184. Escort Service

The platoon of women inspected me and came to a group decision that I didn’t pose a threat. I could tell by the way they went from poised-to-kill to completely-at-ease. It wasn’t clear if they had killed the dog or just found it. Either way, it was a lot of people to deal with whatever curious incident this was.

“You shouldn’t wander off like that,” said Telma from over my shoulder. “You could get lost.”

“I was just looking around. That’s a lot of effort to catch one dog, isn’t it?”

“They’re not here to catch a dog. The dog is the bait.”

There was a sound coming from behind the gathered women. Two men were in a pit they were digging. They clambered out, picked up the dog while being carefully watched, and dropped it into the hole, which they then began filling in again.

“Unfortunately, we have a slight rat problem. The dog’s full of poison.”

“It’s a lot of effort to catch some rats,” I said. 

Laney appeared next to me. “You haven’t seen the size of their rats.”

The closer we got to the big hill of flowers, the fewer regular people I saw, and the more women in armour. 

“Where are all the eunuchs?” I asked Laney. No sign of them so far. I was beginning to have hope that I’d misunderstood what the term meant here. Maybe the translator was acting up. She shrugged.

“Busy, I expect,” said Guardian Telma. “They prefer to stay indoors, mostly. Having no testicles makes them more sensitive to sunstroke.”

Ah, information. Sometimes even a little is too much.

We stood at the foot of the hill, the flowers blazing with colour and the scent overwhelming like being sprayed point blank in the face with a can of air freshener. 

There was a winding path that went around and around until it reached the castle walls on top of the hill. It would take hours to go up that way, but they probably wouldn’t approve if I took a shortcut through the gardenias and trampled over the bluebells. 

What was I doing here? I didn’t want to be surrounded by these idiots. I wanted to be surrounded by my own idiots. Where the hell was everyone? I wasn’t used to being on my own anymore. Those fuckers had ruined loneliness for me.

A circular door opened in the base of the hill, like a hobbit hole, and a tall woman flanked by more women in unnecessarily shiny armour came out. The tall woman had platinum blonde hair that was woven into all sorts of braids. The French would have been outraged.

Lofty looked me up and down. “This is him? Good work, Guardian.”

“Thank you, Primus,” said Telma. There was a strange pitch change to her voice and her cheeks were flushed. Obvious girl crush is obvious.

“We found him because I knew where to look,” said Laney, pouting again. 

Lofty bowed her head slightly. “Our thanks, Your Highness.”

Laney bounced up and down on the balls of her feet excitedly. “I think the Queen would want to know all about it. Is she free?”

“I’m afraid not. But rest assured she is still considering your petition.”

Laney folded her arms and looked like she wanted to kick something. I took a step away from her.

“This is ridiculous,” said Laney. “My people are trapped, waiting to be rescued, and we’re wasting time doing endless reconnaissance. Tell the Queen to give me an army!”

It was an interesting negotiating tactic. Lofty’s face remained impassive. “Your Highness, we will always be friends to the people of Fengarad, but we must first—”

“Yes, yes, blah, blah.” Laney flapped her hand like she was brushing away an annoying bee.

Lofty turned to me. “I’m Primus Lenda. It is a great pleasure to have you here, Visitor.”

“Please, call me Colin the Loser.” Might as well own it.

“He is the Dragonslayer!” God damn it, Laney.

There was a slight arching in one of  Primus Lenda’s eyebrows. “So the reports are true?” This was said over my head.

“He is more than he seems,” said Telma. I couldn’t tell if she was bigging me up or apologising for my appearance. “The Princess has met him before.”

The Primus’s attention shifted to Laney. It was like being in a football game where no one on your own team will pass to you. A feeling I knew quite well.

“Your Royal Highness, if I might have a word.” The Primus moved to one side, taking Laney and Telma with her. The other women ignored me while simultaneously giving the impression they would hunt me down if I took so much as a step. I could actually feel the pressure they were exerting, a sense of ownership, a total belief they were in charge. Everything in this city was under their domain, including me.

Laney, Telma and Primus Lenda were deep in conversation, lots of nodding and serious looks. Whatever bullshit they were telling her about the dragon was bound to give the Primus a misguided image of who I was and what I could do. My only hope of not being tied to a horse and sent into battle was to act as useless and pathetic as possible. Disappointing people? The job I was born for.

Primus Lenda returned to her position in front of the glamour patrol and looked me up and down again, still not impressed with what she found. I wished she’d stop doing that, it wasn’t going to get any better however many times she checked.

“Dragonslayer, we, the Flowers of Requbar, are truly honoured to have you here. The Queen is looking forward to meeting you. Please.”  She stepped to one side and waved me towards the dark hole.

I had the horrible feeling once I entered I wouldn’t be able to come out. Not all of me.

“Couldn’t she come out here?” I asked. “It’s a lovely day.”

There was a twitch in Lenda’s left eye, a twitch I recognised from every woman I’d ever known. The low patience indicator.

“Come on, Colin,” said Laney. “I’ll show you the way.” She skipped into the tunnel. Literally skipped.

If Laney was with me, perhaps she could provide enough of a distraction to keep the focus off me. She was bound to make it all about herself and what she wanted. I could use the mad minx as a decoy.

I stepped into the dark and walked down a long, loamy-smelling tunnel. If I stretched out my hands, I could touch the walls on either side. The musty smell didn’t help either. It was like I was being buried alive very slowly.

“Don’t worry,” said Laney, “it gets brighter.” Behind us there was the sound of footsteps and jangling armour. I estimated half a dozen soldiers had followed us down the hobbit hole.

There were probably other entrances with less claustrophobic passages. I felt like I was being taken in the back door. No, that wasn’t a euphemism. At least, I hoped not.

There was some sort of glow up ahead and the tunnel opened into a larger chamber with streaks of light crisscrossing all over it. The light came from holes high up on the walls, I presumed in the side of the hill. Slanting beams of yellow sunlight formed a strange light show over us. 

Soldiers surrounded me on three sides but left the way forward clear for me to proceed. I was being herded like a sheep.

There was an alcove with wooden walls and a wooden roof, above which there was a thick rope. I paused to examine it and everyone stopped behind me. The wooden box was suspended in a shaft. It was an elevator, although probably not mechanical. More likely there was a donkey on the other end of the rope that moved the box up and down the shaft. Maybe a team of donkeys. 

“You want me to get in that? It doesn’t look very safe.”

Laney stepped into the lift and turned around to face me. “You aren’t scared, are you, Dragonslayer?” Her words were laced with all the sarcasm a thirteen year old could muster, which was a lot.

I entered the lift and turned around. The soldiers stood in a row, waiting for something.

“Aren’t you—” before I was able to finish speaking, the lift dropped and we were plunged into darkness.

The initial fall was quite sudden and my stomach lurched as I grabbed onto the rail on the wall, but it slowed to a more reasonable pace and I could feel we were being lowered in a controlled manner.

“Shouldn’t we be going up?”

“The Queen wants to meet you in private first,” said Laney’s voice from somewhere on my right. It was only a small compartment but so pitch black I couldn’t see her at all.

“What’s she like?” I didn’t know how long the journey to the centre of the Earth would take but it seemed like a good opportunity to ask a few questions.

“She is known for her outstanding beauty. Quite possibly the most beautiful woman in Flatland.”

Laney didn’t sound in the least bit jealous. If the Queen really was that beautiful, I would have expected at least a little rancour. Beautiful women, of course, were something to be feared.

“She is also the kindest and most generous person I’ve ever met.”

Now I was really concerned. If she’d convinced everyone she was a nice person, then the Queen was obviously even more devious than expected. I would have to play it super dumb and extra pathetic so she would find no use for me whatsoever. It’s not easy having to continually set the bar lower for myself, but I believed I was up to the challenge. 

“So kind and generous that she has all the men in her army castrated?” I asked. The lift lurched slightly and I gripped the rail tighter. We were going a long way down. 

“Silly. They volunteer.” Sure, why not? It’s not like most men are fond of their testicles or anything. “It really makes a lot of sense when you think about it, Colin. There’s no raping and looting by soldiers in the Requbar army. Just honest killing for which they’re well rewarded. She doesn’t force anyone. Not unless they’re some kind of deviant. Then they get the chop for the good of everyone.”

Very reassuring.

“That’s why Requbar is the most orderly and peaceful of the Four Cities. The people here are all very happy. They love their Queen and their city. Just look how clean the streets are.”

That hadn’t been my impression. People living under fascism wear a smile and have terrified eyes. That was the vibe I was getting from Requbar—clean, well maintained and one complaint away from a mass beheading. I wouldn’t fucking litter, either.

“If she’s so wonderful, how come she hasn’t agreed to help you take back Fengarad? I’d have thought it would be in her interest to help, you know, before the ravaging hordes turn their attention in this direction.”

“It’s complicated. Politics.” Laney sounded less sure of herself now. “It’s not really something I have much experience with, but I’m learning. And now that you’re here, I’m sure she’ll be much more agreeable. We will make her see reason, Colin. You and I. There is nothing I won’t do to liberate my city.” Laughter filled the black box. “Those lizardmen are going to be so sorry. So, so sorry. It’s going to be fun, Dragonslayer!”

Insane as she was, I started to see Laney’s plan. Build me up as a mighty hero, slayer of dragons etcetera, so they get all excited and then get everyone to form up behind me as we marched into the valley of death. Well, sod that for a game of soldiers.

Light returned as the lift stopped with a jerk at an opening. The tunnel ahead of us was lit by torches held in sconces, flaring brightly and smelling vaguely of wax.

“This way.” Laney set off without waiting for me.

There was no one else about and no sounds. We were deep below the ground and if things went tits up, getting out wouldn’t be easy.

The tunnel ended in a large room with many doors all in a row, spaced out at regular intervals. The doors looked solid, reinforced with black iron. I hoped it wasn’t some kind of test—Behind one door is the Queen, behind each of the others is a tiger. Good luck, Champion!

I always have terrible RNG with those sorts of things.

“This is the one, I think.” Laney walked up to one of the doors and heaved. She really had to lean back to drag it open. She went inside.

I followed her and found myself in a very small room. There was a wooden bed; a table with a guttering candle and vase with fresh flowers; and a bucket in the corner.

My feet were swiped away from under me and the room spun around, or rather I was as I ended up on the floor. There was a slam as the door closed, followed by the click of a turning key or maybe a padlock snapping shut. I hadn’t really paid attention to the door fittings.

I lay there realising I was in a cell. A cell with nice flowers, but still a cell. What I couldn’t understand was why they had gone to such great lengths to lead me down here. It would have been much easier to tie me up and drag me here. It wasn’t like I could have fought off an army of highly trained soldiers. Or even a single poorly trained one. What was the point of all the subterfuge?

“There you go,” I heard Laney muffled voice through the door. “Delivered as promised.”

“Yes, thank you, Your Highness. The Flowers of Requbar are in your debt.” The second voice sounded like Primus Lofty. She had probably taken a different route down here. “I will inform the Queen of your assistance in this matter.”

“See that you do! I’ll be expecting a favourable response to my request.”

For whatever reason, the Queen wanted me locked up and Laney helping out gave her some political leverage. She really was learning how to get things done on the hill. Or under it. I had been so busy being suspicious about who I was going to see, I forgot to be suspicious about who I was with.

“You had no problems?”

“Of course not! I don’t know why you think he’s some mighty wizard, he was completely harmless in my hands. Nothing to it.”

I slowly got to my feet. The bed didn’t look too bad, and the flowers were a nice touch. I should have been panicking, dreading what they had in store for me, but I wasn’t. If they were under the impression I was some great sorcerer, then they would at least be a bit cautious around me. You don’t want to cut off the balls of someone who might make things explode when they got upset. And you know a really good way to upset a guy? Amputating his junk.

There was bound to be some deal I could make or some threat I could bluff. And if not, there was an army of monsters not very far away. I’d happily aid them in taking the city apart, flower by flower.

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