Chapter 8: The King's Men
I sent the merchants home. Most would have probably gone with me right away, if I’d suggested marching on the palace. A dozen or so poorly armed, middle aged men, however, were not my idea of a force fit to challenge whatever might await there. Instead, I sent them home to recruit their kin, employees, friends, neighbors and whoever they might find willing to risk all to save all.
I was taking a chance, of course. Some, once away from their peers, might decide that sitting things out might be the wiser path. Worse yet, there could also be in that number a quisling or ephialtes. It was a chance I had to take.
I had Reden draw me a map, as near as he could remember of the water-tunnel system between his warehouse and the palace and mark the point where all the different parties should meet. I memorized it and then disposed of it. He urged me to come with him, but I was determined to find my friends, especially Ari. I went alone, because that is how they would expect to see me. The merchant also told me that along the walls of the tunnels there can be found a narrow walk where the water rarely goes over knee deep. That was the best way for the tailless and boatless to travel the underground passages. We all parted company and promised to meet again at midnight with whatever forces and weapons could be gathered.
I headed down the tunnel where I’d last seen Ari. I watched for signs of our party’s passage despite knowing how careful they would be not to leave any. I knew they would be headed for the palace in any case. I took Reden’s advice and stuck to the pathways along the walls. Only at intersections was it necessary to wade or swim. I was near one of these intersections when I heard voices and splashing. I was still outside the area where there was artificial lighting. I retreated to the shadows, pressed myself against the wall, ducked until only my head was above water and waited.
It was a group of Rii armed with Mk III’s and wearing yellow sashes. I was curious; for I’d seen only the red and blue sashes marking the Keeper’s guard and the militia respectively. They were travelling perpendicular across the tunnel I was in, so I could see only a few at a time. Then my blood froze. One of the men carried a mermaid draped limply over his shoulder. Her tail fin, hands and hair trailed in the water as the man jumped from the walkway and waded across the intersection. She had to be unconscious or worse.
I moved quietly forward, sticking as much as possible to the darkness. There were too many of them to take on. I had counted more than a dozen before seeing Ari and they seemed to keep coming. Fortunately, they were making a lot of noise, which echoed off the hard stone walls, and gave scant attention to my direction. By the time the last one, number thirty, passed, I was only three or four meters away.
I climbed onto the walk and splashed forward. Number thirty never knew what hit him. I brought the butt of my pistol down upon him so hard that he dropped with hardly a sound and didn’t struggle as I held him under. When the bubbles stopped coming, I took his sash and wrapped it around me. Then I grabbed the rifle.
“Falen! What are you doing? Get up from there or we’ll leave you behind!” It was number twenty-nine; his face full of annoyance.
So that’s the name of the man I’ve just killed. I’m glad I didn’t get to see his face. I got up and sloshed forward to catch up.
“Did you trip?” The man asked.
I nodded; keeping my head lowered enough to hide my face under my hood.
“Not talking to me eh?”
I coughed and made a big show of trying to clear my throat.
He raised an eyebrow, shook his head and then turned to follow the others. “The damp is terrible down here. It’s a wonder we don’t all come down with something.”
I snorted and gagged in agreement then fell in behind. Now what? Even this crowd would eventually notice if I just kept eliminating the hindmost. I’ll have to watch and see what turns up.
I could barely see Ari ahead of me. Her stillness had me worried. They hadn’t even bothered binding her. Was she alive? I tried communicating with her telepathically and got no response. Of course she’s the one that’s telepathic. She probably couldn’t ‘hear’ me if she wasn’t actively listening.
Eventually, they came to a shallow area under a well and spread out. The sunlight came down at a sharp angle, it must have been nearing sundown. As a couple of the men climbed the well, the one carrying Ari dropped her with a splash.
“I tire of hauling the she-creature. Someone else do it for a while!” he said.
“Don’t look at me! It and this whole place give me the shudders!” said another.
“Let Falen do it!” said number twenty-nine. “He’s the one who talked us out of killing her in the first place.”
“Yeah, he should carry it.” Said the original bearer.
I tried not to show any enthusiasm for the task, but it was difficult. She’s alive!
“Shut up, Doren!” said a man who stood against the wall and watched the climbers. His tone showed some authority. “There’s little carrying left now. We’re almost there.” He looked up the well, shading his eyes. “Did you think for a moment I was going to let you kill her? This is the King’s prize and he wants her alive.”
“You sure it lives, Hakins?” said the bearer, evidently named Doren. “It hasn’t twitched.” He prodded Ari’s tail with his boot.
“Oh, she’s alive all right.” Said the leader. “Probably playing dead and looking for an opportunity to rip your throat out with her teeth.”
Doren swallowed and turned pale, but most of the rest chuckled.
“Personally,” said twenty-nine. “I’d fancy a peek at her mams.”
There was more laughter. I couldn’t help tensing up.
“Sure, why not.” Said Hakins. He stepped away from the wall, but there came a shout from above followed by some ropes. “It’ll have to wait lads. Time to haul her up.”
They secured the ropes under her arms and around her tail and lifted her up. Then we each climbed the well into the early evening air.
I stood in the street trying to find a position where I could keep an eye on Ari without raising suspicion. It looked depressingly like every other street I’d seen in this dreary city. This time there were some people, mostly yellow-sashed militia, milling about. At least I could look forward to the prospect of being dry for a while. Ari lay next to the well. It was a jarring sight. There would be something especially disturbing about seeing a mermaid lying unconscious in the dust even if I hadn’t been in love with her.
“Wonder why the King wants her so badly.” Said one of the men.
“Perhaps he fancies her mams,” Said another, grinning.
“Shouldn’t we be binding her?” asked Doren. “She’s waking up.”
“Why?” said Hakins. “’Fraid she’s gonna jump up and run off?” He made a running motion with his fingers.
“She could change,” said another man. “Grow legs. You never know about Chimaera.”
“Be best for her to grow wings and fly off!” laughed Hakins. “And she’d better do it quick too! You’re a fool Gren.”
Gren shook his head. Doren stared at her as though he thought the wings were a distinct possibility.
A large gate near the well was swung open and more armed men emerged. “Bring the prisoner in!” One of them shouted. “The King’s governor will have a look at her now!”
Once more Ari swung from the unhappy Doren’s shoulder. I tried to stay close and also lose myself in the crowd. Inside the gate was a large courtyard attached to the house of what must have been a very wealthy family. There wasn’t much of a crowd to lose myself in. It must have been the curfew, for there were few civilians, and virtually no women or children present. Near the center of the yard, there was a raised platform. On it stood a familiar but unwelcome figure, Teo Parthans. So, no longer the Keeper’s cup-bearer, he was now the King’s man. Was he the governor they spoke of? I wondered where his old master was now.
They placed Ari on the ground in front of the platform. Parthans stepped off and strode forward. He gestured toward her and addressed the guardsmen. “If this monster is the best the Empire has to send, then we have little need to fear the Emperor’s wrath.” There was a ripple of nervous laughter. “Bind her and put her in the stable. She’ll see what the King has in store for her. Oh, and bind her mouth as well, there’s witchery in her song.”
As they half carried, half drug her away, I started to follow. It would be dark soon. I was certain that I could find a way to spirit her away when things quieted for the night.
“You sir!” It was Parthans. “Yes, I’m speaking to you!”
I turned to find him pointing at me. Damn! I thought. The whore-spawned traitor! What does he want? I kept my head down. I knew he would recognize my face instantly. Then he made a gesture and half-a-dozen rifles were leveled at me. One man pulled back my hood while another took my rifle and handgun. Parthans walked up to me, smiling. I looked him in the eye, but said nothing.
“Lieutenant Morgan, I should have known you wouldn’t be found far from your scaly mate. Take him and bind him too. By the way,” He pointed at my feet. “It was the boots. They’re not Rii. Justin Chang is the only man I’ve ever seen wearing that cut of boots.”
Not long after, I found myself tied hand and foot and chained to the doorpost of a horse-stall. Ari was in the next stall over. The musty, but not unpleasant smell of horse permeated the atmosphere. It reminded me of Caledon and Centaurs. I heard a muffled moan, the stirring of straw and the rattle of a chain.
Dri? Is that you?
Are you all right?
I think so. But my ears! They keep ringing and ringing! I feel like I’m locked in a belfry on Easter morning.
I got grenaded.
Grenaded, a very unsporting, but I must admit effective, way of fishing for mermaids. I heard more rattling. What? They’ve chained my tail to a post! The rotten bastards! It was the first time I’d heard her use profanity in thought or word.
What about the others? What happened to them?
I don’t know! Ari then related to me everything that happened between the time I left and when she was taken. She was hopeful, but very worried about the rest of our party. And what about you? I’ve missed you so much! There for a time, I feared the worst!
You needn’t have. I’m hard to kill. I then told her about the Rii merchants, the awkward start of the occupation, how I came to find her and how I came to be here. I wish now that Chang had had a more local taste in footwear. I thought ruefully.
What do we do now, Dri? She sounded forlorn. For the first time I thought I could feel a little fear and doubt from her.
I wiggled and rolled over; my arms had fallen asleep. I’m afraid our options are a bit limited right now, unless you can get your mouth uncovered.
It’s wrapped up pretty tight and I can’t reach it with my hands. There’re too many men for singing to work on them all anyway.
We’ll have to wait and see what happens then. Something’s bound to turn up.
For a while, we just lay there in the growing darkness. Finally.
Well, since we’re stuck here anyway…Tell me about you and the Centaurs! You have no excuses now! Tell me!
Damn. I sighed. She’s right. I don’t think I can avoid telling that story now. I heard a muffled giggle from the next stall. Then again, it might help to get our minds off of our predicament.