Previous Chapter: Three
Edited by: my Best Beloved, dr_whuh
Disclaimer: All of this is done for love, and is not intended as copyright infringement. I know it belongs to the BBC, to RTD and to its various original creators.
The room was dark and claustrophobic, even after Pau Sampaio lit a couple of lamps, but it was quite obviously a parlor of some sort. The furniture was old, but the chairs he waved them to were reasonably comfortable. Rose sat; the Doctor didn’t.
“Suit yourself,” their host told the Time Lord impatiently. “Just stay here. I’m going to talk to the woman who can give you some information. Call her Laowhra.”
“I don’t suppose that’s her real name?” Rose ventured. He looked at her expressionlessly. “Just askin’”
The monger headed off down what was obviously a hall into the rear of the house. The Doctor heard him speak to someone, but when Rose raised her eyebrows, he gave a quick head shake. Apparently even the Doctor’s hearing couldn’t catch the conversation. The voices became increasingly agitated, then Rose heard a woman shout, “You’re a fool, you know that!” After a moment, Sampaio returned to the parlor with her.
She was a slab of a woman, almost as tall as the Doctor. Her dress was at least half a size too small and none too clean, her arms bare and very muscular, Rose noted. Her salt and pepper hair was pulled back from her face, which was hard, and well away from her eyes, which were flat and frightening.
“I’m Laowhra,” she said, looking at the Doctor. “Who are you and why are you here? What do you want to know?”
“I’m the Doctor,” he said. “This is Rose Tyler. We’re here because we were brought here.”
Careful, Doctor, Rose thought, watching her companion closely. She already regretted having followed the book monger inside, indeed was sorry she hadn’t obeyed her impulse to convince the Doctor to go back. Rose Tyler, you idiot! Why the hell do you dash headlong into these situations when y— oh, stop it. You know why, you do it because it’s what he’d do, and you’d give anything to make him proud of you.
“As to what we wanna know, it’s simple, actually,” the Doctor said, taking up his familiar position, leaning against the wall, arms crossed. “Why did Ser Sampaio, here, get his knickers in a twist when we talked to him about this pamphlet?” He held it up. “An’ why did he have it? More to the point, why’d you have a bunch of them tucked into one of your books? And what’re they about? Frankly,” he said, “What I read in here? It sounds a bit unpleasant. An’ I want to know why.”
“There are only two kinds of people who want to know about the Memory Market ,” Laowhra said slowly. “Relatives of the taken, and Imperial investigators. You two are obviously from off-planet, so you must be investigators.”
“Got it in one!” the Doctor said, sounding delighted. Rose knew what came next.
“Our credentials,” he said, fishing about in a pocket and bringing up their old standby. She wondered what title the psychic paper had shouldered them with this time.
Laowhra snatched at the identification, peered at it in the uncertain light, then shot a look at the two of them before biting her lip thoughtfully. “They’re investigators alright, Pau. From Earth, no less.” She handed the paper back to the Doctor.
“So that’d make you, what, then? Relatives?” Rose hazarded. “Relatives of the...disappeared.” The Doctor spared an approving glance, and she fought the urge to preen.
Laowhra scowled, but must have decided to trust them, at least to some extent. She took a deep breath, then let it out and said, “I lost my man. Pau lost his daughter. Mine was taken because he talked too damned much against Bohlver and the silk. So did Pau, but Pau’s girl was beautiful, and the Maldads— “
”Come again?” Rose asked.
“The Maldads wanted her. So they took her instead of him.”
“I don’t know whether I’m more afraid that she’s dead, or that she’s not,” the book monger said softly. “If they silk-gutted her, she’s as good as dead, but at least she wouldn’t know what they were doing to her..to...”
“Did you write the pamphlet?” the Doctor asked gently, all his insouciance gone. Those deep-set eyes were measuring Laowhra and Pau far more closely than the woman had measured them, Rose knew, but with much more compassion than they might realize.
“I did,” Sampaio admitted. He looked at the floor. “I was a writer — a publisher — once.”
“You’re not now,” the Doctor said. It wasn’t a question.
“There are no writers now who don’t write exactly what the Governor wants written,” the monger said.
“That’s not gonna go over well on Earth,” the Doctor said, and Rose heard the gathering storm in his voice, even as he smiled and added, “Y’might not think it, but believe me, the Emperor is a proper fiend for freedom of the press.” In the dark room, his face had become a craggy jigsaw of shadow and light, but his eyes were blue slate and his (beautiful) mouth was grim.
Laowhra sounded bitter when she answered. “It hasn’t been noticed on Earth so far, Ser Investigator. Not the shutdowns or the disappearances, or the lamia money that Bohlver and his cronies are raking in. We’ve seen neither hope nor hark of any help. Not until now.” She looked hard at the Doctor, taking in his rangy frame, the militarily harsh simplicity of his dress, the controlled tension in his bearing, then turned to Rose, a skeptical glint in her suddenly-much-more-alive eyes. “And maybe not even now. You’ll pardon me for wondering why you two investigators sound so completely in the dark.”
“It’s just our way of checking you out,” Rose said quickly, before the Doctor could open his mouth again. “No one gets by us without some questioning, and...and you’re not doin’ as well as you think you are. You’re not convincing us that you have anything worth takin’ back to..to the Imperial Court.”
That merited another scowl from Laowhra, and a frightened look from Sampaio. Rose felt like shivering — even indoors, even in high summer, Lizhbau was like Brighton in October — so she stood up and started to walk around to hide her discomfort and move a little closer to the gas stove in the parlor’s corner.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, borrowing one of the Doctor’s lead-ins, “We don’t know what you know about the silk beyond what you’ve put in that pamphlet — which isn’t a very good call for revolution, by the way; the writing’s all over the place — and unless you give us a rundown of how dangerous the stuff— the situation, I mean, how dangerous the situation is, and where you think everyone’s bein’ taken, I’m afraid I hafta say, I think your wastin’ our time.”
Sampaio sank wearily into one of the cheap armchairs on the other side of the stove. He didn’t look frightened any more. He looked sad, Rose thought. Something started niggling at the back of her mind when she registered that, but she forgot about it when she saw that his partner seemed ready to offer a retort.
Acting more authoritative than she felt, Rose took the two steps necessary to bring her right up in Laowhra’s face. “If you were this close to the Emperor, and he said he knew nothin’ about silk, or its victims, what would you say?”
The older woman was palpably taken aback, but not so much that she wasn’t going to rise to the challenge.
I’d tell him that his father appointed Bohlver and made him swear to keep stamp out lamia silk, if ever it were possible. That it’s hell-cloth. One touch, it burns out your soul. That’ s why it’s banned.” She settled back on her heels and lifted her chin belligerently. “That good enough?”
“It’s a start,” Rose nodded, then stepped back. “Doctor?”
He pushed himself off the wall and straightened up, then fixed Sampaio with one piercing look. “Tell me how your Governor Bohlver made his power grab. Tell me everything.”
Laowhra looked at him, then at Sampaio. “Go on, Pau. Might as well.”
Something tired moved across the man’s face, and that niggling something which Rose had felt a moment before returned. Something’s off, she thought, something’s really, really off. She stiffened slightly, then made to move closer to the Doctor, intending to catch his eye. Have to talk to him, ask if he feels it, too. But she was too far from his vantage point near the door.
How to do it without giving away her nerves? Jack would know, brave Jack who wasn’t here to help her be brave—
Sampaio interrupted her increasingly agitated considerations. He stood up, took up a position next to Laowhra. “There’d been a number of us who’d been the loyal opposition, after Bohlver ‘temporarily’ suspended the legislature.” He laughed slightly, an unhappy sound. “That lasted all of a few months. He engineered an emergency, a series of bombings that we know his people set up. He did it beautifully—
“Not him. That bastard Inverno.” Lauwhra interjected.
“Yes, yes, Renhald Inverno,” Sampaio agreed distractedly. “Bohlver’s brains. The point is that it got done. He blew up churches and schools in half the working neighborhoods of Abela Fort’leza, made sure that his most troublesome enemies were assassinated and their bodies disposed of in the ‘terrorist bombings.’ Then he found exactly the right someone in Central Imperium.”
“Let me guess,” the Doctor took up the conversation, without seeming to have interrupted at all. “This Inverno knew how high up he had to go in court to get his waiver, and how low he could go to make certain the action didn’t get noticed by anyone close to the Emperor. See that, Rose? The dangerous ones are always good with bureaucracy.” He turned to her with that hunting smile he’d get when he was very excited, and very angry. Rose’s heart sped up (it’s trying to keep up with his double beat, oh, let me catch up, Doctor) and she felt a similar smile on her own face.
Laowhra smiled, too. “Familiar with court?”
He shrugged. “Familiar with humans.”
“Then you’re ahead of me, Ser Investigator,” she said, heavily. She rolled her shoulders and abruptly seemed to brighten. “As for me, I want to do no more talking unless I have something to wet my throat. What’s your pleasure?”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” the Doctor said. “Rose?”
“Don’t drink on the clock, eh? Well, that’s as may be. I’m not on duty. Pau, you want something stronger than water?”
“Not yet,” he said.
“Well, I’ll bring it anyway,” she said.
“I’ll help you,” Sampaio said, with the air of someone who would rather be anywhere than where he was.
"Fine. We’ll be back in a minute,” Laowhra said. “Ser, Sera, for the love of light, please sit down. You’re making me nervous.” With that, she and Sampaio excused themselves and headed down the hall.
They looked at each other, her eyebrows, battling with his to climb higher, until the Doctor shrugged, and threw himself into the chair Sampaio had vacated. Rose suppressed a smile and found the chair nearest his. Then she remembered her unease.
“What’s botherin’ you, Rose?”
She frowned, then chewed on her lip. “I dunno. But somethin’s—”
“— wrong. Yup.”
She didn’t need to look at him to know he’d felt it, (but you’d watch him in the dark, wouldn’t you Tyler, you sad git.) “So, do we know what it is, then?”
“Nope,” he said, “but it’s time to go. Time to join Jack in the library—” His mouth stayed open, but nothing more came out of it. Ordinarily, she’d have fallen out, and probably have called him a carp.
“Jack. Oh god, he’s probably waitin’ for us,” she said. “We’ve got to get him, and get back home.” The Doctor didn’t correct her, just nodded tightly.
She was glad she didn’t have to ask either of their ‘hosts’ for a coat, but Rose didn’t want to leave quite so precipitously.
“We should make our goodbyes — be official, yeah?”
“Not a bad idea,” he said, unfolding himself from the chair. “Ser Sampaio, Sera Laowhra? If you’re listenin’, leave the water. Sera Tyler and I have got to go.”
Quicker than Rose expected, the woman strode into the parlor, followed by Sampaio. He was holding something, and looked extremely anxious.
“Well, we’re not going to stop you, I imagine,” Laowhra said. Her left hand was stuffed deep in a pocket of her dress. “Find out anything worthwhile?”
The Doctor looked at the ceiling, then at the Lizhbauan woman. “I think so, Sera. I think the Empire will be very interested in this. Do you have communication here? If so, we’ll need to contact you tomorrow, or the next day at the latest. If that’s safe for you.”
For some reason, Laowhra looked away. “You really mean it, don’t you?” she said, turning back to him, her eyes suspiciously bright. “Don’t know whether you’re brave, or stupid. Never mind. If you want to contact us, see Pau down at the market. I’ll see you to the door.”
In the narrow entry way, it was difficult for everyone to maneuver, and Rose found herself backed against a wall inches from the door, Sampaio between her and Laowhra, who in turn was directly behind the Doctor.
It happened so fast, she didn’t even have time to shout a warning to the Doctor. Laowhra pulled something from her pocket, a narrow tube Rose identified as a dermic jet in the endless moment it took for the woman to jam it into his neck. He jerked in shock and started to turn, just as Rose gasped and grabbed at her own neck in shock. Pau Sampaio, eyes wet and ashamed, had efficiently jabbed her with another jet.
How did I get so stupid, she thought, trying to bat the thing out of his hand moments, or hours, after it was too late. What was in that? Why aren’t my legs working? She saw the Doctor try to get to her, knocking Laowhra out of his way easily, but whatever was at work in her system betrayed him, transformed his protective lunge into a boneless collapse.
Don’t you dare hurt him, you bitch, she thought muzzily, stop making him change shape. She tried to catch him in her arms, but they’d somehow turned to rubber. Damn...how can I hold him like this? Her vision narrowed to a pinpoint and everything went away.
“They could have helped us, Lallie,” Sampaio said, stepping back over Rose’s inert form. “And they’re Imperium. What happens now? What happens if the Empire finds out what we’ve done?”
Laowhra Sampaio looked at her brother-in-law, and wiped her face, scrubbing away any hint of regret. “I’ll risk that. The Imperium’s on Earth, but the Maldads are here.”
“Using that...that poison on someone,” the book monger said, dropping the jet and rubbing his hands against his pant legs. “Lallie...God, what happened to us?”
He fell back before her sudden fury. “Nothing happened to us, Pau! It happened to Merritt and it happened to Luisa, and this — this! This will get them back for us!”
“We’re as bad as they are. We’re worse, we’re whoring for Bohlver, handing him people—”
Under different circumstances, the Doctor might have winced in sympathy when Laowhra slapped Sampaio. “Shut your mouth, Pau,” she hissed, low and intense. “I know what I’m doing, and it makes me sick of my own reflection, but I will get Merritt back. I will. Do you understand?”
With an effort, she composed herself. “Help me drag them back into the parlor. I’ll let the bastards know we’ve got them.”
In Abela Fort’leza’s market, the shops were locked, and the stalls were struck. The cold wind whipped clouds across the face of the nearest moon. Jack shoved his hands into his greatcoat pockets, and felt more alone than he had for years.
(To Chapter Five)