by Den Valdron
THE MAN NEXT DOOR
The best way out of any palace is through the kitchen. I'd snuck in and out of enough petty noblemen's homes for private shows to know that. And as in Az-Lium, I figured, so it would be in Diome. Every other gate and window is well guarded, but in a good kitchen, there are cooks and washers, serving boys, assistants, butchers, bakers, wine tenders, delivery men of every sort. There's too much going on, too many people and items coming in and going out.
With any luck, I could shoo off the guard, find a suitable closet or root cellar to change into the wig and new clothes, a little make up, a little dirt, and then out the door. And from there? Well, I hadn't worked out that part yet. To be honest, I hadn't even worked out this part that I was in yet.
But anything was better than being around when Markath Khan woke. I could only trust to luck and wits.
“We heard you scream a few times in there,” the guard asked.
What happened to their ‘no talking rule.’ Guards were always being inconvenient.
I tried a coquettish giggle.
“Well that,” I replied, “I'd been told many things of Markath Khan. That he was stern and resolute, brilliant, forceful, courageous, an unstoppable force.... But no one mentioned that he was huge!”
“By the goddess!” I exclaimed. “Have you seen it?”
“No, I can't say–“
“Huge!” I continued. “Just extraordinary. Well, he dropped his harness and there it was, and I took one look and I just had to scream!”
"Markath Khan the great the call him," I went on. "Markath Khan the Fearless! The Mighty! The conqueror! I don't mind telling you, that in truth, he shall go down in history as Markath Khan the three legged."
"That's enough, thank you."
“I swear,” I said, “I thought I would die. I thought he would split me right in two. He was gentle, such a remarkable lover, and such good hands, but such an extraordinary...”
“You can stop now.”
“Just amazing. Of course it hurt. I screamed.”
“I really don't need to know this!”
Men! They always want to know all about sex, except when they don't want to know anything about it.
“Of course, after I got used to it,” I finished, smiling sweetly, “it was perfectly wonderful and we got along famously.”
“Thank you,” he said desperately.
He didn't ask me any more questions. That would teach him, I thought smugly. As it turns out, having a guard escorting my escape worked far better than trying to wander about alone. For one thing, I had no idea where in the palace I was, and the longer we wandered around, the more thankful I was that I had a guide. For another, we just breezed past guards and all manner of persons who might have stopped and asked inconvenient questions. Instead, with the authority of a guard accompanying me, no one so much as glanced at us.
Until we turned a corner.
“Your Holiness,” Admiral Latta exclaimed.
I stopped dead,
“Admiral,” I smiled, but not too much. “What are you doing here in the palace?”
‘Your Holiness’ he still thought I was a Thern High Priestess. We weren't too friendly. Obviously, he hadn't received word. He was accompanied by a small group of what I now recognized as naval officers.
“Just official business,” he said, “administrative. Nothing terribly interesting. Though I do hear the Demon Princess has been captured, and is imprisoned in this very palace. I might hope to catch a glimpse of this creature who has caused so much trouble.”
I laughed nervously.
“Oh that, well, I think you'll find that disappointing. It's all been sorted out, I hear.”
“Have you seen her?”
“Ahh,” I smiled. “Well, you know...”
“Is she remarkable?”
“Not really,” I said, starting to blush, the Guard was looking curious. “Anyway, we must be off. Important church business. Unsettled times, and all that.”
I pulled away.
“Priestess,” he said. I wished he wouldn't call me that.
“Yes,” I replied, edging away.
“There are a number of ships coming in, many of which have not been properly blessed. Could I ask the favour...”
“Oh that? Certainly. Yes, of course. Just make an appointment with the temple....”
“Thank you,” he replied. “And Priestess....”
“What!” I answered, a little too sternly.
“I wondered if you would do me the honour of accompanying me for dinner tomorrow evening?”
He was asking me out? I stole a glance at my guard, now clearly confused.
“That might be a little awkward,” I replied uneasily, shifting nervously from one foot to another.
“Ah well,” he responded. “Later in the week, perhaps.”
I smiled at him. Go away you blithering idiot, I thought, desperately.
“STOP THAT BITCH, ALL OF YOU, STAY WHERE YOU ARE,” a very angry, very familiar voice rang out.
Markath Khan was storming down the hallway towards us, a handful of frightened guards in tow.
He was a frightful sight. He hadn't been able to free himself from the chains, and so dragged them with him, along with the broken pieces of furniture they were tied to. He wore a lampshade on his head to conceal his close cropped blond hair, and a makeshift kilt that was formerly a curtain. One side of his face was swollen, and he'd hastily reapplied the red paint, leaving it blotchy and uneven. The expression he bore was one of unbridled, maniacal fury.
This was not good. This was so not good.
Latta and his followers, my guard, were all struck dumb with astonishment.
“Are you all idiots!” He bellowed. “Grab that woman.”
Latta's mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping. My guard looked terror struck. No help there. I tried to unobtrusively slide away from Markath Khan, behind Latta. Seeing my distress, he stepped forward, shielding me.
“Your Majesty,” he asked, “do you mean the Priestess? Whatever for?”
“She's no more a Priestess than you are a man, you simpleminded, officious, whining dolt,” Markath Khan snarled. “Now stand aside, so that I can gut her like a fish.”
“Sir,” Latta said alarmed, “I must protest your unconscionable language. I am not–“
“Oh shut up you ninny,” he ordered. “And stand aside.”
Latta froze. I could see sweat breaking out on the back of his neck, his features gone pale. He was terrified and out of his depth, he did not know which way to turn, what to do. His officers were watching him, waiting for his cue. They were scared, but resolute.
“He's gone mad,” I whispered, for all to hear.
Latta grabbed onto that like a drowning man.
“Have you gone mad, Sir?” he asked, with something resembling conviction, struggling to turn the conversation to some rational thing he could cope with. “Your dress, your manner! Why are you wearing a lampshade on your head? ”
Markath Khan snarled and lunged. I grabbed Latta and yanked him back, saving him from being run through. But he put his arm up, and Markath Khan's swing slashed his arm.
At the sight of blood, Latta's air officers roared as one and leaped to the rescue. Markath Khan found himself defending from flashing blades. For a second, it seemed that the tyrant might die, but he was already on the attack, and within an instant, his own palace guards save, only the one who had accompanied him, leaped to his defense. For an instant, the hall was filled with the sound of clashing steel, with the officers getting the better of the guards by virtue of numbers.
The guards, with more sense than their ruler, grabbed him and dragged him away from the fighting, as they beat a retreat down the hall, Markath Khan screaming “You're dead, Latta. All of you, are dead. I'll have the lot of you impaled! Impaled! You hear me!”
There was a moment of respite, the Officers returned, looking panicked, their swords bloody, clearly in shock and terrified at the consequences of what had transpired. Latta was still standing where I'd pulled him, shaking, his arm dripping a pool of blood on the floor, his eyes staring, his features ashen. Beside him, the guard who had accompanied me stood with his weapon out, but no idea where or how to wield it, his eyes as frightened and wild as an animals.
“What are we going to do?” One of the Officers did not speak. “This is rebellion.”
“We're all dead,” Latta mumbled.
Oh no, no, no, I couldn't afford that. I stepped up and slapped him, hard in the face, and then grabbed his arm and started bandaging it with cloth torn from my silks.
“Listen to me,” I said, “and listen well. If we stay here, we're dead. We must flee, and we must do it now. We have to get out of this palace.”
I addressed the guard.
“You, can you get us out of here.”
Oh not again. I didn't want to have to slap him too. I stepped up to him, and grasped his shoulders, staring straight into his eyes.
“Let me explain this to you. You were a Palace Guard. But you left your post to aid a prisoner in escaping, and you stood there like a lump while your lord was attacked and in danger of his life. Do you know what this means?”
“It's all your fault.”
I resisted the urge to slap him.
“That doesn't matter now, and focusing on that will get you killed. Your companion, the guard we left at the gate, he's dead. They're going to kill him. They will kill you. You have one chance, join us, find us the fastest way out of here before Markath Khan can organize his men to hunt us down.”
“But its all your...”
“Think! Think hard! That doesn't matter now, maybe later, but not now. Right now, do you want to live?”
“I want to live.”
“Can you get us out fast.”
His eyes cleared, calculating.
“South gate, or maybe east. Down the servants passages. If we move fast enough.”
“East gate leads to the landing fields, we have a ship,” one of the Air Officers said. Latta was still out of it, but at least some of his men seemed to be focused on the problem.
“Then they'll wait for us there. South gate,” I said. “Where can we get to from there?”
“Straight run to the shipyard.”
“But the Guards will pursue us.”
“Yes, but we have officers and airmen all along that boulevard, we can commandeer mounts, maybe organize a fighting retreat. Markath Khan's men are all occupied with the rebellion. The Navy's been called to defend its own lines.”
That sounded like a terrible plan, but it worked for me.
“That's right! All the pickets will be ours.”
Suddenly, we were on the move. The Guard leading us us, the officers arranged in a phalanx around me and Latta. He was beginning to shake.
“This is treason,” he said over and over.
“Will you officers obey you?” I asked. “Will they follow you?”
Much depended on that. The old man was visibly going to pieces. I knew his type, his life had always been one of rectitude, doing the right thing, saying the right thing, his indiscretions were no more than occasional visits to a brothel. He might not have liked Markath Khan, but he had been loyal to the position. Now he'd cut across his own grain. All he wanted to do was return to order. He would surrender, if I let him.
Why couldn't anything ever go right. I needed a man with certainty and focus, not this dithering fool.
“It's not treason,” I snapped. “Markath Khan isn't even of Diome, he usurped Japhus Farl.”
“Hear, hear,” one of the officers snapped as we ran.
“Will we be safe at the shipyards,” I addressed him.
“Damned right,” the Officer said, “the Navy was never part of Markath Khan's rabble. We only went along because we were loyal to the Admiral.”
Oh, I thought. I tried to remember my tedious interrogation of the Hekkador and Diome politics. I thought of the occupation of Az-Lium, how the air-men seemed to hold themselves apart. They'd been the professional aspect of Markath Khan's empire, the traditional men, the most highly trained, the ones who wielded vast and complex weapons. Latta was old, much older than Markath Khan. Had he been a part of the rise, some senior elder statesmen, whose reputation Markath Khan used, and whose passivity made him helpless? A useful old school scion who could be counted on to go with the flow, not make waves, who could be bullied or cajoled?
“Did you see him?” one of the officers was saying. “Mad, utterly raving. That was a lampshade on his head, and it looked like he was wearing a curtain.”
“And those chains.”
“There was something wrong with his skin, did you notice? All blotchy?”
“It's open now,” one declared confidently, “war between the fleet and the rabble. We'll sort out Khan's muck and put things right.”
I wasn't so sure of that.
“Treason,” the Admiral mumbled. “We'll all be hanged.”
I held the Admiral's arm. If we were to survive, I needed Latta to have a spine, even if I had to put it there myself.
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