Round 19 - Zakiyah
Malone sighed in deep contentment, reclining against the cushioned comfort of the divan in his newly-assigned quarters. It scarcely seemed possible to him now that a few short hours ago, he and his friends had been fighting for their lives. Now here he was, wounds checked and tended by Younus, escorted to an extremely comfortable room by a beautiful (if armed) dancing girl, just resting until he could muster up the energy to proceed to the banquet he’d been told was already in progress. Maybe I should go see if Veronica’s ready to go to the festivities, he thought lazily, trying to muster up the energy to move. She’d been escorted to the rooms next to his. Maybe I will but first I just want to rest my eyes for a few minutes His eyes drifted closed.
Minutes later, Veronica entered Malone’s room. "Malone, did you see ?" Her voice trailed off as she spotted the reporter, fast asleep on the divan. She quietly approached him and stood by his side, looking him over just to make sure he was okay. The reporter’s battered appearance and tired face tugged at her heart. Poor Ned. He’s really had a tough few days. A slight, unpleasant odor made her nostrils twitch, and she frowned. There’s no way he’s up for this ‘victory banquet’ – and given his choice, I’m sure he’d rather just sleep. But he’s going to wake up with a horrible backache if he stays on that divan all night, not to mention feel utterly foul for sleeping in his dirty clothes – and he really should eat something, too.
Nodding to herself in sudden determination, Veronica slipped silently from the room. She had some arrangements to make.
Roxton sat in a chair next to Marguerite’s bedside, absently drumming the fingers of one hand on the armrest, keeping watch as the injured heiress slept, propped by so many pillows she was practically sitting upright. He’d carried her here after those two dancers had done whatever it was they’d done, and the curly-haired blonde had assured him she could be moved.
He frowned, finally having the time to think over what had happened. The blonde dancer had refused to answer his questions, merely saying that Marguerite would be better off in bed, and that she’d make sure Younus stopped by to tend her. He would have pressed for more information, but Marguerite had still been awake then, and she’d deterred him with a look. Dazed and increasingly unable to speak, he’d guessed she was more interested in getting off of the ground and receiving treatment than in anything else. Shoving his questions to the back of his mind to deal with later, he’d carefully gathered her up, tensing when she hissed in pain. His frantic glare at the dancers was met with an equally aggravated look from the blonde, now supporting most of her taller friend’s weight as the two stumbled to their feet. "Yes, she’s still hurt and hurting, and no, there’s no danger in moving her now – so MOVE," the shorter dancer had snarled.
Once again, he’d put everything else aside and concentrated on carrying Marguerite as carefully as possible back to the palace, following an armed dancer to a set of opulent guest quarters. Unlike most other times when he’d had to carry her after some injury, Marguerite hadn’t been able to help support her own weight in any way, and he’d been distressed by how her head lolled limply against his chest. Clearly it was all she could do to remain conscious, and he’d hurried as much as possible, determined to make sure she’d be all right.
Now he had the leisure to wonder what the dancers had actually done, if anything. Younus had put in an appearance not long after he’d tucked Marguerite gently into bed. The heiress’s pain-glazed grey eyes had followed the lizard healer as he’d tended her, but she hadn’t said a word. Upon examining her throat, the lizard had tsked in a way that bizarrely reminded Roxton of Arthur Summerlee. "Good thing for you Cantus was more interested in revenge and issuing a challenge to Tribune than in killing you," he’d told the silent woman as he laid a light, strongly herby-smelling poultice across her neck.
"What do you mean?" Roxton had growled, both for his own knowledge and because he’d seen the question in Marguerite’s face.
Younus had grunted in disgust. "If Cantus had simply wanted her dead, he’d have ripped her throat out and been done with it. You humans are absurdly easy to kill that way. My guess is that as soon as he saw the dancers in the fighting, he deduced how and by whom he’d been betrayed to Tribune. So he used the nearest dancer to vent his rage on, and incidentally issue a challenge to Tribune, if he were anywhere near, which of course he was."
"You mean he didn’t mean to kill her?" Roxton had been incredulous, and Marguerite had shivered.
"Oh no, I didn’t say that! He meant for her to die, of course. He just wasn’t going to make it a quick, painless death. It’s fortunate she has a strong neck, and of course the throw wasn’t as precise as it could have been, and Sennia " Younus’ mouth had abruptly snapped shut as he frowned. "It’s a good thing she was available, I suppose."
"Why’s that?" The hunter had pounced on the ambiguity in the healer’s tone and the opportunity to question someone.
Younus had given him a strange look before averting his eyes in an oddly evasive manner. "She set the rib, of course – and in such a way that it won’t shift out of place again. She and Eula are an effective team." The praise had been grudging, and there were obvious issues underlying his gruff tones. "I won’t have to wrap it much at all, except to keep the poultices in place to help with the bruising."
"But she will be all right?"
At that, the lizard healer had snapped out of whatever grumpy funk thoughts of the dancers had sent him into, and he’d patted Marguerite’s hand reassuringly before giving Roxton a nod. "As long as we keep the swelling down in her neck, she’ll be fine." He’d poured some liquid from a small vial into a glass and added water to fill it completely before turning his entire attention to Marguerite. "Now I want you to drink this. I know swallowing is painful, but you need this medicine if we’re to avoid any complications. It’ll make you sleepy, but I imagine a little sleep right now wouldn’t be such a bad thing, eh?"
Marguerite had obediently drunk the bluish-colored liquid, wincing visibly with every swallow but making no sound of protest. Shortly thereafter, her heavily-lashed eyelids had closed over her sleepy eyes. Younus had waited until he was sure she was sleeping properly and that everything was all right before he’d excused himself to tend to other patients, leaving Roxton to watch over Marguerite.
She’ll be fine. They’ve all said she’ll be fine, the hunter reminded himself, his fingers still twitching in rhythmic agitation. Despite the fatigue of the past day and a half, nervous tension jittered through his frame, leaving him feeling jumpy and edgy instead of tired. So why am I still so uneasy? His eyes roamed over Marguerite’s pale face and resting form again, looking for any clue, any sign that would either justify his continuing worry, or refute it sufficiently to allow him to relax. Some of the lines of pain on her face had smoothed out, now that she had found the surcease of drugged slumber, but she was still too drawn for his liking. She was so quiet
All at once, Roxton sighed and sat back in his chair. Quiet. That’s what’s been bothering me. Marguerite hasn’t said a word, not since I picked her up and carried her here. I know she was in pain, and normally she would have let me know about it in no uncertain terms – unless it was really bad, in which case she might have tried to keep it to herself. But this time it’s just that she really can’t talk without making things worse. He smiled, relaxing further as he finally was able to articulate to himself the source of his anxiety, and reached out to take one of Marguerite’s hands in his. "I wonder if you would believe me if I told you I miss the sound of your voice?" he asked the sleeping woman softly, gently stroking the top of her hand with his thumb.
"I’m sure she’d be touched to hear it," a dry, sarcastic voice said from the doorway. In a flash, Roxton dropped Marguerite’s hand and whirled to meet the voice, one hand already reaching for his gun. Tribune stood in the doorway, richly dressed in Imperial purple, looking at the two humans with a relatively unreadable expression on his face. His eyes only flickered slightly as he saw Roxton reaching for his weapon, and he coolly continued his thought. "I’m sure we’ll all be hearing Marguerite’s glorious complaints soon enough. She has quite a way with words, particularly when she’s displeased."
"You," Roxton growled in disgust. He left off reaching for his weapon and instead rose from his chair and advanced on the newly reinstated lizard leader. "Outside."
Tribune looked at him in surprise. "Why, John, that’s not very perceptive of you. I came to see how you and our dear Marguerite are doing, and to talk to you about a few things. I can hardly do that from the hallway."
"Marguerite’s sleeping, and it’s better if she remains that way. I don’t want you disturbing her. We can talk elsewhere," Roxton rumbled in a low, intense voice.
Tribune glanced once again at the sleeping woman on the bed, then nodded. "I see your point. Outside, then."
The two left the room, Roxton glancing back once more as he left just to reassure himself that Marguerite was still sleeping peacefully. He closed the door carefully, absently noticing the draft from the hallway made the wall hangings in Marguerite’s room flutter even in the brief time it took to draw the door to. He didn’t want Marguerite being chilled by drafts.
Once the door was fully shut, Roxton turned and looked at Tribune. "So what did you want to talk about, Tribune? Do you need our help for something else?" Roxton didn’t indulge in sarcasm often, but he was still on edge.
If Tribune noticed the sarcasm, he gave no sign. "No, I’m not in need of any assistance you could provide at the moment, thank you, although I do need to speak to Challenger about a few things. I simply came by to see how Marguerite was faring, and to check on you. You have everything you need? Marguerite is comfortable? Will you attend the banquet, or should I send a servant with food?"
A bit taken aback at this onslaught of courtesy, Roxton regarded Tribune suspiciously. "Why this sudden anxiety over our welfare, Tribune? You’re the one who got us tangled up in all this in the first place!"
Tribune bristled, obviously resenting Roxton’s tone. However, instead of snapping a response, he just as quickly deflated, surprising Roxton no end. "I know."
"What?" Roxton was certain he hadn’t heard that correctly.
Tribune sneered slightly, but otherwise did not rise to the bait. "I said I know, John. If you must know, I came here to apologize. I never intended for Marguerite to come to harm, or even be in any danger." At Roxton’s skeptical look, he amended his statement with a knowing grin. "Well, at least not any more danger than she could handle. After all, she’s a remarkable female." He quickly sobered again, toying absently with the cuff of his elegant robe with one clawed hand. "And I did say I would eat whomever was responsible if she were hurt, but unfortunately Cantus’s body has already been thrown to the raptors with the rest of the refuse." He straightened and looked Roxton in the eye. "However, since I did promise, and since I am a lizard of my word, I suppose you are due a forfeit."
"A forfeit?" Roxton repeated, stunned. "Such as?"
"Oh, I don’t know." Tribune waved a hand in exasperation, profoundly annoyed at having to have this conversation at all, and now the human wanted him to tell him what to claim as forfeit! "Jewels, perhaps – although that’s more Marguerite’s obsession than yours. Weapons – but you already have a fine collection, not to mention that lovely gunpowder. Maybe a statue in your honor? Something suitably large and heroic, permanently on display here at my capital."
"Definitely not!" Roxton spluttered, profoundly unsettled at the thought.
Tribune looked disappointed. "Not even with a fountain thrown in for good measure?"
Visions of spouting garden putti – particularly the memory of a truly tasteless fountain on the grounds of Avebury, the legacy of an ancestor with decidedly dubious taste – made Roxton’s second demurral even more vehement.
"Very well, no statue," Tribune acknowledged, with a slight grin at the human’s discomfort. He sighed dramatically, then looked at Roxton with serious eyes. "Perhaps you’d just like to hit me again, instead. It certainly seemed to help relieve your feelings the last time."
In all their encounters, Roxton could not remember feeling so off-balance with the wily lizard, not even when they were cellmates. He took a deep breath to calm his whirling mind. Thoughts of the lizard’s seemingly-careless treatment of all their lives still sparked anger, but recognition of the now-averted threat, and the obvious strides made in the relations between humans and lizards – changes apparently made under Tribune’s rule – produced a grudging respect. "No, Tribune. I don’t want to hit you – at least not at the moment," he acknowledged dryly. Unbidden, the thought came to his mind: What would Marguerite do in this situation, with such a favor owed – assuming she didn’t want jewels?
Hang on to it until it could be used to best advantage, he realized after a few seconds. "I’ll consider your offer, and let you know when I have decided on a suitable forfeit," he said at last, and had the satisfaction of seeing Tribune wince. "Until I claim my forfeit, I do have one request," he added, starting to enjoy himself.
Tribune looked at him, his yellow eyes wary. "And that would be ?"
"The next time you need our help, you ask for it, directly and up front. None of this scheming behind our backs to get us involved."
"My plan worked perfectly," Tribune started to protest, then subsided as Roxton glared at him. "Oh, all right." He shrugged disdainfully. "Not that I’m likely to need your help anyway. I never really needed your help – you were just the most expedient resources to hand. I could have managed without you. I never need anyone."
Roxton shook his head in resignation. "Whatever you say, Tribune. Just remember it should it ever come up." He turned back towards Marguerite’s door.
"John, wait a moment," Tribune called him back, a little more loudly than necessary.
Roxton gave him a curious look, wondering what else Tribune could possibly want. "Yes?"
"I’ll have some food sent round from the banquet, shall I? Somehow I don’t think you’re going to attend."
After a moment, Roxton gave him a half-smile. "No. I’ll be right here. Thank you," he added politely.
"Of course," Tribune acknowledged. Then he gave the hunter a sly look. "Hm. Not only do I owe you a forfeit, but you’ve managed to claim a favor as well. You and Marguerite are an even better matched pair than I had thought; you’re almost as dangerous as your mate."
Roxton just barely managed to turn his immediate denial into a cough as he realized Tribune was once again baiting him, undoubtedly to salvage his pride. Besides which, he didn’t want to give anything away to the cunning lizard. "Yes. Well. Um. Remember that, too."
"Oh I will," Tribune said softly as he watched John return to Marguerite’s room and close the door behind him. Once alone in the hallway, he sighed once before turning and walking back down the corridor. That’s one favor repaid, and one distasteful but necessary task taken care of, he mused to himself. I hate acknowledging a debt. One more unpleasant chore, and then I really must put in an appearance at my own banquet. He shrugged, then gave a hissing laugh filled with irony. "Sometimes I wonder why I even bothered trying to get this job back," he said to no one in particular. "Oh well, an Emperor’s work is never done." Nodding to the four guards stationed at the end of the hall, he stopped long enough to give two of them specific instructions and watched in satisfaction as they scurried to do his bidding. Oh yes, he reminded himself as he watched them go. This is why.
A light touch, but somehow bright, like a spark; and a voice calling her by a name that wasn’t hers, but one she could claim nonetheless. Marguerite rose from the depths of her drugged slumber, opening her eyes to see three dancers surrounding her bed. She immediately placed two of them, Marina and Eula, and a moment later the third name popped into her hazy mind: Doreta. She swallowed, trying to wet her dry throat before speaking, then immediately reconsidered it as the simple movement set her entire neck afire with pain.
"Don’t try to talk, Mara," Eula cautioned unnecessarily in a low voice. "We’re sorry to wake you, but Sennia won’t rest until she knows you’re not going to need her –" Eula’s grimace made it plain what she thought of that "– and it’s easier to tell if you’re awake. Besides, Marina and Doreta wanted to speak to you privately, and I don’t think we’re going to get too many chances at that from now on."
Reminded, Marguerite hazily looked around the room, trying to move her head as little as possible. Where’s John? she wondered. He was here when I fell asleep – and it’s not like him to leave me alone
"We kind of arranged a little distraction for your man," Eula interjected, correctly interpreting Marguerite’s searching looks.
"He’ll be back in a few moments," Marina confirmed in a reassuring tone. "We don’t have much time."
Marguerite frowned, confused. What’s going on here? She flinched as Eula placed feather-light fingertips on her abused throat, and shifted slightly so she could see what the blonde dancer was doing. Some time must have passed since she saw her last; the blonde was no longer dirty and sweaty from battle, and wore yet another midriff-baring outfit.
"Now Mara, I want you to swallow once. I know it hurts, but "
The rest of what Eula was saying was lost on Marguerite, as the heiress abruptly realized something. Her throat dried and her grey eyes widened as she stared at Eula’s midriff.
Eula’s uninjured midriff.
Panicked, Marguerite blinked and stared again, but there was no wound, no sign of any harm greater than a faint pink line, like a scratch, about where she thought Eula had been stabbed. How long have I been unconscious??? Is this really Eula? If it’s been that long and this really is Eula, what’s wrong with my throat??? Her thoughts raced frantically, and her breathing quickened. Already dazed from the drugs – if it was the drugs – Marguerite fought for calm as the edges of her vision started to turn grey.
Startled, Eula yanked her hand away from Marguerite’s throat. "Mara, what ?"
Marina had also been watching Marguerite’s reaction – but unlike Eula, she’d seen what started it. "Mara, it’s all right. No, Eula’s not injured. That’s part of why we’re here." She gave Eula an admonishing look, which actually caused the other dancer to flush. Still speaking in a quiet voice, Marina nonetheless injected her next words with a forceful intensity that helped Marguerite to listen. "Sennia healed Eula, there in the throne room. She’s our troupe healer; she can heal any of the dancers."
"She shouldn’t have used up so much energy on me, not given the situation," Eula muttered. "Other dancers were going to need her."
"You are her chosen sister," Marina said dryly, "and she knew we’d need your skills, too. It’s just a good thing Mara here demonstrated the other two virtues necessary to become a full dancer before she got hurt, or we might have lost her."
Marguerite’s eyes, already wide from fear, widened still further in incomprehension. Seeing this, Marina sighed and took one of Marguerite’s hands in hers.
"We’re making a muddle of this, and we don’t have time for it. Mara, Sennia healed Eula’s wound in the throne room. She also healed you a little after Cantus hurt you; as much as she could, given how drained she was already, and the audience. We’d rather you didn’t tell anyone about it, because even though Sennia can only heal the members of our troupe, if the fact she can heal at all became common knowledge, she might be in great danger. We all might be."
Slowly and carefully, Marguerite nodded, but her eyes were still puzzled. She looked from one dancer to another, wanting to ask further questions, but unable to coax any sound from her throat. Her mind was slowly clearing away the drugged haze. Sennia can only heal dancers? I wonder why? But why could she heal me? Maybe it didn’t work – my throat certainly doesn’t feel healed
Marina seemed to understand her puzzlement. "Yes, to us you are a full dancer now, which allowed Sennia to heal you of your most threatening injuries. You became a provisional member when you danced, and when Eula and Sennia chose to sponsor you. You passed the second test – that of courage – when you chose to come with us to fight, instead of remain behind. And you passed the final test when you chose to risk yourself defending others against superior odds, to protect a fallen dancer and our healer." Marina gave Marguerite a small smile. "When I commanded you to guard them, and you did it, that was your acceptance into our number. Even if you weren’t aware of it," she added knowingly.
Even if Marguerite could have spoken, she would have been silent, speechless in the face of this utterly unexpected series of revelations.
"Which is why I am here," Doreta spoke up quietly, her voice sounding strained to Marguerite’s ears. Looking at her more closely, she saw the dancer showed signs of recent weeping. "Marina tells me that you are unlikely to stay with us; that you have family and friends of your own, with whom you will return?"
Dumbly, Marguerite flickered her eyelashes in assent, unwilling to move her head again – and grateful that she had a reason not to try and explain the complexities of her relationship with her fellow explorers. Particularly when she wasn’t sure she could, even to herself. She ignored Eula placing her hand once again on her throat, concentrating instead on Doreta.
Doreta nodded. "My sister Geia died in the fighting. I will wear the violet now, in her memory, and forego the rose." She held out a small, well-wrapped package. "If you were staying, you would have a choice of any color not already chosen by one of us; but since there isn’t time, I thought you might like to have this, in memory of all." She tucked the package under one of Marguerite’s arms and drew the blanket up to hide it from sight, blinking away tears even as she grinned at the stunned woman. "Besides which, you looked great in it."
Deeply touched, Marguerite ignored the pain and nodded her grateful acceptance of the gift.
"Don’t do that too much," Eula scolded, taking her hand away from Marguerite’s neck before breaking into a grin. "If you behave and take the medicine I’m sure Younus has provided, you should be just fine; the swelling is under control. You’re probably not going to be able to speak for a few days, though."
Marguerite’s eyes narrowed in outrage, but before she could draw breath to try and voice her discontent, a muffled male voice was heard in the hallway. All three dancers tensed in response.
"That’s our cue," Marina said, a hint of regret in her voice. "Remember, Mara, you’ve earned a place with us. We’ve time yet on this contract, and I imagine we’ll negotiate an extension when the time comes – but even if we should move on, we’ll be sure to leave word where to find us, just in case."
Marguerite started to nod again, then stopped as Eula mock-glared at the motion. The three dancers retreated to the wall, pushing aside the wall hangings to reveal a small door. With a graceful wave that seemed more than half a salute, the women disappeared beyond the door, Eula sending a last wink before the tapestries fell back into place.
Marguerite lay quietly, trying to process everything she’d just learned. The effect of whatever Younus had given her still fuzzed her thoughts, but she was now far too keyed up to feel sleepy. Before she could do more than absorb the bare facts, she heard the main door to the room open. She carefully rolled her eyes to see who it was, keeping her head as still as possible. She had no intention of doing anything that might keep her silent a moment longer than necessary.
Roxton entered the room, still shaking his head over Tribune’s assumption and what it might mean. Closing the door carefully to avoid waking Marguerite, he turned and immediately noticed his precaution was unnecessary. Two grey eyes regarded him intently, and he felt a pang of remorse because she’d roused alone, in a strange room. "Marguerite? You’re awake?" He hurried to her side and took one of her hands in his. "Did we wake you after all? I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have left you alone, no matter what Tribune wanted to say."
Marguerite squeezed his hand reassuringly, touched by his concern, and not wanting him to blame himself. It’s okay, John. It wasn’t your fault.
Relieved at the understanding he saw in her eyes, he gave her a half-smile. "Younus left some medicine for you to drink, whenever you woke up," he told her quietly. "Do you think you could manage some?"
Marguerite dipped her chin just a fraction and squeezed his hand again. Taking that for a yes, Roxton gave her a broader smile and a gentle squeeze of his own hand in return before releasing her to mix the drops into Marguerite’s water glass.
Watching him prepare the medicine, Marguerite noticed how weary John looked. His normally decisive movements were slightly slower, and his hands were a trifle unsteady as he worked the cork out of the small brown bottle. It’s been a long two days for him, too, she realized. And knowing John, he’ll try to stay awake all night, just to make sure I’m all right. The thought warmed her, causing her to smile faintly even as another thought inevitably followed the first. Always looking out for others, never for himself, silly man. Well, John, not tonight.
"Here we are," Roxton said as he came back to the bed, medicinal glass in hand. He carefully sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted the glass to her lips, ready to provide more support if she needed it. "You need to drink all this."
Marguerite fractionally moved her head from side to side, and pressed her lips together determinedly. Between the movement and the look on her face, her No was as clear as if she’d spoken it aloud.
"What do you mean, no?" Roxton demanded, immediately worried. "Can you not swallow? Do I need to call for Younus?"
Marguerite again shook her head fractionally before patting the bed beside her and giving Roxton a pointed look. He bent nearer, obviously baffled. Wishing she could speak, she mustered a little energy from somewhere and raised one of her hands to his face, ignoring the immediate painful reaction caused by the movement. She gently drew her fingers over his eyes, closing his eyelids, and down his cheek in a light caress before letting her hand fall back to the bed. She patted the bed yet again as he reopened his eyes.
This time Roxton understood, and he shook his head in wonder. "You want me to get some sleep, is that it?" At Marguerite’s tiny nod, he shrugged dismissively. "Thank you, but I’m fine " Her tight-lipped glare stopped him in mid-sentence, and he realized the full import of what she was trying to tell him. "You won’t drink the medicine until I agree to get some sleep, will you?"
Marguerite smiled slightly in affirmative response, pleased that he understood her, and amused by the exasperated expression on his face. Matching wits with Roxton had her feeling better already, in spite of the ongoing pain.
Roxton stared at Marguerite, lying there on the bed, stubborn as a mule. A stubborn, silent mule. A stubborn, silent, half-dead mule, who wouldn’t let him take care of her unless he agreed to get some rest. Fatigue tugged at him, emphasizing her point, and he was torn between the desire to kiss her and the desire to force her to drink her medicine and be done with it. Common sense reasserted itself, and he gave in with a sigh. "Very well." He looked at the bed, momentarily tempted to take her at her ‘word’ and stretch out beside her. It was certainly more than big enough for two, but he didn’t want to risk aggravating her injuries through some unconscious movement. Looking around the room, he gestured at the long, low, padded bench at the end of the bed. "If I agree to lie down there and try to rest, will you agree to drink your medicine and get some more sleep?"
Marguerite gave him a long, considering look before indicating her agreement. He’ll keep his word.
"Then drink up, my dear." Roxton raised the glass to Marguerite’s lips again, and this time the overly determined woman slowly sipped the liquid. The pain on her face every time she swallowed made Roxton flinch, but there was little he could do. At last she finished, and he set the glass down before tenderly blotting her lips dry with his handkerchief. "Now get some more rest."
Already slightly heavy-eyed from whatever sedative was in the medicine, Marguerite still managed a credible glare that clearly said You, too!
The hunter chuckled, all at once relieved of the anxiety that had shadowed him. Only Marguerite could manage to argue with someone without the use of her voice – argue and win! She really is going to be all right. His eyes were drawn back to her when she impatiently snapped her fingers. "No, I haven’t forgotten." Rising from his perch on the bed, he walked to the bench. Looking at the distance between it and Marguerite, he impulsively hefted one edge. Finding it relatively lightweight, he quickly moved it to the side of the bed, where he could see her better. Stretching out full-length, he grinned at her. "Not as comfortable as your bed, I’m sure, but not bad."
Marguerite smiled indulgently at him before closing her eyes. Still chuckling, Roxton rested his hands behind his head and did the same.
"I really ought to wait until I have a decent set of tools," Challenger grumbled to himself as he gently worked the crossbow bolt back and forth, trying to ease it free from the auto-washing tub’s gears without causing any more damage. He absently looked around the room, but the richly appointed chambers offered little in the way of useful items, at least from the scientist’s point of view. He stopped moving the bolt and instead peered along the shaft as best as he could, shaking his head in dismay at the damage he could already see. The point of the bolt had severed the main spring, and the resultant violent uncoiling had wreaked havoc with the delicate inner workings of his invention. If it’s as bad as I think it is, I’ll have to completely dismantle it, craft a new spring, and reassemble it – and I’ll probably need to replace at least some of the gears it might take me longer to fix it than it did to build it in the first place! Sadly, he ran a hand along one edge of the tub.
Urgent knocking at his door brought the scientist to his feet. "What is it?" he called.
Two lizards entered the room, looking very flustered. "Excuse me, sir, but His Imperial Majesty has requested your presence in the zombie courtyard. Cantus’ creatures are starting to stir."
Challenger gave an agonized look at his still-inoperable invention. "I’m afraid the auto-washing tub isn’t working yet," he said, dismayed.
"Hopefully we won’t need it," one of the lizard guards volunteered. "So far, all they’re doing is sitting there, and of course no one is giving them any orders to attack or anything like that. If nothing changes, they’ll just sit there until they die. Emperor Tribune did say that you had made some discoveries about what Cantus did to them – that maybe you could even find a way to help them?" Hope shone in his gold-green eyes, and Challenger was abruptly reminded that the "zombies" were all real lizardmen, with friends and kinsmen – lizardmen these people had thought lost to them through Cantus’s madness. There probably wasn’t a lizard in the city who didn’t know someone who had been turned into an unthinking killing machine.
"Well, I can certainly try " Challenger started, reluctant to promise anything, afraid of providing false hope. He stopped as an idea suddenly came to him. His eyes widened as he rapidly turned it over in his mind, carefully considering every aspect. Yes, that might possibly work! He paused a moment more, as he thought about what might happen if it didn’t work. But he had little choice; he had to try. "Yes. I’ll come right away – but we must stop by Younus’s laboratory on the way."
"Of course – or I could go fetch anything you might need," the other guard enthused, his whole demeanor showing his excitement.
"No, no – it will be faster if I go. But I’m sure I’ll need you to carry something " The three hurried from the room, Challenger already planning ahead for what he could try and what he might need. If he could save these lizards, he would.
Behind them, the auto-washing tub lay forgotten by them, but not by others. Within minutes of the scientist’s departure, Scaldus and four other lizards entered Challenger’s room. Without a word, Scaldus gestured for the others towards the invention. A look of faint regret clouded his scaly features, but he had his orders, and he did not hesitate.
The divan was soft, and Malone was very tired. It was certainly much darker in the room when he next opened his eyes, irresistibly drawn into consciousness by an impossibly familiar scent. That can’t be coffee? Blearily, he focused his eyes – and saw Veronica standing at the foot of his divan, a steaming mug held in one hand, a gentle smile on her lovely face. She was wearing a blue dressing-gown type garment that beautifully complimented her eyes, and her blonde hair gleamed richly.
I must be dreaming, Malone promptly decided, but sat up a little anyway. "Veronica?"
"Hi there," the svelte blonde greeted him warmly. "I thought you could use this." Veronica had been delighted to discover the lizards shared Marguerite and Malone’s adoration of the bitter brew. She carefully moved the mug back and forth, swirling the hot beverage in its cup, allowing even more of the aroma to diffuse in the air. "You’ll have to get up, though."
Briefly, Malone considered just closing his eyes again, but coffee and Veronica won out. Groaning, he levered himself onto his feet, then blinked in puzzlement as Veronica stepped back away from the divan, obviously wanting him to follow her. Huh? "Are we late for the banquet?" he asked in confusion.
"I’ve already sent our regrets. Tribune won’t mind; it’s mostly a lizard affair anyway, and of course Roxton and Marguerite won’t be there."
Malone nodded in understanding. The last he’d seen of their dark-haired friends, Roxton had been carrying Marguerite towards another set of guest quarters. He had no doubt the hunter was with the injured woman, and that he wouldn’t be leaving her side anytime soon. "Challenger?"
"Utterly absorbed with his auto-washing tub, of course. He had it brought to his room so he can assess the damage and keep a close eye on it," Veronica said with dry amusement.
Her words and the image they conjured made Malone chuckle; he had no doubt the ginger-haired inventor was fussing over his invention like a broody hen. Stretching a little, he took a few steps towards Veronica. She edged back just out of reach. "What’s going on?" he asked, confused. "Can I have my coffee?" he added plaintively.
"I’ll carry it until we get where we’re going, and then of course you can have it," Veronica reassured him.
"But where are we going?" Malone wanted to know, still half-convinced this was all a dream. Veronica was being very mysterious, and she had an air of suppressed emotion – excitement? nervousness? – about her that was quite unlike her usual calm demeanor.
Veronica smiled, a smile composed of equal parts mystery, allurement, and amusement. "You never did explore this room very thoroughly, did you Ned?"
"Um, no " Malone admitted. Frankly, he’d been so worn out by the time he’d reached the room that he’d only noticed two things: the bed, which he had virtuously resisted; and the divan, which had quickly claimed him.
"There’s another door here," Veronica pointed out, brushing aside a curtain and revealing a smaller wooden door than the one leading to the corridor.
"Where does it go?" Malone asked, intrigued, but even more puzzled about why Veronica was bringing this up now.
The blonde turned the simple handle and edged open the door a fraction, but did not continue. Instead, she moved aside so Ned could go through first. "Go ahead and see." Behind his back, she nervously chewed on her lip. What if Ned doesn’t like it?
Really curious now, Malone pushed the door open the rest of the way with one foot and walked through. He stopped, momentarily unable to believe his eyes.
The door opened onto a large, stone-walled room lit only by candles in multi-colored glass holders and a few lanterns hanging from hooks on the walls. A blanket had been laid out on one part of the floor, with several trays filled with appetizing-looking food spread out over it. Cushions were piled nearby, just ready to be arranged and sat on. A picnic blanket, or meant to be one, he realized. What really held his attention, though, was the large, steaming pool sunk in the middle of the room. Water flowed into it from some kind of fountain or faucet, made out of what looked like brass, and shaped like some kind of fish. Bubbles floated on the surface of the water, their lazy course indicating that there was some kind of outflow at the opposite end of the pool from the fountain-head.
After several seconds of stunned silence, Malone found his voice. "Is that what I think it is?"
"A bath," Veronica confirmed, looking over his shoulder, so close he could feel her breath tickling his ear. "I guess lizardmen really like their baths. No wonder Marguerite understands them so well," she joked affectionately. She coaxed him farther into the room, delighted at his look of wondering pleasure as he took in the surroundings. "Most of the guest rooms open on to this, but I checked; the others are all empty." She met his eyes, a mischievous, teasing smile on her lips, a subtle gleam in her soft gaze. "I remembered what you said about a hot bath, a hot meal, and coffee." She handed him the steaming cup.
He shook his head in awe and absently sipped the coffee. "This is amazing." He looked at her standing there, obviously pleased by his reaction. She must have arranged for all of this! "You’re amazing." He blushed as his stomach growled loudly, awakened by the smell of the food and the taste of his favorite beverage.
Veronica laughed. "Let’s get you something to eat," she teased. "But first, let’s get you clean. I think you’ll enjoy the food more if you don’t have the lingering traces of zombie-odor mingling with your meal."
Malone looked down at himself ruefully. "True." Both he and his clothes were definitely the worse for wear.
Veronica gently took the coffee-cup from his hand and set it down on the picnic blanket before reaching up and starting to unbutton his shirt. Malone’s blush returned. "Uh, Veronica, what do you think you’re doing?"
"Helping you undress," she said matter-of-factly, willfully suppressing the butterflies fluttering in her stomach. "It’s not like you can do this with only one hand – and I’m not going to take any chances with you slipping and hurting that arm even more."
Cheeks scarlet, Malone grasped for words. "But Veronica "
She met his eyes candidly, her face inches from his. "What? I’m just helping you. Besides which," she added with a throaty chuckle, "it’s not like we haven’t gone bathing together before. And both you and these clothes of yours really do need to be washed."
Malone gulped, then nodded. Reaching up with his one good hand to gently touch her face, he smiled back at her, his cheeks still a little red. "If you’re sure "
The sky was lightening towards dawn as Challenger finally made his way back to his guest quarters. He winced as his arthritic shoulder twinged, reminding him that he really was getting too old for this. He rotated it gingerly. Well, all things considered, tonight was well worth a few aches and pains.
As it had turned out, restoring the chemically-altered "zombie" lizardmen had ultimately been simple. Disgustingly simple, he thought to himself, smiling in quiet appreciation of the pun. Knowing that Cantus’s chemical fluid was responsible for their suggestive state, Challenger had theorized stripping the zombies of their rotting, foul outer skin and sponging them clean of the narcotic-laced chemical fluid that had accumulated underneath might restore them, or at least start them on the road to recovery. He’d been a little reluctant to try it, just in case it somehow worsened the zombies’ condition, but after consulting with a hastily-summoned Younus and several other knowledgeable lizards, Challenger had been reasonably certain it couldn’t hurt them even if it failed to help.
One of the guards who had brought him the news had volunteered his zombified brother as the first subject. I never thought I’d ever be called upon to skin a lizard alive, he mused, shuddering at the memory of the stench and the general unpleasantness of the task. Still, it had been surprisingly easy to remove the dead skin, even while wearing thick gloves to protect himself from any direct contact with the chemical. By the time he’d half-finished sponging off the young male lizardman, he’d been starting to show signs of real consciousness, and Challenger had discovered something else. Freshly-moulted lizardmen are ticklish! The hysterical giggling had alarmed the scientist, but the other lizards had quickly reassured him, fascinated by the spontaneous response from one they had considered dead or the next thing to it. By the time Challenger had finished washing him, the former zombie had tears of mirth running down his face but he’d also been chortling his brother’s name, and pleading with Challenger to stop. The young lizard guard had also been in tears, but his were tears of joy.
Inspired by the success, humans and lizards alike had turned to skinning zombies, but it had quickly turned out that even with gloves and protective clothing, lizardmen were far too susceptible to direct contact with Cantus’s chemical to be able to assist in the task. So Challenger and about thirty human volunteers had spent the night freeing the zombies from their putrefying prisons. Not all zombies showed such immediate and marked improvement as the first, but Challenger felt confident that all would recover in time.
Not a bad night’s work, for all that my clothes will never be the same, Challenger thought, looking down at his spattered and stained garments, and trying not to breathe too deeply. I hope I’ll at least be able to get the smell out before we go home, or I’ll have to acquire new clothes – or go home naked! He sighed deeply as the door to his room came into view. That other guard said something about baths being available at all hours – I could certainly use one, followed by a nice long sleep.
He entered the room, weariness rapidly taking over. Something seemed different somehow; and he blearily looked around, trying to figure out what it was. Moments later all thoughts of fatigue, stench, clothes, and baths fled his mind as he raised his voice in an outraged howl that could be heard all around the palace. "WHERE IS MY AUTO-WASHING TUB???"
"I still can’t believe Tribune had the gall to confiscate my auto-washing tub," Challenger complained indignantly. "What unmitigated arrogance – and after all we did for him!"
It was two days after the final battle that had restored Tribune to his throne and put an end to Cantus’s madness, and the explorers were at last on their way back to their Treehouse home. They rode together in a large wagon, Roxton controlling the reins of the huge draft horse with a sure hand, Challenger sitting alongside, and Marguerite and Malone carefully cushioned on beds of hay and blankets in the wagon bed. Only Veronica chose to walk; although she would never admit it, she found moving vehicles like the wagon always upset her stomach. Another, heavily-laden wagon of equal size followed them a short distance behind. The explorers could faintly hear Demitri and Scaldus bantering back and forth as the human guided the horse. Scaldus would drive the other wagon back to Tribune’s city after the explorers reached home, and from the tone of things, it sounded as if Demitri had his doubts about his ability to do so.
Roxton glanced down from his perch on the driver’s bench of the wagon to Veronica, striding alongside. The athletic blonde was having no trouble keeping up with the slow pace of the heavy wagon, and she and Roxton exchanged a rueful glance. They’d both heard the same thing from Challenger almost non-stop since he’d discovered the theft. "It was certainly underhanded of him, but look at it this way, old boy," Roxton said, trying to get his friend to calm down a little. "To Tribune, that washing tub was nothing more or less than a weapon against him and his kind. It’s hardly surprising he took steps to gain possession of it. Frankly, I’m relieved he didn’t try to confiscate you, too."
Challenger snorted, unappeased. "I’d have liked to see him try."
"Are you saying you can’t build another one, George?" Roxton asked the question he’d been wondering ever since Tribune’s duplicity had been revealed, but hadn’t dared to ask while still in the lizard’s jurisdiction.
"Well of course I could build another one – but it wouldn’t necessarily be exactly the same," Challenger replied snappishly. "I have no factual knowledge about what really caused the lizards to have such trouble with the auto-washing tub; what exact frequency caused the reaction. I had planned to run a series of tests, once I’d had it working again, in order to determine precisely what was affecting them. Without that knowledge, I might never be able to duplicate the effect."
"So the lizards have control of the only weapon we know of that can affect them en masse," Roxton concluded.
"Hah. They have a collection of broken parts and a large basin. I seriously doubt any of them will ever be able to fix it. Certainly not without my help," Challenger scoffed.
"Well, I’m glad you didn’t mention that to Tribune," Roxton laughed.
After a moment, the scientist’s lips turned upward in the first smile they’d seen on him in days. "He never did think to ask about that." Imagining the lizard Emperor’s frustration and fury in the weeks to come, his smile turned into a chuckle.
"And think of all the goods we received in return," Malone added, trying to encourage the scientist’s improved mood. "Between what we were able to claim in exchange for the machine, and the reward for helping Tribune back to his throne, and the recompense for each zombie-lizard life you saved, we gained enough supplies to restock the Treehouse, and then some. Not to mention all that new apparatus for your laboratory." And paper for me, and dishes and crockery for the Treehouse, and leather, fabric, spices, dried goods, metal ingots what a haul!
Challenger beamed, thinking of all the new glassware. "Thanks to Marguerite," he acknowledged gracefully with a nod in the heiress’s direction. "It never would have occurred to me to ask – and for a woman without a voice, you are certainly a shrewd negotiator."
Marguerite smiled and waved a hand in acknowledgment, tilting her head slightly towards first Malone, then Roxton, who between the two of them had done most of the verbal bargaining with her silent assistance. Although she could speak a little now, it was still too painful to do so unless absolutely necessary. Her throat was a spectacular mottling of purplish-black, only partially hidden by the gauzy, glittering scarf she’d pulled from their new textiles to help conceal the bruising.
"That she is," Roxton acknowledged with a rueful glance at Marguerite before turning to Challenger. "It’s just too bad she couldn’t negotiate you another set of clothes," he added with a pointed sniff.
Challenger wrinkled his nose in agreement. "I had them washed twice, but I’m afraid the compound has left a permanent and malodorous legacy, at least on these garments," he admitted. He turned back to look curiously at Malone. "You, however, seem to have rid yourself and your clothes from the smell. Did you have them washed in something special?"
Unaccountably, Malone’s cheeks turned a little pink. "Um, it must have been mostly the traces from the refuse cart," he suggested.
Challenger nodded. "Equally unpleasant, but apparently easier to get rid of," he acknowledged thoughtfully. Absorbed in his momentary musings on the durability of certain smells, he missed the look that passed between Veronica and Malone. "Well, I’ll just have to change into clean clothes as soon as we get back to the Treehouse."
All at once, Marguerite groaned, causing the others to look at her in alarm. Her pained expression was not reassuring.
"What is it, Marguerite?" Veronica exclaimed.
"Are you hurt? Is the wagon ride too rough?" Roxton pulled on the reins, slowing the wagon to a halt.
Marguerite shook her head carefully, took a deep breath, and articulated two words. "No. Laundry!"
"What ?" Veronica’s eyes widened in comprehension. "Oh no," she moaned, thinking of the piles of dirty clothes, still unwashed, from their interrupted laundry session.
"What do you mean, Marguerite?" Challenger asked anxiously, not understanding.
"I think she means that if you want to change into clean clothes, we’re going to have to do the laundry first," Roxton explained, thinking regretfully of the mass of wet, clean clothes they had hurriedly dumped out of the auto-washing tub before setting off with Tribune. He winced as he thought of what those clothes must smell like now, left in a wet, mildewing heap for days in the middle of the great room. "Between the clothes that didn’t get washed, and the clothes we didn’t hang up to dry, I doubt you have a set of clean clothes to change into."
"Oh dear. And we have no auto-washing tub to help us, either!" Challenger’s face clearly showed his chagrin.
"I guess it’s back to chores as normal," Veronica replied, privately thinking there might be some benefit to the loss of Challenger’s invention after all. "Once we get the wagons unloaded, we’ll have to do laundry immediately. We should have time to manage at least one set of dry, clean clothes for each of us by nightfall." Seeing Marguerite’s dismayed look, she took pity on the injured woman. "Not you, Marguerite. You’re in no shape to do laundry today. Nor you, Ned."
"Hey, aside from the arm, I’m fine. I might not be able to do laundry, but I can at least keep watch," the reporter protested.
"True," Veronica smiled at him, appreciating his willingness to do whatever he could to help.
Challenger sighed. "I guess I can help you scrub, Veronica," he volunteered, knowing that was usually Marguerite’s job.
"And I’ll bring the dirty clothes to the pond, and wring and hang the clean ones to dry," Roxton added. He glanced back over his shoulder at Marguerite. "Which leaves you to supervise from the balcony."
Marguerite grinned at all of them. "Perfect," she croaked, and watched them laugh.
** Finis!!! **