Round 12 – DNash
"You!" the lizard said, pointing at Malone with a wickedly sharp knife. The startled reporter tried to hide his relief when he recognized the figure before him. It was Scaldus. "Come with me."
His tone would have made Malone's knees shake had he not known the lizard to be a member of the conspiracy. Still, not wanting to let on to those around him, he took a nervous step away from Scaldus. "Why? What do you want with me?"
Scaldus eyed him menacingly. "Cantus is hungry for fresh meat. You're the freshest we have. Now move!" he ordered, taking one threatening step toward Malone.
The reporter set down his empty flask on the long table and, keeping his head bowed, meekly approached the lizardman. Scaldus gestured him forward, and Ned led the way toward the door. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the humans he left behind. No one would look at him. Typical reaction to a condemned man, he thought. He'd seen it before in a court room when he'd been covering a murder trial for his newspaper. Not a single soul on the jury so much as glanced at the defendant as they returned from their deliberations. When they'd announced their guilty verdict, he'd understood why.
The strange pair passed out of the darkness of the building into the bright afternoon sun of the Plateau. Malone paused a split second, blinking back tears at the sudden change.
"Keep moving!" ordered Scaldus, shoving him forward.
Malone stumbled a step, wincing in pain as the movement jarred his injured arm. He shot an angry look over his shoulder. The expression of apology and warning he saw on the lizardman's face kept him from blurting out an equally angry-and likely foolish-comment. Instead, he faced forward again and continued to walk.
"This way," the lizard said sharply. He used his knife to point him in the right direction, off to his left.
Glad not to be shoved again, Malone took the hint and turned left toward another stone building, this one also with steam emanating from a vent in the roof. He dared an inquisitive glance at his escort.
"Kitchen," was the brusque reply.
Ned's eyes widened a little until he saw the lizardman wink, just as he had back in the cell. The cell, he thought suddenly. I hope Marguerite's all right.
They reached the building but instead of going inside, Scaldus led him around to the back. He checked the area quickly and determined they were alone. "I hope you have everything you need," he whispered, "because there's no more time to waste. You must leave now. Find the others, and bring them here."
"How do I get out of here?" Malone wanted to know.
"Look around you, human."
Malone looked. He'd spent enough time in the stench of the zombies he hadn't even noticed the smell of his present surroundings. They were behind the kitchen, all right, and not a hundred feet away was the abattoir. The reporter gagged as the sight and smell registered on his tired brain.
"Ugh! Why the hell did you bring me here?"
"Easiest and safest way out of the city." Scaldus pointed to a horse and cart with a strange-looking winch-like attachment. Malone couldn't make out what was in the cart as the contents were covered by a large brownish tarp. A single human sat holding the horse's reins. "Refuse cart," the lizardman explained. "Just be sure to hop out before the driver dumps the contents over the cliff."
Scaldus winked again. "Partly. The driver is one of our men. He'll let you out a safe distance from the walls where you'll meet another of our operatives. Then it's up to you to find your friends-and Tribune," he added pointedly.
"How will I recognize your operative?" Malone wanted to know. For a moment he felt he was back in the Great War. He abruptly suppressed the memory.
"Simple," Scaldus was saying. "He'll be a lizard who's neither walking dead nor trying to kill you." He smiled.
"Fair enough," said Malone, although he really didn't appreciate the lizard's sense of humor. "All right. I'll do my best."
Once more, the lizardman checked for observers before hurrying with Malone to the tail of the refuse cart. He lifted a corner of the tarp, and the stench of rotted organs and old blood hit Malone like a hammer. "Get in."
The reporter fought back a wave of nausea before answering. "Now I know you're kidding."
Malone's face fell, and he swallowed hard.
"The guards at the gate are not ours. You have to be hidden."
"This day just gets better and better," sighed the reporter. Using his good arm, he hauled himself up into the cart. He tried to keep as far from the gruesome contents as possible while Scaldus quickly secured the tarp over him.
The palace wasn't what Marguerite was expecting. Her past experience with the lizards had been in the empire's capital city. This was an off-shoot of the collapsing civilization, and the so-called palace was obvious evidence to the fact.
"That's it?" she queried her companions in a whisper.
"That's it," replied Sennia, equally quietly.
"Not much of a palace."
One of their lizard guards piped up then. "Silence!"
With an annoyed glance at him, the heiress fell silent.
The group of women were led through the main gate and into the palace. Most of them seemed to know where they were going without the escort, but one or two were looking around with mixtures of awe and fear on their faces.
They look awfully young for this, thought Marguerite. Her musings went no further, however, as they entered the palace's great hall. "Now this is more like it," she murmured to no one in particular.
With an eye well-trained to spot the finer things, the heiress assessed her new surroundings. The room was high-ceilinged and airy. Open windows near the tops of the walls provided natural light that was augmented by numerous lit candelabras. Plush rugs ringed the floor leaving a large, smooth, polished area of stone in the center. Presumably for the dancers. How thoughtful.
In one corner of the hall sat a group of human musicians with a selection of instruments that were a strange mix of familiar and completely alien to the heiress. Wonder what those will sound like, she thought.
While most of the room's rugs were covered with scattered pillows on which lizards and unpleasant looking human men lounged, the one at the far end of the room held a large chair. Ah. The throne of the emperor. Very nice.
Sennia touched her arm, making her start. "Sorry," the cinnamon-haired woman whispered. "This way."
The women moved forward to line up at the edge of the carpet nearest the throne. It was Marguerite's first opportunity to get a good look at this newest self-proclaimed leader of the lizardmen. She suppressed a shudder. Not even her experiences in the Great War could have prepared her for the madness in Cantus's yellow eyes. She knew immediately even her considerable skills of manipulation and deceit wouldn't win over this creature.
How on Earth did this madman ever become emperor? she puzzled. Of course, Nero and Caligula were emperors once
The lizard sat very still in his throne, cold eyes coolly appraising the offering of women before him. The heiress could gauge nothing from his expression; for once, she felt completely out of her depth.
As quickly as Tribune's smile had faded, it bloomed again. "Put down your weapon, John," he said disdainfully. "He's a friend."
"You have friends?" the hunter asked, but he lowered the rifle slowly.
"Touché," the lizardman replied with a sardonic smile. "A gibe almost worthy of Marguerite. Perhaps I've underestimated you." He made a show of scrutinizing Roxton carefully. "Hmm. Perhaps not."
Any retort Roxton might have made was cut short by an unintelligible shout from the figure down the slope. At least it was unintelligible to the humans. Tribune appeared to understand perfectly. He set down the auto-washing tub and waved a scaled hand at the newcomer.
"What news do you have for us, Gekus?" Tribune asked as the fellow reached them.
"My lord," replied the lizardman with a bow. "I was expecting to meet my contact over an hour ago. I don't know what can have delayed him."
Tribune frowned. "I should have expected no better from that idiot. He's probably Cantus's dinner by now."
Veronica had been watching the trail ahead, but now she turned to face the two lizardmen. Gekus eyed her with a mixture of surprise and appreciation. She ignored it. "Who?" she asked, hoping her overwrought mind was merely jumping to conclusions. If anything's happened to Ned "Who were you supposed to meet?"
"Malone, of course," Tribune replied offhandedly.
"How do you know?" asked Roxton abruptly.
Tribune gave a long-suffering sigh at the idiocy of inferior species. "Because I planned it that way. Of course, it could have been any of you. Malone simply happened to be with Marguerite when the zombies picked her up."
Without warning, Roxton's cocked gun was at the lizard's temple. "Explain," he snarled.
Gekus hissed, but made no move. Tribune simply looked bored.
"It'll have to wait, I'm afraid," put in Challenger. "Get off the trail quickly! Someone's approaching." The wind shifted, and a sick-making stench wafted toward them. "And whoever it is doesn't smell good."
"Wait," said Veronica. "That doesn't smell like the zombies."
Tribune took an appraising sniff of the air. "You're quite right my dear. It smells more like "
"Eww!" Veronica's relief at the sight before her was somewhat violently tempered by the condition of the individual who approached. "Ned, what happened?!"
Roxton lowered his weapon and took a step forward. "And where the hell's Marguerite?!"
"You." The long green finger was pointing directly at Marguerite. "Dance."
Of course, she thought sarcastically. He couldn't have picked someone who knows what they're doing. She curtsied to the emperor and took a step back toward the open floor. With an internal sigh of relief, she saw Sennia and Eula do the same. The rest of the women turned and sat facing the dance floor; apparently they got to enjoy each other's performances, too.
"Just hang on and follow our lead," whispered Sennia. The tall woman was unwrapping the veil she wore over her scanty blue costume. A quick glance showed the green-clad Eula was doing the same. Marguerite followed suit. Sennia handed the heiress one corner of her half-circle veil, nodding for her to pass an end of her own rose-colored one to Eula. She did, and the three spread out in a circle.
The music began--a mix of drums, pipes, double-reeded horns, and a strange many-stringed instrument. It was a surprisingly light, cheerful tune-not at all what Marguerite would have expected to hear in the situation. She found the beat difficult to follow, but her partners were clearly familiar with the piece and led her through the dance well. There was much flinging of veils and running underneath them as they floated down, and several odd over-head twists and untwists that drew the trio closer together and then apart.
Marguerite was doing fine until Eula released her hold on the rose-colored veil, indicating with a tilt of her head she should do the same with the blue. I really hope they don't expect me to solo, the heiress thought with a brief flash of panic. But no. It appeared Sennia and Eula were moving together, and Marguerite did her best to mimic them. With all the things she'd done in her life, the heiress had never used her hips in quite this fashion before.
At last, the ordeal was over. They left the dance floor, flinging their veils high over their heads then trailing the silken fabric behind them as they went. Light applause and one or two wolf whistles accompanied their departure from the spotlight.
The trio quickly reassembled. "Now what?" demanded Marguerite sotto voce.
"Now we watch the others," replied Sennia, leading the way back to the seated line of dancers. Already Cantus had chosen another to perform, and the woman was lighting two small votive candles at one of the candelabra.
"Then we work the room," added Eula with a subtle grin.