Special Authors' Note: The astute reader might recognize a small portion of this particular round. Special thanks (and apologies) to the lovely and talented Susan Zell, whom we are certain never imagined such a use of her paragraph. All blame for said usage is of course our own. Zakiyah couldn't resist and it's not like DNash was going to stop her! ;-)
Round 13 Zakiyah
"What do you mean, 'she's still in the city'?" Roxton shouted. "She was captured because she stayed to protect you and you just left her behind?!?"
"I didn't just 'leave her behind.' I didn't have a choice," Malone retorted defensively. Roxton's angry words had struck a nerve, and he tried to justify himself. "The others were depending on me to get to you with more information about the zombies. And there wasn't much I could do against them with only one good arm." He turned to glare at Tribune, happy to assuage some of his own discomfort by lashing out at the one he felt was responsible for the whole mess. "Besides which, judging from what Tribune's conspirators carefully did not say, I don't think Marguerite would have been allowed to escape by Tribune's followers, much less Cantus's."
"What?" Roxton turned from the reporter to the lizardman, then back to the reporter as the more likely source of information.
"Tribune knows perfectly well that as long as one of us is in the city, the rest of us will do whatever it takes to get that person back including helping him regain his throne," Malone hypothesized shrewdly. "Marguerite is his guarantee of our good behavior."
"That's why you didn't help with the elevator!" Challenger realized. "You wanted Marguerite and Malone to be captured!" Beside him, Veronica's hand dropped to her knife, her outrage at the implications apparent.
"Hm, not quite right, but correct in most of the essential details," Tribune drawled, ignoring the rage on Roxton's face and the fact that the hunter's gun was once again aimed at him. He eyed the blond reporter, a half-smile on his fleshless lips as he privately acknowledged that this human wasn't quite as stupid as he seemed. Realizing that the humans would not proceed without some kind of clarification, he sighed dramatically and proceeded to speak in simple, human-understandable terms. "I'm far too intelligent to expect 'good behavior' out of you. I simply arranged to put Marguerite where her intelligence and cunning could do us all the most good and thereby ensure that your inherent parochialism would not factor into the situation. After all, your limited vision has blinded you to threats to the entire Plateau before."
"Incredible," Challenger muttered, shaking his head.
Even though he'd already guessed most of it, Malone was still appalled to have all his worst suspicions confirmed. "Why you cold-blooded conniving bastard!"
Tribune bared his teeth in a sneer. "Really, human. What do the circumstances of my birth have to do with anything? Do try and keep your mind focused on the issues at hand. My orders were quite precise. I'm sure Marguerite is perfectly fine."
"Shows what you know," Malone taunted derisively. A second later he was wishing the words unsaid as the others all turned to stare at him. He flushed miserably, the guilt he'd been trying to suppress rushing back full force.
"Malone?" Veronica reached out to touch his shoulder, worried at his silence and his look of shame. His entire posture shrieked remorse. "What is it? What aren't you telling us?"
"Something happened to her, didn't it?" Roxton's voice was calm, almost detached, but none of the other explorers were fooled. Roxton was always at his most dangerous when one of the other expedition members was at risk. They could feel the rising temper radiating from the hunter, prickling the hairs on the back of the neck.
Malone swallowed. "She was hurt when a lizardman hit her into a wall. I don't know how badly, but she wasn't moving when he took her away." Malone didn't dare look at the others, too lost in his own guilt. She was protecting me. Again. And I didn't do anything to help her, not even stay behind. "I couldn't do anything; I couldn't even stand. That was the last I saw of her," he confessed softly. "The others assured me she was all right and that they'd protect her, but " He trailed off, not sure what else to say. The truth was he really didn't know what had happened to her after she'd been carried from the cell. Long-suppressed memories of another time where he'd had to leave others behind in order to carry out a vital mission seethed just beneath the surface, making him shiver. He felt Veronica squeeze his shoulder in wordless support.
Challenger tried to ignore the dismay Malone's words evoked in him in favor of keeping his eye on the situation. Malone looked physically ill, Veronica was torn between sympathy and anger, and even Tribune looked disturbed, much to the scientist's surprise. Only he and Gekus seemed aware that Roxton was simmering over like a chemical reaction about to go out of control. He frantically searched his mind for something that might neutralize the situation before any additional catalysts were added to the mix.
"Oh, that is most unfortunate," Tribune exclaimed, sounding genuinely dismayed. "I explicitlyUGH!"
Even those who were watching for it had trouble following what happened next. Roxton shifted his grip on his Webley and punched Tribune in the jaw with it, with all the weight and force he could muster behind the blow. By the time Tribune hit the ground, the hunter was astride the fallen lizard leader, pinning him to the earth. Roxton's gun was once again held ready to fire, the end of the barrel resting lightly between Tribune's eyes. The hunter's hat had come flying off, and the low-angled sunlight turned his expression of fury into a terrifying mask.
"Roxton, NO!" Challenger shouted even as he lunged for Gekus, who was rushing to the defense of his leader. The other lizard shrugged him off easily, but the distraction gave Veronica enough time to draw her knife and place herself between Gekus and the pair frozen on the ground.
"Don't even think it," she warned the other lizard in a low, flat voice. "Even if you got past me which you wouldn't you'd be signing Tribune's death warrant."
"Roxton! Roxton, you can't kill him." Malone shook his head at the inanity of his words. Stupid of course he can kill him! Think! "We might need him to get into the city. He could be useful."
Roxton didn't move, staring at Tribune with unblinking ferocity.
"I'm sure Marguerite is fine," Veronica added, also trying to calm the enraged man even while she kept Gekus at bay. "She always finds a way to come out on top."
After another few tense moments, Tribune licked his lips nervously. "Your friends are right," he said as urbanely as he could manage. "We need each other." Seeing Roxton's eyes narrow, Tribune continued hurriedly. "I regret any harm that might have come to your companion. It was not my intention, I assure you. Simple logic will tell you that. If any serious harm has befallen Marguerite, I will personally eat the persons responsible."
Roxton took several deep breaths, fighting back the urge to violence that gripped him. This isn't helping Marguerite, he told himself. As much as he hated to admit it, killing Tribune was likely to do more harm than good. Still, the fact remained that the lizard had cold-bloodedly gambled with her life with all their lives and Roxton wasn't the man to let that pass. "If Marguerite isn't all right when we get to the city, you won't have to worry about eating anyone," he growled at last, rising slowly from Tribune's chest but keeping his gun aimed at the lizard until he was well clear of him. "I'll kill you first, and then the others responsible." Still glaring at Tribune, he stepped back and retrieved his hat, jamming it onto his head with unnecessary force. Challenger came forward and put a restraining hand on the hunter's gun arm.
Tribune nodded slowly. "I believe you would at that, John." Deliberately turning his back on the hunter, Tribune looked expectantly at Malone as if nothing had happened. "So, what news do you bring from my city? Do you have further details on the zombies?"
"Better than that," Malone boasted as he dug into his trouser pocket, glad to help break the tension of the moment. "I have this." He handed his fountain pen and the folded notes to Challenger with a triumphant smile, then hastily explained as he registered the puzzled looks from his companions. "The notes are from one of Tribune's followers about the zombies, or so he said. Better yet, I managed to get a sample of the liquid they're feeding the zombies. I had to smuggle it out in my fountain pen hope a bit of ink won't hurt."
Challenger beamed at the reporter. "Wonderful! Very resourceful thinking," he approved. "Now if I only had my lab "
"You should be able to use the resources of the healer's lab once we reach the city," Tribune pointed out, retrieving the notes and scanning them eagerly. "I'm sure it's rather different from yours, but it should do the job."
"Good work, Malone," Roxton said quietly, with a hint of a smile. "That can't have been easy with only one hand." He frowned a little, the reporter's bedraggled appearance only now fully registering on his consciousness. "Are you all right?"
Malone accepted it for the apology he knew it to be. "I think my elbow's broken, but the lizard healer put it in a pretty good sling. I'll be fine once we get Marguerite back." His wordless look of determination was acknowledged by a slight nod from the older man.
The group set off again, Tribune taking care to stay some distance from Roxton. Veronica walked next to Ned. "That was really clever of you, thinking of the fountain pen," she said softly. "I'm so glad you're safe."
"Thanks," Malone mumbled, gratified.
She moved to touch his good arm, then drew back. Despite herself, Veronica's nose wrinkled. "Is that how you acquired your interesting smell? Working with the zombies?"
"No," Malone admitted, chagrined all over again. "I had an interesting ride out of the city in a refuse cart, as part of the load." He gave Veronica a rueful smile. "I guess there are some things so disgusting that even a lizard won't go near them."
Veronica bit her lip to keep from laughing. "Well, we'd better get you cleaned up before we try to sneak into the city, or they'll be able to smell us coming."
Marguerite watched in fascination as five dancers moved across the floor in complicated patterns, hips dropping and shimmying in rapid motion as arms spun silver canes overhead in perfect synchronicity. This was a much more complicated and dangerous dance than the one she'd taken part in; one ill-timed swing from just one of the dancers could easily spell disaster. Her eyes widened as one dancer started a solo and the other four dancers broke off in pairs, one pair to each side of the soloist. Each pair member circled the other, holding her cane in both hands and swinging it in alternating, vertical half-arcs, timing her movements so that each swing just barely missed the other dancer's head and stomach. Without missing the beat the dancers switched partners, a new soloist taking the center, and Marguerite marveled that despite the height difference between Eula and Sennia, the two managed to miss each other just as narrowly and as gracefully as they had with their former, closer-sized partners. Not only did they make it look easy, but from the smiles on their faces, they made it appear fun!
When the music ended at last, Marguerite couldn't help but join in the enthusiastic applause, although she didn't dare try one of the ululating cheers voiced by the other women. Panting slightly, Eula and Sennia settled down on either side of Marguerite and surreptitiously fanned themselves. They had participated in the last eight dances. Marguerite estimated the two had danced continuously for at least an hour. Even in the waning light daylight was quickly fading from the windows, leaving only the candelabra and torches for illumination she could see both women were glistening with sweat.
"Whew," Eula whispered under the cover of music as another group of dancers took the floor. She stopped fanning herself to shake her wrists vigorously. "That's a lot harder on the wrists now than it used to be " The blonde paused briefly as Sennia sent her an almost imperceptible glare. "Guess I must need more practice," she finished, covering nicely.
Marguerite might have been fooled if she hasn't seen Sennia's look of warning. Casually, she reached out and lifted the nearest cane slightly, taking care to look innocently curious. She was startled by how heavy it was. Given the weight of the canes and the speed with which the women had been twirling them, the canes could be formidable weapons. Each cane had considerable reach, not to mention that handy hook at one end. And wait among the decorative lines that spiraled up the length of the cane, wasn't that a single straight line near the top, perhaps indicating some sort of hidden compartment ? She looked at the two dancers, who were keeping a wary eye on her. "I'm really looking forward to learning how to use one of these," she whispered brightly, just in case anyone might overhear their conversation. "They add such exciting possibilities to the dance."
"Yes, they do," Eula deadpanned in response. "I'm sure you'll pick it up in no time at all."
Already pink with exertion, Sennia flushed a deep red as she struggled not to laugh. Getting herself back under control quickly, she nodded towards the dance floor. "The dancing will end soon. When the music ends, we'll all kneel to Cantus. Stay flat until you see us starting to rise. After that, we'll mingle." Her expression darkened momentarily, and her next words were spoken so softly that Marguerite had to strain to hear them. "We never had to do this before him; we were dancers, respected for our skill and left strictly alone. But now Remember to stick close to us if you can." The smile remained on the cinnamon-haired dancer's lips, but her eyes were grim and sad.
Marguerite smiled, acknowledging the other woman's concern, then turned back to watch the other dancers. Despite the precariousness of her current situation and the fascination of the dancers on the floor part of her mind continued to worry about Malone. I hope Marina was telling me the truth about smuggling him out of the city, she mused, then shrugged mentally, recognizing she had no way of verifying his fate yet. I hope he's all right, wherever he is. Thoughts of Malone led to thoughts of the rest of the explorers, and she felt a prickle of anxiety. They'll be worried, particularly if Malone hasn't made his way back to them. I hope they don't do something stupid. She hid a sigh. Another reason to hope Marina told me the truth about Malone. They'll be a lot more rational if he's safe with them. Nobody's likely to venture much on my behalf! She reconsidered that thought, then smiled faintly. Well, maybe one but with Ned safe, the others will keep him in line.
"Well, that was certainly a lot easier than getting out of the city," Malone complained in a whisper. "Why couldn't you have sent me that way?"
"Alas, the entrance and exit to the hidden passage is a secret only known to well, me," Tribune murmured with mock regret. "After all, what's the point of having a secret escape route if everyone knows about it?"
The group was standing inside what appeared to be a storage room, hidden from view by stacks of boxes all around them. Upon their arrival here, Tribune had sent Gekus to gather some of his followers ignoring the disapproving looks from Roxton and Challenger. A few small skylights overhead showed that the last of the daylight was just now receding from the sky. Remembering the seemingly interminable journey through the cramped, pitch-black passage, bent almost entirely double and listening to the interminable struggle to squeeze the auto-washing tub through the tight quarters, Malone was surprised it was still so early. "I suppose but it would have been a lot easier," he grumbled, almost inaudibly.
Not inaudibly enough for lizard ears in the quiet of the room. "And much more dangerous," Tribune pointed out.
A slight sound froze them all into wary stillness. Moments later Tribune and Malone relaxed as Gekus came into view, followed by two other lizardmen. The two new lizardmen quickly knelt at Tribune's feet and kissed his hands.
"Your Glorious Imperial Majesty, you have returned," one of them murmured with obvious emotion.
"Rise, Scaldus, Younus. Rise, my friends," Tribune urged them graciously. "How have things gone in my absence?"
"Well, Sire. We have followed your orders to the letter. I see the human managed to reach you," Scaldus replied, giving Malone one of those disconcerting winks.
"Not quite to the letter," Tribune contradicted, mindful of Roxton's suspicious look. "The human tells me that the female Marguerite was injured. I left strict orders to keep her safe."
Scaldus shifted uncomfortably. "An unfortunate incident, Sire, but not a serious one. She is safe now. It was Lassus."
Tribune snorted. "Of course it was."
"Who's Lassus? Where is Marguerite?" Roxton demanded.
"Lassus is an unfortunate throwback, whom I regrettably did not execute for his stupidity and degeneracy when I had a chance. Naturally enough Cantus finds him delightful, although even he draws the line at some of his more disgusting habits." Noting the impatience on the faces of the humans, Tribune waved for Scaldus to continue. "Tell me what happened, and where she is now."
"Lassus struck her down when she spoke up in defense of the other human," Scaldus recounted obediently. "Fortunately, I was able to scare him enough about our commander's likely reaction to his carelessness that he followed my orders without question. I had him take her to Marina while I dealt with the other human. Marina sent word that the female woke with all her wits intact, and only a slight bump on the head to show for her adventure." Scaldus paused, considering. "It's to our advantage things happened as they did, actually."
"Why do you say that?"
"Not only did it give me a chance to get the other human out of the cell unseen, but Lassus discovered he'd lost his belt knife at the end of his watch. He searched quite diligently for Lassus, anyway even asked for my help. It eventually occurred to him to 'check' to see if it might have fallen out of his belt in the women's quarters," Scaldus continued, "not because I think he really thought so, but " He glanced at the other lizardmen uncomfortably, obviously embarrassed by something.
"Yes, I can see where he would eventually realize the opportunity," Tribune sighed. "And?"
"The commander forbade him to leave the barracks, not that it stopped Lassus. I spotted him sneaking out and followed him. I thought for a minute we might have a problem, as there was no one around to keep him from the woman's room, and he had a key. Fortunately Marina must have anticipated such a possibility. Lassus was too dismayed when he found the room empty to hear me come up behind him. I knocked him out and left him locked in the room." Scaldus grinned nastily. "I'd love to hear his explanation to the commander when he's found there, against orders, with no prisoner."
"Well done," Tribune smiled.
While relieved that Marguerite was reportedly unhurt, Roxton was still worried about her, and he didn't like the subtext he was hearing in the lizardman's report. "So where is she, if she's not locked up in the women's quarters?" he growled.
Quickly looking at Tribune for permission, Scaldus answered Roxton directly. "Hiding in plain sight. She's with the other women, entertaining in the palace. I almost didn't believe my eyes when I saw her dancing with the others in front of the throne."
"She's what?" Roxton exclaimed.
Veronica started to laugh; she couldn't help herself. "Yes, that sounds like Marguerite!" Challenger and Malone also guffawed. Even Roxton saw the humor in it enough to shake his head in relieved bemusement.
"What a female!" Tribune rhapsodized, only half-jokingly. "Not here a day, brought here completely unaware of the situation, and already she's infiltrated the palace. It's a shame she wasn't born a lizard; her cunning and survival instincts are second to none. Undoubtedly she's well on her way to coaxing all of Cantus's secrets from his followers." He preened in satisfaction. "You must now see the genius of my plan."
The reminder of why they were here in the first place and the dangerous game they were all playing sobered the others. "Hardly genius," Challenger disputed. "You could have come to us directly and avoided all this conspiratorial folderol."
"Not to mention Malone wouldn't have been hurt," Veronica snapped.
"Minor details, and you would never have moved so quickly," Tribune dismissed their objections with a wave. "Younus, is your laboratory ready?"
"All prepped, although I still don't see what a human might be able to do that I cannot," the healer sniffed.
"You shall soon see. Now, Professor Challenger, it's time to get you and that wonderful sample off to the lab and get you to work on our little zombie problem."
"Oh yes, the sample I'll want to look at that right away. I hope it hasn't broken down, and that the contamination isn't too severe," Challenger said mostly to himself, distracted by thoughts of the upcoming analysis.
"What about Marguerite?" Roxton reiterated stubbornly.
Tribune looked at him in surprise. "What about her? You heard Scaldus. She's safe and right where she should be gathering information right under Cantus's nose."
"You call that safe?" the hunter replied scornfully. "We need to get her out of there!"
"Out of the question," Tribune replied at once. Seeing the defiant looks on the faces of the humans, Tribune shrugged at their stupidity. "Even if I had a way to 'get her out of there', which I don't, Marguerite can be of far more help where she is."
Seeing the ire on Roxton's face, Veronica quickly spoke up. "I think you've forgotten that Marguerite doesn't know we're here, or that help is at hand," she pointed out. "Knowing what you know of Marguerite, you don't really expect her just to stay put and wait for developments, do you?"
"Hm, you do have a point," Tribune mused.
"Just think of all the trouble she could get up to," Malone continued, following Veronica's lead. "We at least need to get a message to her letting her know we're here."
"You might be right, but I have no way of accomplishing such a feat," Tribune stated. "We'll just have to trust to her superb instincts until after Cantus's little soiree."
"Unacceptable," Roxton snapped flatly.
Tribune was about to answer when Gekus cleared his throat softly. "There might be a way."
Scaldus turned to Gekus, a startled look on his face. "I know we've discussed the possibility, but we don't know if it will work."
Gekus shrugged. "We're going to have to try it out sometime. We need to know if we can get others in place when the time comes."
The explorers looked at each other, puzzled, while Tribune allowed a slow smile to spread across his face, his eyes resting on Roxton with malicious merriment.
I've been to worse parties, Marguerite mused to herself as she followed Eula and Sennia from one group of celebrants to the next, but not recently, and not willingly. Still, everything is going well so far. Night was well advanced. The candles had burned down considerably during the time they'd made their rounds, flirting and talking, never staying too long with any one person. She'd been impressed by the other women's talent in socializing. Eula was vivacious, worldly, and sarcastic, carefully dancing on the edge of what was acceptable without ever falling off, and never failing to entertain her listeners. Sennia was much quieter, but she was a skillful listener, encouraging others to speak and always seeming interested in what was said. Marguerite had chosen one of her many personas from the War, that of the rather inexperienced but not entirely innocent ingénue. A little shy, a little wicked, and very much happy to be where the action was, the characterization meshed well with those of the other two women. Already Marguerite had learned several interesting things, made note of alliances and rivalries, and curried more than a little favor with several people who might prove useful later.
It wasn't a lack of amenities that made the party so awful either. There was food and drink in plenty and a variety of entertainment, of which she and her fellow dancers were but a small part now that the dancing was done. Other kinds of performers had moved into the room, entertaining those not wishing to converse with their fellows. No, she thought, it would be a lovely party if everyone weren't scared to death of the lizard sitting on the throne. The stench of fear was the strongest smell in the room, far overpowering the scents of perfume, food, and drink. Cantus sat observing them all, drinking occasionally from a goblet but otherwise ignoring both food and entertainment in favor of watching the fear he inspired. Whenever his eyes came to rest on a particular area, everyone instinctively stiffened, their bodies betraying their unease. Occasionally he would summon two or three individuals to his side for a brief moment of conversation. Marguerite never got close enough to hear what was said, but those so summoned invariably returned to the crowd looking as if they'd just escaped the hangman. Fortunately for her peace of mind, humans were never singled out for the 'honor'.
Eula sidled up to Sennia and Marguerite, putting an arm around each of their waists. At first Marguerite had been startled by the dancers' habit of frequently touching each other: casually holding hands, leaning against each other, or putting an arm around a waist, as Eula just did. She had quickly learned it served a dual purpose. The first was entertainment; Cantus' followers appreciated the aesthetics of a grouping of women in close proximity, apparently having the time of their life. The second was support; both reassurance and guidance could be offered in the subtle squeezing of an arm or gentle tug around the waist. Marguerite was surprised at how comforting she found it. She had never 'worked' a room with so many others 'working' with her before, incorporating her as part of a team and watching her back. Seeing the dancers interact with one another reminded her strongly of her fellow Treehouse residents; there was that same sense of unity, a unity that was extended to her despite everything.
"Aren't we having a lovely time?" the blonde dancer said, winking slightly as she guided them all to turn towards an elderly lizard and his group of companions in another part of the room. The elderly lizard had apparently been expecting the attention; he nodded regally and gestured for the women to join him. Smiling prettily, the three made their way towards him, snaking their way through the crowd hand-in-hand with Eula leading the way.
On their way to join the elderly lizard, they passed a minstrel sitting in one corner softly playing a strange instrument and singing a long, torturous ballad in a highly melodramatic style to anyone foolish enough to linger in his vicinity.
But he couldn't stop.
Ugh, Marguerite thought to herself, unable to repress a shudder of distaste. Dreadful. Saccharine, sloppy, and incredibly overwrought. It doesn't even rhyme. If that's an example of the lizards' aesthetic sensibility, no wonder this civilization is falling apart.
Perhaps it was the distraction of the maudlin music or just the press of the crowd, but Marguerite didn't see the tall, dark-haired human until her free hand was suddenly seized in a powerful grip. With Marguerite stopped in her tracks, the other two women perforce stopped as well.
"Eula, Sennia," the man acknowledged the other two, looking Marguerite up and down. "I don't recall your friend."
"Why Alman, I thought you only had eyes for me," Eula teased, dropping Sennia's hand in order to run a finger suggestively up and down the man's chest. "This is Mara," she added, using the nickname Sennia had inexplicably assigned Marguerite the first time she'd introduced her to someone. Marguerite hated it, but guessed that the cinnamon-haired dancer had her reasons, particularly when Eula picked it up without missing a beat.
"I've always got eyes for you, Eula, but tonight I think I'd like to get a chance to know Mara," the brawny man replied. Judging from his overall appearance, Marguerite guessed he was a gladiator. Like most of the male humans, he wore loose, knee-length trousers and sandals, although his status as 'guest' apparently granted him the right to wear a vest as well. However, his most startling attire was the leather mask that reached from his forehead to just above his nose, trailed down the left side of his face, and still did not entirely conceal the network of scars leading up from his jawline. From behind the eyeholes of his mask, two dark blue eyes shone with confident aggression.
Eula pouted prettily while Sennia shot Marguerite a quick look full of concern. "You disappoint me, Alman. Besides which, Erlus there is waiting for us."
Alman laughed. It was not a particularly nice sound. "Jealous, my dear? Nice try, Eula, but I just won Erlus a small fortune in the arena. I think he'll not begrudge me her company, particularly when he has you two lovely ladies to admire."
Marguerite recognized the inevitable. It was a dance she'd had to dance before. She squeezed Sennia's hand once in reassurance before letting it go and turning to face Alman. "You really won Erlus a fortune in the arena?" she said coquettishly, looking up at him through her eyelashes. "I'd love to hear about it."
"Of course," Alman replied, obviously amused and pleased at her evident interest. Tugging her hand, he drew her away from her companions.
Eula and Sennia exchanged a look, but there was nothing they could do but hope she knew what she was getting into. They walked away, bright smiles concealing their unease as they unobtrusively watched Alman lead Marguerite towards the edge of the room. Theirs were not the only eyes following the pair as the gladiator exited with his chosen prize.
Malone was actively fighting exhaustion, and slowly losing the battle. It had been a very long day. The healer's laboratory was comfortably warm, almost too much so, and he blinked rapidly as the equipment in front of him blurred and doubled. A soft touch on his good arm startled him, jerking him out of his befuddled state.
"Hey," Veronica said, looking into his face and smiling understandingly. "You look pretty tired. Why don't you go lie down on one of the cots out in the infirmary?"
"No, no," Malone protested instinctively. "I'll be fine. I uh, I think I'll step outside though, and see if I can get a little fresh air."
Veronica looked at him skeptically. She was tired herself, but he was practically asleep on his feet. Deep lines of fatigue and lingering pain were etched onto his face. "Good idea. I think I'll come with you; I could also use a little air." Not to mention this way I can keep an eye on you. I'm not about to let anything else happen to you today!
"But Challenger " Malone started to protest.
"We'll only be gone a few minutes. I doubt Challenger would even notice, much less mind." She raised her voice slightly. "Challenger, Malone and I are going to take a little walk. We'll be right back."
"Fine, fine," Challenger mumbled, not looking up from the lizard's equivalent of a microscope. "Just want to look at this next set of blood samples mixed with the fluid from the fountain pen "
Veronica laughed quietly. "You see? I doubt he even noticed when Tribune, Scaldus, and Gekus left, or when Younus decided he could no longer stand watching a human in his precious lab."
Malone had to admit she was right. "Okay then, but just for a few minutes."
"We'll never leave sight of the door," she agreed.
The two made their way quietly through the deserted infirmary and to the side door, which opened onto a small medicinal garden. The garden felt safe enough under the double cover of darkness and a vine-covered arbor flanking the door. Flowers and fragrant foliage scented the air, and Malone and Veronica stretched, reveling in the momentary peace.
"Sit for a minute?" Veronica invited in a whisper, patting a convenient stone bench.
"No thanks," Malone declined, equally quietly. "Sitting will just make me sleepier."
Veronica watched for a few minutes as Malone paced quietly back and forth. "None of this was your fault, you know," she said at last.
"It feels like it," Malone replied, not surprised that Veronica had guessed his thoughts. "I know Tribune set all this in motion, but it doesn't change the fact that I lagged behind because of that stupid slip at the pond. Marguerite stayed with me even after I said something pretty nasty to her, which is why she was there to be grabbed in the first place. If I hadn't been such an idiot, maybe we'd all be back safe in the Treehouse."
"Or maybe we'd all have been captured," Veronica pointed out. "Tribune wanted us here. He'd have probably found a way to get us here eventually." She shook her head at the machinations of the unscrupulous lizard. "What did you say to Marguerite, anyway?" she added, both because she was curious and because she suspected this was a large part of Malone's continued guilt.
Malone winced at the recollection but answered the question. "She was trying to be helpful, and I told her not to, because it was unnatural for her."
Veronica smiled in spite of herself. "Well it is," she chortled.
Malone's expression remained serious. "Maybe, but she did it anyway, in spite of being angry about what I said. I never apologized," he added irrelevantly.
"You'll get that chance," Veronica reassured him, no longer smiling.
Malone shook his head. "She said something else that keeps coming back to me."
"'Just look what it gets me.' Well, I keep looking at what trying to help me got her, and I don't much like what I see."
"You didn't abandon her, Ned," Veronica answered his unspoken condemnation. "You did the best you could for all of us by scouting out where they made the zombies and making sure you got what you knew to Challenger. You did all that while injured and in pain. You did fine, better than fine. You'll get your chance to apologize to her." Veronica's lips quirked in a wry smile, and she spoke with deliberate humor. "Knowing Marguerite, you'll get lots of chances, since I doubt she'll let you forget it."
As Veronica had intended, Malone smiled a little at her sally. "Probably not." His smile warmed as he realized he indeed felt a little better; somehow Veronica always understood. "Thanks, Veronica."
"You're welcome," Veronica replied, glad to see some of the tension drain from him. Her eyes met his, and she smiled back.
They stood there in silence for a few moments, looking into each other's eyes. As the silence stretched on, something in the look in Malone's eyes made Veronica feel increasingly warm. Her stomach fluttered nervously, but she couldn't look away. For his part, Malone felt gratitude metamorphose into wonder as he continued to look at the incredible woman before him. She was so beautiful, so understanding
A night wind ruffled through the garden, stirring the arbor vines. The slight noise caused them both to jump, and Veronica stepped away from Malone. "We should get back inside."
"Um, yeah," Malone agreed, aware all the same of a sense of disappointment.
They were just about to re-enter the infirmary when a noise from inside the building told them the room was no longer empty. Crouching down hurriedly, they peeked inside the doorframe.
Seeing who it was, Malone relaxed. He started to rise, but Veronica's hand on his arm kept him still. A moment later he was extremely glad of her caution, as several lizardmen entered the room. He exchanged a quick look with Veronica, knowing without saying a word that they were both thinking the same thing: This doesn't look good.
"This is a beautiful room," Marguerite gushed as Alman closed the door behind him. She stood in the center of the room and pretended to admire it. Actually the room was rather plain, and its décor suggested that no one actually lived in it. Its most prominent feature was the large bed against one wall, the significance of which did not escape her attention.
"It's nice enough," Alman said dismissively, returning to her side. He traced her collarbone with one thick finger. "You're much nicer," he added suggestively.
Marguerite had no intention of following this dance through to its logical conclusion, and she was rapidly running out of time to change things. It was time to make a move. "Oh! I dropped my bracelet!" She crouched down, both feet flat on the floor and braced for balance, frantically patting the floor with one hand.
"I don't see it." The gladiator stooped over, more interested in the improved view of Marguerite's cleavage than the missing jewelry. He slyly reached down to lift an edge of the skirt that pooled on the floor around her. "Maybe it's hiding under here ?"
Marguerite stood up as fast as she could, catching Alman's chin with the top of her head. She couldn't suppress a small cry at the impact. Pain flashed sparks across her vision, but the effect of her calculated collision on Alman was everything she'd hoped. The gladiator slumped to the ground, knocked out cold by the power and the angle of the blow.
"The bigger they are " she muttered to herself, rubbing her head gingerly. "Ow! the harder they are to hide. I wonder if there's enough room under the bed?" Judging that there was, she turned back to the fallen man. A quick check of his pulse showed that he was still alive. She peeled back an eyelid, noting as she did so that his mask had loosened somewhat. She lifted it out of her way, wincing at the ruin revealed underneath, and tossed the carefully worked mask of stiffened leather onto the bed. "Well, you should be out for a while. No wonder you wear the mask. Don't worry, I'll put it back but after I move you."
She was about to start dragging the unconscious man towards the bed when she heard a slight noise out in the corridor. Swearing inwardly, she dropped to her knees beside Alman, putting a piteous look on her face while trying to reach for the knife still strapped to her thigh.
The door burst open, and a man clad only in knee-length trousers and sandals came rushing into the room, obviously expecting a fight. At the sight of Marguerite kneeling on the floor next to Alman, he stopped short in stupefaction. Unnoticed, the door swung closed behind him. "Marguerite?"
She'd known who it was the instant he'd entered the room, despite the clothing or lack thereof he wore as a 'disguise'. Marguerite's shoulders slumped in relief even as she tried to mask her reaction. "Roxton? About time someone showed up to give me a hand."
He pulled her to her feet, resisting the sudden urge to pull her into his arms. "Are you all right?" Concern quickly came to the fore as he saw her flinch as she nodded. "Where are you hurt? What happened?" He carefully looked her over, searching for any sign of injury, trying not to be distracted by the revealing clothing she wore. He'd seen her in a number of exotic outfits over the years, including the scanty armor of the Amazons, but this ensemble was by far the most alluring. He forced himself to concentrate on her well-being.
The emotions she saw in his eyes unnerved her. "I'm all right; just a bit of a headache." Reluctantly she shook off his hands, stepping back to the fallen gladiator and seizing one of his arms. "Help me hide him under the bed, will you?"
Roxton eyed her askance but grabbed the man's other arm, averting his eyes from the gladiator's hideously disfigured face. "What happened to him?"
"He picked the wrong dancing partner," Marguerite answered ironically as they dragged the man over to the bed and shoved him underneath the frame. At Roxton's questioning look, she quickly explained how she had knocked the gladiator out.
He shook his head admiringly at her cunning. "Poor fellow never stood a chance, did he?" he joked.
"Nope," Marguerite agreed smugly.
"I'm glad. I kept trying to get near you, but you kept moving around the room with those other two women, and then that fellow grabbed you by the hand and spirited you away. I damn near dropped my tray."
"What?" Marguerite stared at him in astonishment, a vague sense of foreboding fluttering in the back of her mind. "How did you know that? How did you get here? And how did you find me?"
Roxton briefly explained how they'd snuck into the city and learned where she was. "We didn't want you getting into too much trouble on your own, so one of Tribune's followers arranged to try smuggling me into the palace as part of the kitchen help." He grinned. "I was sent up with a number of others to serve canapés, and spotted you doing the social circuit. When I saw you leave, I sneaked out after you." His grin faltered. "I was able to catch up initially, but I lost sight of you at the end. I wasn't sure what room you were in. I must have listened at half the doors in the hall before I heard your voice." He paused, startled by the look of alarm on Marguerite's face. "What?"
"You followed me around the room, and then just left the party when I did?" she asked incredulously. Part of her mind knew that he couldn't have been quite that blatant or she'd have spotted him, but her sense of foreboding was growing stronger by the second. She'd learned long ago to listen to that feeling.
"More or less," Roxton answered, mystified. He opened his mouth to ask what was the matter, then closed it again as Marguerite abruptly raised her head, obviously listening to something. A moment later he heard it too: the sound of doors being opened and closed.
"Quick!" she hissed. "Put on the mask!"
Mask? Roxton glanced around frantically and saw the mask on the bed. Donning it swiftly, he started to turn back towards Marguerite, only to find himself knocked backwards onto the bed, winding up flat on his back with Marguerite straddling him. "Wha ? Mmmph!" His startled exclamation was smothered by Marguerite as she kissed him passionately. All his thoughts came crashing to a halt as she seized each of his hands in hers, lightly pinning them to the bed next to his shoulders, and used the grip as leverage as she writhed against him.
Through the sudden thundering of his pulse in his ears, Roxton heard the door to the room open. The mask he wore blocked some of his peripheral vision, but he could see two lizardmen standing on either side of the doorframe.
Marguerite broke off their kiss to glance at the doorway, inwardly hoping that her skirt was sufficiently draped to hide the fact that Roxton's trousers were still completely on. "Why, Alman, you didn't tell me to expect an audience," she purred, her voice low and sultry and dripping with feigned irritation at the interruption. "I do hope you're not here to call him away. This isn't a good time," she said to the lizards, accentuating her disapproval of the idea with a blatant movement of her hips against Roxton's. She felt the man beneath her tense in more ways than one.
"Ah no," one of the lizards said, eyeing them appreciatively.
Roxton looked up at Marguerite and then desperately closed his eyes, struggling for some kind of control. The sight of her moving above him, hair wild, clothing disheveled, a look of sensual pleasure vividly apparent on her face and when had she loosened her hair and partially unhooked her vest? it was all the stuff of his more vivid fantasies. Think of something else anything else ohhh His eyes popped open again as he realized that keeping them closed was only heightening the sensations of her movements against him. He stifled a moan. Oh damn.
From the boredom in his voice, the other lizard was less distracted by the spectacle. Ignoring Marguerite, he addressed the prone 'gladiator'. "One of the human drudges left his post at the reception. We found his tray at the end of the hall. From his behavior at the party, he seemed interested in the female. Have you seen him?"
"No, we haven't seen anyone. We've been busy," Marguerite replied breathlessly, with still more suggestive movements.
"So we can see," the first lizard said, now openly leering.
"What about you, Alman? Seen anything?" the other lizard asked.
"No," Roxton snapped briefly, his voice strained. I hope they don't notice any difference in the voice not that anyone could sound normal with what she's doing!
Apparently the lizards didn't notice anything. "C'mon, Fritus. Let's check the rest of the hall. There's no point in trying to talk to humans when they're rutting not that they're much good for talking anyway," the bored-sounding guard said.
"They can be an awful lot of fun to watch, though," Fritus replied, not moving.
The other guard yanked on his arm. "Come on. We've still got to find that drudge. With our luck, the half-wit got lost and fell into the latrine."
Grumbling, the two guards left the room. As soon as the door closed behind them, Roxton bucked and twisted underneath Marguerite, bringing her down beside him on the bed and half-pinning her. He stared at her, his breathing uneven. His eyes glinted at her from behind the mask.
Given their intimate proximity, Marguerite couldn't help but know the effect she'd had on him. Well, and on myself too, but I can't let him see that. Her whole body was tingling with desire. Embarrassment a rarely-felt and much-hated emotion tinged her cheeks with pink, but she kept her voice level and her breathing even, taking refuge in sarcasm. "Show's over, Roxton. You can let me up now. They're gone. No need to keep acting."
"Someone once told me the best acting comes from life," he said hoarsely. He saw her lips part in surprise, but before she could say anything, he covered her mouth with his.
Rational thought disappeared, vanquished by passion. Lips met, tongues danced, hands found deliciously bare skin just begging to be touched, stroked, and savored. Arms and legs twined around each other, bringing them as close as possible. Someone groaned.
Roxton pulled back, alarmed at the sound. He abruptly remembered that Malone said she'd been injured earlier in the day. "Did I hurt you?"
Marguerite pulled back, alarmed at the sound. Experience told her that particular groan wasn't a sound of pleasure. "Are you all right?"
They blinked at each other in surprise, and only then realized where the sound must have come from underneath the bed. Marguerite let out a frustrated laugh and rested her forehead against Roxton's shoulder, almost ready to scream. Sanity returned, however unwelcome. "Neither the time nor the place, I think," she said as lightly as she could.
"It's not," Roxton agreed reluctantly, knowing she was right but damning the interruption all the same. He took a little comfort from the fact that she looked as frustrated as he felt, and her breathing was as ragged as his. "One request?"
She raised an eyebrow. "What?"
He debated saying it, but the sure knowledge of what was going to haunt his nights from now on led him to take the risk. "Make sure that outfit comes with us back to the Treehouse?"
He never knew what her reaction to his bold request would have been. The bed beneath them suddenly heaved up, sending them both flying. As entangled as they were, Roxton couldn't control the fall. All of his weight landed on his elbow and shoulder which landed in the middle of Marguerite's midriff. He didn't need to hear her pained barking cough or see her sudden pallor to know that she'd just had all the wind knocked out of her. He rolled away from her, seeing her reflexively curl into a huddled, helpless ball. He scrambled to his feet to face off with the enraged gladiator rising from the ruins of the bed.
Challenger rubbed his eyes and peered through the microscope again, but the results didn't change. "Fascinating," he muttered to himself.
A loud noise at the entrance to the infirmary broke his concentration, and he looked up to see several unfriendly-looking lizardmen scowling at him.
"You!" one of them barked. "What are you doing here?"