Round 15 – Zakiyah
It wasn’t that simple, of course, but over the next few hours of discussion, argument, and glares, a plan was hammered out. Several other rebellion leaders were hastily gathered for the impromptu war conference, Demitri amongst them. The big man was delighted to see Malone again. His hearty clap on the back nearly sent the tired reporter sprawling, but Ned managed to return the greeting with good grace.
"Who’s he?" Veronica asked him, sotto voce. She and Malone were on the periphery of the group, neither of them interested in or suited for this kind of debate.
"One of those who helped smuggle me out of here," Malone replied quietly.
"I like him already," Veronica smiled, then frowned as Malone swayed perceptibly. "Ned, you’re exhausted. Come on." She guided him firmly over to one corner of the cluttered workshop, half wishing the conspirators hadn’t finally decided to take Malone’s advice and lock the door between the laboratory and the infirmary. Given his battered state, Ned really needed a cot, not the stone floor of the lab. Still, he’s so tired right now I doubt he’ll notice the difference. She coaxed him down to a sitting position and sat beside him. "Take a few minutes to rest. They’re going to be arguing for a while, and you’ll want to be as fresh as possible once we have a plan."
Malone wanted to disagree, but he knew she was right. Wearily, he leaned against the wall, tired to the bone. Squinting blearily, he gestured vaguely in Marguerite’s direction. "It’s not fair. How does she do it?" he mumbled.
"Do what?" Veronica asked, looking from him to the vehemently-arguing heiress. She grinned appreciatively as Marguerite all-but-openly called Gekus an idiot.
"She should be as tired as I am, but just look at her. She’s ready to take them all on." Malone’s eyes drifted shut.
Veronica shrugged, a half-rueful smile on her lips. "She’s Marguerite – and there’s no mistaking the ‘argue’ in the name."
Malone chuckled sleepily at her sally, but did not open his eyes. I’ll have to remember that one for my journal.
Veronica looked back over at the ongoing debate. Despite her quip, Malone’s words had struck a chord. She really didn’t know where the dark-haired woman found the stamina to continue on as she was. Marguerite’s constant complaining made it easy to forget just how tough a customer she really could be, when it suited her purpose. Good thing, too. If there’s anyone who might be able to keep Tribune in line, it’s Marguerite. She snorted inwardly. Of course if the situation were any less dire, I’d have to worry about who was keeping Marguerite in line! She sighed, aware that her own fatigue was leading her to be less than fair. She’s really not all that bad anymore, she acknowledged privately. She frowned suddenly as she saw Marguerite’s stance falter ever so slightly. The woman never stopped talking, and Veronica doubted anyone else had noticed the subtle shift in balance, but Veronica saw how she casually rested one hand against the laboratory table for support. Huh. I think Marguerite’s more tired than she’s letting on. Maybe I should The rest of her thought was lost as a warm weight settled against her shoulder. Turning her head, Veronica saw that Malone had slumped over against her, his head resting on her shoulder and threatening to loll forward onto her chest. He was fast asleep, unaware of his precarious balance. Carefully, she reached around and supported him, maneuvering until she had eased his head down onto her lap. He stirred slightly but did not awaken, settling down instead with a contented sigh. She lightly stroked his hair back from his forehead, smiling gently at his sleeping form.
False dawn was brightening the sky by the time everyone agreed on a plan of action. Challenger, Scaldus, Demitri, Veronica, and Malone would take the auto-washing tub to the square just outside the zombie barracks. The humans would activate it and defend it if the zombies were ordered out of their quarters – and Scaldus would provide the "authority" for the humans’ presence in the first place. The rest of them would gather up other conspirators and make their way to the palace just after dawn, where Marina’s dancers would hopefully be on hand to let them in.
Which left getting word to Marina up to Marguerite, in her guise of one of the dancers straggling back from the party. Gekus assured the plotters that Cantus’s revels would be over by now, and that he was quite fastidious about the ‘entertainers’ leaving once the festivities were done. Tribune was also confident of this, and equally confident that Marina and the dancers would have no trouble getting back into the palace once they knew the conspirators were about to strike. Marguerite could tell they weren’t telling her something about the dancers, but fatigue was taking its toll, and she decided she’d find out soon enough. She took a deep breath, trying to ignore the pain and stiffness in her side from when Roxton had landed on her, and watched wearily as the group began to break up in preparations for the upcoming action. I’ve had many longer and tougher days during the War. Why am I so tired now? A cynical smile touched her lips. Either I’m out of practice, or I’m getting old!
A gentle hand touched her shoulder, and Marguerite turned from watching Challenger and Younus lingering in discussion to meet Roxton’s serious gaze. "I don’t like this," he grumbled quietly. "I should come with you."
Marguerite sighed. "Roxton, we’ve already discussed this to death. We need to keep this as quiet as possible for as long as we can. A dancing girl returning to the women’s quarters is least likely to attract any notice, even less than a lizard guard ‘making the rounds’. A dancing girl accompanied by a human slave would attract far more attention – and a dancing girl accompanied by the slave who wandered off from Cantus’s little party is just asking for trouble." Not to mention they’ll be combing the area looking for you if Alman’s body has been discovered, she carefully did not add. If that’s the case, they’ll be looking for me as well – but what would a drunk dancing girl know about it? After all, he wore a mask; he called himself Alman; why should I have known any differently? She was confident she could brazen it out if she had to.
"I know," he acknowledged, still unhappy about it. He noticed her shivering slightly, and frowned. "You’re cold."
"This isn’t the warmest outfit imaginable," Marguerite answered sardonically, which was only partially the truth. She always felt cold when she was tired. "I don’t know how Veronica manages." She glanced around the room for the jungle girl, then paused as she spotted the blonde sitting in a corner of the room, eyes closed, with Malone’s head resting in her lap.
Alerted by the sudden softening of Marguerite’s expression, Roxton followed her line of sight and saw their friends. He raised his eyebrows. Neddy-boy’s got the right idea, he thought with amusement. "That’s one way to keep warm."
"Very snug." Marguerite’s tone was dry, but her expression was tolerant and even a shade wistful. She straightened her shoulders. "It’s time for me to go." Roxton opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off by placing two fingers against his lips. "I’ll see you at the palace. Make sure you get there on time and in one piece. I hate to be kept waiting."
He kissed the fingers pressed to his lips, smiling slightly as she pulled her hand away, unwilling to be distracted from her purpose. "A gentleman’s first duty is to always be on time. Be careful, Marguerite."
Marguerite’s hand tingled, and she curled the fingers of that hand closed in an unconscious attempt to hold that kiss close. "I always am, John."
He watched her glide from the room, feeling the conflicting tugs of anxiety, resignation, a curious pride in her courage, and other less easily acknowledged emotions seething within him. He heaved a big sigh as the last of her rose-colored skirt fluttered from view, then strode over to Veronica and Malone. Veronica opened her eyes at his approach, looking at him inquiringly.
"Time to rise and shine," he said heartily, crouching down to her eye level. "We’ve got a tyrant to overthrow this morning."
Veronica nodded and gently shook Malone awake as Roxton filled her in on the few details she hadn’t overheard from her corner. The reporter showed a distinct unwillingness to rouse from his restful repose, but eventually his eyes opened. "Huh?" he said intelligently.
"Good morning, Ned," Veronica said welcomingly.
"Nice billet you’ve got there," Roxton teased, "but it’s time to get to work."
Confusion, then comprehension, quickly passed over Malone’s face, and he sat up abruptly. "Oh! Um, I must have fallen asleep." He gave Veronica a sheepish look. "Sorry."
"For what? You were tired," Veronica replied, not quite understanding Malone’s evident embarrassment.
"I’m better now," Malone said rather incoherently. He looked around the room, still trying to gather his sleep-dulled wits. The room wasn’t as crowded as before; several of the conspirators were no longer in evidence. Challenger was crouched by his auto-washing tub, explaining something to a few lizardmen. Malone frowned. "Where did the others go? Where’s Marguerite?"
"Off to start the rebellion, and we’ve got our own parts to play," Roxton answered obliquely.
Malone wasn’t reassured by the tense look on Roxton’s face. He did his best to concentrate as the others explained what had happened and what was about to happen, but stray thoughts kept wafting through his mind. Glad Demitri is coming with us. Even gladder I’ll be with Veronica. Wonder how Roxton is taking this? I never did get a chance to talk to Marguerite. Hope Roxton and Tribune don’t kill each other on the way to the palace. He mentally shook himself and focused again on what the others were saying. Hope my not paying better attention right now doesn’t kill me!
Marguerite approached the door to the women’s quarters with a sensation of relief. Sneaking away from the infirmary (Never be seen leaving the site of a conspiracy!) and then making her way openly from a stable to this courtyard (The best way not to be noticed is to act like you belong exactly where you are!) wasn’t terribly difficult, but in her exhausted and aching state it wore more heavily on her nerves than it might have done otherwise. I’ll be glad when all this is over, she mused. Assuming we win, that is. She yawned and covered her mouth with one hand, using the motion to conceal her furtive glance around the area. Looks clear; no guards, at least none I can see. Mentally crossing her fingers, she walked the last few steps and opened the door without hesitation.
The scene inside looked reassuringly normal. The main room was lit only by a few lamps, and was understandably deserted except for the one prim figure resting on a divan. Marguerite recognized the long blonde hair instantly, even before the sharp eyes opened and speared her with a glance. Marguerite instinctively straightened her posture, ignoring the twinge caused by the sudden change in stance. Why do I feel I’ve just been caught sneaking back into boarding school?
"You’re late," Marina said icily. "Close that door."
Worse than I thought – she reminds me of Sister Francis! "Yes, Marina," Marguerite murmured obediently, playing the expected part.
Once the door was closed, Marina’s demeanor changed instantly. "Thank goodness. What on earth have you been up to? We’ve had lizards here twice on your behalf!"
Before Marguerite could answer, one of the doors to the main room opened, and two more figures came rushing into the room, hurrying over to her. "Mara! You’re all right!" Sennia reached out and grasped one of Marguerite’s hands in hers, while the more exuberant Eula hugged her. Marguerite winced, both in surprise and from the pain the hug caused her aching midriff.
"Not quite all right," Sennia corrected herself, concerned. "Back off, Eula. Let me take a look."
"It’s nothing, really," Marguerite demurred, momentarily overwhelmed.
Marina frowned at the two dancers. "‘Mara’? You gave her a name?"
Eula shrugged and returned Marina’s frown with a challenging glare of her own. "A provisional one, but yes. After all, she danced."
Marina’s frown smoothed out. "So she did."
Great. Just what I need – more talking over my head. I wonder what they’re on about now? Marguerite thought to herself irritably.
"You’re going to have a nasty set of bruises, but nothing’s broken," Sennia announced. "What happened?"
Marguerite shook off the others and took a step back. "Listen, we don’t have time for this." She hesitated a moment, looking around the room again. "Is it safe to speak?"
Marina nodded, understanding the import of Marguerite’s question. "It’s safe. I take it there’s news?"
"If you can call the fact we need to get into the palace as soon as possible and find a way to let the others in to start the uprising ‘news’, then yes," Marguerite said with heavy irony.
The leader of the dancers sucked in a sharp breath, her eyes narrowing. "You’d better give me the whole story. Eula, rouse the others, and make sure they wear their practice costumes. Sennia, do what you can for her while Mara explains herself."
Marguerite quickly summarized the events of the last few hours, doing her best to ignore Sennia’s ministrations. The dancer’s first aid was relatively incomprehensible to Marguerite, but she couldn’t deny she felt remarkably better when the cinnamon-haired woman finished. She smiled her thanks, which the dancer acknowledged with a grin and a wave before hurrying off to start her own preparations.
Marina only interrupted Marguerite’s account once, when the heiress was glossing over the events with Alman and Roxton. "That explains why those two guards showed up asking about a human drudge who might fancy one of my dancers," she mused. "I guess they haven’t found Alman’s body yet. As for Lassus well, he probably got the idea on his own. Go on."
As she was finishing her account of the night’s happenings and Tribune’s plans, women started filtering into the room. They were all dressed in loose, full-length trousers that sat on the hip, and sleeveless halter vests with much more modest necklines than the one Marguerite wore. Without exception, their hair was severely tied back out of the way. Occasional bits of bright embroidery enlivened the dull black of the outfits slightly, and brightly-colored scarves were tied around each dancer’s hips, but these were unmistakably utilitarian garments. If it weren’t for the bare torsos and arms, the women might have looked almost workmanlike. Each dancer carried at least one cane in her hand. As Marguerite watched, the dancers started limbering up, stretching and twisting their flexible bodies. Eula grinned at her when she returned, dressed like the rest, and flourished her cane. With a quick twist of the handle, she suddenly withdrew a long blade from the body of the cane and saluted Marguerite and Marina with it before putting it back and reaching down to touch the floor in a long stretch.
A sword? Dancers ready for a sneak attack on the palace at a moment’s notice? Marguerite observed the twelve women now in the room for a few moments and then turned to Marina, tired of guessing. "You’re much more than dancers, aren’t you?"
Marina raised an eyebrow. "Tribune didn’t tell you?"
"We’re his bodyguards." At Marguerite’s look of disbelief, Marina continued. "Tribune encountered our civilization during his travels. This was long before he became Emperor. He wisely chose not to try and attack us. When he became Emperor, he returned alone to bargain with our elders for a troupe of guards, all women. He called us ‘his secret defense’. Certainly none of the lizards ever suspected us; they all thought Tribune merely liked having human women on display." Marina frowned. "He’s going to owe us a great deal of extra compensation when he regains his throne, however. None of this was in our contract."
Marguerite couldn’t help herself. She started to laugh. Marina returned her smile. "Since you’re now a provisional member of our troupe, I’ll have to charge him extra for your assistance."
"Go ahead," Marguerite giggled, "but understand I intend to extract a high price from him on my own. Preferably from his hide."
"Good." Marina’s face turned serious once more. "We’ll have to find you an outfit if you want to accompany us. We’ve had dawn practices in Cantus’s hall before – it’s the only time it’s likely to be free – so our approach should not raise any suspicions. Once there, however, things are likely to be dangerous. Do you know how to use a sword?"
"I’m better with a whip," Marguerite admitted.
Marina gave her an odd look, but let it pass. "We’ll give you one of the lead-filled canes, then; easier to use and less likely to be turned against you. Are you sure you want to come? You’ll be safe enough here, unless all goes wrong."
Marguerite hesitated briefly – the thought of staying and being able to rest was tempting – but dismissed the idea almost immediately. Waiting on events really wasn’t her style. Besides which, if I’m not there, there’s no knowing what trouble Roxton and the others are likely to get into. She met Marina’s eyes calmly, answering the unspoken challenge as well as the spoken question. "Of course I’m coming. I wouldn’t miss it."