Noksalika itched, frozen to the spot. Crossbows had suddenly appeared at the edge of the cave portals, held by mantrels with ugly looks on their faces. Around her, Hanaman's crew had silently snapped into defensive stances, aiming weapons above and around them.
Things were tense. If someone said the wrong thing, events could get nasty.
'Put your weapons down,' shouted Hanaman slowly, 'or we will kill every last motherfucking one of you.'
Delicate glints danced on the points of weapons, loaded and ready. The crew eyed up the portals. The mantrels, in faded red uniforms and sand-scratched armour, looked back at the crew.
Another bolt crashed at Hanaman's feet, sending shattered splinters between his legs. Noksalika thought she heard sniggering.
'This is our land, God-given,' came a call from the second or third row of entrances. 'You are barbarians and witches. God is great! Now fuck off!'
Hanaman widened his eyes a little, stunned, turned and looked at Noksalika. 'We're not here to fight,' he shouted over the ancient carvings, well aware his comrades had their weapons aimed and ready. 'We—'
'You dogs,' shouted the same mantrel, who seemed to be the spokesman. Noksalika tried to get a better glimpse of his face, behind the hefty wooden death machine pointing roughly in her direction. 'Your passage through our land has been monitored. Your coming brings us nothing but anger.'
'Why?' she replied.
'Becau—' There was a sharp pause. 'Just because!'
'I mean, we don't wish you any harm.'
'Don't wish any harm…?' The voice sounded incredulous. 'You carry the stain of the Ethe! Hypocrisy and fascism are your watchwords!' There were some nods from the other guards.
Noksalika shot Hanaman a baffled look. 'No they're not,' she called back. 'My watchword has always been "Hot sex".' She bit her lip for a second, thinking. 'Okay that's two words.'
'Just shut the hell—' started Hanaman.
'You trespass on our land as if it were your own,' continued the guard spokesman with a growl.
'Your land?' Noksalika frowned at him. 'It's not legally your land.'
'God recognises no laws but His own!'
Hanaman let out a long exasperated sigh.
'Seriously,' continued Noksalika, 'why do you have to be so bloody stubborn? The Committees don't recognise you. The Federated Mantrel Substate doesn't recognise you. No-one recognises you. '
'And we do not accept you, heathens.' There was a wet mouthy noise; a globule of spit landed near one of the llamas, which looked highly unimpressed, knowing it could do better. 'We have no need of deeds or documents. God gave us this land. God is great!' More muttered approvals and curses echoed quietly in the round space.
'I am the cousin of Kingminister Viega,' thundered Hanaman, loud and deep for such a small pair of lungs. 'And I have great need to see him.'
'You, an Ethe dog? The Kingminister's cousin?' The crossbow wobbled slightly as the guard chuckled. Barely in the corners of her eyes, more picked up by her skin, Noksalika sensed the crew tighten. She tensed, ready to drop or run…
Hanaman gave a steely stare up at the portal.
'Well what do you want, a fucking birthmark?'
The guard burst out laughing, a dark throaty sneer. One or two others joined in. 'Okay,' he called down to them. 'But just you. And the pretty girl. Maybe we can trade something for her.'
Noksalika bridled. Hanaman coughed to conceal a smile.
'We'll see what the Kingminister makes of you. Maybe you can help feed the crocodiles. Now come on, weapons on the floor, all of you.'
'You're probably wondering how this mission involves you.'
'I'm actually wondering why I'm tied down in a wet dungeon.'
'Oi!' said the mantrel guarding them, prodding her with a blunt spear. 'This is a holding bay. We don't do dungeons.'
'Oh that's alright then,' she muttered, more for her own benefit.
Dungeon or not, it was black and cold and damp and Noksalika was sure she could feel something small crawling under her back.
Hands tied, they'd been marched through square corridors of smooth black stone, handed from one set of guards to another – only the sergeant from the entrance had stayed with them. They'd finally been tied down in a large dark space full of moisture and grime, with old machines of wood and metal lying around rusting.
A few non-military mantrels drifted around the space, chatting or working on the machines; Noksalika saw one with dirty overalls and tools, presumably an engineer. She and Hanaman were sent a few dirty glances but were generally ignored, which Noksalika found surprisingly annoying.
'Well I should probably tell you anyway,' insisted Hanaman, looking away from her. He rubbed his wrists above his head, getting a feel for the itchy rope.
'Mmm, you probably should.'
The air was cool in the underground-hideout-palace, out of the heat of the desert. Noksalika had started to think of it as a temple complex; a few guttering torches on the walls here, a couple of dragons there, and it'd closely resemble some of her porn video set-ups.
'There's more politics involved I'm afraid.'
'I thought as much. You know I only understand sweeping classical music and hardcore degrading sex, right?'
'I know, I know, I'll try and make it as simple as I can.'
'I am a girl, after all.'
Hanaman ignored her sarcasm. 'The Committees have been making more demands on the Federated Mantrel Substate. Demands that, according to most people, fall outside the agreement of the Treaty of Thanodolina.'
'What kind of demands?'
'Oh, withdrawing funding, re-allocating jobs, cutting research, kicking farmers out and stealing their land. Boring stuff, but the kind of thing that causes a lot of upset. There's been a lot of friction between the elders of the Substate and the Committees.'
'So? We're not in the Substate, are we?' Noksalika recalled the concerts and parties she'd held in the Substate, then shuddered remembering the warmth of civilisation.
'No we're not. But the public is getting angry with the elders, and angry with the Treaty. And the more angry the people are—'
'—the more popular the rebels get,' Noksalika finished for him, screwing her brow up in realisation.
'Mmm-hmmm. The tribes have been doing recruitment drives in the Substate, all of them,' Hanaman whispered. 'Not that there's any need. People are leaving of their own accord, if they can escape the golems. The Committees have increased security, which just makes people angrier.'
'Okay, okay, but…' Noksalika tried to think quickly, '…what does it matter? Why does it matter if people want to leave the Ethe? That's their own stupid decision.'
'Because there's a fucking big apocalypse happening in the South,' Hanaman hissed, snapping his head round to look her straight in the eye. 'It's big, do you, do you understand that? Do you fucking get it?' Noksalika lay in stunned silence for a second, unable to reply before he continued: 'Relations between the Committees and the Mantrel Substate are in tatters. I don't have anything against a few religious nutters—' he glanced carefully at the guard, '—prancing about chanting with candles and doing their own thing, but we won't defeat whatever bastards are invading our world unless we're together. The power of the Ethe is weakened every time someone gives up on it – someone like you – and neither the Committees nor—'
'Oh, it's my fault now is it?' she snapped bitterly.
'I was just commenting,' said Hanaman evenly. 'The Ethe needs everyone on the same side, but neither the Committees nor the elders are acting sharp enough to save lives and actually fight this thing together.'
They locked gazes for a few seconds, unblinking.
'So how do I help bring everyone together like some fairy tale?'
Hanaman breathed in. 'You're not going to like it.'
'You know, you've said that so much recently—'
'Okay bring 'em in,' called a voice from the corridor. They looked round to the nearby doorway, and saw more guards in worn, red leather uniforms coming to drag them away.
Noksalika was weighing up the threats of being caught by the authorities, sacrificed by pirates or eaten by an alien horde. And yet she knew, if she ever got back into the pornographic industry, she would make the Kingminister's throne room one of her film scenes.
It was utterly luxurious, like something out of the most audacious movie Noksalika had ever seen. The space was square, a cube cut out of the blackest marble; ghostly wisps of grey and purple wove across the polished surface of the walls. There were mirrors, mosaics, abstract gold statues of gods she'd never heard of, banners woven with blue and silver; between all these things, mantrels in bad suits and leather armour argued over heavy unpolished wooden tables. Square passages led away from the centre of all six walls, each with a pair of guards.
But the most stunning thing was the throne itself. It hung in the centre of the space – rich blue ropes ran from all eight corners of the room, fixed with gold moorings, to a gold-plated gyroscope at least a dozen feet wide. And inside the gyroscope, smoothly rotating to greet them, was a square throne made of more gold with rich, velvet padding.
The Kingminister eyed them coldly.
Around the bizarre gyroscope contraption were platforms that orbited with ropes and pulleys; sitting on them were two female assistants dressed in rather smart latex catsuits, surrounded by maps and sexual paraphernalia.
While Noksalika's brain was distracted by thoughts of sex in a gyroscope, her eyes saw the Kingminister was dressed – surprisingly – in a plain black suit, black tie slackened around an open collar. Tall, slightly overweight, the Kingminister looked tough, uncompromising; his lined, pale face was scratched with numerous small scars. Between his long, curled horns he wore a skullcap of crimson over a shaved head.
'Sire,' called the sergeant from the gate, tipping his head slightly to the Kingminister above. 'The prisoners.'
Kingminister Viega nodded slightly in return, and fixed his gaze on Hanaman.
'Well,' he spoke, a heavy dry voice. 'My traitorous cousin.'
'First cousin twice removed,' smiled Hanaman, hands still tied behind his back. Noksalika wrenched her wrists uncomfortably.
'It's "sire" to you, cousin.'
'You're not my sire, Viega.'
'Brave boy, Hana-mana-man,' the Kingminister said dismissively. One of the beautiful assistants floated past on a platform, popping a grape into his mouth seamlessly. 'Especially as I've got the crocodiles out the back. Snap-snap-snapping away they are, all the time.'
'I'm here on urgent business.' Hanaman ignored him and the vacant lazy threat. 'I wouldn't be here otherwise. There is great trouble in the South. Massive slaughter of innocents.'
The Kingminister frowned. 'So? The South is a hideous place, I hear.'
'It is engulfing all lands, and won't stop when it reaches Goltangi.'
'Stop talking in olde-worlde-speak, Hanaman,' sighed Viega, unimpressed. 'What do you want?'
'A united Ethe.' Hanaman stuck out his jaw, clenching his fists behind his back. 'The Ethe is the natural power of the land, and it's the only thing that can fight this invasion. You must call a truce with the Federated Mantrel Substate, and the Committees, and get the other tribes to follow. You must join the Ethe.'
The Kingminister frowned deeply, quickly followed by the other generals and civil servants in the room. 'You insulting little shit. Your people sold out to the Ethe, sold out to secular evil and banality. And you come all this way just to insult me and my people? Guards, get rid of these pieces of shi—'
'I have something you want,' Hanaman cut in sharply before the guards could move. He looked at Noksalika, hopeful desperation in his eyes. 'I have brought you Noksalika Chuunim.'
A hush rippled out from the centre of the large room, as guards and diplomats alike froze at the sound of the name. All turned to them, the two prisoners standing by the passageway. Noksalika turned to Hanaman.
Viega hadn't moved a muscle, but Hanaman could see his dilated pupils, could sense a lead weight had sunk into the pond of his mind. 'Surely not … this?' The Kingminister gestured at Noksalika, all matted hair and coarse skin.
Her eyes widened and she turned from the Kingminister to Hanaman and back again. 'Hanaman, what is this?'
'This worn and damaged woman you see is the one and only Noksalika Chastity Elastia Chuunim.' Hanaman took a half step forward, taking courage from the room's sudden surprise. 'The famous Noksalika Chuunim, the world's very own superstar.'
One of the beautiful assistants quickly stood up and leaned her head to the Kingminister's ear, whispering. 'This woman,' he began, 'according to my scouts inside and outside our land, goes by the name of "Tarabonitz Suhanrohan".'
'A strong and skilful disguise,' Hanaman brushed the question aside. 'Her identity will be proved on request by the Committees.' Hanaman ignored the startled look on her face and took another step forward, craning his neck to look up at the Kingminister. 'You may despise the Ethe, but you still treasure her name and her fame.' He caught Viega's eye. 'I remember working for security, watching so many of you creep over the border just for, just for a glimpse of her when she toured the Federated Substate – including you, Kingminister.'
'Now hang on—' Viega started.
'I present to you the very queen of the world,' declared Hanaman, wondering if he was overstepping the mark, 'and her hand in marriage.'
'What the fuck…?' said Noksalika loudly, breaking her silence.
'You will be married to the hottest superstar in the world, the most desirable woman that ever lived – and yes, I know you personally lusted after her for so many years.' Hanaman was in full flow. 'But her magic exists only on the Ethe – her image, her allure, her fame, her body. She can only survive on the Ethe. So in return, you will speak to your people, to the other tribes, to the Mantrel Substate, and to the Committees. And you will embrace the Ethe.'
Everything was quiet, as though sound had been sucked up by all the glorious soft furnishings that sang with colour. It was broken by Noksalika, whose face was also singing with colour.
'I think we need to discuss this!' she half-suggested, half-yelled in Hanaman's ear, and with her elbow and shoulder managed to barge Hanaman back round the corner into the passageway.
'I said you weren't going to like i—'
'Are you out of your fucking mind?' she hissed down into his face. 'This is what you wanted me for? You want to reveal me to the Committees for this?'
'It's our best shot,' said Hanaman defensively, somehow more scared of Noksalika than the Kingminister.
'I'm obviously very grateful to you for rescuing me, but you never said – I mean – fuck!' She trailed off, trying to find the words in her rage. 'You said that afterwards I'd be free to do what I liked?!'
'Well, you'd be the Queenminister,' Hanaman replied frankly. 'There's probably not much you couldn't do.'
'I'd be married to a religious lunatic!'
'Look,' Hanaman said firmly, squaring up to her shoulders with his. 'Forget all the negotiation stuff, right? That's almost circumstantial. By marrying you, he commits his people to the Committees, he locks himself in to the Ethe. If he does it, all the other tribes do it. He won't need to speak with them or the Substate. It'd be symbolic enough to tie everyone in together.'
'Sounds a wonderful holiday,' said a familiar voice to her left. 'Sadly Noksalika, you have other commitments.'
A face had grown in the wall.
Smooth and black like the stone itself, it had been there forever, if not actually five minutes ago. And still there was that mischievous look, those lips that rose just a touch at the corners.
'Who are you?' said Hanaman flatly, anger in his low voice.
'Noksalika, darrrrling,' the face drawled, blankly ignoring Hanaman. 'We still have a deal. I'm glad you've had a fun trip in the back of beyond – I think we'd all agree this desert place is an absolute dump – but I'm still expecting you in Rhajallington.'
Noksalika froze, her mouth hanging wide open.
'Your contact,' breathed Hanaman. He turned to the face in the wall. 'Fuck your deal. I'm trying to stop everyone from getting killed.'
'I really couldn't care less, goat-boy,' Piarowef said breezily. 'A deal is a deal, Noksalika. Did I mention what would happen if you broke it?'
Noksalika could barely think. He's here without the Ethe. He has powers beyond the Ethe. It was at that point the pain started.
'Don't listebwwwbbnnwwwbbb,' Hanaman seemed to say. Around Noksalika, everything blurred as electricity froze her nervous system; sounds slowed down, everything was muffled. Her skull felt too small for her brain. Red flashes swam across her vision.
He can reach everywhere. He can go where the Ethe isn't.
Her leg muscles collapsed, but somehow she managed to land on her knees and keep her torso upright. She heard Hanaman's helpless cries like a loud blanket being placed on top of her, unable to pick out any words. Behind that, she heard other sounds, longer, louder shouts of distress … and a huge, slow, rumbling sound, like a volcanic earthquake in slow motion.
Then suddenly it stopped. Everything was clear and bright again, like seeing the world through crystal glass. She gasped, and smiled up at Hanaman. But he wasn't looking at her now – he was watching the hurrying diplomats and courtesans rushing past in the corridor, screaming and shouting.
Piarowef smirked darkly from the wall. 'Looks like you don't have much of an option now. See you in Rhajallington.'
With a grunt she rocked back onto her toes and straightened her legs, swaying and staggering small steps, nearly knocked off-balance by a lieutenant rushing past. She watched Hanaman go to the passage entrance and suddenly jump back as a guard staggered backwards and fell down with a crossbow bolt sticking out of his throat. Hanaman crouched awkwardly, snatching at the gurgling guard's knife with his tied hands. She crept up behind him, and they spent frantic seconds back-to-back as Hanaman cut her hands loose and she did the same for him. Then they both peered out into the throne room.
Dead bodies lay scattered all over the walls, riddled with crossbow bolts and throwing stars. Blood punctuated the tapestries and statues. At first, it seemed as though the gyroscope had simply vanished; turning to her right, Noksalika could see it had smashed into the wall, dented and broken. Something had torn it free of two or three ropes – something with force – causing it to come crashing down. Amongst the debris Noksalika could see the shattered remains of a statue and the bloody, crushed torso of the Kingminister.
Across the cube-shaped room, the pirate mantrels grinned at her. And behind them stood the vast body of the Captain, holding another statue ready to throw. He craned his neck upwards to see them, dropped the statue, and bellowed.