Lyo watched as the guardian dogs tore the lizard men apart, grimly satisfied that his plan had worked. Now he had to get out of here and save his family. He struggled against the ropes, but in vain. He felt nauseated, dizzy from the blow, and his body ached from the kicks. He thought he must have at least one broken rib—it hurt terribly when he took a deep breath, and his arms and legs felt strangely weak.
He tried his hardest to get out of the net that bound him, though. But the netting was too strong to break, and all his thrashing only tightened the knots so that he was almost strangling. Panting, his heart hammering madly, he looked around. A movement caught his eye. As he watched, a small figure crept into sight. He blinked. It was the slave girl from the bath. The memory of her refusal still stung, but right now he was so glad to see her he decided to leave off chastising her for later.
“Girl!” he hissed.
She made shushing motions with her hands. She looked behind her, eyes wide in fright. Then, darting close, she pulled a knife out of her pocket. Without a sound, she set about cutting the net.
It was a long, painstaking job. More than once she stopped, listening for footsteps or voices. Panic made her movements jerky, but at last the ropes gave, and Lyo was able to wriggle out of the net.
“Thank you…” he started to say, but she clapped a hand over his mouth, and before he could react, she flung open the door to the women’s quarters and dragged him inside.
The effrontery of her action stunned him. She’d dared touch him! She’d dared drag him into a place that was lawfully out of bounds for him—even if he was a royal prince. This was his father’s territory, and no other male could enter.
He swallowed. Luckily, the two guardian dogs had been busy chomping on the remains of the lizard men, and they hadn’t reacted when the slave girl opened the door.
“They would not have harmed you, Your Highness. They are bred not to attack the princes or the king,” said the girl softly.
“Do you read minds too?” he asked her, astonished.
“Nay, your expression as you looked at the door was eloquent enough.” The slave girl hesitated. “My prince, if you are to survive, I fear you must flee.”
“Flee?” Now Lyo felt anger seeping back. “Flee? I will not leave my own home! I will not be chased away by a band of bandit ruffians and lizard men! Who do you take me for, a coward?”
The slave girl shook her head. “Of course not. But sir, the palace is overrun by lizard men. All the inhabitants have been locked in the dungeons.”
“How do you know this?”
“While the lizard men were dragging you away, I heard Sir Gils giving orders.”
“Sir Gils?” Lyo frowned, his memory coming back. “I remember him coming with his men. What happened? Was he captured as well?”
Now the slave girl looked angry. “No, he is in league with the lizard men. It was his doing the palace fell. Now his men are scouring the palace, looking for you. Everyone else has been taken. I managed to remain hidden, but they will come here before long and kill the guardian dogs.”
“Not if I can help it,” sputtered Lyo. “This is my home!”
“If you would help your family, you must flee,” insisted the girl. She wrung her hands. “Please, if you are taken, then all will be lost. I overheard Lord Gils. He means to imprison your family and Falla’s family. If we don’t hurry, he will surely kill them all. It will not serve his purposes to have them remain alive.”
“He won’t do that.” Prince Lyo sat down unsteadily on a marble bench. He felt ill from his head wound. Blood trickled down his cheek, and he rubbed it away. Now what?
“Please, Your Highness. Come with me. We must find a way out of here.”
Lyo studied the slave girl. She looked frightened enough to be telling the truth. But what if she lied? No, Sir Gils was certainly behind this. He sighed.
“Sir Gils has been trying to get my father’s lands for ages,” admitted Lyo. “We never thought he’d resort to hiring lizard men and thugs to do it for him. However, he won’t kill my family. He’ll simply make a formal declaration of war and keep my father imprisoned until the retaliation delay runs out. He’ll dare not bring the wrath of the Council of Three upon him, but it means that he has to capture me as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can challenge his claim on our kingdom in my father’s name. He will try to stop me.” Prince Lyo ran his hand through his hair and winced as he felt a huge knot and a cut. “I have to get to the Council of Three. In one month’s time, if no one has spoken against Sir Gils or challenged his declaration, the kingdom will be his.”
“That’s a strange way to do war.”
Lyo frowned at her, but then remembered she was a slave, and therefore uneducated. “The Council of Three decided on those rules generations ago to avoid needless bloodshed, didn’t you know that?”
“Actually, no. I wasn’t raised in your kingdom. Please, Your Highness. This is not the time to explain political niceties to me.” The girl took his hand, dropped it, and stammered an apology. “Sorry, Your Highness, I know I’m not supposed to grab at you, but I really think we’d better leave.”
Lyo sighed and gave her a ghost of a grin. “That’s all right. Grab at me all you want. How do we get out of here? This is the harem, for your information, and as far as I know, it is completed sealed off from the outside world.”
“There is a way through the kitchen,” said the girl. “The harem has its own kitchen, you know.”
“I was born here,” Lyo pointed out.
“So you know about the garbage chute.” The slave girl beamed. “I think we can fit through it.”
“Garbage chute?” Lyo’s voice rose. “That’s preposterous. A royal prince diving into a garbage chute? You assume too much.”
Just then a terrific banging started, and the door to the harem groaned.
“Good-bye, Your Highness.” The girl dropped a sketchy curtsy and darted toward the kitchens. As she ran, she shouted, “Bebo, where are you? Come quickly!”
Lyo stood undecided for maybe two seconds, then he ran after the girl. “I better not get stuck halfway down,” he muttered, picturing himself with his legs sticking out of the chute while his shoulders stuck in the middle.
The kitchen was empty. All the servants and cooks had been at the ceremony. Now they were probably prisoners in the dungeons. The dungeons would be getting pretty crowded, with Falla’s family and all the guests. How long did Sir Gils plan to keep them imprisoned there? More likely he would secure the palace and release everyone except his father and immediate family. Then he’d wait for the four weeks to expire.
Afterward, Falla’s father would trot back home and start looking for another suitor for his daughter. They hadn’t yet signed the marriage treaty. Ah well. He hadn’t been all that impressed with the simpering princess.
Lyo grabbed a long, sharp kitchen knife and tucked it in his scabbard. The lizard men had made sure he’d been divested of his sword, may a thousand curses fall on their scaly heads.
“Hurry!” The slave girl was beckoning him from the far corner. Then she lifted a trap door in the floor, and a horrid aroma assaulted his nose. She didn’t hesitate. She scooped up something white and fluffy from the floor at her feet, and before Lyo had time to see what she’d grabbed, she sat on the rim of the trap, swung her legs over the edge, and plunged out of sight.
Lyo approached. He hesitated, but only long enough to become conscious of the sound of many feet slapping on the flagstones just outside the kitchens. Muttering oaths, he slid feet first into the trap, pulling it shut behind him. He started to lower himself slowly down the slick chute, but he slipped and his body hurtled downward.