By Jenni Debbage <email@example.com>
Submitted March 2000
Summary: A tragic incident thrusts Kal and Lois-El into the position of First Lord and Lady, and the newlyweds must face the challenge of adjusting to married life while trying to keep peace on Krypton.
Chapter One: Sacrifice
The icy chill of winter had steadily given way to the kinder climes of spring and as the snow caps of the mountains melted and swelled the rushing rivers, the burgeoning plant life strove to greet the strengthening sun. The fresh young leaves sprouted more yellow than green, a condition of growing under the red sun of Krypton, though Kal-El had assured his somewhat homesick wife that in time the foliage would turn to a more recognizable green and, in some cases, blue. The flowers that bloomed were a myriad of colours and therefore not unlike those of Lady Lois-El's home planet. Even the sun at its height was more orange than red and could be mistaken at times for the yellow sun that had warmed her throughout her growing years on Earth.
Four Earth months had passed since the day that Lois Lane had stepped onto the firm ground of her adopted home. Krypton's calendar was not dissimilar to that of her native world. A day was very slightly longer than those on Earth and a year had a few less days, but the four seasons came and went with similar regularity. Yet, though the natural clock of Krypton wrapped Lois in a familiar cocoon, the young girl on occasion found herself longing for her own land.
And yet, had the Earth girl been presented with a chance to return to the far planet of her birth, she would have vehemently refused the offer. Lois Lane, now the Lady of El, was completely clear on one point, she loved her husband with an intensity that she sometimes found hard to believe. Where ever was Kal-El in this wide-ranging galaxy, then she would be with him. They were soul mates, destined to be together throughout their lives.
Lois was perfectly happy with her role as Kal's wife. What was so much harder to come to terms with was her role as his consort. To be accurate, both were still one step away from the throne of Krypton and would, Lois hoped, remain so for some considerable time. But still, she was never allowed to forget the fact that she was a First Lady in training.
She was also aware of being watched. Not by the Els' enemies, although judging from past happenings they no doubt had their eye on her. No, those who were watching with interest were the noble men and women of Krypton, all of whom were waiting in anticipation of hearing that the heir's wife was with child. This made her feel very uncomfortable and as each month passed, at the onslaught of her monthly visitor, Lois' feelings of inadequacy increased.
When she had shared her suspicions and apprehensions with Kal, he had simply grinned with amusement and, taking her into a comforting hug, he had assured her that, as they had been married less than four months, the question of their infertility was not an issue.
Kissing her tenderly, he advised her to simply relax and let nature have her way and, deepening his kiss, he remarked when coming up for air that meanwhile trying to make a baby was a wonderful way to pass the time. Lois wholly concurred and the subject had faded into the background.
However, the intuitive young wife had not been totally wrong. Those nobles who had disapproved of the choice of an Earthling and those who complained at the first hint of trouble were already speculating on the premise of yet another barren First Couple. Only this time the situation was more disturbing, Kal-El having no brothers to take his place in the line of succession. Would the throne fall by default into the hands of the dreaded Rad-Nor?
Zor-El and his council and any other sensible-thinking aristocrat of Krypton quickly doused the flickering rumour, but speculation is insidious and so the disturbing gossip spread, dimming Lois' joy in her new life on a new world.
The daily council meeting had broken up a short time ago and a careworn Zor-El sat behind his glass-topped desk listening absent-mindedly to his private secretary list the invitations that had arrived over the last few days, at least those which the efficient assistant and Prime Councillor Trey thought their Lord and his Lady should attend. Over the last months the ruler of Krypton had found these personal attendances ever more tedious, finding it increasingly difficult to assume an enthusiastic face when confronted with the tiring sycophancy that he often encountered under these circumstances. Then too, he was even more concerned with his wife Rochelle's debilitating anxiety in face of the thinly veiled contempt with which she was regarded by many of the nobles of Krypton.
Close friends and confederates of the Els had come to care and sympathise with the woman who, from the outset, had been totally ill-equipped spiritually to cope with the life of a First Lady and whose nervous disposition had deteriorated quickly in the early years when certain greedy and power-hungry nobles had sought to manipulate a youthful and naive Zor-El. At such a troublesome time it would have been helpful to the lady to immerse her worries in the care of her children but, unfortunately, that too had become a source of heartache when her inability to provide an heir was soon confirmed by the physicians to the royal family.
Flying in the face of public opinion, Zor had resisted all attempts by his council to annul his wedding to the lovely, fragile young woman. He had quickly come to love the lady whom he had transported from her happy and safe family home into the cauldron of the covert power struggle on his planet. Looking back, he often wondered whether he had done his dear wife a disservice in holding her to their marriage. Honesty, nonetheless, compelled him to acknowledge that his actions had not been selfless. Without her love, which she had given him unquestionably from the beginning, he would not have been able to fight the corrupt council he had inherited and finally gain the upper hand. Rochelle had always had such faith in her husband's inborn goodness and his search for justice for his people. She had given him the strength to go on and in doing so had depleted her own meagre store.
Thankfully, Jor-El, his younger brother by a number of years, and his wife Lara had in the birth of their second child provided a male heir to the House of El. An heir who would be for the first time in many years, due to the laws associated with the origins of the First Lady, a true-blooded Kryptonian. Surprisingly, there had been no legislation to prevent the child's nomination as heir to the throne, indeed many of the noble houses were secretly pleased that the successor would be from two of the most consequential families and finally the niggling complaints and corrosive requests to send Rochelle home gratefully ceased.
Yet the damage had been done and the already shy lady never regained her equilibrium. She carried out her duties as best as her broken health would allow but she was never at ease in the company of the society that had sought her downfall.
When first it seemed that Kal-El would succeed in his quest of bringing his chosen one to Krypton, Zor-El had suggested to his wife that shortly they would be able to retire and place the responsibility of Krypton's rule in young Kal's capable hands. Strangely, his wife had adamantly vetoed such a course of action, in fact it had been a very long time since Rochelle had shown such fire. The kindhearted woman was uncharacteristically but obstinately insistent that the 'children' should be given time to adjust to marriage and to each other before they were thrust into the uncertain world of Kryptonian politics. This world which appeared to the uninitiated orderly and controlled but which secretly seethed with undercurrents that threatened to sweep their settled world into a return to ancient conflicts.
So, instead of pleasantly planning a long promised visit to Rochelle's home planet, Zor-El was filling in his diary of coming events in the whirlpool of aristocratic society. Many of the suggested dinners, balls and ribbon-cutting occasions the weary aging man had consigned to lesser members of his family but the invitation which Trey was now holding aloft was one which would be difficult and inopportune to waive.
The event in question was the opening of the latest and exceedingly rich Kryptonite mine owned by the Fre family. The situation between the two families had been awkward and fraught with jeopardy since the heir to the Lordship had inexplicably broken his marriage contract with the lovely Lady Zara-El and plunged into a life of debauchery. And while the Fres could find no fault with their son's ex-fiancee they found themselves steeped in ambivalent feelings towards the ruling family, deeming, inexplicably, that somehow the Els must have been in some way responsible for their only son's fall from grace.
The proffered request for Zor-El's presence at the opening ceremony was in a way a peace-offering, a mending of fences between the two principal noble houses and Zor was very aware of its importance. Besides, Lady Gwyn-Fre was one of Rochelle's few friends and he recognised how troubled his wife had been by the rift. It was time to heal the breach.
Resignedly he agreed to his councilor's suggestions and lifting his tired body from behind the large desk he thanked the two men for their attendance and strode out the door. His heavy expression brightened as he went in search of his wife who was at this moment supervising the replanting of the rose arbour high on the palace ramparts. It was a beautiful warming spring day that should be spent outdoors enjoying the sunshine with loved ones, not buried in dark council chambers wrestling with boring paperwork and he had news to impart that would bring a smile to her gentle face.
Zor-El was completely oblivious that he had made a decision which would change his life and the lives of his family irrevocably.
The young man smiled as he exited the transporter that had brought him to the latest site of the source of his family's great wealth. He strode confidently across the concourse and into the lift that would take him to the platform where the electronic ribbon cutting ceremony would take place in a very short space of time. From his vantage point he surveyed the busy scene with keen interest and certain degree of smugness. The yard below him seethed in orderly chaos as the Fres' security force was strengthened by the royal guard, all in preparation for the visit of the monarch and his consort.
And wouldn't the old fool Zor-El be surprised when he discovered who was the head of the welcoming committee? Of course, his mother and father would be present but he had persuaded them, as he had been the cause of the breach in relationships with the royal house, that he should now be the one to re-offer the hand of friendship.
It had all been so easy. The power of a heartfelt apology with just the right amount of contrition had worked wonders. He had shown humility and a willingness to accept the blame for his indiscretion, touching fleetingly on his fear of commitment, his dread of being united to such an important family, who, by the way, had not been over-welcoming of his presence, and his youthful folly at being lead astray by his wayward friends. It had been an award-winning performance.
At the outset, his father had been suspicious of his motives, even suggesting that his son's financial status must be in dire straits and he was now hoping to be bailed out yet again, but Rol-Fre had been able to assure his parents that this was not so. In doing so, he had allayed his father's misgivings and rendered the older, disillusioned man more pliable to his mother's persuasion. At least the sainted watering-pot had acted with customary hysteria; Gwyn-Fre could always be relied on to turn on the tears, and his father, through genuine concern or a less laudable desire to shut her up, had finally given way to his wife's and his son's pleas and welcomed home the prodigal son.
With his overseeing of the investiture of the new mine the reconciliation would now be made public and hopefully the Els would find it impossible to controvert the family reunion on such a public stage. Rol-Fre had made certain that the ceremony would be broadcast throughout Krypton and Lord Zor-El was too well mannered and diplomatic to reveal his private distaste to the world.
The scene was set wherein Rol-Fre would once again retake his place in his aristocratic world and the conceited boy was feeling mightily pleased with his planning. Yet, in truth, he was only acting out another more devious lord's schemes. Even the finery which adorned his person was supplied by another hand. The body-hugging purple suit, which only served to display his bony shape; the heavy silken surcoat with velvet lining and the twisted gold chain that circled his neck with the symbol of his house, picked out in precious gems, hanging on his narrow chest.
This striking ornament had made him gasp in wonder and he had even voiced the opinion that perhaps it was a little too ostentatious. After all, the First Lord and Lady were well known for their love of the simple things in life and dressed accordingly, and wasn't it bad taste to outshine the guests of honour? His secret benefactor had given a mirthless laugh and pointed out that Rol's downfall had been precipitated by certain members of the House of El and wouldn't it give Rol a measure of satisfaction to display such an obvious sign of his reinstatement?
The vainglorious boy had been readily convinced and now stood watching the approach of the royal cavalcade as it appeared on the horizon and sped towards its untimely fate. Unknowing of the havoc that it was about to unleash, Rol fingered the device that weighed so heavily on his shoulders as his parents took their place by his side. Lord Dom-Fre ran a critical eye over his gaudy son's choice of raiment and his eyes widened in horror at the massive 'necklace'.
"Zor's teeth, boy, what is that thing you have around your neck?" The older man asked in amazement.
"A symbol of our House, Father. I'm entitled to wear this," Rol added petulantly.
"It's a symbol of our wealth, no doubt, and just as vulgar," Dom continued with his tirade. "I won't have our riches so flagrantly displayed and wherever you got the money to pay for such a thing I have no idea. Get rid of it at once!"
Given time, Rol would have remonstrated with his disapproving father but the visiting party was already through the gates and about to alight from the transporters and, as head of the welcoming group, Rol should be there in the courtyard to offer his hands. Throwing an angry glance in Dom's direction, but understanding that Lord Fre would brook no disobedience, Rol pulled the offending article over his head and thrust it into a deep pocket in his surcoat. Then without a backward glance he strode off to meet the royal dignitaries.
From a lookout post on the surrounding hills a solitary figure stood, training his spy camera on the far-off scene. A fresh breeze ruffled his lank, shoulder-length hair and stirred his nondescript garments, his need for anonymity in this case outweighing the man's natural flamboyance. He had thought to bring his bodyguard with him but deemed this action so hazardous that it was best known only to the two conspirators… soon to be reduced in number by fifty percent. Of course, there was the jeweller who had fashioned the artifice and the explosive expert who had hidden the minute yet powerful bomb within its egg-sized stones. But then these craftsmen were off-worlders, supplied to him by his alien allies and certainly out of the jurisdiction of the Kryptonian security services. There would be no trail that would lead back to him from that quarter.
Which brought him to his second consideration. It was always sad to close down a partnership which had taken considerable time and effort to cultivate. Yet a wise man recognized limitations and, while it was disappointing to lose out on a somewhat large investment, it was more prudent to use one's tools to the best of their advantage. And Rad-Nor had decreed that in death Rol would serve him more beneficially than in life.
There had always been the chance that the stupid boy would become more of a liability than an accomplice and if the Fres were once more united then that became a more distinct possibility. Dom-Fre was not as foolish as his offspring and if the old Lord suspected that his son was in league with Rad-Nor then the opportunity to milk the wealth of the Fres would be lost forever. Far better to initiate the reconciliation and use it to his own ends. And who knew, perhaps he would be able to acquire some of the family assets in the confused aftermath of the coming tragedy.
Zor!! Why did nature have a way of thwarting his plans?! Well, that perhaps was too strong a distinction, but the bright sun shining full into his view was making it very difficult to follow closely what was taking place far below. Studying the group on the raised platform, he witnessed what seemed to be a small altercation between the two men, then as the concourse filled with the royal transporters he tracked the progress of the three Fres as they hurried to meet their guests. Not long now! His mind soared in anticipation of a plan come to fruition. A sinister smile lit his face as he caressed the remote-control device between finger and thumb. In a few seconds he would take the first step in his quest for revenge against the House that had conquered and humiliated his family for so many years. And at last he would stand on the path that would lead him to the throne. With a grin of anticipation his finger pressed down.
As Zor-El stepped into the glare of the morning sun and the avid attention of the gathering crowd the First Lord's normally even-tempered disposition threatened to vanish in a surge of icy cold disapproval. How dare the Fres insinuate this rogue into their ceremonial party? This buffoon who had assaulted and insulted close members of his family. And in a public circumstance where he had no choice but to accept their machinations.
Feeling affronted and betrayed, the usually gracious and friendly Zor-El hung back from the approaching Fres. Not so the First Lady of Krypton. Ever kindly and ready to forgive any misdemeanour, Rochelle forgot her place at her husband's side. She quickened her step to display to the watching throng that Lord Dom-Fre and his wife Lady Gwyn, once a member of her small band of friends, would be reinstated into the close circle of the royal court.
And so it was that the First Lady carried out her final duty to this planet of Krypton, which had already taken so much from her, as she and the family of Fre bore the first blast of the explosion. The gaudy crest of the House of Fre exploded in a deadly ball of fire. It was only a small bomb. It was never meant for mass destruction. But cocooned in a pocket of a thick coat and shielded by the bodies of its four hapless victims, the device failed in its objective. Along with the others present at the scene, Zor-El survived, shocked and with many superficial injuries. And although, his body recovered from its injuries his spirit was broken. Never before had the noble classes understood the strength of this tragic Lady's presence, the love she had brought to her husband.
Kal-El walked slowly down the stark corridor in the royal apartments of Elvar's Palace wishing to postpone this coming meeting for as long as possible. He had already visited Zor-El since the tragedy and he had found it very difficult to recognise his once confident and affectionate uncle in the tired and distant man. Of course, Kal understood only too well how his elder relative must be suffering. Just a short time ago he had almost lost his Lois and he had felt so bereft and they had only been together for so short a time. How much more devastating it must be for Zor, who had spent so many years with the woman he loved. Losing Rochelle had taken away all the joy from Zor's life and, Kal discerned, the will to continue with his role as leader to his people.
Nothing had been said, but the young man instinctively knew the reason behind his summons. What troubled Kal most was the realization that he was unsure how he felt about the consequences or, more to the point, how his wife would react to their pre-emptive call to the throne. Since childhood, Kal had been raised with the knowledge that he would one day take his place as the First Lord of Krypton. All his life he had been learning to fulfill this momentous task. Lois, however, would be thrust into this position only by the love she bore him and they both had hoped that she would be given time to acclimatise herself to the role and her life on this new world before they finally ascended the throne. Now, it seemed, there would be little chance that their wish would be realised and he prayed for the fortitude to assume his destiny and to assist and protect Lois in her role of consort.
Yet, for all that, Kal could find no blame in Zor-El's decision to abdicate and the heir-apparent who stood outside his uncle's suite awaited, with a sympathetic heart, permission to enter. Silently the doors slid open upon a dimly lit room and Kal stepped inside with a quiet sigh.
The still figure of the ruler of Krypton sat in a comfortable chair by the chamber's large window, staring sightlessly at the moonlit scene. The portal closed behind Kal and for a moment both were frozen in a haunting tableau which was broken finally by Zor acknowledging the younger man's presence.
"Kal, my boy, thank you for coming." He motioned with his hand for his visitor to come forward then swept an arm across the window at the silvered scene outside. "Your Aunt Rochelle always loved this view of the river by moonlight when the toil of the day is done and everything is still and quiet. How often we would sit here holding hands and watching the world go by. It was strangely soothing, especially after a hard day spent wrestling with the council or listening to one family attack another with a trivial and often imaginary slight. For a noble and just society I have often found some of our aristocratic Lords to be avaricious and narrow-minded." Zor gave a derisive snort then turned his gaze inward in reverie. "Somehow Rochelle ever found a way to comfort me. She had a listening heart, Kal. How often would I solve an arduous problem here in our chamber while she sat in this chair busily stitching at her needlepoint."
Standing in the corner was an antique wooden frame with an intricate piece of embroidery stretched across its surface, forlornly awaiting the return of its creator.
A wistful smile crossed Kal's face at the fond memory of his aunt. "She loved her stitchery. I remember once when I was very small I broke into her sewing box and unravelled all the colourful silks, Mama was very angry but Aunt Rochelle laughed and told mother not to scold. Her laughter was like a bell. It was my first memory of her."
"Come, Kal, sit here by me." The elderly man with tears glinting in his eyes waited while his nephew drew a chair to the opposite side of the window. "You loved her too."
"All those who knew her loved her, sire."
"Yes! But so many never took the time to know her. They saw only the anxieties and the failures. It broke my heart to watch her hurt by such ill-conceived judgments."
"I think that in the end Aunt Rochelle learned not to let them trouble her. She was content with you and with Krypton."
"And this was how Krypton repaid her!" Standing abruptly Zor strode about the room fighting to repress his anger as Kal waited with bated breath for the tirade to still. Finally, ire faded to despondency as Zor halted by the window and searched the dark landscape without. "I'm told that the security service can find no trace of the assassin, merely that the explosive was hidden in some piece of jewellery which belonged to Rol-Fre."
"If Rol was involved then he had to have been set up by Rad-Nor. Rol was a rogue but he had neither the wit nor the contacts to plan something like this. And he was definitely too vain to contemplate a suicide mission." Kal too was finding it difficult to control his temper. "And it is Nor who is determined to destroy our family."
"But we have no proof, Kal. All Commander Medi can discover is that both the explosives and the ornament originated off-world, probably from the space station Caytan; every pirate, terrorist and drugs-marketeer plies their illegal trade from that den of iniquity."
"It's a favourite haunt of the Taureans, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's rumoured to be the place where they negotiate their deals to bring down the Federation. The Taureans are an undisciplined and warring nation whose very existence is threatened by the continuing influence of the United Planets." Once more the statesman in Zor rose to the fore.
"And Krypton is the Federation's founding member and you are the head of the Kryptonian government… you were probably the target…"
"Oh yes! My poor wife died in my stead." That thought returned Zor to his wretchedness while his nephew continued with his hypothesis.
"Is Nor so desperate to gain power that he'd willingly ally himself to an off-world power? Is he willing to sell Krypton to the Taureans in exchange for the throne?"
The silence stretched out in dawning horror until Zor faced his heir. "I believe that he has it in him to do so but hopefully such a terrible premise will not come to pass. The nobles will support their new and rightful Ruler."
"New Ruler?!" Kal had been cognizant with his uncle's intentions, yet to hear the words spoken struck a chord of apprehension deep into his soul. "Sire, the noble houses trust you. Wouldn't it be better were you to retain the throne?"
With a sorrowful shake of his head Zor answered. "I'm a weary and heartsick old man and I have no spirit to face the struggles ahead. All I can do now for my people is to leave their welfare in your strong and capable hands."
"What will you do?" Kal asked resignedly.
"I intend to take the remains of my wife back to her home. I always promised Rochelle to do so in her life, so it is the least I can do to make her resting place the planet of her birth. Afterwards, I plan on going in search of your grandmother. Perhaps, far away from Krypton I can learn to forgive its transgressions against my dear one." Old and young eyes locked gazes for sometime until the elder looked rather shamefacedly away. Moments passed, yet when Zor's eyes returned to his nephew they were full of determination. "My dear Kal, I wish that your path to the throne was not so beset with menace but I have faith that you and Lois will prevail. Within you both lie the seeds of truth and justice and the Kryptonian way. Together you can face whatever the future may hold and I commit this realm, with every confidence, to Kal-El, First Lord of Krypton, and to his Lady, Lois-El."
Chapter Two: The Pledge
Leaning against the ancient granite wall warmed by the spring sunshine, the chestnut-haired girl stared intently at the scene beneath her. It seemed to her stunned gaze that all the citizens of Elvar had gathered at the base of the castle rock to witness this illustrious occasion. The castle itself was filled to overflowing with the noble men and women whom tradition had bade attend the investiture of the next First Lord of Krypton.
Some weeks had passed since her adopted family and the people of Krypton had bade farewell to Zor-El as he embarked on his sad pilgrimage and it had upset her, more than she cared to admit, to lose his comforting presence; not to mention the momentous implications that his leaving meant for Kal and herself. Thankfully, the intervening time had been too hectic for either of them to dwell on their insecurities and fears.
When Lois had first heard of Zor's intention to abdicate her immediate instinct had been one of panicked flight. But Lois was not a quitter. She had known, from the outset, what her role on this planet would one day be and she was not about to turn tail and run simply because events had overtaken her. Besides, she had seen mirrored in her husband's eyes a heart-wrenching look at once forlorn and sympathetic. Kal needed her now as never before and she would not fail him. Together they were stronger than one alone. They would face whatever the future would bring side by side.
Which was rather difficult to do at this moment since Kal had been taken away by the council twenty-four hours previously. There had been alliances to be reinstated and papers to be signed and policies to be forged and in this male-dominated society the presence of the First Lady was not required in council chambers. Kal had promised his feminist wife that once his position had been confirmed by his public inauguration, he would gradually introduce Lois to the corridors of power. But for the moment she would need to exercise uncommon patience, a state of mind that had required all her fortitude in her lonely bed of the past night.
Following his marathon session with his councillors Kal-El had been closeted in the Hall of Meditation at the very heart of the Palace to spend the night hours in ritual contemplation, seeking the commitment and the mind set to undertake the lifelong care of his people. There was no worship of a Deity on Krypton as there was on Earth. Nevertheless, the Kryptonians did firmly believe in a higher power, but one that was found within one's self; an understanding of all things noble and just and the will to act always in their name. And thus, as each new leader took up the sceptre, tradition demanded that they spend the night of their coronation in lonely self-reflection.
Lois had been kept company in the early evening hours by Zara and the new first Lady had taken the opportunity to gently probe her sister-in-law's feelings regarding Lieutenant Ching, Kal's bodyguard and friend. Her motives were partly to distract her anxious thoughts from her husband but largely she held Zara in high esteem and would be pleased to assist the younger girl to her heart's desire, even though Ching's status was not considered suitable for an alliance with the youngest lady of the House of El. Unhappily, Lois' good intentions were thwarted by Zara's natural reticence. Knowing the strict traditions of her world, the Kryptonian girl protected her hopeless love from even the most well-minded prying and, when the two were joined for dinner by Jor and Lara, the moment was lost but the ever tenacious Lois-El simply filed it away for another time.
The hours had crawled by as her new family sought to alleviate her apprehensions of the coming day but it was obvious that Lois' thoughts were centred on Kal and, after warning the distracted young woman against trying to reach her soul mate telepathically, the El family had bade her goodnight and left. Lara, as she took her daughter-in-law's cold hands into her own, stressed that such a thing would not be possible, Kal being incarcerated in a shielded hall, and would be considered, in any case, an unacceptable intrusion.
Soon after sunrise Lois had awakened with the noise of the crowds gathering in the streets below, each intent on finding the best vantage point from where to view the auspicious proceedings. Thankful that the night was finally over, she had dragged her weary body from the empty bed. Her sleep had been fitful and filled with uneasy half-forgotten dreams. Oh, this wasn't good! The intense programme of the day demanded a well-rested body and calm mind. Lois only hoped that she managed to remain totally conscious during this second important ceremony of her life on this planet. One major happening had lifted her tired soul while she lay tossing amongst her silken sheets thinking absentmindedly about the missing occupant of her bed. Suddenly, she had found herself close to Kal and she had instinctively realised that he had been freed from the confines of the containment chamber. In a happier frame of mind she had stepped beneath the warm jets of the body shower.
Lois couldn't hold back a grin of amazement as the hot spray had connected with her skin. The bathroom was large and, apart from the necessary bathroom fixtures, contained a large sunken tub and a shower cubicle that comfortably accommodated two. Neither bath nor shower had any noticeable controls but were programmed to both Lois and Kal's preferences, from hot and soothing to cool and invigorating. Lois only need think of which she would like at any given time and the equipment did the rest, even providing warm blasts of hot air to gently dry her body when she had finished. Of course, sometimes Lois preferred the old-fashioned method of soft, fluffy towels, especially when sharing the bathroom with her husband, but today she had been grateful for the automatic help.
As Lois had exited from her lonely ablutions, Etta arrived, bringing her lady's breakfast, scolding gently that Lois hadn't waited for her assistance in rising, once again. Lara had followed quickly on the newly promoted lady-in-waiting's heels bearing with her a surprisingly plain gown of unrelieved black. Lois' brow had wrinkled in distaste. Wasn't a coronation a celebration and not a funeral? The dowager Lady El had smiled indulgently at Lois' observations but she had explained that while an investiture was a solemn occasion the celebration of a new reign would begin immediately the ceremony was over and the black uniforms of the First Lord and Lady would be overlaid by a more suitable raiment.
Lois regarded her mother-in-law with an apologetic air. After an inauspicious beginning this woman had proved to be a stalwart support and caring friend. But Lois could not forebear thinking that she was usurping Lara's position.
"Lady Lara," Lois stretched out to lightly touch the hands that held the dress. "I'm sorry…"
"Sorry?! My child, whatever are you apologising for? This dress is hardly high fashion so you don't have to like it." She lifted the offending article aloft to survey it. "Hopefully you'll approve of the overdress I've chosen for you to wear later."
"Oh, I'm sure I will." The younger girl spoke with conviction. Lady Lara was always tastefully attired. "But that wasn't what I meant. All this should be for you and Lord Jor-El." Lois waved her hand in the general direction of the window and the scene far below.
For some minutes Lara looked perplexed then catching Lois' intension she laughed feelingly. "My dear, this was never meant for Jor-El. He was never considered as his brother's heir. Well, only fleetingly and only because the council were growing desperate. They understood that he would have been completely unsuitable. And never was anyone more relieved to have a son as Jor. He would've hated to be First Lord and I would've been so worried about him coping with a role he detested. So, dear Lois, you've no reason to feel guilty. I'm proud of my son and you." Uncharacteristically Lara leaned forward and pressed a light kiss on her daughter-in-law's brow. "And I shall always be here if you need me."
"Thank you," Lois whispered and both women exchanged misty smiles then turned to the business of the day.
The rest of the morning had been spent preparing Lois for the coming ritual, Etta in charge of the practicalities while Lara recounted her girlhood recollections of the coronation of Zor-El.
Now it seemed that the moment was nigh and that Lois was to be accompanied to meet with her Lord. An escort of the Palace Guard waited outside her chamber with the second Councillor, Lord Jen-Mai, at their head. With a final look at the throng below, Lois lifted her head high and, with a stylish wiggle of her hips, she tossed her black train behind her on the ground and went to meet her destiny.
If Lois had found the night hours tedious, Kal-El had spent them alternating between emotional highs of exaltation and deep troughs of self depreciation. In his hands he held a world steeped in high ideals and ancient traditions and his dream, his ambition was to mould it into a more modern, more open society. But was he ready for such great responsibility?
'In apprehension how like a god.' Kal was reminded of a quote he had learned when studying Earth's great playwrights. Did this mean that the gods were an anxious group? Long ago he had asked this question of his Uncle Zor, the most godlike figure his adolescent mind could comprehend and now in the darkened Hall the answer came back to him.
'It is not that the gods are anxious about responsibility,' the wise ruler had explained, 'but with such great responsibility comes great understanding.'
The youthful Kal had only hoped to learn a little of the understanding that Zor had possessed in such abundance but when he had voiced his fears to his uncle he had been surprised by Zor's gruff laugh of derision and now he recalled how the older man had related the tales of his own inadequacies when first he ascended the throne and his certain belief that Kal already had the potential to surpass Zor's hard-won wisdom.
Such a memory soothed Kal's wildly escalating thoughts. If Zor-El's estimation was correct and with Lois by his side then he could make a difference to this world. And Kal had few illusions about his people; many of his noble Kryptonians had feet of clay.
It was around this time, having reached this point in his deliberations, that he had been sorely tempted to reach out with his mind to Lois. It was amazing and wonderful how she had become so much part of his life, her presence so needful to his contentment. Their relationship was a true partnership and his natural instinct was to share his conceptions with his wife but the Hall was thought shielded and he was also aware that any communication he might make at this time would be monitored.
The Council, the aristocracy and the general public were prepared to accept his investiture as their First Lord but Kal was mindful of the fact that for some time his rule would be probationary. Not that either the council or the noble families would seek to overthrow him but they were quite capable of trying to control him as they had with Zor-El. A steely resolute shadow settled on the handsome face of the young man and his mouth froze in a firm line. Kal was determined to remain his own man. He was perfectly willing to listen and take good advice from older, more experienced minds, if the situation demanded. Yet an indecisive and malleable ruler was a bad ruler. In the silence of the night, Kal resolved that as the ancient ways of his world had placed this responsibility on his shoulders then his will would be paramount.
When just before dawn his entourage arrived to escort him from the chamber, it was a calmer and infinitely more persevering Kal-El who stepped from the chamber and at once he felt the warm supporting mind of his Lois entwining her thoughts with his own. His step lightened and he smiled warmly at his friends and attendants as he went to spend his last carefree hours in the ceremonial cleansing of his body and soul in the natural spring baths of the shores of the River Elvar. With such an all-consuming love to uphold him, he would never be alone again.
In the dazzling sunshine at exactly midday the noble Lord Kal of the royal and illustrious House of El was led by his Prime Councillors, Trey and Jen-Mai, up the gentle slope of the Mound of Inauguration where for thousands of years his forebears had pledged to do their duty as First Lords of all Krypton.
All eyes were riveted on the handsome young man clad in the customary black body suit, his symbol, on this occasion, picked out in silver on his expansive chest. Arriving at the time and place of his destiny, Kal, awed by the seriousness of the situation, solemnly took his seat on the heavily carved and polished bench of unique black Kryptonite. With great sense of purpose the Chief Councilmen commenced the stately traditions of investing their Lord with the symbols of his rule while the crowd watched with bated breath the ancient rituals unfold. Trey lifted the heavy gold sceptre from its velvet-lined case and paced his way to the throne where, dropping on one knee, he presented the rod of office to his master.
"Do you solemnly accept this sceptre as a symbol of your rule and do you swear to commit your life to the leadership and protection of this world and all those who dwell therein?" The Councillor pitched his voice so that all present might hear.
"I do!" Kal's clear voice dropped into the silence as he ritually touched the intricately engraved object before it was carried away to be replaced by a large ancient book covered with worn leather and inscribed with faded gold leaf.
Once again The Prime Councillor accepted the sacred volume and turned back to Kal-El.
"And do you promise to uphold the ancient laws of Krypton as written in this our Book of Legislation?"
A pregnant stillness stretched out for some seconds as fleetingly Kal's glance drifted towards his wife, waiting statue like by the side of the small hill. Beside Lois, the Dowager Lady El drew in an anxious breath as she contemplated what revolutionary thoughts might be passing between the couple. But her worries were unfounded. The new Queen Consort sent an understanding and encouraging smile to her husband and quickly Kal responded with a firm pledge.
Since Zor had declared his intention to abdicate, the couple had a number of conversations on this subject; namely could Kal promise in good faith to uphold these old laws when he had every intention of modernising a fair proportion of them. Finally, when they had reached an uneasy impasse they had asked for a last audience with the retiring leader. Understanding, something of the dilemma in which his heir now found himself the wise old man had gladly given them his advice. In Zor's opinion, many of the ancient laws were outdated and desperately in need of review. To cling to outmoded legislation for the sake of tradition was more treasonable than to swear to a broad principle, which the older man was very aware Kal would honour where his people's welfare was at stake. Zor's only regret was that he himself had not had the courage to change some of these restrictive practises. Now with Zor's blessing echoing in his mind, Kal stood and announced his pledge.
"My people of Krypton, I solemnly swear to take up the position of First Lord; to represent your interests within the Federation of Planets; to lead you into a more prosperous and peaceful existence and to protect you, with all the strength I possess, from those who would attack you. And this I promise with all my heart."
When it was clear that Lord Kal-El would say no more a cry of support swelled from the throats of the ordinary citizens of Krypton who viewed this beautiful, yet serious, young man as their champion, a cry that was quickly echoed by the nobles, the majority of whom supported the House of El. The old reign was gone and a new was dawning. It was a time for new beginnings; a time of great expectations and everyone was swept along in the excitement.
"Kal-El! Kal-El!" The shout was repeated by thousands of happy voices.
The person at the centre of all this attention seemed overwhelmed by the emotions and Lord Trey, catching a glint of tears in Kal's eye, speedily raised his arms and called for silence. This took some moments to attain, but finally the exuberant throng obeyed the Master of Ceremonies and an expectant peace settled over the crowded green beneath the castle rock.
"Fellow Kryptonians," the councillor's stately voice carried above the masses, "the time has arrived when the heads of the principal houses of our world will pledge their allegiance to Lord Kal. However, in a break with tradition, but at the particular request of the lady in question, and as the sole representative of her home planet, the Lady Lois-El desires to lead the oath taking."
These words were met by a communal hum of amazement as all present recognised that already this reign was breaking from the old ritual. Was this a pattern for the future? And what did it mean for the people of this ancient world?
When approached by the lady on this subject Lord Trey and the rest of the government had been in something of a quandary. To say that the Ladies of Krypton were exempt from a promise of fealty was not strictly true but tradition had never demanded that they take a public oath. Besides, this youthful Earth woman was smart enough to realise that in suggesting she was making her pledge on behalf of her home planet it would be extremely difficult for the council to refuse. Such an action would be undiplomatic and went against their deeply ingrained sense of courtesy. In turning down such a proposal they would now be, in effect, turning down an approach of friendship from another world.
But, strangely, it had been none of these idealistic notions that had moved Lord Trey to support Lois' cause. Rather it was the fact that Lord Jen-Mai had loosed a tirade in chambers, as disproportional as it was derogatory, against the Earth girl and, perversely, Trey had found himself Lady Lois' champion. He couldn't quite put his finger on what he disliked about his deputy, he only knew that he had never wholly trusted the man and had been uneasy since Jen-Mai had been voted into this post by the other councillors. In fact, he had been in accord with his old friend and master's summation of the second Councilman's character; that the man was way too smooth and charming to be on the level. Unfortunately, neither Zor nor Trey could find anything concrete to back up their suspicions and so the artful Lord remained in position.
Perhaps though, there was now a legitimate chance to be rid of Jen-Mai; on ascension to the throne the leader had the right to call for an election of a fresh cabinet. At this behest the noblemen of Krypton would then elect twelve of their peers to aid the new First Lord in his government. Of course, there was nothing in the rules to say that Lord Jen-Mai could not stand for reelection and, knowing that the man would be reluctant to give up his position of power, Trey wondered whether the whole exercise might be pointless. Still, the faintly troubled Prime Councillor determined to discuss the matter with Lord Kal-El at the first opportunity.
That, however, was for the future. At present, Trey found himself gratified by the smiles of approval from the assembled nobles and the enthusiastic applause from the masses as the slender, lovely girl stepped into the limelight. Dressed as her husband in her plain black robe adorned only by the silver crest, Lois walked steadily forward across the surface of the grassy mound and gracefully dropped to her knees before Kal-El. Her clear voice, somewhat husky with emotion drifted out over the crowd.
"My Lord, I, Lady Lois-El, formerly Lois Lane of the planet Earth, do promise to honour and support your rule with every fibre of my being and for as long as I may live."
Having professed her oath, Lois raised her clasped hands to the man seated, still as a statue, before her. Kal had been totally shocked by this turn of events. How had Lois and the council managed to keep the fact that she would lead the oath taking from him? And more amazingly, how had she persuaded the council into allowing her to do so? Staring down at her bent head, did he detect a satisfied smile on her lovely lips? She was a remarkable woman. On an indrawn breath, Kal took Lois' hands within his own and raised them to his lips. Then, as this was a complete break from tradition, Kal decreed that a new action demanded a similar response and, raising Lois to her feet he captured her lips in a fleeting, yet passionate kiss.
Unaccustomed to such a public show of affection on such an austere occasion, the multitude erupted in cries of glee as the emotional salutation between the handsome Lord and his fair Lady touched the hearts of the many. Even the more staid nobles, carried along by the auspicious atmosphere, applauded benignly the couple's kiss.
And if the members of the council realized that the Lady, in her agreed speech, had transposed the word 'obey' with that of 'support' they did not allow this small transgression to spoil the general rejoicing.
But the moment was quickly over since both Lois and Kal sensed it was better not to push the bounds of change too far too soon. The pair broke apart with a shared smile of understanding and Lady Lois-El, re assuming her rehearsed role, stepped back to a position slightly behind her husband's right shoulder while Kal took his seat once again on the symbolic stone to accept the waiting Lords' pledges of allegiance.
The stately ceremony continued till all the representatives of the great houses of Krypton had repeated their vows, with the notable exception of the family Nor whose Lord had sent his apologies. It appeared that the noble House of Nor had been struck down by an unexpected but very contagious illness (of short duration) which prevented any of the family from attending the ceremony. Neither Kal nor his council was duped by this thinly veiled ruse but, for the moment, as the First Lord was not willing to challenge his self-appointed rival, the absence of the Nors was grudgingly accepted. Nevertheless, Kal, Lois and the more astute members of the nobility recognised the danger behind Rad-Nor's avoidance of swearing an oath of fealty to the House of El.
This piece of disquieting knowledge, however, would not be allowed to mar the importance or the enjoyment of the day and thus, when finally the last nobleman had risen from his knees, the whole tone of the proceedings brightened, much to Lois' surprised delight and the bored attention of the crowds who had grown restive during the repetitive exchange of vows. The ancient and often austere civilization of Krypton would prove to the universe that they had not forgotten how to party.
Silver over-robes appeared to veil the drab black and were donned by the royal couple who then spent a busy afternoon happily touring the city of Elvar with their entourage and visiting, fleetingly, the many celebratory parties that were taking place. The already picturesque city was decked out in floral wreaths and colourful flags, all depicting the famous El shield, and no gathering was thought too inconsequential to ignore and so, for the first time since she had arrived on Krypton, Lois mingled with the ordinary population.
Gratefully, for the sake of her rumbling stomach, Lois perceived that the procession was at last making its way back to the castle. All the members of the royal party had been offered food and drink during their progress through the city but the repast had been accepted only sparingly as the consequences of mixing the varied diet on offer, combined with the heat and excitement of the day, might prove somewhat embarrassing. But Kal, aware that this was a totally new experience for Lois, and daringly hopeful that they were in the early stages of fulfilling their duty to the planet of Krypton, kept a wary eye on his wife.
A little over a week ago, Lois had drawn his attention to the fact that a certain monthly and normally very punctual visitor had failed to show up. They had been overjoyed at the prospect of a baby and not only for the sake of duty, though Lois had also been, not surprisingly, a mite apprehensive. Motherhood was a big step, not to be taken lightly. It wasn't like buying a pet. Kal had smilingly reassured his panicking wife that he had every confidence in her future parenting skills. Given her own experiences she would certainly know what not to do. Besides, this was something that they would share and together there was no problem that they couldn't solve. A child of their own would be born of love and be brought up with love. Meanwhile Kal resolved to take very good care of his possibly pregnant wife.
And so, the instant he noted her wan face and the weariness behind her smile, the concerned husband surreptitiously ordered a return to the palace where his tired wife could rest before attending the evening's coronation banquet.
Throughout the planet, from the major cities to the smallest hamlet, the people of Krypton joined in the feasting and festivals with Elvar city at the heart of the celebrations, which culminated late at night in a fantastic laser-light display, blazing in technicolour magnificence high above the castle rock. Technological fireworks, Lois hypothesized silently as she stood by Kal, his arm tucked gently round her waist in support, gazing at the brilliant show flashing in the dark skies above her. It had been a long and very eventful day and one that would stay in her memory for all the years to come.
Was it the seriousness with which the whole population, from nobleman to commoner, had viewed the investiture that had impressed her? Or was it the heartfelt commitment that this remarkable man by her side had pledged to his people that had so moved her? For Lois was in no doubt that Kal-El would dedicate his life to the help and protection of this planet. More importantly, his people also recognised this truth. There had been genuine emotions in their rejoicing at Kal's enthroning and, if one small part of this world had not joined in the celebrations, surely it did not automatically bode ill for the new First Lord and his family.
A glimpse of Lois' disturbing thought reached Kal and he tightened his arm around her waist and dropped a kiss on the top of her head as it rested on his shoulder.
"Let it go, sweetheart. We'll face whatever the future brings as it happens. Tonight is our night for celebration. I know it's been a long day and you're feeling more tired than normal." But here he let his words die away and simply raised his eyebrows expressively, then added with unaccustomed anxiety. "You are feeling all right?"
Lois quickly reassured him. "I'm fine." And in return she tightened her arm around him and pressed a tender kiss on his chin.
"And you did feel that today was special?"
Discerning that Kal had been deeply affected by the monumental occasion and was seeking her approbation, Lois whispered her blessing. "Very special! And you are a very special person! And everyone knows it!"
With a swift kiss pressed to her upturned lips, Kal and Lois returned their attention to the lightshow. Soon they would say a goodnight to their guests and share their own recollections and celebrations in the privacy of their chamber. This day had indeed been memorable, the day that the planet Krypton celebrated the coming to the throne of Lord Kal-El.
Chapter Three: Royal Progress
The cavalcade that began its journeying from Elvar on a damp misty morning departed somewhat later than planned, due to the unexpected malaise of one of the principal travellers. There was a reason for this unfortunate incapacity, Lois' pregnancy having been confirmed, although, at this particular time, it was not a matter that had been made known to the general public.
Lois had awakened from a deep sleep feeling warmly content and, for some moments, she had chosen to rest in the arms of her still sleeping husband, reviewing lazily the plans for the busy day ahead. Realising that she had in front of her a long and tiring trek and, being well aware that the coming weeks would be spent in the glare of the public spotlight, Lois relished every second of spending this last morning in the privacy of their own bed chamber. With that thought in mind she pushed up onto her elbow and turned to plant a kiss on Kal's slightly open mouth, but the kiss was destined never to be delivered.
Instead, an uneasy lightheadedness overtook her, swiftly followed by her stomach heaving unexpectedly and it was all the surprised girl could do to direct herself towards the bathroom. The unsettling sounds of someone in distress invaded Kal's slumber, and groggily exiting the bed, he went in search of his absent wife. The scene that greeted him brought him sharply to his senses as he found Lois leaning shakily over the toilet bowl, her knuckles gripped tightly about the rim. His tender heart went out to her as he kneeled by her side and gently rubbed his hand up and down her hunched back waiting in concern for the spasms to cease. There was so much more he wished to do for her but this was a natural symptom of pregnancy and, moreover, one of those 'particular things' which the research physicians had decided not to tamper with. A hint of a smile touched his lips, remembering Lois' snort of derision at that piece of information. 'Clearly this was a male-dominated society!'
When finally the nausea passed, Kal lifted his exhausted wife easily into his arms and carried her back to bed, telepathically calling for assistance from his medical staff.
"My timing's not too good," relieved to lay her head on the soft pillows, Lois managed to grind out through a mouth that was feeling dry and distinctly unpleasant. "I'm thirsty," she added in a raspy tone.
Kal made a speedy trip to the bathroom returning with a glass of water which he helped her to drink. "Sip gently," he instructed solicitously. "Slowly, though, or you'll make yourself sick again. And don't worry about timing. It isn't important. I'll postpone the tour if you're not up to it." The concerned husband and future father was unwilling to risk the well-being of his new family for the sake of tradition.
Her speech oiled by the welcome liquid, Lois protested. "Kal, we've been through all this already and we decided that I'm well enough to make the trip."
This fact was certainly true. Lois had suffered very few debilitating symptoms in this earliest stage of her pregnancy. Apart from a few bouts of morning sickness, tiredness and an annoying tendency to weep on occasion the First Lady had enjoyed remarkably good health and so, with the proviso that Physician Tamar should join the entourage, it was felt that the royal progress would not pose any undue risk to the precious mother-to-be. A conclusion that Kal now decided might be up for review.
At all events, the interlude, while extremely distasteful, was short-lived and by the time Tamar had arrived the Lady had almost recovered. Once again Lois was subjected to another invasive examination. Why was it that all other illnesses on this planet were treated by highly advanced medical techniques while the process of having a baby remained in the dark ages? Any unnatural or modern medicines were regarded as too risky to the child's welfare to be administered.
In point of fact, Lois was being a little unfair in her judgment. There was much that could and would be done to protect the life of an unborn child, and particularly in the case of this baby. Since the tragedies which had befallen her predecessor, Kryptonian medical research facilities had concentrated all their resources on negating any problems encountered during pregnancy, but she was correct in her assumption that their research had centred mostly on the well-being of the baby and any discomfort experienced by the expectant mother was considered a necessary sacrifice. However, the competent little doctor had been quick to reassure his patient with a measure of pride that, here on Krypton, no mother had been lost in childbirth for a great many years.
It was soon established that Lois' morning sickness would not be a serious impediment to their plans and, given a firm promise from Tamar that he would strictly monitor Lois' state of health, Kal ordered the exodus to proceed.
Lady Zara was thrilled at the news. From the moment she had been told that milady Lois-El wished for her company on the expedition through the lands of Krypton her excitement had grown steadily. On this day of departure, she had risen before dawn to oversee her packing and to carefully dress in her new travel clothes which her mother had generously supplied for the occasion. Should she wear her hair piled on top of her head with just a few strands escaping to rest on her shoulders? She knew it made her look older… more sophisticated.
When word had reached her of Lois' indisposition, she could not suppress a feeling of deep disappointment. Could her imaginings be over before they had a chance to begin? Of course, she sympathised with her sister-in-law's malaise, but never before having ventured so far from the lands of El and without the chaperonage of her parents, she had delighted in thoughts of the coming adventure. Indeed, she would still be under the care of her family but somehow she surmised that neither her brother nor his wife would be quite so strict with their supervision.
And too, she shyly admitted to herself, the fact that Lieutenant Ching would be one of the party lent an added thrill to the coming journey. Not that she had any hopes that their relationship could develop further, but surely no-one would find fault with them sharing a friendship and she could not totally prevent her traitorous heart from rejoicing in the thought of spending time in his company. Given all these points, she had found the possibility of a postponement a sad anticlimax.
Happily, for Zara's peace of mind she was totally oblivious to the fact that Lois had discovered her secret love or that her sister-in-law had determined to assume the role of matchmaker. Kal, on the other hand, was completely aware of Lois' ulterior motive and he too was aware that the couple in question did harbour a secret yearning for each other but, unlike his wife, he found it hard to foresee an optimistic outcome for the couple, at least at this present time.
Immediately following her encounter with the unfortunate Rol-Fre and the subsequent breaking of his betrothal to Lady Zara, Lois had been hinting to Kal, none too guardedly, about an attachment between Zara and Ching. His ever curious wife had stumbled upon this clandestine relationship on her very first night on Krypton and, since Zara's engagement was no longer an issue, she was hoping to unite the star-crossed lovers. But, while Ching was his friend, Kal could not endorse such an unsuitable liaison. The council and the nobility would not countenance a misalliance and he did not yet feel sufficiently secure in his position to flout their wishes.
All this he had attempted to explain to Lois some nights ago when she had asked casually that Zara be included in the royal party. Kal had not been fooled and an extremely stormy conversation ensued which had almost resulted in their first quarrel. Who was he fooling? They had fought each other to a standstill, Lois accusing him of monumental snobbery and narrow-mindedness and he charging her with stubbornness and an unwillingness to understand the disastrous position into which she was propelling him.
How had it happened? He had never seen it coming. It had begun quite reasonably with a suggestion from Lois that Zara be allowed to accompany them on their journey.
"Lois, sweetheart, I've no objections to Zara coming along with us. I know the two of you have become close friends and you deserve to have some familiar female company when I'm dealing with 'business.' But…" And here he realised he was skating on very thin ice; what if he was wrong and she didn't have an ulterior motive? Still, he thought he knew his Lois. "If you're thinking of throwing Zara and Ching together on this journey, I'd have to advise you not to."
"'Advise,' Kal?" Lois immediately turned defensive. His suspicions had been spot on. "Don't you mean 'order' not to?"
Kal tensed in anticipation of an approaching storm. He tried conciliation. "I hope it won't come to that, Lois. But, as I explained the last time we talked of this, a relationship between the two is impossible and to encourage one would be cruel."
Conciliation didn't work. Lois bridled. "Are you insinuating that I'm cruel?"
"No! Of course not! Misguided, yes."
"It's misguided to want two people, who are obviously in love, to be together?" She set her feet firmly on the ground in front of Kal and placed her hands on her hips in a confrontational stance.
Kal's hackles rose. "In this particular case, yes! I've already told you; they are from different classes. Ching comes from a respectable family but he isn't a nobleman and Zara belongs to the highest family in the land. The two are not compatible."
"Nonsense! That's ridiculous! They're very well suited."
"That's not what I meant, Lois! You are being deliberately obtuse."
"Oh, misguided and obtuse! Keep going, Kal! Are there any more of my faults you'd like to air?"
"Lois, this is crazy. And, no, I'm not suggesting that you're crazy." An exasperated sigh escaped from Kal. "But this conversation is. I'm sorry if it upsets you but I can't condone your matchmaking schemes for Zara and Ching."
A firm denial about matchmaking was swiftly discarded in favour of the truth. "But why? Zara is your sister, you love her and I know that Ching is your closest friend. Every day you trust him with your life."
"That's true, but it's not the point here. Neither the council nor the hierarchy would agree to a liaison, even if I did give them my blessing," Kal stated baldly. He fought his anger and was barely keeping it under control.
"That's unadulterated snobbery." The answer was snapped back. "And, besides, you have the power to over-rule them."
"Oh, great!" Anger broke through Kal's bounds. "That's a terrific suggestion, my lady!" He threw his hands in the direction of the ceiling. "I've just come into my position. I have to work with these people. And the first thing you want me to do is thumb my nose at them. If I went along with you, they would think I'd gone mad. I'd probably be committed."
"So you're willing to sacrifice your sister's and your best friend's happiness for the sake of your position." Lois sniped. She had lost all sense of proportion and with 'attack is the best form of defence' stratagems in full flow she sought to wound and with deadly accuracy.
Lord Kal-El's face blanched at the vicious attack. "No! That's untrue! There's a greater issue here and you know it."
"Do I?!" A part of Lois recognised that she was being unfair, but the Lois of old was in control. "I know that when you persuaded me to come here, you told me that you wanted to modernise life on Krypton and yet, at the first chance you get, you back down." The words were scathing. "Are you afraid, My Lord? Or are you just as narrow minded and entrenched as the rest of your proud Kryptonians?" Lois spat the name as an insult.
That cruel riposte had silenced Kal. They had finally run out of insults and they stood sulkily staring at each other, until Kal could no longer stand the silent accusation of her gaze and he had exited the chamber almost at a run. For an immeasurable time he had stalked the castle corridors, while the servants he passed gave him an unusually wide berth. It was this strange consequence that had made him pause. Normally his staff treated him with friendly deference and he must certainly be exuding a grim air for them to… shy away from him?
Was this affair worth even this slight alienation of his people and, more importantly, a breach in relationships with his wife? Especially since he was not totally averse to a connection between Zara and Ching, in fact he did consider them well suited. And perhaps in the future it might be a possibility, when he had forged a trusting and workable partnership with his council? Maybe he hadn't explained his thoughts clearly to Lois? If she understood that he did not mean to dismiss, for all time, her romantic plans for the couple then possibly she would forgive him for his harsh words.
And, indeed, when he had returned to their bedchamber he had found a weeping Lois not only willing to forgive but apologizing for reverting to 'type' and eager to listen to his proposals and to add a few suggestions of her own. All lingering vestiges of anger and resentment had melted away as, locked in each other's arms, they discussed frankly and calmly their differing perspectives. And finally in the dark of the night, when all talking ceased, in the way of lovers from any time or any world they had reaffirmed their love. A joining made all the more poignant and enduring by the knowledge that they had weathered their first storm.
Only later did he recognise that Lois had succeeded in gaining his approval for her scheme, even eliciting a promise from him that, for the foreseeable future, he would resist all attempts by the council to engage Zara to another suitor. However, in his relief at returning to a state of marital bliss, he didn't much mind. And she had agreed to postpone any direct action until he felt it might be appropriate.
However, neither Zara nor her admirer were aware that they had been the cause of an argument or the basis for that argument and both were anticipating with pleasure a lengthy period spent in close proximity with each other.
So it was that the members of the Royal Progress set out in a pleasant state of mind, undaunted by the inclement weather. Satisfied with the progress she had made in the cause of Zara's happiness and feeling much improved in health from her early morning bout of nausea, Lois was looking forward to her odyssey of exploration. And Lord Kal-El, very relieved to see the bloom return to his wife's cheeks, was excited, in spite of his anxieties, by his first undertaking as ruler of this land.
Chapter Four: Treachery
It was high summer as the weary cavalcade approached, over the dry and dusty plains, the great city of Veren. The repetitive nature of the visits with the various lords and ladies and her advancing pregnancy had long since dulled Lois' enjoyment of the tour. Five weeks had passed since they had set out on their journeying and the young wife, in her eleventh week of pregnancy, was finding the going increasingly tough.
The hot summer sun blazed down on the flat landscape and even the aircooled interior of the transporter did little to dispel her discomfort. There was another reason for her tedium which had little to do with her condition or the rising temperature. A short time ago, after pointing out a far off bulk shimmering in the heat of the almost desert and announcing that this mass was their destination, Kal had decided to take to the saddle for a spell of exercise and he, Ching and a few other hardier (in Lois' opinion foolhardier) members of the expedition had galloped off into the blinding heat, leaving behind them a trail of choking dust.
Staring at the other passengers of the vehicle, Lois fervently wished that she too had been of the foolhardy variety and escaped with the others, but unfortunately Physician Tamar had forbade her to go riding, a circumstance that she much regretted as she listened to the honeyed baby tones of the woman sitting opposite. To say that a catalogue of the lady's jewels and possessions, all presents from her besotted husband, was a riveting topic of conversation and just what Lois was interested to hear was a vast distortion of the truth, but unfortunately neither Lois nor her companion Zara had discovered a way to shut the said Lady up.
With a flick of her blonde tresses the Lady displayed her latest acquisition, a large carbuncle-sized ruby gracing her left hand and screaming out in protest as it clashed horribly with the figure-hugging gown of baby pink, which Lois had concluded was the only colour of robe to be found in Lady Minerva-Mai's wardrobe. If the woman had lived on Earth she would have fallen into the category of 'blonde bimbo' and Lois had found no reason in the past 48 hours spent in the woman's company to alter her description. In fact, Kal, though shocked at his wife's temerity, had found the title amusing and definitely apt. A number of times, when the vacuous lady's chatter had become just too tedious, the couple would share an amused glance, desperately trying to suppress the laughter that would bubble up between them.
The previous stop over on the journey had been at the small township of Maison, staying for a single night only with Second Councillor Jen-Mai and his family. The man had never been one of Kal's circle, being a few years his elder and not exactly to Kal's taste in friends. Nevertheless, Kal's personal opinions were not a consideration for membership to the cabinet; but, since a long and interesting talk with Trey on the subject of Jen-Mai's reliability or lack thereof, Kal had regarded the man with increasing distrust. Hence the duration of the visit to Maison had decreased and after a few hours spent in the company of the Mais, Kal had uncharacteristically wished that they had bypassed this particular part of his realm completely. However, as the man was an important member of the council, this had not been an option. Thankfully they would be gone by morning. Then the said Lord and Lady had confounded their visitors totally by choosing to join the group who were now bound for the lands of the Vers.
Lois' patience was wearing dangerously thin as Lady Mai's annoying voice droned on and she was about to deliver a rapier-like snub when salvation came from an unexpected quarter. The upper exterior of the transporter disappeared until it resembled a large convertible as Kal offered an outstretched hand to his beset wife.
"I thought that you'd been cooped up inside that bubble for far too long, Lois, and, as you can't ride alone, I thought that you might enjoy sharing my saddle. There's room for two and you might like some time spent in the fresh air before we enter Veren. Mind you, I suspect the term 'fresh air' stretches the truth a little but at least you won't be so cramped."
His smile was inviting and Lois had no hesitation in accepting his offer. Within minutes Kal had lifted Lois up before him and, after settling her comfortably against his body, he set his unicorn into a gentle canter and edged away from the line of transporters. The rest of the group fell in behind the couple but tactfully stayed some distance behind, out of earshot.
"I'm sorry to have abandoned you in the scintillating company of Lady Mai."
"You should be ashamed of yourself, Kal." She playfully swiped at the hand that encircled her waist, steadying her to the rhythm of the unicorn's movement. "And don't think that I'm about to forgive you just because you decided to rescue me a little later."
Kal dropped a kiss on the back of her neck and with the warmth of apology thickening his voice he continued. "To tell the truth, sweetheart, I did have an ulterior motive. What's your truthful opinion about Lady Mai, blonde bimbo not withstanding?"
Lois' eyebrows rose. She ought to have known that Kal had a reason behind his cavalier behaviour and, though she had tended to treat the woman as a figure of fun, her investigative instincts had been on full alert. Carefully she considered her answer, happy that Kal was treating her as a partner.
"Her jewels are worth a king's ransom… not to mention her clothes… and she boasts that all we've seen is just the tip of the iceberg… Do you have icebergs on Krypton?"
Kal couldn't help but smile at Lois' deviation. "Yes, Lois. Krypton has a north and south pole just like Earth and they too are frozen lands. And someday I'll tell you how the Kryptonians, in most cases, utilise this circumstance. But what about Minerva-Mai's wardrobe?"
"Well, the Mais' lands seem to be very small in comparison to some others that we've visited," Lois spoke slowly as she thought through her answer, "and, I may be wrong, farming isn't exactly one of my skills, but their countryside doesn't appear to be very productive. Unless, of course, they've got a few of those Kryptonite mines hidden away somewhere."
"No, honey, no Kryptonite mines."
"Then where does he get the money for all her finery?" A small frown of concentration had appeared between Lois' eyebrows.
"That's a question that's been bothering me for some time." Kal worriedly bit on his lower lip. "And not just me. It seems Lord Trey has a few suspicions of his own."
"Appears to me that Jen-Mai could do with checking out. And I've a score to settle with him too, so it'll be my pleasure to find out some dirt about the sleazeball."
"Sleazeball, Lois?! Bimbo?! This Earth language is a lot more colourful than I suspected!"
"I'm sorry. I really should try to modify my language." Lois looked a little forlorn at that admission. "I know that I sometimes shock your people."
"Don't you dare, Lois Lane!" my Lord retorted adamantly. "I'm very partial to Lois Lane. I admire her. I fell in love with her. And I don't want you to change one hair on her head. Please remember that, milady."
For his decree he received a pert smile. "Your wish is my command."
"Huh! I only wish!" Kal groaned.
An even bigger grin met that remark. "But back to business. Did you know that Jen-Mai tried to prevent me from making my pledge to you at your investiture? He tried to convince the council to refuse permission. To tell the truth, I think it was his stand that persuaded Trey to back me, so his strategy failed. But I don't think he likes me much."
"Well, the feeling is mutual. Trey told me all about his 'speech' in the council slighting you. And believe me, that did not endear him to me." Kal's brow had darkened with his words and, for a moment, Lois did not envy Lord Jen-Mai. "I think that a close watch should be placed on my Second Councillor and his wife."
During their conversation the steed had covered the intervening distance between the cavalcade and their destination and Kal and Lois found themselves approaching the great curtaining walls of Veren. The stone boundary of the city swept upwards, straight and overpowering from the desert floor.
"Wow!!" was all that Lois could enunciate.
"Pretty impressive, hey?!" Kal's voice was soft in her ear.
The unicorn's head was turned aside and Kal eased his mount to walk slowly in parallel to the great walls and the two who shared the saddle were silent as they surveyed the scene before them. Finally Kal began to recount a tale of the city.
"Veren is Krypton's second biggest city, surpassed only by Elvar, but while we Els decided to modernise our town the Vers chose to preserve their ancient home. The walls are purely for effect. Nowadays most communities use force-fields for protection but I have to admit that they look awesome."
A giant porticoed gateway came into view hung with massive steel gates and sporting the inevitable shield of the Vers; an upside down pyramid slashed with what looked to Lois very like a lightening bolt. Kal pulled up by the side of the roadway which led to these huge gates awaiting the arrival of his guard. They would enter the city in a royal procession.
"You'll find the interior just as antiquated as the outside." He carried on with his description as they waited, both their gazes studying the scene in front of them. "Old buildings, cobbled streets and market squares, it's very picturesque but whether it's comfortable to live in, I'm not so sure. I know that I find Elvar Palace a bit dim and draughty in winter and that's with the modernisation. Lois, if there's anything you want done to the Palace… remodelling… redecoration… anything at all, you only have to ask. After all it is our home now and it will be for years and years, hopefully. So don't be afraid to make suggestions."
Lois wasn't exactly afraid but she, like her husband, had been feeling her way in her new position and though there were many changes she might like to make she had been a little unsure of how they would be received. Now it seemed she had carte blanche to do as she pleased and she did have a number of suggestions.
"I'd like our own apartment. Like they have in my Metropolis. We spend so much time with others that I'd like a place where we could shut out the rest of the world and be alone. I know that at the moment we have our own suite but there's always servants and courtiers around and it's not what I'm used to. I'm not complaining with things as they are but sometimes I'd just love a place where we can be together… a bolt hole, so to speak… for when I find things too much to take."
This was something that he hadn't recognised, that his Lois felt sometimes overwhelmed. He kicked himself for being insensitive, for not realising that she was troubled. She was normally so brave. Zor!! There were times when he felt swamped and he had been raised for this!
"Lois!! Why didn't you tell me that this was troubling you? I knew you were homesick on occasions but I didn't realise you felt so badly. I know I've been dealing with my own insecurities but you mustn't hide your problems. I ought to have paid more attention." Kal castigated himself once more.
"No, Kal! You've hardly had time to turn around since you took over from Zor. And I'm here to help you not to burden you…"
"No, Lois! Don't make excuses for me. You're my wife, you have a right to my attention, no matter how often my duties call me away. Soon we'll be a family and I don't want my child to hardly know its own father." The following escort were quickly bearing down on them and Kal lowered his voice. "This isn't the time nor the place to discuss this but when we get back home you shall have your 'apartment,' Zor knows the castle is large enough to accommodate one. And promise me that you won't hide your feelings from me again."
His wife smiled gently upon him but would not comment. She knew how hectic his life was. From the beginning Lois had recognised that she would have to share Kal-El with his world.
"Promise me, Lois." Kal's voice was determined. "I can't promise that I'll always be able to turn my back on my job but you will always be first in my heart. Promise, sweetheart." The arm that rested around her body tightened compellingly.
The front ranks of the riders had pulled up a few yards away but Lois was oblivious to their presence. She was lost in her love's warm brown gaze. Her hand lifted involuntary to caress his cheek.
The royal guards took up their station in front of and behind the unicorn bearing the First Lord and his Lady and with Ching and Poli ranged on either side, they entered the famed city. The inhabitants of Ver had turned out in their thousands to welcome their ruler and a happy, festive air pervaded the streets. Leafy garlands and colourful flags were strung from every building and in the first large square they came across, a dome, similar to the one in which they were married, rested amid a tented village.
Amongst the brightly coloured tents, carnival performers practised their skills and advertised their wares. Jugglers juggled and acrobats tumbled and tossed their bodies about in spectacular and intricate manoeuvres. There was even a troop of trick riders, galloping their unicorns around a tight circular ring while they performed death-defying leaps from the backs of their mounts. It was all so much like Earth.
"It's a circus!" Lois cried out in amazement, not expecting to find such an entertainment on Krypton.
"Yes. A Romany circus to be exact," Kal answered, happy that the mood had lightened from their previous discussion outside the walls.
"Like your grandmother."
"Yes. They travel the galaxy but they always attend the Festival of Veren. Every year the Vers hold a cultural festival, music, ballet and drama but I think the people look forward most to the Romany Carnival. I was sure you might enjoy it too, so I arranged our visit to coincide with the festival and Lord Dax-Ver was only too pleased to accommodate us."
"Oh yes." A circus wouldn't normally be Lois' first choice for entertainment but right at this time she wasn't about to dismiss anything remotely similar to her home planet. Besides listening to the raucous chatter around her, as these performers shouted instructions and encouragement and just plain argued with each other on how best a stunt could be done, she was reminded of the citizens of Metropolis. She might not have understood the words but the raw verve that emanated from these folks carried her back in time to her native city and she wanted so much to dive into the familiar aura. "And can we come down later and explore the fairground?"
Her searching gaze had spotted the booths that encircled the square and using her newly acquired language skills she was able to decipher, with some difficulty, the placards that announced each stall's purpose. There was even a fortune-teller. However, her husband's next words gave pause to her rampant excitement.
"I'm not sure that would be wise, honey. There are too many strangers about and it could be dangerous." He refrained from adding that to stroll amongst the crowds would be considered 'not the right thing,' deducing that Lois would be incensed by such snobbery. "But we have been invited to attend their opening night as guests of honour." Kal sensed her disappointment and he quickly sought to repair the damage. "And I'm sure that Lord Dax will have arranged some entertainment for us. And I do have some work to do here too."
The last was added in a resigned tone. People often forgot that Kal had just entered his twenty-first year and like any other young, red-blooded male he occasionally wanted to forget his responsibilities and just relax and have a little rest and recuperation. Oh well, after he'd held a mini council meeting to discuss policy and presided over the regional court session, there would be time to let his hair down and enjoy himself in the company of his wife and friends. The younger Vers were amongst those he considered his confidants and this was one port of call he did not regard as an obligation. The Festival was an added bonus which he was determined that Lois and he would have a chance to appreciate.
Surprisingly but happily, Lois had not found the welcoming ceremony as tedious as the others she had attended. Lord Dax-Ver and his Lady Joanna were already known to Lois, the couple having attended the investiture, and their son Ren had been one of Kal's aristocratic escorts during the 24 hours leading up to that ceremony. Both families seemed genuinely pleased to greet each other once again and Gellis, the only daughter of the house, though seemingly decorous under the supervision of her parents, had a definite twinkle in her eyes. Lois was certain she would like this family.
Lord Dax had kept the introductions of his vassals to their sovereign lord thankfully short and within a brief space of time the couple had been installed by Lady Joanna in a spacious and comfortable chamber. The considerate hostess, after assuring herself of their well being, left the couple alone to rest from the tedium of their journey and some moments later a servant, clad in the livery of the Vers, arrived with much needed refreshments. Lois wasn't particularly hungry but the cool drink was certainly pleasant and most welcome.
Dropping into a chair the weary girl kicked off her sandals and laid her head back against the cushioned rim. Lois' heavy eyelids closed and she didn't notice the look of concern that etched itself upon Kal's face as he studied her. Had he been right to allow this prolonged tour to take place? Lois seemed to tire more easily and her struggles with morning sickness had become more frequent. Perhaps it would be wise to postpone the rest of the expedition?
His troubled thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of their baggage, followed closely by Etta and Orr, his valet, and for the next half-hour the room was a hive of industry as both servants unpacked their clothes, carefully hanging the fine robes in the closets provided and carrying on a lighthearted but inconsequential conversation with their Lord and Lady about the amazing sights they had seen in the streets outside.
Orr's conduct did not surprise his master as the man had been with him since he was a boy and they shared a special bond, but Etta's aplomb had blossomed under Lois' influence. Now she no longer shrank in his company and, as long as he took care of her dearest milady, he believed he would remain high in her estimation. Etta's transformation both amused and assured him, knowing that in the newly created lady-in-waiting Lois had found a true friend.
Eventually the piles of dresses and suits disappeared, returning the room to its normally orderly condition; and, bobbing a quick salute, the two departed, leaving Lois and Kal once more alone. The sounds from the city were muted here inside the room and the sweltering heat had failed to penetrate the thick stone walls of the castle.
Lois stretched her arms above her head and stood, her spirits recharged by the short period of rest spent in this quiet haven. Now her natural inquisitiveness asserted itself and, slipping her hand in Kal's, she pulled him onto the balcony to study the town of Ver.
Tall, narrow buildings lined winding shady lanes which opened into higgledy-piggledy squares. There seemed to have been little planning in the building of this city and the watcher surmised that houses had been constructed whenever they were needed without any consultation or thought to the future. The overall effect was quaint but most certainly cramped. Only nearer the city walls, where the houses were fewer, did the land open up slightly and it was here that the circus had pitched its camp.
"Well, what do you think?" Kal's anxious voice intruded on her inspection.
"Quaint, very picturesque." Lois turned to smile at her obviously concerned husband, only she wasn't quite sure exactly what his concerns were. Did he think that she would prefer this place to Elvar? "But very crowded. I prefer Elvar's wide streets and open parkland. This is nice." She spread her hand towards the town, "but Elvar is beautiful."
His answering smile told her he appreciated her choice but the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. Nope, that wasn't it.
"Though Veren does seem quite prosperous and the inhabitants look happy and comfortable and this Festival thing must've cost a lot. And you did say that the Vers were rich and powerful." Lois tried another line of enquiry.
This time Kal's grin crinkled the corners of his eyes. The intuitiveness of his wife never failed to amaze and inspire him. Besides, she had revived considerably. Perhaps he worried overmuch. "Very rich and very powerful."
"Yet they've never tried to claim the leadership?"
"Never. Thankfully for us. They can even claim some royal blood. In fact, they're distantly related to both the Els and the Nors. But, fortunately, during the civil war they chose to throw their weight behind the Els and with their help we eventually won. Which was good for my family…"
"And for the whole of Krypton, judging by the current Lord Nor. I can just imagine what would have happened to this planet if the Nors had been in charge for a couple of hundred years." Her lovely face creased into a grimace at the pictures that appeared in her head. "Now, they would have brought back slavery… and killed off all the opposition… ethnic cleansing on a large scale."
"I see you've been reading our history chronicles…"
"And watching the hologram-video things… of the destruction they left behind. It must have been a very bad time."
"It was. And it took such a long time to rebuild." The two were silent as they shared a moment of commiseration for those people of long ago. Then Kal slid his arm around his wife's shoulder and gave her a consolatory squeeze. "But that was in the past and our people are safe now and between us we can make a better future. And with friends like the Vers to back us there's nothing we can't do."
"That's what this journey is all about, isn't it? To make new alliances and re-enforce old bonds?" Lois regarded him with sharp curiousness. "And to smoke out possible adversaries?"
"Honey, you've seen enough of our 'noble' Kryptonians to know that not all are as honourable or selfless as they ought to be. Zor gave me a fairly reliable opinion on most of the important families and I've been acquainted with the majority of these, in some degree, for most of my life. But now I'm seeing them from a different perspective and I'd like to get my own view. And some of the lesser lords I really know nothing about and it's important that I find out where their loyalties lie and who they would support if there was trouble."
"Like Jen-Mai and his wife."
"Exactly!" Again he hugged her shoulder gently. "Honey, I have to tell you that I find that instinct of yours extremely helpful and there's no one that I trust more."
Lois beamed. "Glad to be of service, Chief!"
"Minx!" Kal beamed back. "But that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy ourselves while we're sussing out the opposition. And here, among people we can trust, is just the place to do it."
"Oh, does that mean we can visit the fairground?" Lois brightened visibly.
"Well, not tonight, sweetheart. Sorry to disappoint you, Lois, but the Vers have arranged a welcoming party. Nothing too grand, just a chance to meet and greet their neighbours over a casual repast… I think that you would call it a buffet-meal and afterwards there'll be a private performance by one of our top singers… opera, honey, I'm afraid. The older generation of Vers are deeply into culture."
"Hey, are you insinuating that I don't do culture?" She gave him a playful swipe of her hand. "I can do opera. In fact, I like quite a lot of classical stuff."
"But you like 'Rock' too. I heard some of the stuff you listened to back on Earth."
"Don't they have any 'Pop' music on Krypton?" Lois asked with just a tinge of longing in her voice. "I mean, I'm not a huge fan but a little Bon Jovi or something would be nice now and then. Or what about the Beatles? They're a little out of my era but they were good."
"I know them!! And Bruce Springstein!! Lois, why didn't you say? That kind of music wasn't really encouraged here but when we were kids my friends and I would tap into the communications department and copy some of Earth's radio stations. Those discs are probably still around somewhere in my old room in Ro-Ellion. They're yours if you want them. In fact, I could even instruct the monitors to copy the current transmissions and beam them into our room whenever you wanted to listen." From excitement at finding a simple way to please his wife, Kal's voice took on a more serious note. "And you could keep an eye on what's happening on Earth if you wanted, too."
"And I would be allowed to do that?" An eager yet wistful expression touched Lois' face.
"There aren't any laws against it. It's just not encouraged because…"
"Because…" Lois egged him on with a roll of her hand. "Because…" She had a fair idea what Kal was holding back.
"Because the council felt the broadcasts might corrupt our society."
"And this from a people who consider themselves an enlightened and tolerant society." The only Earthling on Krypton bridled at this insult to her native planet.
"Lois, I never said that we were perfect," came the sheepish reply.
"Hmph!! Far from it, buster!!" The poke that Kal received in the ribs was not exactly gentle. "But I do remember, and I quote, 'Kryptonians believe that Earth is our sister planet.' Some relationship that is!"
"We do! Maybe a much younger, naughtier sister!" Kal was quick to explain. "But one we hope to persuade to enter our Federation when the time is right."
"And that would be…?"
"When they're all grown up?" Kal raised his eyebrows questioningly, bracing himself for another hit but Lois grinned despite herself.
"Well, I will admit that they're a pretty unruly lot sometimes." Lois reviewed the various wars and the terrorist activities that occurred far too often throughout her world and conceded that Kal might have a point. "And, besides, they still regard aliens as science fiction, little grey men with big bug eyes and long skinny limbs and if you were to make contact they'd probably shoot first and ask questions later."
"Lois, that's unfair. They might be a bit suspicious but they have sent probes into space with messages of friendship."
"And you'd frighten them silly if you replied," she added but with less conviction. "I'll admit that there are some enlightened souls who would be happy to hear from you but for the moment they're in the minority and the voices of reason would probably be drowned out by the hysterical masses screaming for your blood. We can't even get along with each other, never mind visitors from outer space."
"I'd have to agree with you there, but don't be sad, honey. It won't always be that way. Practically every civilisation there ever was has gone through that same phase."
"You talk about it as if it were a silly teenage fad," Lois commented with a touch of sarcasm.
"Well, in a strange way it is. It's almost as if all the bad feelings have to be vented before people are willing to sit down and find a better way. Look at us. Krypton almost destroyed itself before we were willing to learn to live with each other. And even now, keeping the peace is sometimes like walking on a knife-edge. It just takes one self-seeking person with delusions of grandeur and a lot of power and the whole thing could start again."
Lois was saddened to see Kal's brow crease with worry and his shoulders brace themselves as if they were taking on the weight of the world. She decided that this conversation had gone on long enough and now it was time to lighten the load.
"Honey, Nor isn't here and for the moment he seems content to hide away in his own domain." She lifted his hand to her lips and pressed a soft kiss into his palm. "But we are and, as you mentioned earlier, we're amongst good friends and, in case you haven't noticed there's a festival going on. Let's just enjoy ourselves for a few days and I'll take you up on your offer of beaming in Earth radio. I'm sorry if it upsets you or the council, but I would like to keep up-to-date on what's happening back… there." Lois had been about to say back home but she realised that title was no longer true, her home was with Kal.
Turning Lois to face him and wrapping his arms about her, Kal felt the fleeting shadows of apprehension lifting. "You're right as usual, Lois. Rad-Nor can't hurt us in Veren. So is there anything that milady would particularly care to see?"
"I realise that tonight is fully booked but can't we explore the city tomorrow?" There was a faint hint of a wheedle in her tone.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart, but tomorrow morning is booked up too." Understanding that Lois wasn't really proposing a formal tour of the city, Kal was glad to offer a plausible excuse. "It appears that Jen-Mai's visit to Veren isn't purely for pleasure. Some weeks ago he lodged a complaint against one of his neighbours over water rights and he arranged with Dax to submit his case to a judicial hearing. The court will hear both petitions tomorrow and because I am in residence and being the Supreme Judge of Krypton, Mai feels it only polite and correct that I should preside over the hearing and Dax agrees with him."
"They're still fighting over water in this highly advanced civilization?" Lois asked sardonically.
Kal waved a hand out across the far vista. "Take a look, Lois, this isn't exactly a garden. Water here is pretty scarce."
"I just thought that your scientists might have found an answer. They can clone most things."
"I don't think that cloning enough water to irrigate the desert would be a viable option. But you're right in some cases. Some of the nobles transport great icebergs from the poles and hold them in reservoirs, but the cost of de-materializing and materializing such huge bulks is very expensive. Besides, that practise is restricted because of the effect it would have on the eco-system. The Vers pipe water in from the mountains to the south. You can just see their outline in the distance."
Kal pointed his arm and following his line Lois could just discern the towering purple peaks shimmering in the heat. "That's still Ver land?" she enquired with interest. It was important for the protection of her husband that she learn who controlled these feudal states.
"Oh yes. We've been travelling through Ver territory since early morning and everything you see before you to the horizon and beyond. The Vers have no problem with water and they irrigate much of their land for farming. But some of the smaller, poorer fiefdoms still rely on old-fashioned deep wells."
"Like the one Jen-Mai is fighting over?"
"That's right. It's on the border of two counties but there's some dispute about where the boundary actually lies and as neither party is very prosperous the water rites are important."
"They charge people to use the water?"
"In the desert, Lois, water is a sought-after commodity. And as long as they don't break any laws the Lords are entitled to trade any of their resources. I'm just sorry that this will intrude on our time together." He dropped a kiss onto her forehead. "Gellis has offered to entertain you in the mean time."
A memory of twinkling eyes and a merry grin promised that her companion would be good company. "I'm sorry too, Kal, but duty calls. And don't worry about me, I'm sure that Gellis and I will find something interesting to do."
Lois' eyes drifted out over the rooftops to the circus dome sitting in the narrow parkland square near the city walls where Veren's citizens mingled with the roustabouts and entertainers, mesmerised by the sights and sounds of a people who had travelled the galaxy. A restless Lois perceived that neither Kal nor his council would be pleased to have their First Lady stroll unescorted amidst the crowd. But Lois wanted to blend in with the 'great unwashed'. Until very recently she had been part of the 'great unwashed' and she longed, if only for a short time, to return to anonymity and wander at will. And as Kal had pointed out, they were in a city that supported him and his family; here she would be safe.
However, aware that Kal would frown on her plans, she kept them to herself. "I'll be fine. Gellis and I shall get along famously and Zara too. I'm sure we'll find something to pass the time." The last was said airily.
A faint premonition of impending disaster hovered round the edges of Kal's consciousness. "Lo-is, what are you planning? You will be careful?"
"Of course, sweetheart. Whatever bad could befall me here in Veren?"
And wishing to distract him from further interrogation she used a surefire way to chase all conscious thought from his head… She kissed him.
Lois had been surprised by how easily she had persuaded the Kryptonian women to agree to her scheme; perhaps the female of the species were growing a little tired of male domination. She had been right in her assumption that Gellis had an adventurous spirit and the young girl had fallen in readily with her plans. Etta, who had long since succumbed to Lois' spell, agreed to accompany her mistress and only Zara had shown some reluctance to so cavalierly break the rules. It wasn't that Zara was a killjoy but she did recognise, more than the others, that what her sister-in-law was suggesting might place them in danger, especially since it seemed that Lois had no intention of taking along a bodyguard. This was an expedition for women only and Zara, also being aware that they were in a friendly environment, allowed her concerns to be over-ruled.
Slipping out of the castle with the help of Gellis' knowledge had been a simple task and the four women headed through the city streets towards the crowded circus area. It had taken some time to negotiate the busy lanes and there was the ever present fear that someone would recognise them and drag them back to the confines of the castle but, having all donned simple attire, and making themselves as unobtrusive as was possible for four pretty young women, they arrived without mishap at their destination.
Had they known that their presence had not only been noticed but that they were being tracked by a two burly strangers also dressed in plain clothes but with hoods pulled low over their heads, the happy absconders might not have stepped so light-heartedly.
For some time the girls meandered amongst the throng, wondrously gaping at the performers as they practised their skills. Even Lois, who was used to more sophisticated entertainment back on Earth, was carried along by the general merry atmosphere and all the girls relaxed in the morning sunshine which had thankfully not reached the searing temperatures of the previous afternoon.
They were particularly enthralled by the highwire act, a troupe of daring young men who had strung their tightrope from the highest point of the dome to the top of the city walls and were performing breathtaking feats above the heads of their watchers. So involved were the four girls in the spectacle, they didn't notice their followers being joined by yet another who, though similar in size and build and dressed in the same anonymous manner, appeared to be in command. After a few moments' consultation the leader cut a steady path through the crowd in the direction of the booths lined along the tall walls.
After a time the 'escapees' turned their attention to the other sights that abounded and indeed the delicious smell of baking wafting in the air drew the attention of four grumbling noble ladies' stomachs. Earlier at breakfast a mixture of excitement and alarm for the coming forbidden adventure had dulled the appetites of the Kryptonian members of the little band and Lois never found herself hungry in the mornings these days. However, they had been walking for over an hour now and, as no-one had caught them in their escapade, they began to relax and enjoy their freedom and each declared themselves ravenous.
Tempted by the aroma of food they made their way to the vending booths at the edge of the camp where they quickly spied the object of their titillation. Only here they hit a small snag as neither Gellis nor Zara had thought to bring any money with them. Lois, on the other hand, was more used to clandestine activity and had come prepared, as indeed had Etta, being of a more practical bent. None of the girls were disappointed in the mouth-watering cakes and sweetmeats which were bought and hungrily consumed as they strolled along the lined stands.
Such was the state of their ease that none of them flinched when they were accosted by a thickset man sporting a placard hung about his beefy shoulders extolling the skills of 'The Great Madame Ballen,' mystic and fortune-teller extra-ordinaire to the galaxy.
"Ladies, Ladies!! Madame Ballen awaits your presence!" The stranger's voice was thickly accented yet his words were understandable. "Wouldn't four such lovely young ladies like to know what the future holds for them? Madame Ballen will reveal all."
Lois looked doubtful, suspecting fairground soothsayers to be nothing more than frauds. Still, this was a Romany circus and thoughts of Kal's grandmother's prophecies crept into her mind while it was clear from the interested expression on Zara's face that she too was recalling her grandmother's gifts. Gellis, with a young girl's curiosity, was clearly willing to visit and she quickly added her persuasion to that of the tout.
"Madame Ballen, sees all and knows all," the man continued with his spiel, turning all his attention to the beautiful dark-haired girl who seemed to be the leader of this little band. "Isn't there any question that you would like answered?" His glance slid to the others. "Whether a handsome husband lies in your future? Will you be happy? Will you be rich? The great Madame Ballen can enlighten you."
"Please, Lois, it will be fun!" Gellis managed to insinuate into her tone that fun was not something that often came her way.
"Oh yes!" Zara couldn't restrain her eagerness to learn whether the psychic could identify the man whom the council would chose as her future mate. The girl understood that her brother's ministers would expect her to make an alliance that would strengthen Kal's position and though her heart shrank in dread at the proposition, Zara would do her duty. But all that was for the future. In Rol-Fre's death she had been given a temporary reprieve and she was determined to enjoy every moment of freedom. "Let's go, Lois. It will be diverting. Gellis and I have never had our fortunes told before and I doubt that we'll ever get this chance again."
A note of wistfulness crept into Zara's voice and Lois found she couldn't disappoint the two girls, even Etta was showing a certain amount of curiosity. "All right! Why not! It should be… interesting. Lead on, mister…"
The man bobbed a quick bow and hurriedly shepherded his charges towards a colourful tent a few yards further down the line. Outside were large posters advertising the expertise of the famous seer and accounts from a list of obviously well-satisfied customers. The silken hangings of the tent were adorned by silver crescent moons and star constellations and the man led the way to a thick curtained doorway to usher the women inside. But here the eager young Kryptonians grew suddenly apprehensive of this chance to read their futures and Lois was elected to be the first guinea-pig.
Laughing at their sudden attack of nerves, Lois ducked to enter but stilled when a stocky arm dropped in front of the following girls. With an apologetic smile the man explained.
"Madame Ballen requires perfect quiet and solitude to enable her to concentrate all her senses on the aura of her subject. She regrets that she cannot give a true forecast otherwise."
Zara and Gellis at once saw the merits in this statement and backed off to wait outside but Etta was made of sterner stuff. "I go wherever my mistress goes," she informed the man with determination. "I'll be very quiet and blend into the background. Madame Ballen won't even know I'm there. But I won't be shut out!"
The troubled man had clearly not anticipated this problem and he gazed from one female stare to another. Lois shrugged, clearly not bothered whether she had company or not, but certainly not willing to hurt Etta's feelings by ordering her to remain with the others. After a few seconds of indecision the bull-like fellow returned the shrug and, lifting his arm, he allowed Etta access.
Once inside the two women took in the dim interior. There wasn't much space and a small round table with a chair either side took up most of the available room. From another heavy curtain at the back of the tent a woman came forward and Lois suppressed an unexpected grin at the sight of Madame Ballen. The woman was just as stockily built as their escort and Lois assumed that they must be related which wasn't totally impossible as most gypsies on Earth tended to marry within their own kind and these people were probably no different. Madame Ballen was attired in a caftan-like robe with a cloak draped over her shoulders. A strange turban like hat was squashed down on her head, hiding her hair completely and suspended from either side of the silk was a thick veil, covering the lower part of the wide moonlike face.
"Welcome, My Lady, to my humble abode." The voice that came from behind the veil was slightly muffled and husky and tinged with a similar accent to that of her familiar. "Please to sit, milady."
An outstretched hand indicated the chair at the rear of the tent and once Lois had seated herself, the oversized teller sat opposite, casting a disapproving glance at the other girl left standing by Lois' side. "Move back! Move back! I understand you've insisted on being present. I cannot approve but if you must be here then please keep quiet and do not interrupt the proceedings. My contacts are wary of eavesdroppers." And she moved her hands around in the air as if indicating invisible spirits.
A subdued Etta did as she was bid and Madame turned her attention back to her customer. "Cross my hand with silver, my dear, and Madame Ballen will reveal all the secrets of your future."
Oh my! A grin threatened to break across Lois' face but she quickly swallowed it, realising that this serious woman would not take kindly to being mocked. Was that phrase universal to fortune-tellers? However, willing to go along with the charade for the sake of her companions, Lois fished for the required amount of currency and dropped it into the hand that lay open on the table. A fleeting suspicion assailed her earthly cynicism, hadn't those blunt fingers done some manual labour? Yet the gypsy was continuing with her fortune telling.
With a flourish the velvet cover was lifted from an object on the table revealing a large crystal ball. And just as Lois was suppressing another laugh at the sight of the obvious prop, the inside of the glass filled with a strange gassy material. Oh, these people were good!
"Lean closer, my dear," came the compelling whispering voice, "look deep into the crystal and all will be revealed."
Lois dropped her head towards the murky ball, hoping that she could hide her grin from the watching woman. Amazingly an ethereal face materialized in the swirling gas, a face that looked vaguely familiar and despite her reservations Lois peered closer.
Immediately the face and the glass disappeared. The gas, no longer enclosed within the sphere shot into Lois' face, enveloping her, choking her, almost instantaneously Lois fainted. A shriek escaped from Etta's lips, at once cut off by a large fist that clamped itself over the lady-in-waiting's mouth and another body came swiftly from behind the hangings and, using an injection gun, anaesthetised Etta before she could come to the aid of her mistress or alert the others to their plight.
Within minutes the interior of the tent was emptied and the unconscious women were bundled through a back exit and unceremoniously dumped into a compartment in the floor of a large wooden cart that was filled with a noxious material… circus dung. Madame Ballen, discarding her colourful disguise to reveal a labourer's coverall, climbed onto the driver's board, his partners in crime joining him forthwith. Slowly, with an exaggerated air of nonchalance, along the alley between the wall and the rear of the tents the cart made its way out of the camp site, hidden from inquisitive eyes and, due to its nasty smelling contents, totally uninterrupted.
For longer than they had anticipated Zara and Gellis waited outside in the sunshine enthusiastically awaiting their turn to enter the soothsayer's domain. Yet as the time slipped by, first Zara and then Gellis became increasingly uneasy. After another surreptitious glance over her shoulder Zara announced that the guard who had remained at the entrance to bar any interruptions had now gone and their stress levels rose alarmingly.
Did this mean that Lois and Etta would be coming out shortly? They waited impatiently but to no avail. Finally, Zara stomped to the tent door and, as there was no solid surface on which to knock, she raised her voice and called for her friend. Silence was her only answer. She called again but Gellis being of a more adventuresome nature pulled the curtain aside and exposed the empty interior. Rushing inside they sped through the tent and out the other side, but clearly the object of their search was nowhere to be found.
Desperately the two frightened girls combed the surrounding booths but after a short time Zara declared it a useless exercise. With heavy hearts the two young women retraced their steps homeward. It was time to return to the palace and confess to Kal-El that his beloved wife had been kidnapped.
Chapter Five: Trial and Terror
The cool breeze on her face brought Lois sluggishly to her senses. Her head ached dreadfully and her body didn't feel much better. What was that smell? She drew in a deep breath and immediately regretted it. The horrible odour was familiar and it made her want to retch. She couldn't refrain from sniffing once more… it was sh… manure! Where in the world did that come from? The last thing she remembered was seeing Kal's face in a glassy orb.
At once reality invaded her senses. She had been drugged by the fortune-telling gypsy. Then where was Etta… and the others? Straining hard she managed to drag herself into a seated position and surveyed her prison. A small dank windowless room welcomed her, lit only by a sputtering wall sconce and devoid of any furniture or any other living being. What had they done with Etta and what about Zara and Gellis? The two noble girls had remained outside. Maybe they hadn't been abducted. Maybe they would be able to raise the alarm and soon Kal would come and rescue her. And maybe she was being overly optimistic. Whoever these kidnappers were they had planned their operation well and that, in all probability, included an escape route from Veren. And judging by the aroma that rose from her clothes and clogged her nostrils, it probably involved a dung carrier.
Lois' supposition was very close to the truth, yet she didn't know that once the cart was through the gate and hidden in the shelter of the high city walls, the abductors had transferred their human cargo to a small transporter and headed for the mountains in the south. While in the vicinity of the city the getaway vehicle had maintained a steady pace, not willing to draw attention to itself, but as soon as the commander of the gang decreed they had traversed a safe enough distance the transporter had accelerated. The miles flew by until it once again had to slow its pace to negotiate its way through the mountains to a high-top valley, and a ramshackle farmhouse, long since abandoned by its occupants due to its isolated position.
In this remote spot the kidnappers had made their camp and arranged to rendezvous with the rest of their force to carry their victim far from her family. And if it seemed they had managed to acquire another female in the process, that was no bad thing. Another piece of merchandise meant higher profits and though the second woman would never reach the price of the original female she was healthy and young and not bad looking, in the opinion of the group leader. Ballen could recognise the beauty of the fragile brunette but his tastes ran to more earthy substantial females. What was more, she wasn't 'off bounds' like the other bit of baggage.
The Taurean commander was a battle-toughened mercenary who feared few foes, but the memory of the icy neurotic stare of the man who had hired him for this task decreed that his small force would obey their orders to the letter; the high-bred lady would be delivered to their destination in perfect condition. Besides, they had been paid more than well for their co-operation. They would finish this job and then spend some of their hard-earned cash enjoying themselves in climes more suited to their tastes than this stuffy straight-laced planet.
A shiver overtook Lois as the breeze that had awakened her renewed its whistling path with more vigour through the stone walled cell. The lightweight gown she was wearing offered little resistance against the chill air. But that wasn't right! Before she had succumbed to a state of unconsciousness it had been hot! And even if darkness had fallen, judging by the temperatures of last night, she should not be feeling cold… unless she were no longer in the desert.
Instinctively, she sensed that this was true and once again she shivered, though this time it was prompted more by fear than the freezing temperature. Think, Lois!! This is no time to panic!! Kryptonians contact each other telepathically and though she was not yet expert in this form of communication she could at least try to make some connection with Kal. And Zor had explained sometime ago that these thought messages could be traced, if only to a general region. Lois closed her eyes and concentrated.
"Milady," came an urgent whisper, "it's no use! Your thought waves are being blocked."
The voice confused Lois for a moment. So intent had she been on sending her message to Kal she had missed the grating of the ancient lock and the creaking of the heavy wooden door as Etta slipped inside carrying a tray on which perched a cup of water and something that vaguely passed for food.
"The bracelets round your wrists," Etta explained as she hurried down the few steps to her mistress' side. "They're producing a personal force field. Your thoughts can't get through the field." The girl held up her own wrists to show that she too was similarly adorned. "Are you all right, milady?" Her voice was anxious.
When the girl she had come to rely on as her confidant knelt by her side, Lois cast her arms around her neck. "Etta, thank goodness. I was so worried that they had got rid of you. What happened? Where are we and who are these people?" Lois' questions tumbled out as the hysteria that had first threatened when she had discovered her plight receded to be replaced by the resolve to escape. Somehow Etta's familiar presence gave her courage. She studied the new bracelets around her wrists, they were made of a strange dull grey substance but unlike Kal's marriage band they had a hairline connecting point. If only she could pry them open… she began to look around her for something she could use as a tool. These guys would regret attacking Lois-El and when Kal-El caught up with them… "Etta, who would be crazy enough to kidnap us? Is it Rad-Nor again?"
Etta's short statement halted Lois' wild deliberations. "Taureans!" Kal had told her about them; they were from a renegade planet who waged a guerilla war against the Planetary Federation. "What are they doing here in Veren? Are you sure, Etta?"
"Oh yes, I overheard them talking. Their commander seems to have taken a fancy to me and he didn't lock me up with you. I've been given the role of his own personal serving girl." Etta made light of that last statement, not willing to dwell on what it might entail later. "I'm sure he doesn't realise that I can understand what they're saying because they've been discussing their plans in front of me." An apprehensive glance was directed Lois' way but her lady was distracted by the former statement.
"You understand Taurean? How many languages do you speak, Etta?"
"A few," came the shy return. "I speak your language and Zirconian, because of poor Lady Rochelle, and a couple of others. I wouldn't say I was fluent in Taurean but I know enough to understand what they have planned."
Lois was impressed. As a child she'd learned a smattering of French but was shamefully aware she'd assumed that most people on Earth spoke English. "That's great! You are so clever! But if you can do all that why were you just a chambermaid? You could do so much more!"
The Earth woman's competitive spirit was in rampant mode. That same will which had made her strive to be the best in every undertaking, precluded her from understanding a society where people did not utilise their talents.
Etta's open countenance turned guarded and even in the dimly lit cell, Lois could see the hurt she had caused. "There's no shame in being a servant, Lady Lois." The lady-in-waiting's voice was defensive and, for the first time since the two women had met, slightly disapproving. "My family have always served the House of El and were honoured and happy to do so. And all Kryptonians are good with languages. Everyone is encouraged to learn about off-world cultures."
Lois felt like kicking herself, discerning that she had patronized Etta. She'd been acting under the misconception that the Kryptonian serving class's lives were akin to their counterparts on Earth back in the Victorian era. But, of course, on this highly technological world that just wasn't so. She had witnessed the futuristic labour-saving devices employed in Ro-Ellion and the Palace of Elvar, everything from robotic carpet cleaners and polishers to sophisticated dishwashers and fully automated laundry rooms. And if on occasion the servants had chosen to hand-do a particular task, it was done through care and pride in a job well done.
In most of the states she had visited, the working classes, although not given equal standing with the aristocracy, were treated fairly and as an important part of society and no labour was considered menial. Lois at last acknowledged that here on Krypton the populace appeared content with their lot and though she was not quite ready to consider this a totally healthy state of affairs, she conceded that for the most part it made for an orderly existence. And, if it was a way of life that was open to abuse, now was not the time to set the world to rights. She had a friend to console.
"I'm sorry, Etta," Lois squeezed the other girl's hand in sincere apology. "I didn't mean to insult your job. What I suggested was unkind and unforgivably crass. I keep measuring Kryptonian standards with my Earthling view of life and it just doesn't add up. Forgive me, please?"
Etta would forgive her lady anything and besides she also understood, more than Lois, how hazardous was their predicament. Smiling to reassure, she hurried to inform Lois what she had learned. "There's nothing to forgive, milady. But we are in terrible danger." Here Etta's narrative died away.
Shaking the hand she held, Lois offered encouragement. "What else did you hear, Etta? Do you know where we are?"
"Not exactly. We're in the mountains of Veren."
"Somewhere near the summit if the temperature is any guide." Lois nodded in agreement.
"They're waiting the arrival of a space craft." The Kryptonian girl lowered her voice in case of eavesdroppers. A vague plan was forming in her mind and it was imperative that their abductors didn't realise that she understood their conversations. "It's due to arrive just before dawn… in the darkest hours of the night."
"And you know where they plan to take us?"
"Yes." Etta was almost afraid to speak the name.
"Where?" Lois tried to swallow her impatience.
"To Caytan." Etta's voice filled with dread. "The space station, Caytan."
"I've heard of it, I think." Lois too was whispering. "Kal mentioned it. It's an independent space port on the borders of the galaxy, headquarters of gambling syndicates and gunrunners, refuge of intergalactic terrorists, thieves and smugglers. Is that the one?"
"Yes. And there's something else you didn't mention…" But Etta faltered at the thought.
"Etta, you're making me nervous. What are you not telling me?" An insistent shake of the hand still held within Lois' grasp prompted Etta to continue.
"They hold slave auctions on Caytan. We're to be sold as slaves to the highest bidder. Ballen believes you'll fetch a very high price."
This last piece of information, though gratifying, did not fill Lois with pleasure. She'd not come all the way across the galaxy to end up on a slave auctioneer's block. No! Definitely not!
"Then we have to get out of here. Before the reinforcements arrive. You said we have a few hours yet?!"
"Yes, milady, and I have an idea of how we can do that, but I must get back. They'll be wondering what's taking me so long." As if on cue, a loud rough voice could be heard yelling Etta's name and as the Kryptonian girl threw a glance over her shoulder heavy steps could be heard approaching the cellar door. "I must go. Trust me, Lois, and have courage."
With that Etta ran lightly for the stairs as the door swung open and the broad figure of Ballen could be seen silhouetted in the opening. Etta ducked under his raised arm and with a loud bang the door slammed shut, leaving Lois once more in the sputtering gloom.
The royal troupe and the Veren guard were on full alert. From the moment Kal had listened in mounting dread to his sister's stumbling narrative the young ruler had been frantic with worry about his wife's safety. His morning had been spent fuming in frustration as Jen-Mai had objected and whined at every legal argument raised till, finally, after a lot of cajoling, both friendly and otherwise, a compromise had been reached. Meanwhile his Lois had been abducted by persons unknown and carried off to Zor knew where.
He had demanded that all the forces at his command search the city and the surrounding district, and for the rest of the day Veren had been in an uproar. The citizens had been questioned about possible sightings of suspicious strangers but, due to the annual festival, Veren was teeming with visitors both Kryptonian and off-worlders and the criminals had gone unnoticed in the intergalactic melange. Once word had spread that the First Lady was lost, the ordinary people of Veren had joined in the search, anxious to help find their lovely visitor, but by late afternoon all patrols had returned to report their failure.
Now Kal paced the castle hall, his state of mind alternating between annoyance and deep anxiety. How could Lois have been so foolish to place herself and their unborn child at risk and how could he have been so stupid not to have known that she had a crazy scheme planned? And yet, for a woman raised on Earth, a walk in the crowded city to view such a simple pleasure as a circus was hardly hazardous. Even he had admitted to Lois, albeit at her prompting, that they were safe within the confines of Veren. So why did he have these conflicting emotions? Was he angry at Lois or himself or the dreadful situation?
His first reaction had been to rail at Zara and Gellis but witnessing their distress and listening to their remorseful apologies for straying on their own, he at once relented. These impressionable girls were not at fault. They would have been like putty in Lois' forceful hands.
"I'm so sorry, my lord." A voice came from the stretching shadows of the room, as the sun sank in a fiery glow behind the southern mountains. "It's my fault that Lady Lois is missing. My apologies cannot atone for my carelessness." Slowly Lord Dax-Ver came into the hall, his shoulders slumped as he dropped to his knees before his ruler. "I'm prepared to pay whatever penalty you deem fitting."
Frowning at the bowed head before him Kal asked perplexedly, "Why is it your fault, Dax?"
"Lord Kal, your lady was taken from *my* city. Veren should have been a refuge for her, a place of security. I blame myself."
"Dax, you cannot blame yourself more than I blame *myself*. And please, get up from the floor, you have no need to kneel."
"You, my lord?" The middle-aged man stood slowly.
"I know my Lois." A faint smile twitched at Kal's mouth as he remember her daring. "I should've realised that she would do something like this; after all, for an Earth woman walking through the city streets to view a carnival is hardly a major event." But here his smile took on a wistful look; Lois had understood that her escapade was not quite acceptable or she would've told him of her plans. Yet that was Lois. His exasperation dispersed; it was her free and independent spirit that he loved most about her and he would never seek to curtail it. If only she would be just a little more careful. "I should've assigned Ching to look after them."
Except that was another thing that at the moment he wasn't prepared to do; throw Zara and Ching together on an outing for pleasure… an almost 'first date' to use Earth terms. Even chaperoned, it was cruel for two people who were secretly and, in their view, hopelessly in love to spend so much time in each other's company and Kal knew very well that Lois would have found some way to leave the couple alone in the city. But none of that excused him, he could have sent Poli.
Lady Joanna stomped into the room with a bucket-full of common sense and dumped it over their self recriminations. "It seems to me that the two of you are blaming everyone but those responsible for the kidnapping. Dax, you never expected to have trouble in Veren because it's years since we've experienced anything more than petty crime and as for you, Kal," by virtue of her longstanding friendship with his family, she addressed him as a perplexed boy, "if you're planning on trying to second guess that wife of yours throughout your married life then I can predict you'll have a rough ride. The deed is done and you can save your recriminations until we have Lois back home safely."
How well Lady Ver reminded him of his mother, and in Joanna's stoic and practical handling of the situation Kal found a degree of comfort. "Thank you, milady, for reminding me of the important goal. We ought to put aside our feelings of guilt to continue the search. If only we had an idea of where to look."
"If only Lady Lois were Kryptonian," Joanna mumbled softly and sadly.
But Kal's hearing was alert. "Excuse me, Joanna, but I'm very satisfied with my 'alien' wife."
"Oh don't take on so, my boy," the lady dismissed his sulky protest. "Of course, anyone can see that the two of you were made for each other. I only meant that you could contact her telepathically if she only had the ability."
"But she can! Lois might not yet be fluent but she has mastered the basics. And I've been trying to reach her again and again." The new husband sounded almost hysterical. "But there's nothing! She's either unable to respond… which means that she might be…"
"Shielded!" cut in the woman, reining in his worst imaginings. "Which isn't surprising, these kidnappers appear to know what they're doing."
"Yes, that's probably the reason." But a sorrowing Kal didn't sound convinced.
Momentarily there was silence in the room as the three occupants dwelt on their apprehensions. Pointedly Lady Joanna looked at her spouse, her expression willing him to distract this boy who was now the most important being on the planet but whom they had both known from childhood. The Vers were extremely fond of Kal and hated to see him so horribly dejected.
"I'm sure that they can't have left Veren territory." Dax suggested, praying that this ploy would satisfy his wife. "Since the moment we discovered their abduction I've had my technicians monitoring the skies and there has been no sightings of any unregistered spacecraft."
"Unless they were using a cloaking device," Kal reminded his host. "Or they may have remained at ground level. Easier to mingle with other traffic."
"Cloaking devices are expensive and hard to come by. That would mean that the kidnappers were an organised and well funded force." Dax looked searchingly into his master's troubled face. "Do you have any particular suspects in mind?"
"Mercenaries! Probably Taureans or a mixed group of space pirates," Kal prevaricated. "I've certain suspicions but I'd rather find Lois and Etta before I begin an investigation." A shuttered look settled on the still handsome face and Lord Ver wisely gave up his probing. "I think that for the moment we should assume that my wife and her attendant are still within your realm, Dax, and extend our hunt…"
"My Lord!" The voice was strident and a determined Ching marched into the hall, leaving a flustered and protesting steward in his wake. "Lord Kal, I bring some news."
"Beg pardon, my Lord Dax…" began the stuttering servant ready to apologise for this rude soldier cavalierly ignoring his insistence on announcing the military man but his protests were silenced by the First Lord's arbitrary command.
"Enough! Thank you! Lieutenant Ching is my personal bodyguard and as such he has access at all times to my presence."
The footman had never heard such a stern edge to this young Lord's voice and he bowed low in consternation as he backed from the room, hurrying to tell his colleagues on the household staff that power had certainly gone to that gentleman's head. Lady Joanna, seeing the mischief that was in the making, hurried after her servant ready to nip that particular gossip in the bud. The man, like most of the palace retainers, had been in their service since birth and Joanna felt sure that the servant, once made aware of Lord Kal-El's deep anxiety for his missing wife, would forgive the uncharacteristic high-handed behaviour. The last thing Kal needed or deserved was a reputation for harsh autocracy.
Meanwhile, Ching, was quickly relating what he had learned in the circus arena. "Kal, I think we have a sighting of the kidnappers and the way which they spirited Lady Lois from the city." Ching waited for his leader and friend to digest the unexpected information and then continued. "I questioned Lady Zara and Lady Gellis about their movements in the city then I went down to the circus ground and attempted to question the people there. Lord Ver's men had already done so but I think that the Romanies were a little scared of the amount of attention they were accorded so I took it upon myself to speak with them more discreetly." Ching glanced towards Lord Ver, not willing to upset the important nobleman with an accusation that his men had been heavy-handed, but the gentleman was too anxious to discover what clues this young guard had uncovered to take offence.
"Go on, Ching!" Kal prompted.
"I'm sorry it took so long but there are a diverse number of terrestrials amongst the crowds and it took some time to find anyone who had spotted anything out of the ordinary. In fact our witness is from a far off planet of whose language, I must admit, I have no knowledge. Finally, however, the man understood what had taken place and came forward. And then I needed to find an interpreter." Both Lords were eagerly attentive and the Lieutenant hurried on. "This man is a member of a highwire act and it seems that he and his troupe were entertaining the crowd during our Ladies' visit to the fair. He also has an eye for a fair maiden and he noticed Lady Lois and her friends from his perch high above the audience. For a time he watched their progress and saw Lady Lois and Etta enter the tent of a fortune-teller…"
"Zara has already told us this, Ching, and we've discovered that this Madame Ballen is unknown to the legitimate circus people. Obviously it was a carefully laid trap." Kal's voice showed deep disappointment and a certain amount of annoyance. "This information isn't new."
"But the tightrope walker believes he knows what happened to your Lady."
Kal's eyebrows shot up and his gaze sharpened. "Please go on and I'm sorry, I won't interrupt again." Another wave of guilt smote Kal. He ought to have known that his estimable Ching wouldn't have brought him a false trail.
"According to the man, there was a wagon parked between the tent and the city wall. Shortly after the two ladies disappeared inside the tent, three men drove off in the wagon toward the city gate. Unfortunately, he had no clear view of the area directly behind the tent, but, due to the strange way the men were behaving and because the pretty ladies hadn't come back out, he decided to follow the cart's progress. He lost them at the gates but when he crossed to the other side of his wire, which was attached to the highest point of the wall, and looked over the parapet he was surprised to see a transporter waiting a short way beneath him. The cart arrived and two large bundles were placed inside the vehicle and once the men were all aboard the transporter took off south in the direction of the mountains. Of course, our tightrope artist didn't realise the significance of what he'd witnessed and due to the fact that none of the troupe speak Kryptonian and have only a smattering of Romany, it took quite a time for him to put it all together. Thankfully, I was still in the vicinity when enlightenment dawned and the circus boss brought him to me. I checked out his story and found the wagon exactly where he said it would be … a wagon filled to overflowing with dung, so it's no wonder that the kidnappers weren't halted on their way out of the city."
At the end of the long recital Kal began to feel animated but Dax looked doubtful. "It could all be coincidental. We don't know for sure that my Lady and her servant were ever in the cart." Scepticism coloured Dax-Ver's every word.
In answer Ching opened his clenched fist and a colourful slip of spun silk fluttered from his hand, the bright hues stained with dirty brown splotches. The young soldier's tone was strained as he addressed his master. "It's from Earth. I brought it back from our trip as a present for Zara," Ching's skin flushed red at this admission. "She tells me she loaned it to Lady Lois as protection; our red sun was threatening to burn your Lady's fair skin."
Kal snatched at the slip of silk and brought it to his cheek. Such a little time ago it had lain round Lois' neck. He could still smell the traces of her scent. "Thank you, Ching," he whispered as he returned the scarf to his bodyguard. He was unwilling, at this moment, to discuss the problem of the regard that the Lieutenant held for Zara, but that situation needed to be resolved once he had Lois safe. "Thank Zor for that man's curiosity. When this is over I must speak to him personally and reward him." Then, snapping to attention, he commanded. "Dax, Ching, assemble every available man and have them ready to leave immediately. We head south and let's hope we are on time."
He failed to say exactly what they would be in time for. In truth, he wasn't exactly certain. He only knew he had a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The three men sat in a relaxed and slightly drunken state around the rickety wooden table in the old farmhouse, varying their conversation between laughter and argument about how best to spend the money they were due. They had carried out their part of the contract well and now they just had to wait to be picked up by their partners in crime. Soon they would be bound for Caytan, and the high-class bitch and her serving girl would make them an extra bonus above the fee which had already been deposited in their accounts with the money-lenders of the space station. A few days of riotous living beckoned before they had to look for their next job and Ballen had hinted that this current partnership with an unknown, but clearly wealthy and powerful individual, promised further rich pickings.
Pity the woman in the cellar was an 'untouchable,' but the servant who was now preparing them a well-deserved meal was young and presentable and besides all bitches were the same in the dark. Of course, Ballen had the first taking; he had already made that clear.
Etta listened and watched carefully as she busied herself at the ancient wood-burning stove. They were talking too quickly for her to follow all of their words but she caught the gist of the dialogue. The future they had planned for herself and her mistress filled her with dread but her heart quailed at the very descriptive and disgusting suggestions they threw around with gusto of what Ballen and perhaps the others had in store for her this night.
Pushing her fears into the background, she busied herself in stirring the large pot on top of the stove, her stomach lurching at the sight of the greasy water in which floated the quartered bodies of some small animals that the three had clearly hunted before their trip to Veren. The stew didn't smell too appetising either but she steeled herself not to react, as it gave her a reason to put her plan into operation. Stepping up to the table, Etta haltingly suggested that perhaps a few herbs from the mountain meadows outside might improve the taste. Her breath stuck in her throat as she waited for the reply; it was important that they let her leave this room and hopefully without a guard to accompany her.
Ballen was an uncouth leader with a sly and suspicious mind; nevertheless, he was quite sure that the timid girl had little spirit to attempt an escape and besides, stuck here on this mountain top there was no where for her to go. As his stomach grumbled protestingly through lack of food, he viewed the thought of a hearty meal with pleasure and the woman seemed to know what she was doing. Gaining confidence from the drink he'd swilled he grinned broadly upon her, hoping to impress her with his good looks and generous nature.
"Okay! Go on but don't be long and remember if you try to run away we will find you and bring you back and I promise you'll be sorry you gave us any trouble." The grimace that apparently passed for his smile quickly faded to be replaced by a sneer of menace and Etta shrank from the evil man as she quickly slipped round the table and out of the door.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Etta hurried to the broken down cupboard by the outside door. Earlier she had witnessed the Taurean leader demand a leather rucksack from one of his men and thrusting it inside, he had locked the door before entering the kitchen. Once inside the cramped room, Ballen had thrown the key onto an old dresser as he drew tankards of ale from a barrel sitting on top of the wooden bureau for himself and his men. Thankfully for Etta's plotting, after a number of refills of the potent brew, the increasingly inebriated leader had forgotten about its presence and under the cover of preparing their supper she had managed to pocket the key.
Now she worked with nimble fingers to unlock the door, her heart rate increasing as she drew the rickety door ajar. It mustn't squeak; she prayed silently to Zor and the satchel must hold what she hoped. In trepidation she rapidly opened the bag and gratefully removed the injection gun and a vial of the drug that had been used to anaesthetise her. The gun was returned to its holdall and the cupboard relocked, then pocketing the bottle, Etta ran outside to where she had spotted the remnants of a vegetable garden. Moonlight flooded the patch which had long since reverted to a natural habitat but a few herbs still thrived in the once tilled ground. This night Etta laboured as one inspired, pulling the herbs that had been her excuse for leaving and checking the layout of the farmyard and the path that would lead both her and her mistress down the mountain and to freedom.
The transporter nestled dull and gray by the old house, but Etta's eyes shifted over its smooth shape and centred on the enclosure a short way off which she had first noticed when they arrived at their destination. The sounds of shifting and shuffling animals drifted through the dark and in the moonlight Etta could discern the forms of three unicorns. With a smile of satisfaction she hurried back inside; it would ruin her plan if Ballen and his cohorts became suspicious of her actions. Breezing into the kitchen she held her herbs aloft to prove to her captors what she had been doing and indicating by hand actions that she intended to put them into the boiling pot.
Now filled with enough liquor to make them exceedingly drunk, the three paid little attention to the cook, simply bellowed that they were hungry and that if she knew what was good for her she'd have their dinner on the table in double quick time. Etta was only too happy to oblige, with slight of hand the unwashed herbs and the drug were stirred into the greasy bubbling mixture. Hopefully the pungent taste of the herbs and the strongly smelling meat would hide the traces of the sleeping draught and hopefully too there would be enough of the drug to knock them all senseless. Surely the amount of alcohol they'd consumed mixed with the anaesthetic would put them to sleep.
Spooning the disgusting looking stew into three bowls, Etta carefully carried them to the table and waited with her heart in her mouth as the drunken kidnappers sampled their supper. Her fears were groundless; the Taureans suspected nothing and greedily scoffed the lot and loudly demanded more until the huge pan was emptied. Quietly, the inventive girl slipped back into the shadows to await developments.
Down in the cellar, Lois had not been idle. The minute the door had slammed shut on Etta and her guard, she had begun a search of her surroundings and with touch as well as sight she mapped out her prison. She quickly established that the door, although ancient was of a stout wood and her hearing had informed her when the others had left that it was bolted as well as locked from the outside. Her lock-picking skills would be of little use on this occasion. So she had continued with her careful search until her efforts had finally been rewarded and she had discovered an old rusty nail under the dust and dirt in the far corner of the cell. Since then she had employed herself in attempting to break the connecting point of her shield-bracelets, however, although the left one had loosened somewhat it still held firm, and the main and painful result had been the tearing and subsequent bleeding of her fingers and nails. Perhaps if she rested for a moment she could replenish her strength and try again.
The stealthy sound of the bolt on the door drawing back drew her attention to the doorway and she watched in horror as the heavy wooden portal swung ever so slowly inwards. A white but very familiar face appeared in the opening, squinting into the semi-dark, as Etta swiftly descended the stairs towards her.
"Etta!" Lois whispered, "What's happening?" Her eyes strayed back to the doorway expecting to see the bull like form of the Taurean. "Are you alone?" She slid her left hand behind her back, afraid to let her captors see what she had been up to.
"Milady, the Taureans are asleep. I drugged them with their own medicine and we have to leave as quickly as we can."
"Oh Etta, you're a real hero! How did you manage that?" While she spoke Lois was picking herself off the floor.
"I put it in their stew and they didn't suspect a thing." A note of pride at her audacity coloured Etta's words but she immediately returned to the business at hand. "But I don't know how long they'll be out cold, so we have to get out of here… fast." And to emphasise the point Etta grabbed for Lois' hand and started to drag her towards the stairway.
Lois needed no more persuasion and, ignoring her cramped limbs, she hurriedly exited the cold gloomy cell, close on her rescuer's heels. Unfortunately, the way to freedom lay through the kitchen where the girls' hulking captors lay snoring loudly, hopefully in deepest sleep. One thug had fallen off his chair and slid beneath the table while the other lounged, mouth agape and drooling, against the backrest of his chair. Commander Ballen sprawled across the table, breathing heavily but, as the girls skirted round the edge of the room, keeping a safe distance from the kidnappers, he shifted uneasily on the table top. With an enormous grunt he pushed himself upright and Lois and Etta froze. For an everlasting second there was silence in the room as the terrorized girls ceased to breathe. But Ballen's open eyes remained blank and unfocused, and he slipped with a thud clumsily back to the wooden surface.
Wasting not another moment the girls left their prison and their turnkeys behind and fleet of foot, ran into the open air. The clearing was still lit by a fitful moonlight and Lois, at once spying the transporter, turned her steps in its direction, only to be brought up short by Etta's pull on her arm.
"No, Lady. The transporter is useless to us. It's probably attuned to Ballen and his minions. It won't go for us."
"Then how do we get out of here? I don't know exactly where we are but, assuming we're in the mountains south of Veren, it'll take forever to get back to the city without transport." Her head nodded in the direction of the house. "And by the looks of Ballen it won't be long till he wakes up and then they'll be after us. We don't stand a chance on foot."
"That's why we're not going on foot." Etta couldn't help but grin, her spirit buoyed up by her daring. "How good are you at riding?"
"There are unicorns over there in the pen and that's our way out of here. It'll be much quicker than walking." Not waiting for an answer, Etta started moving in the darkness towards the beasts' enclosure
Lois frowned at Etta's information. She'd learned to ride as a kid at summer camp and she'd ridden out with Kal a couple of times but a long ride down a mountainside would test her skills to the limit. But Etta was right, it was their only chance of escape. Pushing her misgivings aside she followed her friend.
"Milady, help me!" Etta was struggling to open a heavy gate which had grown sticky from lack of use. Although the Taureans had brought the unicorns here for use on short scouting patrols, they'd be abandoning the farm very shortly and therefore felt no need for unnecessary husbandry. The homestead would be left as they found it; they were fighters not farmers.
With Lois' help the ancient structure yielded to their combined weight and soon they had opened it sufficiently for a unicorn to slip through. Once inside they moved speedily to their mounts but Lois soon found a distinct hitch in their plan. The animals were tethered with hemp bridles to the rail but there were no saddles to be found.
"Where are the saddles?" My Lady asked with a squeak of worry.
"Probably inside the building." Etta's whisper echoed in the darkness. "We daren't spend time to look for them. I'm afraid we'll have to ride bareback." The statement was matter of fact. "Is that a problem?"
"Etta, my riding isn't that good, but if needs must, it'll be fine… just fine." Lois wasn't about to let a little technical detail like the lack of a saddle hinder their escape.
"Good! Now let's get out of here." Untying one of the halters from the fenceposts Etta signalled Lois to copy her actions.
"Nice unicorn!" Lois crooned softly to the beast nearest her as she stretched a hand to stroke the animal's neck. "Nice boy!" Truthfully, she had no idea whether her chosen mount was male or female and she didn't much care. Hopefully, neither would the unicorn. "I'm Lois, and I hope that you and I are going to get along." Her shaking hands imitated that of her servant as she worked to untie the thick rope knot. Fervently she prayed that her nervousness wouldn't be conveyed to the animal.
Suddenly, into the night air came a loud bellow. "Girl!! Where are you?!!" A sleepy but angry voice carried to the girls on the cool breeze. "Get in here!"
Both Lois and Etta jumped in fright, then stared at each other in trepidation. Lois was the first to move. "Quickly, Etta! We have to get out of here pretty damn fast!" And she pulled on the rope to lead the unicorn to the fence.
"No, Lois!! I can't leave now!!" Fear filled the Kryptonian girl but she knew what must be done. "If Ballen finds me gone, he'll suspect something's wrong and come looking for you. Once he finds an empty cell these three will be after us and we don't have a good enough start to outrun them. I have to go back."
"That's crazy, Etta! You can't stay here! Once he discovers the empty cell, there's no telling what he'll do to you. Etta, you'd be in terrible danger and I won't leave you here alone!"
"You have no choice!" In her heart, Etta knew that Lois spoke the truth, but if she could keep Ballen occupied long enough to allow her Lady to escape then there was a chance that Lois could return with a rescue team. And there was no doubt in her mind that she could keep the monster engaged; she had recognised the lecherous looks he had been directing her way all night. Her whole being shrank at the thought of intimacy with the fiend but if she could buy her mistress some time, then she was prepared to sacrifice herself. "You know well that it's our only chance of freedom. Go, Lois and find help!" Steely determination strengthened her voice and she led both Lois and the unicorn towards the gate.
Wild thoughts of attempting to overpower the brutish mercenary chased through Lois' head but if Ballen had regained consciousness then the others would probably be waking soon and, though she had confidence in her defensive skills, these were trained soldiers who held no qualms about killing. Etta had no knowledge of combat (why should she in her once secure world) and Lois doubted her chances of subduing all three alone. And if she failed Etta's clever plan was nullified and the outcome would surely be dire.
"Etta, no! I can't let you do this." But Lois' protest was fainthearted. She too realised this was the only way. Lois pulled Etta into her arms and hugged her desperately. "I'll find help… please be careful…"
Then the best friend Lois had on Krypton was off and running towards the farm shack and her assignation with fate in the form of a powerful and choleric Taurean. Watching Etta disappear inside the shadowed house, Lois swiped at the tears that coursed down her face. Her brave Etta had gone to do her part, the rest was up to her. Thankfully, the unicorn came willingly to the fence and, holding firmly to the makeshift reins, the First Lady used the rails as a mounting block. Sitting carefully atop the animal, she kicked her heels firmly into its sides and with a jolt the pair went at an ungainly canter down the mountain path.
It was the longest night of Lois' young life. How she stayed on the bony back of the gangling animal she would never know. This beast was unlike the thoroughbreds that Kal had in his stable. Her thigh and leg muscles ached from clinging to the sides of her mount and frequently she felt herself slipping from her uncertain perch. One hand was wound round the rough rope and the other clutched the animal's sparse mane and her poor fingers, already torn from her assault on the bracelets, were screaming in pain. Unused to riding bareback, her buttocks constantly bumped up and down to the unfamiliar motion and very soon that part of her anatomy was protesting along with the rest of her body.
The journey was taking much too long. Yet she dare not spur the unicorn on. The clouds, at first thin and high, had now almost hidden the moon and the descent was made in a fitful light, making speed impossible on the rocky unused trail. She didn't even know if she was headed in the right direction, but the only way open to her was downwards and she prayed that soon she would reach some sort of civilisation. Twice she unbalanced and found herself on the hard stony ground, but she held fast to the reins and both times had managed to remount with the aid of a convenient boulder.
It was after the last of those falls that she felt the uncomfortable wetness beneath her seat and pain of a different sort smote her. A groan of anguish escaped her lips as she understood the possible cause of her travail. This was too hard. She couldn't do this. >Kal, where are you? Please, I need you?<
Lois repeated these words like a litany as she and her mount staggered on for what seemed an eternity, past high forests and ravine edges, her only consolation being that a chase by her kidnappers had never materialized. Etta was apparently doing her job well.
Suddenly, Lois was catapulted into space. The weary animal had stumbled into a deep hole and, dropping his shoulder, the unicorn had thrown his passenger clean across his head. Flailing wildly at the empty air, the shocked rider seemed to sail on forever before crashing to a thin grassy hillock by the side of the track. This time her aching fingers, numb from the combined effect of holding on for too long and the chill mountain air, failed to cling onto the rope and the spooked unicorn, finding itself left to its own devices, took off back up the mountain.
Face down in the sparse grass Lois, winded and weary, wept into the ground. Her stamina almost done, she had no strength to chase after the fleeing animal and the thought of continuing her journey on foot was daunting. For long moments the night birds and small rodents that scurried around in the bushes were witness to the First Lady's despair. Yet, once again, Lois' indomitable spirit came to her rescue. She'd be damned if she'd wait here patiently for her abductors to come and reclaim her. With a grim determination, spurred on by her almost capitulation, Lois pushed herself erect and stared about her.
Ironically, the ever rising breeze had chased the clouds from the moon's path and the clearing in which she found herself was bathed in a silvery light. A small stream gurgled on its course down the mountainside and Lois dragged her exhausted and aching body to the waterside. Cold water splashed into her face revived her to some degree and she reviewed her plight with a calmer, clearer perspective.
It seemed pointless to attempt to carry on with her trek while she was so worn out. She had to rest up. The gods had smiled on her, and the bleeding that had started earlier seemed to have receded to a slow trickle and the pains in her groin were no greater than the rest of her body. Perhaps her worst fears had been wrong. Perhaps, after a short breathing space, she could continue on her way. That, however, didn't mean that her time spent resting should be unproductive. Since her latest collision with the ground, she noticed that the loose bracelet now moved more freely on her wrist. A quick inspection proved that the seam was almost broken through. Lois scanned the stony stream bank and, finding a long flint like stone, she attacked the weakened join with renewed vigour.
Finally, her persistence paid off and the offending bangle slipped from a very bruised and bloodied arm and she cried her triumph into a sky that was brightening with the coming dawn. "Yes!! Yes!!"
A strength born of anger overtook her and lifting a heavier rock she bore down on the forcefield device, wishing that it was the face of Ballen that was beneath her hand, until it was smashed out of all recognition. Her breath shuddered in her throat, made ragged by her wrath and her added exertion, but after a few moments she found herself regaining her nerve and some of her optimism. Now she could contact Kal, if only she could send her thoughts over a far distance to Veren. This was still a very new accomplishment and she dearly hoped that she would succeed. Closing her eyes she concentrated with all her heart and soul.
But Lord Kal-El was no longer in Veren. A swift exodus of all forces belonging to the Els and the Vers had brought a considerable army of searchers to the southern Highlands. The Lord of El was chomping at the bit; ever since his force had approached the region he had felt the faint presence of his lady. He couldn't say exactly where but all his senses informed him she was near and she was alive.
Orders were issued to separate into smaller groups and search diligently every known mountain pass and surrounding terrain, paying particular attention to any dwellings they might discover. So it was that the anxious husband was closer to his lost wife than either had anticipated when her anguished message came through.
>>Kal, please, I need your help! Kal, come in please… Kal!!<<
The last was shouted inside his head and the surprised young lord had to shake his head to clear away the ringing.
>>Lois, sweetheart! Lois, where are you?<<
But without waiting for a reply he called his communication experts and had them target the brainwaves emanating from Lois as he strove to keep her transmitting while they attempted to trace the emissions back to their source. The highly skilled technicians were equipped with the latest state-of- the-art monitoring device and they had assured him that in such close proximity they should be able to trace her whereabouts if only he could keep the connection open.
>>Lois, honey, keep talking. My men are trying to pinpoint your position and we'll be with you soon, I promise.<<
>>Oh, Kal, dear Kal, I thought I would never hear your voice again. It was awful… the Taureans kidnapped us… and they've still got Etta… and they'll be coming for us soon… You have to rescue us. Please rescue us…<<
As Lois' thoughts faded slowly away, Kal grew desperate; his wife was obviously in jeopardy. But his technicians had not let him down. They shouted out the co-ordinates of their First Lady and immediately all the rescue teams were directed to the spot. Thankfully, for Kal's disposition, while not actually searching Lois' particular mountain, they were on the next one over and that night the inhabitants of the area, if they were awake, witnessed the amazing spectacle of numerous transporters, converging at stupendous speeds on a tiny valley mid way down the highest peak.
Before the hovering vehicle had touched down, Kal-El leaped from the interior and was off running to the slight figure that appeared barely conscious, lying half-in-half-out of the tumbling water. With a heartrending groan he drew Lois into his arms. Her head lolled loosely on his shoulder and he was so afraid that he was too late. Physician Tamar hurried to join his lord and, after a quick scan of Lois' life readings, was able to assure the distraught husband that Lady Lois had simply fainted. He added, however, that for the sake of her continuing health, they should return to Veren forthwith as both her blood pressure and temperature were dropping alarmingly and she was in dire need of medical care.
The medics huddled close to the group on the ground, waiting to strap the unconscious patient into the floating gurney, but Kal wasn't prepared to give Lois' inert body up to anyone. A short check with the fussy little doctor assured him that it was safe to lift his wife, and Kal slipped his arms under Lois' slight form, only to find his hands covered in a damp sticky substance. At that moment the Kryptonian predawn sought to light the sky with a gentle glow, revealing Lois' pale silk gown stained with rusty red blood.
Gently depositing her on the stretcher, Kal ran alongside it, holding fast to the limp hand within his clasp, yet his heart was heavy. A glimpse at Tamar's worried face had confirmed his abject fears; Lois might yet survive but there was little hope for their child.
But the rescue wasn't over. As Lois was carefully loaded into the transporter, she fought her way back to awareness; there was something she had yet to do… something of great importance.
"Etta!" Though Lois' head swam with waves of dizziness and her arm felt too heavy to lift, she pulled on Kal's hand with a strength born of terror, "Etta's still at the farm… up the mountain… Kal, you have to save her." She fought the faintness that threatened to claim her once more. "She stayed behind so I could escape. Take care of her, Kal."
If Lois spoke truthfully then the lady-in-waiting was definitely in an ominous position and it seemed he owed Lois' safety to Etta's brave actions. He held Lois' drifting attention with a forceful gaze. "Don't worry, Lois. I'll see to it. We'll find Etta and bring her home."
As his wife gave way again to a welcoming unconsciousness, he called Ching to his side and, concisely explaining the situation to his bodyguard, he issued his orders. Yet he didn't wait around to see a small but strong force, commanded by Ching, take off at the fastest speed possible up the mountain. Their quest to find and rescue, if possible, a very brave lady.
Meanwhile the larger contingent headed back to Veren with the First Lady tended by Tamar and his team and blissfully unaware of the drama that was still unfolding.
Chapter Six: Consequences
The dying rays of the setting sun seeped into the hushed chamber and crept over the counterpane to alight on the still figure in the bed. The journey back to the city, through the early morning mists, had been accomplished in a surprisingly short time. Yet, by the time the transporters swept under Veren's gates Physician Tamar, having been equipped for every eventuality, had stabilised his charge. Tragically, however, the much awaited heir was lost; succour had come too late to save the baby.
Lois lay upon her silken pillows, pale of face and in the depths of despair. A number of dark purplish bruises marked her fair skin and her hands were covered with light dressings to protect the new skin that had been grafted over her torn fingers. She cared little for the heir, but she cared deeply for the little person that she and Kal had created out of their love for each other; the baby that she had been learning to know and love. And the tragedy continued.
Ching and his men had returned at midday bringing with them the body of poor courageous Etta. It appeared that Ballen had discovered her friend's scheming and he had exacted a terrible revenge. The young lady-in-waiting had been beaten to death. Etta had paid the highest price for her loyalty to her lady. Earlier, when Joanna had tried to pull the curtains across the wide window, Lois had stayed her hand. She wanted to see the far-off mountains where she had taken her leave forever of her dear friend.
The door slowly opened on Lord Kal-El as he tiptoed into their bedchamber, not wanting to disturb his wife's much needed sleep, but needing, nonetheless, to be at her side. He was surprised to find Lois awake and shocked by the obvious depths of her despondency.
"Lois?!" He called softly, trying to draw her attention from her torturous thoughts. "Lois, how are you doing, sweetheart?"
He sat on the edge of the bed, but far from his wife's side, not wishing to add further hurt to her bruised body. Which was an unfortunate circumstance as Lois misconstrued his action entirely. The sunken gaze that turned to him was dull and almost devoid of emotion, yet Kal knew that beneath the quiet face her feelings were in turmoil.
"Sweetheart, I know that things seem hopeless now, but Tamar tells me that you'll recover and that there will be no lasting damage."
He kept his voice calm and even, though in truth his own emotions were bordering on collapse. Yet he forced his sorrow and his anger aside. Yes, anger! Silently, he admitted it. He wanted to rail at the fates that had brought such pain and suffering to this woman that he loved so much and had cruelly stolen their tiny child… and Etta, the poor unfortunate girl who had died to save them. Lois needed him and he must be strong for her dear sake. He could cry alone, later. But in his concern to protect Lois his choice of behaviour was terribly wrong.
His wife believed she saw right through the mask to the disgust beneath. How could Kal love her or trust her ever again? She had caused the death of his child. She had caused the death of Etta.
"I feel better than I've any right to be," she stated morosely. "Etta is dead. Our baby is dead and all because I disobeyed you. How you must hate me."
Kal was taken aback by her words and the self-loathing with which they were spoken. "Lois, I don't hate you." He was quick to reassure her. "I could never hate you… I love you."
"Please, don't be kind, Kal. I don't deserve your kindness." Lois' eyes slid back to the open window, from where the muffled sounds of the city could still be heard. Life for some people would go on as normal.
Sensing that Lois was slipping into melancholy, Kal moved nearer her on the bed and gathered her cold hands into his own, careful not to disturb the bandages. "Lois, it's not kindness, it's the simple truth." He reached out and, turning her to face him, cupped her cheek gently in his large hand. "I fell in love with you a long time ago and it seems that I am so made that I could never love another. You are my heart. Without you I am nothing."
Was that a glimmer of tears that he saw in the depth of her dark eyes. He fervently hoped so, tears meant life. Kal continued, earnestly trying to touch her with his words. "We've lost our baby and that makes me very sad, but I cannot help but be glad too because I have you back. You are alive!"
"But everyone else is dead and it's all my fault." Lois pushed against the arms that tried to enclose her in a comforting hug. She wasn't worthy of comfort. "If I hadn't suggested that we go down to the circus. If I had waited for you, as you wanted me too, we wouldn't have been kidnapped and Etta wouldn't have had to rescue me and I wouldn't have had to ride down that horrible mountain and I wouldn't have killed our baby…"
Hysteria was very close now and Kal ignored Lois' hands that were attempting to ward him off and pulled her up against his chest, his hands sliding into her hair and pressing her head to his shoulder.
"No, Lois, No! Never think that," he comforted. "The Taureans are to blame, not you!"
Kal paid no heed to Lois' fists that pummelled his body, understanding that she had a great need to hit out… he too felt that need. All thought for her poor hurt hands was swept away by the torrent of grief that consumed her. With love he held her against his heart, until her hands stilled and great racking sobs overtook her slender form and she slumped into his embrace.
Time passed and the sun faded from the room and left the couple to the dusk. Slowly, Lois' wails subsided into a quieter weeping till, presently, she lifted her head and stared into his sherry-coloured eyes; eyes that were awash with unshed tears… and so full of love and concern… for her. So he wasn't disgusted by her. He didn't hate her. He was so good.
But Lois wasn't yet ready to forgive herself and her voice when she found the strength to speak was thick with recrimination. "I had to go out. Independent Ms Lois Lane had to prove that she was still her own person… still in charge of her own destiny. I would do what I wanted when I wanted and to hell with the consequences. Only this time someone else paid the consequences…" Her voice faded away and there was a brief silence in the room. Kal stayed quietly waiting, recognising instinctively that she had to talk this out. Lois swallowed the huge lump that had formed in her throat. "I never thought… but then I never do… I didn't realise things could go so terribly wrong. You warned me and I wouldn't listen."
"No, Lois, not really! If I recall, I agreed with you that Veren was a safe place to be. Rad-Nor's been skulking in his lair for months and I guess we've both grown a little lax. And if I'm honest, I had an inkling of what you might do." Kal offered her a rueful half smile. "And I didn't try to stop you. I know how difficult it's been for you, coming to terms with all these restrictions that being the First Lady has put upon you. I really didn't think that you'd be in any jeopardy, so I ignored my misgivings and allowed you to play… hookey, I think is the term you might use. I never thought… so you see I'm just as much to blame."
The girl in the bed was horrified to see her gentle, understanding husband assume any guilt. "That's not true!! Kal, you couldn't have guessed what would happen… no-one could…"
Kal allowed that thought to coalesce in Lois' brain before agreeing. "Yes, exactly, and neither could you. Sweetheart, you only wanted a little time out to enjoy yourself with your friends, it's hardly a criminal offense."
"Are you saying that you wouldn't have stopped me if I'd told you what I'd planned?"
Considering his answer carefully, Kal shook his head. "No, but I would have sent a guard along with you, probably Poli or Ching. But I doubt that it would have made a difference, these were experienced mercenaries who kidnapped you and they probably would've had a contingency plan to get rid of any guards. We'd just be mourning the death of one more friend."
"Oh, Kal," Lois said in a very small voice but this time she stretched out to the safety of his arms. "What happened up on the mountain?"
"Lois, are you sure you're ready to hear this?"
The Lady of El felt insecure and frightened, but Etta had given her life for her, the least she could do was listen to the account of the last moments of the precious girl's life. "I have to know, Kal."
Moving to the head of the bed, Kal settled comfortably by his wife and encircled her once more within the safety of his embrace. "Ballen and his men are dead. It's not really important but I thought you'd like to know. The Taurean reinforcements had arrived by the time Ching and his company found the camp. There was a running battle and for a time things looked grim but Dax had already ordered up air support and the Taurean ship, realising it was out numbered, took off. The others left behind knew they'd been abandoned, but these mercenaries never give up easily. I suspect that realising they could face de-materialisation gave added incentive to their fight… death in battle is a whole lot better than a long trial and an eternity spent in a confinement chamber as a mass of floating molecules."
"Excuse me?!" Lois cut in, brought from her despondency by the picture his last words had conjured up. "What do you mean… a mass of floating molecules?"
"It's the sentence carried out on those found guilty of murder and high treason. It's not exactly a death sentence. I mean the process can be reversed. It's sort of a suspended animation…"
"Except you're suspended in tiny little pieces. That's horrible!"
"That's probably why Ballen and his cohorts preferred to fight to the death. I'm sorry, Lois, that you found out about our 'ultimate penalty' like this. If it's any consolation it's reserved for the more heinous crimes and it hasn't been used in decades. Besides, Ballen didn't deserve to live."
Kal's eyes shadowed with outrage as he remembered his sight of poor Etta's body. Ching had brought her home and now she was lying in the seclusion of Veren's ancient Hall of Meditation. Tomorrow, after a small ceremony of praise for this young girl's life, her body would be disintegrated and her spirit would join that of her ancestors. The First Lord himself would give the Eulogy.
Lois remained still as Kal fought the anger and horror that had overcome him. Slowly the burning fire of his gaze dimmed. "We assumed that some time during the night Ballen discovered you were gone and he took his anger out on Etta. She tried to fight him off, the room was a shambles, but she died. Ching was too late, sweetheart. I'm sorry." Kal lifted Lois chin to look into her face. "But the only people responsible for this are the Taureans and whoever paid them to do their foul work."
"Undoubtedly, but again we have no proof." The hand that still lay around her clenched in frustration.
"Don't be angry, sweetheart. Someday he'll make a mistake and we'll be there to see that he's punished for all the hurt that he's caused." In her anxiousness to sooth her husband's anguish, Lois momentarily forgot her own pain. "You know that's one person I wouldn't be too upset to see de-materialized."
"True!!" Kal was pleased to see his wife become more animated, even if it were only in thoughts of revenge. He'd been frightened and discouraged by her state of dejection. There was another thought too that might cheer her. "You know, sweetheart, you were completely correct. Etta was a courageous and clever young woman and, though she was a part of the household at Ro-Ellion for years, I never knew that about her. It took a stranger from a distant planet to see the true Etta and to free her from the confines of her place in life. For a short while, Etta was allowed to be all that she could and you did that for her. Who knows what she could've accomplished had she been granted the time? Lois, there are probably thousands of Ettas out there; people who never have the chance to live up to their true potential. I understand now what you've been trying to tell me and I vow to you that I will spend the rest of my life striving to change things… How successful I'll be, I cannot promise… but I will try…"
Pressing a small hand to his lips, Lois stopped the flow of words. "We will try, together. But we mustn't rush into things." A wiser more considering First Lady recalled her mother-in-law's warning. "We don't want to scare your noble lords into Rad-Nor's camp with our 'revolutionary' ideals. Besides, we have all the time in the world; we have the rest of our lives."
And though the hurt that they were both experiencing over the loss of their baby had never been discussed, it was too soon to lift the lid on those overwhelming emotions; they had faced some of their devils and overcome them as a couple. In the difficult days ahead, they would shed many heartfelt tears for the child they would never know but they would weep together. And, though they would never completely forget this dreadful episode, time would assuage their hurt.