Wednesday, August 26, 2009

the sixteenth letter, part 15

for previous episode, click here

to begin at the beginning click here

jango suddenly interrupted his story of the thuggee and the black hand. he looked over at the naples train which was ready to pull out of the zurich station.
" a thousand pardons, sir, but i think the train is about to leave."
"why so it is," colonel mccutcheon replied, with a glance at the station clock. "your story held me so spellbound that i lost all track of time."

there was still no sign of miss gertrude gainsworth. the colonel and jango took their seats in the train. it moved out. jango resumed his tale.

a slight breeze fluttered the torches in the cave of the thugs. the mother of jemadar gumm wrung her hands ." i am afraid my son shows all the signs of final madness. the more sudden the madness, the more hopeless. and this creature - this creature! from what, or where?"

nothing ever happened in the valley. the inhabitants called it "the valley". not the happy valley, not the beautiful valley, just "the valley". for as long as anyone could remember, it had been ignored by kings and armies, who found neither beautiful maidens nor stalwart warriors in its rutted lanes and muddy fields.

the elders of the valley were more than happy to have it remain so, and were alert to signs of alluringness in young girls and valiant spirit in young men. those evincing these qualities were marked for banishment from the valley, but in practice the valley's sleepy ways made the enforcement of the exile somewhat arbitrary.

so it was that when the elders heard of a young girl being referred to as "the star" because of her beauty, they took notice but yielded at first to the entreaties of the girls mother, a simple hardworking (and plain) woman whose husband had been killed by a tiger shortly after the girls birth.

"but she is strong, sirs, strong in spite of her beauty, which will fade only too quickly in any case. she can do the work of two in the fields! i implore you, do not deprive a poor widow of this help she so desperately needs!?"

so the elders stroked their chins, and the eldest of them nodded, and "the star" was left to the sun and the wind. which, however, had no visible effect as she retained a translucent complexion no pampered favorite of a prince could even dream of.

and then the drums of war shook the land, penetrating the valley. a goatherd, tending his flock at the peak of the valley , saw a scouting party - from the emperor? - from the invader? - riding up the trail in the morning mist.

leaving the slower goats behind, and driving the swifter ones before him, he hastened down the trail to the village, shouting warnings to those in the fields.

few even looked up. if the soldiers came, they came. they would take what they wanted and hopefully move on.
the goatherd passed the "star" and her mother pulling weeds in their field.
"run, mother va, run! the soldiers are coming! and by all that is sacred under the sun and stars, hide that daughter of yours!"

"bah! she has not finished pulling her weeds yet! the soldiers will come and go, the weeds will remain."
the goatherd shrugged. "as you see it, i have warned you." he moved on, following his goats.
an hour later a party of three soldiers rode up. they wore the blue feather of the invader. the leader was an ambitious young sub-jemadar named hal, who was none too happy about leading a small scouting party instead of preparing a full troop for the coming battle against the emperor.

hal barely glanced at the two women stooped over their weeds. but he stopped his horse to give it a breather. at that moment the "star" stood up straight and hal's glance fell on her."
"aha! here is a prize indeed for the captain!"
the two privates behind him glanced at each other. they were a pair of atrocious villains who had survived the wars by seeing and doing things too terrible to relate.

"for the captain?" the older and gaunter of the pair, named sal, drawled.
the other, named mal, laughed, as he always did at sal's comments.
but the "star" was already halfway across the field. hal took off after her, but his horse stumbled in a patch of mud.
there was a ravine at the edge of the field, almost as steep as a well, with a trickle of water running down it. the 'star" scrambled down it, soaking herself.

she looked up to see hal, sal, and mal all looking down at her from horseback. hal shouted some instructions at sal and mal but they seemed in no hurry to obey and sat staring down at her.
she raced across another rocky field. a shepherd was sleeping at the far side of it, with his head on his shepherd's crook.

a few scrawny sheep wandered listlessly around him, nibbling the almost nonexistent grass.
"wake up!" the "star" shouted at him. she ran right up to him. "wake up!"

larry woke up. he was stiff from sleeping on the bench. the young woman with the shifting skin and the rose in her hair was still sitting across from him and to his right.

"was i sleeping long?" larry asked her.
"you think i was watching you?"
larry touched the can of strawberry and guava drink he had brought with him from the interrogation room. it was still a little cool.

"guess i wasn't asleep that long," he said. "but i feel like i was."
"who exactly do you think cares?" asked his adversary, the blonde woman further down the bench.
larry didn't answer. he faced straight ahead. it seemed even quieter than when he had gone to sleep, with only a few low murmurs of conversation from the far end of the benches. the conversation seemed to be about american football.

in charlotte's office, charlotte and jeanne istened without comment as tania told her story. she told them everything.
when she had finished, jeanne looked at charlotte. "what are we going to do about this?"
charlotte just laughed. "nothing. we have things to do - lots of things to do. i don't have time to play games with this idiot. if he wants to waste his time with this stuff, that's his problem. "
"so you are going to let him get away with all this?" jeanne asked.

"for now."
tania spoke up. "and if his assistant contacts me, what do i do?"
"tell her you told me everything and then forget about it. i guarantee they won't pursue it."
"all right. what about larry?"
"what about him?"
"can we get him back?"

"it might be a good idea," said jeanne, "it would really send a message to the duc d'otrante that we know what he did and don't care - even if he doesn't contact tania for a while."
"yes," charlotte laughed. "that sounds good. i'll get him back."
"so everything will be back to normal," tania said. "like nothing ever happened."
"i don't know about that."

the sixteenth letter, part 16

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