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Lest There Be Dragons

By Cami
Page 3 of 4

Finding a way into the dungeon area seemed an insurmountable problem at first. No doubt the guards there would turn them away as surely as the one at the gate. And forcing the issue against armed soldiers didn't appeal. Besides which, that would give away their suspicions. Avon had about run out of ideas when Tarrant contributed, "I suppose one of us could distract them while the other slipped by."

"It sounds too simple," Avon said.

"I haven't heard you come up with better. And digging our way through the solid rock walls might take a lifetime."

"How would you distract them?" Avon asked, assuming that would be Tarrant's job.

Tarrant widened his mouth disarmingly. "I could smile," he teased.

"That would only work if they were women," Avon retorted.

"Oh, I don't know about that," the young man said, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes growing even brighter.

"They are sexless, all of them," Avon pointed out, wondering where that thought had come from."Now get serious."

"All right." Tarrant took a turn about the circular tower room, his fingers tapping together. "They have a room, off to the side, where they often rest. If I could get them in there on some pretext, the way would be clear."

"I'd need enough time to get in and out."

"A very time-consuming pretext," Tarrant amended. "I suppose I could fake a stomach cramp. And I'd have to sit down. I'll go rubbery so they'll both have to help me walk." He winked. "It helps that I have this very tall body. One person alone couldn't manage to support it."

"Very well," Avon agreed, not at all satisfied with the scheme, but it did seem the best available.

It worked better than either of them could have hoped. Hearing Tarrant's whimpered moans, Avon was sure he'd have made a great actor.

The dungeon did not in the least resemble the dark regions pictured in books. It was brightly lit with smooth walls of a substance other than the castle rock. Avon made his way along until he came to the end of the passage. In front of him was a door and a monitor, not unlike the one on his computer. He reached out a hand and flicked on the screen. A picture formed of a small room. The room beyond the door? There were four people in the room, two men and two women. As Avon searched their faces for familiarity, the larger of the two men turned to face him.

"What do you..." the man's words cut off. "Avon." Avon determined that his activating the screen had triggered a reciprocal device in the room he was viewing. Apparently they were looking at him and...they knew him. All of them were facing him now, their expressions a mixture of recognition, surprise and disbelief.

"Avon, you bastard," the smaller man said, "what took you so long?"

"Unlock the door," the blonde woman directed. "I don't know how," he said.

"Don't know how?" That was the smaller man again. "Now I know you're not the lockpick that I am, but it should be simple enough when you're on the outside."

"Don't know how or don't want to?" the larger, curly-haired man growled. He flicked a glance at his companions. "As you'll recall, he shot me the last time we met. And he didn't treat the three of you much better from what you've said."

"It was either his life or mine on the shuttle," the other man amended, sounding uncertain and confused. "It wasn't like he was trying to kill me on a whim."

"Avon," the dark, youngest woman said boldly. "Have you switched sides? Are you working for her?"

"For whom?"

"That bitch, Servalan, of course."

Avon puzzled over the name a minute. "I don't know any Servalan."

"He is working for her," the blonde hissed. "Listen to him cover for her." Her eyes burned angrily out of the monitor. "What name is she using these days, Avon? Still Sleer?"

"Sleer is not familiar to me either," he said, finding that their hostility was making him angry. He wanted to blank the screen and end the conversation, but that would defeat the purpose of his coming here. "I don't have much time," he told them. "I can't expect Tarrant to keep..."

"Tarrant's alive?" the girl interrupted. She sounded relieved.

"Yes. Have you a quarrel with him?"

"That depends," the forceful, leader type hedged, "on why he's on that side of the door with you while the rest of us are locked up in here."

"Why do you think?" Avon asked, trying to coax information from them without giving any in return.

"The most plausible explanation is that you've both changed sides."

"Blake's right," the mousey man said. "It isn't like the two of them could ever be trusted with her. We know what happened on Virn."

"Are you sure you know what happened there?" Avon prodded. The dark girl snorted. "Tarrant slept with the bitch; he admitted it. Or was it something more? Did he form an alliance with her then as well?"

"Dayna, calm down," the blonde advised. "We all need to calm down." She faced the screen again. "Are you going to release us or have you come here to gloat?"

"As I said, I don't know how to operate the door. It is rather complex." There wasn't even a handle to grasp, just the outline of a door that was as smooth as a wall.

"Complex." The one called Blake laughed. "Too complex for the foremost computer genius in the galaxy?"

"At the moment." //Foremost computer genius in the galaxy? // Avon tucked that away for future consideration. "But I haven't come here to gloat either."

"Then why have you come?" Dayna asked, her eyes filling with tears. "It's enough that she taunts us that we'll spend the rest of our lives here. She...she said it was the worst punishment that she could think of. Death was too quick."

The blonde woman put an arm around Dayna's shoulders and led the trembling girl to one of the bunks.

"I'm...that is Tarrant and I are prisoners too," Avon finally admitted, genuinely upset by the girl's distress. "But perhaps we can figure out a way to free all of us. I have to go now. I'm not sure when I can get back."

"Avon, wait..." Blake's eyes were the last thing that Avon saw before he darkened the screen.

Quaking slightly, Avon made his way back along the passage. Voices came from the guard room. Forcing himself calm, he went to the open door and said, "Has anyone seen... Ah, Lord Tarrant, there you are." To the guards, he added, "The boy had too much to drink and I've been trying to track him down."

"He appeared to be ill," the taller man said. "We were about to summon help."

"No, he's just inebriated." Avon grabbed Tarrant's arm and hauled him to his feet.

"Wait," the guard said, concern evident in his voice. "We are responsible for your health and safety. The Queen would be very angry if anything happened to Lord Tarrant. I'm going to summon a higher authority."

"I believe I am a higher authority," Avon countered. He started for the door, Tarrant in tow. "I'll see he gets safely to his quarters."

In case anyone wanted to check that story, Avon led them to Tarrant's rooms. "Did you find anything?" the boy asked as the door closed behind them.

"Yes, but I'm not sure what." Avon took a chair and wished that he could indulge in a glass of wine. He still felt a trifle shaky. "There are four prisoners, two men and two women. They appear to know both of us."

"What did you learn about our pasts? What did they tell you?"

"Very little. I didn't explain the memory loss."

Tarrant bristled with annoyance. "Why not? Isn't that what this was all about?"

"I'm not sure we can trust them. They don't appear to trust us. Apparently, I tried to kill one or two of them, and you've managed your share of mischief as well. We aren't popular with the rabble."

"That should clear the Queen of suspicion. If these prisoners are our enemies, then she's protecting us by keeping them locked up. I knew she wasn't evil." He plopped on the floor in front of Avon's chair. "I think we should simply tell her of our confusion. There is no doubt a very reasonable explanation."

"If there is a reasonable explanation," Avon said, "why hasn't she given it already?"

"Hmm," Tarrant pondered a moment before answering. "You mentioned that she said I was ill. You don't suppose I have some fatal illness that she's keeping from me? Maybe the secrets are a balm. There was a story in one of my...."

"You are healthy enough," Avon said, cutting Tarrant off. He slumped lower in his chair, weary and discouraged. "I had hoped that we could have learned something from those prisoners. There has to be an answer somewhere."

Tarrant tapped his right index finger against his lower lip. "It seems to me," he reasoned, "that we are going to have to ask someone sooner or later, or we could grow old and gray trying to solve the puzzle."

"I'm not willing to risk a direct confrontation yet." While the memory was still fresh, Avon wrote down everything he could recall about his trip to the dungeon. Then he went over the information with Tarrant. Descriptions of the four prisoners didn't stir any of his lost memories.

"Were the women pretty?" the boy asked. "You didn't say."

"Very attractive, each in her own way."

"As beautiful as the Queen?"

"Younger...not as poised or elegant. You really can't compare such different types. Tell me, do the names Servalan or Sleer mean anything to you?"

"I've heard Servalan...President Servalan, but I can't remember where or when."

"President sounds more like a title than a first name."

"I'm sorry I can't be more help. Maybe if I talked to the prisoners, I could...."

"No," Avon said firmly. "You are to stay away from the dungeon until I've decided our best course of action."

"Oh!" Tarrant looked a bit abashed. "I forgot something. When I was in the guard room, they talked with someone else over some sort of a box. They were explaining about my illness and asking for instructions. The other voice told them that there weren't any orders covering the situation... that it was good that the Queen was returning soon."

"How soon?"

Tarrant shrugged. "They didn't specify."

#

Avon went to bed pondering the problem of the Queen's return. He didn't need the added complication of her presence when there were still more questions than answers. Furthermore, it was almost a certainty that she would notice any changed behavior in her two noble subjects. Avon was fairly confident that he could maintain his old posture, but young Tarrant was another story. The boy would have to return to his former quiet, stupid self.

The following morning, when Avon fetched their water supplies for the day, he filled Tarrant's jugs from the plumbing in his quarters. He felt a trifle guilty, but rationalized that it was for the young man's own good. He doubted that he could persuade him to consume the tainted water voluntarily. Tarrant was not pliable and had displayed a subdued streak of independence even when drugged.

"You don't have to do this for me," he said when Avon delivered the bottles of water. "I could get my own, even yours."

"We agreed that subtlety was not your strong point," Avon replied easily. "I prefer to handle this particular chore myself rather than risk exposure."

"Have it your way. I certainly don't mind being waited on." Tarrant began to clear his table of a clutter of papers and books. "They're bringing my breakfast. Would you like to stay and eat with me?"

"No. It might be best if we cut back on our socializing. Word could get back to the Queen."

"But the servants already know that we've been spending more time together than before," Tarrant pointed out.

"I've thought of an explanation for that."

Tarrant's brows raised. "Are you going to tell me?"

"No. The less you know the better. If the Queen attempts any suspicious inquiries, you are to answer as vaguely as possible. I've asked you questions which you don't understand or remember. You don't know anything."

"I don't like being kept in the dark. I thought we were working together."

"We are. I will tell you everything you need to know."

Frowning, Tarrant looked like he was going to protest, then he sighed with resignation and asked, "What do you want me to do today?"

"Return to your normal routine as much as possible. If the Queen is due to return, we had best temporarily suspend our investigation."

"Are you sure we just shouldn't ask her outright? I still don't think this is a plot against us. The Queen wouldn't harm m--...us."

Avon shook his head at the boy's faith in their monarch. Even undrugged, Tarrant was such an innocent. "You will not say a word to the Queen!"

"Very well."

#

A few days later, Avon detected the familiar heightened anticipation that usually preceded the Queen's return. Prowling around the rooms adjacent to the kitchen, he overheard mentions of a banquet and that confirmed his suspicions.

Avon's heart beat faster when he went to dinner that evening. Though no official word had been given (which was unusual), he knew the Queen was in residence. She would be joining them, and their countersubterfuge would begin. The operative question being, could they fool the Queen. She was neither stupid nor unobservant. Given his uncertainties, Avon was doubly glad that he had been feeding Tarrant contaminated water. The boy looked suitably docile and dull seated across from him.

When the Queen arrived, he was coaching himself on how he should behave. He needn't have bothered. Her entrance was far from normal. Unheralded, she swept in on a glacial wind, accompanied by eight servants who had their weapons drawn and ready.

"My lords," she said bitterly to the two men, who had scrambled to their feet as she brushed across the threshold. "a matter has recently been brought to my attention that threatens all of our safety. For your own protection, I must insist that you go to your individual quarters and remain there with an escort until I have had a chance to investigate the problem."

"But if you are in danger," Tarrant said, "I don't want you to face it alone."

A fond smile crept over the Queen's lips. "My dear Tarrant, I assure you that I am quite safe. The matter is well in hand. I do appreciate your concern, but there is no time for your childish chivalry."

The boy scowled peevishly but muttered an obedient, "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Good." She eyed Avon sharply. "Now if you will go to your rooms, I will clear this up as quickly as possible."

In his sitting chamber, Avon resisted pacing or any other activity that might disclose his internal turmoil. Though panic shrilled through him, allowing that to show might bring suspicion where none existed.

It was almost two hours later that his jangled waiting finally came to an end. The Queen and a stranger in the simplest of white clothing entered his room. The four guards moved discreetly to one side, while retaining their alert status.

"Well, Avon," the Queen purred. "How much do you know?"

"Know about what?" he asked, forcing an easy smile to his lips. "What subject shall we thoroughly discuss this night? I hope it is one that I'm well read on, given your expertise on even the most esoteric topics."

"Oh, Avon. I am disappointed. Surely you know that the game is up." Her eyes blurred momentarily with uncertainty. "Or do you?" It is difficult at times to reconcile the new you to the old you. Perhaps you don't know."

"Don't know what? You are confusing me, my most gracious sovereign."

"I doubt you are quite as confused as you pretend." A brittle, mocking laugh cut briefly through the air and burned a sharp path across Avon's senses. "But I suppose you couldn't be aware of the monitoring or you wouldn't have been so careless."

The Queen edged over to the desk and tapped on the computer console. "This is monitored, of course. Every entry you make is recorded and stored. I went over those files when I returned this afternoon."

That would explain it, Avon realized with desolation. He considered the information that he had tried to pry from the computer. Though it hadn't been helpful, the questions were damning. Candor seemed the only defense available to him. "If I've done wrong, you'll have to forgive me."

"Will I?"

"You must understand that I became agitated to learn...certain things."

"Go on," she said.

"I am a prisoner here," he began. "There is the matter of no remembered past. Not to mention my belief that I am being drugged. You would not expect me to accept that complacently."

"If you had questions, why didn't you ask me?"

"You weren't here," he answered truthfully. "And I'm asking you now."

"Doctor?" the Queen directed the one word to the man in white. The stranger was holding something in his palm, studying it. "There is no doubt that the conditioning is failing. I warned you about the difficulties surrounding your requirements. Retaining the essence of the basic personality while dampening potentially rebellious traits requires a delicacy of tampering that has never been achieved."

"You told me that my goal was attainable," she fumed.

The man cringed slightly as if he was afraid to either admit defeat or promise success. "It will most certainly require another treatment," he said, "a rather extensive one. I'll have to take him to Kirtinia, of course, since you wouldn't allow me to set up a clinic here."

"I will not have my paradise polluted with your obscene equipment and probes."

"Then I will have to take him to Kirtinia," he repeated, "as soon as the magnetic storm subsides enough to allow the ship to launch."

"The storm," the Queen spat out. "I will have to look into climate control for the planet."

"Yes, Madame President."

//President!// Avon caught the word and remembered that Tarrant had mentioned hearing it--in connection with the name Servalan. Could the Queen and this Servalan be the same person? On reflection, it was another connection that he should have made sooner. He was sure he would have if they hadn't ravaged his mind.

"And what am I to do with him in the meantime?" the Queen demanded, though it was unclear whether she was asking the stranger or herself. "I can't let him wander free. Nor do I trust the mutoids to long guard him. He's far too clever for them."

"You could lock him up with the others," the man suggested timidly.

"Won't that complicate the conditioning?"

"No. His memories are fully erased. Nothing they say can retrigger them. It won't make my task any more difficult." he paused a minute then added, "It is your stringent requirements that make my work difficult."

"I will have what I want!"

"Yes...yes, of course," he agreed, backing down. "But you must realize that it will take time. To manipulate a mind to your specifications is no easy task." He frowned for a second before saying with pride, "I do think we've managed to curb Tarrant's wanderlust."

"Tarrant!" The Queen started as if she had just remembered him. She turned to Avon, her eyes commanding and regal. "What has he to do with your suspicions?"

"Lord Tarrant," he scoffed. "Surely you don't think that simpleton capable of any thought beyond what pudding will be served for desert. I did question him," he admitted, "but he was no more helpful than the computer."

"Really? Well, you will understand if I have to verify that for myself."

"My Queen," Avon implored, partly to distract her from Tarrant but also in an attempt to acquire information, "I don't understand. Why are you angry with me? And why have you made me your prisoner?"

She stared suspiciously at him for a long moment then looked to the doctor who answered her questioning gaze with a shrug. Finally, her face softened slightly. "Avon, you won't remember, but I have long found you most intriguing. When I regained my power, it did not bring happiness. There was no challenge, no joy in my life. After much consideration, I decided that you had always been my biggest challenge. I wanted you all to myself. Is that so very terrible, being wanted by your queen?"

"No. But why couldn't it have been truthful...real?"

"In reality," she said, voice sad and low, "you would have killed me."

#

Avon's hands were bound behind his back and his ankles were loosely tethered to each other. With those encumbrances limiting his movements, he didn't resist being led through the castle by the servants...guards. He quickly determined that he was being taken to the dungeon and felt a small curdling of fear. He was going to be locked in with those people who had the advantage of knowing far more about him than he knew about them. Then there was the little matter of his having tried to kill some of them.

Though distracted with worry, Avon watched carefully as his escort operated a series of switches to open the door to the room beyond the monitor. Avon considered it ironic that he now knew how to work the lock, when he would be on the wrong side of it.

"Avon." The smaller man was the first to see him. The guards quickly herded the four prisoners to the far side of the room by brandishing the strange weapons in their hands. With them immobile against the wall, one man freed Avon's bonds. Then the escort swiftly left the room, sealing the door behind them.

"He told us that he was a captive, too," the woman called Dayna said in a manner that suggested doubt on the part of at least one of her companions.

"Unless he's a spy," the other woman noted. "Why put a spy with us?"

This time it was the larger man who spoke; Avon recollected that his name was Blake. "What happened, Avon?"

"I wasn't supposed to know that I was a prisoner in a gilded cage. I inadvertently let slip my suspicions on my computer." He tried to summon a smile to disguise his nervousness and managed a small one. "So now I am here, with you, in a real prison."

"You made a mistake with a computer!" the man with thinning hair exclaimed. "You're slipping."

Avon stiffened then reluctantly admitted, "I have no memory of the man you know as Avon." There no longer seemed reason to hide that. Besides, secured together, they were likely to guess the truth soon enough anyway. "Nor do I remember any of you."

"What?" Blake walked closer, peered into Avon's eyes, and touched his shoulder. "They erased your memories." There was a very sad note to his voice, almost sympathetic.

"I told you he was acting strange," the other man said. "Of course, strange is normal for him." He circled Avon, studying him. "So you don't remember me? Well, I'm Vila."

"Blake," the larger man identified himself, then nodded to each woman in turn. "Dayna, Soolin."

"Welcome to paradise," Vila said ruefully. He slapped his hand against the side of his leg, eyes desolate. Then his shoulders slumped and his entire body seemed to lose the basic energy required to sustain life. Feet scuffing against the floor, he traversed the short distance to the table and dropped into the first chair he contacted.

The room grew momentarily silent, as echoes of unexpressed misery bounced from wall to wall, from person to person. It was like an electrical storm without thunder, lightning or wind. The charged atmosphere expanded until Avon thought the pressure would burst his eardrums. Then as quickly as it had materialized, the aberration dissipated, leaving Avon to wonder if it had been a stress-induced delusion.

"That's the cleansing chamber." Soolin pointed to a door on the far wall. "There's an autolaundry in there as well. I hope you like your pretty clothes, because you aren't likely to get a change." Her face hardened into bitter lines. "At least we never have."

At the woman's words, Avon took a moment to carefully inspect his surroundings. The room was almost stark, with four sets of bunks, two each against opposite walls. The other two walls held the exit and cleansing room doors respectively. The only other furnishings were the table and four chairs. They'd be one chair short now.

"How long have you been held here?" Avon asked, feeling a rise of claustrophobia at everything the room implied.

Blake answered. He was definitely the dominant member of the group. "We've no clock or calendar, but we've tried to keep track. About six months."

"Six months." Avon was sure he would go quite insane in far less time in such tedious surroundings. He considered his length of stay at the castle. "I've been here slightly less than three months. However, I can't completely trust my memory."

"It would make sense that you would arrive after us," Blake reasoned, "if they spent time reconstructing your mind first."

"We were brought here about two months after Gauda Prime," Dayna explained. Her eyes darkened as she added, "Before that we were properly interrogated, of course."

"And you knew me at one time?"

"You might say that." Blake sounded angry. Avon remembered their earlier conversation when Blake said that Avon had shot him. "Though I certainly didn't know you on Gauda Prime."

"Getting into that isn't going to help," Soolin said. She put her hand on Blake's arm. "We need to figure out if Avon's presence is going to benefit us. If only we'd been ready when they opened the door."

"We had no warning." Dayna sighed. She noticed Avon's curious raise of eyebrows and continued. "That's the first time the door has been open since they threw us in here." She walked to the wall near the exit and ran her hand along a rectangular-shaped seam. "They slide us meal trays through this slot."

"They'll have to open the door again, when they come for me," Avon told them, trying to be helpful, not without some selfish motivation. His fate seemed tied to theirs. "They mentioned taking me to 'Kirtinia' for further treatment. A 'magnetic storm' prevented a ship launching," he recited carefully.

"Kirtinia," Blake repeated, rubbing at his chin. "Well, that's something. Kirtinia is in Sector 2. What else can you tell us?"

"I believe the woman you were talking about during my last visit, a President Servalan, is the woman that I know as The Queen. She's never given us a name to put with that title."

"Describe her," Dayna demanded.

"Petite but regal in bearing. Ebony hair... cut short. Flawless complexion."

"That's Servalan," Vila said. "But what's this queen business?"

Avon sat on the side of one of the lower bunks and folded his hands in his lap. "I believe that she's created a world of fantasy as a retreat. She described this castle as a haven from her royal duties."

"And where do you fit into her fantasy?" Blake questioned.

"I'm not sure," Avon replied with a shake of his head. "She called me her challenge."

"The two of you never could decide whether to kill or ravish each other," Vila noted scornfully.

"That's not it at all," Avon denied, insulted by the man's implications. "We do not have a physical relationship. "That's..." He caught himself before revealing that Tarrant was the Queen's lover. No sense being indiscreet. "That's stupid," he finished.

Soolin crouched down beside him, studying him intently. "I still can't quite believe that you don't remember us...or anything. But you do look different, not as foreboding."

"We're going to have to brief each other on pasts and presents," Blake said. "But first, Avon, you wouldn't mind if we had a little private conversation? After all, we can't be sure you are trustworthy."

"Do what you like." Avon stretched out on the bunk and closed his eyes. He heard them move to the far side of the room where they engaged in a muffled conversation. He couldn't make out any of the words and he really didn't care. Before they finished, he had drifted into a black, peaceful oblivion.

#


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