by Oliviu Crâznic
translation from Romanian by Nigel Walker and Alina-Olimpia Miron [MTTLC]
I had staked them out ever since morning – they were both on horseback, coming from somewhere in the South, which meant they could be from my brother’s army or Herbert’s army as well. There was no way of knowing yet – and not even when I could make out their uniforms, could I be sure. There was always the possibility that one or the other had stripped a body of its clothes and taken them – it was not a big deal. Admittedly, for an observer of my education, it would have been easy to notice that some details did not go together – too long a puttee or too tight a coat at the shoulders – but, in the end, the Mords had left behind very few resources, and the soldiers were no longer buried along with their impedimenta… if they were buried at all.
I know for a fact Gareth was no longer burying them.
I had been all alone at the stronghold for almost four days and neither my husband, Gareth, nor my brother Geoffrey had sent for me. The last news brought by a Jovian merchant spoke of the advance of the Mordian army close to the Channel with continuous support from Herbert Flood and the Eastern Lords. The pact they had signed with the Mords had initially been a cause for joy in my family – Herbert was not very appreciated, you know. Soon, however, Gareth and Geoffrey understood that this alliance could destroy our House – the Eastern Lords were not as powerless as was thought, so my dear husband had withdrawn the troops in the West and Geoffrey had attempted a last blockade, determined to net the corp led by Herbert and the Lords before the alliance with the Mordian army.
I sighed. Ever since the damned Mords had landed, things had become extremely complicated. And our House was not taking this very well.
But for now – I had to keep my eye on the two men who were approaching, I had to watch them, as they were coming straight here.
Yeah, they were wearing our uniforms – I could tell towards noon, and they both looked fine. However, that was no guarantee. I threw another angry glance towards the communicator – I still did not have enough power to turn it on, the weather had been bad and I had not been able to capture too much solar energy. Besides, it was highly unpleasant to make do without servants – though of course I could, as all princesses were educated so as to be able to face any situation whatsoever.
But being able does not equal enjoying it.
By eventide, the men had reached the wall.
“Lester Cath”, the first man identified himself at the speaker, “Pilot in Geoffrey Ice’s 4th Army.”
“Sober Nombrum”, said the second one, “Left Attacker in the 2nd Army. Former Arms Bearer of Aaron the Vile and Adjutant Intelligencer for Gareth Ice’s Service Troops. Ermengaarde Eyes, in the name of our common Masters, we ask for shelter.”
Of course they were asking for shelter. Had they been left in the fields during the night, they would have been devoured by the Khazugs. But, at the same time – impossible not to have noticed the identification monitor was uncharged, so their action seemed somewhat hypocritical.
I was not going to let them in. They had probably grasped that.
“Mistress”, one of them meowed, the one named Cath, a broad-backed, long and dirty-haired man, “you have to let us in. We’re starving and we’ve heard a Khazug howling at two canters on the left – the pack cannot be far away.”
I decided to answer him.
“Your job implies certain risks, Lester Cath. You were aware of them when you enrolled. This is not an inn – go your way and may the Almighty Father help you, should He wish it.”
“It’s not that simple, Mistress”, Nombrum said quietly – short, shapely, short-haired, with an ugly scar above his eye. “Geoffrey Ice is fighting Herbert and the Mords in the South – his days are numbered. We’re taking a filament-missive to Your Grace’s husband…it must help Master Geoffrey before it’s too late. And, anyway, he must leave Cloaked Vale – a squad of flying Mords is heading towards there.”
He showed me the filament.
I pondered on that statement for a few moments. He might be telling the truth – the uniforms confirmed it and the filament was shimmering, which showed that, undoubtedly, he was one of us. Of course, I did not know what the filament-missive contained – but he would not have dared lie about it. Both Geoffrey and Gareth would have had too horrible a reaction.
“Give Cath the filament-missive”, I told him. “I want to be sure.”
He gave it to his companion without hesitation.
It was shimmering, all right.
Yes, it was clear – both of them belonged to our armies. Even if I was by my lone, they would not have had the courage to look at me – the gliders were taking images of the inside every four clocking-tables and the latter would have been downloaded from the walls and would have reached Gareth. He would have skinned them alive.
Besides, if the filament did contain what they claimed, it was actually paramount to get them inside.
The Khazugs would have eaten them – probably.
The risk was too high.
And they did. Of course, their behaviour was humble, as the whip and etiquette required – they would not raise their gaze beyond my bare knees and the first thing they did was dart at the food. I brought them some drinks – the only supply I had was in my room, so I gave them more than enough. Even drunk, fear was more powerful – I was not in any danger whatsoever.
“I want to see the filament”, I told them after I returned.
They quickly exchanged glances. They knew they could not refuse a direct order, and their eyes had already become watery because of the liquids consumed, which had weakened their will. On the other hand, Gareth might have become angry. But Nombrum decided to hand it to me.
“Here it is,…mistress.”
I did not like either the pause he made, nor the way he pronounced mistress, perhaps with less reverence than necessary – but I supposed it was because of what they had ingested. I quickly went over the filament, while they kept on drinking – soon they would be really staggering, I was positive.
And, suddenly, I froze.
The message was not the one they had communicated, at least not exactly – yes, Gareth was to be attacked by flying Mords and, were he not informed of it, also removed from the face of the Planet, but Geoffrey was not fighting Herbert in the South – he had fought Herbert. According to the filament-missive – which was the last my brother ever sent me – at the time I was going over it, nobody in his army was still alive. The two visitors were lying to me.
Fear seized me.
I did not lift my eyes towards them – I was asking myself how much of an effect that drink had had on them both. But I felt their gaze upon me – they were greedily and lustfully looking at my naked body, a thing they would not have dared had Geoffrey been alive or had Gareth had the slightest chance of surviving the ambush.
And no matter how desperate the situation, Geoffrey would never have given the filament-missive to such people.
There was only one explanation.
They had been our mercenaries. Defectors. Who had killed the actual messengers and had taken the filament; they intended to use it in one last masquerade, entering here in order to safeguard themselves against the Khazugs – and to have their way with the former Mistress. Nobody would be alive to punish them, as they had no intention of reaching Gareth – they had planned, from the very onset, to let him die, and then, with the probative filament, obtain the adhesion of the Mords, which was utter stupidity. The Mords would have taken them out for their betrayal, as they did not take kindly to such acts – but these two blockheads had no idea of those “details”.
And I, for one, had a huge problem.
“Oh, mistress”, said one of them in a drawling voice. “Mistress…”
I finally laid my eyes upon them. They were grinning, slobber drooling out of their mouths, pleased at was to come, at what they hoped would come.
At what I hoped would not come.
“Boys, you are making a big mistake”, I told them coldly, trying to calculate in my head how long had it been since their first cup. “I am not helpless.”
“But you are, High Princess, but you are” Cath said, taking a step towards me, his eyes targeting my tensed body.
That moment I was done calculating. Enough time had passed. I smiled to them.
“Alright then. Take me.”
They looked at each other, suddenly distrusting.
“What is it?…” I asked. “I am waiting!”
“That’s right”, Nombrum mumbled, confused. “She’s waiting…”
Of course, he did not get to finish the sentence. His eyes goggled wildly in their sockets as the poison burned his blood in the arteries and veins, releasing the seething fire inside him. Nombrum howled dementedly and Cath tried to draw back in terror, dropping the contaminated cup to the ground, but it was too late, my evil water was already working.
I did not stay to watch the two of them burn – I did not care and it did not give me any pleasure either. I went up to my room, amidst the wailing howls of the Khazugs over the steppe and I waited for the complete charging of the communicator in order to contact Herbert.
Then I turned it on.
“Are you safe and sound, honey?…” he asked worriedly, his dark-blonde locks over his eyes, a tense expression on his handsome, determined face. I felt something warm and pleasant invade my body – I was safe.
“After the connection was broken…”
I showed him the filament.
“I know, darling, you have killed Geoffrey. Without this, Gareth will not know what hit him – the Mords will pound him to pieces. Finally, they shall be able to take revenge on those who lured them to this bleeding planet, butchered their fellow men and betrayed their race. And nobody will ever again tell me whom I should marry – never.”
Herbert leaned towards the screen. His concern had not vanished completely.
“Honey…where did you get that filament-missive?…”
I answered him with my most seductive smile.
“Let me tell you a story”.