, which helped me to take an instant dislike to him.
“I am Teo of House Parthans, the Keeper’s cup bearer and speaker. I am most gratified to see that you are well.”
“Better anyway.” I rubbed the back of my neck.
“I must apologize. When one of our guards saw you using a hidden communicator, he…over reacted.”
No kidding! I thought. “I was wondering if knocking guests senseless was a standard part of Rii hospitality,” I said aloud.
“Well, seeing that no permanent harm was done to my consort,” said Ari, “we should get back to our normal business.”
The Keeper’s speaker looked at me. “Is it your custom to allow your woman to speak unbidden?”
I smiled. I didn’t see Ari’s reaction. “She is the ambassador, not I.”
He sat silent.
The ancient Emperor Napoleon once said, “Never interrupt your opponent when he is making a mistake.” Let them ignore me, at least for now.
Alright, but please interrupt me when I’m making one. “It is most unfortunate that your guard chose to over react. I was just being informed of an attack upon this planet. You must see to your defenses.”
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken. There is no attack upon Rii.”
“It was prevented when a squadron from King Edgar’s Free Worlds Alliance destroyed an Imperial ship in the midst of preparing an act of aggression.”
So that’s the tack their taking! Thought Ari. What do you think Dri?
Shocking if true, but I don’t believe it for an instant. Winslow’s not fool enough to fight those odds and it would take a very lucky hit from a fighter to keep the Agamemnon from escaping.
“I believe it is you who are mistaken, sir,” I smiled. “When we commit an act of aggression, we just commit it. We don’t send negotiators first. The Empire’s just not that subtle.”
“Nevertheless, there will be no attack,” said the chamberlain, flatly.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure now. His Majesty hates it when one of his ships gets destroyed, or a representative kidnapped.” I replied. “It spoils his breakfast.”
If the Keeper and his pirate friends have things so well in hand, why are they bothering to talk to us? Ask him that, Dri.
I decided to be direct. “Why are you here?”
“I’m concerned about Rii’s relationship with the Imperium.”
“It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?”
That means the Agamemnon got away and Windridge and his lads are still at large. Otherwise, he wouldn’t give a switch what we thought!
“We wish you no harm and have no desire to keep you as prisoners here. We have agreed with Edgar to allow you and your guards to leave Rii under a flag of truce. You will be taken to the nearest Imperial planet and released. Your men will have to leave their armor and weapons behind, of course.”
Of course. All ready for Van Zant’s scientists and engineers! Ari, is he lying?
I’m a telepath, not a truth detector. I will say, if he believes Van Zant will let me go, he’s a fool. I know too much. You can be sure that the old pirate is just itching to turn me over to his mindflayers.
“Interesting. Tell me, Lord Parthans, is that Imperial planet inhabited? Does it have a breathable atmosphere?” I was starting to like this diplomacy stuff.
The verbal jousting continued for a few more minutes. Finally, the Rii official stood up to leave.
“May I ask of you one question?” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“A personal one?”
“What would lead an ambitious young officer to actually marry a genetic abomination?”
I frowned. “You wouldn’t understand.” You ignorant barbarian son of a bitch!
As soon as he left, I jumped up and quietly wedged the chair under the door-latch. I looked back at Ari, her head was bowed.
“That was a nasty shot, and entirely unnecessary.”
She raised her head. She was smiling, but there was sadness in her eyes. “It was a calculated cruelty, intended to demoralize me. He may be a bigot, but unfortunately he’s not a fool. He knows who the real ambassador is and how to hurt her.”
I sat next to Ari and she leaned her head on my shoulder. “I’ve heard the like before, even on ‘enlightened’ Terra. Did you know that my father represented Syrenka in the Imperial Senate? I was still a child when I was first brought to Earth. I loved it. I visited her fabulous cities, swam all seven of her seas, but what I really loved were the hills and mountains. Syrenka has no mountains, at least none above the ocean surface. And water’s too dense to allow anyone to see something as large as a mountain all at once. The Himalayas! They took my breath away! I wanted to climb them -- just to the snow-pack. I’m certain a way could have been found to do it, but Mother would have none of it. I did get to roll in snow once, in Mishygun I think the country was called.
“Most people on Earth were nice, but occasionally we would hear the words ‘anathema’ or ‘abomination’ thrown at us - all because my people were genetically engineered, thousands of years ago. I still knew, despite this, that Terra/Earth was our original home, the seas just felt right, the fish tasted right, the air smelt right. I knew I belonged there as much as I belong to Syrenka. I know, and no one can convince me otherwise-- that I am human.”
I put my arm around her. “It never occurred to me to think anything else,” I said. “You know, I’ve never been to Terra.”
“I thought you said you were Welsh.”
“By ancestry, yes. I was born and grew up on Caledon.”
“Caledon, that’s a Centauri world, isn’t it?”
“Yes, several of my schoolmates were Centaurs.”
“Is that where you get your open-mindedness toward Chimaera?”
“Hardly. ‘Taurs tend to be pretty wild. Many aren’t nearly so attached to their humanity as you. ”
“Really? I’ve met, but never actually gotten to know any Centaurs.”
“I remember the Fleetwynde brothers. They used to get in all sorts of mischief. Once, we…er…maybe I should tell that tale some other time.”
“You said we.”
“Uh… yes, we.”
“Strait-laced Lieutenant Rhodri Morgan Imperial Navy? You got into trouble with some Centaurs? I’ve gotta hear this!” Her eyes had a mischievous twinkle.
“I was a kid. This was way before the Navy.”
“Still, you have to tell me.”
“Don’t know if I should,” I teased, “though I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired by now.”
“Tell me! Tell me!” She bounced on her tail.
“I promise I will, but I need to work up the nerve first!” Shouldn’t we be planning our escape?
Yeah, sure. She rolled her eyes.
Should we do it now, or do you think we should rest first?
Now. I never could sleep well in captivity. Besides, you’ve just had a nap.
You call that a nap? I shook my head, which was a mistake. Ow! Well, our first problem is that guy on the other side of the door.
Let me handle him. She deftly bounced herself into her chair. But take one of these, just in case. She pushed a small button hidden under the hoverchair’s cushion. A panel opened next to the armrest. Inside were two large caliber handguns with four spare magazines.
Damn! I took one, hefted it and stuck it in my jacket along with two of the magazines. A first-aid kit and now these, pretty handy, that chair.
Yes, it’s not just for hauling my tail around. She stuffed the other under her sash. Now, about that guard. Clear that chair out of the way and stand behind the door.
I grinned. Yes, ma’am! And did as she asked.
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing softly.
Alas! My Love, ye do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
And I have loved you for so long
Delighting in thy company
(It was an ancient song in an ancient tongue. At first I didn’t recognize it. In any case, I was soon totally enraptured.)
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my lady Greensleeves
(The latch clicked, and the door slowly opened. The guard, a tall man with shaggy-blonde hair, stepped in and propped his rifle against the wall.)
Alas! My Love, that ye should own
A heart of wanton vanity.
So I must meditate alone
Upon thine insincerity
Ari smiled at the guard. The guard smiled back. I smacked him on the back of his head with the pistol barrel.
“That was beautiful! Well worth a whack on the head!” I said, and then dragged the inert Rii behind the bed. “You’ll have to sing to me like that someday.”
“Be careful what you ask for!” Her eyes sparkled again.
“You know I always thought those stories about Syrenkan singing were a bunch of bull.”
“The designers of my people knew their business and their mythology.”
“Still, it seems like an odd skill to give to political prisoners.”
Ari laughed and shrugged. “Who knows what was on their minds.”
“Well, I hope you kept track of the way out of here, since I was ‘napping’ when we were brought in.”
“Of course.” She kept watch at the door as I stripped the guard of his robes. Rii clothing tends to be one size fits most, so I had no trouble getting them on. “You look like a proper Rii Guardsman.”
“Until I open my mouth. I’m terrible at imitating accents.”
She waggled her tail-fin. “I’m afraid nothing can be done to make me look more like a Rii.”
“You’ll just have to be my prisoner.” I picked up the rifle. “Move along now, Imperial scum!”
“Stop that! We’ll be caught for sure if you make me laugh.”
Ari led the way. As I’d hoped, they had deposited us in a little used part of the palace. The stone passageways were long and narrow, our footsteps muffled by rugs woven from some kind of vegetable fiber. A lit taper in a sconce placed every few paces kept it dim, but not dark. It was quite a while before we saw or heard any sign of anyone, but as we were approaching the top of some stairs, not far from the throne room, we heard voices.
Are they coming this way? I thought.
Let’s hide. Our disguise isn’t likely to work for very long. We backed down the stairs and entered a room that Ari was able to ascertain was empty. It was dark, but there was enough light coming from under the door for me to see that it was a somewhat bigger and nicer version of our former cell. The voices, now clearly two females, approached, and then stopped just outside. We quickly looked around for a place to conceal ourselves. There was just a dressing screen that wasn’t big enough for Ari, let alone both of us. I quietly moved behind the door. Ari shrugged, folded her hands on her lap and waited. I could hear the conversation through the door.
“I want to be alone.”
“As you wish, milady.”
“If my lord asks, tell him the child fatigues me, but I shall attend to him in an hour, if it pleases him.”
At that, one of the women continued down the hall; much to my relief. But then the latch clicked and the door opened. I heard a gasp. That was my cue to act. I reached around the door and grabbed our unwelcome visitor, one hand over her mouth the other arm around her middle.
The Rii do not respect women, but apparently they teach them to fight. Or perhaps the women teach each other how to fight. In either case, I quickly found myself very busy. Her foot struck a glancing blow to my thigh, bruising it. If I hadn’t moved just then, my knee would have been broken. She produced a knife from somewhere. I let go of her middle to grab her wrist. Her teeth drew blood from my hand.
STOP! DON’T STRUGGLE! The surprise and shock from Ari’s mental shout were immediately effective. The woman went limp. We do not wish to hurt you. If you will not scream, he will let go. After a moment, she nodded. I carefully let go of her. She half sat, half collapsed onto the bed.
“I cannot fight witchcraft,” she said softly. I recognized her now as the Keeper’s consort.
This certainly complicates things. Thought Ari.