BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Fukitso merely nodded, as if he had never doubted it. Then he took up his katana and struck a fist-sized fragment of the glowing white stone from one of the stalagmites near his feet.
"We will need some light in there," he explained, retrieving the shard. "Come. And keep close."
The command was superfluous. Almaz had already seen enough in this place to shake the reason of a lesser girl. She had no intention of losing track of her giant protector in that nighted passage. She clung so closely that at times she stubbed her naked toes against the Ronin's ankles -- having lost the sandals in the subterranean river. But, just the same, she kept to his left so as to stay out of the way of his sword arm.
The passage was rectangular in cross-section with walls planed by human tools. If effort had gone into installing the door which kept out the kajikuro, tremendous labour indeed was invested in this work. No one would have constructed such a passage for other than a treasure of fabulous wealth -- as legend said: a treasure to "drive men mad". The tempo of Almaz's shivering heartbeat increased with each step she took nearer to that treasure.
So overwhelmed was she by the proximity of their goal that she did not even think to scream when they came upon the first body.
It sat slumped against the left wall, mummified like the map-maker, only moldering rags to cover the shrunken frame. A jewelled dagger was lodged in the chest and, even in death, the tapered fingers clutched the handle in a last desperate effort to removed the terrible instrument. Or so Almaz thought.
As they continued, they came upon another mummy. Then a third. And a fourth and fifth and sixth. Each was the same as the first -- stabbed through the heart by a jewelled dagger which the fingers clutched in a ghastly semblance of struggling vitality.
"The daggers are the blades of Hasham," Fukitso explained, as they passed yet a seventh such corpse. "They're still sometimes unearthed in the ruins of Amir Sin, whose people live on only in legend and song. They were suicide blades. These men took their own lives."
Almaz was doubtful. "They killed themselves? But, why?"
"We'll know that soon enough. Look ahead."
Indeed, Almaz saw that the tunnel ended in a doorway only a half-dozen paces away. What lay beyond was hidden by darkness as black as pitch.
Together they advanced. The light of the stone carried in Fukitso's left hand spread across the walls before them as if more eager than they to discern the mystery of that chamber. Then they reached the threshold and the glow fell upon the contents therein -- and even the imperturbable Ronin was struck dumb by the sight.
The chamber was of slight dimensions, with smooth unadorned walls and a floor thick with grey-white dust. It was empty, save for a large rectangular stone case set against the farther wall.
Both Fukitso and Almaz hesitated a moment before they crossed the threshold -- not from any sense of the drama of the moment, but rather as they both tried to calculated how much treasure such a container might hold.
Then Fukitso entered the room and strode slowly to the massive chest, taking each step with wary care. Someone had gone to a great deal of effort to guard the secret of this place; this room itself might yet hold some surprises. But nothing rumbled and nothing whine, and the Ronin reached his goal without incident.
"What is it?" asked Almaz, following eagerly behind. "Is this the treasure?"
Fukitso handed her the glowing shard. Gently he ran his practiced fingers along the sides of the massive case, until they detected the almost imperceptible crack separating the stone lid from the base.
"Only one way to find out," he replied. "Stand back, girl. This won't be easy."
His prophesy was quickly proved correct as he took hold of either corner at one end of the lid, and heaved. The lid was a single slab of solid stone, and it would not yield its secret without objection. At first it moved not at all. And Almaz began wonder if even her giant companion had met his match. But Fukitso could feel what she could not see -- the ever-so-slight grating as the lid shifted heavily upon the rim of the base.
"Out of the way, girl!"
His desperate warning was gasped between gritted teeth and drawn lips. And it came none too soon. Even as Almaz sprang back with a squeal, the Ronin put all his strength into a titanic heave and push which raised his edge of the lid from the base and toppled the whole to the floor. The impact was deafening, shattering the stone slab down the center and awaking the ancient dust into thick choking clouds. But even before the dust could settle, the two companions rushed to the edge of the case and gazed into the revealed interior.
Almaz yelped with astonishment.
For a moment they saw her: a woman. Her skin was the deep liquid brown of the Andu people, and her lush black tresses lay carefully arranged about her slender shoulders. Thick lustrous lashes rimmed her closed lids, which seemed more sealed by sleep than by death.
Her rounded limbs too appeared soft and supple with eternal, impossible vitality. Her shining ruby lips were slightly parted revealing the white gleam of her teeth. And her breasts rose firm and round beneath the purple sarong which clothed her, as if she lay frozen in the very act of drawing her last breath. A gold-wrought circlet crowned her brow. A gold and jewelled girdle enwrapped her slim waist. And her wrists which lay crossed upon her chest were adorned by intricately fashioned bracelets.
For an instant, she lay thus, like a precious glimpse into the mystic beauty of long-lost, dream-haunted antiquity.
The man who had preserved her had been a master of his craft. But even the arcana of the ancients could do no more than postpone the inevitable. Nature's will could be put-off, but never defeated.
As the moisture-laden air unwittingly admitted by the companions fell upon the beautiful figure, the ages took their toll. Like a bubble burst, or a wisp of smoke scattered by a breeze, she vanished -- mercilessly turned to dust. And all that remained were the circlet, the girdle and the bracelets, which latter tinkled softly as if laughing cynically at the cruel mirth of the gods.
"What does it mean?" asked Almaz, astonished as much by the woman's incredible beauty as by her unexpected destruction.
Fukitso lifted the circlet from the sarcophagus, and scrutinized the inscription on the edge. Then he thought for a moment, staring at the wall, remembering. He nodded slowly.
"What is it?" asked Almaz. "What does it mean? I don't understand."
The Ronin tossed the circlet back into the sarcophagus and turned to his companion. "That's because you don't know who that was."
"And you know?"
"Hai. There is a cartouche on her crown -- a royal insignia. She was the Sultana Basiji."
It took a moment before Almaz could recall where before she had heard that name. When she did, she gasped, one slim hand grabbing at the Ronin's arm.
"The Sultana Basiji! It was she whom the Sultan Alkhar Shan loved so much that, when she died, he took away all his treasure and hid it from the sight of men -- the treasure we're searching for!"
Fukitso nodded soberly. "That's right. It seems we misunderstood. Your map was supposed to lead us to a treasure to drive men mad. So it did. Here is the 'treasure', and drive a man mad it did -- Alkhar Shan was driven so mad by grief he disposed of the wealth of Tarkistan and then put a scorpion to his breast and took his own life!"
"He entombed her here?"
"Hai. He likely realized that simply hiding his love would not be enough. Someone always has a loose tongue. He decided to ensure perpetual guardians. That creature in the stream may be descended from some such monster which swam here then. But the kajikuro, I'll bet, he brought them here himself. He could not have accomplished this construction with those insects about. They don't normally come this far west, anyway."
"And he killed his slaves?" questioned Almaz, wide-eyed and breathless with amazement.
"I doubt it. As the blades were suicide blades, they must have intended to take their own lives to keep the secret." He glanced down at the scattered jewelry and shook his head. "To drive men mad. What some fools won't do for a pretty face."
But Almaz was not so cynical. "He did all this for a woman? How he must have loved her."
"What are you smiling about?" barked Fukitso testily. "A lot of good this has done us. I doubt these trinkets are worth more than a few hundred mohurs. That's something, but hardly what I was looking for."
"Don't you think it's romantic?"
"Romantic! To the Cauldron with romance! I came here for treasure, not --"
Even as Almaz listened to the Ronin's heated tirade, she took an unconscious step backward. With a shout of surprise, she felt a flagstone give way from beneath her naked heel. She sprang forward into the arms of Fukitso, but the deed was done.
The stone sank into a depression and once again there came the dull, distant rumble and whine of ancient machinery roused to life.
"Baka, girl! What have you done now?"
But Almaz had no response. Fukitso dropped her to the floor and, drawing Ginago, snarled at nothing in particular. He could not even hope to place his back to a wall.
For it was the walls themselves which slowly, smoothly began to recede downward into the floor...
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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