The flying machine was caught in a cross wind not long after gaining height and the jolt made Daisy's senses reel. She coughed and moaned piteously.
As he pedalled vigorously so propellers could fight the cross draught, the driver of the vehicle looked over his shoulder.
"If she's sick, there'll be extra to pay," he puffed sternly. "Cleaning. Loss of fares. What's wrong with her anyway? What's she done, pretty little thing like that?"
"Wildling. Never flown before I guess," the merchant soldier responded, eyeing his prize uncertainly. Wondering if she would indeed cost him even more money before the night was through.
"Pity she won't live long," the driver said sadly.
Again Daisy was reminded of the evil of this place, the poison Old Danitty said ran through the very foundation stones of Develgarth. Was that what killed her family to the third generation? A taint she brought back with her. Was Daisy herself now tainted? The thought brought her to herself and she crouched menacingly on the edge of the platform.
Hatred focused her mind. She ignored the swirling coloured lights and eyed her assembled enemies. She could despatch them easily. Topple them over the side and then force the driver to land this devil contraption wherever she pleased.
The nausea left her. Strength and resolve surged through her and silent plans were laid.
"There you go," the commanding officer remarked. "She's got over her childish fright. Might even be enjoying it now." He always seemed to be studying her moods and expressions, making observations about what might be going on in her mind. Even showing some compassion for her plight. It gave Daisy pause in her murderous thoughts.
These are human beings, she reminded herself. People with lives and families, futures and pasts. They were just guards drawn to her through the trap laid by the Beast. They didn't know what to do with her except within the confined precepts of the City. A wild girl. Belonging to no one. Who would feed her, clothe her? And besides she would be dead in half a year anyway.
To her own surprise, Daisy resolved to escape without killing these men. She felt she could only do this once they had landed. Thus she gripped the hand rail tighter, avoided looking down and waited. A thought occurred to her.
"What's your name?" she asked the commanding officer. He was the only one of the guards who had not been addressed by name.
"Why my lady," the man good-naturedly replied. "Forgive my rudeness for not introducing myself. I am Saltor Madrigan, commander of Lock Three. Lifetime resident of Port Quarter South in that savoury district so beloved of us soldiering types yclept the Hold." He bowed from a seating position with a flourish of the hand. "And whom might I have the honour of addressing?" he added once his decorous salutation was concluded.
"Daisy Sal, wild girl," Daisy replied simply. She knew nothing of court etiquette, having lived in a village all her life. "I'll remember you," she added after a pause.
The manner of this concluding statement was not meant to be threatening but Daisy felt the eyes of the two guards slide toward her. They seemed uneasy at her behaviour. One twitched his bare sword in her direction.
"And we'll remember you, little madam," he muttered.
"Silence in the ranks!" Madrigan snapped.
Daisy did not like the two men who had been named Somphal and Trigger. Yet she remained determined not to kill them. She might break a bone or two perhaps, but she would not kill them if she could help it.
The swaying lights that surrounded the balloon began to show signs of rising rapidly. Daisy's inner ear detected increasing air pressure and everything suggested they were about to land.
Her chains were gripped, swords were readied, sharp edge facing the prisoner, and Daisy stood up to catch a first glimpse of their destination.
It was indeed a palace. Lit gloriously in a manner she did not understand, Daisy was presented with the sight of a massive building of stone. Glowing with pinks and greens and long stretches of warm orange that defined floor levels, the impressive residence clearly belonged to a man of note in the City.
With a bump the platform touched solid ground and Daisy tumbled over for she was not expecting the abrupt landing. The merchant Petan settled up with the driver and he floated away again, leaving the five on a stretch of lawn that sloped sharply to granite steps flanked by strangely shaped trees and statues.
"Told you he'd be in," Petan nodded and with a grunt he dragged his unwieldy bulk up the hill.
The lighting was such that Daisy could clearly see they were in an enclosure with a high stone wall, and patrolling on and around it were armed guards. She counted fifteen at a glance and realised this was not the time to escape. The palace she was being dragged to was probably full of rooms with windows. She could climb anything and leap farther and run faster than anyone likely to be assigned to guard her during the negotiations for her sale.
At the entrance it appeared as if they were expected.
"Lord Tavor bids you enter and refresh yourselves this cold evening," a gilded lackey declared with almost regal authority. "What are you going to do with that?" he then added, sneering at the strange girl the guards had in tow. Bare-legged and unwashed, Daisy presented a distasteful sight to the delicate sensibilities of the pampered minion.
"Merchandise," Petan stated flatly. He would not be negotiating with this servant, but with the master of the house.
"I see. Very well," and there was a clap of hands. A bevy of silk-clad girls entered, received instructions to douse the urchin and scrub her into a semblance of civilised being, and ever so softly these damsels took possession of her chains and led the wondering girl off to the baths.
"Don't soften her too much," Petan called after them. "She's a fighting girl."
"Hold!" the servant interjected. "What do you mean. Is she dangerous? Have you brought a killer among us?" He looked outraged.
"Keep her chained. Should be all right. Knows her place. She's a wild girl, see?"
"Ah," came the response. "I do see. Not long to live, that one."
These were the last words Daisy heard as she was taken down a marbled corridor to a mysteriously lit and curiously perfumed block of apartments where running water seemed to come out of the walls. The chill of the evening melted into sumptuous steamy warmth and without resistance, Daisy was stripped of everything but her chains and plunged into hot soapy water the colour of pale coral.
Layers of dirt came off her and for a moment she forgot her resolve in the luxury of it all. The girls were about her age, friendly to a fault and as carefree as gossamer birds in a high blue sky.
Then Daisy realised the Forest was being washed off her as well. The memories of her sister, her parents, lost in the melting fog. She grabbed one of the girls by the hair.
"What is this place?" she said through gritted teeth, more angry for having found herself led astray.
"Ow! You're hurting me," the girl whined. The others fled, voices raised in alarm. A flock of birds indeed, giving warning signals as they scattered. Daisy realised others would replace them, men, armed guards, and she was naked.
Divesting her helpless prisoner of her outer garments, while removing her remaining metallic encumbrances like so much tinsel, Daisy hastily covered herself as a tall, muscular man entered with fury written on his haughty face. Somehow Daisy knew this was the master himself. Lord Tavor.
His nostrils flared and his eyes flashed fire as he confronted the unexpected occupant of his baths. The girl servant was released and Daisy adjusted her improvised covering before standing to confront her latest antagonist. Her chains were hidden at the bottom of the foam topped pool.
"What means this?" the booming voice echoed through the marbled hall. "My daughters fighting in the baths, and with whom?" He looked the small figure up and down.
Between them was the huge pool of pink water, giving off puffs of scented steam. As the man moved one way around it, Daisy took the other, matching his movements so they were always on opposite sides.
"Would you have me call my guards, child?" he said impatiently, bored of the cat and mouse game after three complete circuits of the pool. "To strip you, beat you, and send you back where you came from."
Having regained her composure, secretly cursing the scantiness of her clothing, Daisy considered these words.
"Already been stripped. Doubt if your guards could beat me. Would love to return where I came from, but only with my sister, whom you stole from my side."
She pointed at him, specifically accusing him of the crime for he seemed to be a higher ranked individual and perhaps aware of the Napper incursions. Possibly aware of the fate of the victims.
"Fighting talk," the man said. "I know what you are now, but how is it a wildling finds itself in my private quarters being pampered by my daughters?" He peered beyond Daisy into the shadows between columns. "Noona, come here," and he clapped his hands imperiously.
"But father," came a whining voice. "She hurt me, pulled my hair."
"No matter. She is your size. Get some suitable attire for our unexpected guest."
Soft footfalls faded away and then returned and Daisy was greeted by the sight of a teary eyed girl holding a bundle of thick garments out to her. She received the gift gratefully.
"Thank you," Daisy said softly and smiled. "I'm sorry I hurt you. All that cleaning made me panic."
The girl shrugged at this and pattered away. Daisy looked at the man still on the other side of the pool and made a gesture for him to turn his back while she dressed.
With a hearty laugh he complied and stood there hands on hips, staring at a blank wall while the mysterious intruder hastily donned the snug and very much welcome garments. The boots were especially welcome after so long barefooted. Lined with fur, a little stiff with lack of use, they had an excellent grip even on the polished and wet marble.
"Are you done yet, child?" the man asked, making a slight movement as if threatening to turn around. When silence met his query he turned anyway.
The girl was gone.
To be continued...