The God-King and I
The first thing Prime Minister Idri saw as the door to the future First Wife's apartment was pushed open was the lady herself, dressed in the formal wedding gown that had been altered to fit every curve like a second skin before it flared away into the full, bell shaped skirt. He stepped forward until they were standing nearly toe to toe, then froze, his mouth hanging open. "I ... uh ... my lady." He swallowed hard. "You look ... stunning."
The dozen or so members of the ceremonial guard who followed close behind him just stared.
Janet took a deep breath and every male eye in the area was drawn in the same direction. As distractions go, it was remarkably effective. "Mister Prime Minister," she said frostily, glaring at all of them in a way designed to make them cringe. It worked on the prime minister, but was less successful with the guards who were still busy looking elsewhere. She glanced back at Sam, who was standing slightly to the side and behind her, the gathered, semi-folded weight of the train draped over her arm, then straightened her shoulders and turned back. "I'm asking you one more time not to do this."
The prime minister blinked, seeming to shake himself as he snapped his hanging mouth shut and dragged his gaze back up to meet hers. "I'm sorry, My Lady, but it must be done ... and someday, you'll understand and be grateful." He held out an arm for her to take. "Now, please come with me."
Her already frosty gaze turned positively arctic as she eyed his proffered forearm as though it was a particularly disgusting slug or insect. "Kindly stand aside," she demanded bitterly, blazing gaze sweeping over the gathered men. "I prefer to walk on my own."
Idri swallowed hard, his eyes dropping away from hers, though the shame in his expression was unavoidable. "Very well, my lady." He stepped aside and gestured for the guards to do the same. They parted, forming a human corridor to allow the two women to pass.
Janet stepped through the door to her gilded cage, surreptitiously ducking down to grab for the neck of the heavy lamp standing next to the door, Sam and the train forming a protective barrier to hide the gesture. As she swung the heavy lamp around in front of herself, she felt Sam move, grabbing for the door with her free hand, even as she tossed the train clear.
"GUARDS!" Idri shouted as he realized he'd been tricked.
The first man who dove for the rapidly narrowing crack between the door and frame got a nasty crack in the shin with the lamp, then a solid follow through to the solar plexus. Gasping for air, he fell back into the men behind him, while Janet got in another blow, kneecapping a guard who scrambled over the first one. She let go of the lamp and yanked her hands free just as Sam hauled the door shut.
"The dead bolts!" Sam shouted, boots skidding on the stone floor as she fought to keep the door closed. Then suddenly the door latched into place as Janet threw the first of several bolts, though Sam kept the pressure on until the doctor finished the last of the locks.
For a moment, both women stood breathing hard and staring at the locked door, the sound of angry shouts and pounding fists muffled by the thick wood.
"I don't think he's having a good day," Sam panted at last.
"Aw darn," Janet muttered, already reaching for the ties on the heavy skirt. She quickly freed them and stepped out of the garment, while Sam grabbed for the end where the coiled rope was hidden, quickly yanking it free. By the time she was finished, Janet had managed to discard the layers of petticoats, leaving her standing there in the bodice, black pantaletts, and lightweight slippers. Not exactly the ideal outfit for making an escape, but a lot better than a huge dress with a twenty-five foot train.
"Lady Fraiser, Lady Carter?" Both women looked up, tensing as they realized at least a dozen teenaged girls were peering around the corner where the hallway curved sharply in front of them. SÚlan stood apart from the others, her expression confused. "What are you doing?"
Sam looped the coiled rope over her shoulder. "Leaving," she said impatiently, then glanced at Janet, ignoring the girls. "You ready?"
She got a quick nod in response. "As I'll ever be." Janet flashed a worried look at the young women from the harem. "What about them?" There were guards all over the palace. If any of the girls had gone for help, they could slow the would-be-escapees long enough for help to arrive.
Sam fixed SÚlan with a hard look. "I don't think they'll be a problem," she said grimly and grabbed Janet's hand as she started forward, easily scaring the teenagers back, her expression and posture purposely intimidating.
"B-but..." SÚlan began, only to trail off and scoot out of the way just in time to allow the two women to pass. The others pressed against the walls, fascinated by the scene playing out in front of them but also leery of getting in the way of the blond steamroller headed their way. "You can't leave," the girl called after them, as she followed at a safe distance. "What about the rest of us?"
"Not my problem," Janet answered briskly.
"What if they make one of us marry the God-King now?" one of the girls yelped, while the others moaned in horror.
Ignoring the general whining, Sam accelerated to a jog, pointing at the door to the balcony as she entered the main room of the harem. "Through there," she told Janet.
Moments later, Sam wrapped one end of the rope around the heavy balustrade that fronted the balcony, skilled hands making short work of a solid knot that would support their combined weight. Janet peered over the railing, noting how high they were with a raised brow. It probably looked higher than it really was. At least that's what she told herself. She looked out across the city, comparing the view with the one she'd had from her bedroom window. The sun was just beginning its slow descent, making the shadows long and deep, but she could see well enough to know that the streets were laid out in the same general pattern; broad boulevards and narrower lanes and pathways radiated away from the central palace, crossing regularly spaced roads of alternating widths that paralleled the walls. If they could just reach the outermost street and follow it long enough, it almost had to take them to the main gates.
"I'll go first," Sam said as she straightened, yanking solidly on the rope to test the quality of the knot. "I've had more training on this sort of thing, so wait until I tell you before you clip on. I want to make certain it's as safe as possible."
Janet nodded briefly, jerking her attention away from the city profile as she lifted the heavy coil of rope and stood waiting with it ready. "Sam, no matter what, I want you to escape."
"Together or not at all," Carter disagreed simply.
Janet shook her head. "No ... if they catch us, you're the one who'll bear the brunt of it ... so, no matter what happens, you get the hell out of here. They won't hurt me."
Sam looked back. The other woman was absolutely right, but.... She shook her head.
"She won't leave you," a small voice said, bringing both women's heads around as they were reminded of their audience. SÚlan stood just outside the door, poised on the balls of her feet as if to bolt. At least a dozen heads stuck out of the open door behind her, while another dozen pairs of eyes peered through various peepholes in the curtains that covered a broad pair of overlooking windows.
"It's so romantic," someone in the crowd moaned like a Graceland junkie at the second coming of Elvis before being hushed by the young princess.
Janet's brows shot up as she threw a questioning look Sam's direction.
"Don't ask," Carter begged and grabbed rope out of the doctor's hands, flinging it over the side. No way in hell did she have any intention of explaining that situation to Janet. That would be nothing but a study in extreme embarrassment.
The gesture drew several admiring "Oohs," and, "Ahs," from the crowd.
SÚlan flashed a them a glare and hissed, "Shhh."
Doing her best to just ignore her adoring audience, Sam threw a leg over the railing and gave the rope another experimental tug. Deciding it was going to hold, she wrapped it around her hips and one calf, preparing to swing over and begin the climb. She looked up as Janet grabbed her by the collar, bracing herself, ready to haul her back up if there was a problem. "Thanks," she whispered, though she wasn't certain how much good it would actually do.
"Wait," SÚlan said quickly when Sam moved to throw her other leg over. "Take me with you," the girl begged, hurrying forward to grab Carter's sleeve.
Both women stared at her as though she'd lost her mind. "No," Sam said, shaking her head sharply. That was all they didn't need to deal with.
"Please," the girl pleaded desperately, her dark eyes flicking back and forth between the two women. "I'll do anything ... gladly be a concubine ... or even a handmaiden to either of you." She turned an idolizing look on both women. "Just don't leave me behind. You know what my brother's like, what--"
"No," Sam said again, her tone sharper this time. With their prospects for a successful escape already questionable, she couldn't allow anything that might slow them, nor could she in good conscience allow the teen to join them in a venture that could easily turn dangerous. "You're a child, and you don't know what you're asking." She saw the girl's face fall. "Look," she said more gently, "you're smart and you're honest. Make things better here--"
"Your home needs you ... needs all of that drive and intelligence put to something more important than being a concubine or a handmaiden." As she spoke, Sam was aware of Janet's silent perusal, but the doctor didn't interfere, trusting that she knew what she was doing. "Now, we've got to go." She pried the hand gripping her sleeve free. "Please ... don't interfere."
Looking like she might cry, the girl stepped back. "Take the path to the left. It leads to the main gates, but it's the last one they'll check and it's not well guarded."
Gratitude gleamed in Carter's eyes. "Thank you," she said honestly, then looked at Janet. "Remember to wait until I tell you."
Janet nodded, bracing herself more firmly as Sam swung her other leg over the railing, leaning against the rope, one hand gripping the rope above herself, one hand just below her hip. "Be careful," she whispered desperately as Sam carefully swung out until her full weight was on the untested line.
"Always," Sam exhaled. Muscles flexing under the strain, stepped off the edge of the balcony, dropping low enough that Janet was forced to loose the tight death grip she'd had on her collar. Carter swung free for a moment, then her boots hit the solidity of the wall with a comforting thud. Without a proper harness, catching her balance was trickier, increasing the stress on her arms and shoulders. Thankfully, she'd been able to rig a harness for Janet from their limited list of supplies, since she wasn't certain the other woman -- far less experienced on a rope than she was -- could have handled the climb safely. She went a few more feet, then called up, "Come on." So far they hadn't had any pursuit, but she wasn't foolish enough to believe that would last much longer.
Janet clipped on, the additional weight making the rope creak and groan when she gingerly let go of the balustrade.
"You okay?" Sam paused on the rope, her expression worried as she looked up at her friend.
"Fine," Janet grunted. Muscles working, she struggled with the unfamiliar skill, while her already bruised hands protested the slide of the rope over soft palms.
From there, they both climbed silently except for an occasional word to check on each other, both focused on the difficult task, forced to adjust for each other's movements while climbing without the proper equipment. Sam was between fifteen and twenty feet from the ground when an angry clamor echoed from the apartments above. A few more feet and bells peeled -- some kind of warning klaxon judging by the answering shouts from the surrounding guard posts. "Move!" Sam shouted to Janet as she kicked off, covering several feet in each of the two leaps that followed. Still, eight or ten feet up, she let go and dropped the final distance to the grass, where she quickly regained her balance, ready to help the woman still on the rope above her.
Janet kicked off, letting the rope slide between her hands as quickly as she dared before she caught herself and her feet hit the wall again. Another kick-off and she hit the wall another few feet down. A third kick off and falling sensation, then she caught herself and swung in until her feet hit the wall. Stable again, she unclipped the jerry-rigged harness and dropped, stumbling as she hit the grass. Sam caught her arms, steadying her.
Janet nodded, then pointed toward the path SÚlan had suggested. "That way." If it was laid out like the other roads in the city, it should lead straight to the road that ran along the outer walls. Once they reached that, all they'd have to do was follow it around to the main gates.
Janet's head snapped up in response to the irate shout, and she saw Idri leaning over the edge of the balcony, his expression twisted with indignation. She almost flipped him off, but Sam grabbed her hand, pulling her away before she had a chance.
"This way," Sam said, startling Janet by heading away from the path SÚlan had recommended.
"We'll double back," the blond explained briskly. She glanced back, a frown touching her features as she caught a glimpse of the minister on the high balcony. If she could see him, he could see them. "Hopefully, that way they'll be looking for us in the wrong direction." She darted onto a narrow, tree-lined pathway that offered some overhead cover from anyone watching from the surrounding watchtowers. Communications were primitive, but the guards would get word sooner or later; very likely sooner the way bells began ringing on all sides, the uneven rhythms an indication there was probably some kind of code in use. Her worst fears were confirmed as she heard heralds calling from every direction in the city, trading information back and forth. She couldn't hear their words clearly, but she made out her own name and a reference to Lady Fraiser. "We need to find someplace to hide," she panted as they jogged onto another lane, sticking to the cover offered by the thick trees lining the path on either side.
Janet nodded as she bent over, fighting to draw air into tightly bound lungs. "If we can make it another block, I think I saw some storage buildings where we could probably hide without being seen." She'd watched a distinctively shaped cluster of buildings from her room and witnessed a similar grouping from the balcony. It was far closer than the walls, and they could move through a thickly wooded park to get there, which lessened the chances of stumbling over a patrol.
Moving off the trail now, the two women hurried in the direction Janet had indicated, making their way through an elaborately overgrown garden that offered considerable cover.
Men were being mobilized on all sides; calling out to each other, the sound of multitudes of boots marching in perfect time leaving both women aware of just how outnumbered they were.
With time closing in, Sam was alert to every tiny sound, afraid of stumbling across a patrol if they weren't careful. They had to get hidden soon or they were in serious trouble. She almost jumped out of her skin when Janet suddenly caught her sleeve and tugged, speaking for the first time in several minutes.
"There," the doctor said with a quick nod toward the first of several tall, hexagonal buildings that sat amid high trees and thick shrubs. "The ones I could see from my window got a lot of deliveries in the morning, but otherwise, they were quiet."
"Let's hope these follow the same pattern," Sam exhaled. The streets were getting steadily busier as men were mobilized to hunt for them. They had to get to cover soon.
They circled along the side that bordered one of the paths until Janet pointed to a nearly invisible entrance half hidden behind several low shrubs. On closer inspection, they found a staircase that dropped several feet to a door slightly below ground level. Sam gestured for Janet to stay back as she hurried forward. The door was unlocked. Not surprising really. How much crime could there be in the royal city? She carefully eased it open to peer inside, taking in the dark, dusty interior. A few elderly gardening tools hung from hooks on the walls and there was a rolling staircase that led up to some kind of storage loft. It didn't look like anyone had been inside in ages. She stuck her head back out and waved Janet forward.
Once they were both inside, Sam pushed the door closed, hunting for a lock by feel. High overhead windows let in some light, but her eyes hadn't adjusted to the lower illumination yet. Unfortunately, she couldn't find any way to barricade the door, leaving her with little more than hope to protect them. "You okay?" she questioned the doctor as the other woman leaned heavily against the wall.
"Yeah," Janet panted, her head still down, "but I've got to get out of this bodice if we're gonna be running anywhere...." She paused, struggling to get enough air. "I can't breathe in the damn thing."
Sam stripped off her cammie shirt and tossed it aside, then gestured for Janet to turn around. "You want the cammo or the t-shirt?" she asked as she began untying the tight lacing and working it loose.
"Whichever," the doctor responded, dragging air into her lungs as Sam loosened the tightly corsetted bodice. "So long as I can breathe, I don't care." As Sam worked the laces loose, Janet freed the delicate buttons that ran up her inner arms, then began untying the laces that held the sleeves of the bodice in place. By the time Sam finished loosening the back of the bodice, she was able to slip out of the sleeves. Intensely relieved just to be able to drag much needed air into her lungs, she tossed the sleeves aside, then reached for Sam's discarded shirt. Glancing back at the blond, she noted the way she turned her head away, suddenly seeming to find the few rusted tools on the far wall utterly fascinating. Turning away, Janet slipped the corset off, then shrugged into the borrowed shirt, quickly buttoning the front. As she finished, she saw Sam silently slant a look her way, before turning back to face her.
"I'm not sure how long we can stay here," the blond sighed worriedly and gestured toward the door. "I can't see any way to lock it, and I've got to believe they'll start checking doors when they can't find us quickly."
"So, what do we do?" Janet sighed.
Shaking her head uncertainly, Sam stepped back to the door, easing it open and peering out, noting the movement of men in the distance. They'd gotten to ground just in time. She quickly pushed it shut again. "Well, we can't go back out there," she muttered, then glanced back. "There are a lot of men moving into the area." She didn't add that she was afraid someone might have spotted them. Janet had to know that already.
Janet was standing in the middle of the room, staring up into the storage loft. She lifted a hand, gesturing toward a faint shadow. "Is it just me, or is that a door up there?"
Sam followed the line of her gaze, noting what she was pointing at. "Yeah, I think it is," she confirmed/ Gesturing for the doctor to follow her, she pushed the rolling staircase into position and hurried up. They couldn't lock the door or go back outside. It was the only option left short of just sitting there and hoping for the best.
Set flush with the wall, the door sat two steps up from the storage platform and looked like it was made to withstand a nuclear bomb. The heavy frame was made from a single slab of hardwood with thick sheets of copper nailed to it in overlapping plates. It swung inward and wasn't locked, though the hinges had rusted and it took considerable muscle to force it open. In the thin light, it was only possible to make out a few details, but they could see enough to realize it opened onto a sparsely furnished sleeping chamber of some kind. Judging by the smell of dust and disuse, it was long abandoned.
"Probably belonged to a workman of some kind," Janet whispered as she peered over Sam's shoulder at the small room. "Idri said the gardeners are often quartered near the gardens they're responsible for."
"Well, whoever he was, he's not here now," Sam exhaled, then felt around the edge of the door, a smile curving her mouth as she felt a pair of heavy dead bolts. "And he liked to lock the doors." As forgotten as the room they were looking at was, they might be able to hide until the soldiers gave up looking for them. She noted one of the gas wall sconces next to the door and reached for it, a dull glow just beginning to show when she heard a faint scuffle of sound. "Inside," Sam hissed as she snapped it off and thrust the doctor through the door with her other hand. An edge of lantern light slid into the room, accompanied by the muffled sound of voices and boots on stone pavers just as she eased the door shut and carefully slid the bolts into place to lock the door.
"Sam?" Janet just barely breathed her name. Involved in staring into the room, she had no idea what Sam had seen.
"Soldiers ... undoubtedly searching for us." Carter remained where she was, one ear pressed against the door in hopes of hearing something that might give her a clue, but it was too thick.
"Oh God," Janet's voice was almost inaudible, but there was a note of panic that Sam would have heard no matter how softly she'd spoken.
"The bodice," the doctor exhaled, "It's still out there. If they see it...." She didn't have to finish the sentence. They both knew what it meant. Idri would know they'd been there and start checking the area. "Dammit, I'm sorry. I screwed up--"
"No," Sam disagreed. "I didn't think of it either. And besides, you didn't know what was behind this door. You couldn't risk having your hands full in case it was something threatening." Despite her reassurances, she couldn't contain a worried sigh. "We'll just have to hope they don't notice it."
"You should have left when you had the chance," Janet sighed, standing so close her breath warmed Sam's shoulder through her thin t-shirt.
"No," the blond disagreed, straightening away from the door as she concluded she wasn't going to hear anything anyway. She turned to face Janet, lifting a hand over her head to wrap a loose arm around slender shoulders and tug her close. "I did the right thing." Her breath ruffled soft hair as she rested her cheek against the top of the smaller woman's head. She wrapped her other arm around Janet, rubbing her back lightly. "We'll be okay," she added, then heaved a sigh of relief as she felt strong arms wrap around her waist, hands spreading against her back to hold on tightly.
They were still standing like that when someone rattled the door.
Sam instantly jumped back, spinning toward the sound and thrusting the doctor behind her. A dull glow lit the narrow crack under the door, shadows moving back and forth signaling that someone was moving. Janet's hand resting lightly on her shoulder, she leaned forward, straining to hear what the muted crush of voices on the other side were saying.
Then suddenly, the light under the door brightened considerably, the voices increasing ever so slightly in volume, a note of excitement coming through despite the muffling thickness of the door.
Sam stepped back a pace. Certain they'd been discovered, she turned to hunt for another escape route by what little illumination slid in through the crack under the door. To eyes adjusted to total darkness, it was surprisingly bright, confirming what she'd feared. They were in a dead-end.
"It's them," Janet whispered, sounding sick and tired.
Carter could only nod helplessly, "I know." She backed up another step and felt the length of Janet's body pressed more firmly against her back. Several minutes passed while they stood there, helpless to do anything, cornered and hoping against hope they hadn't been noticed.
They weren't so lucky.
"Lady Fraiser!" Idri yelled loud enough to make himself heard through the thick door, but tried to keep his tone coaxing.
Neither woman could help but flinch as he hammered on the door, the tiny twitches coming in time with the rhythmic thuds landing on thick wood.
"Lady Fraiser!" Idri shouted again. "We know you're in there!! We've seen your footprints in the dust!! And there is no other way out!!" A short moment passed and Sam sensed he was mentally arguing with himself about how best to handle the situation. "I have no desire to see either of you harmed!!" Even though he was incensed at their actions and shouting to make himself heard, a note of pleading came through in his tone. "And if we must break in and remove you by force, there is a very real chance Lady Carter will be harmed!!" He used the one threat he knew was most likely to frighten the doctor.
Sam heard Janet's tiny gasp and felt her start to surge forward and reached back, keeping her right where she was. "No," she hissed. "That's what he wants."
"This wedding will happen, my lady!! You cannot stop it!!" His temper was gaining momentum now, frustration turning to anger. "Surrender and I promise her safety!!" He only had one weapon, and he intended to use it with all his might. A moment passed. "Continue this defiance and SHE WILL PAY THE PRICE!!" The Prime Minister's voice turned to a near bellow to make his point.
"I'm going out there, Sam. They don't care about you. Once they have me, you can escape," Janet whispered, pushing against the arm holding her in place.
Sam shook her head, eyes running around the room, hunting for some kind of miracle. "No," she insisted breathlessly, "Whatever happens, we need to stay together."
"I regret you have forced my hand this way, Lady Fraiser!!" Idri shouted.
And then the door shuddered as something hit it with such force that the stone walls quaked ever so slightly, cracking plaster off the ceiling to send it down on their heads.
"Dammit, don't you realize that the moment they're through that door, we've got no more bargaining chips?" Janet demanded breathlessly. She reached up, curving gentle fingers to the angled plane of Sam's cheek, drawing her head around. "I have to do this." She stepped around Carter, moving before the blond could stop her, her voice turning to a shout as she reached the door. "WAIT!"
But her voice was lost in the thudding blow that fell into the door. Janet instinctively flinched back as plaster-dust, rock, and grit rained down on them, giving Sam just enough time to step forward and reach past her, blocking Janet's access to the locks with one hand.
"No!" the blond swore, catching Janet's shoulder and pulling around so they were face to face.
"It's for the best," Janet insisted, her voice rising above what sounded like jackhammers on the other side of the wall. "You've done everything you could, but you can't help me now. If you stay with me, they'll never let us see each other again." She curled her hands into the front of Sam's shirt in her desperation. "Don't you understand that I'm trying to keep you safe? If I go out there now, I can probably talk Idri into letting you go, but if this goes on much longer, he won't agree to--"
"No!" Sam shook her head in denial as something crashed into the door again, shaking the room around them while the smaller hammering sounds continued unabated. "Dammit! If you can bargain to get me released, you can bargain to keep me close--"
"I can't take that chance." Janet turned up the wall sconce so she could see her friend's face, thinking it might well be for the last time; just barely stroking a smooth cheek with the tips of her fingers before pulling her hand back. "Not with your life." Shoving Sam's hand aside, she turned away, reaching for the door-locks. "Relock it the moment I'm--"
"No!" Sam snapped, her voice hard as she caught Janet's upper arms, dragging her back from the door in an effort to make her stop and listen. "There has to be another way. You can't ask me to just walk away and leave you here." She couldn't have done that to any officer, much less a friend who had come to mean more to her than.... She couldn't even finish the thought. "Not when...." She trailed off as her voice faded into nothingness and shook her head, completely rejecting the notion of leaving the other woman behind. "Don't you know what our friendship means to me?" she demanded at last, not quite believing this was happening. She curved an impossibly tender hand to the back of the smaller woman's head, slipping her fingers through fine silk hair and taking pleasure from the sleek texture. "I can't lose you now," she whispered, her voice choking with emotion. The hammering, shouting guards slipped into the background as Sam's entire existence coalesced down to the emotions she saw in impossibly deep brown eyes.
"Sam." Her name escaped full lips on the tiniest gust of air as she slipped her fingers more deeply into auburn silk, tugging Janet a little closer.
"Don't ask me to let you go," she pleaded.
And then the walls came tumbling down nearly as dramatically as those of Jericho itself.
Sam pulled Janet to her, tucking the smaller woman's head into the protection of her shoulder as she tackled her to the floor amid a sudden shower of grit and debris. A heaving crack shattered the air and stones began tumbling inward. Rolling Janet beneath her, Sam did her best to protect the other woman from the worst of the rocky shrapnel, then felt a strong hand curve to the back of her head. Janet tugged her head into the curve of her shoulder, offering what little protection she could. Thankfully, the largest of the stones fell almost straight down, hitting the floor safely back from the women, but powdered mortar and filler stones continued to rain down while pale plaster dust created a thick haze.
Cement dust still choked the air when Sam looked up, eyes swinging to touch on the figure standing just on the other side of the remains of the wall, his shocked expression a clear sign that he'd gotten considerably more than he'd planned on. Oddly enough, the door and frame were still standing, the sight almost comical amid the debris of the fallen wall. Beyond the remains of the wall at least a dozen men stood on either side of an ornate, cast iron column they'd been using as a makeshift battering ram, their expressions every bit as shocked as the minister's. Another dozen soldiers stood by with sledge hammers. Several kept looking at the toppled wall, then at their hammers, then back at the wall as though they didn't quite believe what they were seeing. There were more men at the rear, holding lanterns, and judging by the sounds echoing from the first floor, still more soldiers waiting there. Idri hadn't been taking any chance that his prey might get away.
Escape was completely out of the question.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Sam demanded of the prime minister as she stared at the damage. She suddenly pushed up on one hand to check on the woman lying sprawled beneath her on the floor, hunting for any sign of injury. "Are you all right?"
Idri's gaze slid over the ruined walls and sprawled women. "I didn't ... it wasn't--"
Ignoring the blithering minister, Janet nodded dazedly. "Okay, I think."
Sam twisted to glare at Idri, her tone outraged. "She could have been killed!" she bellowed furiously. "So much for your protection--"
Idri suddenly seemed to remember his position. "It was you who endangered the Lady Fraiser," he shot back defensively, then waved to the milling soldiers who were still staring at their handiwork with wide eyes, "with wild schemes for escape. Had that rope broken, her neck likely would have as well--"
"I made sure she was safe--" Sam shot back hotly.
"You will no longer be allowed to threaten her safety, Lady Carter!!" the prime minister shouted right back at her, while the soldiers looked back and forth like they were at a tennis match. "YOU WILL--"
Tired of being left out of a conversation that affected her most of all, Janet pushed Sam aside and thrust to her feet in one move, stepping forward a pace to stand braced between the soldiers and her friend, her expression dangerous. "If she's harmed," she somehow managed to drown out the furious minister, though her voice never got above a dull rumble, "in any way, I'll make you regret it!"
The prime minister stiffened. "My Lady--" he began, but she cut him off, the blistering look in her eyes a bitter warning that she wouldn't be pushed any farther.
"We've lost and we're outnumbered," her eyes flashed to the waiting soldiers, "and I accept that, but if any of them touches her in any way, I promise you I will fight you ... and do everything in my power to destroy you for as long as I live."
He flinched as though struck, the fierce determination in her eyes an intimidating sight. "You'll surrender if she is left unharmed and allowed to remain in your company?"
"No. Release her outside of the gates ... back to our people--" Janet bargained, wanting nothing more than to make sure Sam was safe and away from this lunatic asylum.
Breaking free of her momentary paralysis, Sam pushed to her feet, settling her hands on Janet's shoulders to tug the smaller woman back into the circle of her protection. "No," she rejected that idea. "I stay with her ... or you'll have one hell of a fight on your hands."
"Sam--" Janet gasped and looked back up at her friend.
Carter's face was sculpted in hard planes, her expression set as if cast in cement. "Not negotiable, Janet. I stay with you or I fight." She looked back up at Idri. "Now, do we have a deal?" she demanded.
The prime minister looked back and forth between the two women, his expression showing every emotion as he fought to push the anger down. "If you surrender peacefully and promise to use your skills for the good of the High God Father, the God King and our kingdom for the rest of your days, you will both be unharmed and may stay together for as long as you live up to that agreement." It was the only chance he saw for keeping all parties happy while still following the necessary rules and prophecies. Though, at the rate things were going, atheism was getting more tempting every day.
"Deal," Sam said softly.
Janet looked back up at her friend, "Sam, you can't do thi--"
"Take the deal," Carter urged, "Because I won't leave you alone in here." Nor did she have any intention of sticking to any agreement made under duress.
"Do we have an agreement?" Idri demanded of the doctor.
"You do," Sam answered sharply.
"You cannot answer for her, Lady Carter," he rejected her response.
"Tell him what he wants to hear, Janet," Sam beseeched her friend. She leaned closer whispering only for her ear. "It's the only way. We'll get through this together ... and we'll get out of this together."
Finally, the doctor nodded, glaring at Idri as she quietly spoke. "Fine. You have a deal...."
* * * * * *
Jack O'Neill paced back and forth, his stride impatient and angry. The Bells and shouts that had rung through the city had trailed off something over an hour before, but it was obvious something was still up, since he could still hear people moving around behind the walls. Meanwhile, he'd been left cooling his heels, helpless to do anything for his people trapped inside the city. He wasn't sure what had happened, but he'd picked out Carter's and Fraiser's names a time or two in the heralds' calls. Just enough to leave him convinced it had to do with the two officers, and scared that it wasn't good news. He'd ordered Teal'c and Daniel to leave the reception area where he was waiting, hoping they might see or hear something ... maybe even a sign of Carter or Fraiser. He had some small hope they'd managed to escape and wanted the men positioned to help if possible. The SGC was busily preparing for a military response to the situation, but they wouldn't have enough men in place to react for at least another sixteen hours. He was still pacing when Makepeace's voice came over his radio.
"O'Neill, please respond."
"O'Neill here," the colonel spoke sharply into the microphone hanging in front of his mouth. "What's happening on your end?"
"We're starting to move the heavy equipment through, but it's gonna take time." Makepeace sounded as frustrated as Jack felt. "Any news on your end?"
"We heard a lot of noise inside the city about an hour ago. Teal'c and Daniel are checking the city walls, but they haven't seen anything. Meanwhile the gate guards keep promising the prime minister will see me, but so far he's a no-show."
"If they actually go through with the wedding today, there's no way we can have heavy any real armament in place in time to stop it," the marine growled angrily. "I could still try and get a team in," he offered one more time.
Jack was silent for a long moment, more tempted than he cared to admit despite Hammond's orders. "No," he said after a beat. "Even if you could get in and find them, your chances of getting out again and making your way to the gate are almost nonexistent." They simply couldn't afford to take the chance. He paused in his pacing to glare at the huge gates as though he could do something about them with his bare hands. Hell, he'd gotten so angry, he'd seriously considered opening fire with his MP5 on the off chance it might get some attention. "If they're determined to go through with it now, we can't stop this thing." Guilt thickened his voice as he was reminded one more time that he was the one who'd bargained for Fraiser to go in there, then let Sam follow her of her own free will.
Makepeace cursed under his breath. "Then we may just have to make the doc a widow tomorrow," he snarled at last.
A muscle pulsed in Jack's jaw. He'd a lot rather figure out a way to rescue her first. Then he heard the sound of the doors moving and spun with a quick, "Somebody's coming. Gotta go."
One of the huge doors cracked open just enough to allow the officious guard who'd already put him off several times to stick his head out. "Colonel O'Neill, I've spoken with Prime Minister Idri, and I'm afraid he won't be able to see you today--"
"Goddammit," Jack cursed as he rounded on the annoying guard. "You told me he'd speak to me. There are matters that need to be discussed."
"I understand, Colonel, and I assure you Prime Minister Idri will speak you when he has time. He's a busy man under the best of times, and today even moreso, since he's currently attending the wedding of our Lord, God-King to the Lady Fraiser."
Jack was still drawing breath to tell the guard where to go, complete with very detailed directions, when the door slammed shut again. He hammered and shouted until his hand was painfully bruised and his voice nearly nonexistent, until it finally sank in that no one was going to respond. Finally, he stepped back a pace, glaring angrily and cursing under his breath. "I really hate this place," he snarled to no one in particular, then thumbed the send switch on his radio. "Teal'c, Daniel, please tell me you've seen something."
"Sorry, Jack," the Egyptologist responded almost immediately.
"Nothing," Teal'c added a tiny beat later.
Jack exhaled a soft curse, since it didn't look like there was anything else he could do.
* * * * * *
"...I proclaim them bound as family, blood, and one," the Routtuan high priest announced as he stepped forward, his black and scarlet robes swirling gracefully around him.
The gathered crowd in the broad hall all broke into cheers, arms waving in the air as they hailed their God-King's marriage.
"Well, I seem to be a married woman again," Janet exhaled as she stared down at the gem-riddled jewelry now attached to her right hand. Ornate, silver rings encircled her index and middle fingers, the bands filigreed and encrusted in tiny gemstones. They were to a delicate, jeweled bracelet by delicate chains that stretched across the back of her hand. Some of the stones looked like nothing she'd ever seen, glittering as though lit and faceted from within. God only knew what it would have been worth on Earth. Thousands certainly; millions, possibly.
Sadly, it was a wasted bauble. She would have cheerfully traded it for just one moment of genuine freedom, something she'd suddenly come to fear she might never know again. Then a hand curved to her shoulder, the contact of bare skin against bare skin sending a tiny shudder of awareness through every nerve ending in her body even as a gentle thumb knowingly rubbed against a cord in her neck all too prone to go into spasm.
"Don't worry, we'll find you a good divorce attorney," Sam drawled, whispering for Janet's ears alone.
Fraiser glanced back, catching a tiny glimpse of the broad skirt that went with the sky blue gown the prime minister had insisted the blond wear to attend the wedding. Her gaze trailed up, taking in graceful curves before focusing on a face that could have been sharp-edged if not for the softness of her eyes and mouth. Their gazes locked and for a moment, Janet experienced the sense of the freedom she feared losing, flowering inside her as the crowded hall fell away.
A fresh round of chanting yanked her right back as the head priest stepped back to join the other dozen or so lesser priests at the back of the ceremonial dais. The courtiers and ministers crowded around on all sides, while her new husband, wearing a matching bracelet and ring combo, his eyes rolling with boredom, rubbed one toe against the stone floor, making tiny vrooming sounds as though pretending his foot was a toy car. Which seemed odd since the Routtuans didn't appear to have cars. Maybe it was just an adolescent-boy thing.
Janet couldn't blame him. After six hours of chanting, she wouldn't have minded going, "Vroom, vroom," herself. If not for Sam's muttered asides, she'd had nodded off somewhere around the third hour. The only drawback was the urge to snicker that kept coming over her at the most inauspicious moments. Somehow laughter seemed inappropriate all things considered.... She considered her situation. Then again, maybe it was the only correct response.
"And now," another priest announced, stepping forward, "we shall hear the oracle's predictions for the greatness this union shall herald."
"Yeah, a great big pain in the ass," Janet muttered under her breath, only to realize she'd spoken loudly enough to be heard when Sam chuckled softly. The hand resting along the curve of her shoulder slid a little higher on the slope as the blond rubbed her thumb more firmly against the taut cords that ran over her spine. She blinked in surprise as a sudden burst of moaning rose from the harem girls where they were standing down in front. One girl even appeared to faint before Idri cleared his throat, glaring pointedly, and they quieted. She rolled her eyes and was surprised when she caught the sound of another giggler and realized the god-king himself was snorting with soft laughter. As their eyes met, his mouth twisted in a smirk and he nodded, rolling his eyes, his look evocative of the utter disgust only a twelve year-old boy trapped in an adult ceremony can fully express. Idri's sharp gaze dropped to quell his young lord's high spirits just as the boy began silently mimicking one of the priests. His expression resentful, Adoh stopped, though he mimicked Idri the moment the minister looked away to flash a glare at Sam's hand where it rested comfortably on the new First Wife's shoulder.
Janet had to fight a smile as she glanced back just in time to note that twelve year-old boys weren't the only ones who could do eye-rolling sarcasm. She heard a barely muttered grumble and felt Sam's hand break contact with her shoulder as it occurred to her there was probably a PhD's worth of research material in passive-aggressive coping techniques standing on the dais.
A tiny moan that almost sounded like disappointment echoed from the eagerly watching harem girls, leading Janet to wonder if maybe there was something she really should ask about on that front. Before she could formulate the vague thought into something more coherent, a delicate gasp went up from the crowd; the sound of hundreds of tiny catches of breath.
Janet looked back and saw the wizened figure of the oracle enter from the back, a slender woman her own age moving along beside her, her hands braced to catch the elderly woman if she stumbled. As they drew forward, a badly gnarled hand rose in silent dismissal and the young woman fell back, ducking her head in obeisance. Frowning at the shock painted on every face in the crowd, the doctor watched as she slowly moved forward, every step clearly an effort. Where before the oracle had been simply dressed, now she was resplendent in a heavy glittering black robe trimmed in purple fur, the long train dragging behind her making it nearly impossible for the wizened body to make its way forward.
Even Adoh Arim looked thunderstruck.
Wondering whether to be worried or relieved, Janet could only watch as Idri stepped up to the ancient woman, his manner even more obsequious than usual. "My Lady, Oracle of the Seventh Age of Heaven, we did not expect your presence in person," he said, his voice a stage whisper designed to be both respectful and heard by the crowd. He flicked a look toward the woman waiting respectfully at the rear of the platform. "We had expected your chosen to deliver your tidings on this glorious day." Somehow, he didn't sound all that thrilled by this new development. One more surprise in a day of unexpected -- and unwanted -- surprises was the last thing he needed.
A white eyebrow danced high on the tiny woman's elfin face as she met his fawning with a wry look. "You do not sound entirely pleased by my appearance, Prime Minister," she drawled, the musical voice light and teasing, though something deadly serious lived in her eyes.
He jumped like she'd dropped a joy buzzer down his pants. "My apologies if that was your impression, my Lady," he said instantly, dropping his eyes in automatic respect. "I merely meant that this is a far greater boon than we could have ever expected ... to hear your proclamations for our kingdom in person."
"Of course you did," she said, though her tone belied her words. She waved a twisted hand, brushing him back with little more care than she might have reserved for an annoying insect. With him out of the way, she stepped forward, not stopping until she reached the front of the dais where she stood facing the awestruck crowd. Turning and unexpectedly regal look toward the two women, she paused a moment, then winked, a tiny grin teasing her lips before she looked back out at the crowd, holding her hands wide until they quieted. "We have all gathered here today for a momentous occasion," she began, her voice surprisingly powerful for so frail a figure. "The ceremony has drawn a wise voice from another world into the family of our most revered God-King...." She paused to allow the roar of approval that rose from the crowd to crescendo then die away again in response to her raised hand. "And sadly," she continued, the seemingly light voice gaining in strength and power until it was easily heard from every corner of the room, "it is a wisdom we are in dire need of."
The crowd went deathly silent, frowns of confusion replacing happy grins all around. This was supposed to be a celebration, but her tone was anything but celebratory.
"In every corner of this kingdom there is stagnation and foolishness, while the people's leaders lock themselves away behind high walls, thinking that if they don't see the problem, then it doesn't exist." The oracle shook her head. "Today I make no predictions for a glorious future, only one proclamation for our salvation...." She paused, giving her words time to sink in before continuing, "Lady Fraiser shall not be the first wife of Adoh Arim. He's a boy, and she has no desire to serve His greatness thusly. To even contemplate such a choice is a cruelty born of slavish devotion to outdated rules never intended to be enforced with such rigidity. When our first God-King was proclaimed, it was to hold many disparate tribes together under a strong ruler, not ignore them and hand ultimate leadership to a spoiled boy unready for the task...."
Shock echoed back and forth across the chamber, the only exception the harem girls, who were nodding in agreement -- SÚlan most decisively of all.
The oracle straightened. "While I worship my Lord and realize that He is both god and man, I cannot countenance His leadership when the man is still a boy ... and prone to a boy's tempers."
Janet couldn't help but stare across the shocked faces of the crowd, an uneasy shiver sliding down her spine as she began to wonder what the hell kind of revolution they were about to be caught in. Sam clearly had the same concern, because she felt the taller woman step closer and both hands curved to her shoulders as if ready to pull her away from some unexpected attack.
The oracle looked over at Janet again, blue eyes intent as a tiny hint of triumphant smile curved her lips. "Which is why I proclaim Lady Fraiser not First Wife, but rather Goddess-Queen to us all. Our Lord will always be the God-King, but now He need not lead His people alone. And with Her aid, may we find a road toward what we have lost."
Having stood dumbstruck during the entire speech, Prime Minister Idri finally managed a response. He fainted dead away, hitting the floor of the dais with a solid thud.
By the look of it, there were a few other ministers, and quite a few members of the crowd, seriously considering following suit.
Janet couldn't help but wonder if maybe they should run for it. She couldn't imagine the crowd being thrilled to have an outsider handed that kind of power. She glanced back at Sam, who shrugged uncertainly.
"And now you will show the High-God-Father's chosen the proper respect," the oracle commanded the breathless crowd.
The doctor experienced a moment's trepidation as the crowd shuffled uncertainly, only to have it turn to shock as people began to kneel, taking a hint from the oracle's hand gesture. The old woman smiled in approval, and it continued in waves until the entire crowd knelt before the dais, heads lowered respectfully. The oracle looked at the milling ministers, her expression grave. "You will kneel as well," she informed them and they went down gracelessly, as though suddenly handed huge stacks of lead weights. "You also, Adoh Arim," the addressed the wide-eyed boy. "Lest you offend your new sister." An eyebrow arched and a meaningful look reminded the boy just what an utter brat he'd been. Suddenly he couldn't kneel fast enough.
Her work with the crowd done, the old woman moved to step in front of Janet, who was staring at the scene in wide-eyed shock. "We are in Your hands, my Goddess-Queen," the oracle said firmly, then she too knelt, the maneuver so difficult for badly arthritic limbs that the doctor automatically reached to help only to find her hands brushed back. "No, my Lady, You must allow this," the oracle insisted.
As her eyes slid back and forth over the sea of kneeling bodies, Janet could only shake her head in utter shock. Clearly, she'd been short a few details about what being proclaimed Goddess-Queen entailed, and she truly no idea what she was supposed to do next. She glanced back at Sam, and noted her obvious indecision as she looked all around them. She shook her head, uncertain she could remain serious if Sam went with the rest of the crowd. Already bubbles of hysterical laughter were threatening to burst forth. "Sam, so help me god, if you kneel, I will belt you one," Janet threatened sotto voce.
"She will kneel before You, Child," the oracle disagreed mildly, "as You will kneel before her one day." A playful smile danced across her lips as her eyes sparkled lightly. "Though hopefully in somewhat more private circumstances."
Her mouth hanging open, Janet could only stare at the oracle for a long moment. "Is that supposed to make sense?" she demanded after a beat, "because if it is, it's failing miserably. I have no idea what the hell is going on here."
"It's part of the job, my dear," the old woman answered, her tone practical. "Gives the philosophers and historians something to write about for generations to come." She looked at Sam, her expression becoming more serious for a moment. "Now, kneel, child ... or you risk costing Her the power She requires to save us all."
Not knowing what else to do, Sam slowly slid to her knees, staring up at her friend with absolute trust.
And then Janet went from near laughter to utter panic as she looked all around herself and realized she was all alone now; a lone standing figure amid a sea of kneeling worshippers. Great. She was a goddess now. She wondered if it was too late to apply for some other job. The desire to kneel just to fit in with the crowd almost overwhelming, she turned back to face the smiling oracle. The dancing blue eyes watched her merrily, but the oracle didn't answer. Janet exhaled a heavy sigh that bordered on defeat. "Why are you doing this?" she demanded after a long beat.
The old woman's expression momentarily grew serious. "Would You prefer I had allowed the wedding to stand?" she asked, her tone pointed.
"No," the doctor insisted instantly, then shook her head. "But there must have been something else you could do."
A wry smile twisted gamine lips. "Not within our laws."
"But you're an oracle. Shouldn't you be able to change the rules?" the doctor demanded in a burst of frustration.
The oracle smiled up at her with that benign, all-too-wise smile. "Sometimes to change things the rules, one must first follow them," she explained.
Wonderful, more ambiguous ramblings that could be interpreted any number of ways. "Lemme guess," Janet muttered unhappily, "you write fortune cookies on the side."
The old woman simply stared at her for a long moment, not dignifying the sarcasm with an answer.
Janet growled something impolite under her breath, glancing across the crowd, sensing an aura of expectation. She looked back at the old woman. "You want me to do something, don't you?" she demanded with considerable trepidation. "I mean something specific," she added breathlessly.
"Of course," the oracle confirmed without giving any clues what that might be.
"What?" the doctor whispered hopelessly. "I could use a little help here." She wasn't good under some kinds of pressure. "A hint or a clue of some kind."
That young-old smile only spread wider. "What You know is right, my Goddess-Queen. We are in Your hands now and only You have the power to save us ... and Yourself."
"Great," Janet groaned. "Wouldn't want to put any pressure on me or anything, would you?"
The only answer was another gentle smile.
"Somehow, I just knew you were going to do that," the doctor muttered to no one in particular....