5/1/1272 17:00 The Anbirujima prisoner of war camp
Smile as you lead them out. Their ransom was a mere embarrassment for the Jasmine Throne. Your Regency, thanks to our intelligence community’s efforts, is preserved. It’s to your advantage to blame the Moriyumans.
Tselenah has read the tear-stained note over and over. She found it in her room at Princess Okiku’s palace. Saved from a ruinous political suicide by her mother’s quick thinking, all Tselenah can think about is that this overwhelming victory cost her the man she loved, the man she defied her mother to marry.
She’s waiting in a carriage whose windows have been painted black and nailed shut. She travels to a place just a mile out of town – a place unknown to Princess Okiku’s people. When the locked door finally opens, a surly-looking Esokudo samurai motions Tselenah forward into a dark, torchlit cave. The smell of urine and feces assails her nose. The samurai grunts and points deeper into the cave. He hands Tselenah a set of keys, then gets in the carriage. It turns about and leaves.
No guards occupy the pickets anymore. Tselenah passes a crude kitchen where no food supplies remain then passes the latrines used by the guards.
She finally gets to the massive cavern, accessible only by one tiny door held by one very thick padlock. There is an extra torch mounted in a bracket on the wall. She unlocks the lock, opens the door, and finds a tunnel whose end she cannot see, the source of the smell.
Going to her hands and knees, holding the torch out before her, she crawls through a tunnel pockmarked with murder holes. The tunnel goes on ten, fifteen, twenty yards. The murder holes disappear. The smell gets worse than it was at the tunnel’s entrance.
At last, the torch emerges to moans, screams, and cries. Tselenah stands up.
More than three hundred sailors crowd into a space suitable for perhaps half their number. As far as the light of the torch extends, the sailors shy away, revealing a nest fouled by its inhabitants.
“From the Eoisle Tsiarkeh, I am firstborn Princess of the Blood Tselenah, Regent!” she shouts. “I have come to take you home.”
She brings the torch down to reveal her pale face and the widow’s black lace bonnet she wears. She further lowers the torch to reveal the tunnel from which she emerged.
“Out!” she shouts. “Move!”
The sickly soldiers shamble in the salt-eaten rags that were once their uniforms. As they wordlessly shuffle by the princess, she sees sickness and disease that will claim the lives of some. She sees evidence of torture on others. She doesn’t see her brother.
It takes nearly an hour to get three hundred and seventy-nine Arghentian naval officers and enlisted persons out through the tunnel. Tselenah’s torch dims and flickers on the edge of failure by the time she walks through the fetid cesspit to see there’s anyone who can’t move.
When she emerges, she gasps.
The obviously-starved sailors are skin and bones. She feels filthy in her luxurious gown. They stare at her with hollow, haunted eyes, squinting even at torchlight.
“Attention!” she shouts. “Line up and sound off! Name and rank!”
The sailors weakly shuffle into formation, their ghostly shouts barely audible. Her brother does not answer, but the Ensign she promoted for bringing her the news of the fold point opening does. She rapidly approaches him.
“Have you seen my brother?” she pleads.
“I saw him in the last lifeboat of the Gallant,” the Ensign says. “Not since.”
Tselenah’s jaw quivers.
“We need to leave,” she says. “I’ll show you the way out. Sailors, about-face! Forward!”
They go through the darkened tunnel, their steps plodding and slow but in synch thanks to Arghentian military discipline. Everyone squints when they emerge. Then the screaming starts.
Lined up fifty to a side on the wooded road leading from the secret cave, Moriyuman citizens rot, impaled on bamboo poles driven into their anuses and up through their gaping, silently screaming mouths. Ravens pick at the fresh flesh. Tania recognizes the magistrate who interrupted her humiliation last night, next to a woman she presumes to be his wife and their five children. Displayed naked and torturously slain is every merchant her husband contacted yesterday on his fateful shopping trip, all their family members, and all their employees. No one is left alive to detail the failure of the Jasmine Throne’s intelligence operation.
Bile rises in Tselenah’s throat at the sight of the horrific tableau. Her disgust is amplified when she turns to the sailors and sees them staring not in horror but hungrily at the unmoving carrion around them. She covers her mouth, overwhelmed with pity, sorrow, and disgust that she, as their leader and Regent, dares not voice.
“Forward!” she bellows, seeing a few sailors step towards the slain, but the sailors are beyond listening. They descend on the ripening bodies like a plague of locusts, tearing at the flesh with their teeth and ripping out the guts with their hands. Tselenah screams and staggers to the roadside. She falls to her hands and knees and vomits.
The sailors tear the bodies apart, ravenously devouring the raw human meat and organs in an orgy of pent-up hunger. It takes an hour for them to strip the impaled bodies of their flesh while they fend off the vultures and ravens that compete with them for the precious food. Tselenah averts her eyes in shock and disgust until she hears the Ensigns calling their commands to order once their gruesome meal is complete.
Tselenah’s horrified brain quivers on the edge of shock. Her body shudders with revulsion. “Forward!” she shouts. The satiated troopers follow, new energy in their steps. They go no more than fifty yards past the scattering of human bones the sailors left behind before Tselenah sees something white lying in the road ahead, just before the road crosses with the main East-West avenue that leads back to town.
She runs forward, her heart pounding and panic choking her breath. There she sees her brother, naked, covered in honey, and staked out in the middle of the road. As she draws closer to him, she sees the wasps hovering about his fingers and toes.
When she falls frantic and weeping by his side, she sees hundreds of ants.
She tears off her over-skirt and tries to wipe away the thick, viscous honey. It’s a hopelessly slow task. She looks around at the thick rawhide bindings on Talon’s neck, wrists, and ankles.
She pulls at them, tearing her nails as she tries to grip them. Frantic, her sanity crumbling, she looks back at her ghoulish sailors. “Help me!” she shouts.
Sailors of both genders run forward, licking their lips. Tselenah screams. They push her aside.
The sailors lick the honey from the bound victim, never lingering lest they bite their prince.
They ignore stinging wasps and biting ants as more sailors join in the task while others gnaw at the rawhide bindings with their teeth. Tselenah sits, hugging herself in abject fear for minute after agonizing minute, staring in blind terror at the throng around her brother. She silently prays that the would-be saviors got enough to eat.
Half an hour later, the dazed Talon weakly rises, his albino body badly sunburned and covered with painful stings, welts, and bites. He’s naked and will continue to burn in the dying light of day until the parade can find clothing for him. Although not starved and filth-ridden like the other sailors, the young Duke has a different problem. He’s drug-addled. A brief attempt to discern his status produces nothing but confused babble. At her wit’s end, Tselenah again silently prays to Marwbren that her brother isn’t permanently brain-damaged.
The group marches east on the main road to find a shuttered town. All the buildings sport black funeral wreaths. At the center of the city, in the middle of the market square, near the fountain, Talon’s cleaned, pressed military uniform rests on hangers and is protected under sheets of wax paper. His shoes sit under the hanging clothes, polished and laced with new laces. A dozen black, long-stemmed roses are wrapped in rice paper. A roster of the captives rests on the fountain edge beneath the roses. In the roses is a single card.
This is not over yet.
The ensigns corral the wandering, incoherent young Duke and dress him. He screams in pain as the fabric touches his sun-baked skin. Once he’s fully uniformed, Tselenah takes his hand, her face twitching and her hands trembling. She can see the ferry boat ahead, about a quarter of a mile. She can also see the main East-West road thickly carpeted with razor-sharp caltrops.
She looks back at the sailors. They’re barefoot.
In front of the hostages, the Regent breaks.
She falls to her knees in the middle of the market square, clutching her head with her curled fingers.
Her eyes widen. Her mouth opens. A ragged scream echoes through the deserted streets. The Ensigns check the surrounding east-west blocks. They come back and line up in front of the broken, trembling, weeping Regent and report with salutes.
“They’ve mined all east-west roads in the city between here and docks with caltrops, Your Highness,” the first Ensign reports.
“They’ve been soaked in Urchin’s Blood, Your Highness,” the second Ensign reports. “It’s sure death from even a nick.”
She rises, jerking and twitching, her jaw trembling, a look of broken terror on her face. “These people are demons!” she rants.
One of the Ensigns motions to the first rank of enlisted sailors. They step forward.
“You five go north from the square, you five go south,” he says. “Go the city gates on this road, survey the East-West roads and report back.”
“Sir, yes sir!” they respond with salutes and patter off as instructed. Within ten minutes, they return.
“Mined, sir!” the north team reports. “Right up to the beltway!”
“They shut the south gate, and the portcullis is down!” the south team reports. “The east-west roads to the south are mined.”
“To the north then,” Tselenah shouts. “Forward!”
The march up the main north-south road to a cadence set by the Ensigns. Over the bridge across the River An, they march, and then out the north gate.
The first rock hits Tselenah square in the forehead. She screams and falls back, blood streaming from the wound.
Twenty thousand Anbirujima citizens line the external beltway on both sides between the party and the docks. They pummel the party with rocks and garbage, shouting obscenities. The city walls, plastered with signs deriding their pathetic ships. The characters decry the Arghetnians’ utter naval incompetence and the hubris of the Arghentian Regent. All the bills are translated into perfect Arghentian by professional sign makers.
It’s a half-mile-long gauntlet. It’s at least cathartic for Tselenah to see her enemies finally. Bruised and battered, she finally makes it to the ferry but stays soaking up the spite of the Moriyuman citizens until the last of her sailors is aboard.
Tselenah’s bureaucratic retinue, twenty-five scribes, lesser diplomats and attendants, sit beaten and shivering in the ferry. Tselenah’s luggage, dresses costing thousands, perfumes costing hundred, has been removed from the suitcases and casually tossed onto the floor of the ferry. The sailors trample the luxurious items before they even notice what’s underfoot. The Regent staggers on the vessel as it lurches into motion. When she emerges on the small island that holds the Anbirujima fold point, she can still hear the people of the town shouting at and ridiculing her.
She guides the sailors through the Fold Point. They emerge and hustle into a rainy Spring afternoon in their home nation. Upon seeing the skyline of Queen’s Convent, the shame of their loss and the horror of what they did to survive hits all of them. They load onto the only ferry still in operation in dreadful, shamed silence but for the weeping of a few who cannot bear the burden of their transgressions.
A private Tsiarkeh vessel awaits at the dock for the Regent and the Duke of Bedalm.