Read ArchEnemy Online

Authors: Frank Beddor

ArchEnemy (3 page)

CHAPTER 3
D
ODGE ANDERS—head of the palace guard, son of the late Sir Justice—was half-dressed in his quarters, but to the walrus-butler standing uncertainly before him, he seemed, even without the trappings of his military uniform, a man as fierce in combat as any Milliner. The guardsman’s undershirt was obscured by an ammunition belt that crossed in an X on his chest, AD52 projectile decks and shooter cartridges strapped along its surface save for areas taken up by a crystal communicator’s microphonic patch, audio output, and vid nozzle. And what with an AD52 holstered under each of Dodge’s arms, a crystal shooter strapped to each thigh, and whipsnake grenades pinned and dangling about his person, the walrus-butler might have been forgiven for thinking that weapons
were
the guardsman’s underthings.
“What do you think of this ratty old gown, Mr. Anders?” the creature asked, holding up the garment in question.
“Too showy,” Dodge said.
The walrus’s eyes widened at the gown’s plain weave, its dim color as of dried clay. The guardsman was proving impossible to satisfy, and the past lunar hours the butler had spent hurriedly waddling about the palace’s environs on his behalf had made him more anxious than usual. Trying to deposit the gown on to a heap of discarded clothes, he somehow got himself tangled up in it.
“Oh!” he cried, flippers flailing. “This is troublesome! Help!”
Dodge pulled the gown free, dropped it on the floor with the rest of the rejected items. “Anything else?”
“Anything . . . ? Oh, Mr. Anders, I have raided the servants’ closets. I have picked through the Bandersnatch Avenue Donation Bins, and I’ve begged among the shops on Heart Boulevard for whatever they might be willing to dispose of. I have, Mr. Anders, exhausted what I believe are the best sources of supply, but if you wish, if you insist, I will seek further afield for more.”
Dodge eyed the scant items brought by the walrus that he’d not yet dismissed as unsuitable: a wig, a sack-like smock, a pair of soiled stockings and another of worn sandals. In one respect, he admired Alyss for refusing to hide safely behind the palace gates, not content to rule according to reports delivered to her from advisers. He respected her warrior queen spirit, her determination to get into the muck of things, the better to decide what was best for the queendom.
And yet . . .
He wished she
would
hide safely behind the palace gates, abandon her plan of venturing out into a city so recently under siege by a foreign army and now being nipped at here and there by the Clubs’ rogue military. Why couldn’t Alyss rely on relayed intel like a normal queen? Why couldn’t she have conceded to him when—early in the afternoon, over tea and wondercrumpets—he’d asked her not to expose herself to undue risk? Especially because he’d appealed to her not as a guardsman concerned for his queen, but as one who cared for her above all others.
Just a single lunar phase earlier—though he’d wished otherwise, wanting always to keep her safe—Alyss’ need for his protection had been largely unnecessary due to her tremendous imaginative gift. But now that she was without imagination . . .
“You understand the importance of what we’re about here, walrus?” he asked. “To protect Queen Alyss, I need to dress her in clothes not
in the least
fit for a queen.”
The walrus-butler glanced at the mound of discarded garments, none of which he suspected any queen in any land would deign to wear. “I will go in search of more, Mr. Anders.”
The creature turned to leave, but Dodge stopped him with a sigh.
“No. It’s getting late.” He extended a hand toward the smock, wig, stockings and sandals. “These will have to do.”
They had better. The life of the woman he loved depended on it.
CHAPTER 4
T
HE SMAIL-transport came to an abrupt stop and the imaginationists crammed inside were ordered to disembark. One by one they emerged into the night, glad to be free from the transport’s stifling heat and humidity. Voices cluttered the air, crying out for mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives—family members who had been loaded on to transports and randomly dumped in different limbo coops. But there were other voices too, unfamiliar to the Croquet Court Lofts, belonging to imaginationists residing throughout the queendom, unwilling passengers of yet other transports, kidnapped from their everyday lives and calling in vain for their own missing relatives.
Sheer walls of dolomite seven meters thick rose to unseen heights around them. The road was unpaved, the structures on either side dilapidated, as if hurriedly thrown together out of garbage collected from construction sites.
“Welcome home!” a Six of Clubs mocked from his perch in a guard tower.
An imaginationist, desperate to escape, ran at the lone opening in the limbo coop’s wall. Like the demarcation barrier between Boarderland and Queen Alyss’ realm, it was secured by an impassable weave of lightning-like soundwaves, and the imaginationist could force only an arm and shoulder through it before his whole body spasmed and he was caught, his internal organs vibrating, generating ever increasing heat and burning him from the inside out.
“Congregating on the street is not allowed!” the Six of Clubs yelled, aiming a mauler rifle at the imaginationists, threatening an onslaught of quicksilver shards from its double barrel. “Idling is not allowed!”
Dragging their luggage, not knowing what to do or where to go, the crowd began to disperse, slowly at first, but more quickly when it became known that there weren’t enough living quarters to accommodate everyone. In single-room flats throughout the limbo coop, a scene played out over and over again, of broken families seeking adequate space for themselves having to confront a new enemy—not Clubs but their fellow prisoners.
“We were here first,” a voice said when a musician and his son entered a flat on the main thoroughfare. “Get out.”
“But
all
of the flats are occupied,” the musician answered.
From the dark where he’d been huddling with his family, an inventor emerged. At the Croquet Court Lofts, he and the musician were friends and had often enjoyed dinner together.
“Gebling?”
“There’s no room for you here,” the inventor said.
“But—”
The inventor shoved the musician’s son toward the door.
“Don’t
ever
touch him!” the musician yelled, and threw a punch, and then both men were on the floor, at each other with fists and elbows, their children trembling in silence, the inventor’s wife wailing for them to stop.
Thimp thimp thimp thimp!
Razor-cards splintered the floor. The fighting Wonderlanders paused, looked up and saw a pair of Club soldiers at the door. The Four of Clubs pushed in a large litter of a family.
“At least ten to a flat. No exceptions.”
The Three of Clubs, cradling his AD52, smirked at the musician and inventor. “You’re not allowed to kill each other. You leave the killing to us.”
Then the soldiers laughed, and were gone.
CHAPTER 5
I
N THE chamber beneath palace grounds, Alyss, Bibwit, and General Doppelgänger had gathered at the control desk to monitor the activity on Rocking Horse Lane, where surgeons were tending to wounded Heart soldiers.
“We’re certain the Diamonds and Spades have nothing to do with this?” Alyss asked.
At a nod from Bibwit, General Doppelgänger punched a code into the control desk’s interface panel. One of the viewing screens displayed the inside of a long, rectangular dormitory at the Crystal Mines—that system of tunnels in which Wonderlanders who violated the laws of society labored to excavate crystal from a mountain’s stubborn bedrock; where the wardens were strict but officious in their duty to rehabilitate prisoners and there was always an opportunity to regain one’s freedom. Unlike during Redd’s reign, when wardens had been commanded to turn every prisoner’s stay at the work camp into a death sentence.
“Is that . . . ?” Alyss said, watching the transmission from the Crystal Mines dormitory.
Hard to recognize her without all the finery, her haughty bearing, but could that be . . . ?
“The Lady of Diamonds, yes,” said Bibwit.
The lady was sitting up in bed, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands pressed to her ears to keep out her dorm mates’ pestering.
“I can’t hear you!” she whined.
“Didn’t have the luxury of swinging a pickax at that mansion of yours, eh?” a dorm mate teased.
“Tell us a story of wealth and power,” laughed another.
“I can’t hear you!” the Lady of Diamonds insisted. “I’m not in these dirty mines! I’m at home! I’m imagining that I’m home and—”
Splat!
A sopping rag hit her in the face. The dorm filled with laughter and General Doppelgänger directed the viewing screen back to Rocking Horse Lane.
“Lord Diamond is having a similarly difficult time adjusting to his new life,” Bibwit explained, “and so far we’ve found nothing to link the Diamonds to anti-imagination activities. As for the Spades . . .” he again nodded to the general, who brought up a visual of the Spades’ estate, on whose grounds Ten Cards from the Heart decks were training Spade soldiers, “they’ve offered you their full support and I’m sure they have nothing to do with fomenting strife within the queendom. It’s against those who have claimed their innocence throughout WILMA’s aftermath that we must direct our efforts.”
“The Clubs,” said General Doppelgänger. “The recent mauraudings of their soldiery have turned rumor into confirmed fact: The lord and lady are in open rebellion.”
“You have proof that the Lord and Lady of Clubs are to blame and not a renegade general of their military?” Alyss asked.
“I have reports from my Ten Cards.”
“Which to my mind, general, rely too much upon assumptions.”
It had been a shock to learn: Her mother’s noble intentions, the principles of White Imagination inspirational to so many Heart queens in the exercise of their power, meant nothing to citizens who had always resented the ruling family. Not Black Imaginationists, but a more subtle and thus perhaps more subversive group—ordinary Wonderlanders jealous of anyone possessing imagination, regardless of how weak. Alyss wanted, needed, to see these unhappy citizens for herself, to find some clue that would help her understand their resentment. Which was why she’d made certain plans for tonight.
“Chessmen have been despatched to question the lord and lady?” she asked.
Bibwit’s ears swiveled. “Yes, my dear, but now that their machinations are out in the open, they themselves seem to have gone underground.”
“Surely, their absence confirms their guilt,” pressed the general.
Tzzzz.
Up above, the chamber hatch opened. Footsteps descended toward Alyss and her two advisers, the tread familiar yet somehow strange, as if whoever it was had sustained an injury that altered his usual gait or—
“Let’s do this.”
A stiff, unsmiling spirit-dane wrangler stood before them, the dirt of the stables staining his beard and the hair that poked out from beneath his helmet. Reins and spurs hung from the belt of his faded jumpsuit. He wore thick-heeled boots that reached nearly to his knees and carried under his arm what looked like a bundle of saddle blankets.
General Doppelgänger’s hand went instinctively to his holstered crystal shooter. Bibwit’s ears folded back and his mouth opened in disbelief. How could a stranger have managed to locate, let alone enter, the queen’s secret Heart Chamber?
“Dodge,” Alyss said.
The general released his weapon and Bibwit pretended to yawn.
“Had you and the general fooled for a gwormmy-blink, Bibwit?” Dodge asked.
“I am
not
pleased to admit it.”
“But I’m glad to hear it, because if we can fool you . . .” Dodge handed his bundle to Alyss. “I brought this so you could change here. We need to leave. Now.”
Alyss hesitated, picked at the bundle’s fabric. “It was so much easier to disguise myself when I had imagination. I simply envisioned myself in an unfamiliar costume and there I’d be, wearing it.”
Dodge stroked her hair—hair that was his responsibility to save from harm, that he wished to see turn gray with age in future years. “By the time your imagination returns,” he said, “there won’t be a need for disguises. I promise.”
Alyss smiled, not without sadness, and retired to the floor of the chamber to change clothes.
Bibwit cleared his throat. “Having spent several lifetimes in study,” he said to Dodge, “I should point out that disguises are a necessary part of our daily lives. For instance, a Wonderlander might disguise herself as duly impressed with a friend’s quartz mosaic, all the while thinking the piece poorly executed. Half a lunar cycle later, this same Wonderlander might give a colleague a poem she’d written, and this colleague, instead of saying what he thinks, which is that it’s the worst poem ever conceived, pretends to enjoy it.” (Here Dodge stopped listening, though he appeared attentive enough.) “It would be a rude world indeed,” the tutor continued, “if Wonderlanders didn’t disguise themselves thus, with everyone constantly scoffing at everyone else. Can you imagine? No, excuse me, bad choice of words in our current predicament. But try to picture a Wonderland in which every citizen fails to disguise her true feelings, unable or unwilling to mask hurt, anger, dislike and dissatisfaction, however momentary.” (Here General Doppelgänger fell to polishing the buttons of his uniform with his coat sleeve.) “I realize I’m just a scholar with infinite wisdom, but I submit to you that disguises are as much a part of ourselves as our arms or legs, our—”
“Here she is!” Dodge cried, relieved, as Alyss returned from the chamber floor.
“My queen,” General Doppelgänger observed, “you look just like a farmer’s maid.”
“That
is
the idea,” said Dodge.

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