by Den Valdron
WHEN A KILLER CALLS
"You there," a warrior's harsh voice bellowed, "Halt!"
I turned a corner in my blind flight, and ran straight into the monsters. There were a full half dozen of them. We both froze.
They were men, sort of. I could see in the light that their skins were a darker and duskier colour than mine, perhaps reddish in hue. They bore strange weapons and armour, yet beneath and between that I could easily see the shapes and proportions of men, the glimpses of human skin at the edges of costumes. They wore helmets shaped in the visage of monsters.
Now that I saw them up close, a lifetime of experience in the theatre revealed the dozen telltales and clues that distinguished costume and artifice. They pointed weapons at me, I had seen these from a distance, but could not recognize their shape. Whatever these weapons were, however, they worked. They were not artifice, streets full or corpses offered mute testament to that fact..
"Who in blazes is this?" One of them asked. By his commanding tone, I took him to be the leader. Perhaps a sergeant, older, experienced, but leading only a small crew. I found later he was named Beyer Jha A practical man, as sergeants in a hundred plays and productions were wont to be. Mentally, I found myself casting them in ensemble roles in a one-act play about soldiers on a mission.
They spoke my language, strangely, with odd accents, but I could recognize it easily.
"Probably just some straggler hiding out."
Sergeant Jha grumped. "One unimportant straggler is hardly worth our while. Just shoot her, and let's move on. We have business down there."
Panic gripped my heart. I wanted to turn and flee, but there was no place to run. I wanted to fall to my knees and beg for my life, but I knew it would do no good. My mind raced, but I could see no way to save my life from these villains. What, I asked myself desperately, would Princess Asutra do?
I took a stance, one leg forward, shoulders back in the classic oratorical pose. My voice rang out.
"Worms," I cried, "you may kill me, but such as you may never touch me. For I am the Princess Asutra!"
"Though you have my city," I recited, "you shall never have my honour. I am yet the Princess Asutra, and you will kneel."
I took a breath, waiting for the end, intent of facing death with all the apparent bravery I could muster.
One by one, they lowered their weapons, looking at each other.
"A Princess?" the sergeant said carefully. "We have standing orders, to capture the royalty of this city."
"There's got to be bonuses for bringing in a Princess," one of them said.
"Well Princess," Sergeant Jha addressed me, "we are honoured to make your acquaintance. We'd be pleased if you accompany us and offer no resistance... otherwise, it may be that we will lay hands upon you."
This was enough like the fourth act of the Tragedy of the Noble Hat, that I knew how to respond -- with the slightest curt nod, and step forward, indicating submission but not surrender.
Deep inside, I felt myself tremble. I would not die this moment!
Of course, within a short time, they would learn that Asutra was a character in a 10,000 year old drama, and that I had no more connection to the royal house than an ulsio.
But for now, I lived....
I allowed them to place me in chains, heavy iron links, crudely forged and with an implicit brutality. I had been in chains many times before, wooden chains for theatrical performances. Silver or golden links for more private commissioned performances. But never did my heart sink, when I felt the finality of crude iron and the clumsily wrought settle on my body.
Tears rolled down my cheeks, and suddenly, I wished that I had drunk the wine with my friends. Had they waited, surely, I would have joined them. I just hadn't had the courage to follow them alone. Now, I wished I could go back there.
"You sure that's enough," one of the men joked, as the iron collar and manacles were fastened around my wrist and neck. "Or do you figure she's planning to ambush us all when our backs are turned."
"Standard procedure," said the Sergeant, his hands making free upon my body. I suffered these indignities in silence. These men, if men they were, were not moved by sight of tears, they would not be moved by the sound of weeping. "And I'm tired of carrying the chain, let her carry it. Even a Princess from here should get used to it."
"Should we take her straight to command?" one of the men asked.
"No," said Sergeant Jha, "She's just one prisoner, albeit a Princess. She can wait, we have a mission to perform. I hope that you don't mind, Princess."
I said nothing, but inwardly, my heart leaped a little. To go before the overseers of these brutes would mean my eventual exposure and death. I did not mind a little more life, and perhaps some better chance.
"Besides," the sergeant grinned, "the Princess isn't bad looking, and I think we'd all relish the chance to get to know her better."
The Sergeant's hand moved freely, sliding beneath my Princess costume. The sound I made was between a squeal and sigh. The men laughed with practiced cruelty.
The next few hours were a nightmare. The Sergeant and his squad moved through my city, slaughtering any wounded or injured they found, killing and looting as the moment took them. There was a sort of random mindless cruelty to their actions. They laughed, they joked, they ambled about engaging in casual banter, pointing out sights to each other like tourists. But as casually as I turned my head, they gutted a begging merchant to see his guts spill out, and cut the throats of the daughters he'd offered them. There was an unblinking quality to them, the most horrific sights or acts were no more than passing things, small pleasures, if that, to be engaged and forgotten a minute later.
They marked buildings and made notes. At times, they tortured shell-shocked refugees. Around them marched soldiers of every sort. More of the strange red men, fierce tusked warriors with jagged scalps, and tall green men with four arms. Here and there were pockets of resistance, but each time, these were swiftly dealt with in volleys from what I learned were pistols and rifles. These were men, but men without compassion, without honour. There was a strange looseness to them, a kind of wandering predatory quality. Only the Sergeant seemed focused, driven by direction. The others followed readily enough, sharing the purpose, but more open to stray.
At some point, they called a halt, entering a home and looting its kitchen to make their repast. At first, the men wanted me to cook for them. But the Sergeant, concluding that this would be beyond the skill of a pampered Princess, assigned one of his men.
Instead, I knelt in a corner, chained like an animal.
One of the soldiers came and squatted next to me. I shivered, and looked away. Was it time to rape me? Would they slit my throat after?
"I've been wondering," he said, I experienced a flush of relief. "How you came to be in that section of the city? It's far from the royal quarters."
Was he suspicious? All day, I'd been trying to think of a plausible ruse to get away from them, or at least to avoid their commanders.
"I was trying to reach my private refuge," I said quietly, “outside the city."
It was an easy thing to say. A dream of safety, away from them.
"Outside the city? I thought no one ever left your city," another said, looking up from a bowl of stew.
"And what need for a sanctuary, no one's attacked this lost place in ten thousand years?" Another asked.
I shrugged carefully, picking up the idea.
"There are always insurrections, assassinations. Each member of the Royal family has a private sanctuary outside the city, where they keep their wealth, and where they can escape to if need be."
I didn't know if that was true or not, but it was the premise of a bedroom comedy I had starred in several times called The Hidden Jeds.
I shrugged again.
"The way was blocked. I was looking for another path."
"Wait a moment," one of them said, growing interested, "how much wealth."
"Who knows about this bolt hole of yours?" a soldier asked eagerly. They were remarkably interested. Much too interested. I found myself daring to hope. What kind of soldiers were these?
"No one," I said, "each member of the Royal family has a private sanctuary, to guard against assassins within the family."
I heaved a theatrical sigh.
"If I had made it, I would have been safe."
I stared at the floor, trying to watch them from the corners of my eyes. I sniffled loudly, and let a tear roll down my cheek.
"So ...." The soldier asked again. "No one knows about this place but you?"
"I suppose," I said, "your commanders will have me reveal it. Or not. I doubt if they will care."
"But you're the only one who knows about it," another soldier insisted. I had all their attention now.
"Yes, that is true," I said. "Only my mother knew, and her mother before her, but they are both dead."
"What sort of wealth," the first soldier asked, far too casually.
I shrugged again, as if the subject was the furthest thing from my mind.
"Food and water for a long time. Precious silks and furs," I replied, "rare spices, treasures of art..."
"Gold and silver."
They leaned forward.
"Jewels and precious gems."
Ah, that had their attention.
"Jewels and gems, of all sorts and sized, in small chests."
How small? Too small, and they might lose interest? Too big and they might not believe? I indicated something of medium size, something a man would have no difficulty carrying or concealing, but of substance, nevertheless.
I let them pepper me with questions, hope growing within me even as their greed showed ever more naked.
“Honourable warriors,” I cried out finally, “let me go free! Let me go free, and I swear, I shall give you the location of my treasures. This I swear!”
They laughed at this.
“Oh yes,” the sergeant said, “give us the location, and we'll set you free to toddle off while we go and collect it.”
“I'll give you a map,” I offered, desperately.
This set off a new round of uproarious laughter.
“A map she says!” one guffawed. “Well, that solves everything. We can always trust a map!”
“Yes,” I said eagerly. “I can draw one now!”
In truth, although I was terrified, I was a little annoyed. Maps were a perfectly good literary device. I could name two dozen plays in which maps played a key role.
The sergeant stepped forward, grabbing my hair and pulling me to my feet.
"We'll have no more talk of maps now," he warned me, "or of treasures. We have a job to do in your fair city, and I'll not have my men distracted."
"She goes to the commanders, and if there's treasure, it will be collected properly," the Sergeant barked at his men.
"But no one knows," one said.
"It's there for the taking!"
"Enough," the sergeant roared. "The Princess will be dealt with properly, and if any of you thinks different.... Well, any private excursions will be over my dead body. Now let's go."
The soldiers did not move, merely stared at Sergeant Jha with calculating eyes.
He grabbed me and pulled me close.
"Obey," he roared, "or I will gut this girl now!"
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