“This is my number,” The young guard grinned at her dumbly. “Please call if you have anything you need help with.”
Marideen nodded and returned a grin to him as he took a few steps back, bumping into another guard before apologizing and turning away. This was the fourth guard to have given her their number. She wondered if this was some part of their protocol, just in case. Either way, every number was different, how many precincts did this town have? Marideen moved over to Maximil, who had just finished handing them all of the paperwork that Sidney had graciously provided them with.
“Well, it seems like your paperwork clears. I apologize for all of this. The Taerran government apologizes for allowing these prisoners to escape. It appears that it was work of Marideen and her band of Lancers,” the older guard must have noticed a look on Marideen’s face as he turned to her. “Oh, you don’t have to worry. We’ll keep monsters like them from entering the city. You’ll be safe.”
Marideen nodded numbly, her thin coats of makeup and dye suddenly seeming very insufficient.
“However, what the prince really cared about was that particular prisoner. You can see the red guards over there, tasked with bringing him in personally. Don’t know why, but you can bet there will be a commendation for this. Probably not mine,” the man spit and then noticing Marideen watching, blushed slightly.
It seemed like Darian had been right, they were looking for him. Even more than Marideen, surprisingly. Marideen silently reprimanded herself. Aiden Boramont must have been involved with this whole trap. Of course, he recognized Darian and of course he would want him killed. The only question Marideen couldn’t seem to work out was why Aiden hadn’t killed him three years ago. It didn’t matter, she would need to rescue him, that was all there was to it.
She almost surprised herself with that thought. She knew she would save him. He was a Lancer, she would do the same for any of her men. Wouldn’t she? Something was different with him though. He had done what he did, sacrificed himself to save the rest of the group. That proved that he could be trusted. However, she had trusted him before he did that. He had asked for her trust and she had given it to him.
In that moment of uncertainty, she had thought he may try to bargain the Butcher of Braun for his own life. She feared he might betray her, or cut her neck right there. He had asked for her trust at that moment, and she had given it. She had thrown all of E’s lessons right out the door. Although, even now, she couldn’t bring herself to feel like it was a weakness or a mistake. She trusted Darian, as insane as that sounded.
“Well, anyway,” The guard nodded to Max, “it’s about time you move along, we still have a large crowd of people trying to get into the city and this delay has become quite messy.”
“Thank you so much for everything,” Marideen curtsied with a grin on her face.
It was a sloppy curtsy; she hadn’t done one in many years. However, the sloppiness of it would probably fit a farmer’s daughter. She wasn’t trying to portray a noble after all.
The old guard looked her up and down before shaking his head. As he turned away he mumbled something on his breath.
“If I was only ten years younger, farmer girls these days.”
Marideen blushed before trying to cover herself up a bit. Her disguise was perfect. It didn’t mean It wasn’t just a tad bit embarrassing. Berret rolled his eyes at her as he walked by, before patting her on the back.
“Well, what now?”
“We’ll talk once we’re in the city,” Marideen nodded to him.
A guard suddenly burst out of the gate, racing towards the old guard. Marideen tensed, straining her ears to hear what they were saying. Had Darian’s feint failed? Were the guards about to arrest him too? Maybe it had been his plan all along to betray her. Trade his life for her own.
“He escaped!” The old man exclaimed.
Marideen edged just a bit closer by pretending to readjust her clothing.
“What? The prisoner?” The other man’s eyes narrowed.
“We don’t know where he took off to.”
“How? And so quickly? What happened?”
“Well, we put him in confinement with some of the other prisoners to await transportation. Then he started biting them.”
“He started biting the other prisoners, so we threw him in the solitary.”
“Alright, he is crazy, I can see that, but how did he escape?” the old man pinched his nose.
“He found a secret escape door. No one ever knew it was there. It must have been built in years ago before the guard acquired the building. Some of the locals said that the previous governor was paranoid his people would overthrow him. He might have put it there as a secret escape in case he was ever imprisoned. It certainly wasn’t part of the architecture design plans we have.”
“We’ve had hundreds of prisoners in that cell over the years,” The guard shook his head in disbelief.
“I don’t know how he found it. It’s almost like you’d have to know it was already there to be able to open it. It really is remarkable. It’s an entire underground escape system. The route seemed to lead outside the city.”
“Are we pursuing?”
“The red guards are already on it, they want us to continue to watch the city in case he tries to slip back in.”
At that, the guard noticed Marideen nearby. He grabbed the younger guard’s shoulder and pulled him aside so they could discuss more in private. Marideen shook her head in shock. She had barely even started forming a plan to save Darian, and he had already escaped on his own. She looked out back across the hot grassy plains. There was not a lot of areas for him to hide in. Would he be caught soon? No, not Darian. That some seemed to give her a strange feeling of reassurance and a slight smile fell on her lips she didn’t realize was there.
Marideen returned to the wagon as the men finished packing and informed them of what she had heard. Maximil whistled in appreciation, although Beiromon seemed to shrug almost as if it was a given. Every time Marideen thought she had Darian figured out, he did something else to surprise her. There was nothing else to do about it, as she found them being ushered into the gated city.
The gravel path gave way to paved roads. The inside was no less crowded than the outside. The three men worked relentlessly to weave their way through hundreds of peddlers, merchants, and farmers. They were not even near the market yet, but she heard shouting from young boys working as foot peddlers, often with a satchel full of bottles of Nin water, a local commodity here.
“Nin Water, just 2 marks, cleanest water in all the Taerran colonies!”
Maximil grabbed one of these boys and bought some water, casually asking him about the climate of the port while slipping him a far larger quantity of credits than the water accounted for. The boy understood and the two whispered for a few minutes before he turned and began shouting his wares to the next passerby as they entered the city.
Max moved back to the wagon with a disgruntled look on his face. He tried to give the water to Marideen who politely declined.
“It’s just mineral water,” Maximil responded, “You need to stay hydrated.”
“You don’t need to keep worrying about me,” Marideen responded dismissively, “Besides I’m pretty sure Nin water is just a scam. They just pull out standard tap water here and call it something special.”
“To be honest, I’ve always tasted a distinct floral taste, here, I’ll take that,” Berret interrupted, grabbing the drink and taking a swig.
Marideen shook her head, “So, what’s the bad news, I see it on your face, Max.”
Maximil let out a small sigh before responding, “They say that there is a lot of unrest going on. The Taerrans have shut down the port. Completely. No ships are allowed to leave except on high-level special permissions. More than that, they shut down the jump gates.”
Berret whistled, “That is drastic, can they even do that?”
“Well, whether they can or not, they have. A lot of people are very angry about it. The town may not look it, but it’s boiling. It’s the festival season. All of the farmers are coming in to sell their goods to spacers to take them off-world. Except no one can leave the planet now, so all commerce has effectively stopped. Food will be left to spoil. If this goes on much longer I would not be surprised if there is a riot or two. “
Marideen shook her head, “I knew the Lord Regent wanted me badly, but this seems like a risk even he wouldn’t take.”
“Maybe, it’s not for you he is doing it?” Beiromon suggested.
Marideen rubbed her chin for a second before nodding thoughtfully. It seemed like Darian was a part of this as much as she was at this point. The kind of trouble that boy was constantly in. Marideen didn’t know if she could keep up.
“What are we going to do about him?” Berret finally asked.
All three of the men opened their ears. This was clearly the question they all wanted to know the answer to. In only a few short weeks, Darian had seemed to work his way into the care and concern of all of her most trusted friends. It was an incredible sight to see and for once it didn’t seem to bother her. He was one of them, whether she liked it or not.
“Nothing,” she finally answered, “Knowing Darian, he has a plan, and there is nothing we can do right now. We get to the rendezvous point at the inn. There we can discuss what we can do next. I’ll be more comfortable once I have a warm building around me. Darian will have to fend for himself for a while.”
The men nodded, seemingly satiated with those comments. It didn’t seem to settle on her well though. She would be sleeping in comfort tonight, while Darian would be out on the plains, most likely being hunted like a dog. She fought down those kinds of thoughts. She had to move forward. She was starting to sound weak.
They continued to move their caravan of goods through the crowded streets at a slow but steady pace. The noise was bustling and loud. It had been some time since Marideen was last in a city and even she felt the urge to cover her ears every now and then. The smells were also quite a mix. Thankfully, any of the stink of a crowded city was overwhelmed by the smells of cooking. Many vendor stands and restaurants lined the streets as they made their way through, leading up to the market. Marideen’s mouth even watered at some of the smells as she passed.
The market itself was a massive roundabout with the top-selling vendors getting best pick of the closest and most marketable locations. People screamed their wares, pushed, and complained. It was basic city life in its purest form. Certainly nothing like the industrialized cities and worlds like Taerra. This was a completely different thing entirely.
Before long, they had moved towards the end of the marketplace. With skill and precision, Maximil redirected them to the front of a small three-story inn just a block off of the market place. It had been almost two hours since they had entered the city, but there was so much to see that the time had passed by quickly.
Most of the buildings in this area were constructed out of wood, giving a nostalgic frontier feel to the neighborhood. Marideen was surprised to see that it was already quickly falling into evening. The sun was already starting to set. She knew the days on this planet were shorter than Taerra’s, but she was still surprised how long it had taken them to get into the city. Of course, the crowds and Darian’s imprisonment didn’t help any.
Berret handed the reigns over to a stable hand, who guided the wagon to the side of the building and took the horses into cover. Marideen grimaced. The fact that this world still needed stable hands was a little off-putting. It wasn’t that she was one of those nobles who thought newer colonies were less civilized. She owned horses a long ago when she still lived on her father’s estate. Still, the differences between planets was jarring.
She had remembered reading some journals that suggested all of these farm subsidiaries and practices to help in the terraforming process didn’t really do anything. Some suggested they even hurt the planet as a whole, making terraforming harder. Conspiracy theorists went so far as to believe that the Taerran government encouraged planets to adopt these practices as a way of control. It kept newly formed colonies from growing too rapidly and kept their infrastructure weakened until they could be trusted to develop more advanced technology.
Marideen didn’t know where she fell on this. Ecosystems were often a cyclical thing. One man’s waste is another creature’s food and so on. It made a kind of sense, to produce waste in order to kickstart an ecosystem on a previously none life-sustaining planet. However, the few hundred thousand people seem like not nearly enough to make a global difference compared the like of technology.
A large, buxom woman opened the door, “Dears, it’s a pleasure to see you!”
She ran down a few steps while holding up a large flowery dress that splayed out around her like a giant flower. Before Marideen could react, she embraced Marideen in a massive hug. Marideen didn’t know what she would suffocate on first, the large billowing fabrics or the massive cleavage. When the woman finally let her go, Marideen inhaled a deep breath. If she hadn’t let her mind wander, she might have avoided the whole incident altogether.
“Zeia!” Berret called out, holding his hands as if to embrace her.
Zeia turned a dark glare toward him, “Don’t come up to me and expect hugs, Master Stone. It’s been ages. You don’t write. You don’t call.”
Berret put on such a look of bruised diffidence that Marideen almost choked, “But Zebee, I had all these things to do, saving the universe one planet at a time…”
Zeia snorted, “I see you still haven’t lost your touch for begging like a dog. Lord, I can see the wedding ring on your finger still.”
Berret snatched his hand behind him, giving a guilty grin of a young boy who just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Instead of being angry, she let out a throaty laugh, then came forward and hugged Berret. Marideen would have to find out one of these days how he did that. She never was that particularly good at dealing with people.
“And Maximil! It’s always good to see Marideen hanging around men with decent character as well!”
Maximil laughed while Berret put on another mock wounded look. They embraced before she turned to the last of the lot.
“And if it wouldn’t be the lord and lady’s prayers, Beiromon? So many thought you were dead,” Marideen made a strangled sound, but the innkeeper just waved it off as she embraced him. “Oh, it’s fine where we are. Most of these Taerrans seem to have the impression criminals do all their deeds in the bad areas of town. You’ll be quite safe inside my inn. Welcome to the Blushing Bride. Come on, let’s get you fed and out of the dark night. It’s supposed to start raining soon as well.”
Zeia turned, leading them back into the inn as the small group followed.
“I did want to apologize to you,” Marideen spoke up. “That we came so unexpectedly. Our plans…”
“Oh, think nothing of it, dear. Besides, your messenger arrived about an hour ago and let me know when you’d be here. Why, when he suddenly perked up, told me you were waiting outside, and I should be there to greet you I almost thought he was joking.”
The four looked at each other. A messenger had warned her about their coming. Oh no. She doesn’t mean him? As soon as she walked into the common room her gaze snapped on the table in the corner. Sitting at it was Darian, drinking a glass of nin water and staring right at her with a stupid grin on his face. Damn, but that man was unpredictable.
The three others of her party greeted him warmly as if they had been apart for weeks instead of just this morning. Darian was quite possibly the most wanted man in the entire city, and here he was sitting in the middle of a crowded common’s room drinking and chatting with friends noisily. This was absolutely ridiculous.
Perhaps Zeia could see the dark look on Marideen’s face. Perhaps she was a lot more logical than Marideen had initially given her credit for. Either way, before the men had settled down at the table with Darian as if that was even a viable option, she ushered them out into a private dining room.
“This will keep you out of the public eye, give you some quiet to discuss things, and I even have a television set up here. Costs me a bundle having satellite TV here, lose reception whenever there is a storm, but I think my guests should have certain conveniences of a civilized world.”
“Well, either way, why don’t you settle yourselves in and I’ll make something for you?”
They sat down, Marideen directly across from Darian, who decided to sit at one of the heads of the table.
“I have to say,” Beiromon was reiterating. “You had me a little worried when I saw you dragged away by several guards. Wasn’t quite sure how you’d get out of that one.”
“Well you see,” Darian announced, spreading out his hands as if beginning a tale, “I was surrounded by a dozen guards. However, as they dragged me into the depth of a cell…”
“You bit some prisoners and escaped through a hidden door, we know,” Maximil interrupted.
“I was going to tell the story. How did you guys know?” Darian sounded genuinely disappointed at his failure to showboat.
“Some guards let it slip just as they were releasing us. What I don’t understand is the hidden path let outside the city. How’d you get back in? And before us no less?”
“Well,” Darian seemed to perk up again, having at least something to tell, “There I was, trapped in a cell all by myself. Then I have a vision, and see the path leading out. What the guards don’t know is that there were two paths. One leading deep into the city, one out of it. I just left the door open for the one leading out.”
Realizing that was all he really had to say, Darian shrugged, taking another drink from his cup. The other men congratulated him as if he had actually accomplished something other than a simple cheat with his psychic abilities. Marideen could only roll her eyes. Soon, Zeia returned with two extra work hands. They passed out plates of simple foods and drink for the group to consume.
They hadn’t put in any kind of order with Zeia. Marideen imagined the young innkeeper just grabbed whatever was overstocked and served them that. However, she wasn’t complaining after weeks of rations. This was only the second non-ration meal she had in some time. In this case it was locally-bred chicken and a bowl of creamy soup with vegetables. Not a feast, but not bad by any sense of the word either.
After a bit, Maximil turned the television on, switching to a local news channel. This planet only had one, which happened to be based out of Port Geneva as the largest city on the planet.
“… this tragedy has struck us all. As we have been reporting, the Taerran government will pay handsomely for any information that can lead to the capture of Marideen Cleefe and the Lancers. Information is still coming in, but it looks like the total death toll from the destruction of Basalt is 324 men and women. Many of them were guards, a few even from the red guard, as they fought to protect Lord Aiden Boramont. On a routine inspection, the Lancers attempted an assassination of Lord Boramont, which strangely echoes the successful assassination of his brother some three years ago…”
“Bullshit,” Darian suddenly spoke out loud.
Beiromon nodded, “Painting it as an assassination instead of a deliberate trap where they lured us there. It’s a despicable lie.”
“No, three hundred twenty-four deaths. That is wrong.”
Marideen glanced over that her friends, “Darian, the station blew up. Many people would have died in that explosion.”
“No,” Darian shook his head while sitting back, “I made sure they survived. No one died. Everyone made it to an escape pod or ship before it hit the atmosphere. Not a single person died. Well… two died… but no one else.”
Marideen supposed he was talking about her father, but who was the second person he knew that died. Either way, he couldn’t have possibly believed that what he was doing would leave no casualties, could he?
“I know you are psychic, Darian, “Berret tried to reassure him. “But even if you can see the future, you couldn’t possibly know for certain that everyone made it out alright. There were a lot of people knocked unconscious. There was no saying if they were found, or if they woke up before it was too late. “
A look developed on Darian’s face that Marideen had never seen before. It looked like a mixture of pain, anger, and frustration.
“No one died,” he responded severely, causing Berret to throw out his hands.
“People always die,” Marideen responded curtly.
She had enough of this. His holier-than-though ideology was starting to grate on her nerves a bit. He needed to understand the reality of the situation. He needed to understand what was going on. Where he was going. What the Lancers were doing! These things would lead to some collateral damage, and he couldn’t stop it.
“The Taerran’s lied,” Darian responded stubbornly.
“You can’t save everyone.”
“This time I did.”
“No, you didn’t!” Marideen didn’t realize her voice was getting louder until she involuntarily stood and slammed her hands down.
Darian stood too, glaring out at her before turning away.
“Where are you going? We need to stay together!” Marideen’s expression turned to surprise as he walked away from the table.
“I need some time,” Darian snapped back.
“You are the most wanted man in the city. Showing your face out there is dangerous. You can get hurt.”
Darian looked over his shoulder one last time, “I know.”
He pushed out the doors of the private room, moving rapidly down the hallway into the commons room. Marideen followed after him with an exasperated expression on her face. He was already at the door leading out. Marideen could see that it was absolutely pouring outside. It was pitch black and the rain fell in a perpetual downpour.
“Darian,” Marideen called out, mustering up all of the authority and command she had in her voice and expression. “Don’t leave.”
He took one last look at her before turning and trudging out into the rain.