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The Beginning of Freedom

Part One: Survival

Chapter 1

Princess Alisa, of the Woodrow Empire, lay on her bed mournfully. It wasn’t that she had things to do; it’s that she didn’t want to do them. That was the problem with being royalty: your whole schedule was planned out by your advisors. Or, should Alisa get really unlucky, her father. She really didn’t want to go to the wine tasting that several different companies had arranged with her family, so she simply called one of her girls into her rooms, stripped her naked and wore her clothes. Being careful to leave the unfortunate maid tied up with a gag on in the closet, she stealthily stole her escape out the side window. It was a short hop to the ground, and besides, the horse grooms had trained her in the art of falling gracefully. She hiked down the road in her tattered brown dress which was several sizes too small, but she walked quickly enough and sure enough so that ignorant thieves might not decide to take her. Sheltered she was, but ignorant she was not. She went down the mud road, passing bread stands, fruit stands and meat stands. People were milling around and she walked quickly through them in the direction of the town to the north, Ravenfell.

Why she left, she still didn’t know. Boredom couldn’t be the entire reason, could it? There had to be something else. For Alisa had everything: a royal family, a royal castle, royal maids and royal marriage prospects. But her problem was that she had never been outside of the castle, save for once when she was a baby and they wanted to parade her around to show the populace that an heiress had been born. Since then, however, Alisa had gained many brothers, so prospects of her ruling were very dim. Also, she was not the murderous type, so killing tended to disgust her. So did wars. She was happy in a way to have brothers, so she wouldn’t have to deal with wars and spies and enemies and who was capable of poisoning your cup of wine. Alisa had started drinking wine when she was ten, and although she always had a maid drink it before she tried it, she wished to be a simple girl herself who didn’t have to worry about such nonsense.

She also had no friends. Well, her girls were her friends, but they weren’t her equal. She overheard them talking about her and about other frippery, but she could never join in, for everyone would start to talk guardedly and measure their words in front of her.

So she left. And now she was on the road to the nearest town which was not under her father’s control.

She had passed the vendors and now walked with wagons at a steady pace down the dusty road. To either side was lush forest, which was even threatening to encroach on the road if they did not get axed soon.

She was passing many wagons at her fast pace, and was already dehydrated. She considered obtaining a coconut from one of the trees and drinking its juice, but that was too much work for too little profit. She instead decided to poke her head into one of the wagons to ask if they could spare some.

“Get out of here, little girl,” said the driver, a pockmarked man who could stand to lose a few pounds. “We don’t deal with ones such as yourself.”

“Aw, can’t we keep her, pops?” said a boy on the verge of manhood who was sitting in the wagon, so Alisa couldn’t see his face. He stuck his head out and his jaw dropped, much to Alisa’s distaste. “Wow, she’s beautiful!” he cried.

“If you like the fact that she’s so muddy she looks like she’s been living with the pigs for the past year,” said his father, spitting on the ground in front of Alisa. Alisa gracefully jumped over that wet spot on the ground and continued to keep pace with the driver and his wagon.

A girl poked her head out where her brother had been before. She looked to be about eight, and she had beautiful blond braids. “I like her, too, Papa, can’t we keep her?” she wept, all the while winking at Alisa with a sly expression.

“I suppose,” the father sighed, all the while making his wagon go faster so Alisa had to run to keep up. After a few seconds, though, he slowed down and jumped down from his seat. He was sweating profusely and he looked nearly as dirty as Alisa was. He stuck out his hand. “Zachary,” he said. “These are my children: Mark, Jessica and Robert. Robert’s on the inside, so you can’t see him. He’s still a baby. We have a very peculiar profession. We are actors. Would you like to become an actress and perform with us?”

Alisa had a feeling that he knew she would say yes, but she said yes anyway.

“Good,” said the man. “Hop in the back, we have to make good time to Greyfell because we have a show there tonight. I hope you don’t weigh much.”

“Papa!” accused the little girl. “That’s not nice!”

“She doesn’t look like she weighs much,” said the boy doubtfully. “Come, sit next to me.”

“Quickly, we haven’t got all day,” ordered the father.

Alisa hopped on the back of the wagon and shimmied her way to the front, where the boy and his sister were sitting. “Acting?” she said, a bit imperiously.

“John,” said the boy, extending his hand.

Alisa took it after some hesitation. “I apologize,” she said, “I am not instructed in matters of local etiquette. Am I supposed to shake hands with my hand up or down?”

“What, so I can kiss it?” the boy laughed. “I think you worry too much. I wouldn’t worry so much if I was you.”

“He likes you,” said the little girl pointedly. “I’m Molly. Nice to meet you,” and she extended her hand. Alisa shook it with a faint smile.

“Let’s work on the script,” said John.

“Could I please have some water first?” Alisa said in a small voice.

“No problem!” said Zachary. “John, give her some water.”

Robert screamed in his cradle.

“Oh, that’s our baby brother, he’s not that important,” said Molly hastily. “We use him for random scenes that require a baby. Now:” she said in the manner of an instructor, “we will teach you all your lines. We memorize everything.”

“I call her ‘the little director,’” said John. “She’s always telling me what to do.”

“And she’s a damned good one, too!” yelled Zachary hoarsely.

They practiced their lines for hours before they came to a stop at Greyfell. Molly and John were inventive, changing the storyline so that Alisa had an important part in the events. They finally stopped at Greyfell and were setting up the stage when Alisa heard a scream: “Alisa!” said the screamer. “What are you doing so far from the palace?” The small crowd gathering for the night’s performance separated to reveal the screamer: a dense middle-aged woman who was wearing a smock nearly as dirty as Alisa’s. At once Alisa identified her as the palace’s chief cook. “What are you doing here?” Alisa stammered. Then, remembering that she was in command, she said, “Why aren’t you back at the castle? My father and I will miss your magnificent cooking!”

The woman put a finger to her lips. “Shhh!” she said. “I left my second in charge, but just for one day! You mustn’t punish me, your grace! I was just scouting for some new spices, and…”

“That is fine,” Alisa sniffed, somewhat expertly after observing others in the same situation thousands of times throughout her life. “No more transgressions, though,” she warned, with her finger in the air for emphasis.

The woman left the crowd and there was a collective sigh from the crowd, which had swelled in size even in the little time that Alisa and the cook were talking.

“Alright, we have ten minutes until we start,” said Zachary. “Everyone remember their lines?”

All four of the children nodded, although the baby was only going to be a prop.

“Good,” the man said. He looked positively radiant, a polar opposite of what Alisa had seen when they saved her life down by the hot, dusty road.

The crowd was getting restless, and Alisa and her companions were getting pelted with eggs and tomatoes from a pair of drunk twins (they looked exactly alike). Then they all bowed to the audience and everyone was instantly quiet. Zachary bent down to the stage floor and gingerly picked up a cracked egg. The crowd cheered as he threw it back at them. Then they began to throw the pieces of the egg amongst themselves. “Popular person,” whispered Alisa at Mark. He smiled at her and nodded.

“I give you,” Zachary said to the audience from the raised stage, “The Three Dimwits!” He started clapping and winked to the audience and they took his cue and also started to clap.

Mark, Jessica and then Alisa all filed onto the stage sheepishly. They all took bows, one at a time and then together. Now apple cores were being thrown. “Why, thank you!” said Jessica in a tinny little voice, catching one of the apples and biting into it. “I hope whomever this apple belongs to is not sick!”

The audience roared with laughter.

“Who wants to be my girlfriend?” said Mark, who had started to march in place, swinging his arms.

“I love you!” screamed a teenage female audience member, throwing a handful of flowers toward the stage.

“No, that couldn’t be me,” remarked Mark. “I have no friends!”

“I don’t care!” screamed the audience-member. “I’ll have you for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I’ll be your friend forever!”

“Well, you certainly have charisma,” Mark said, and produced a handful of flowers from nowhere that he tossed at his betrothed. “Now I am taken, alas!” he cried to the audience. “We shall do the deed after the show!”

“How about now?” jeered a middle-aged man with a mustache and potbelly that he eagerly displayed to the embarrassment of everyone else.

“And here we start our story,” Zachary said, to the relief of most of the crowd members. “What befalls our three dimwits as they walk along the road to Greyfell?”

“Rape!” cried out the potbellied man, who was quickly pounded into unconsciousness by his fellow audience-members.

“Pestilence!” said a young girl near the front.

“Plague!” said her friend.

“That’s the same thing as pestilence, my dear,” commented Zachary with a smile. As he was saying these words, Mark, Jessica and Alisa were flailing about with their bodies on the hardwood floor of the stage, pretending to suffer from some horrible illness.

“Kingdom! Knighthood!” said a little boy near the edge of the crowd.

“My oh my, young sir, does your voice carry! Do you also play the trumpet?” Zachary said.

“No, but I would love to play the strumpet!” he cried.

“In his spare time, yes, he does play the trumpet, don’t you, little one?” his mother cooed. “He’s saying big words like ‘strumpet’ and ‘trumpet’ and he’s only seven! What a prince!”

“I’m a real prince,” blurted out Alisa to her own dismay. But she had to run with it now. “Look at my beautiful skirt!” and she turned around so the audience could see her from all directions.

“More like a pretty vagrant,” said the seven-year-old. “Look at all that mud on her dress! Why don’t you fetch me some hot water so I can bathe, girl!” he finished.

The audience burst into laughter, even the women.

Alisa did another good piece of improvisation as she picked up one of the tomatoes on the stage and hurled it at the boy. They boy jumped to catch it and then tossed it back at her.

“Hey, Alisa,” said Jessica, picking up Robert from the corner of the stage and holding him out to her. “Will you take my baby child and groom him for me?”

“Groom? Me?” said Alisa. They were again operating purely on improvisation. Zachary watched them closely as they begun to spin their tale.

“Yes, you, vagrant girl. You should learn how to clean babies, as you are my servant and I shall tell you whatever it is I want. For I am the Emperor! I will take all your money and leave you with only vagrant girls to do your bidding!”

“Ooh!” said the crowd. Alisa could see Zachary scratching his head, and then shrugging. Things were still going well, so he had no reason to intervene.

“Hey, isn’t the King of Woodrow’s daughter named Alisa?” shouted one of the women from the crowd.

“Yes, I was named for her,” said Alisa in a bout of quick thinking. The audience heaved another collective sigh.

“And I was the one who named her!” Zachary jumped in, walking in between the Vagrant Girl and the princess. He took The Baby from the Princess and held him above his head. The Baby started to cry. “I hereby proclaim this baby…” Zachary paused, savoring the dramatic moment—”The Chosen One!”

The audience gasped, and then erupted in hilarious laughter, as the most secret part of their religion was taken to task. “The peasant is that girl Alisa!” shrieked a man with a bad haircut and a bad shave who was holding a giant staff. “And I can be the Magician Protector!”

“I apologize, Goodman,” said Zachary from the stage, “but that position is already taken—by me.”

“I can be your assistant!” shrieked the man. His friends started to beat him up.

“Thank you,” Zachary said cooly. Then he saw something and cursed. “Soldiers,” Zachary muttered. “We need to hide. Now.” Then he addressed the audience: “Sorry, show canceled.” A great groan rose up among the audience, until they began to be attacked by Imperial soldiers wielding batons. And five of them were headed directly toward the stage.

Zachary led his children and Alisa away from the stage and toward the village. They went into a house’s front door seemingly at random, and then down a staircase that was behind a bookshelf. Alisa was scared, for almost the first time in her life. “Don’t worry,” said Mark, his arm protectively around her shoulder as his father led them down a dark passageway. “We’re safe now.”

“That was the last one they didn’t know about,” said Zachary. “I would definitely not use this tunnel again; they’re likely to raze the entire village after this encounter. Why else would they bring that many soldiers? I think I counted fifty out there.”

“Well, so long to Greyfell,” mourned the eight year old, Rebecca. Even Robert, normally buoyant and cheerful, seemed sad.

“Where will we go next, dad?” said Mark.

“Well, we need to drop Alisa off, because if they find out we have her then they will double the price on our heads,” Zachary said.

“What do you mean?” said Alisa with too much innocence.

“I know you’re princess of Woodrow,” said Zachary bluntly. “However you escaped there is not my affair, but I need to get you back there as soon as possible.”

“Why now?” demanded Alisa as they went further down the tunnel, brushing the cobwebs from their faces. “Why not before, when I asked your help?”

“Well, I thought it was the safest thing for you to come with us, rather than being picked up my someone far more dangerous,” said Zachary, sounding angry. “I realize now I shouldn’t have done that; everyone, and I mean everyone, knows your face inside and out. It’s even minted on the royal coin!”

“It’s your responsibility to take care of me now,” said Alisa, “and you really can’t take me back home: the Imperial forces will catch me on the way. They will hold me for bounty, as they are technically at war with Greyfell.”

“Hmmm,” Zachary contemplated, “I guess we’ll have to keep you, then.”

“We? What do you mean, we?”

“Oh, me and the children, of course,” Zachary said brightly.

“You know we love you,” said Mark, who had been sitting and listening to the conversation.

“Don’t speak over your father,” Zachary said. “So,” he said, “we might as well go toward the Empire, as we know they’ll be looking for you hardest in the areas that are outside its borders. But we still need a disguise. We obviously can’t be the Merry Little Players anymore, as they are an affront to the Empire’s dignity. And you, Alisa, cannot look like you look right now: you’ll be spotted instantly and you’ll be returned to your family for ransom from the Empire, even though they are technically in alliance with your parents. Unless that’s what you want…

Alisa shook her head vigorously to the negative.

“Thank you very much for keeping my secret,” she said.

“And you know how to butter me up, too,” said Zachary. “Very well, then. We will need to disguise you as well as ourselves.”

“With what?” piped up Jessica. “Are you going to turn me into a boy?”

“No,” Zachary said meanly. “But we will do that to Alisa.”

“Wait,” Alisa said, scared of being identified as one of those grimy creatures who made their wages in fights to the death with other little grimy creatures. “Boys are disgusting. I would never want to become one.”

“Nevertheless,” Zachary pointed out,”—”

“I know,” Alisa said. “It’s the only way to protect me. But what if…” her mind searched for the answer. “What if I turned into a ghost?”

“Is this girl serviceable?” Zachary asked Mark. Alisa took this to mean that he was asking Mark if she was crazy.

“Why do you always steal my thoughts, girl?” Zachary growled at Alisa. “You are a witch, are you not? Do you expect me to believe this fiction?”

“And you are a magician,” said Alisa, upping the ante. “Who cares what we call ourselves, my suggestion will work!”

“Daddy, you’re a magician?” Jessica said irritably. “I thought you said all magicians are evil!”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, honey darling,” Zachary stated. “Why aren’t we on the road yet? We’ll take the Northeast road to Redstone. Who’s driving?”

When he said “who’s driving” that usually meant Mark was driving. Mark sighed and went up to the open air to take the reins of their two horses.

As they started to roll along the wide dusty road, Zachary said, “I’m tired. I need to get some sleep.” Then he pointed at Alisa: “We’ll settle this tomorrow,” he noted, and fell instantly on his pillow into a deep sleep.

Alisa carefully looked at Jessica, who was sitting opposite her, and Robert, whose head was on Jessica’s shoulder. “Looks like he slept through our argument,” she said sweetly.

“Yeah, she usually goes to sleep when Father is talking,” Mark’s voice came from the front.

“Shhh, I’m sleeping now,” Alisa said. And she slept till the morrow.

Chapter 2

When Alisa woke, Zachary was driving the cart. “Not there yet, still in the middle of the forest, but you can hear some birdies cry if you come up with me,” he said.

Alisa joined him on the bench. “Want to take the reins?” he offered.

She declined. “I think you’d be better at that than me,” she said. “I have no training for this kind of thing.”

“You’re a vagrant girl, are you not?” said the man. “Come, let’s switch places, and I’ll show you.”

He showed her and it was easier than she had expected: she just had to make the horses respect her. Which meant she had to pull on the reins with all her might just to get them to do a simple thing. But, as Zachary had implied, she was a vagrant girl, and what ordinary vagrant girl didn’t know how to control horses? She trusted Zachary on this, because she hadn’t encountered any other vagrant children at the performance. And at home, none of the vagrant children were allowed near her.

All three of the children were still asleep. “Turn down that road,” instructed Zachary. The road was little more than a cow pasture.

“What’s down there?” Alisa said as they turned.

“Some long-forgotten farmer’s apple orchard,” he said. “That’s going to account for all of our food for the next few days. Wake the children for me, won’t you?”

The children were woken and after parking the cart they all went in different directions looking for apples. Zachary carried Robert. They all had baskets, although they were a little flimsy. They would each search for an hour or two and then return to the cart.

Alisa hummed as she went. Her skirt was still covered with mud, although it had somewhat dried over the few hours she was asleep. All the apples she was already carrying in her skirt were dirty. But that’s what streams were for, weren’t they? She looked up at the sun: only half an hour had passed. She sighed, drank some water from the stream, and moved on.

At one point she heard something scrabble in the woods, and she stopped short, trying to hear what it was. Probably a deer of some sort, but she had to make sure: there were rumored to be monsters in the forest. When a few minutes passed, by her clock, she started advancing again. It was a deer, and Alisa was immensely thankful to the gods. But then there was a low growl.

“Sphinx!” shouted someone beside her, and it was Mark. He was holding a flaming stick. “These are our apples, Monster!” he screamed at it. “Go back whence you came!”

“These are my woods,” growled the sphinx. “I haven’t seen you around for quite some time.”

“We were here just last week!” protested Mark.

“And I was here these last seven days,” said the sphinx. He opened up his mouth and roared. After that he said, “my wife is here, too. She will be here now in minutes. So who do you think will win this fight?”

“I will crush you both,” Mark said from between gritted teeth.

“And I will kill and eat your lady friend,” said a voice from behind them.

“You’re here early,” said the sphinx in front of them.

“I never let you out of my sight, my love,” said the female sphinx. She strutted over to where her husband was. “Shall we make it a race?” she said. “I haven’t gotten very much exercise today.”

“Wait!” said Alisa. “I can pass your riddle!”

“How did you know about that?” hissed the male sphinx.

“Everyone knows that,” Alisa commented. She looked at Mark. “Don’t you?” Mark shook his head. “Well, then, at least I know,” she said. Mark glared at her. “You’ll be thanking me soon,” she told him.

“Fine,” hissed the male.

“Go on,” the female told her husband. “You tell it.”

“But which one shall I tell?” he mused.

“Do the one you did yesterday! They weren’t here yesterday.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Fine. I shall do that one again. What is lost, dirty and carrying a burden?”

“We get three tries,” Alisa whispered to Mark. He nodded and was about to say something, but she put her hand on his mouth. “Let me try first,” she said. He glared at her again.

“Okay, I know the answer,” Alisa said. “It’s me! I’m lost, dirty, and my burden is the apples I’m carrying, or, if you want, this vagrant boy right here,” and she indicated Mark. She imagined he really didn’t like her at this moment.

“Conference!” announced the male sphinx. He started to whisper something to his mate.

“That was very hurtful, you know,” said Mark.

“I was just trying to answer the question.”

“Think you’ll be right on the answer?”

“I have no doubt that we’ll be right,” said Alisa.

“We have determined that you are not right,” said the male sphinx after the conference with his wife. “You have two more guesses.”

“But my love, it almost isn’t worth it to eat them! Look at them, they are so scrawny! And they’re also an endangered species. And they’re so dirty!”

“Not after we boil them, love,” said the male. “Water, especially boiling water, washes out most stains.”

Alisa tried not to think about what they were saying. “You go, Mark,” she told the boy. “You can think of something, can’t you?”

“I can try,” he said, his face pale. Alisa thought he didn’t look at all like the confident boy who had greeted her on the wagon. “Okay, What is lost, dirty and carrying a burden, right? Fine.” And Mark started to think.

“Don’t take too long, boy,” said the male sphinx. “We’ll give you five minutes.”

“Six minutes,” said Mark shortly.

“Six minutes it is, then, boy. We’ll be waiting here for your response.”

Mark started to cry. “If you want, I can do it,” offered Alisa.

Mark shook his head no. “Wait,” he said softly. “I’m thinking…”

He stood up from where he had been crouching with his face in his hands. “I know,” he said. “It’s an ant!”

This prompted another conference between the two sphinxes. But almost immediately after it started, they ended the conference and the male sphinx stepped up to them. “No,” he said mournfully. “Just one more try, be careful!”

Alisa knew that the sphinx wanted them to be careful less than he wanted to eat them, but she didn’t protest his statement. After all, he was just trying to be polite.

“One more try!” bellowed the male. His wife roared, almost as fearsome a roar as her husband’s.

“Don’t worry, I think I know what it is now,” Alisa breathed. “Jessica?” she yelled. Then she yelled at the top of her lungs: “Jessica!” Then she heard the sound of a whimper. “It is as I suspected,” Alisa said with fervor. “You have already captured the little girl! You will pay for this!”

“And just how do you suggest to make us pay?” snarled the male.

“The answer to your riddle: is Jessica!”

“Is that the little girl’s name?” asked the female.

“Yes,” said Alisa, firmly.

“Then you get to live,” said the male sphinx, using his claws to clean his mane. “But Jessica still dies.”

“That’s not fair!” said Mark. “She’s my sister! I’ll fight you!”

“How?” asked the female. “You have no natural weapons. Save for that thing you call a ‘head.’”

“You guys have that, too!” yelled Mark. “Give me my sister back!”

“Aw, poor humans,” laughed the male, his wife laughing along with him. Alisa saw Mark running toward them and shouted for him to stop. Then the sphinxes stopped laughing and showed their teeth to Mark as he approached them. Then Alisa had no choice: she took up the flaming stick that was by now only smoking and blew it back to life. Then she charged at the two sphinxes, which by now were deciding who should take the first bite out of Mark, who lay on the ground, bleeding from multiple claw-wounds. So Alisa did the only thing that could help: she played along. “I get to take the first bite!” Alisa declared, taking a step toward them and brandishing the flaming stick. She noticed that Jessica had run her way back to Alisa and was now crying in her arms.

“The girl escaped!” roared the male sphinx.

“It doesn’t matter, dear, this one has more meat.”

“But we could have had both!”

“Look on the bright side, dear. We’ve got a whole day’s meat. I’ll even let you take the first bite, how about that?”

While they were arguing, Alisa had come up with a plan. “Listen, Jessica,” she said, “I think this is the only way we can win. You must catch the attention of the female, so that she will chase you. Then, with her distracted, I will go and kill the male with this flaming stick. After that, we will play it by ear. But with one of them left instead of two, both of our chances of survival go way up.”

Alisa wasn’t quite sure if Jessica understood everything she was saying, but Jessica looked at her and nodded. “I’ll do my best,” she promised Alisa. And she charged at the female sphinx.

Alisa wanted to yell at her “Not yet!” but her chance had passed. Jessica simply ran at the female sphinx. The female, not expecting such a charge from her former prey, stepped back a few steps. Jessica threw herself at the female’s face and the female shook her head to get her prey off, but Jessica held on.

“Hey, where did you go?” shouted the male to his mate.

“Not far!” shouted his wife. “Our former prey is gouging at my eyes!”

“Just kill her!” he said.

“Ahhh! I can’t see!” screamed the female. Jessica was still holding on with one hand. With the other, she was pushing deep into the sphinx’s skull. And then, just like that, the female sphinx shuddered and died.

“Where is she?” questioned the male sphinx. Alisa didn’t say a word; she just held her burning branch like a sabre.

“She can’t have died,” mused the sphinx. “All she had to do to stop that little girl was open her mouth and let her teeth do the rest.”

“Through her eyes up into her brain,” said Alisa. “That’s how it all went down.”

“Hmmm? I’m not familiar with that expression. Could you please clarify?” said the male sphinx.

“Your mate is dead,” said Alisa.

“My wife cannot be dead,” he said. “Where’d you go, honey? Are you here?”

“She can’t hear you,” Alisa said.

Jessica emerged from the forest into the clearing where Alisa stood opposite the male sphinx with her burning branch. “Who can’t hear you?” she said.

“Come over here, Jessica,” Alisa said, motioning with her arm. “Right here. There you go. Now, this is where we leave.”

“Leave?” said the male sphinx. “I have plans for both of you!”

“I think your wife is hurt,” Jessica said. “She needs you to save her.”

“Where is she?”

“Just in that stand of trees! See, there?”

“You had better not be tricking me,” said the sphinx threateningly with a half-roar. And he stalked off.

“Run!” whispered Alisa. And they both ran. In back of them, growing farther and farther, the sphinx moaned for his mate.

Alisa carried Mark’s torso with some difficulty while Jessica held his legs. He drifted in and out of consciousness and said things about his long lost mother as well as ideas for future shows. At the end of twenty minutes or so, they saw that they were approaching the cart. “Here they come!” shouted Zachary, who was alone with the baby. “Did you bring many apples?” “No,” gasped Alisa. “We were attacked by two sphinxes.”

“What?” he exclaimed. He rushed to meet them. “Oh, no, is he dead?”

“Not dead, no,” Alisa grunted, giving Mark to his father.

“Thank goodness!” he said. “Where are the wounds?”

“Just scratches to the chest; I think he’s just more shocked than anything,” said Alisa.

Zachary confirmed that diagnoses. “Let’s move!” he ordered after he had bandaged his son.

They all moved on. Munching some apples sat Zachary next to Alisa as he drove the horses hard. “There’s no burden, anyway,” he told her. “It’s like”

the cart’s empty, all there is are some little kids. No apples, no oranges, no other kinds of produce.

“How long until we reach Redstone?” asked Alisa.

“Two days,” answered Zachary. “With no apples, I’m afraid.”

“Didn’t you get any?” Alisa said.

“We ate all of them last night.

Couldn’t you have gotten any meat?”

“What do you mean, meat…” said Alisa, but then she started to get the joke: “Ah, I see what you mean, sir. That sphinx would’ve been too heavy to carry, though.”

“Aw, shut it!” exclaimed Zachary. “I’m just happy that everyone is safe. Now, I have absolutely no idea where those sphinxes came from! They were hunted to extinction hundreds of years ago!”

“How about in captivity?”

“That must be it!” he said. “Zoos! There’s a zoo in Redstone, they must have escaped from there. Or, perhaps, they were released.”

“What, to hunt apple orchards?” said Alisa with a laugh.

“Don’t underestimate them,” said Zachary, eyebrows raised. “You saw what they can do out there.”

“Aren’t they afraid of humans, though?”

“My daughter, every animal is afraid of humans, if the humans show up with enough numbers.”

“I hope they have lots of babies,” Alisa said reverently.

“Do you want the human race to be extinct, as well?” asked Zachary.

“I heard that Redstone was recently conquered by the Empire,” Alisa said.

“That is correct,” said Zachary with a yawn. “That’s why we’re going there—to blend in. It’s the last direction they’d expect us to go.”

“Or perhaps it’s the first direction they’d expect us to do, as—”

“Let’s not play this game,” said the man. “Just sit back, enjoy life, appreciate your blessings, especially the one that Mark is still alive. You saved him. You deserve a prize.”

A contingent of soldiers was passing by. There must have been twenty of them, to Alisa’s estimate. The commander rode up to them and signaled them to stop. Alisa, who had the reins at that moment, yanked on them and held on. Finally, the cart stopped, a full three meters beyond the officer. The officer didn’t move from his place. “Papers!” he barked.

“Provided,” Zachary said with a cough. He leapt off of his side of the cart and approached the officer with papers he had not been holding the instant before. “Where is this garrison headed?”

“Why do you want to know?” snarled the officer.

Zachary held up his hands in surrender. “Just wondering. I’m from Cliffheight right down southwest of here. I’d love to see it become part of the Empire. Mostly because you people maintain the roads well. When my cart is full with apples and garnishments I really don’t want them to crush against each-other on the road. Bouncing is not good for my wares and turns them into soup.”

The officer actually laughed. “You are surely a charming man. Very well, then: enjoy the road. Only a few more hours.” And he jumped on his horse and was gone with his contingent.

“That was pleasant,” Zachary remarked.

“Soldiers must do their jobs, I suppose,” remarked Alisa.

“I was wondering,” Zachary said after a pause, “What’s your stance regarding Greyfell’s conflict with the Empire?”

Alisa shrugged. “I don’t know and I don’t care,” she said offhandedly, “but let me remember: ah, there it is. The ruler of Greyfell forgot to write a check for some ice he ordered from the north that the Empire was transporting. That’s why the Empire is so mad.”

“That’s a stupid mistake,” said Alisa. “Why didn’t they just pay up?”

“It was a matter of ego, I’m afraid,” said Zachary nonchalantly, chewing on a reed he had obtained from the side of the road. “No one wants to appear weak, so both committed troops, and then you have an all out war…”

“War!” Alisa shuddered. “Horrible!”

“It also does present some opportunities…” Zachary said, looking out into the distance.

Alisa chose to remain silent.

“Fine,” Zachary said, taking the reins from her. “Only a few more hours, as the good captain said… why don’t you go and get some sleep? I’d like some alone time…”

“What are we doing once we get to Redstone?” Alisa couldn’t resist but to ask.

“Going deeper into the Empire, of course,” said Zachary. “That’s where they won’t be looking for us.”

“I really appreciate this, you know,” said Alisa. “You could just dump me by the road and let me find my own way back to Woodrow, but you instead show me compassion. I thank you for that and find it hard to fathom.”

“Well, the Empire would just hold you as a bargaining chip, then,” said Zachary. “That wouldn’t be much fun for you, now, would it?”

“Well, Woodrow technically is not at war with the Empire,” Alisa said.

“But they do support Greyfell, my lady,” said Zachary with a little contempt in his voice.

“You don’t like me,” said Alisa. “I understand. I’m a princess, and I grew up in the most privileged circumstances imaginable.”

“So you can read me like a book,” said Zachary. “Just remember the kindness that I’m showing to you. I’m a nice person. And even though I sometimes appear as not nice, I still have good intentions.”

“You worry too much,” said Alisa, climbing into the wagon and pulling the covers tight over her. “Wake me up in four hours, I’d be happy to drive the rest of the night.”

“Thank you,” said Zachary. “I need to get some sleep in before we reach the next group of soldiers.”

It was coming toward evening and the sun was about to set. Alisa lay on her back, surrounded by Zachary’s children. Mark was sleeping, as he had been all day following the mishap with the sphinxes. The other two children were nestled against one side of the wagon, somehow sleeping comfortably. They were going to Redstone, a nice city and large, as Zachary had described it to her. Of course, they would be plowing right through there en route to the more central cities of the Empire, but Alisa didn’t mind; she would be able to get a great vantage point of the city during the few hours they would be passing through, as she was one of the two drivers of the cart, assuming Mark hadn’t healed as of then. She had often wondered what a big city was like, having of course being raised in a castle with a medium-sized village within its walls. Woodrow was, of course, a power in itself, but that was because they recruited lads from outlying provinces and paid them ample gold to become the country’s soldiers. But to see a city like this was something Alisa had never before experienced. It was indeed curious that she had never left the castle walls, but then again kings tended to be very protectful of their daughters.

The following morning, after only a quarter sun, Redstone came into view. Nestled into a valley, its red-bricked houses and edifices gleamed in the sun and seemed to sparkle. “They like being ostentatious,” explained Zachary when Alisa asked him. “Probably one of the reasons they got conquered by the Empire.”

“I was just wondering, Sir Zachary,” Alisa said.

“Don’t call me that,” Zachary snapped.

“Just wondering,” said Alisa, as if she hadn’t been cut off, “how large is the Empire? And how old? My tutors somehow never got around to it.”

“Probably because they were spies for the Empire,” Zachary mused as they passed several carriages all heading the other way. “Hmm, looks like these people can’t even wait for Greyfell to be conquered—they already are taking it as a given. As you know, my cultured princess, everyone that the Empire conquers gets a special boon; but this only applies to the people that the Empire conquers. Therefore, lots of minor nobility is heading over to Greyfell. They hardly have any land of their own here in the Empire, so they are hastily setting up residence in Greyfell in order to take advantage of the higher status they would obtain as conquerees, of you will of the Empire.

“It’s all about money, isn’t it,” Alisa sighed. “One would have much higher hopes for commoners…”

“It’s not just commoners, my lady,” said Mark in between coughs from the wagon. “Monarchs rule, and keep their rule, because of money.”

Alisa harrumphed.

Zachary, Mark, Jessica and Robert all burst into laughter, though Alisa wasn’t sure how the baby could decide if something was funny. “What’s so funny?” she demanded of them, even though she already knew the answer.

“We did some plays…” Jessica said, gasping for air…”and they were all about you! And this!” she spread her arms wide and continued to laugh.

“Really?” Alisa menaced. “And what did ‘I’ do?”

They just laughed harder. Alisa sighed and closed her eyes as they rode into the city.

Chapter 3

The air was steaming with smells. Some were nice, some not so nice, though Alisa liked to think the nice ones outnumbered the not-so-nice ones. As they went further into the city, though, the not-so-nice smells definitely started to outnumber the nice ones. Waste was thrown into the streets without a care; horses added their own coda as well; and rotten fruit and vegetables outnumbered the fresh ones on farmers’ stands. It was as if the city of Redstone had made a halfhearted effort to brash onlookers to make their city look clean, and then, as one really became acquainted with all the streets, one gathered the truth. Alisa commented upon this to Zachary.

“Yes, my girl,” said Zachary, holding onto the reins nonchalantly with one hand as porters carrying barrels of ale passed him on the other side of the road. “That’s what happens when a city is conquered by the Empire: they get cleaned, outside in. First the outside, so passersby know that it has been conquered, then the innards of the city, once all the dissenters within the city are quelled.”

Alisa didn’t bother to stop and ask her patron why his voice had suddenly turned regal; She merely thought of it as a strange affectation, which in reality it also was. Instead she said, “You mean that the Empire rewards people for their opinions.”

“Correct,” said Zachary. “Hey, kids, this princess is actually pretty smart!”

Alisa’s face burned. “What good is it for me if I stay with you?” she threatened.

“You get out of here alive and treated well,” Zachary returned calmly.

“You get my undying adoration,” pitched in Mark.

“My love, too!” chirped Jessica.

The baby even gurgled a loud gurgle.

“I sense something is unsaid,” said Alisa.

“The point,” said Mark, his disembodied voice coming from the covered wagon, “is that with us, you get a free disguise. At our show tonight, you will play yourself—the kidnapped princess whose destiny is to take back your country, and with it all other countries, from the evil clutches of the Empire. As if he was narrating a prophecy, a man on horseback with a cart full of slaves rumbled past them. “Kill the Empire!” one of them screamed. They all hooted and spat on Zachary and Alisa.

“I see now why the Empire is evil,” said Alisa, wiping some spit from her nose.

Zachary sighed. “These days, anyone who is not a slave is ‘pro-Empire.’ That’s how the Empire gets cities and countries to defect without much opposition: the nobles sell their commoners as slaves and get to keep their nobility as their country transitions to serve as a province of the Empire.”

“Now I finally know why everyone hates the Empire,” said Alisa winsomely. “I guess I will have to play the part of the Noble Dissident.”

“Ah, so you’ve heard the story, then,” said Zachary happily, dodging a barely-alive human who at first looked like he was part of the dusty street.

“Yes, it gets whispered in every circle, now, even in the rulers’ own palaces,” said Zachary, still full of joy.

“Is that the Good Queen?” asked Jessica from the wagon.

“Yes, daughter, it is,” said Zachary, grinning and causing Alisa to also grin, although she didn’t know at what. He looked at Alisa’s somewhat questioning glance. “Don’t worry, my daughter,” he said, fervently patting the bench between them. “You will come and see, eventually, as the prophecy is fulfilled through you.”

“Of course,” Alisa said.

“You will see, girl, tonight,” said Zachary.

“Hey, did you know that all three of us are adopted, just like you?” Mark said, his disembodied voice once again reaching them.

“Shhh,” Zachary said. “Wait until tonight.”

The evening passed quickly, as Zachary found them a place to park the cart and to perform the show. “It’s tricky,” he said to Alisa and Zachary as Jessica fed the baby with bits of apples they had managed to save from the dwelling of the sphinxes. “You have to go to the places that are infested with anti-Empire sentiment, because those places you will be sure that there there are no spies—because everyone knows not only each other but also where everyone goes during the day. Having a handler in this mess would be a tricky task. On the other hand, you don’t want to go to someplace that is too anti-Empire, because that is where they take their slaves. So I think I’ve got the right balance tonight.” He chuckled along merrily, preparing the stage and inspecting all the props.

“This is going to be a special night,” whispered Mark to Alisa as soon as Zachary had gotten out of range. “You are going to be featured as the girl from the prophecy: ‘The Noble Queen.’”

“More like ‘The Noble Princess,’ Alisa said. “I am definitely not a queen.”

“Not yet,” Mark emphasized. “But you will be soon.”

“Who says?”

“The prophecy, of course,” said Mark.

“Whose prophecy?”

“Well, there was this crazy man, stark naked and with a long beard, who was chained to a post in Davenshore, some leagues west of here…”

“West of me, as well, because I’ve never heard of them,” Alisa said.

“Very much west,” Mark gestured. “I was the only one who had heard it. It was then that I gathered all of you, here,” he said, motioning all around her.

“What, Jessica and Robert you could have picked up at some orphanage,” Alisa mused. “And me, you had me by the side of the road. But Zachary?”

Mark’s grin grew wider. “I’m the playwright,” he said, with an air of a regal who reluctantly gives up a secret. “You think Zachary’s in charge?” He started giggling uncontrollably.

Zachary stuck his head in: “It took you that long?” he said, glancing at Alisa and then Mark. He also doubled down in fits.

“I’m done setting up the show, sir,” Zachary told Mark.

Mark held up a hand at Zachary: “Did you know I used to do this show alone?” he said. “I would make up whatever ‘prophecy’ I wanted. But that was until I met a true prophet… ” and his shoulders trembled with the memory. “Then I was no longer controlled by myself, I was instead controlled by the prophecy. Things have a way of happening, the prophecy always gets its way…” and his voice drifted out into nothingness, and he appeared to be looking at something no one else could see. Finally he sighed. “Everyone ready?” he said to both of them, as if nothing had happened. They could hear the raucous crowd forming around the stage, as it was almost sundown. A couple of tomatoes made their way onstage. “That’s my cue,” whispered Zachary. He crept out of the backstage area and onto where the crowd could see him: “Patience, my lovely peoples,” he cautioned them. “That is what will liberate us from the Empire, not direct violence. That would only produce more slaves. Out of you lot,” he said, pointing to all the people who had gathered, by this time a few hundred.

“Your coming awaits you!” shouted a grizzled old man, too old to be taken to the slave pens. “We had it two days ago that you would arrive! And arrive you did!”

“Indeed,” said Zachary to the audience. “Any other forewarnings of our appearance?”

“My papa told me the prophecy said you were coming!” shrieked a little girl of no more years than Jessica’s. Zachary looked questionably offstage, and Mark shook his head with an emphatic “no.”

“Not yet, m’lady!” shouted Zachary to everyone, and the whole collective audience let out a great sigh. “Unfortunately,” said Zachary, “our salvation is not at hand, causing the entire audience to sigh. “But!” Zachary said. “But!” he said again, a declaration: “Your feet must not falter! For the prophecy will come true! It will! Thus say the gods! And each and every one of us will have a part to play in it! Mark my words, it will come true… and soon!”

“How soon!” said a serving wench at one of the local pubs.

“Within a fortnight,” Zachary replied, looking backstage at Mark with exasperation. Mark gave him the thumbs-up signal.

Zachary turned back to the audience. “The Stagemaster confirms it! And he is never wrong! A fortnight, it is!”

This caused the audience to hush and whisper amongst themselves. “Now, let us perform the latest prophecy, one we heard from a man gallop up behind us on a tired horse who was frothing at the mouth, and who died the instant the man slipped down from the saddle!”

The audience roared. Alisa could see that a few dozen mounted patrols were gathering at one of the places where the crowd ended.

“Make no mistake, this was it!” said Zachary, pacing up and down the stage. This was the signal to start the play. So they started it: Mark strolled onto stage with a hoe in hand, hoing some hay back and forth on the stage. “Look at this innocent peasant farmer!” Zachary declared. “He has nothing except for the few cabbages the ground gives him and the cow he milks for him and his family! But he is not alone: the Empire lurks behind every corner!” Zachary cast a fleeting look at the armed soldiers on horsebacks and then backstage. Mark made another “thumbs up” gesture and waved his arm, instructing Zachary to continue his lines.

“This farmer!” he continued, “almost devoid of personal possessions, wishes simply to live! To live! Is that too much to ask?”

“No!” roared the crowd, which was composed of diverse ages and diverse genders, so their roar was extremely well balanced.

“What do we want of the Empire!” said Zachary.

“To not exist!” roared the crowd, completing the formula, which had apparently rushed ahead of their coming to Redstone.

“How do we accomplish this!”

“Fight, steal and lie!” roared the crowd. Some of the Imperial horses gave nervous whinnies.

Jessica strode onto stage, carrying Robert in her arms. “Look at this poor child!” shouted Zachary. “She has nothing, no food, no water! Why? Because she gives it all to her baby brother!” And Jessica held up Robert for all the audience to inspect. The audience was quiet as she did so.

“This baby, born innocent and not with guilt as those from the Empire would have you believe…” and this was said to even more whinnies from the horses.

“This Empire, who rules for one purpose: slavery!” shouted Zachary. He was answered by fists from the audience being raised airborne.

“Look at your peers!” Zachary said, once the sound had died down. “Your allies in this audience, but also your fellow guardsman.”

“Not anymore,” spat a man with little to wear and a deep scar down one cheek. Murmurs answered him.

“That’s correct, Goodman!” said Zachary. “Look at them, with their burnished horses, polished armor, and all their swagger—of course, meant to maintain public order, but in this case meant to maintain public tyranny…”

The crowd yelled and hooted but the men with their horses remained where they were: at the edge of the audience, without any apparent response to the provocation.

“You know what to do!” Zachary screamed at the audience, fists raised.

“Yes!” yelled the audience, particularly the adult males, who strained to push the horses and their riders away from the stage.

The horses, and with them their riders, broke rank and fled, the wild mob chasing after them, until all who remained were little tots and elderly people.

“They will be out for our blood, now,” remarked Zachary. “We’d best be on our way to the next town.” He bent over to talk to a kindly old woman: “M’lady, we will perish surely from the Empire’s lances if we don’t take about five hundred of your carrots and five hundred mushrooms,” he said. “Would the kind lady be amenable to—”

“Take it take it all!” she gestured, in a movement that seemed somehow too young for her somber age. “Gods know I don’t deserve it. Go, bring the revolution, go!” she said, the last statement ending in a bark.

“Well?” said Zachary, gazing back to Mark and Alisa.

“The lady still speaks,” said the old woman, “and her prophecy does not lie.” Alisa looked at her and her eyes had somehow become clouded. “Hear me now, for here is the prophecy:”

“What prophecy?” said Zachary suddenly. He glanced toward Mark. “What do you make of this?” he said.

“We’ll listen,” Mark said. “You never know, maybe she is a seeress.”

“Seeress is a bad exclamation,” said the prophecy emanating from the old woman. Her whole body seemed to be covered with a silvery glow.

“Am I not a Prophetess? Male prophecies control everything. But I am a female prophecy! Hear me and fear for ye lives!” and she gave a terrifying cackle.

“Come on, then, what’s your prophecy?” Zachary coaxed her.

“Stop goading me! I will come in my own time!” she screeched, casting miniature lightning bolts about her. One of them came in contact with Zachary: “Ow!” he said.

“Shut your trap, you stupid little man!” she shrilled. “Now, here is the prophecy: The clan will continue into the heart of the Empire, where they will wreak much havoc. They will free the slaves and—”

“That sounds great!” said Zachary.

“Let me finish this stupid prophecy, old man!” the crone screeched, spit flying from her lips in every which direction.

Zachary collapsed to his knees and spread his arms in supplication. “M’lady, we are ready—”

But the lady had already continued: “—and they will kill many nobles, including the king. Then they themselves will rule.” Suddenly the fire disappeared from the old lady’s eyes and the lighting coursing around her body stopped. She fell forward but Zachary caught her. “Excuse me? the woman said, her eyelashes fluttering as she struggled to lift her head. She hastily got to her feet, seeming to be a young woman and not an old one. Startled, Alisa peered into her eyes and discovered something amazing: “Why, she doesn’t look a shade past twenty!” Alisa exclaimed to Zachary. “Where is that old woman who made the prophecy?”

“What are you talking about?” said the young woman. “One minute I was watching your performance, and the next…”

“So she only inhabited your body for a few minutes, then,” said Zachary studiously.

“Excuse me?” she said. Her face was remarkably beautiful. “Thank you for catching me and all that, but I do think I should be going. I have a husband and kids, you know. Family?” she said, trying hard to change the expression on Zachary’s face, which was of horror. “Whatever,” she said, getting up. “Happy Taurus Day!” And she was off, walking briskly.

“I’ll stop her,” Alisa said, getting to her feet.

“No,” Zachary said, glancing at Mark. “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Mark said, sighing. “But what do we know now that we didn’t know before?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Zachary. “Other than that we succeed.”

“We don’t know it’s us, though,” said Mark with a frown on his face.

Zachary stared at him. “You really think that?” he crowed, starting to laugh mirthfully.

Mark started to laugh then, and so did Alisa. “What’s so funny?” Jessica called from the wagon.

“Nothing,” Mark laughed. “Absolutely nothing.”

There was the clop-clop of hooves, and a couple of the soldiers of the Empire approached them on horseback. “Darn it,” said Mark. “We were so oblivious in our laughing fits that we weren’t even scanning the area. Zachary,” he motioned to him, “You know what to do.”

“Excuse me, mine officers,” Zachary staggered up to them. “Have you seen my bottle?”

“Why, drinking too much horse piss, you vagrant?” sneered one of the officers, stopping his horse. “No, sir,” Zachary pleaded, “I just lost my bottle. There was a show, here, you know, an’ everyone was a’ drinkin…”

“Aw, get out of my sight, you good-for-nothing,” said the officer, making his horse prance high in order to strike at Zachary. Zachary rolled out of its path just before the hooves hit the ground.

“Hey,” Mark yelled, getting out of the driver’s seat. “That’s my father you’ve got there! I will file a motion with the magistrate!”

“We are the magistrate, boy,” sneered the officer. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t lock the lot of ya’ up, right now!”

“My poor father has a drinking problem,” said Mark quickly, “and all we’re doing is transporting these carrots and mushrooms over to the next city!”

“I bet you don’t even know what the name of the next city is, boy,” spoke the other horseman, grinning.

“It’s—”

“Never mind that,” said the second horseman. “We can see that the company obviously stole your wagon and used it as a stage. You did nothing wrong. But do try and avoid this area, will you? We don’t need our noble merchantmen turning into slaves…”

“And merchant women!” came Jessica’s tiny voice from inside the wagon. The baby even made an especially loud gurgle.

“I see you truly are what you claim to be,” said the first officer. “Fare thee well,” he finished, and he and his companion turned around and headed back where they came from.

“The advantages of being young,” Zachary muttered once the mounted men were gone.

“That’s why I’m in charge,” said Mark proudly. “At least, in that operation.”

“Yeah, hopefully I’ll be sober next time we have to improvise,” said Zachary.

“So we can spend the night here?” Zachary wondered. That’s when Alisa realized he wasn’t so bright.

“Of course not, Pops,” Mark said. “We got past them because of dumb luck. We must go now to the next town, we can’t stay here and wait till morning.”

“Ah,” Zachary mused. “So no sleeping.”

“You had the last shift, Zachary, so you can sleep first,” said Mark. “Alisa will take the first reins and I will do the second.”

“What about me?” said Jessica in a muffled voice from the interior of the wagon.

“We’ve been through this, you’re too young!” said Mark.

“I want to hear Papa say it!” she responded.

“Honey, go to bed,” Zachary soothed. “You can even sleep next to me. I’m going to sleep, too.”

“Good,” she said, and then there was a thump.

“She just went to sleep,” Zachary said, in response to Alisa’s questioning look. “So I guess we’re going to Blackstone now?”

“Yes, Zachary,” Mark said, patiently. “You can sleep now.”

“Thanks,” he said and opened the cover and went inside. “Someone is going to have to load the cart with these carrots and mushrooms.”

“We’ll do it, Zachary,” Mark said.

“Goodnight, then,” he said, and within moments was snoring loudly.

“I wish he wouldn’t do that,” said Mark.

“What, snore? Or say goodnight?” Alisa asked him.

“I can deal with the snoring,” said Mark. “I just don’t like being so formal with him. I mean, I am his boss, but it starts to get repetitive after a while. The child inside me screams at me to give him love, affection, seniority. Of course, that’s just not the way it is. It’s nice to have someone to confide in, Alisa. That’s something special you bring to the group.”

Alisa could feel a blush creeping up her face. “You know, I don’t—I mean, didn’t—know any boys of suitable age before I escaped my father’s castle…”

Mark was looking at her strangely.

“Um, what I mean is that if you ever need me—my advice, or companionship, whatever is suitable before marriage—then I am here to give it.”

Mark simply grinned. “It’s good we both don’t want to grow up before we should,” he said.

“What did I say?”

“I see you’re almost as dumb as Zachary,” he said.

“Hey, stop calling me dumb!”

“Who’s calling me dumb?”

“You know!” she wailed.

And that was that. They both transferred the vegetables to the cart and then got moving. It was a simple matter to exit the city, and it took only about a quarter hour. Most people were sleeping at this time, as the late summer nights were slowly turning chillier by the way. Mark shivered as he got into bed. “Try avoiding large rocks,” he said, and then he was asleep.

So it was Alisa alone now. She wasn’t used to that, except for when they first found her on the dusty road; but even then, it was daytime and there were lots of people around. This time, though, as she and the cart wended down the dusty road past farmstead after farmstead with scarcely another cart for company, she felt vulnerable. What if there were more sphinxes? What if there were other monsters that lurked in the night, such as werewolves, vampires, or other half-human or fully-monstrous creatures? Her heart fluttered every time they rounded a corner, or heard some farm-animal baying in the dark. Just go back to sleep, animals! she thought when she heard them. But then she realized that a werewolf might want to eat a docile farm animal instead of a teen girl who would fight back, such as herself. That made her feel better as she passed the hours of the night by singing softly to herself. Werewolves had an acute sense of smell, she reasoned, so they might even prefer a quiet, docile farm animal over a loud, singing teenage girl! She reasoned thusly and continued to sing her fairy-tale songs she had learned when she was young until the first rays of light broke over the horizon. Then she remembered that she had taken Mark’s shift as well as her own. She stopped the cart and looked into the canopied section in back. Everyone was still sleeping. It was then when she heard the howls.

At first she just dismissed them as baying dogs who had gotten up too early. But then the first one appeared, not far off, just fifty yards away. He was enormous. His wife appeared instants later, and then few little pups, who were themselves six feet long.

“I thought there could only be one werewolf at a time!” Alisa protested.

“I am the only one,” the male werewolf replied. “But then I mated with a female wolf and produced my children. And now, we need a nice meal before we go to bed.”

“What is it?” Mark said from the wagon interior. “What—” and then he came up to where Alisa sat and saw them. “Oh, dear,” he said.

“Indeed,” said Alisa quietly. “How will we overcome them?” Her lips chattered as she said this.

“Waking up Zachary or the others won’t help,” he said.

“Or will it?” Alisa said. She had an idea. “I’m going to wake up Jessica and the baby, but not Zachary—he’ll make things worse.” Mark nodded, wordlessly accepting her idea even though she suspected he had no clue what she was planning.

She brought them to the front. “See these people?” she said. “I am just like you: my husband married me and we have two children.” She could sense Mark tensing beside her and knew he must be blushing. “We’re just trying to make our way in life. Please don’t kill us!”

“It’s the natural order of things,” said the werewolf. “We must eat.”

“Marrying a normal wolf is not the order of things,” said Alisa. “Find some food for yourself, but don’t bring your family into this.”

“You don’t know the normal order of things,” snarled the werewolf. “My wife died, and they drove me out of my house. I had to resort to this form to get anything to eat. I love my wife and my cubs, and I have taught them the ways of humans: they can all talk.”

“I’m sorry,” said the she-wolf simply. “We must eat. It is the order of things.”

“What are those?” asked one of the pups.

“They are your dinner, my dear,” responded his mother. “We can split all of them, as there are five of them in total. You and your brothers can devour the two young ones, and your father and I will destroy the big one and the two young-adults.”

“Wow,” said the pup. “What’s for dessert?”

“There is no desert, honey,” his mother told him gently. “If you want, you can suck the marrow out of their bones.”

“That sounds good,” said another one of the cubs.

“Oh, no,” said the father, sniffing at the air. “We have company. Run!” And then they vanished behind one of the barns, scantily making a sound. Some horses started to whinny, though.

Presently two lines of ten guards each trotted down the road, raising tons of dust in their wake and even more before the mounts themselves. “Halt!” screamed the lead officer, as some of the company’s own horses were starting to go berserk. He scanned the area and then his eyes narrowed, focusing on Alisa and Mark. “What are you doing here?”

“We are but innocent traders!” Alisa appealed to them. Mark started to cough.

“You sound like a noblewoman! Get off your horse!”

Alisa got off the horse. “I have just eloped with my husband, here,” she said, walking slowly toward the column and indicating Mark, who was now sitting in the driver’s seat. “He is a common salesman. We have many vegetables in the back, you can check!”

The lead soldier snorted. “Have you got any paperwork?” he said.

“Of course, my lord,” said Alisa. “Mark, honey, where is our paperwork?”

Mark hopped off the wooden seat and onto the road. “Officer, we have no paperwork,” he said.

“Then I’ll be forced to lock you up,” he said. With a snap of his wrist he indicated that his soldiers do his bidding. A few of them approached Alisa and Mark.

Mark raised a fist.

“We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way,” said one of the soldiers. “There, there,” he said as Mark presented his arms behind his back to the soldier so he could be handcuffed. The other soldiers inspected the cart. “They do have many vegetables,” one of them told the lead. “And a little girl and a baby and a drunkard in back.”

“Who’s the drunkard?” snapped the lead solder.

“My father,” said Mark, on his knees now before the man, who was on his horse still. “Please, spare him. He’s just a foolish old man.”

“When you address me, you say ‘sir!’” said the lead officer.

“Yessir,” said Mark.

“Aw, shut up. Bring them!” he told his soldiers. “You, girl, stay in the cart and drive it. And no funny stuff: the minute anyone raises a hand against any one of my soldiers—boy—” he said, indicating Mark, “is the moment somebody gets bloodied.”

“Yessir,” continued Mark. One of the soldiers looked like he was about to slap him, but he desisted after he saw Alisa’s glare. Mark winked at Alisa. Alisa tried not to smile.

They marched for what seemed like two or three miles, and then they stopped by a well where a farmer was drawing water. “Happy to serve, we have enough,” he glibbed cheerfully as he fetched water for the officers and their horses. “Looks like rain is coming, hmmm?” he pointed at the storm front that was moving in from the west.

The lead officer grunted.

“You’re welcome, sir,” said the farmer. “Might I also offer you and your men with some eggs from my collection? Do you like them poached or scrambled?”

“You are so kind, sir, but we brought our own food,” replied the lead officer. “Let’s go, men. Thank you, farmer. I’ll write you in the rolls.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary, sir,” said the farmer, warding off the reward with his hands.

The contingent left and the lead officer said, “Oh, he wanted it. No one ever shows it, though.”

“Who wouldn’t want it?” asked Mark.

“You shut up. Now, m’lady, may I ask which kingdom you are from? I might get greatly rewarded from this. Perhaps even a noble title and a plot of land with my own house!” He grinned and didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of what had just happened.

They rode a few more miles and finally arrived at Blackstone. Blackstone seemed to be almost the same city as Redstone at first. The same kinds of officers greeted them in the same places. But once they were granted admittance into the city, what they saw was much nicer. There were no slaves about, even as they moved deeper into the city. There was instead a large castle, complete with moat and drawbridge. And as they came closer, Alisa could even see a pair of alligators.

“Maybe you’ll be their next meal, girl,” the lead officer threatened. “I plan to get one of those for myself, back in Redstone. Once it’s de-slaved. Nice people don’t like living next to slaves, don’t you know? It’s because it reminds them of work. And the fact that they are not in Heaven. You see, there are no slaves in Heaven. That’s what the scriptures tell us. But in Hell there are slaves. Those are the slaves that work so those in Heaven will be able to relax.

That is what the scripture says. And I plan to be one of the ultimate victors: I will die well on Earth and I will also be rewarded well in Heaven for my Earthly position. I will become godly, if not a god myself. Then I will rejoice forever in my accomplishment.”

As if awakening from a dream, he turned his horse to face his men, framed by the rising sun. “I will depart from you and then return shortly,” he said, and then wheeled his mount and rode it across the drawbridge and arrived at the gate. The gate was slowly but ponderously rising. A lone trumpeter ducked under the partially-opened gate and blew a complicated series of notes. Then, he lowered his trumpet and said: “The Earl of Blackstone Approaches! All recognize his lordship and kneel!” Alisa and the rest were forced into kneeling position, even Jessica, who was holding baby Robert.

The gate finally opened enough for some more people to duck under while not kneeling. Finally, the gate ponderously came to a halt, and Alisa noticed something very strange: the alligators were moving in concert with the gate, counterclockwise. And there were a few strangled cries of a man being torn apart. Which wasn’t good news for them.

“You,” said the trumpeteer, “will be slaves of His Lordship, Lord Zaldor, forevermore.”

The horsemen pushed them forward. One of them tossed a rolled-up bit of parchment into the trumpeteer’s hands. “And,” the trumpeteer said, his eyes scanning the piece of paper, “the Princess of Woodrow presents her august self to be royal bride of his lordship, forevermore.”

“He sure likes that word,” Alisa whispered to Mark. Mark didn’t show any sign of hearing her.

There was a strange kind of music coming from inside the castle. It expanded and amplified as His Lordship exited the gates. He pushed his cowl back to reveal a strangely angular face inconsistent with the rough-bitten visages common in the career of a soldier. He had black hair which was combed back meticulously, and he had just a hint of a shave. He snapped his fingers and a servant hurried up and handed him a pair of gloves. “Who shall be the first prisoner?” he said, his voice a deep baritone and strangely resonant in Alisa’s ears. “Who will be the first victim? If you will escape from my alligators, I will set you free.” He scanned his prisoners, to him a family of five. “I suppose we could try the baby,” he said after brooding for some time, “but that wouldn’t make for good press.” “And the baby would almost certainly drown, as most babies have underdeveloped motor control.” He seemed to think about that for a moment, and then smiled. “So that’s a good excuse to try the adult. Would we all like to see Daddy drowned and eaten by alligators? They’re good alligators, I tell you—their teeth are nice and sharp, so it would seem to be less painful to experience being torn apart by them than by alligators with bad hygiene.” He sniffed, and scratched his stubble. “Very well, then,” he finally said. “Take him.”

“He’s not our daddy,” said Jessica uncharacteristically. “He’s a bad man, he stole me from my mommy. He also stole them from their mommies. I just want to go home.”

“In that case,” said the man, “I will be happy to teach him a swimming lesson. For free.” The guards chuckled at this.

“Sir, I have done nothing wrong,” Zachary said as they forced him to his feet.

“I know this,” said the man. “And for this I will unlock your manacles. What say you to that?”

“I thank thee, your Lordship,” sputtered Zachary, “but this is hardly justified. I will happily be your slave, but spare me my life, for I have not wronged you.”

The man shrugged, as if it didn’t matter to him either way what happened. “Fine,” he said, “I will honor your request. Just know that I have performed for you this kindness, and don’t shuffle your feet during your duties or you, or one of these children, will be fed to my pets.”

He shook his head, as if trying to clear it. “Ah,” he said. “Let me give you a tour of the compound. If you would, guards.” The guards re-manacled Zachary and he and the children were forced across the drawbridge and into the castle.

The temperature immediately became far colder, and the air was clammy and it smelled of mildew. “I apologize for the conditions,” he said, looking at his shivering prisoners. “Wait… did one of you say you were the Princess of Woodrow?”

“Yes, m’lord,” replied one of the guards. “It is this girl here,” he said, pointing to Alisa.

“Excellent,” the lord said, rubbing his hands together in excitement. “My daughter is also a princess. Honey?” he shouted up the broad stone stairway. “Amelia! Are you there? Come down, please!” To his prisoners he said, “my daughter is a very special person. She’s ten years old, which I know is a little bit younger than you, my lady of Woodrow, but I’m sure you can make an accommodation to this situation. She’s really quite a good person. Quite unlike me, I should say,” and he grinned wickedly. “Although I have not done any reprehensible acts yet, you should expect one pretty soon. Honey? Where are you?”

A servant girl came down the stairs: “She’s taking a bath,” she said.

“In the middle of the day? Get her down here!” he said. “I apologize for my daughter’s peculiarity. She likes to be very clean all the time, apparently.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Mark started to say.

“Yes, boy?” said the lord.

“I am sure that if you let us leave, we could make good money for you,” he said, his voice cracking. “We are quite successful actors, and we could do you good in the propaganda department. Perhaps even get you a new position.”

The Lord laughed. “I might actually have need of you in the future, then. You say that all five of you act?”

“Yes, even the baby,” said Zachary. “He knows how to react to cues, as the smartest babies do. He also has appeared in enough productions with us that he knows when to do what.”

“Splendid, but I was asking the boy,” said the Lord. “Oh, did I forget to introduce myself? I am Lord Villana. Splendid. Splendid.” He said this as he shook each of their hands in turn. The guards watched this display blithely, their arms folded. “You know what?” Lord Villana said. “We don’t really need them. Why don’t you come on a tour with me? Come on, you don’t have to be afraid. Anyone who disobeys me is still going to be fed to the alligators, though. Slowly. Come on, everybody! Chop chop!”

He led them up a grand curving staircase that was lushly appointed with a thick white carpet. “Whoo!” Lord Villana said. “I still get tingles every time I go up these stairs. I traded for this a while back, a few years ago, with my former trading partner from Lakeview. We had served in the corps together. I murdered him after we completed the trade, of course. Wouldn’t want to leave anything incomplete, would we, now? I always have to win. Always, always, always, always. I was planning on abandoning him for a new partner I had met the day before. I always get my business done on time. And my word, we’re at the top of the stairs!”

Everyone was indeed at the top of the stairs. Lord Villana took another deep breath and continued the tour:

“In this room is where I keep the baby alligators,” he said. “Don’t worry, I let them out to have family time with their mothers and fathers for a few hours each day. The rest of the day they are subject to my experiments. Does that sound intimidating?” He cupped his hand to his ear. “Can you all hear me?”

No one dared respond, for obvious reasons.

“Whatever,” he said, throwing up his hands in apparent defeat. “There’s nothing I can do, you all are not interested in my hobbies, so I suppose I will start to feed you to the alligators. Who’s first? Don’t jump over yourselves!”

A page ran up the stairs. “Sir!” he gasped. “Emperor—I mean, Lord! There are a detachment of Redstone soldiers headed this way to have a conference with you, m’lord! They will be here in under an hour!”

“Good. Now b’gone, you scoundrel,” he said, waving his hand. The page saluted and ran back down the stairs. Alisa could see him wipe his brow and slow his page once he got out of view of the eccentric Lord of the City.

“Come!” he said gently, waving them all in while he held the door. “Come see my baby alligators!”

The room was dark, and when Lord Villania shut the door it turned even darker. He lit a few braziers and there were some snarling sounds. “Interrupting them while they sleep!” he said animatedly. “Never a good idea! I also have some sphinxes! Baby ones, if you get my meaning. Would you all like to see them?”

“M’lord, I’d really prefer the alligators,” Alisa heard Mark say in a muffled tone.

“Alligators it is!” said the Lord. “Not everything can get top billing, can it? Say… I’ve never had this many of my friends congregated in one place!” Alisa took a look at Zachary, and then at Mark. Both shook their heads “no.” But Alisa went on, anyway.

“Um, sir,” she said, staring at both Mark and Zachary behind the Lord’s body, their faces vigorously shaking to the negative. “Do you perhaps have a place to bathe?” she said. “I’m very weary from my road journey and would like to kick back and relax for a bit. After all, I am a princess.”

The Lord stared at her for what seemed like minutes. “Excuse me, what did you say?” he said.

“I said—” Alisa began.

“Yes, I know what you said,” said Lord Villania. “Would you like to take a bath with my baby alligators? I assure you, they are quite gentle.

“R-r-really?” Alisa coughed.

“Yes, of course! Come now! You can leave your clothes on if that’s what you wish; we’re not particular here.

“Maybe later, then, m’Lord,” Alisa retreated, doing her best to sound like a confused peasant.

“Look at these animals!” the Lord said, pointing to each baby alligator, each of whom snarled and bared long, gleaming teeth upon his hand approaching their enclosures. “Anyone want to pet them? They’re quite harmless, I assure you. And you had better not strike me down, sirs,” he said, ostentatiously to Zachary and Mark, who had gathered together in a conference in a corner of the room. “Without me, you will surely find yourself in much more miserable circumstances.”

Zachary and Mark both sighed and came back to the middle of the room.

“Much better,” said the Lord. “Shall we move onto the sphinxes, then? Have we had enough of the alligators?”

Alisa had to admit to herself that she really wouldn’t mind seeing baby sphinxes. “How big are they?” she asked. “The sphinxes?”

“Ah, mine daughter,” purred Lord Villania. “They are more extraordinary than you might imagine.” “Come now.” And he strolled over to a corner of the room that had been previously shrouded in darkness. He lit two more braziers and then the area became visible. There was… something… inside a large glass enclosure. There was also grass and stones and even some insects. “They don’t really like the insects,” the Lord said after seeing Alisa’s stare. “They like cheese and apples. And radishes, too, but they mainly just like cheese and apples. Would you like to feed them?”

“I’d rather just see to my bath,” Alisa said rather firmly.

“No, we would really love to feed them,” Mark said. “Don’t listen to her, I am her boss as well as Zachary’s here. They both report to me.”

“So you will speak for all of them, then,” said the Lord. “Curious.”

“Let’s see the young sphinxes, then!” said Mark in an overly-apparent attempt at eagerness.

“All right, then!” went Lord Villania, and he smiled, and in his one day old stubble Alisa thought she saw a glimmer… of something. Something different, something that wasn’t there before. Perhaps Mark was having an effect, after all.

The Lord Villiana pointed at the blobs in the enclosure, which must have been sphinxes. Both blobs looked rather orange-colored.

“I don’t see their eyes,” said Alisa, despite Mark and Zachary’s attempts to stop her from talking. “Are they facing away from us?”

“Correct!” the Lord beamed. In the mixture between darkness and light which permeated the room, his head seemed like it was hosting two horns… but then the mirage vanished.

“Come now, mine little sphinxes,” he said. “I have two, one male and one female. Have you met any sphinxes before? I find them really quite charming. They always seem to like it when I talk to them.”

“Maybe that’s because they think you’ll be their next meal,” Zachary said in a hoarse whisper.

“Despite your wild fantasy notions, Mr. Zachary, my hearing is actually quite good,” said the Lord. “And I’d appreciate you not making me the butt of your constant jokes.”

Zachary looked like he was about to retort, but Mark held his shoulder and he was silent.

“Whenever I’m around my soldiers, I am forced into giving commands, barking orders, and it is all so tedious,” the Lord continued, “So very, very tedious. Would you like to see one of the sphinxes turn around? Don’t worry, they really can’t hurt you…yet. In a few months or so, they should be constructing complete sentences. Then, they’ll really be able to hurt you. Any takers?”

“I’ll do it!” said Jessica. Alisa cursed herself, she should have been watching her.

“There you go, my little lady!” said the Lord enthusiastically. “Stick your hand in, right there… there you go!”

So Jessica was petting a baby sphinx. “He’s real furry!” she squealed in delight, but she doubled on that reaction when the sphinx ponderously turned around: “Whoa!” she shouted, as loudly as she could shout. Alisa wondered if she was acting, too. Regardless, it was a shocking sight: the baby sphinx had the face of an actual baby!

“Shocking, isn’t it?” the Lord Villana grinned as he saw his guests’ reactions. “You never see them as the innocent little buggers they really are… I stole these off a pair I found not far from here. Oh, you’ve seen them, too? Did you actually pass their riddles?”

“Yes,” Jessica beamed proudly. “Well, sort of. We had to kill one of them. Then we escaped.”

“Good job!” the Lord clapped his hands animatedly. “There you go! Wow, we both got the better of them, didn’t we?”

“Yes, we did,” agreed Jessica.

“Oh, I know!” said the Lord as his sphinx drooled while looking at them. It opened its mouth to reveal jaggedly sharp teeth.

“Let us exit this space,” suggested Lord Villania with a curt smile. “You said you wanted your bath, m’lady?” he asked Alisa.

“Oh, yes, please,” Alisa said, happy to finally be getting clean after days of travel.

“Let us go then,” he said, and led the way out of the room, and shockingly, down the stairs.

“Didn’t you say you wanted to give us a tour of all the upstairs rooms?” Alisa inquired shrilly.

“Of course, dear, but that will be later,” he said. “First I want to show you something else… in the dungeons.”

This of course didn’t sound good to Mark and Zachary, as well as to Alisa. They hastily conducted a conversation in sign-language between them but it didn’t amount to anything. Also, the Lord Villania knew what they were saying, so that was a definite detriment to their goals.

“I have archers!” the Lord Villania sang. “Many archers that you cannot see. See that hole in the ceiling?” he pointed to a dark place Alisa had not considered yet. “And there,” he pointed, “and there. You see, you really cannot escape. Even if you succeeded holding me hostage. Because I am just a pawn in this game.”

“You are the Emperor!” Mark spat at him.

“Clearly, but I enjoy being on the front lines,” Villania said. “And being emperor doesn’t really have its rewards. The real power lies on the Inner Council. They hardly pay me anything. They at least give me room for my… experiments, though.” The Emperor licked his lips. “Should I die, they would have many people lined up to replace me.”

“Ah, well then,” stated Mark, and proceeded to amble his way down the stairs, all the while looking for more archers.

“Men,” commanded the Emperor. “Take these prisoners to the dungeons. Take them to the courtroom.”

“Are we getting a fair trial?” Mark said.

“And muzzle that one,” The Emperor said, pointing to Mark.

“Yes, sir!” said the lead guard. He placed gauntlets on all of them and proceeded to guide them down a set of musty, dark old stairs.

Jessica was crying. “He’s going to eat us,” she sobbed. The baby squealed, as if to add his own agreement.

“No, we’re not going to be eaten, silly girl,” said Alisa. “He’s just going to determine our fate, which means tell us what to do. We’re not going to be prisoners or anything—he’ll probably just ship us back home, that’s all.”

“But we don’t have a home,” Jessica pointed out as she continued to sob.

“That will soon be remedied,” Alisa promised her, all the while wondering if she would ever see her own home again. Suddenly being waited on constantly by annoying little girls didn’t seem too bad. She might even marry a Lord (not this one, of course) and have a whole bevy of children. Five, ten, the number didn’t matter to her. As long as she was able to go somewhere safe… but that dream ringed hollow to her in her present circumstances.

They were directed down a dark passageway, only a single brazier from the lead guard lighting the way. They walked for minutes past numerous side-passageways without explanation, and then they heard the sound of voices, softly at first so that Alisa wasn’t sure whether or not she was hearing them, but then growing louder and unmistakable. And one of the voices was The Emperor’s.

“Surely you don’t think I’ll let them go,” he emphasized to some invisible confidant. “They show up at my house, and I have the Princess Alisa presented to me on my doorstep, so at least I should reap some reward.” the man he was talking to said something in a soft tone. There was silence, and then a knock on a door. “Ah!” The Emperor declared gaily. “My guests are finally here! What took you so long?”

“We both know that your tone is just pretense, so why don’t you just stop lying to them and say the truth already?” said the man he was talking to.

“Ignore that man, he’s impolite,” The Emperor greeted them. His partner looked away.

Alisa looked around the room. There were two columns of benches and there was an aisle in between them. “Please, do have a seat,” indicated The Emperor. “My friend here tells us that the rest of the Inner Council will be arriving shortly.”

“Splendid,” said Zachary, and looked around to see if anybody had listened. Mark just snorted.

“You do know I was just a guard once, like one of these people here, see?” said The Emperor. “The previous Emperor elevated me to become his viceroy, and I also became his heir.”

“And you killed him,” Mark said.

“Actually,” The Emperor said, tugging on his uniform and removing a piece of lint from it, “he died and I ascended to my leadership position. Sort of strange, you know? But as I told you, The Inner Council controls everything,” he sighed.

“We have arrived,” announced a snide female voice in a low baritone. “And you know, we do indeed control everything, so you’d better watch your mouths, whomever is there besides the Princess of Woodrow. And, by the way, you should also know that Woodrow fell. The day before yesterday. Even the Emperor himself didn’t know.”

“Oh, I knew, I have other sources than you,” scoffed The Emperor.

“Sources I will have to nip at the bud,” the older, regal looking woman said politely as she came into the room, followed by four men, all in general’s uniforms.

“You don’t know who they are,” The Emperor laughed. “For all you know they are your four generals here.”

“If it’s them, I’ll have them all flayed, and then I’ll cut off their heads,” she said pompously.

“My friends!” The Emperor spread his hands wide to encompass the entire room. “We are here to witness an event that does not occur very often! A trial, where—”

“No one’s listening to you, you piece of meat,” said the older woman. “Let us sit down and get on with this.”

“I am offended,” said The Emperor.

“One more time,” she warned.

“Now. These four gentlemen and I are here to decide the fate of the Princess of Woodrow and her companions. Whatever will happen to her will ultimately also happen to them, be it pardon and life, conviction and death, or an especially bad conviction and then torture and then death after some years.”

“What did I do wrong?” Alisa said distraughtly.

“It’s not what you did wrong, dear,” said the woman. “Anyhow, being as that she is the princess of an enemy nation that has not yet surrendered to the Holy Empire—

“Excuse me!” said Mark. “An empire that practices slavery is not a ‘holy empire!’ It is an accursed one!”

“Hey, boy, I agree with you totally,” she said. “But these four generals seem to think it’s a good practice.”

“It pays the bills and brings in new soldiers,” said one of them, who was taller than the others and grinned a yellow-toothed grin. “All armies should have a few slaves: it raises morale for the rest of the army.” The rest of the generals suppressed their giggles.

The woman stared at Mark and then the others. “You see how much we don’t care,” she said.

“Plus, it’s only temporary,” said the yellow-toothed general. “For a few months it’ll be this way, and then it’ll revert to normal society. It’s part of our growth phase.”

“What’s next, a ‘rape phase’?,” Zachary yelled, slamming his manacles on the row in front of him. The wood splintered and some of it flew at the five council members.

“Perhaps,” said the yellow-toothed general, picking some bits of wood out of his mustache and frowning.

“Alright, I get to flay that one,” the female council member pointed at Zachary.

“No you don’t!” growled Zachary. He stood up and windmilled his arms. “See, I broke free!” he said. “Now, you will die.”

“I definitely get that one,” said the female. She pointed a small black stick at Zachary and he suddenly slumped in his chair. “Any other takers?” she challenged the rest of them.

“She is definitely one-dimensional,” Alisa decided to say to Mark. “I sure wouldn’t want to be ruled by her.”

Mark gave a twitch of a smile. “Me, neither,” he said, his grin broadening. “Now would you please pardon us, gentlemen? This womanly disease that we all are suffering from seems to be interfering with my ability to enjoy my surroundings. You are all generals, yes? And what is she, your cleaning lady? A mistress? How did a woman get into such power?”

“Yes, indeed,” said The Emperor, laughing in his nemesis’ face. “It must be her fault that slavery abounds in our Empire. After all, she was the one who suggested it.”

“I certainly did not—” began the lady.

“Hmmm,” said the yellow-toothed general. He scratched his mustache and said, “Although it was I who first suggested slavery as an option to cut costs, it certainly does seem that using this lady here as a scapegoat—”

“I have a name, you filthy piece of trash!” she exclaimed. She rose from her seat. “I will not tolerate being spat upon by a bunch of mongrel army officers! I demand a Full Council meeting!”

“Denied,” said Yellow-Teeth flatly. “Now I wonder, which poison shall we use on you?” He scratched his head.

“You do that too much, Rehlan,” commented one of the other generals, a short one who was actually wearing his cap.

“I will not discuss your vices in polite company, Trehdor,” said Yellow-Teeth. “It is not polite.”

“I defer to your leadership, then,” said Trehdor, readjusting his cap. “It’s your choice.”

“How about we all vote?” suggested a third general.

‘Why are you talking?“ said Yellow-Teeth. “I will choose now. I choose the one I’ve affectionately come to nickname ‘Purple-Fang.’”

“Can I try it?” said The Emperor. Yellow-Teeth just stared at him. The Emperor looked down and started adjusting his buttons.

“Good to know somebody has been taking his medication,” said the lady. “Now put that thing down.”

“It’s called a vial, m’lady, and I don’t think I’ll be putting it down,” said Yellow-Teeth. “Here, you two hold her while I administer it,” he indicated the two junior generals.

Like a flash, the lady drew a dagger from her thigh and threw it at Yellow-Teeth, hitting him in the chest. The unfortunate general dropped, the vial exploding onto the floor and littering its contents everywhere.

The remaining three generals acted quickly with their own daggers, and all three of them found the lady’s chest. Her blood spilled out all over the floor as she fell, and she was dead before she hit the floor.

The newly senior general sighed. “Whatever happened to cooperation?” he said. “Looks like you’ve won the grand prize, my gentlemen and lady. Slavery is heretofore abolished.” He wore his newly-senior status like a burden. “I hope nobody kills me anytime soon.”

“Splendid, general, splendid!” cried The Emperor. “Just give me a list of what you want me to do, and I’ll do it for you, just as I served the general before you!”

“Stop groveling, man, get on your feet,” proclaimed the senior general, whose head reached only to The Emperor’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I could beat you up if I wanted to, but I don’t really want to do that, don’t you?” he threatened.

“Very well, sir,” said The Emperor, suddenly acting like a normal person.

“Good. Now let’s figure out how to clean this up.”

 

 

The generals, now three in number, told the troupe and The Emperor that they were all free to go, and that The Emperor would be expecting new instructions soon.

“Now I’m able to talk with you on man-to-man terms,” said The Emperor to Mark. “You know, the man back there, in the dungeon, and the one before that, with the hungry alligators, wasn’t the real me. But I have to cultivate a persona, no? At least I have you as friends now.” And with that, he started hiking back to his pet baby alligators. Then he turned his neck and shouted over his own shoulder: “By the way, I’m a sorcerer, so any time you need my services, I’m at your disposal. As long as you don’t kill me. Also, I love your plays!”

“Glad you like us,” Mark said firmly while smiling. “It’s been a pleasure.” And at that, The Emperor walked out of sight.

“Out of sight, but not out of mind,” Mark said, chuckling. “I think I might have some ventures I’d like to include him in ‘ere too long.”

“Like what?” asked Jessica. The baby gurgled in her lap as their car made its way down the wending road. The sun was shouting and it was tending toward evening. “Where are we going?”

“I’m not sure, baby sister,” said Mark. Somewhere we can make more money. Perhaps the Imperial Capital?“

“I’m not sure if they are going to like us there very much,” said Zachary, in the front seat with Mark while Alisa and Jessica and the baby sat in the covered wagons. “Ooh, these vegetables are starting to rot,” Zachary said, peering past Alisa.

“We’ll just have to get some more,” said Mark, snapping the reins to make the horses go faster. “And you know what, who cares about the provincial government? The Emperor gave me this,” he said, holding up a piece of parchment. “It says that anyone who doesn’t like us will have to deal with him. He also said that we were the next Emperors. At least, I am since I make the decisions around here.”

“What are you talking about?” Zachary said. “I’m the oldest.”

“You know what, I might just retire and open a restaurant,” said Alisa.

“With what money?” said Mark.

“Oh, I guess I will have to work my way up,” she pouted. And together, the company made their way toward the capital, where they aimed to fight corruption; and also, so they can make enough money to earn their next meal.

 

 

 

Part Two: The Capitol

Chapter 4

They arrived in the capital in good spirits, having ridden for three days and survived on handouts during that time. Jessica’s foot was hurting and the baby had a rash, but aside from that they were feeling fine. Mark had carefully forged copies of the Emperor’s piece of parchment so that if one got lost or ruined, they would have several more in stow.

The town between Blackstone and Farenfell, the Empire’s capital city, was called Woodrow.

“But my kingdom is called Woodrow!” Alisa protested.

“Was called Woodrow,” Mark responded. “They renamed this one to be Woodrow in order to make your father’s kingdom irrelevant. It’s sort of like wearing scary paint or bagpipes in order to scare your enemy. It means that your kingdom will be conquered soon.”

“Not if I can help it!” stormed Alisa. She crossed her arms and huffed and puffed.

“Well, it looks like we have a dilemma here,” said Mark. “We could either: turn back and drive all the way back to Woodrow…”

“Where no one is looking for me or us anymore,” Alisa added.

“Or—” continued Mark, “we could head toward the capital city and stir up some trouble there and rescue the slaves.”

“I thought the slaves were freed!” exclaimed Alisa. “We were all just there, were we not?”

“Yes, my dear, we were,” Mark condescended. “But the changes go into effect very, very slowly. Same thing with tax hikes for the rich and nobility. They are loathe to give up their property, and that includes slaves. So I was thinking, why not stir up the capital and launch a rebellion? We’d actually be doing a good thing for other people, which I think is a lofty goal.”

“Wow, you just talked a lot,” said Zachary.

“I have an idea: why don’t we split up?” said Alisa.

“The road is really dangerous for a solitary teenage girl,” Mark warned. “Are you sure you really want to take that route?”

“If I have to,” she said. “I miss my family. Also I’m good at evaluating people to determine if they are trustworthy or evil.” That was true, except for the last part.

“I’ll miss you!” Jessica cried. “I thought it was nice having another girl along! Now I’ll have to raise this baby myself!”

“Aw, you can come with me,” said Alisa staidly. “It’ll be fun!”

“No,” said Jessica, shaking her little head. “They need me here. I’m the only girl, remember? So I get all the girl parts!”

“I suppose if that’s how you feel,” said Alisa morosely. “Just drop me at the nearest road, boys, I’ll take some nice farmer’s wagon home to my kingdom. I’ll try and marry a prince from a neighboring kingdom, and I’ll continue to resist the Empire. With all my heart.”

Mark started to fake-cry and they both laughed.

The wagon pulled up from the side track onto the main road and Alisa hopped off. “Brrr,” she said. “It sure is frigid out, is it not?”

“Not!” sang Mark as the wagon pulled away. “Hey, take care of yourself! Bye!”

“Bye!” echoed the rest of the cast.

A few minutes passed and Alisa could no longer see them on the horizon. It was cold and getting colder. But there was a cart coming up to save her: she smelled some familiar vegetables. “Corn!” she told the driver. “And wheat!”

“You’re a remarkably astute little girl, aren’t you, now?”

“I don’t know that word,” Alisa said. “Could you repeat it for me again?”

“Hey, you look remarkably like that princess, the one who disappeared a week or so ago. Perhaps you’re her cousin? I often have found that cousins can look remarkably alike.”

“Remarkable,” Alisa uttered.

“Want to help me sell my crops in Woodrow?” the man said. He had baggy eyelids and wore his cap low, even though it was nighttime.

“Ah, sure!” said Alisa, keeping her tone measured. “Anything for a ride.”

“They will all be flocking to my stand!” exclaimed the man as Alisa hopped aboard. “My, you’re even prettier up close than you are from afar!”

“I am not—” Alisa started, but then she saw his knife. He slashed at her with it and it bit deep in her arm, leaving a mark that almost immediately started bleeding. She backpedaled and fell off the cart. The driver cackled and urged his horses on: “See you on the far side of the Earth!” he said, pulling away from her.

Alisa checked her wound—it was not as bad as it seemed. She felt suddenly very angry. She wanted to stop this man, maybe even kill him. After all, he was trying to kill her, was he not? But she was just fourteen years old, just recently a little girl. Stop thinking and just do it! she told herself. So she did it.

She raced after the cart like it was her only goal in life. Which it was, at this particular time. She urged her untested muscles to run, run like a galloping horse, which was the fastest thing on the planet besides the seldom-sighted cheetah.

She reached the cart in thirty seconds. It was rolling along the dusty road at a pace she might lightly jog to. It really wasn’t hard for her to jump into the seat behind him, just like she had a moment ago.

“Miss me?” she asked him, ready this time for a retaliation. She suddenly grabbed his knife from his belt before he even had time to look at her. She slashed at him with it and it opened a jagged hole in his garment, and under it his chest. He heaved, trying to breathe, but all that came was a gurgle. He fell backward and hit the dusty road with a thump. The horses continued like nothing had happened.

She stopped the horses and walked over to the body. Yes, he really was dead, as there was an enormous pool of blood surrounding him. She strenuously dragged the body over to the side of the road, and past that into the woods. Which of course was a bad idea, as there was a trail of blood from the place he died to where he now lay in the forest. “Whatever,” Alisa sighed and returned to the cart. She made good progress the rest of the night, and then took the cart with its horses into the woods again so she could sleep out the day. Collapsing onto the former owner’s pallet, which smelled of hay and alcohol, she fell asleep quickly to the tune of the crickets.

A similar buzzing woke her up and it took a while for her to realize where she was and what she was doing. The buzzing was cicadas, she noticed, but she was still unsure why she was sleeping on someone else’s bed. Then it all came back to her.

She was so hungry. She looked the corn and the wheat, which were stacked beside her in neat stacks, always threatening to fall over but still always maintaining position. Both of course were uneatable; she would have to make a fire and cook the corn. So she rummaged around the wagon until she found a flint, and then dug out a fire pit beside it. The horses seemed to be doing fine, but she had no idea what to feed them, unless they were actually able to eat cooked or uncooked corn. She decided that she didn’t want to risk making them sick, so she started a fire and began to cook the corn. If they could eat apples, then they could eat cooked corn. Or at least she hoped. There was no stream nearby, but hopefully they would find one on the way back home so that the horses would survive. Alisa did not want to be a vagrant again; it was a somewhat unpleasant experience.

The sun was just setting. Alisa cursed herself for having the misfortune to travel only at night. But at least her horses would be preserved, as the sun would make them die within hours.

The sun was just setting when she set off again with the horses. She hoped she would not come across any thieves. Or vagrants, for that matter.

There was a clop clop sound coming closer. Alisa listened carefully: it was definitely coming from ahead. And when she looked hard she could see not one, but several carts coming to her. There was a lot of noise, and she soon realized that the noise was deep and boisterous and multifaceted. She was coming up to a group of thieves—a very large group of them.

They didn’t notice the teenage girl driving past them until they were very nearly on top of each-other. Alisa had considered hiding in the woods, but she really only had half a minute to play with and she knew they would follow her trail. So she simply attempted to pass them on the road and hope they were “honorable thieves” and wouldn’t attack a poor, defenseless little girl.

“Halt!” said a man from the first wagon, who had a deep, booming voice. The entire caravan of wagons stopped. Alisa could count at least five of them.

The large man who had spoken hopped off the bench of the first wagon. As his feet hit the earth Alisa imagined she could hear the entire road shake. And that’s what actually seemed to happen, as the inhabitants of the five wagons seemed for an instant that they were all balancing on a single point. Then the feeling subsided and Alisa was left feeling very alone.

They all jeered at her as the big man, their leader, approached her. “Hail, little girl!” he said, to an enormous chorus of laughter from his men. “How art thou?”

Alisa waited until she could sense they were just a little bit impatient with her. Then she said, “I am Princess of Woodrow. Who are you?”

The men laughed some more, for even longer than they had the first time. Their ruler put up a hand and they all stopped. “What do we have here?” he said. “Some young wench and a cart full of vegetables?” He walked over to the back of her wagon and peered inside. “Hmmm,” he said, “Corn and wheat. Could that be useful?”

More guffawing. It stopped when their leader opened his mouth again. “What business do you have here, girl?” he said. “You look like a noble lady. I miniature one at that, but still a noble.” Suddenly he straightened up. “Do you know who we are?” he said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Apart from being the biggest brigand the world has ever seen?” challenged Alisa. It was only chance.

“Noble Lady, I am not a brigand,” said the man. “And neither are my companions.”

“I’m a nobleman,” one of the men hooted. “Want to work out an arrangement?”

“That wasn’t nice,” said the leader. “You at least have to take her out on a date.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” jeered the man.

“Don’t worry, he’s nice,” said the leader. “And if you want,” he indicated Alisa, “you can have him.”

“Next topic,” Alisa said instead. “Who are you? Do you intend me any harm?”

“Ah, she speaks!” said the man to the rest of his his men. They all broke out in applause. The man smiled, leaning back and folding his arms. “I am Zacharia, the leader and champion of my company,” he said, indicating the five wagons behind him. “We do logging. Are you in any case interested in purchasing some?” His men waited expectantly behind him for an answer.

“Maybe when I arrive back in Woodrow,” Alisa replied. “I hope to build a cottage and get married.”

“Aren’t you a little young for that, m’lady?” said the man. “We’re going to Woodrow, want to come?”

“She’s the princess!” shouted a man standing in the corner.

“Shhh, that’s obvious,” said the leader. “But now that it’s out in the open, I have to say it: you’re going with us, whether you like it or not. We’re taking you into custody. You could get hurt, you know? The Empire is looking for you as well. You should count your lucky stars that we got you first.”

Alisa supposed she should, but instead she said, “You should count your lucky stars I didn’t kill you.”

“What did you say, young lady?”

“You heard me. I just killed a man yesterday. You don’t want to get too close to me,” she said. Then she started crying.

“I somehow find that hard to believe,” said the man. “Listen, girl, we’re taking you back to Woodrow whether you like it or not. There’s a reward, after all. Now we can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

Alisa sighed and went over to his wagon. “I refuse to sit within ten feet of one of these men,” she said.

“Seven.”

“What?”

“I’m bargaining. I propose seven feet.”

“I’m done with this, let’s just go to Woodrow. I would love to see my family again, even my servants.”

The men snickered at this. She glared at them and they shut up. “Smart move,” she said.

“I smell food,” said the leader. He looked into her wagon. “My nose serves me well.”

“That’s stolen goods. Remember I told you I killed a man?”

“No, you didn’t,” he said. “You have no muscles.” The rest of the men laughed and jeered. A couple of them hopped down from one of the wagons. “Come here, girly girly,” one of them said. “Time to go home. It’s bedtime.”

“They are so disgusting,” she complained, dragging herself to the leader’s wagon and plopping herself down exaggeratedly. “Can we go now?”

The leader made his way to his own wagon’s bench. Four men left the back of his wagon for Alisa’s. The only people inside the leader’s wagon was Alisa and the leader himself. “Don’t worry, I’m a kind man,” he said to her without looking from the road ahead. “You see, I have removed my men from this wagon for your privacy’s sake.”

“Two days, right?” she said.

“Actually, three,” he replied. “So we have plenty of time to talk. Tell me, my precious girl, why did you run away?”

The road stretched up interminably before them. Alisa decided to be honest with him, as what did she have to lose? “I’m not sure,” she told him. “I was a fairly dumb girl. I just felt bored. I felt like I didn’t want to continue with life inside the confines of my own castle. It was like a prison, I couldn’t escape, ever, and…” she trailed off as she noticed that the man was still listening keenly. She had never been listened to like this. She felt…

The man abruptly took his gaze from hers and stared at the road ahead. “Tell me, girl,” he said, “do you regret that decision? To put it more properly, you had more than any of us have. Combined, probably, although I wouldn’t hedge my bets on that.” She suddenly noticed that no one else was talking. All the other wagons could hear them talking. She had heard once from one of her tutors that sound permeates the darkness much more clearly than it does in the daytime, but she had never seen it implemented in real life.

“I’m going to stop talking,” she said, glancing at the other wagons. “This conversation is not private.”

“Aw, cummon, Princess!” yelled one of the other men from another wagon.

“Yeah, girl!” put in another. “We’ve been listening, and it’s just beautiful! We’d love to hear the ending!”

“We’re not bad men!” said a third.

“Oh, yeah?” replied Alisa. “Then what are twenty-five men doing in empty wagons without any wares to sell? Brigands? Undercover soldiers? What are you?”

“You’ve blown our cover,” said the leader. “Because we are actually not soldiers and we are not thieves. We are the holy men’s monkhood of Aragor.”

“The what?” Alisa said. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“Your ignorance offends us,” sniffed the leader. “Here, let me introduce myself.” He was cut off by a big, long howl. “Normal,” he announced.

Another howl joined the first.

“Still normal,” he said. “You don’t have to worry.”

The trees seemed to sway in anticipation of some big battle, or, perhaps, an ambush. This, despite there not be any wind to move them.

Then they appeared. The same two enormous wolves, and behind them their cubs. “You!” the male one screamed. She could hear the other men start cursing and praying.

“I thought you only came out at full moon,” Alisa said, unafraid. She stood up and started walking toward them.

“Girl!” shouted a man. He started to run after her.

“I know this wolf,” she explained. “We’re friends.”

“We are certainly not friends,” snarled the wolf.

“Yes we are,” she continued. “Anyhow, you told me you were a werewolf. Full moons only last for two days. Now, it’s been three. This doesn’t compute, wolf. Have you found a way to break the spell?”

“No, bitch,” he said. “I lied. I am a normal wolf. I am just abnormally large. But I can speak human.”

“Why do you think calling someone a dog is insulting?” she said. “I personally think dogs are adorable.”

“Well that’s you, human scum,” it spat, releasing quite a lot of fluid from its mouth. It continued to drip on the ground even as he continued talking.

“I trust you have spears?” she turned to ask the leader.

“As I told you, my lady,” he said, spreading his hands.

“Now, we will kill you,” said the wolf. “I will kill you, my wife will kill the others, and my pups—” he indicated the ten or so pups that were gathered around his mate—”will feast on the remains.”

“There is no way you can win,” Alisa told the leader. “Leave now and let me be the sacrifice.”

“We would not be men if we did that,” the leader announced, to a murmuring approval from his men. “We will die with you, if need be.”

“Stop chattering and prepare to die!” screamed the male wolf. He charged toward Alisa and the leader even as his wife charged at the other men. They left the puppies behind, and they slowly formed a circle around the wagons so that none could escape.

Suddenly there was a great roar which came from the skies. It seemed to be daytime, and wolf and man alike covered their eyes. “Watch out!” Alisa screamed as the thing from the sky crashed in the middle of the circle. Men escaped from its path at the last minute, and even so some were suddenly alight with flame. As they rolled in the dust to keep their lives, another fireball roared out from the sky and landed in exactly the same place. When Alisa looked around, she could see no sign of the wolves.

Another fireball was emerging from the sky, and by now all of the men had scattered very much wide of the crash site. But this fireball didn’t crash into the ground. Instead, it slowed and held position at five feet above the ground. Men who had covered their ears for ten seconds in anticipation of the blast slowly uncovered them. And then a staircase suddenly appeared directly below the enormous fireball. A black shoe peered out of the fireball’s circumference and seemed to sniff the air, as if scanning for any hostile forces. Then the rest of the body came out. Alisa gasped. It was The Emperor.

“Missed me?” he said, descending the staircase. He reached the ground and the staircase promptly disappeared. The fireball remained there, burning behind him as a sort of backdrop. “Like the entrance?” he said.

“Thank you for saving our lives!” Alisa cried. The men who were close enough to hear the discussion also gave their thanks.

“What?” The Emperor queried, holding out his ear. “Save your lives? From whom?”

The men just stared at him. “You mean you didn’t see those wolves that were about to devour us?” said Alisa.

The Emperor shrugged, striking a pose. “I don’t care about that kind of thing,” he explained. “I’d just rather see the wolves win as the men. As long as I control everything in the end.”

“He’s my friend,” Alisa explained to the men, who had gathered closer to hear them talk. “He’s The Emperor. He’s a good man.”

“Are you raving, girl?” said one of the men. “The Emperor is evil!”

“Ha!” exclaimed The Emperor. “That’s a good one!”

“You conquer everyone else and you spread slavery,” said the leader, who had come to stand by Alisa’s side.

“Ha!” The Emperor said again, this time clapping his hands. He clapped his hands a long time before he stopped.

“He is insane?” the leader whispered to Alisa.

“I don’t like it when people talk behind my back or where I can’t hear them!” The Emperor said, wagging his index finger.

“He is definitely one to be feared,” said the leader to Alisa. “I will bargain for our lives,” he declared to the obviously ticking emperor.

“I am no longer The Emperor,” declared The Emperor. “And I do not intend on harming you.”

“You still support slavery!” yelled a man.

“Man, come out where I can see you!” said The Emperor. “Don’t crouch and snivel like a little rat.” He chuckled to himself. “Come out where I can see you!” he then said.

“Tell me how you don’t support slavery,” said the man, now standing upright beside the wagon he had been cowering behind.

“You see,” proffered The Emperor, shrinking the fireball into nothingness, “The Inner Council, which consists of three generals, rules all… I am merely their arm to carry out their will. At least, I was, and then—”

“You mean you’re no longer emperor?” Alisa said.

“You mean you merely carried slavery out?” said the man.

“No, my servants did,” said The Emperor. “It wouldn’t have mattered if I was The Emperor or someone else was. My servants would have done the same thing either way. Also, the reason I was sacked as emperor was because I tried to give my servants conflicting orders.”

“You mean you tried to stop slavery?” said the man.

“I tried to,” said The Emperor. “But then the generals tried to assassinate me.”

“I thought they were committed to stopping slavery!” exclaimed Alisa. “They changed sides?”

“I can’t see,” complained the man. “Could you please re-light that fireball?”

“Of course,” said The Emperor, creating a nice little fireball which hovered above them all.

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure. Yes, Alisa, they changed sides. As they say in some far-foreign land, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”

“Dear,” sighed Alisa, throwing up her hands. “I thought they were really going to do it.”

“They were,” said The Emperor. “They just changed their minds.”

“I had been counting on this,” Alisa said. “I wanted to end the war between my kingdom and The Empire. Now I’m pro-Smysgaard and anti-Empire. For all its faults, my father’s kingdom outlaws slavery.”

“Good thing I’m no longer emperor, then,” said The Emperor. “I would loathe to die a slow death by the hand of the daughter of Smyysgard.”

“Oh, stop that,” said Alisa. “You’re a sorcerer; you can do whatever you want.”

“Clearly you don’t know very much about sorcerers,” said The Emperor.

“You have just hurt my feelings,” declared Alisa.

“So you’re a good guy,” said the man.

“Was I ever not a good guy?” exclaimed The Emperor.

“Time to stop arguing,” said Alisa. “We must be on the road to Smyysgard—I am going there to oversee the downfall of The Empire.”

“Are you kidding?” said one of the men from the periphery. “Smyysgard can’t defeat The Empire! No one can!”

“If anyone can defeat The Empire, it’s me,” said The Emperor.

“I thought you said your sorcery is limited!”

“I did, didn’t I?” said The Emperor.

“Yes, you did.”

“Well, I guess I must declare a middle ground,” he declared.

“As the lady says, we must be off,” said the leader, striding into the space in between Alisa and The Emperor.

“What are you going to do?” she asked The Emperor.

“I need to find out what happened to the fourth general,” he said. “I also need to make sure all of the current generals die so that I can replace them with anti-slavery generals.”

“They must have killed that other general,” said Alisa. “Which one was he?”

“The lead one,” The Emperor grimaced.

Yellow-teeth, Alisa thought. “Well, this is a worst-case scenario,” she said.

“Indeed,” said The Emperor. “I shall move on now, time is of the essence.”

“Why don’t you just blast them all out of existence?” said one of the men to The Emperor. “I mean, isn’t that what sorcery is all about?”

“I’ve been planning my escape from my castle for months,” said The Emperor, leaning against something, and yet nothing was there. “It takes a lot of strength to procure fireballs, let me tell you. Anyway, wish me luck,” he said, and promptly set out on the road back to the capital.

“There he goes,” sighed the leader. “I wish he would travel with us. We aren’t carrying any weapons.”

“You really are monks, are you?” asked Alisa with just a hint of curiosity.

“Of a kind,” said the leader.

“We kill devils,” yelled one of the men.

“We kill other things, too!” yelled another.

“I didn’t know your men could hear us,” remarked Alisa.

“They have very good hearing,” the leader said. “Our training program contains certain perks. Anyway, it’s for us to get going now, too.”

“Am I still captive?”

“Of course you are, little girl. You belong to us.”

Chapter 5

They were on their way to Lakeview. That’s where the generals of The Inner Council sat, supposedly. Why they took such a big trip to visit The Emperor was unknown to Mark. In order to travel to Lakeview, one had to take the North Road east through numerous towns, villages and settlements as well as snow-capped mountains. There was a reason The Empire had taken so long to expand westward from beyond the mountains: the commute was simply too much. Until now, apparently.

Zachary didn’t know to much about the subject, being Zachary, and of course Jessica and the baby weren’t of much help either. All any of them did was use up resources, and at the moment, because of that, they had no food and were forced to forage for berries and mushrooms. Fortunately their current location abounded in these hardy little foods, but they couldn’t survive on that diet forever. At least, Mark didn’t think so. His companions had another opinion.

“Why won’t you play with me?” Jessica demanded. “Let’s play Treehouse!”

“We already played Treehouse for one hour this morning,” Mark said. Jessica started to cry. This caused the baby to start to cry. And Mark was just not having any of it.

“Fine,” he said. “If you and Zachary and Robert want to stay in the forest forever, at least until you die, then you are welcome. I, however, am going to the capital city, Lakeview, to rid the world of slavery forever.

“But those generals got rid of it!” protested Jessica.

“As I said, Jessica,” replied Mark patiently, “they don’t have the power to carry it out. Only the big and powerful families of the capital can do that. And at the moment, they do not want to do anything about it.”

“They’re bad people,” said Jessica. “We could teach them.”

“That’s exactly what I propose to do,” said Mark. “That’s why we’re going to continue doing our plays.”

“They’ll just kill us,” Jessica said, making a face.

“Maybe,” said Mark, “but at least we’ll make our mark.”

“They’ll make their mark on us,” said Jessica, displaying a remarkable amount of aptitude for such a young girl.

“True,” Mark laughed, but then he sobered: “If you don’t come with me, you’re going to die.”

“Why?” she said, picking up a handful of dirt and throwing it away into the forest. “I can live on what we’ve been eating.”

“There are many bad people in the world,” said Mark.

“I’ve heard that one before,” said Jessica. “But didn’t Alisa survive?”

“We don’t know that,” said Mark. “For all we know, she could be floating down the River of Two Calves right now.

“I like swimming!” she said perkily.

“What I meant was—”

“I know,” said Jessica. “I’m not a doofus.”

“Whoever taught you these words,” Mark muttered.

“I’m an actress,” said Jessica. “Remember? I’m supposed to know lots of words.”

“Whatever,” Mark yawned. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I can be a one man show if need be. Good luck raising that baby.”

“Zachary will be his daddy,” she said.

“Whatever,” he said, rolling out his thin blanket on the pine cone covered ground. “Get in the wagon.”

“No!” announced Jessica. “I want to be with you! You’re my daddy!”

“I was,” corrected Mark. “No longer.”

Jessica started to cry again.

“Be still,” Mark said, “Zachary will be your daddy now.”

 

 

Mark woke up to the bright sunlight filtering in through the treetops and thought he was fortunate to have such good weather. Once winter came, he wouldn’t be so fortunate; but until then he considered himself the luckiest man in the world. Even at a mere fourteen years of age. Then he remembered today was the day he was supposed to set off on his own. He sighed and rose from his pallet, but looked down and it wasn’t there. In fact, nothing was there: the horses, the wagon, and his three companions were all gone. The firepit had been filled with sand. And there were no tracks. Wait… Mark noticed something then: a broken branch here, a peanut in the dirt there, and he had found their trail. Excited, he ran down it for about a hundred feet, then around a thick stand of trees, and then… the wagon was there! And from it appeared his four companions, shouting and screaming. Mark was so affected that he started shouting and screaming himself. Then, after it all was over, he said, “So you have decided to steal my wagon, have you?”

“We’ve decided to go with you,” said Zachary. “We can’t survive without you.”

“Oh? I thought you said you can subsist on just mushrooms and berries!”

“But you’d die without us,” said Jessica. “We need to save you. So we’re coming with you.” The baby seemed to punctuate this with a loud screech.

“My thanks,” said Mark, still confused. “But I won’t die without you. I’ll simply become a one man show. And I might even be better by myself!”

“No, you’re not,” sang Jessica.

“What the little lady means to say, Master, is that she is always the star of the show.”

“The woman always is!” proclaimed Jessica. “But I don’t know why…”

“Soon enough, little lady, soon enough,” smirked Zachary. “I can’t believe I’m making myself laugh!”

“A little worm could make you laugh, Zachary,” Mark said lightly. “Fine, then. You are all coming with. You should also know that I would have let you take the wagon and horse. I wouldn’t abandon you to starve, you know.”

“We know,” said Jessica, removing the baby from some poisonous mushrooms nearby and placing him next to her on the wagon. “He would eat dirt, you know.”

“Let’s go,” said Mark curtly. “I’m glad you all are coming. We can’t eat mushrooms and berries forever. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next town has to offer in terms of cuisine.”

“I didn’t understand that last sentence,” Jessica commented. Zachary started to explain it to her. “No, I want Mark to explain it,” she pouted. Zachary threw up his hands in exasperation.

They went the short distance to the road and set off. The next town was Romansville and it was supposed to be half a day’s ride away. Unfortunately, though, it was more than a day’s ride for a wagon.

“At least there are a lot of birds about,” Zachary commented after they had been riding for two hours. They were passing through verdant forests, and it seemed almost a crime that the road had to bisect the beautiful foliage.

They had passed various peoples on the road, but none had stopped to say hello, although some of them waved when they got close. Some of them were farmers, but most of the rest seemed to have no belongings. Their clothes were tattered and their horses, if they had them, were lean and hungry.

“Why are they all so poor?” said Jessica when it was her turn to ride in front with Mark.

“All the poor people are moving from Empire territory into neighboring nations,” he informed her. “They don’t want to become slaves. The Empire is taking all of the poor people and turning them into slaves.”

“They’re bad people,” Jessica told him with a frown.

“I quite agree, little sister,” Mark said.

“They need more manpower,” Zachary said from the wagon. “Any expanding nation needs that.”

“But it’s not right!” Jessica protested.

“I’m just saying,” said Zachary.

“Stop that, Zachary,” Mark said. “Where is the baby?”

“He’s here,” Zachary assured them. “I just checked five minutes ago. He was sleeping in this blanket here… fine, I’ll check! I bet he’s still there… wait… how could this have happened?”

“What happened?” Mark said sharply.

“He’s not here,” Zachary replied mournfully. “I checked every area of the wagon. I don’t know how he could have fallen out! It just doesn’t make sense…”

“Didn’t you strap him in?”

“I always do… oh, wait, I see now…”

“What?”

“There’s a hole in this corner right here,” he stuck his head out and pointed to the corner that was on the passenger’s side, closest to the driver’s bench. “It seems to be ripped.”

“I didn’t see anyone beside the wagon as we were riding,” Mark said doubtfully.

“Maybe the baby ripped his own way out?”

“He didn’t have very long fingernails.”

“Maybe it was an animal,” said Jessica. “I saw monkeys along that road. The one we just went on.”

“Monkeys never crawl upon the ground,” Zachary scoffed. Then they heard something scrabbling.

“Go check what that is,” Mark told Zachary.

The wagon stopped moving and Zachary went under the wagon. “By gods,” he exclaimed. “Come on, Robert. There you go. Good baby.”

“He’s there?”

“He certainly appears to be!” Zachary stuck his head back into the wagon and smiled. “I didn’t know he could do this. He has no nails, and he’s far too weak to hold himself under the cart like this.”

He poked his head under the wagon again. “He’s sleeping.”

“Then wake him up. We can’t afford to risk his life again.”

“I mean, if he’s already been under there for a few hours…”

“I don’t care. Get him back here.”

Zachary went under the wagon again and said, “He’s stuck.”

“Wake him up.”

The baby gurgled, so he was probably awake. “Robert?” Mark said. “Robert, talk to me now.”

“He’s trying to say something,” Zachary reported. “Like ‘goo’ or something.”

“Everyone be quiet,” Mark ordered.

Nothing could be heard.

“Rob, say something,” said Mark.

“Goo,” Robert said.

“What?” said Mark. “Goo? What’s goo?”

“Goo,” Robert repeated.

“I can’t get him off,” said Zachary.

Then it clicked. “Glue,” he’s saying. “Cut him down with your knife.”

“Yessir.”

Robert was soon cut down amid his protestations. “No!” he kept repeating. “No! Goo!”

“He wants to stay under there,” said Zachary.

“No way,” said Mark.

Zachary heaved him up to the hole and pushed him in. Then he went around the side of the wagon and got in himself.

Robert did not look in the slightest bit guilty. “Goo,” he said. “Fun. Good.”

“Well, he’s certainly talking now,” Mark observed.

“Yes,” said Robert. “Talk. Good.”

“That’s scary,” said Jessica. “He should just be gurgling.”

“Babies grow up,” Mark said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Bad baby.” Robert frowned, and kept on frowning. Mark kept staring at him. After a few seconds, Robert started to laugh. He said, “Good. Baby. Good baby.”

“Bad baby,” Mark repeated.

Zachary was tasked with holding the baby the rest of the way to Romansville. The signs said it was a two hour ride in the cart. Jessica sat up in front with Mark. “Can I try?” she asked.

“No, you’re too weak,” Mark said.

“We can both hold them together.”

“No. You’ll lose control.”

“That’s why you’re there.”

“No.”

The time passed as they rode upon the road. “Who’re they?” Jessica said as they passed a bunch of merchants with dark suits and hats.

“They are religious,” Mark explained.

“What do you mean? I believe in gods, too!”

“They only believe in one god,” he told her.

“It’s so hot out!” she said. “Their god makes them wear heavy clothing outside?”

“It’s their custom,” Mark said.

“Well, I believe in many gods,” she said.

“Fine,” Mark said, shrugging.

The road became more and more crowded as they reached the city. “Why are there no more poor people?” Jessica asked.

“They always leave at night,” said Mark, not taking his eyes off the road. “When it’s cooler.”

“So they can go farther,” Jessica said.

“Correct.”

“I hate slavery.”

“Me, too. That’s why we’re going to stop it.”

“They’ll catch us and enslave us to do their own propaganda,” she said. “It’s hopeless.”

“Not if the audience protects us,” he said.

“They’ll get killed,” she said.

“That happens sometimes,” he said.

“That’s wrong,” she said.

“Not everything is perfect,” he said, shifting the reins to his other hand and massaging the tired hand against his leg.

“You should steer with two hands,” she said.

“Yes, m’lady,” Mark said, continuing to stare at the road.

“I’m not a noblewoman,” she said.

“You will be, soon.”

“Who says?”

“It’s written in the stars.”

“You’re a good liar,” she said, “but not good enough to fool me.”

“That’s because you know me.”

A bird suddenly made its way across the path. Mark hauled in the reins and the wagon came to an abrupt stop. “Why don’t you run it over?” Jessica said.

“Good joke, Jessica.”

“The baby has figured out how to go to the bathroom in an adult manner,” Zachary reported from the back.

“Good,” Mark said, turning his attention back to Jessica.

“I’ve never seen that kind of bird before,” she said.

Several people rolling their own carts passed them. They waved and Mark waved back. “Why don’t they have any horses?” Jessica said.

“They’re disabled,” Mark said. “They have no use of their legs.”

“You mean they can’t move them?”

“Yes. Or they are too weak to walk upon.”

“Wow,” Jessica said, staring after them even when they were long gone. “That looks fun.”

“They are fleeing for the same reason the poor people are fleeing,” explained Mark.

“What, slavery? You can’t enslave a disabled person.”

“No. Death,” he said.

“What, they’re killing them?”

“Yes.”

“That is horrible,” she said. “I will act extra hard, to stop them from doing that.”

“We will have to hide during the night, you know,” he said to her. “They will be looking for us.”

“To kill us.”

“Yes.”

“How many of those darned birds are there?” she said, astonished. “There are over twenty.”

“It is peculiar,” he said.

“I’d love to just cut a few of their throats and serve them for dinner,” a woman said from a cart opposite them. “Don’t copy my language, little girl.”

“I’m already worse than you,” Jessica bragged.

A couple of birds approached the woman’s two horses. “Don’t eat them, darlings,” she told the horses. “Save them for me.” The horses snuffed, as if disdainfully putting aside the accusation. The birds started pecking at the horses’ hooves. The horses endured this but started snuffing more frequently.

“Stomp on them,” the woman encouraged. “Come on, you can eat meat! Just pretend you had very large teeth and a large, poofy mane, like a lion! Come on, eat them!”

“She scares me a bit,” Jessica whispered to Mark.

“My daughter, I’m glad she does,” replied Mark.

“Zachary’s my daddy,” she told him. “You are just my big brother.”

“How about uncle?”

“No, you’re too young,” she said.

“Not really,” he said.

The birds were still passing. “There must be fifty of them,” Mark said to the woman across the living barrier.

“If someone doesn’t start slaughtering them now, I will have to start,” she declared savagely.

There seemed to be a tinkling sound at the edge of Mark’s perceptions. “Do you hear that?” he asked the women opposite him.

“I can’t, I’m hard of hearing,” she said.

The tinking sound grew louder. “I hear it,” Jessica announced. “I’m going to see what it is.”

Mark grabbed her arm: “No, you’re not,” he said. “Stay here. We’ll let it come to us.”

The tinkling grew louder, and then it became obvious that the sound was not a single tinkling; rather, it was many noises together. And it was coming from the forest.

The line of birds ended. At count’s end, there must have been a hundred of them. Just as the last of the birds finished crossing the road, there appeared something white between the leaves twenty feet behind it. The white patch soon resolved itself into a body, the body of a man, legs and arms shackled together, as well as shackled to another prisoner in back of him.

“Whoa!” gasped the woman in the other wagon. The jewels on her brocade blouse as well as the ones around her neck jiggled. One of her horses whinnied and dragged the other as well as the entire wagon off the road. The wagon teetered on half of its wheels for a precariously long second, and it looked as if it might fall. But the woman leaned precipitously in the other direction, and the wagon finally righted itself. Then it stopped moving and the woman sighed. She still lived. “Thank the gods!” Jessica said.

One of the prisoners glared at her. He made a sucking sound and then released a huge mouthful of spit in her direction. Thankfully he was off by a few feet, but Jessica started shrieking all the same.

“We’re slaves, not prisoners!” he exclaimed, staring at her and then at Mark. Zachary and the baby poked their heads out of the back of the wagon to see what all the fuss was about. “If you cared enough about us, you’d free us! Right here and now!”

“Shut up, maggot!” said a deep, rumbling voice from the woods. He came into view, and he wasn’t like anything Mark had seen before. The slavedriver was upwards of ten feet tall, and he was at least five feet wide. He was muscled even more than the most accomplished stallion, and his skin had a slight orange tinge to it. Mark soon saw why: the giant, upon completing his statement, stuck a hand into his own throat and pulled out a half-digested fish. He stared at it for a while, inspecting it from every angle, and then dropped it into his own mouth from a height of eighteen feet. Mark marveled at the size of his arms: he must have had a twenty-foot wingspan.

Then, the giant belched. A great big long belch, and suddenly a wave of heat washed over all of the spectators, smelling of rancid bile. A column of fire rose at least a body-length above the giant’s head. He looked greedily at Mark and Jessica. “More slaves?” he said, retrieving a giant toothpick from one of his pockets. “What?” he said. “Is something wrong?”

“Everything’s wrong,” Mark muttered, trying to find his slingshot. It was his only weapon. If he did not fight this giant and save these people, he knew his life would be worthless.

It was then that he saw Jessica stand up and begin to speak. He saw it as if from outside his own body, and when he saw himself stand up and put his hand over her mouth it was too late. “You foul animal!” she screamed. “You rotten trunk filled with maggots!” Mark had no doubt where she had learned these words. She was about to jump down from the bench, and it was then that Mark dove for her legs. He held on for dear life as she attempted to kick at him. Then she whispered something. He thought she was just cursing him, so he didn’t pay any attention. Then she repeated the phrase. “What?” he whispered back.

“Diversion!” she whispered. “Now let me distract the evil monster while you and the others free the slaves!”

“If you say so,” he said doubtfully, and released her from his grip. It wasn’t much of a plan but it was a plan, all right. And he did want to free the slaves.

Jessica walked up to the hulking giant, who was also sweating profusely. He glared at her as she approached ever closer.

Then she started to make fun of him. “You must be stupider than a stump!” she accused him. “Have you ever gone to school? I bet you can’t even spell! Even I can spell!”

It was working, slowly. She was leading him away from the slaves he was supposed to be guarding. He didn’t seem to be noticing that, or if he did he didn’t seem to care. Jessica lifted one tiny finger to the air as she continued to insult him: “Mongrel of both a giant and an orc, despised by everyone and thus given the lowest jobs, your masters plan on cutting you up when you get old and feeding you to the dogs and the prisoners…”

“Stop it!” yelled the giant, his hands on his head. Mark imagined that he was weeping and almost felt sorry for him. In fact, he felt himself jumping down from the cart and approaching Jessica and the giant. Jessica sensed this, perhaps, for she turned around for an instant and glared at him… and he instantly retreated behind the wagon, ashamed. If this was his reaction, he couldn’t think of what the poor giant was going through.

Slowly but surely, Jessica was leading the giant away from the prisoners. He made his way over to the prisoners, who were watching with the hopeless passivity prisoners often display.

But as he got closer, he saw their eyes light up with hope. If their guard was distracted, perhaps he could break the chains and set them free… or at least hide them… but Mark doubted he could make good progress on either front; Jessica could only accomplish so much.

“I wish The Emperor was here,” Mark muttered bitterly. “He’d know how to do this.”

There was a sudden flash from the heavens. The sky grew dark, and multiple lightning bolts pierced the treeline and left scorched remnants in their wakes. There was a sudden wind, and when Mark looked up at the sky and saw several tornados touching down, wreaking destruction amongst the trees. Before long, there wouldn’t be any forest left.

Suddenly, there was a silence. Mark looked upward and saw a black-cloaked figure descending from the clouds. A stinging rain started out of nothing and pelted everybody outside a five-foot circle with welt-inflicting force. Inside of the circle, however, all was quiet, as a black-caped man slowly lowered himself from the heavens to settle his feet on the wet road. It was The Emperor.

“Nice, entrance, right?” said The Emperor to Mark as the lightning continued to light the night and the thunder continued to roar.

“I guess you could say that,” Mark said, trying to look unimpressed but failing miserably.

“I heard your cry and I did my best to arrive promptly,” said The Emperor without blinking.

“That’s quite a fast reaction time,” Mark commented, before he saw the danger: “Watch out!” he cried. “Behind you!”

The Emperor turned almost too late. The Giant, who was approaching at full speed, leapt into the air with the intention of crushing the poor Emperor. The Emperor gazed impassively at his rapidly approaching foe and Mark thought that surely he would die. At the moment of impact, though, something strange happened: The Emperor reached out his hand to receive the killing blow, and then his index finger moved quickly to meet the threat. Suddenly The Giant flew backwards and up, soaring into the sky beyond the clouds. Mark watched in awe as The Emperor cleaned his hand on his tunic like nothing had happened. Just then, The Giant dropped out of the clouds many miles away. A few seconds later he hit the ground with a sickening crunch and lifted into the air again, this time not quite reaching the clouds. This process repeated a few more times until The Giant was resting safely on the ground many miles away.

“Impressive,” Mark said.

“Now that’s an understatement,” chuckled The Emperor, surveying the area around him with a grin. “Was that not a good entrance?”

“Mark!” said a high-pitched voice from afar, and Mark realized that it was Jessica.

“Come here!” he told her.

“I am!” she shouted.

“Hmm,” said The Emperor. “I save the day and all I get is one comment. Typical.”

“Hi, Emperor!” shouted Jessica. She made a little curtsy.

“Why, hello again,” said The Emperor. She rushed over to him and shook his hand.

“Splendid,” The Emperor said. “You call to me and I come.”

“Are you a god?” asked Mark. “You came to our rescue just after I called for you. Actually, I didn’t even call you. I just said your name!”

“Hmm, there’s a song about that somewhere,” The Emperor said, absently drumming his fingers against his leg. “Say what?”

“Say you forgot about us, Emperor!” said one of the slaves, the talkative one. “Why don’t you free us? Come and break our chains!”

The Emperor snapped his fingers. “Done!” he said. Mark looked at the slaves, and their chains were gone! The rain also retreated, and in seconds it was like a normal day again.

“Wow!” one of them marveled. “I never thought I’d be free again! Thank you, Emperor!”

“Thank you, indeed,” remarked another slave, an older man with white streaks on both temples. “But I was just wondering, weren’t you the one who enforced slavery? How is it that now you free us?”

“Careful with your tone, old man,” The Emperor said, waving his finger threateningly.

The slave shrunk from his gaze, covering his face with his hands. “I meant no disrespect, Highness,” he said, warding off an invisible curse.

“Hah, just kidding!” exclaimed The Emperor, laughing to no end.

“Quite an unstable one he is, isn’t he?” remarked the slave to Mark.

Mark shrugged, to say that he was not the one in control of The Emperor’s actions. Then he added, “He’s helped us so far.”

“I came to rescue you,” The Emperor said in between peals of laughter, finally punching himself in order to stop laughing. “I knew you’d need rescuing at some point, so as soon as I heard my name, I came!”

“But you support slavery!”

“No, but I abjure slavery!” said The Emperor. “When I was Emperor, I was slavery’s main opponent! The Evil Lady of Grakka was the one who kept slavery in place.”

“Hmm,” the former slave said, thinking it over.

“I am only a simple magician,” The Emperor continued. “I wish to promote good wherever I go. That is why I became Emperor in the first place.”

“You really defied my expectations,” said the slave.

“I expected emperors to be evil.”

“Well, not me. Though I suppose you could classify the current emperor as evil.”

“Who would that be?”

“One of my underlings. One of my guards, actually. He’s taken killing and torturing people to a new level.

“I didn’t know there were new levels to be achieved.”

“Oh, there always are, when you have enough time and money. And slaves.”

“I thought you didn’t have slaves.”

“I didn’t. He has them.”

“I want to go home,” said a female slave. “Does anyone have a wagon to take me? I miss my husband and my three children. Perhaps you, magician, can take me there.”

“Madam, I am incredibly sorry,” said The Emperor, doffing his cap. “That spell I had been saving up for months, putting my time and energy into it for a fair amount of time each day. I couldn’t possibly carry you to a different place now that I am depleted. I knew that these people would need help, so I invested in them. Now I have nothing left.”

“Oh, poor magician!” the lady spat angrily.

“Now that’s not a nice way to treat our magician,” said an older man reverently. “He just rescued us from that evil creature.” He turned to The Emperor: “Thank you sir,” he said. “Now could you please tell us all how to get home?”

“Depends on where your home is, good sir,” said The Emperor self-deprecatingly. “I can tell you which way to go, but there’s no guarantee you won’t be picked up by more slavers.”

The woman started weeping.

“There, there,” said the older man, patting her back gently. She collapsed into his arms. The man looked up at The Emperor. “We’ve been slaves for almost ten years,” he said. “We came in together, you could say, or at least we were enslaved together. Everyone here knows the other like his own brother, and we should not be separated. Perhaps you can do something small for us, like buy us new clothes and purchase a wagon for us, and then we can be on our way, touring the continent and dropping off our members to their families.”

“That would take a long time,” The Emperor said, his eyes narrowing.

“Sire, that is all we need. Do you not have enough currency?”

The Emperor sighed. “Alright, I’ll do it. But the negotiation was so boring! Do you not know how to haggle?”

“I am speaking for the whole group, they would flay me if we received too little.”

“Yes, we would,” said another man.

There was a silence. Then finally The Emperor shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “I will do that for you. I just wish I was a bad guy again, it’s so boring playing a good guy.”

“What was that?” the man inquired.

“Nothing,” said The Emperor. “Please excuse me, I have to relieve myself.” And he went out behind some bushes on the side of the road.

“Is he always this peculiar?” the older man asked Mark.

“I suppose so, friend,” Mark said. “I wish you could come with us. You know how to speak like a noble.”

“And I am a kumquat,” he said. “I am actually royalty, in a way. My father is a king. Was, I mean.”

“That’s why you became Emperor?”

“I guess, sorta,” he said. “I think I inherited my father’s lust for power.”

“Hmm,” said the older man, who had been a slave ten minutes before.

“It’s a five mile walk to the capital,” The Emperor said. “Shall we be off?”

“No, no way we’re going back there,” said the older man. The other freed slaves murmured their agreement.

“Oh,” The Emperor said. “That’s where you people were heading away from.”

“They’ll be sure to recognize us there,” said the older man, who had become the leader of the freed slaves.

The clopping of horses could be heard. “Step aside!” roared a huge voice. “Move!”

“Yes, sir,” said The Emperor, who had suddenly changed his clothes to look like a travelling beggar. He advanced toward the speaker of the voice on crouched legs, like a hunchback. In fact…

“My gods,” breathed the slave leader. A hump a foot in diameter had suddenly appeared on The Emperor’s back. It appeared that he was making changes as he went along.

“Get out of my way, maggot!” the man barked. He was tall and wide and had beefy arms.

“I’m surprised he’s not in the Kingsguard,” Mark whispered to Jessica. “The man could move a mountain.”

Three other wagons rolled up beside him. And twenty men, built just like him, piled out.

“Stand aside,” said the slave leader with a serious tone. “Stand aside or die.”

The big beefy man gave the slave leader an appraising look. “And what’s to stop me from killing you, old man?” he said.

“This,” the man said, darting to the side of the road and picking up a huge stick. He maneuvered it in front of his body, twisting it this way and that, then flipped it around his back several times. “Are you ready?” he said, beckoning with his hand.

The big man growled, drew his sword, and charged, his men with him. The slaves scattered, but it was only for a moment, in order to pick up similar sticks. A few of the big, charging men actually laughed as they ran toward the freed slaves, who held their ground. Then Mark saw several shiny objects fly through the air at the charging men. He gaped in surprise: they were manacles! Several of the manacles struck the big men on different parts of their bodies, and those affected howled. Two or three of them dropped completely out of the charge. The rest veered wide of the throwers, who started heaving rocks at them. More of them dropped as they weaved uncertainly. Then the freed slaves went berserk. They rushed at the remainder. There were thirty slaves against about fifteen men. The slaves threw stones as others rushed the fellows savagely, clawing and biting them with all they had. And they had nothing left to lose: it was either win, or go back to being a slave. And being a slave was definitely not what they wanted.

The men broke and ran back to their wagons. They left in a real hurry.

“Well, that was quick,” commented The Emperor, flicking some dust off his outrageous black uniform. “I think one of my cuff links broke.”

“Thank you,” said the slave leader while some of the freed slaves tended to their own wounded, which weren’t very many. “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

“No problem,” said The Emperor. “We are partners now, you know.”

“You mean you’re coming with us?”

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” The Emperor said. “End slavery in The Empire? There is no nobler a cause than that.”

The freed slaves broke out in applause.

“Thank you,” The Emperor said simply.

“Well, let’s go!” said Mark. “The sooner the better, correct?”

“Yes,” agreed the slave leader. “I couldn’t support that statement any more.”

“I’m thirsty,” said Jessica.

“I spied a stream not one mine from our current location when I flew down,” The Emperor said.

“Then let’s go,” said Mark. “Come, my fellow human beings, and let us walk together.”

“Quite eloquent,” said The Emperor.

“Might I ask, in which direction is this steam?” asked the leader of the freed slaves.

“Toward the Empire town of Raneth,” answered The Emperor.

“We can’t do that!” said the slave leader. “We’ll just get caught again.” The other slaves echoed his statement in a surprisingly strong chorus.

“I’ll protect you?” said The Emperor. “Maybe?”

“I thought you said you were drained from your last spell.”

“Let’s just go,” said The Emperor wearily. “It’s either this or die.”

“I don’t want to die either,” said the slave leader. “But it’s you before me.”

“That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

They trudged down the road without speaking another word. The mile felt like three as the hot sun, just minutes ago obscured out of reach by the thunderclouds, beat down on them all. As they reached where the stream was supposed to be, they were suddenly confronted by a detachment of Empire soldiers. The lead horseman rode up to bar their path. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This road is under construction.”

“Like hell it is,” thundered the slave leader. The slaves behind him prepared their manacles and stones for flight.

“We are the protectors of The Empire,” said the horsemen. “Assemble, men!” But before his men had time to assemble, the manacles and stones had started to fly.

Several men and horses dropped. The rest of them regrouped and charged.

The slaves scattered, running into the forest on both sides of the forest. It looked to Mark that they had prepared this maneuver before this encounter. He stood back and watched to see what would happen/

“Split up!” barked the platoon leader. The two groups hastened to follow the freed slaves into the forest. Against his best judgement, Mark decided to tag along behind one of the groups as an observer.

Almost as soon as they had entered fifty yards into the forest, branches started falling on the poor soldiers from all directions. They dropped like flies, and the two or three officers left intact fled for their lives. The former slaves cheered and they dropped out of the trees and hugged one-another.

“We did it!” cried the slave leader, running up and hugging Mark. “Our training finally paid off!”

“Training?” said Mark.

“Yes. Ever since that oaf was the only one left to guard us,”

“The giant?”

“Of course. Now he’s dead, but…” and several of his fellow freed slaves ran up to him and hugged him, and they formed a sort of impromptu jumping mass of human beings.

Mark decided to give them a little time to celebrate, so he stuck his head into the back of the wagon. “Good job,” said Jessica, who was tying braids in her own hair.

“With what?”

“With everything, dummy,” she said, letting her hair out only to re-braid it again.

“Language, please,” said Zachary, poking his head out from behind a book to snipe at his master.

“What are you reading?” asked Mark. “I didn’t know you knew how.” He had to raise his voice slightly because all of the freed slaves were now in the vicinity of the wagon and they were hooting and hollering.

“Very funny, Mark,” said Zachary. “I was just reading to the baby, here,” and he pointed to the bundle of blankets beside him, which apparently was sleeping. “He doesn’t have that long of an attention span, so I let him sleep and I read on. It really is quite interesting.”

“And you are really quite strange,” said Mark.

“If you taught me more, I’d be smarter,” said Zachary.

“You just don’t want to learn,” returned Mark.

“Okay, let’s schedule a time.”

Suddenly, there was a boom from outside. Mark cursed. “One of the soldiers must have sent a pigeon to his superiors. We now have bombs dropping on us from above.”

“‘Bombs?’” Zachary inquired while Mark rushed outside. “Are those the things that tend to cause widespread destruction?”

“I think so,” said Jessica.

The baby gurgled.

The freed slaves were already running. But there was nowhere left to run: bombs, dropped by trained falcons, were falling all over the road and in the forest as well. Entire swaths of trees were being decimated. Blistered fragments of branches lay strewn next to empty stumps, and all of the birds were shrieking. It sounded like some kind of obscure, insane hell envisioned by one of the ancient prophets. Mark kept on trying to come up with a plan in his mind, but the incessant shrieking prevented him from thinking of nothing but the disastrous now. There was blood everywhere. It was impossible to tell whether it was animal blood or human blood, but for the size of the bodies lying beside the metallic pools of crimson liquid. The situation was unpalatable at best and indescribable at worst. Mark was thinking this when he saw a man standing in the middle of the carnage. It was The Emperor. His back was turned to Mark so he couldn’t see Mark walking up behind him. Mark paused when he got within two meters, and then tiptoed closer and peered very carefully around to The Emperor’s face. To Mark’s surprise, The Emperor didn’t seem to notice him. He was staring into the distance, not in the direction of the deadly falcons swooping around for another pass, but at something Mark couldn’t see or fathom. It certainly wasn’t in this dimension. Mark had heard rumors of the evil Emperor consorting with demons, but they had been just stories, and now he knew The Emperor to have a compassionate, caring heart.

Then all became dark. Not pitch-black, but very, very dark. The sun was blotted out by some unknown force, and a gale became unleashed on the area, sending blinding winds and rain down on the unfortunate earth. Everything to both sides of the road became muddy instantly, and the road itself was slick and impossible to run upon. There were sharp, high-pitched animal cries as lightning rained down on the unsuspecting falcons. The poor animals dropped to the ground slowly, their lightness and the air-resistance making them almost like dandelion fluff. They fell to the ground and ceased moving.

The Emperor jerked, and Mark jerked out of the way. “Blast!” he said. “Did I get them? Did I get all of them?”

“Good job, Emperor,” Mark said, cooly. “You did it. All the birds are down.”

“Good!” The Emperor wiped his brow. “But I’m not Emperor anymore! Therefore, you must call me by my real name.”

“How did you do that?” Mark said. “I mean, taking down all those birds?”

“My name is Festivus,” The Emperor was saying. “You should call me that.”

“What a strange name,” said Mark. “I thought you were all tired out and couldn’t perform any more spells!”

The Emperor laughed. “The clouds felt that they owed me a favor and came back when I called them.”

“What?” Mark exclaimed. “Clouds don’t have brains!”

“Oh, yes they do,” said Festivus, straightening his cap. “Do I look okay?”

“Tell me about the clouds!”

“I told you, they have brains!” Festivus said with an angry expression.

Mark held up his hands. “Fine, fine!” he said. “At least let me call you The Thunder God.”

“I’m not a god,” said Festivus. “And this is a very serious situation. People have died—your people. This is not a time for joking.”

“I wasn’t,” spouted Mark angrily. “Whatever. Let’s go see who survived. I’ll go this way and you go that.”

“I think we should go together,” said The Emperor. “It might come in handy should we have to carry someone.”

“I am a little undersized,” Mark admitted.

They both entered the forest on the side of the road that faced north. Mark recognized a two dead bodies immediately—but they were charred beyond recognition.

“Sad,” commented The Emperor. “I knew those two personally. They used to be my servants back at my castle.” Mark didn’t reply that it was impossible to determine who these people were—he was sure that The Emperor had some means of determining their identities.

“Let’s move on,” said The Emperor. “Whoever sent those bombs—doubtless The Empire—is sure to check in on us at some point, to make sure we’re dead.”

They walked on and saw a few more unidentifiable bodies (at least, to Mark) and then encountered a series of caves. This was where the trees started to reappear. They could hear groaning from inside the caves. They entered the caves carefully, for some reason, as if worried that there were more bombs that hadn’t yet exploded that were inside. The groaning got louder. Then there was silence.

“Halt!” screamed a high female voice, and before he knew it, Mark had a sharp spear point grinding at his belly.

“Who goes here?” the voice demanded.

The Emperor made a strange movement with his hands, and suddenly there was a small gagging noise. The spear point dropped.

“What did you do?” Mark asked.

“Made her spew up her lunch,” The Emperor said,

“That wasn’t so nice.”

“Well maybe she should mind her own business.”

Footsteps came up to them. It was one of the male slaves. “Welcome,” he said gravely. “Come, you can help us tend to our wounded.”

Mark and The Emperor accompanied him further into the cave. “That woman who you caused to be sick, she was our best healer,” he said, “But don’t worry, she will be better soon. Come, this way.”

They entered into a curious side passage that was covered with a large span of cloth. “In case we were pursued,” said the man by means of explanation. “A poor disguise, but a disguise just the same.” Then the passageway opened up into a cavern. There were ten people in various stages of convalescence, some lying on the dust and some propped up against boulders.

One of them, and old and skeletal man, held out his hands in supplication. “Please, water!” he rasped, as the other wounded echoed similar feeble cries for help.

“These people are all going to die,” The Emperor mused.

“Don’t say that!” rebuked the male slave. “You are responsible for their health! You were the one who rescued them! So you take care of them!”

“Eh,” said The Emperor.

“He’s right, you know,” said Mark, who was staring at the fascinating stalactites and stalagmites at the far end of the cavern.

“We need to get going to the capital if we’re ever going to stop slavery itself,” pointed out The Emperor, “but I think I can do some small spell. I’ll use up some of my energy, for this good cause at least. But let me think.” And he struck a thinking pose, his hand on his chin. He stayed this way for several seconds, almost frozen in place, and then said, “Behold, the healing curse.” He then spread his hands wide as if about to deliver a religious benediction, but to which god Mark had no idea.

“Wait,” Mark said. “The healing curse?”

“Shhh,” said The Emperor. “This is a dramatic moment! Don’t interrupt it!”

“But—”

But The Emperor had already continued his speech: “As you all know,” he said, “every reaction has a corresponding and equal counterreaction. Therefore, as I heal you, in order not to exceed my own limits and therefore die, you will have to give back something in return: ”

“What?” cried the male slave. “Please, have mercy!” The injured slaves looked at him and then at The Emperor, trying to puzzle out what was going on. Then they too began to shout.

“You will all be my slaves for the next week,” continued The Emperor. “Thus will I cure you of your ills: disease for disease. For there is no other way.”

“No!” cried the slave leader. The other slaves echoed his call.

“It is the only way,” The Emperor repeated. Then he thrust his hands downward.

At once, it was a devilish scene come to life: manacles began to form out of the victims’ own bodies, tying their own hands and feet together with metal coated with human skin. Mark looked away from the grisly scene and at the ground instead. The ground was both dusty and dirty. He kicked at some dirt, which came away from the ground surprisingly easily. He was in the middle of constructing a big hole when the shouting died down. “Alas, we are slaves!” moaned one of the slaves, an older man.

“I hate you!” a woman screamed at The Emperor.

“In a week’s time you’ll be thanking me, young woman,” The Emperor said.

“I hate you!” she repeated.

The Emperor turned his back on her and started dusting off his tunic. “There was no other way,” he explained. “They were all dying. I had to make them suffer, just a little bit at least. This was the easiest way I knew of.”

“What did you do to them?” Mark said, The Emperor’s annoyed expression hinting that Mark had a disapproving expression on his face.

“You don’t understand how magic works,” The Emperor said. “In order to let them live, they had to give me a favor in return. That’s one of the rules. You can’t do something without receiving something.”

“Maybe that’s one of your rules,” the lead slave said hotly, shaking his manacles and holding them out for The Emperor to see.

“Put your hands down, man,” said Mark, suddenly intervening. “Can’t you see he’s saved your life?”

“At the expense of this!” the slave snarled. “I’d rather die than continue as a slave!”

There were several choruses from the other slaves. Then they started to charge.

“I had hoped I wouldn’t have had to do this, but…” The Emperor muttered, and then snapped his fingers. All the slaves suddenly fell to the ground, either on their backs or on their rears. There was more groaning.

“You vile…” started the slave leader. That’s when Mark saw that there was now a gigantic, skin-colored rope connecting all of the slaves’ manacles.

“Vile it may be,” said Mark, “but it saved your life.”

“He just made it worse!” protested the slave.

“I actually cut your time as a slave from one week to five days,” said The Emperor. “It—”

“Be quiet,” intoned Mark. He turned back to the slave: “Now, man, speak your thanks to this man,” he said, pointing to The Emperor.

“I will when I’m out of chains!” yelled the slave.

“You know, this really isn’t going anywhere,” Mark told The Emperor, who nodded gravely.

“I will not tolerate a pipsqueak teenager speaking to me in this way!” said the unfortunate slave. Mark picked up a handful of dust and threw it at the slave. This did not make the slave happy: he tried to run at Mark but fell to the ground, forgetting that he was fettered to the other slaves for five more days. “You got it in my eyes!” the slave cried.

“It’s time to go,” said The Emperor, looking around at all of them. “We need to get to the capital to stop slavery. Every minute we waste is more human suffering for no reason.

“I understand,” piped a small voice from the midst of the slaves. It was a boy, not fourteen years old. His high voice pitched above all the other sounds in the room.

“Who are you, boy?” said The Emperor.

“I mean that I understand why you had to enslave us again,” said the boy. “You saved our lives. Mine in particular.

“You seem to be the only sensible person in here,” said The Emperor, “minus our genius boy here,” he continued, and pointed at Mark.

There was a sudden rumble, and the earth shook for several seconds. “I think we’d better get out of here,” Mark told The Emperor.

“Noted,” The Emperor replied. He then raised his voice: “Come on out of here, the lot of ya,” he said, “This place is going down.”

“You speak about it like it was a house,” said a female slave. “It’s just a cave.”

“Duly noted,” said The Emperor.

They exited the cave promptly, and breathed a collective sigh of relief once they were out. Appropriately so, because the entrance started to cave in as soon as they were all out.

“Now we have to step over these bodies,” the slave leader said, gingerly touching the bodies of one of the soldiers with his foot.

“Don’t do that, you’ll contract bacteria,” said The Emperor.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s something very very small and very very dangerous,” The Emperor began.

“Never mind, forget I asked,” said the slave leader.

“I sure hope we don’t run into any more soldiers,” said Mark.

“That makes two of us,” said the slave leader, gingerly pulling on his cord.

“Stop that!” said a female slave to his right.

“You stop that,” said the slave leader disgustedly, kicking some dirt back at her.

“You’re going to run out of dirt pretty soon, fearless leader,” said the slave woman, pointing. “See, the road is paved up there.”

“Drat,” said the slave leader, actually smiling for an instant. “Only five more days of this terror, yes?”

“I suppose,” said the woman, shaking her arms.

“You stop that!” said the young male slave behind her.

“It never ends, does it?” said the woman.

“Let’s get a move on,” said The Emperor. “As soon as we stop slavery I can take a break. Maybe go to the southern continent for a bit, meet a nice lady, go swimming…”

“You sure could use a bath, sir,” Mark said.

There didn’t seem to be anyone on the road for as long as the road stretched. The birds were singing and the cicadas buzzing. “There are poisonous snakes in the area,” The Emperor cautioned. “In fact… oh, no!”

“What?”

A low moaning could be heard behind them. A young man was sitting down on the road, cradling his leg. Attached to it was a long green snake of the kind Mark had never seen before.

The Emperor immediately went to action: he took a dagger from his bodice that had been perfectly concealed and cut off the snake’s body just below the head. Then he pried open its jaws and removed him from the young man’s leg, throwing it far into the woods.

The young man moaned and then fell unconscious.

“This is going to be a close one,” The Emperor muttered. He pressed his face to the open wound and held it there for a number of seconds. Then he spat off to the side and repeated the procedure.

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing with my son!” a huge man bellowed, shaking his manacles.

“Stop that!” said his neighbors.

“Haven’t you ever seen a man suck venom out of another man’s body before?” Mark told them. “Watch and learn.”

“I won’t learn from him!” yelled the boy’s father. “It looks like he’s doing sorcery!”

“No sorcery,” said The Emperor looking up from the body from once.

“Yes, it is!” yelled the man. He charged at The Emperor but only managed to jerk himself to the ground. “Oh, no!” he said.

“What?” said The Emperor.

Mark looked where the man was pointing. There seemed to be a pile of grass moving in from the road. “What is grass doing moving on the road?” he wondered.

“That’s not grass,” said a slave to his left. “That’s more snakes.”

“What? No,” Mark said in disbelief. He started toward the rapidly moving pile of grass.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warned The Emperor, looking up again from his work.

“Why? It’s just grass!” said Mark. He was almost at the pile of grass.

Suddenly a stone hit him in the temple. Mark dropped, falling into unconsciousness. The thrower jerked his arm back, preparing to throw another missile.

“He’s already down, stop yourself!” yelled The Emperor, who had completed sucking the poison out of the poor victim.

“I’m targeting the snakes!” yelled back the thrower.

“Sna—” The Emperor started, and then screamed: “Get him away from there!”

Several slaves ran forward but were jerked back by their ropes. The Emperor looked down forlornly and said, “Is there any limit to their stupidity? Work together!” All of the slaves, energized by The Emperor’s call, all started to walk toward Mark’s unmoving body. “Faster!” cried The Emperor. “The snakes are almost at him!”

The row of slaves, which by now covered the entire width of the road plus some of the forest on either side, stumbled forward together, pace by pace.

“Faster!” cried The Emperor. “You’ve got five seconds!”

Suddenly a single slave broke from the row. He howled in fury and pain, then remembered his task, picked up a stick from the ground and hurled himself at the green mass.

He leaped over the still form of Mark to the pile of snakes two feet away. The pile was writhing, and it looked like several snakes were trying to fight with one-another but getting obstructed by their fellow snakes. The former slave stopped in front of the pile of snakes, as if deciding which snake to strike.

“No!” shouted The Emperor. “Just take Mark away from them!”

The slave heeded The Emperor’s words and began to drag Mark away from the snakes. Fortunately for him and Mark, the snakes seemed to be preoccupied with fighting themselves and did not try and follow. The man continued dragging Mark back to safety and the other slaves managed to coordinate themselves enough to allow two of them to lift Mark into the wagon. “Now we just have to figure out how to get around those snakes,” mused The Emperor. “Then we can be on our way.”

“Why not just go around them?” suggested a slave.

“What do you mean?”

“Just go into the forest a bit and then go past them and then double back to the road,” the slave said. “It’ll be easy.”

“We’ll have to go single file,” said The Emperor.

“Obviously,” said the slave. “Come on, everyone,” he instructed the others, “we need to form up now.”

The Emperor merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “fine,” walking back to the wagon. He plopped his behind down on the driver’s seat beside Mark and put his hands behind his head in a relaxing pose. “You drive,” he said. “I think I’ll have a tonic.”

“Drunk driving is not permitted in this province, I think, sir,” said Mark.

“How would you know?” snapped The Emperor. “You’ve never been here before.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised at where I’d been, my lord,” said Mark. “My vocation has taken me many places.”

“You disgust me,” said The Emperor, putting his feet up on the wooden bar in front of them.

“You too,” said Mark. “And I think I’m going to have a tonic, as well.”

The Emperor ignored this as their horses plodded into the forest and over some roots and leaves, causing the wagon to sway threateningly. The slaves followed, two lines of them, side by side, as the formerly unified line was split by the slave escaping. The slave followed directly behind the wagon, in front of his unfortunate companions, unsure of whether he should travel with his fellow slaves or join The Emperor and Mark and their companions in their wagon.

“Come with us,” The Emperor motioned, waving his hand to indicate the slave join them in the front seat. Things got a bit crowded, but Mark didn’t mind.

“That was a brave thing you did back there,” The Emperor said speculatively, his eyes glazed over in a scene that Mark had never seen before, and perfectly honestly, it had him a bit worried.

The slave shrugged. “I was simply doing what I thought best, sire,” he said calmly. “It was natural. It was logical.”

My, you have an expressive vocabulary,” said The Emperor, frowning and then patting the slave on the back tentatively. “It’s almost as if… as if you have been a professor somewhere and have been captured as a slave thereafter. It makes no sense.”

“In fact, I was a professor,” commented the slave after a moment. “How did you know that? I’m impressed. You really are much more of a sorcerer than I thought you were.”

“Really?” responded The Emperor dryly. “Even after you saw my lightning display?”

“I was saying that in jest, sir,” said the man.

“No you weren’t,” said The Emperor.

THAT’S IT FOR NOW!


The Beginning of Freedom

  • Author: Rudolf Sternbook
  • Published: 2017-08-12 08:35:10
  • Words: 30485
The Beginning of Freedom The Beginning of Freedom