Chapter Six – The Dying Plains of Sardonia
Sardonia looked like a world that had once been lush and green, but that had since become something old and dried up. When the females were lined up and led off the shuttle, weak from days of not being fed and sore from being in cuffs in such a cramped location, they grimaced at how bright it was outside. The air was warm and dry, the ground beneath their feet hard and dusty. Citlally was almost worried that it would be too hot for her fur-lined boots, and added that to her ever-growing list of why she wished she was still on the space station.
She had no idea how big Sardonia was; most of them didn’t know. With the shuttle’s lack of windows, they had not been able to catch a glimpse of the planet during their final approach. Whether it was a world of oceans or deserts, or of diverse biomes like Earth, Citlally really had no clue. All she could tell was that the place where they’d landed looked used up and old.
There was a structure that looked like it had once been a grand palace, with towering black walls that had since decayed into a worn-out gray. There might have once been a moat around it, perhaps a river passing by, but whatever it had been was now long gone. The women were assembled into two lines, and off they marched towards the old palace. There were perhaps half a dozen black-uniformed soldiers surrounding them, ensuring that none of them took off running. What would be the point of that, anyway? With their hands cuffed and their ankles chained, they wouldn’t be able to get very far, let alone survive in unfamiliar territory.
As they approached the gateway to the decrepit palace, Citlally saw that a drawbridge had been lowered over a now-empty pit. That must have been the moat, Citlally thought to herself. Not that it mattered, in the end. With Endan who-knew-how-many star systems away, she had no incentive to care about anything but getting off of Sardonia and into his arms. Which star did this old planet even orbit around?
The guards at the bridge ordered the group to halt, and when Citlally looked up, she saw that they were some kind of mammalian species, with dark brown hair like that of a weasel. Even their snouts looked rather weasely, she mused, long and whiskered with wet noses and dark beady eyes. As she examined them and their uniforms, which seemed to her rather medieval, she noticed that the K’zzyrch had brought weapons with them. They looked like some kind of space-age rifle, but she knew too little about guns to make any kind of certain guess.
The leader of the group spoke to the guards for a couple of minutes, and then they admitted the group inside. They were greeted by another of the mammals, this one in a kind of woolen robe, and escorted through several hallways until they came to a wide room with rows of benches and little else in it. The females were ordered to sit on the old planks of wood, and Citlally, ensuring that she stayed near Allanah at all times, could not help but think how much the place reminded her of a dank monastery from the dark ages.
“Do not speak!” a voice boomed. It sounded to her like Jalingan’s. “Remain seated and wait ’till you are called.”
One by one, each woman was approached by one of the weasel-like aliens and a soldier in black, who would grab her arm and escort her away. There seemed to be a few adjoining rooms, though she would have to wait for her turn to find out what went on in them. All she could tell was that the women came out with their cuffs removed, looking embarrassed, and were escorted to another room. After that, she did not see them again.
When someone came for Citlally, the soldier who grabbed her arm yanked harder than he needed to, and when she complained, he ordered her to behave. She recognized Jalingan’s voice, so she said nothing else. Whatever he was up to, she didn’t plan on spoiling it; no matter how he acted, she had a feeling that he had good intentions somewhere deep inside.
In the chamber they took her into, the mammalian man sat across a square wooden table from her, and Jalingan forced her down onto a stool. The dim room was lit by a mere two torches, and with all their flickering, she wasn’t sure how he was going to write anything on the papers that he had in front of him.
“State your name,” the weasel-like creature told her as Jalingan picked up a key from the table and released her cuffs.
Citlally looked up at Jalingan, who tossed both the wrist and the ankle cuffs into a crate in the corner, then took off his helmet and scowled at her. “Do as you are told! Do you want the chains back on, little fool?”
She shook her head and gave her first name to the stranger. He scribbled on his paper, then asked her, “You have long hair. Have you ever cut it?”
“Well… not since I was a young child, no.”
With a harrumph, he wrote something else down. Jalingan walked up behind him and peered over his shoulder at the paper.
“Is that because you are a virgin?” the alien asked her.
Shocked by the boldness of his question, Citlally glanced up at Jalingan. She truly had no idea how she was supposed to answer that. He glared back at her sternly.
“A lot of girls will deny their virginity in order to avoid what we have have planned for them,” the weasel asked her. He gave a long sigh called out a name, and a moment later a female-looking weasel walked in and looked down at her. “You need to check this one.”
The female nodded. She was wearing a robe of some shade of off-white, which looked yellowed by years of use. It also had stains of blood here and there, which made Citlally nervous about letting her touch her. She drew a pair of gloves from her pocket; they looked new and clean, and seemed to made of something like latex or nitrile, though how a race that still lived in such an old building had disposable gloves, she could not understand.
“The Wilang have received a lot of outside help,” Jalingan explained when he noticed the way she eyed the gloves. “Many space-age cultures do not believe in contacting lesser-developed civilizations, but…”
“There were enough who did not care, and we are glad to have this technology,” the male weasel finished for him. “Hold her, mercenary. She has the mark of the venom, and I will not have her kicking my nurse if she is truly as wild as the K’zzyrch thought of her.”
Jalingan nodded, and walked up behind Citlally, where he hooked his elbows under her shoulders, pulling her up and holding her against him. “Let her check between your legs,” he grumbled into her ear. “If you attack her, the Wilang will see to it that your punishment is a harsh one.”
Then he told the now-gloved nurse, “Get it over with. This one stinks of carnal activities.”
Although she knew that she had no virginity to hide, Citlally’s body trembled against Jalingan. She’d had medical exams before, but outside of that, Endan had been the only man to have her, and she did not like the idea of another man holding her so tightly, or of an alien male watching the nurse lift her skirt and slip her fingers between her legs. She bit her lip and tried to be still, squinting her eyes shut and hating every second of it.
“She is impure and filthy with some male’s spores,” the nurse informed the male Sardonian once she pulled her hand away, a look of disgust on her face.
“I am married!” Citlally shouted at them, forgetting to keep her cool. “I have every right to –”
“Shut up,” Jalingan ordered her as he sat her down hard. He unhooked his arms from her and went back behind the male.
Meanwhile, the nurse excused herself and slipped out of the room, sliding her hands out of the gloves and turning them inside-out in one motion.
“Was there even a single virgin on that ship?” the Wilang grumbled to himself as he scribbled a few words onto his paper. “What species are you?”
“I – I am human,” she replied, sighing as she reminded herself to cooperate if she wanted to live.
“Then you will need lavishta potion,” he complained as he wrote down her race. “You’re more trouble than you are worth, I say, but it’s not up to me, is it?”
He asked her another series of questions, complaining about her answer to each one, until he came to the end, and flipped the paper over. “Now, about that mark of the venom on your arm…”
“What venom?” Citlally asked, clearly not understanding.
“The k’zshyrk injection that you received for being loud and violent,” Jalingan explained for her, though in a tone that was not at all friendly. “Did they give you too much? Has it left you stupid in addition to that permanent scar on your arm?”
Citlally turned to look at her arm, surprised that there actually was something there. Black lines jutted out from the injection site, somewhat like a spiderweb, somewhat like the tribal tattoos that had once been popular on Earth. Its jagged lines were like nothing she would have elected to have cut into her, and she grimaced at the sight of it.
“So…” the Wilang hissed, eyeing her carefully, “what did you dream about on your way here?”
“I… dreams?” She gulped as she looked up at Jalingan. He stood slightly behind and above the weasel, who could therefore not see the look that he gave her. He shook his head, eyes wide with warning. She remembered; don’t tell them anything, no matter what. “Well… It’s just that I do not remember having any dreams.”
“Come now,”the Sardonian prodded. “It is days from Regulus to here. Surely you dreamt of something.”
“Yes… I may have,” Citlally stammered, “but if I did, I cannot remember.”
“Not even a little?” he tried to weasel out of her. “I have heard that k’zshyrk brings on fantasies of queendom in women. I could ensure that it becomes a reality for you.”
“That doesn’t sound familiar to me; I’m sorry.” She stared down at her lap, hoping that her long hair fell over her face enough that it hid her expression. How could he have possibly known? Something was going on, and whether it was the Wilang lying or Jalingan, she had no idea. Still, Allanah had warned her…
The weasel hissed, clicked his teeth, and asked her a whole series of new questions. Were there dragons? A ship of gold? Was anything purple? Was she pure or tainted? What about falling snow? On and on the questions went, some of them things from her dreams, some of them not.
Each time, Citlally said she didn’t know, that she couldn’t remember. By the end, he’d made her swear to come to him if she ever remembered even a second of her dreams. Even that part was difficult, for she no longer wanted to tell him anything. How could they know what was in her dream, and what did they have planned if it had gone a certain way?
“Well, human, it seems that the only thing you are fit for is servitude,” the weasel-like alien told her. “You have nothing that we can sell, and nobody is going to want your used body. You will have to report to the captain and have him decide where you will be able to serve. Too bad for the K’zzyrch, really. I would send you back to them, if I could, but it’s not up to me.” He sighed as he folded the paper into thirds.
“Mercenary,” he went on, turning to look up at Jalingan, “collect your payment from the K’zzyrch and let them know that you will be in our employ for a while. We need you here to keep this ruffian in line. No Wilang is going to want to touch her.”
“I will contact my commander,” the half-human replied as he accepted the paper that the weasel shoved into his hands.
“Get her out of my sight,” the weasel hissed, waving them towards the door.
Jalingan motioned for her to go through the door, then followed her out. Back in the main hall, he grabbed her arm and led her across the room, then through another door. A K’zzyrch soldier nodded to him and took the paper with Citlally’s information on it from Jalingan.
“Another tainted one who wears her hair long,” he said after reading it, shaking his head as though deeply disappointed. “Sit down, wench.”
That word made Citlally burn. She wanted to snap at him that she knew plenty of virgins who like to keep their hair short, but she bit her tongue and forced herself to keep quiet. She knew that she was no wench; she had only ever been with Endan, and it had always been romantic and beautiful.
Jalingan showed her to a chair, and as she sank down, she began to noticed the piles that littered the floor. Red, black, blue, brown, white. All around her, the long hair of the women who’d been on the shuttle with her laid on the floor, sloppily shorn, the edges rough, the piles mixed and scattered. Citlally looked at the lizard-like soldier, appalled.
“You want to cut my hair? Why, because I am not a virgin?” she forgot herself and ended up raising her voice on the last few words.
That earned her a slap in the face from the K’zzyrch man. “What a mouth you have on you!”
“The Wilang women only wear their hair long until the night they are bonded to their man,” Jalingan told her as he leaned casually against a wall. “Once he beds her for the first time, he gets to cut off her hair. Then everyone knows what he took from her. To them, you should have cut your hair the first time your husband was inside you. Correction – he should have cut it. This is what they expect us to do to set things right.”
“Set them right?! I never did anything wrong!”
Another slap, this time on the other cheek and harder. “I am just glad that nobody has to –” The translator hissed, and Citlally was glad that she didnt have to hear whatever obscene things she imagined he was saying. “ –cut your hair.”
The K’zzyrch soldier picked up a pair of scissors from the table, and glared down at her. “Do not tempt me to hit you with these,” he warned her.
Citlally said nothing, but held perfectly still as she stared at the dull, rusted blades of the shears. It is only hair, she told herself. Endan will still love me even with it gone. Right now staying alive is the most important thing.
Slithering up behind her, K’zzyrch man grabbed her hair in one fist, yanking her head back purely in a show of his power over her, and set to work on cutting it. The dull scissors ripped and damaged it more than they cut, leaving uneven locks behind. Her long black strands, so carefully cared for over so many years, fell away, drifting downward like the sad leaves of a tree in autumn. She was glad that there was no mirror in that room, no way for her to see what they were doing to her. It was bad enough that she could feel the weight of it leaving her, could feel the cool air on the back of her neck.
The sound of the scissors arced around her head until all of her long hair was gone, from ear to ear. The Aztec princess that Endan had once seen in her was now more like a little boy, and in that instant she found herself resenting the K’zzyrch more and more. How dare they storm into her space station, where things had been so perfect, and ruin her life for their own selfish purposes! What harm had a single living thing on Space Station Regulus II done to them?
Jalingan led her through another doorway, not back to the main hall but through another door in the chamber, and her body trembled; she wanted to fall to her knees and weep. What was the point, if the Wilang hated her, if she had no purpose to serve on Sardonia, if Endan could not be with her? Up until the K’zzyrch had entered the space station, her life had been a dream, perfect and peaceful. What right had they to take that way from her?
“It’s only hair,” Jalingan reminded her through gritted teeth when he saw the tears streaming down her reddened face. He clearly didn’t want to be heard, but also didn’t need her descending into hysterics right there in the causeway.
As they walked along, she tried to take slow, deep breaths, and could not help but think of how his words reminded her of a song she’d once heard.
“Close your eyes, for the night is falling.” It was from Delain, she remembered. Somewhat of an older song, but still, “Sleepwalker’s Dream” had always been endearing to her. “Fear no dark… A tear is only water, a sigh is only air. Whenever you feel haunted, truth lies out there.”
And somehow, it was the words to that haunting song that brought her comfort through all the things that were happening to her.