The following is chapter nineteen of The Dragon Protector. (Need to start at the beginning? Click here to go to chapter one.)
The door creaked open, awakening Taliya out of a fitful sleep. How much time had passed since she had talked to Javan? Had he had enough time to get Micah, and had Micah ordered the governor to release her? Is that why the door was opening?
Two soldiers carrying lanterns burst in, hung the lights on hooks on either side of the door, and retreated. The tall, slender figure of Governor Emilia decked out in a purple shirt and black skirt replaced the soldiers, and she waited until the door eased shut before speaking.
“Today is a day of grand celebration.” The light danced off Emilia’s shiny black hair that she wore slicked back into a bun, and her dark skin seemed to glow with delight. “I’ve ordered the closure of all the factories, and every citizen will be in attendance to watch you hang from the gallows on the stage in the amphitheater. You will be a fantastic demonstration of what happens to those who break the law.”
Taliya remained impassive on the cot. Micah obviously had not had a chance to chat with Emilia yet, and she needed to stall to give the guys time to get to her. “If you had been sentenced at the age of six to a lifetime of slavery, you would have been inspired to break the unjustly harsh law as well.”
“You are to be on your feet when speaking to me.” The governor reached over, yanked Taliya’s hair, and pulled her off the bed. “Nothing will give me greater pleasure than watching you swing from that rope, but you don’t have to die today. We can instead make this the day we restore you to your place of slavery in my home. All you have to do is tell me how you escaped and where you have been hiding for the last fifteen years.”
“That bothers you, doesn’t it?” Taliya straightened her hair and teased the tyrant. “You can’t stand not knowing how a little girl got out of your big, fortified city.” She paused for effect and held up two fingers. “Twice.”
“You are of no significance to me.” Emilia’s eyes narrowed, telling Taliya she didn’t believe her own words. “As the leader of this city, I simply need to know where the security lapses are. If you can provide me with that information, I will allow you to live.”
“Nah.” Taliya shrugged. “I think you need to learn you don’t always get what you want in life. I’ll take my methods of escape with me to the grave.”
The governor slapped Taliya’s cheek and pounded on the door. “Guards! Come get the prisoner and take her to the gallows immediately!”
So much for stalling. Taliya bit her bottom lip, wishing she had kept her mouth shut. Now she had made Emilia so mad that even a pardon from Micah may not have the power to save her.
◊ ◊ ◊
Micah could feel the tension in Varjiek’s muscles beneath his golden scales as he slowly circled the city center of Oer with Micah and Javan on his back. Men, women, and children dressed alike in the drab brown uniforms Omri required all Zandadorian citizens to wear filled the streets around the amphitheater, leaving the dragon no space to land but an abundance of food to eat as his feeding time approached.
Eager to get off the dragon and send him away to eat, Micah leaned forward and spoke in Javan’s ear. “Have him drop us off on the roof of the tallest building.” He pointed to a stone building that stood two stories higher than the rest of those around the square. Its flat roof overlooked both the amphitheater on one side and the fountain in the middle of the square on the other. “That’s where the governor conducts her business.”
Javan nodded and relayed the instructions to Varjiek. Without hesitation, Varjiek zoomed to the roof and darted away as soon as Micah and Javan jumped off him. At least Micah assumed he darted away. He had made himself invisible as they approached the city, and Micah could no longer see him once he lost contact with the dragon.
“What if we didn’t get here in time?” Javan’s voice sounded strained as he peered over the side of the building.
“We did,” Micah said. “People are still streaming into the stadium looking for seats, and only a rope is hanging from the gallows. If they had killed her already, her body would be hanging there until sundown.”
“We can’t let her get to the gallows.” Javan turned his attention from the crowd to Micah. “You’ve met the governor before, right? She’ll listen to you?”
“Yes. And she should. She’s my father’s cousin and follows his laws to the letter. I’ve been here a few times to conduct standard inspections, and she’s always treated me with the same reverence she treats my father. Whatever I tell her to do, she’ll do.”
“Good.” Javan nodded, walked to the steel hatch door in the middle of the flat stone roof, and crouched to put his hand on the latch of the door. “Ready?”
“Yes.” Micah expected Javan to open the door. Instead, he drew his sword. And disappeared. “Javan? Where’d you go?”
Javan clamped his hand over Micah’s mouth, suddenly reappearing. “Shh. Not so loud. Just hold on to my shirt and don’t let go until we find the governor. As long as you are in contact with me, we’ll both be invisible and can go wherever we want without being noticed.” Javan dropped his hand and once again vanished.
“Whoa.” Micah reached out to what appeared to be thin air and touched Javan’s ear, making him visible to Micah. “How is this possible?”
“I don’t know how. I just know that when I put Varjiek’s scale above the hilt of this sword, I can become invisible. Anyone I touch can also become invisible when I’m holding this sword, so stay close and don’t touch anyone else.”
“Definitely not.” Micah kept his excitement in check as they slipped into the stuffy attic. He recalled Vince mentioning Javan’s invisibility trick when they were in Nahat, but Micah didn’t think Javan could actually become invisible. This ability gave the Collector incredible power, power he was currently sharing with Micah. What kinds of things could they do as invisible men?
“Where do we go from here?” Javan’s question brought Micah back to the present.
“Emilia’s office encompasses most of the first floor. A stairway at the end of the hall will take us to the front entrance, and we can get to her office from there.”
Javan nodded and led them through the empty hallway and down the spiral stairwell to the front entrance. It, too, was empty.
“That was way too easy,” Javan said. “Where is everyone?”
“Outside.” A glance out the windows revealed soldiers prodding the crowds toward the amphitheater. “The governor will wait for the crowd to settle and will be the last one to arrive. The gongs will sound right before she addresses the people and orders the execution.”
“Then you better intercept her before she can even get down there.”
“Her office is through those doors.” Micah pointed across the lobby to a pair of cedar doors with a bust of Omri on one side and Emilia on the other. “I can handle her on my own.” He broke contact with Javan and crossed the lobby.
Without bothering to knock, he flung the doors open. “Emilia, I demand that you drop all charges against this Taliya and release her into my custody straightaway.”
An empty room greeted him, and only the sound of a deafening gong reverberating in the distance answered his demands.
◊ ◊ ◊
Taliya’s breaths became faster and more shallow as a guard lifted her onto a box and slipped a scratchy rope around her neck. Yet she refused to let herself cry. She kept her head held high, determined to die with as much dignity as she could muster while the hem of the brown dress she’d been forced to put on tickled her knees.
Javan and Micah were nowhere to be seen. Neither were her parents.
The last faces she would see before dying belonged to scared, heartless strangers. That wouldn’t be entirely awful if she could at least impart some final words to them, but since her mouth was stuffed with a cloth and the cloth was tied tightly in with a gag, she couldn’t say a word.
Perhaps if she had gagged herself from childhood and learned how to obey the laws that made no sense to her, she wouldn’t be in this predicament. Her mother would have loved a quiet, obedient child, and Taliya wouldn’t have felt the need to run away.
She also never would have truly lived. She would have been a shell of a human being forced to follow oppressive instructions and never allowed the freedom to learn, to explore, to discover her strengths. Although her life was being cut short at the age of twenty-three, she preferred death to the hundreds of years of lifeless living the people watching her die had to endure.
Once Taliya was in place and the guard secured her hands behind her back with a rope, the gongs sounded again, and the governor stepped onto the stage in front of Taliya. After the echoes of the gongs faded, Emilia spoke.
“I want each of you to take a good look at this girl.” Her words sounded more obnoxious than the gongs, but they were infused with a sense of authority that even caused Taliya to pay attention. “She chose to break the law and go beyond the city gates. For that she was sentenced to a life of slavery, an act of mercy on my part because she was so young. How did she repay me for not banning her to the Land of No Return for her crime? She escaped again! And she found the world outside of these walls so harsh and unforgiving that she chose to return more than a decade later, knowing she would be facing the death penalty for her second crime.”
Taliya tried to rub the gag off her mouth with her shoulder. The people needed to know that the Land of Zandador was a spectacular place that they should be allowed to explore. She wanted to encourage them to fight for the right to come and go as they pleased, not believe the governor’s lies that the world beyond the gates should terrify them.
“Let this be a warning to all of you. You’re safe here in the city. Dangers you can’t even imagine lurk outside the gates. And if you break the law, you will be punished.” The governor turned to Taliya with a smirk that revealed her heart of stone. “Kill her.”
The guard tightened the noose so that the course material dug into her throat. What a terrible way to die. Alone. Unable to speak. Unable to defend herself. She closed her eyes, suddenly fearful of what would happen to her soul when she took her last breath.
Only death didn’t come. Shrieks of shock and wails of surprise pierced her ears. When she opened her eyes, she saw no reason for the confusion, but everyone on the stage and in the stadium looked like they had seen a ghost.
“There he is again!”
Taliya’s eyes followed the pointed finger of an old woman to what appeared to be Micah standing on the far left end of the stage.
“Amazing,” the governor said. “Micah is so concerned about seeing justice served that he has come back from the grave to witness this girl’s death!”
The governor kicked the box out from under Taliya’s feet, sending her swinging and gasping for air.
◊ ◊ ◊
Javan froze at the sight of Taliya’s body dangling from the gallows. Seeing the “ghost” of Micah was supposed to paralyze the Governor, not prompt her to speed up the execution. He left Micah’s side and ran toward Taliya.
Micah crossed the stage alongside the invisible Javan, talking as he walked. “Wrong!” His booming voice reverberated through the air, and Javan was impressed with the acoustics of the amphitheater. “I came to take her with me.”
Javan wasn’t sure what Micah meant by that until he saw Micah wrap his arm around Taliya’s waist. Javan immediately touched Micah, making all three of them disappear. Then using the sword he already held, Javan jumped up and sliced the rope that had been strangling Taliya.
She slumped forward, and Micah adjusted his hold so that he cradled her in his arms. They dodged out of the way right before the governor swiped the air under the gallows.
“Where did she go?” Emilia sounded spooked. “Why would he take her before she died? Is he going to come back for any other lawbreakers?”
That question created sheer mayhem. People flooded the aisles of the stadium. Those that couldn’t reach the aisles began climbing over each other up the concrete seats, and the panicked yells and screams became a deafening roar courtesy of the amazing acoustics.
“Guards,” Emilia said, “get control of these people and send them back to work. Anyone who misses their shifts will be fined three days worth of food.” She snapped her fingers and waved the guards toward the fleeing crowd. She shivered as she studied the space under the gallows again, then exited the stage.
“Stay still and stay quiet,” Javan ordered Micah and Taliya. Their best option was to hide in plain sight until the area cleared completely. Or until he could teleport them out of there.
He closed his eyes and pictured the stones by the lake outside of the city. But because of the noise that continued to surround them, he didn’t need to open his eyes to let him know his teleportation effort was unsuccessful.
Need a ride? Varjiek’s question connected with Javan’s mind above the commotion.
Javan didn’t know how to answer without giving away their position. Fortunately, he didn’t need to. The dragon swept the stage with his front legs, gathering the trio in one claw and smashing the gallows with his other one. Before Javan could catch his breath from the sudden jolt, Varjiek had them in the air and flying away from the city at a speed that made Javan’s teeth rattle and ears pop.
The story continues with Friend or Foe?