Challenger and Marguerite remembered the lizard capital as a proud, luxurious city, not unlike an ancient Rome, although the palaces and streets lacked the graceful elegance typical for the latter. Here everything was sturdy, the magnificence a result of size rather than wonders of architecture. Yet almost as soon they passed the gates, that shut behind them with an ominous thud, both the scientist and the linguist knew something was different. The wide streets, previously impeccably clean, were full of dust and garbage scattered all around. Many of the windows and doors of the surrounding houses were nailed shut. The casually strolling lizards with their families and human slaves were nowhere to be seen, only ones in armour would cross the streets, shouting orders, hurrying without stopping to God only knew where.
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," Challenger muttered under his breath, his eyes scanning the cheerless place. Both him and Marguerite had been offered horses to travel, and although the visionary was not a keep horseman, it seemed a better option than to be locked up in a cage with other slaves. Finn was eager to mount a horse as well, however upon learning the girl had never been in a saddle before in her life, the lizard captain refused to entrust her with a horse of her own and she was now sitting in front of him. Her cheeks were still a little red from suppressed anger, but she remained silent, her bare feet dangling in the air. She mourned her boots as much as Marguerite mourned her clothes. The Englishwoman was still draped only in the purple cloak.
"So what has been our dear green friend up to? This place seems to have gone to the dogs," Marguerite turned to the captain, not mincing words.
"I advise you to show more respect! The Emperor has lots on his mind these days. He may not find your antics amusing," he growled back at her. It was obvious that the closer the moment approached, when he would have to explain why he bought the three explorers instead of at least thirty able-bodied men, the more nervous he became. Marguerite´s mockery hardly helped to improve his quickly sinking mood.
"From my experience it does not take much for him to be amused," she shrugged her shoulders. "But really, why does everything look so shabby and deserted?"
"We are at war," the lizard finally said. "Our enemy has used vile and dishonorable means to gain advantage in the fighting. What you see is a city preparing for a siege that is sure to come. But you cannot really expect me to fill you in on secret information."
"Who is this enemy?" Challenger inquired. "How long has this been going on?"
"Who cares!" Marguerite exclaimed. A completely different bit of information worried her. "Siege! All the more reason for getting out of here quickly! I for one don´t intend to starve to death while Tribune is hiding in his hole like a rat!"
Without warning, the captain leaned over and grabbed the reins of Marguerite´s horse, as if afraid she would turn it around and gallop back into the jungle.
"You are a property of the Emperor," he hissed. "Unless he decides otherwise, our war is your war now!"
"Well then!" Marguerite hissed back, her eyes dark with anger. "Let´s go! I am starting to feel a bit uncomfortable being a Lady Godiva!"
"But wasn´t Lady Godiva completely naked?" Finn asked, distracted from the previous conversation. Challenger looked impressed.
"You know the story?"
"Yeah... actually not that long ago Vee was telling me some stories, then the Big Guy came and told us about Lady Godiva."
"Why am I not surprised he would choose that story!" Marguerite rolled her eyes, but she felt a little pang in her chest.
They were supposed to be home tomorrow. He would be worried.
"So how many men have you actually brought, captain?"
"Fifteen. And twelve women. Not counting these three humans," the lizards said, nodding in the direction of Challenger, Marguerite and Finn, all standing in the middle of the throne room. Tribune´s fist slammed into a nearby table.
"Fifteen! We have lost twice as much during the works! And at least twenty more to the disease!"
The unfortunate officer was crouching pitifully before his Master.
"My Emperor! Please forgive me! I thought these humans were your … allies!" he was desperately trying to defend himself.
"Allies! They are humans. Just because I let them live once or twice you think I would seek an alliance with lower species? Fool! Get out of my sight! All of you!"
The huge room emptied, leaving only Tribune and his three new slaves. Temporarily shocked by the intensity of his outburst, Marguerite soon regained her composure, although she remained wary. She had always known Tribune to be pompous, over-confident, shrewd and sarcastic. He acted as if he had no insecurity or weakness – the one quality she could fully understand. However, much like his once glorious city, he too seemed changed. As if the the shining breastplate and richly embroidered crimson cloak were crushing him under their weight. Indeed, Tribune looked dead tired – something none of the explorers would have ever thought possible.
"Thanks for the warm welcome," Marguerite finally decided to break the silence.
"I am not in the mood for jokes or mind tricks, my little minx," Tribune informed her, less furious than before but still considerably annoyed, as Finn couldn´t understand how Marguerite could take such an address without as much as batting an eyelid. "Although I do admit seeing the good professor here did come as a wonderful surprise."
"You need something," Marguerite stated. "Typical. Well, what is it this time?"
"Isn´t it always the same?" Challenger frowned. "You want gunpowder, don´t you? Well, I believe we had an agreement and I intend to stick to it!"
In the very same room, only months ago, when Tribune finally ascended the throne with their help, the explorers came to a decision. They would let the reptile lord keep whatever gunpowder was stacked away in his palace, however Challenger refused to entrust him with the formula. If there was an urgent matter, the Treehouse residents would make the black powder for him. It was meant to be used only for defense, never for an attack.
"And I ask no more of you," Tribune said, acknowledging the deal. "Even though, considering the fact you are now my slave sheds a new light onto the situation."
"You cannot blackmail me!"
"Can´t I?" said Tribune, his eyes darting for a second to Finn. Unlike for Challenger he had no need for the girl, unlike for Marguerite she did not interest or benefit him alive. However the Professor remained adamant.
"Even if you kill us all, I am not going to give you the formula. Has done more than enough harm already. If our deaths will prevent your perverted use of science, then so be it."
"Now you bore me, Professor." Tribune waved his hand and his features relaxed a bit. "But at least I know you have not changed and I can count on you. I do have an urgent need of gunpowder. Lots of it."
"I don´t get it," Finn blurted out, annoyed and confused. She felt like a child left out from an exciting game. "If this dude needs Challenger why did he nearly chewed the other lizard´s head of for bringing us here?"
"To be honest I am still mad at him. He had no right making such a big decision for me. Especially since I have no idea who you are. Also, one has to keep up his reputation, especially when everything around is falling. But there are more pressing matters to be dealt with." Tribune went back to ignoring Finn and turned his attention to Challenger once more. "I trust you know where to find the laboratory. I will send servants with you, ask for whatever you need."
"First I demand an explanation," the scientist insisted. "Against whom are you fighting?"
Tribune flunk himself into a nearby chair, sweeping his cloak away in a gesture utterly dramatic, yet so natural for him. He then gestured for the others to make themselves comfortable as well.
"As you know by now, reptiles are a competitive species. Some individuals represent this trait more than others. After my accession everything seemed going smoothly. I had foreseen trouble along the way, since a reptile in power always has enemies, however I must regretfully admit I did not expect my own brother to try and put a knife in my back one fine afternoon."
"Your mentor, your ex-lover, your brother," Marguerite counted Tribune´s rivals on her fingers. "Remind me again why we still stick with you when everyone who should trust you turns against you?"
"Because I am more intelligent then they are!" Tribune snapped. "Ruthlessness is what they had and have in abundance! But I am the one with a vision. Only a fool destroys the means of his power and there is no point in ruling an empty wasteland! When my brother failed in murdering me, he fled the capital. Few weeks later he started pillaging the borders, growing more bold each time, until I could practically smell the fires burning from my balcony. Unfortunately he has managed to persuade more than half of my troops to take his side, leaving me with few capable officers and bunch of humans to defend myself here. You have to help me."
"Why did you not contact us sooner?" Challenger asked. "It seems a little too convenient for you to be in the middle of war and in need of gunpowder when I happen to appear on your doorstep."
"The fighting escalated quickly. In fact, it has hardly been a month," Tribune admitted almost apologetically. "I did sent out messengers to fetch you. Twice."
"Then why have we never met them?"
"It´s difficult to set a meeting with corpses. Their horses brought them back, tied to their backs. Just in case I did not understand that my dear brother means it."
Challenger, Marguerite and Finn exchanged a grave look. It was the scientist who put their fears into words: "Are you saying that they have cut off the route from here to the Treehouse?"
"My dead soldiers thinks so, yes. You only got through because you came from the slave town, which is the opposite direction. But it is a matter of days, if not hours, before my brother closes off all the routes. I don´t have enough soldiers to meet him in battle. My only hope is to outlast him here in the town. Siege in inevitable. See? Even if I wanted to let you leave, there is nowhere to go. Unless you want to clear the path. For example with some gunpowder, if I may be as bold to suggest?"