Through Fire – Snippet 22
I got the impression of other brooms, one headed away from me, and one towards me, but they were too far away for me to even be sure of the impression, much less definite about who they were and where they were, and what they looked like.
And then I spotted a space. It was behind a burned structure, and it looked like whoever had been involved in the drama of destroying it had long gone. If there had been inhabitants of the place, who’d taken off in a hurry, they were far away. And whoever had set fire to it, had long ago left, too, of necessity.
All that was left was a vast ruin, with a soaring front wall, made of dimatough, looking like a wing beating at the sky. There was a smell of burned building, which is not like the smell of burned anything else, containing, as it usually does, the scent of materials not meant to be burned. It felt acrid and unpleasant to the nose, and something crunched underfoot as I landed.
I clipped the broom — one of the little cylindrical models, with no saddle, and painful enough to ride across the ocean — to my belt, and crunched my way, cautiously, around the outside of the burnt walls. The palace was above me, and I had two choices to get there. One was to go through the roads, and perhaps come across parties of people. Royce Allard had — he thought, and I hoped — made me unremarkable in a crowd, but it still might not be the brightest thing in the world, as an unescorted woman, to meet a party of people animated by looting and inspired by a sense of righteous envy of those better off.
Yeah, I am faster, stronger, smarter. One of the things you learn early on, when you’re endowed with all of those attributes, but are also a woman, is not to lead those not as fast or as smart or as strong into temptation. You don’t present yourself as a likely and easy target, because that will just cause them to attack you and get hurt.
Likely I could take on any small party of marauders and survive. But in the scale of things, mere looters seemed almost blameless and fighting them a waste of my abilities. And besides, it would attract attention, and if it attracted attention, it could attract a larger group of people. Even my abilities were no match against a sufficiently large party.
So instead of going through the paths that led to the palace, I decided to take the route through Simon’s vast, well-manicured lawns.
The strange thing is that they were still well manicured. If one managed not to smell the fire that had taken half the palace, or to look up at the desolate ruin, one would think, from the lawn alone, that nothing untoward had happened.
Here, while the seacity burned and people killed each other, or robbed armfuls of whatever they’d coveted, the lawn was soft, cool and deep underfoot, the trees were looming, dark and green and fragrant above, casting deeper shadows where the moonlight filtered through their branches. Here, small things ran scurrying in the undergrowth as I passed.
As I went around a tree, close to the shadow, my eyes and ears open to any sign that there were humans, hostile or not, nearby, a hand shot out and grabbed my upper arm.
I had a moment to think it was Martha, but the moment didn’t last because the hand was larger and much stronger, and before I could turn to see who had grabbed me, he — had to be a he — had turned me around so that his arm went around my body, holding me fast, preventing me from moving, and his hand had covered my mouth, preventing any sound.
There is only one thing you can do in this situation, and I drew my head back, preparing to do it, preparing to hit out with my head at the nose and mouth of my captor. It’s not ideal, mind you. You will feel concussed and a bit dizzy. But a man whose nose you’ve just shoved in with your head will be in no position to take advantage of that. At best, he’ll have had his nose pushed into his brain case and will be dead. At worst, he’ll be bleeding profusely and blinded by pain.
I’d judged this man to be taller than I. It’s not one of those things you think about, it’s one of those things you feel, from the relative position of his hands and mine. It would need a little jump to hit him in the face, but it could be done. Yes, even with him holding me. After all, I was faster and stronger than even the males of the species.
Making sure my plans weren’t betrayed, not even by a sudden tenseness of muscles, I slammed my foot down into the ground, to propel me up, and threw my head back at the same time and–
And hit nothing, overbalancing. My captor had stepped back away from me, and now spun me around, all without letting go of my mouth, and letting go of my arm only as I was starting to fall, then grabbing my other arm, and saying, “Shh.”
Dazed, I looked up and into the homely countenance of Alexis Brisbois.
He said again, “Shh.” And then pulled me back with him into the shadow of a tree and put a hand across my middle, keeping me still. He’d let go of my mouth, and I wanted to speak, but before I could even figure out what to say, I heard approaching footsteps, and voices that weren’t trying to be quiet at all.
The words were in the curious patois of Liberte, and I didn’t understand them immediately, but the conditioning at the back of my mind understood them. They were talking about killing someone or other, in the tone of someone who had played a prank of some sort. There was neither remorse nor fear in the voices that sounded both male and young as they walked past. They looked male and young, too, two of them possibly juveniles, the other three probably early twenties. They also sounded drunk, or perhaps high.
I let their voices recede away from us, out of hearing distance, then their footsteps. I know I have a more acute sense of hearing than a normal person. I waited till I couldn’t hear them, which meant they couldn’t hear me, and then I said, as low as I could, “What do you mean by this? Why did you grab me?”
He shook his head. His features remained as hard to read as ever. When he answered it was in the same voice I’d employed. Almost soundless. “Remember the orders I was given. I’m supposed to keep you safe.” He made a face somewhere between disgust and anger. “It’s probably not possible now.”
I opened my mouth, but he shook his head. “Don’t. Not now. Let me try to get us to a safe place. But first you might want to take off your suit, and hide it.”
“Same reason I hid mine,” he said. “It’s too good, too expensive, too likely to cause someone to stop us and rob us. You can’t want that, any more than I do. I’ll hide it here, on the grounds. It’s unlikely anyone is going to comb the grounds tree by tree, unless they have reason to think they’ll find the Good Man in one, and they don’t.”
It took me a moment, but I obeyed. There didn’t seem to be anything to gain in defying him. I doubted that he wanted to get me out of my broomer suit and steal it, or something of the sort. For one, it wouldn’t fit him. For another I had a feeling I was in the presence of one of the most honorable men I ever met. I felt a reliance, a trust in him that didn’t make any sense. Perhaps, I told myself, it was only that I trusted him because Simon trusted him. Simon didn’t strike me as an idiot. And neither was I to come to rely on this man so much in such a short acquaintance.
So I removed my suit and gave it to him. He disappeared with it, around the tree, and I followed. He skirted close to a clump of tall, overgrown bushes, and then near another tree. Between tree and bush, into a dark area, he thrust the suit. Then he turned, and nodded, seeming not at all surprised to see me so near.
He extended his hand to me. “We shall be a happy couple, again,” he said.
“A happy couple in this?” I asked.
“What, you think there aren’t any?” he asked. “People might be scared and shaken, worried for their possessions, and unsure of what the future will bring, but I warrant you that they’ll also be excited and interested, and, not least of all, grateful that their normal work and duties have been interrupted, and happy that they can take the time off to be together.”
It was probably true, but it didn’t make it any more pleasant.
It was a strange situation. I didn’t know Alexis or trust him. But I knew one thing for certain, he was supposed to protect me. What part of that also meant that he was supposed to keep me from doing anything I might want to do, I didn’t know. I was very much afraid that he thought the two were sides of the same coin. And I couldn’t allow that. You see, I intended to rescue Simon.
Yes, it would be dangerous, and it was unlikely, and no one would hold it against me if I had refused to do it.
But he had given me shelter and he’d accepted me with no condition and no demur. It was not honorable nor decent for me to abandon him to his fate. And while I might not have been brought up to love or friendship, I had been brought up to honor and duty.
I put my hand forward, and let Alexis Brisbois grasp it. His hand was cold and calloused. He held me close, all the way back from the lawn to a path. We walked down it, meeting groups of people who didn’t give us more than a passing glance. So far at least, the disguise they’d given me was working.