Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Hot Ojmons

Clad in dark rags, the servile-caste worker slumped his way into the Archraja's palace, ignored by the smartly-uniformed guards drilling out front. He made his way through the wide, well-lit, sumptuous corridors of the palace; until a steward saw him. Furious, the steward cast foul curses at the servile, demanding his name - which the servile gave as Rajpal - and hustling into the servants' passages before any high-ranking noble saw him. Reprimanding him harshly, the steward assigned Rajpal to dishwashing in a nearby kitchen; after seeing him (rather clumsily) begin the task, the steward departed - promising an eventual return to judge Rajpal's success - and shortly thereafter, so did Rajpal.

Now he walked briskly, carrying himself with a different air, holding a wrapped package (which he had purloined from the kitchen) under his arm; other servants flattened themselves along the walls of the cramped servants' passages as Rajpal went by, sensing in him the air of a Man on an Important Errand - no doubt in the employment of some powerful mover within the palace, whose purposes were best left unhindered for any servant desiring to retain his or her head. Rajpal cut a surprisingly indirect and, occasionally, circular passage through the palace for a man possessed with his air of purpose; nonetheless, he descended steadily. Through the basements he went, through the servants' quarters and perishables' storage and any number of other things stored in the capacious space beneath the Archraja's palace; and arrived at last to the deepest layer of all, far below the light of the sun; the Archraja's dungeons.

He was not long there before he was challenged by a guard. Rajpal explained himself with surprising erudition for a servile-caste: he was here to bring alcohol - that being the contents of his package - to a prisoner of the Archraja, who still had (very generous) friends within the Archraja's court. Rajpal had been instructed to bring the prisoner the liquours without delay, but certainly he might spend some short time drinking with this fine figure of a guard, who was so obivously willing to show him the way to complete his duties for his (very generous) patrons. The guard, initially suspicious, became remarkably amicable in demeanor; he approached Rajpal. Rajpal promptly thumped him on the head, twice, with the package he carried, which in reality held nothing more than a box filled with assorted silverware. The guard fell, comatose; Rajpal dragged him out of the light of the torches.

Presently, a guard emerged from those shadows, dressed the same as the one who had been abducted into them; he proceeded at a lazy pace through the dungeons, making small talk with the other guards. (Guard duties in the Archraja's palace were changed regularly, and so the guards were used to seeing unfamiliar faces in their ranks; there were too many of them for a mass familiarity to grow.) At length - again taking a rather circuitious route - this guard stopped at a dim-lit cell. He looked, with no great appearance of caring, both ways along the corridor in which he stood; seeing no-one, his appearance of attachment fell away, and he pressed himself to the jail-cell's bars, taking a torch from the wall to light its confines. Two pale, naked figures lay inside, motionless and seemingly insensate. "Gupta - old friend, old companion?" the guard whispered. '"Is that you?"

One of the figures, slowly, rose. "My name is Gupta," he said with difficulty, "Though it has been long since any has asked it - who are you? What do you want?"

"Don't you recognize me?" the guard asked, doffing his plumed hat with his off-hand. "It's me - Prince Khurram Shihab-ud-din Muhammad, Shabhi! Surely - they haven't blinded you, have they?"

"No," Gupta said, staggering towards the prison bars. He moved with the crippled gait of an arthritic ancient, yet when viewed closely, he was clearly nonesuch - indeed, he appeared to be scarcely older than Prince Khurram himself! "Not yet - but why have you come? To take such a risk, just to rescue me?"

"I am more responsible for your capture than you likely know," the Prince admitted with a look of sorrowful regret upon his face, "but even with that aside, that and the friendship that we shared, there are real strategic reasons to justify this risk. (Which is less than you might think - I did plan this expedition for some time!) You are invaluable, Gupta; your military insight is essential to our efforts, invaluable. You are the only man alive who can say that he defeated the Archrajah in battle even once - and you have done it twice!"

"You exaggerate," Gupta said with something resembling his old spirit, "but I will tolerate it, somehow. But - how do you plan to rescue me? Surely the sight of my battered carcass wandering the halls will draw no little attention."

"I have a plan," the Prince said excitedly, "and we have allies here, too. I have been in communication with certain elements of the Archraja's court-"

Gupta interrupted, his eyes wide. "Nobles? How much have you told them? Do they know that you're here?"

"Nobles, yes - but why this sudden concern?" the Prince asked, surprised. "They know that I plan to visit them soon, with a companion - though I did not specify that it would be you! - and might need assistance leaving - but no more than that. Certainly I did not tell them of our other allies, our efforts in the East - I am more cautious than you give me credit for, Gupta - but they are real friends, Gupta, our foothold into the lair of the Archraja himself! Once we have secured their trust, they -"

"They will betray you," Gupta said.

"You suspect?" Prince Khurram asked.

"I know," Gupta replied. Behind him, the other occupant of the cell was beginning to rise. "She knows, too," Gupta said, turning and pointing; "It's what she's here for. She was part of the cabal in the court, the false conspiracy against the Archrajah, designed to lure you into a trap; but she had a change of heart, and attempted to send warning to you. She was caught; and so arrived here at much the same time as I did."

The Prince was looking at her over Gupta's shoulder. "What happened to her?" he asked, his voice hushed. "She's burnt - scarred - her hand -"

"The Hot Ojmons happened to her," Gupta said.

Reflexively, Prince Khurram took a step away; he looked each way to be sure that no other guards were approaching, and then turned back to Gupta. "The Black Hands of the Archrajah? The Devils of the West, the Men Who Know Not Compassion?"

"That and more," Gupta agreed grimly. "They tortured her while I looked on; they forced me to watch, and told me that I would be next. They had no purpose in it; there was nothing to be gained from her pain. It was all intended to break - me."

"But you did not," Prince Khurram said, plucking keys from his belt. He employed them; the cell door swung open. "Now, we're getting out of here; all three of us. Come on, I think I've got a plan."

Gupta looked at him.

"What?"

"We have infiltrated the heart of the Archrajah's domain," Gupta said. "We are here, unsuspected, hidden. If there ever was a time to strike at the Devil himself, now is it."

Prince Khurram looked at him; then, slowly, he shook his head. "No, Gupta," he said. "You are too weak now; you must recover your strength. And no one man can penetrate to the Archrajah's throne. His paranoia is too deep; he allows no-one close. We cannot strike now; we must retreat, first, and prepare."

"He is a child!" Gupta exclaimed, a look of wild desperation in his eyes. "Surely - "

"No," the Prince said, laying a hand on Gupta's shoulder. "The Archrajah may not have yet seen his tenth summer, but his depravity and cunning exceed that of men ten times his age. He will suffer for what he has done to you; but not here. Not yet."

"So," the Prince continued to muse, "How shall I leave, with both you and this lady (to whom I have not yet been introduced) in tow, without raising all the Archrajah's men against me..."

It took cunning; but that Prince Khurram had in plentitude, and with Gupta by his side, no obstacle could surpass him. Two guards were ambushed; a small vault was plundered; a small procession co-opted; and the three companions won free from the Archrajah's palace. When he discovered it, the Archrajah would curse their names; for they alone dared to fight against the tyranny, his tyranny, that had cowed half the world.

1 comment:

Calvacadeofcats said...

no vas a entrar donde no te han llamado
no estoy atrapado