The ground was wet. Oreilin could smell it before she even stepped off the dirigible landing. But it wasn’t the dampness that surprised her. It was the loam.
“I thought we were going to a city,” she said, turning to her guide, Rodget. “Somewhere covered in concrete and artificial turf?”
“We could hardly land directly inside the city, Your Highness,” replied Rodget with a hint of smugness that irritated the young princess.
“And why not? Don’t they have landing pads on their roofs or something?”
“They do. But not for a craft as large as ours.”
“As large as mine, you mean,” she was quick to correct him. Perhaps a bit too quick. “I’m sorry, Rodge,” she said. “I am particularly irritable after such a long journey, and now I discover the trip isn’t over yet.”
“Perfectly understandable, Ma’am. I promise it won’t be much longer now. You’ll be able to dine within the hour.”
“And what makes you think my mind is on food?”
“Yes,” Oreilin confessed. “But it’s not polite to point it out.”
“Beg pardon, Ma’am.”
Oreilin wanted to slug Rodget. She knew he delighted in teasing her, and she simply wasn’t in the mood at the moment. But she sighed, lifted her skirts, and allowed him to lead her by the elbow across the field, with an umbrella in his other hand to keep off the trickling rain. Somewhere behind them, servants unloaded the luggage and followed; a few muttered curses at the weeping sky, which Oreilin thought patently unfair considering this was the first rain in several months that this region had enjoyed.
Smells continued to assault her as they walked, and she deduced several things within a matter of seconds: they were in a field; that field belonged to a farm; and someone was baking bread.
Heavenly bread. And butter. And roasted vegetables. And pork.
“Are we dining here?” Oreilin asked, daring to hope.
“We haven’t been invited,” Rodget replied, and the princess’ stomach dropped. “Shall I ask the proprietor?”
“What? No. No no no no.” She would not be so rude, no matter how much her stomach grumbled.
Rodget laughed– laughed!
“If we were back in Alturia right now, I’d have you fired on the spot for suggesting such a thing.”
Rodget laughed even harder, then sobered as Oreilin glared in his direction. But he knew he was safe from her threats. She didn’t have the authority to fire him; and even if she did, she wouldn’t. He was the best guide she’d ever had, and the only one she trusted with her entire being– her body, her heart.
Very few people knew Princess Oreilin was Enhanced, but Rodget was one of them. She’d told him herself months ago; her parents didn’t know that he knew. They hadn’t authorized the information, but she’d decided it was her right to tell whom she chose.
She’d confided other things in him as well. Maybe it was naive of her. Maybe someday she’d regret allowing him to know her so completely. He’d even seen her naked once, though that had been an accident and quickly remedied and he’d apologized profusely until Oreilin yelled at him to shut up about it.
They passed the farmhouse, ambled down a pebble-strewn road, and finally she felt the expected concrete beneath her feet– blessed, hard, smooth concrete. The rain ceased and the clouds parted. Oreilin jiggled her arm, signaling to Rodget that he could hold her less firmly, now that she could be more sure of her footing. She knew not to set off without him completely, though. Not in as unfamiliar a place as Berea Prime. Rodget was her safety.
Towering structures surrounded them soon as they rode a private railcar further into the heart of the city. Oreilin couldn’t see them, but she felt them– felt their shadows cast upon her through the tall plexiglass windows, blocking the warmth of the late-spring sun. The trains in Alturia were ancient compared to this modern marvel of transportation which she now rode. Beneath her feet the railcar ran smooth as water across the track and she held fast to this observation to distract her from her growing anxiety as they neared– at long last– their destination. She had been summoned to Berea Prime by the Emperor, for what purpose she knew not. She had her suspicions, of course; but why waste brain cells on hypotheticals?
She’d face whatever was coming soon enough.
Fenrick had heard the news, of course, spread like last decade’s Kellinic Plague. “There’s a princess coming to the city!” “From Berea Octavus.” “Where’s that?” “North. I think.” “No, west.” “I’ve heard she’s blind.” “I’ve heard she’s ugly.” “She has eleven siblings; no wonder the kingdom is so poor.”
It was Fenrick’s privilege– not that he cared– to be one of the first to either corroborate or refute at least one of these rumors before most of the rest of the city:
The princess was not ugly. She’d arrived at the station accompanied by several servants, including a Berean bodyguard– or perhaps more than a bodyguard, Fenrick realized as he watched how tenderly the man escorted the princess to her seat on the train.
Fenrick drove the private car along the track, slowing or stopping as necessary for pedestrians of both human and animal variety. It was nearing twilight and a pack of dogs halted right on the track, rooting at the ground for several minutes.
A small window opened behind the driver’s cabin and an anxious female voice spoke through the gap. “Why are we stopped? Has the train malfunctioned? We haven’t reached the palace, have we?”
“No, Your Highness,” Fenrick replied to the last inquiry first. “We still have a way to go. There are some dogs on the track; we’ll move forward again as soon as they leave.” He let drop the matter of a malfunctioning train, though his first inclination was to take offense at the mere suggestion. Perhaps the princess was not used to such high-quality transportation, and had experienced many broken-down cars in her lifetime.
“Oh,” said the princess.
“This train is one of the securest on the line; I guarantee I’ll get you safely to your destination.”
“Oh,” said the princess again. “Thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure,” replied Fenrick, noting with a hint of surprise that he meant it. The dogs at last left the track, and he pulled the lever to release the wheel locks. The car jerked and shuddered, then rolled smoothly along again, picking up speed by the second. Fenrick heard the window latch closed behind him.
At the same moment, he glanced up just in time to see a car about fifty yards ahead explode in a burst of flame and dark smoke. Losing no time, Fenrick stomped down hard on the brake and pushed the locking lever. Within seconds the car stopped, and Fenrick threw open the hatch which led to the rest of the spacious train car.
The first fragments from the explosion had already begun to pelt the outside of the car, and it was only a matter of time before something penetrated the thin metal walls. Fenrick scanned the car and spotted the princess almost immediately, thrown to the floor in the force of the rapid braking. Her eyes stared toward the ceiling without blinking. “My ankle,” she moaned.
The Berean man knelt over her. Fenrick joined him, but rather than waste his breath he stooped down and picked up the princess.
“Let her go,” growled the bodyguard.
“Rodge. It’s alright,” said the princess.
“We must leave this car now,” Fenrick said with a grunt. “Follow me.”
“I’ll carry her, then.”
Fenrick eyed the man up and down. He might be strong enough. But Fenrick was strong enough, and knew this train car better than anyone. “No time to argue,” he said. “Bring her things, if you can.”
“What about the others?”
Fenrick remembered the servants for the first time. “All of you!” he bellowed. “This way!” Then he darted down the length of the car to the back, where he kicked open the escape hatch with his feet. They’d be more sheltered exiting this way than through the main side door. “You first,” he said to Rodge. “I’ll hand her down to you.”
The man nodded, and the feat was soon accomplished. The princess whimpered as Fenrick lowered her from the train to her companion’s waiting arms. Once the two of them cleared away, Fenrick assisted the others in their escape, until only one remained.
A very tall, broad man stared down at the hatch. “I won’t fit through there,” he said.
Fenrick sighed, then reached down and gripped the edge of the hatchway. He grunted and pulled, until slowly the metal bent back and tore at the seams to create a wider opening. Standing back, he motioned to the man again. The man stared for several seconds, but after more insistent waving he finally shook himself and disappeared out of the train. Fenrick followed.
The others had lost no time in moving as far away from the blast as possible– at least they had some sense. Fenrick ducked out of the way of a piece of flying tin and looked back, horrified by the massiveness of the explosion.
The affected three-car train was a public transport; there could have been hundreds of people on it, heading home after a long day of school and work. There’s nothing I can do. They’re all dead. He turned again and stumbled away.
But then he heard the cries. He muttered a curse, and then leaving his hesitation behind, he ran.
Toward the train.
The searing heat burned his flesh, but he covered his face with his arm and pressed on as fast as he could run, which was faster than most other men. He ducked more debris and reached the rear car, less damaged than the others (the blast must have originated near the front). “Ho!” he hollered.
“Help us!” came the muffled reply.
“How many of you are there? Alive,” he added.
“I don’t know. Ten?”
Fenrick cursed again. “Can you walk?”
“Yes. But we can’t get the hatch open; it’s blocked.”
“By…” the voice paused and retched. “…a body.”
Fenrick pushed down his own bile. “Can you move it?”
“Please,” the voice pled– a woman’s voice, Fenrick realized. Or perhaps a young boy. “It’s our schoolmaster and he’s really big. Please help us.”
Fenrick heaved a deep breath, deciding at once what to do. “Stand away from the hatch,” he ordered. “Press tight against the walls.” He waited a number of seconds, reared back, and then rammed forward, jumped, and slammed himself against the rear wall.
The seams were strong and it took three attempts, but Fenrick at last broke through. He smiled at the satisfying pop of the screws as they came loose, then pushed one more time at the metal sheeting until it gave way under his brute force.
The metal tore into the flesh of the body on the floor below, but Fenrick forced himself to ignore the sickening sight and scanned the car instead. Several small bodies peeled themselves away from the walls, and approached Fenrick slowly, awe-struck.
The train car rattled, and Fenrick roared, “Off! Now! Run!” He grabbed the nearest boy and shoved him toward the opening. After that, the other children understood and lined up quickly. One by one, Fenrick lifted them through and dropped them down to safety; it was five feet to the ground but most of them landed on their feet. They ran as fast as their short legs could carry them. There had been fifteen in all.
The smoke grew thicker, pouring in through the opening as the wind shifted, and Fenrick succumbed to a fit of coughing. His lungs filled. He couldn’t breathe. As a last-ditch effort he plunged through the hole, barely thinking to tuck his body before the world went dark.
“What. Just. Happened?” Oreilin spoke through gasping breaths once they all felt safe enough to stop running– or in Oreilin’s case, limping. The cloud of smoke still rose in the distance; its stench filled her nostrils and she wanted to gag. Burning gas. Burning rubber. Burning flesh. This would ruin her appetite for days. Maybe she’d never eat meat again.
Rodget remained close, placing a protective arm around the princess. “We should rest here,” he said. “Wait for someone to come looking for us, rather than risk getting lost in this maze of a city.”
Oreilin nodded. Not that she had much choice. “Describe where we are,” she said.
So Rodget did. They were in a residential neighborhood, full of close-together houses and tiny fenced yards. Curious onlookers were exiting their homes and making their way to see what was going on. Some walked right past the refugees to watch the aftermath of the explosion, but some other more empathetic souls began asking Oreilin and her company what they could do to help. Oreilin requested water for everyone.
A group of school children showed up, declaring that a strong man had saved them. Rodget, after looking around, muttered, “Must have been that driver.”
“Is he not here?” Oreilin asked, panic rising in her chest. The man had saved her life, and she’d feel terrible to learn that he’d lost his own. She sniffed the air, hoping to catch his scent; but the smoke interfered and left her uncertain of anything. “Someone has to go back,” she said. “If anyone deserves rescuing now, it’s him.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Rodget. “There are copters putting out the flames now; they’ll find him if anybody can.”
“I hope so…” Oreilin sat on a bench Rodget had found for her and nursed her ankle. “Do you think they’re missing us at the palace yet?”
“Hard to say. I don’t know what time they were expecting us.”
A kindly pair of women showed up with jugs of water and began distributing cups of the welcome liquid. Oreilin drank deeply, then snorted a small amount to clear her nasal passage. Rodget handed her a handkerchief and she blew; it took two more handkerchiefs before she declared the job satisfactory. She still smelled smoke, but now she could smell other things, too, which had been masked before by the ash in her nose.
“Those poor children must be so frightened,” she said after a while.
“They are being taken care of as best as can be,” replied Rodget. “They all have water, and snacks, and blankets.”
But Oreilin demanded to be taken to them anyway. “Hello,” she said when Rodget stopped her in front of the group. “My name is Oreilin; I’m from Alturia.”
“Are you that princess?” asked one brave little girl.
Oreilin laughed, a kind, sparkling sound amid the gloom of recent events. “Yes,” she said. “And I’m afraid I’m feeling very lost and alone right now. I’ve never been to Berea Prime before.”
Before long, a small hand reached up and grabbed her; Oreilin smiled. “I’ll help you, Princess Oreilin,” said a young voice with a slight lisp.
“Me, too!” piped up another. Then another. All of the children were eager to play host, guide, and guardian. Finally, one last voice said in tremulous tones, “I know what it’s like to feel lost.”
After that, the next several minutes were filled with all the children sharing hugs and reassurances from the princess, who had stooped down low to receive them all. None of them seemed to notice her blindness, or if they did they said nothing about it. Oreilin relaxed and smiled, basking in the warmth and joy surrounding her after her previous terror.
Official help arrived within the hour, consisting of a small envoy from the palace sent to reassure the princess and escort her safely to her original destination. But when she paused to ask what would happen to the children, the only reply she got was, “It’s someone else’s job.”
That was alarm number one.
They loaded her directly into a copter, leaving the servants to find alternative transport. The guard in charge didn’t put up too much of a fight when Oreilin demanded that Rodget stay with her, but he didn’t sound pleased about it.
That was alarm number two.
The copter seats were quite comfortable, and a woman helped her bind her ankle, then brought her water and towels to clean herself. There was nothing to do for her ash-stained clothing, but the servant reassured her that they’d find her something more suitable at the palace before her audience with the Emperor. “I do hope we’re not too late,” the woman added, fretting. “He gets quite angry when things don’t happen exactly on schedule.”
That was alarm number three.
What was Oreilin getting herself into? She’d heard very little about the Emperor other than official news. Nothing about his personality, or character, or even what he looked like. It was strictly forbidden to represent the Emperor’s personage in any form.
“The Emperor is not a kindly man, then?”
“Kind!” The woman scoffed. “Why should an emperor be kind?” She took the bowl of ash-water and shuffled away to the rear of the copter. Her scent left with her– a mix of honey and lemon and yeast. It was a pleasant smell, after the horrors of the train ride.
Oreilin leaned back and closed her eyes; she really was exhausted. She felt she wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a long nap in a soft bed to feel right again, or as right as she could feel in a foreign land.
Mercifully, when they arrived at the palace she was taken directly to her new quarters and informed that the Emperor would see her tomorrow. Her attendant– the same woman who had served her in the copter– officially introduced herself as Kamelain.
“Are you Alturian?” asked Oreilin, recognizing the nationality of the name.
“No, Ma’am. My parents just liked the sound of it.”
Strange, the way they did things here, paying no heed to the origin of a name. What else would Oreilin learn during her stay?
“May I send word to my parents that I’ve arrived?”
“There is a com-pad on the desk,” Kamelain replied. “But it hasn’t been set up with speech recognition…”
“I would appreciate it if that were amended soon,” said Oreilin, laboring to keep the irritation out of her voice– the Emperor should have been informed of her limitations. “Rodget can be my typist this evening.”
Rodget, who had stood silently beside her till now, shifted and affirmed the princess’s statement.
“Very well,” said Kamelain. “I will send a manservant to collect your…”
“Guide,” Oreilin supplied.
“Your guide, in an hour. I will return then as well to prepare your bath and put you to bed.”
“Thank you, that would be most kind.”
They stood and waited for Kamelain to depart, then Rodget turned to his charge. “I think you’ll be glad you couldn’t see the way that woman looked at me,” he said. “She must think we’re secret lovers.”
Oreilin laughed. “And are you beet-root red now? I would like to see that.”
“Please,” said Rodget, in a strained voice.
“Oh, Rodge.” Oreilin began to lean in, then thought better of it and straightened herself. “I suppose it’s just not the custom here for menservants to be left alone with ladies. If that is the case, I hope they will continue to make exceptions for us. I’d feel so lost and alone here without you.”
Rodget coughed, then changed the subject. “Speaking of being lost and alone, that was quite the display you put on with the children this afternoon. The word ought to spread rapidly throughout the city what a soft-hearted, personable princess you are.”
“Oh, dear,” said Oreilin, finding the bed and flopping onto it (ooh, it felt like a cloud!). “I do hope it doesn’t portray me as weak to the Emperor. I still don’t know what he wants, and so I hardly know how I ought to behave.”
“Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll be clever enough to handle it.”
“I hope so.”
They lapsed into silence, aside from Rodget’s occasional pacing across the plush carpet. After a few minutes, he began describing the room, so that Oreilin would have a better chance finding her way around once she was left alone for the night. He took special care to give directions to the bathroom, though no doubt Kamelain would do the same once she returned.
“What shall I write to Their Majesties?” he asked at last, noting the rapid passage of the hour. “Shall I tell them of the explosion?”
“And make them worry? Certainly not. I’m safe now, so no need to alarm them. Tell them the journey was uneventful, and I’m seeing the Emperor tomorrow.”
“Is that all?” Rodget asked, as he powered up the com-pad.
Oreilin considered a moment, then nodded. “That’s all. Oh, and send love to the little ones.” With four siblings older than herself, she already had several young nieces and nephews, and she missed them terribly.
Rodget typed the message and sent it. Mere minutes later Kamelain reappeared and practically shooed Rodget out of the room.
Then she scolded the princess for dirtying the bed cover. “Those ash stains will never come out,” she fretted.
Oreilin apologized, but Kamelain merely clicked her tongue, then ordered her charge to remove her clothing and throw the outer shell in the fireplace. “Nevermind,” she amended, remembering Oreilin’s blindness. “Better not risk you burning your hands; I’ll take care of it myself.”
Oreilin didn’t know what felt more offensive: the insinuation that her Alturian clothing wasn’t worth trying to save; or the idea that Oreilin couldn’t navigate her way around a fireplace. After all, she would have smelled the nearby heat before she felt it. But she held her tongue on both counts, and obediently began to disrobe. When she heard the water running into the bathroom tub and smelled the accompanying soaps and spices, her fingers moved even more eagerly, undoing button after button in her haste to bathe.