Welcome to my serial science-fiction/fantasy adventure, The Only City Left. This is the story of Allin Arcady and his adventures through a dying, planet-sized city called Earth. (Click here for the Table of Contents.)
At the end of Part 61, Allin returned to Pudlington along with Ballister and his people and an army of ghosts. He told the guards he was there to fight Banshee’s army for him, on one condition.
The Only City Left: Part 62
After many messages to and from the authorities inside of Pudlington, we were granted entrance. Once inside, Xerxes, Ballister and I were asked to meet with Emperor Banshee. Ballister’s people were taken to a holding area and Xerxes’ ghosts agreed to wait outside of the city. Of course, if they had wanted to force the issue and come inside, there was not much the cats could do to stop them short of releasing an electro-magnetic pulse inside the city.
It was an odd return to Pudlington. The first time I visited, I was a curiosity. This time, a phalanx of armed guards escorted the three of us through the city and down one of the ramps to stand before Banshee’s stepped dais. It felt less like an honor guard and more like we were prisoners being paraded before a judge. Not a good sign.
Besides our manner of entrance, two other sights gave me pause. Instead of six imperial guards around Banshee’s throne, there were at least twenty of the feather-capped fellows standing ramrod straight, hands gripping their halberds. And instead of Tumble standing one step below the Emperor—his brother, I recalled with no small wonder—there stood a cat I had last seen at the first royal dinner I had attended in Pudlington. I couldn’t recall his name, but his attitude toward me then matched the look on his face now: haughty disdain.
A large audience of cats milled about the platform, and I was glad for the thick ropes that held up the circular floor we trod upon; it was quite a crowd. The guards had to clear a space so that we could stand a few feet out from the bottom step before Banshee.
I glanced to one side and checked on Ballister. He had a grim, determined look on his face that belied how nervous he probably felt. It’s one thing to know that there is a cat city nearby. It’s quite another to be inside of it, surrounded by hundreds of cats, many of whom are armed and unhappy that you’re near them. On my other side, Xerxes stood patiently, a bemused look upon his face, his feet not quite touching the floor beneath him.
At a sign from the cat who stood below Banshee, the imperial guards stamped their halberds on the floor three times in unison. The platform quieted to a low murmur and the same cat announced, “Our Emperor, Banshee LXXVI, recognizes Allin Arcady and companions. Kneel before the emperor.”
Not again, I thought, but this time I couldn’t afford to risk offending anyone. I nodded to Ballister and Xerxes and went down on one knee, my head bowed. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Ballister do the same, a scowl on his face, while Xerxes opted to sink into the floor down to his knees. I stifled a grin at that.
“You may rise,” said Emperor Banshee. “Friends of Allin Arcady, introduce yourselves.”
“Entwhistle Ballister at your service, your majesty.”
I held back another smile. Entwhistle?
“Xerxes.” No courtly flourishes there.
“Very well. And this is Acting Royal Envoy Fordham, whom I believe you have met once before, Allin.”
Banshee emphasized those last words and I caught a warning in his tone.
“Where’s Tumble?” I asked.
“Yes, what has become of your brother?” Fordham asked, pulling at his whiskers.
Banshee answered us both. “He is working on another project.”
Another project? I imagined he must be down in the Skunkworks with Professor Copper, working on the lantern coil. I placed my hand on my chest and felt Matthias’ coil beneath my shirt. I needed to speak to Copper as soon as possible about what I had figured out.
“He informed us of your death, Allin. How is it that he was so mistaken?”
“After what happened, I should be dead. The others who fell from that bridge with me didn’t make it.” Guppy. Matthias. I didn’t go into details about how they died. “I’m still alive partly by chance and partly thanks to the creatures who dwell in the dark, the merskers.”
The crowd raised its collective voice at this. Even the cats had their legends about the beings that live in the darkened voids of the city. I didn’t disabuse them of the horrifying images invoking their name must conjure.
“And I would never have made it back to Pudlington if not for the aid of Xerxes and the other ghosts.”
Fordham barely concealed a sneer at my words, and I saw Banshee catch it before it disappeared.
“Yes, it is truly amazing what can be accomplished when unlikely allies work together, is it not?” Banshee said, his fingers steepled before him.
Fordham’s fur bristled and he practically doubled in size before he shook himself to make it lay down again. “If we can get back to the matter of how Mr. Arcady broke his trust with us by leading human interlopers to our gates?”
“We ain’t no ’lopers,” Ballister said in a booming voice that briefly set Fordham’s hair on end again. “And I don’t like that my people are being kept under armed guard. I understood we’d be guests here, not prisoners.”
I expected Fordham to respond, but it was Banshee who spoke. “We made no such promises to your people, Entwhistle Ballister. For that, you have only Allin to blame.”
I was shocked. I thought for sure Banshee would back up my plan, if for no other reason than to annoy Fordham.
The Emperor continued. “For now your people are being fed and have been given access to sanitation. Given the state you are in, I see no cause for complaint with your treatment in Pudlington.”
“Where humans should not have been allowed to enter in the first place, your highness,” Fordham said. “First the Arcady boy and now this refuse. This is a disgrace!”
“Your opinion is well known, Acting Envoy. The fact remains that Ballister and his people are guests in my city for now and you shall keep a civil tongue about them while I sit the throne. Moving on.”
Fordham looked discomfited and I held my lips tight together to keep from grinning. Any hint of a grin disappeared when Banshee turned his gaze on me and said, “Allin, outside of our gates, you spoke of conditions. One does not demand conditions of emperors. Explain yourself.”
* * *
This was one crazy week, with many distractions and illnesses and assorted other goodies. I managed to meet my minimum word count goal for the first draft of Book Two, but it came down to the wire on Friday night. Here’s hoping next week goes more smoothly.
Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, and shares. It truly makes me happy to know that people are enjoying this story.
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Logo Credit:The TOCL logo is courtesy of Jande Rowe of the webcomic Aedre’s Firefly. If you haven’t already read AF, I encourage you to go check it out. Not only does Jande produce the comic, she reviews other long-form webcomics, gives tips and instructions on creating a comic, and is endlessly supportive of other creators. For a great review that will bring you up to speed on Aedre’s Firefly, check out this page at Webcomic Alliance.