Chapter 7: Round and Round Underground
When the sound of gunfire from above broke the silence in the tunnel, Lady Ariadne turned as pale as death.
“I fear we must move again milady,” said Windridge.
She turned to him as though to object, but stopped herself and nodded weakly.
Quickly and quietly the party moved forward. The water deepened again and soon, with hardly a ripple, Ari slipped over the side of the boat and swam to the nearest well. She stared at the circle of hard, blue sky above her head. The light made her hair seem to glow. The sergeant followed. There was something in her appearance that reminded him of the daughter he had not seen in nearly five years. He gently placed his gauntleted hand on her shoulder. She turned to him, eyes streaming.
“I never got to sing to him, or tell him that I loved him.”
Windridge raised his visor. “Milady, he’s hard to kill. I’m sure he’ll find his way back to us.”
She nodded and tried to smile. “Of course Sergeant. Let’s go.”
I followed the man through the warehouse, between stacked bundles of some kind of plant material. I had no idea what they were for, which reminded me of how little I knew about this world. At the far end, he stopped and pulled aside one of the stacks. There was a waist-high hole in the wall there. He motioned me through, stepped inside and pulled the stack back in place. We paused long enough for him to light a taper then continued along a long narrow corridor and down a rickety stair. I then followed him through a series of confusing twists and turns. At one point, I recognized a section of hallway we had just passed.
He’s leading me in circles, trying to get me lost. This made me wary, but did not overly concern me. It was reasonable for him not to trust a complete stranger. Finally, he used a key to unlock a wooden door. Inside was a room that contained some bunks, a table and a few chairs. He next placed the taper in a wall sconce and elbowed me in the stomach. He then over-bore me back onto the table and stuck a rather ornate knife under my chin.
“Alright, off-worlder, who are you and what are you doing here!”
Martial arts are not neglected in an Imperial officer’s training. In fact, when not facing pregnant adolescents or being assaulted from behind while dining, I’m reasonably good at unarmed combat. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I was weary of being pushed around and was ready to show it. I put a knee into his crotch and flipped him over. Soon I had a pistol muzzle in his ear and my knee over his hyper-extended knife-arm.
“Drop it or I break it!”
The blade clattered to the floor.
“Now, let’s continue with our introductions. You first. I insist.”
“Reden Drogar, merchant and loyal servant of the Keeper. And you?”
“Rhodri Morgan, naval officer and escort to His Majesty’s Representative.”
He stopped struggling. “You still live?” He looked genuinely astonished.
“No! Not if you speak the truth!”
“I gain no advantage lying about it.”
“Then we should not be enemies.” Reden brightened considerably.
“Tell that to the Keeper and his Cup-bearer.” I carefully released him, however, pulled a chair to the center of the room and sat down. I kept my hand on the pistol, just in case.
The merchant sat up and rubbed his arm. He looked warily at the pistol and didn’t venture to retrieve his knife. “The Keeper may have changed his opinion. Do you not know what happened overnight?”
Drogar raised an eyebrow and then continued. “After midnight, Free World ships came bearing armored warriors. They attacked and captured Chang’s place; killing the Imperials that were there.”
I shook my head.
“Was that not true?”
“Let’s say it was greatly exaggerated.”
He nodded. “Well, shortly after, there was a great explosion. Many of Edgar’s armored men were killed.”
Really! I know a certain sergeant who would be very happy to hear that.
“The Free Worlds commander was very angry. He seemed, somehow, to hold our people responsible.”
“He just needed a scapegoat for his stupidity to save his own hide.”
“He tried to disarm the militia and executed the Captain of the Keeper’s Guard, the Keeper’s nephew! Without so much as his highness’ leave!”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Sounds like a major diplomatic faux pas.”
“A bad thing for Edgar.”
“I understand. I think.”
“You see, a lack of discipline in the upper ranks has always been a weakness in the Pirate Kings’ forces. Too many field commanders are aware that each of them carries both a noose and a crown in his knapsack.”
“You’ve confused me again.”
I relaxed and tried to explain it to him. “They know that a turn of fortune might lead to the gallows or it could make one of them the next king, president, sultan or whatever title suits his fancy. What happened next?”
“The Guard rose to a man and killed him and much of his staff!” The older man had a satisfied smile.
This just keeps getting better! How does St. Sunza’s prayer go? ‘Dear God, if Thou willst not to make me wise, please make mine enemies stupid.’ The Lord moved before we even asked!
“More ships landed, with more armored men. They quickly subdued the Guard and, by daylight, had spread throughout the city. They announced that anyone found on the streets would be summarily shot! Finally, about an hour ago, I heard some firing from the direction of the palace.”
Just then, there was a knock at the door followed by a voice. “Reden?”
I gripped my pistol and frowned at the merchant.
He held up a hand and spoke, “Hold for a moment, Taif.” He whispered to me, “I called a secret meeting of the shop-keepers’ Guild Council to decide what we must do about the crisis. There should be about a dozen, like me, if they weren’t caught away from the city by the curfew.”
I nodded and withdrew my hand. This could prove both interesting and useful.
After wandering for nearly an hour, the party stopped at another shallow area nearer to the center of the city. It was still eerily quiet above. Lady Ariadne sat in the boat with Justin. Windridge set a guard then gathered the remaining marines.
“What do we do now?” asked Justin.
“We go to the palace,” said Ari. “We’re going to rescue Jen. If she doesn’t need rescuing yet, we’ll have to kidnap her.”
“I’m sorry I asked!”
“Whatever is happening above us, I can’t help but feel that things are going awry for the Rii alliance with the Pirates. I care little for what happens to the Keeper.” Ari frowned. “He’s a fool and a traitor to the Empire. I have a personal commitment, however, to his wife and child. I also believe it’s good Imperial policy to preserve the Rii dynasty.” She turned to Windridge. “Dri said something about having a ghost of a plan; did he say anything to you about it?”
“’Fraid not, ma’am.”
“We’ll have to come up with one of our own then.”
The Rii Merchant’s guild proved to be a rather quarrelsome lot. There was consensus when it came to the outrageous behavior of Edgar’s troops. What to do about it, however, was another matter. Only two out of the eleven who showed up were for giving Edgar another chance, and they were half-hearted about it. Just one wanted to expel all off-worlders. He commanded little enthusiasm. Most favored going back to the old, lighter yoke of Imperial rule.
Sadly, that was probably no longer possible, though I wasn’t about to tell them that. Shots had been fired in rebellion. It would be highly unlikely that the Emperor would be able to ignore calls from the Senate to tighten the leash on Rii, even if he wanted to. When you add Rii’s freshly noticed strategic importance, a garrison is the very least change to be expected. More than likely this world will be incorporated into a province and lose much of its autonomy.
But, would that be so bad? They would gain the rights of citizenship. The women, at least, would benefit from that. They all would receive the franchise as well, though Rii is too small for its own senator. They would also no longer be a technological and cultural backwater.
What would they lose? Their freedom, obviously. They haven’t used it to their best advantage, but it’s still theirs. Also their culture, in short everything that makes them uniquely Rii; both the good with the bad. There must be some good aspects to their way of life, though Ari and I certainly didn’t get to see any of them.
My reverie was interrupted by Reden. “What does the Imperial Representative think?”
“I’ll ask her when next I see her.”
They looked at me blankly. Is that really so difficult for them? Is it impossible for them to even conceive that the real ambassador is that ‘silly chimaera woman who can’t even walk’? Hmm, maybe a bit of homogenizing into the Imperium would do them more good than harm after all.
I knew I had to say something to them. Things were coming to a head. I couldn’t just push it all onto Ari’s absent shoulders. What would she say? I asked myself and then stood and stepped to the middle of the room.
“However, I’m sure that I know what she would tell you if she were here. I’m not going to fill you with fluff about Imperial patriotism. You need to resist for your own best interests. Edgar and his minions have been here a scant twelve hours and you can see what they’ve done. Let me assure you, they do not improve with age!” I was beginning to warm to the task and paced the floor.
“If they’re willing to murder the Keeper’s nephew without cause, without trial, what could they not do to you or your loved ones? You’ve seen how they’ve shut down the city and kept the people from their water. Do any of you want to see your innocent children or grandchildren thirst? Has the Empire ever done such a thing to the Rii? No! It is up to you and not us to save this world from those who would do such things. Rise up! Not for the Emperor, he has enough worlds, but for yourselves, the people of Rii!”
I didn’t think it was a very good speech or well delivered. I could never be a politician, or one of those commanders who can inspire devotion and sacrifice with mere words. I felt a little silly to be honest, so I was a bit surprised to hear those old merchants shouting “Save the Keeper!”, “To the palace!” and “Down with Edgar!”
Well, that’s a start. What do I do next?
Ari, Justin and the Marines halted again. This time, they were under one of the maintenance wells beneath the palace. Justin’s knowledge of the city brought them to the area where the artificial lighting began. Once there, a bit of wandering eventually brought them to one of the covered openings.
“Finally!” said Justin.
“Is this the one you and the lieutenant used to make your escape?” asked Windridge as he carefully examined the opening and the ladder leading to it.
“No,” said Ari. “The water here is much too shallow. Nevertheless, we should still be able to orient ourselves fairly quickly once we’re up there. Remember, we head for the women’s quarters first. If Jen isn’t there, we go to the Keeper’s chambers. In quickly, out quickly and keep the carnage to a minimum.”
“Yes Ma’am,” said the sergeant.
“With any luck, we’ll take them by surprise!” Ari turned to Chang. “You’ll have to carry me of course, Justin. I hope you don’t mind.”
The merchant opened his mouth as though to say something, but thought better of it. Instead, it was the sergeant who spoke up.
“Madame Ambassador, you are in charge here and we will obey your orders. I must, however, formally express my concern about taking unarmored civilians into combat, especially when one of them can’t walk.”
Ari winced at his words as though physically struck. She had grown up in an environment where having a tail was an advantage, not a handicap. In her way of thinking, climbing into a hoverchair and venturing onto dry land was an adventure, much like how a land-dweller might feel about climbing into a small canoe or kayak to travel over water. Far from feeling helpless, she knew that even while crawling and dragging herself, she could still move just as fast as any of these men could swim. The idea that anybody could think that she would be a liability or a burden was shocking to her.
“I understand your concern Sergeant,” she said, with, perhaps, only the slightest waver of doubt in her voice. “But, you will need someone with some knowledge of the interior of the palace…”
“That would be me,” interrupted Justin. “I’ve been in and out and through this pile of stone many times. As for unarmored, sergeant, you know as well as I that in the confines of the palace, and with such weapons at short range, armor won’t matter a whit.”
Ari knew she could force them to take her, but she also knew she wouldn’t. With all the risks and all that was at stake, she would not allow herself to compromise the mission, even to save her pride.
“You are right of course, sergeant. I will stay here.” She let none of her inner hurt show.
Lady Ariadne shook hands with each of them before he mounted the ladder. She wanted to see their faces and hear their names. If she couldn’t be with them, she was determined to remember them, in case some or all never came back. When the cover clanked shut after the last of them, she allowed herself to cry.
After a few minutes, Ari regained her composure. She began to be concerned about the possibility of a hostile patrol, especially so close to the palace. She could hide easily enough, but what of the boat? She slid off and dragged herself to deeper water pulling the dinghy after; then towed it past a bend and tied it up in a small alcove. She began to feel better. Would she want even the strongest marine tagging along tailless with her and a group of Syrenka out to hunt some ferocious sea-beast? While swimming back to renew her watch at the well, she even caught one of the pale fish and stuck it in her teeth for a snack later. When almost there, she heard splashing ahead. They’re back! She thought and emerged from the water.
It wasn’t her friends. Instead, ahead were a group of Rii wearing yellow sashes and carrying battle rifles. They froze, at least as surprised to see a mermaid with a fish wiggling in her mouth as that mermaid was to see them. She recovered an instant faster than they did and dove. How could I be so foolish! She berated herself. A few shots rang out. The water was shallow, but still deep enough to protect her. She circled unsure what to do next. She could escape easily, but if they stayed, they could ambush the returning marines. If she allowed them to chase her back the way she had just come, they would find the boat and probably guess what it was there for. The channel beyond them was too shallow, however, for her to slip past and lead them the other way. While she was considering all this, something splashed into the water near her. What’s that? Then she recognized it and fled as fast as her fins could take her.
There was a flash then a pressure wave slammed into her like a brick wall. She knew nothing more after that.