The snow-covered street in front of the Aettian’s building was soon blocked at both ends by angular, armored troop transport vehicles. Naborn soldiers poured out from the rear hatch of each and ran to take positions around the building, while four charged up the front steps, knocked down the wooden door and entered the building with laser rifles in hand. Searchlights from the vehicles were aimed at the door and the upper floor windows, while top-mounted gun turrets spun around to face the building.
Timidly and out of curiosity, dozens of people from the surrounding buildings came out bundled up against the cold and stood well behind the soldiers.
Screams and commotion from inside the building were clearly heard by everyone. After several minutes, the sounds faded, and the four soldiers -- one with an obvious and bloody knife wound to his left shoulder -- exited the building. Two of them held the arms of Loel, and once they reached the street they threw her into the snow. She struggled back to her feet, and then she noticed the fully charged laser rifles pointing straight at her head. Each soldier in the street kept their aim rock steady, their faces tucked tightly to their weapons and their eyes fixed through the sights -- as if they could somehow miss.
A minute later, a smaller vehicle pulled up, and from it stepped two men. One was cloaked in mystery. Most everyone knew who it was by reputation, though they had no idea of what he looked like as his face and body were covered head-to-toe beneath a long, black shroud with only a thin slit of dark mesh over the eyes. It was First Prime Ne’at Kaboorg, commander of all Naborn security forces in Cassia. The shroud was an ancient Naborn custom. Always a vain and conceited people who placed a premium on outward appearance, they had no sympathy for those with birth defects or visible scars or disfigurements caused by physical trauma. If a blemish was on a hand, a glove was always to be worn. If it was on the face, a mask was used. If the disfigurement was more extensive, women were not even permitted to go out in public, and for men a full shroud like Kaboorg’s was required. In his case, as the rumors went, his problems were quite extensive indeed, supposedly caused by an accident during military training years ago, and even with the shroud one could see his obviously thin body twitch and shudder every few minutes.
The sight of a shrouded man was still strange to most Cassians, though of late it had become a more common occurrence as more and more Naborn personnel entered the country.
The other man needed no shroud. He was the ideal Naborn male, a perfect physical specimen in every way. It was Kyrit Sha’ad.
Unlike the Cassians and their obsession with remembering the exact moment of their birth to the minute, the Naborn kept poor records of such things and no one knew Sha’ad’s true age, yet he looked to be in his late forties and not a day older than when he first came to power eleven years earlier. Well over six feet tall, he walked confidently like an athlete. His face was strong and without fault, as if designed by an artisan and chiseled from stone, with piercing cobalt blue eyes, a half-inch stripe of beard bracketing each side of his mouth, and straight black hair pulled back from his brow and reaching down just beyond his shoulders. Such pleasing features had always played to his advantage and made him more trustworthy and his many claims and promises more believable.
Wearing only a thin, unbuttoned crimson red overcoat over a simple black suit, with no bars of rank nor any other decoration except for a four-inch gold disc buckled at his waist, Sha’ad looked nothing like what Loel expected; more like a businessman. As the two men walked toward her, she also thought it odd that while everyone else was obviously bracing against the cold and had a fog of exhaled breath swirling above them, neither Sha’ad nor Kaboorg showed any signs of discomfort, nor could she see their breath.
They stopped just inches from her. Sha’ad grinned. He clearly relished the sight before him, yet his eyes seemed more focused on the building behind her.
Finally, a Naborn soldier ran to Kaboorg’s side, snapped to attention and saluted by thrusting his clenched right fist to the middle of his waist.
“Report,” said Kaboorg.
The soldier quickly returned his hand to his side. “The building has been searched, First Prime. There is no sign of anyone else.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Our search was very thorough.”
Sha’ad’s smile of anticipation faded and he glared at Kaboorg. “You promised me they would be here.”
“I’m sorry, my lord. They must have had some forewarning of our arrival. That was…unexpected.”
“Yes, my lord,” whispered Kaboorg as he lowered his head.
Sha’ad saw the gathering crowd, then looked back at Loel and his smile returned. “Well, well, what do we have here?” he asked loudly and dramatically, playing to the audience as he always did. “A queen living amongst commoners?”
The people gasped and muttered and mumbled. Could it be? They had been told -- convinced -- by Naborn propaganda that the Royal family had fled for a comfortable life in exile. It was a story most believed, as they did most everything Sha’ad told them.
“Yes, it’s true,” he continued, turning to face them. “It seems the great Queen Loel Aettian has been right here all along, hiding, afraid to show her face.” He spun back around. “Still, you show more courage than your husband. No doubt he’s curled up under a bed somewhere.”
Kaboorg laughed, as did some in the crowd, but Loel said nothing.
Sha’ad examined her closely. “I remember what you used to look like, Queen; once so regal, now a haggard mess. I guess the accommodations here are not up to the pampered lifestyle to which you’ve been accustomed.”
Loel ignored him.
“Tell me, Queen. Where is that cowardly husband of yours?”
“You’re being rude,” he continued in a mocking tone. “I would have thought a woman from your station in life would have been better versed in the social graces. Someone of superior standing has asked you a question; it’s only polite that you respond.”
He grew impatient. “I’ll ask you again; where is he?”
She lifted her jaw and swallowed a frozen lump in her throat. Silence would work only so long. She wondered what she should say; what would keep him occupied the longest. “Apparently not where you expected him to be.”
“So you can talk. I was beginning to think you’d lost your tongue -- along with everything else.” He stepped so close it made her skin crawl and spoke so only she could hear. “You can stop the games, Your Highness. You’re mind is like an open book to me. I know he’s here, and I will not rest until I’ve found him. Now for the last time, answer me or I’ll give orders to rip this city apart to find him.”
“You must have forgotten how to read, then, or you wouldn’t need me to tell you.”
“Don’t get too comfortable in how you speak to me, woman. Where is Zor Aettian?”
Her defiant silence returned.
“Very well.” He turned to Kaboorg. “Have the building searched again. Tear it down board-by-board if need be. If they don’t find him, move on to the next building, and then the next.”
“We still have a platoon searching the streets, my lord. Should we recall them?”
“No. It’s possible he’s hiding nearby. Have them go door-to-door and search every building in a ten-block radius. I want him found now!”
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