Riva checked the map to get their bearings. “Looks like the office is that way.” She pointed to the right and Dalziel nodded.
“So what’s your story?” he asked as they started down the hall, keeping an eye out for guards or researchers.
“Orphan. Trying to get to Castellan. I understand that being on my own is easier there than anywhere else.”
“You do have that right.” He held an arm out as they ducked into an alcove while waiting for a guard to turn his back. “I spent a year or two there myself, trying to find out where she’d been taken. If you are going to try to make it on your own strength, Castellan is the place to do it. If you’ve got the aptitude for it…” he paused for another guard, “the Order of Knights of Castellan even accepts females. In honor of Lady Arie, I suppose.” He grinned at her. “I think you would be a stunning Knight, myself. I think you would be a stunning anything. Has anyone told you that your eyes are gorgeous?”
She grinned. “Actually, no, they haven’t. Thank you for the sentiment.”
“You’re kidding right? I cannot imagine that no one has showered you with compliments and sweet nothings for an amazing set of peepers. Your whole ensemble, for that matter, is staggering. Where have you been all my life?”
She chuckled. “Apparently we ran in different circles. I haven’t actually had a chance to hear many compliments.” She spotted some guards. “Hold up, swords ahead.” They ducked into a doorway until the coast was clear again.
“May I call you friend? I just have the sudden feeling that we could work very well together.”
“I would love that. And I second that feeling. What’s your story?”
“Always wanted to be a Pirate. I’m thinking that I might find my way to make that dream come true when I get her out of here. When she vanished, I ran away to find her. I was the only one who was going to. They were just going to forget that she ever lived. Assumed that she’d run away on her own. Renna wouldn’t do that.”
“Who is she?”
“My sister. Half-sister, really. Older than me, was as much my mother as the one who gave me life. I couldn’t just give up on her like the rest of them did.” He paused. “How come your hair is like Dramsol’s?”
“Distant family. We weren’t able to get around to comparing backgrounds, but the streak is a family trait. How well do you know him?”
“I heard that he knew a way in here and so I had to find him. I have heard… I have heard some terrible things about this place.”
They turned a corner and Riva pulled on Dalziel’s arm abruptly. “Here’s the office. Quick, the door should be unlocked.” They ducked into the office and closed the door behind them just as a guard turned to look down the now-empty hallway.
After a moment they looked around the room. “A key, right?” Dalziel asked.
Riva nodded. “Yes. I’ll start with the desk.” She walked over quickly and started searching through papers while Dalziel started on the bookshelves, until one of the pages caught her attention and she gasped in surprise, the sound of her voice drawing him over to her side.
“What did you find?”
She held the paper by the edges, eyes wide. It was a memorandum, a note about preparing a special cell to hold the Imperial Princess. It also dictated several precautions so that the testing to be done on her would not be immediately visible to her brother when he arrived for inspections. It was dated as of that morning. The Princess’ arrival was set for three days hence.
“He… he wouldn’t…”
Dalziel glanced at the paper and paled. “The Emperor’s sister??? But… he adores her. It’s legendary. He’s about this close in the stories to locking her in a glass tower so that no one else can behold her beauty.”
“What else would you call this place?”
“This, sweet Riva, is no glass tower. This place is the gates of Hell.”
She handed him the memo. “Here, hold this for a moment.” She began searching through the papers with more focus, pausing to read them before she set them aside, her face turning ever more pale. “Oh, dear God, he’s continuing Jules’ research. He’s just going about it from a different direction.”
“And how would you know about what the fallen Prince was doing?”
“Contacts in the Palace,” she replied shortly. “Lord Jules was working with a very shady person who wanted to perform… experiments on the Imperial Princess, in part because of how she was discovered. They were likely to be excruciatingly painful, especially for a girl who was only nine at the time.” She looked at a few more pages and handed them to Dalziel. “Did your sister evidence any abilities? Anything out of the ordinary?”
He shook his head. “No, not that I know.”
She sighed. “Then he must still be searching for a way to identify the ones he’s looking for. No wonder Dramsol couldn’t come in here. His gifts are active; he’d have likely set off alarms just walking through the door.”
“Mine are suppressed. In theory I wouldn’t set off any alarms, as long as I’m not here for very long. We’ve got to find your sister and get out of here soon.”
“I second that notion. What am I to do with these?” He held up the small stack of papers that she had pulled off the desk.
“Keep them safe. I don’t dare carry them with me. Take them with us and if you find that you have the need, take them to Lord Illian.” She huffed in frustration. “He’s an innocent, but he’s our only choice.”
“What about the Princess?”
“She can’t help you where this place is concerned. Trust me. She has problems enough of her own. Lord Illian is the only choice. It’s possible that he’s an innocent in act and thought, but not in understanding. That would help a great deal, if he could understand that others are not like he is. That others can be corrupted. He saw what Jules tried to do because of the power that was placed in his grasp.” She paused and took a calming breath. “Let’s get your sister.” She found the key under a few more pages.
Dalziel nodded at her look. “Let’s go.”
— — —
The holding cells were dark and filthy and mostly empty except for a few still, hopeless bodies bereft of thought or soul. Once they had been people, but there was no saving them any longer. Riva and Dalziel found the cell they were looking for at the end of the row.
Riva had to unlock the door, Dalziel’s hands were shaking too badly as he looked at the pale skinned girl who lay still on the floor, her green hair spilled carelessly over the floor and her face. Once they were inside the cell, he knelt and lifted her gently into his arms, checking her pulse. She lived, but barely.
Riva lifted a curious eyebrow. “I thought you said that she was older than you.”
He met her eyes and she saw the fury in them, a fury directed at the Doctor who had done this. “Dryad.”
She nodded in understanding. “So your mother was a Dryad, too.” Dryads weren’t human, and were correspondingly longer lived, much like the Elves on other worlds. In point of fact, the Dryads of this world were startlingly like the Elves that she had seen in other worlds, complete to the magical nature and the distrust of outsiders, and the suspicion of half-breeds.
“Yes. I never knew my father. Renna’s the only family I have left, now.”
“Alright. Let’s get to this exit route that Dramsol promised. You’ll make a wonderful Pirate, I just know it.”
— — —
Dalziel carried the insensible Renna as Riva led the way, one eye on the map and one eye on the path ahead of them. The exit route led them to a giant docking bay in the upper floors of the tower, and a beauty of a skyship waiting there for them.
Dalziel gasped as he saw her, framed against the open doors and the sky beyond. Even Riva had to appreciate the aesthetics of the vessel, made so that she could sail sky or sea with equal ease. “I want her.” Dalziel’s voice was hushed. “That is a Pirate’s ship. I want her.”
Riva chuckled. “I think she’s ours.” She showed him the map. “X marks the spot.” Sure enough, the ship sat right where the mark was on the map that Dramsol had given them.
“Ohhhh, remind me to kiss Dramsol when we see him next.”
Riva choked on a laugh as they quickly hurried across the bay towards the open door of the vessel. “I don’t think he’d appreciate it, but then, you never know.”
Once inside the ship, Dalziel set Renna on a bench by the hatchway and moved towards the pilot’s seat as Riva saw to the Dryad’s safety. They heard sounds coming from the hall leading towards the bay, and them.
“Better hurry!” Riva called to Dalziel.
“Is there a manual to this beauty?” His voice was slightly confused and definitely rushed. The sounds were getting louder.
“Do we have time for one?” Riva called back as she laid a blanket over Renna.
“Probably not.” His voice faded as he muttered to himself. “Start button, start button, where oh where is the start button?”
Renna started to wake up, blinking her eyes and trying to focus on Riva’s face. “W-who?”
Riva smiled at her. “A friend of your brother’s. We’re getting you out of here. You’re safe now.”
She blinked more rapidly and tried to sit up, and Riva had to hold her down. “D-dalziel?”
“Renna?” Dalziel’s voice was joyful, and slightly panicked. “Don’t worry; we’ll be out of here in just a moment.” There was a pause. “Ah ha! I found the start button!” The engines powered to life and the vessel shuddered slightly with the flow of power as the guards emerged into the docking bay.
Riva stood, then, to close the hatch, when she saw what had drawn the guards. Running full tilt towards them was a small, dark brown shape, and it was barking madly.
“Annie!” She was overjoyed to see her, but the vessel had started to move and they were pulling away from the dock. “Hurry, Annie!”
The tiny dog seemed to bunch in on herself for a bare second and then burst forward with a speed she would not have believed if she weren’t watching her. The ship was already away from the dock, but Annie didn’t stop, didn’t slow, she reached the end of the path and jumped.
She landed in Riva’s arms, sounding very pleased with herself as she yipped for joy and tried to lick her momma’s face. Riva fell backwards for a moment, hugging her, and then she handed her to Renna just long enough to close and seal the hatch.
And then they were through the docking bay doors and on their way south to Castellan and freedom.