Decline
Chapter 1
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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
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“I cannot live with you.”
“I could not die with you …”

Emily Dickinson
1830-1886

****

“The origins of this celebration date back to the ancient Greek spring festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine.” George Challenger explained enthusiastically as he and the rest of the explorers sat Indian-style on the ground, with others behind them, in a half circle around a roaring bond fire. The blaze had been ignited less than fifteen minutes ago, just as the sun was beginning to set. Soon after, with much pageantry, the ceremonial lighting music and entertainment began: Wild dancing between Zanga warriors and their eager women got underway then voices joined in song. “Originally the Romans adopted the festival as a way of appeasing the lower classes. Slaves and their masters would exchange clothes in a day of feasting, song and drunken revelry.” Challenger announced over the noise, fascinated.

With a leer, Lord John Roxton leaned in close to Marguerite, who sat to his right, and whispered in her ear: “Sounds like my kind of festival.” He chuckled as Miss Krux shot him a look of feign disapproval.

Ned Malone, wide-eyed and fascinated, keeping time with the music by bouncing hands against his legs, as were the young men and woman about him, took in everything he was seeing with the comportment of the professional reporter he was: “Saturnalia was later modified by the Roman Catholic Church into a festival leading up Ash Wednesday.” he mentioned to his friends, reaching back into what he himself had read, “It quickly evolved into a massive celebration of indulgences - one last gasp of music, food, alcohol, and …“ he paused, clearing his throat slightly. “*intimacy* before Lent. Before the forty days of personal reflection, abstinence, and fasting until Easter. When it came to South America, I imagine, it was modified even more.”

“More so here on the plateau.” Challenger added.

“Hm.” Marguerite arched an eyebrow, watching the men and women partake in a number of unabashed pleasures. One brawny young warrior had his mate in a passionate embrace. He was teasing her, dangling green grapes above her head as he kissed her throat, feeling the stretch of her supple body against his own, her mouth reaching up, hungry for the tasty little fruits. “Not exactly what the Church had in mind, I suspect.” Marguerite quipped. “Forty days of purging sins, preceded by a week filled with virtually every known sin. Interesting.”

“I’ll say.” Roxton murmured again, “Still, there’s something to be said for tradition.” He then gently placed a hand on Marguerite’s trouser covered knee, gently nuzzling her neck, and stifled a chuckle when she pulled from him with a stimulated yet faintly puckered brow.

With a forefinger and thumb, Marguerite lifted Roxton‘s hand off her leg - looking about to see if they were being watched - and placed it on his own knee, “Behave yourself, Lord Roxton,” she admonished. Then, with a hidden wink, “or you will not get a sweet tonight -- or any other night.”

He grinned, anticipating the “sweet” he just might be allowed to indulge in this evening, with the crafty beauty sitting beside him.

Veronica, the only one of their group not visibly enjoying herself, watched the festival with a wary eye. It was Assai who invited the explorers to this year’s Zanga festival, making them the guests of honor. Her friend was merely being hospitable, Veronica knew, but there were dangers. The jungle girl had been invited to many of these galas over the years and always felt uncomfortable. Extravagance often meant trouble. The Zanga warriors, especially after drink, could be unpredictable. Some might try to start a disturbance with the explorers. Knife or fist fights always seemed to break out between the over-heated men when a chosen maiden, usually a virgin, voiced her desire for one suitor over the other.

With a roll of her eyes, Veronica also noted a few of the Zanga girls eyeing Malone as their jealous and brooding companions watched them. Ned, of course, was completely unaware of the impact he was having on the giggling young women.

On the other side of the bond fire, Assai and a few of the other married Zanga women replaced empty platters with goblets of wine, bowls of fresh fruit and, of course, more broiled pheasant, goat and raptor. As a wedded woman, and the daughter of the tribal chief, she did not now participate in the more hot-blooded pursuits of the unattached but she smiled at the antics of the others. It had been over three years since she and Jarl wed but she remembered how they played with and seduced each other during this festival while still single. She knew the night he first took her into his hut they were meant for one another as life-mates. He agreed and the passion they experienced ….

“Who is he?”

A woman, several inches taller than Assai and a bit more mature, stood beside her and placed a bowl of dried dates on the table. Assai glanced up at her cousin, a physically lovely woman with almond colored skin and raven hair, then looked over to where her attention was directed. From the side, through the flames, she watched their sitting guests. “That’s the Challenger Expedition.” Assai explained, “They’re friends of Veronica. You have never met any of them, since you have been away for so long, but they came to the plateau nearly four years ago. They have been trying to find a way off ever since …”

“No, I mean the man. The dark, handsome one wearing the hat.” she stared and, without thinking, moisten her lips with the tip of her tongue.

Assai looked again and watched how he leaned toward Marguerite, whispering something in her ear, chuckling at the woman’s reaction. “Lord John Roxton.” she spoke, suddenly feeling uneasy at her cousin’s intent stare.
 
Ever since Ennie returned from her sabbatical in the East Mountains Assai had been leery of her. She was distant family, therefore received respect from their people, but she was not the same older girl Assai had followed about while she was still a toddler. Ennie seemed preoccupied, shrewd and even a little menacing.

“Is he wed?” Ennie asked, noting Marguerite’s beauty and the way the couple appeared to be teasing one another.

“No.” Assai said but added quickly, “But I do think he is bonded. Veronica told me she believes once Roxton returns to England with Marguerite they will marry.” Assai felt a bit of shame at the revelation because Veronica had told her this in confidence. Yet, the way Ennie gaped at the handsome hunter meant only one thing: She had set her sights on him, wanted him, and decided to have him. Assai felt the need to deter any such longing from her cousin. “Anyone who knows Lord Roxton understands he loves Marguerite ….”

“Yet they’re not wed.” Ennie repeated, “You say they have been here for nearly four years? There must be a reason why Lord Roxton has not committed to his lady. Perhaps she is inadequate in some way. He hasn‘t yet met the right woman ….”

“And you think you are the right woman?” Assai asked, dubious.

“Not necessarily.” Ennie allowed a smirk and glanced at Assai, “But I don’t have to be during this festival, do I? With the right motivation I’m sure Roxton will see the wisdom of variety.”

“They are our guests of honor, Ennie.” Assai hissed in warning. “Our traditions are not theirs. Marguerite is …”

“Never mind, cousin.” Ennie’s voice was like a whip crack as she looked down at Assai. “You may be the daughter of Jacoba and the wife of Jarl, who may one day be the Zanga Chief, but I am a female of destiny, great powers, and unless you want to remain barren for the rest of your life you will not interfere.”

Assai averted her eyes. Her cousin had struck a nerve. Ennie, it was said, had learned great medicine and gained mystical powers while she studied with the mountain shamans during her time away from the Zanaga. When she found Assai and Jarl had yet to produce an heir Ennie told Jacoba she would reach into her bag of mystical powders and try to give him a grandson. She would chant and speak to the gods. If they saw fit to give the couple a child it would only be because Ennie was the go-between in this world to the next. Assai could not defy her. Too much was at stake.

****

It was early in the morning, close to two AM, when the last reverberations of music and laughter were heard. The dancing had also come to an end as men and women slowly picked themselves up and, making quick arrangements, gleefully retreated to their huts of choice.

Still reeling from the excitement of music, food and dance the explorers walked to their specially prepared shelters. They were given two huts and, being men and women of polite deportment - if nothing else - it was decided the women would sleep in one hut and the men in the other.

“We’re not uncivilized, after all.” Marguerite stated earlier, much to Roxton’s disappointment, and it was agreed.

Professor Challenger, imbibing perhaps a bit more than he should, balanced himself between Veronica and Malone and spoke zealously. “The Zanga are marvelous people, aren’t they?” he asked with a slur and jolly beam, “We really must return the favor some day …” He nearly tripped and fell but Malone was there to balance the professor and keep him walking.

“That’s a good idea, George.” Ned said, “We’ll have to talk about it tomorrow morning, when we all have clearer heads.” He met Veronica’s eyes as they walked and was delighted at their sparkle. She seemed particularly pleased with him tonight although Malone really didn’t have a clue why. Veronica had seemed so disturbed earlier, when the party started, but as the night progressed she relaxed and her charming giggle was heard more than once. Maybe like he, Challenger and the others, she had too much to drink. That might explain her change of attitude ...

Actually, out of the five of them, Veronica was the most sober. And she was proud of Ned. He had been approached by several beautiful young Zanga women during the festival, dancing with many, but never once had succumbed to temptation. He had been so kind to the girls, telling them sweetly but in no uncertain terms that he was not available. And he had looked over at her … smiling … telling Veronica, without words, that she was the reason he was unavailable.

*Malone, you can be so endearing sometimes*, Veronica thought but kept it shyly to herself. One day, she was sure, they would eventually let one another know how they really felt but that time was, unfortunately, not now. Veronica’s smile lessoned as she reached up to touch the amulet at her throat. Protector of the Plateau. So many responsibilities … Could Ned Malone be her Tom Layton? Only time would tell.

Marguerite and Roxton lagged behind the others and like them, both were slightly giddy from the heady grog they consumed during the evening.

“What a superb night.” Marguerite murmured, lifting her hands over her head as they walked, stretching her body, working out a few kinks but also well aware of how her lavender blouse stretched taught against her upper body, arousing Roxton’s interest. “I wish it would never end.” Deliberately, she lowered her arms and linked one with Roxton’s.

“It doesn’t have to, you know.” he offered, quietly slipping his hand into hers, slowing their pace.

“And just what do you have in mind, Lord Roxton?” She leaned in a little close, listening to what he had to say.

“Well,“ Roxton drawled, pleased with the opportunity. “It’s a warm night and the jungle is all around us. Who says we have to sleep in a hut? It‘s not as if we‘ve never camped out before and it might be … educational …”

“Educational?” Marguerite asked with mock gullibility.

“I’ve always been interested in the certain nocturnal habits of a species not usually native to these parts.”

The couple stopped their walk and Marguerite moved in front of Roxton, her slender hands traveling gently up his arms to rest on his shoulders, “I love it when you allow your university education to show.” she whispered, “Now, about this species ... What interests you most?”

“I’ve heard the female can mate with her selected male for hours … never tiring … never wanting to give up he who she considers her own.”

“Sounds exhausting.” Marguerite quipped, “This female seems rather possessive.”

Roxton smoothly wrapped his arms around her, a hand moving gently up and down the small of her back. “Well, from what I’ve read, while at university of course, the male is just as eager to show the female his devotion. So … it works out very well for both.”

“Really?” Marguerite, with a sly smile, moved in as she noted Roxton’s head bowing ever so slightly. Their lips were mere inches away from one another, “ … and do the male and female come away from their activity … fulfilled?”

Roxton felt Marguerite’s hands move to the back of his head, her fingers gently playing with his hair. He loved when she did that -- and she knew he loved it. “Without a doubt.”

With no further delay, Roxton’s mouth claimed hers.

“Come on, you two.“ Malone called, in the distance. “We need to get some sleep if we hope to get up early enough to make it back to the treehouse before dusk.”

“That’s right.“ came a warble from Challenger, “Remember, our larder is empty and we’ll need to hunt on the trip back …”

Roxton reluctantly parted from Marguerite and frowned in their friends direction, gritting his teeth. “Why don ‘t we just tell them that we’re going into the jungle …” he started.

“No, John.” Marguerite sighed, “Ned and George are right. We do need rest. Besides,” Marguerite straightened and dropped her hands from his shoulders, “the more I think about it the more I realize how silly it is to camp out in that dark, dangerous and mosquito ridden jungle. After all, we have perfectly lovely cots awaiting us in even lovelier shelters ...” The love-haze was now completely gone from her eyes. Marguerite quickly turned and started to follow their friends. “Come on, now.” she urged, as if she were talking to an errant little boy.

“Your loss … you tease.” Roxton grumbled lowly, greatly frustrated, following her.

“What was that?” Marguerite turned, unaware.

“As you please.” Roxton said, quickly. “Just agreeing with you.”

***

Unsnarling her long black hair with a sandalwood comb, she watched the couple from the window of her own hut. Languidly but with purpose, she examined their body language as they moved on, rejoining their friends.

Lord Roxton was a man of great need and it was easy to see that his woman knew how to keep him interested. Yet, she also seemed bent on disappointment when it came to supplying what her man so obviously desired. “And a man,” she thought, “who is turned away too often will often times look for satisfaction elsewhere.“

Ennie was counting on it.

Slowly, lifting the hem of her caftan, she turned from the window and lay her comb on a wooden tabletop beside a single candle jammed into a bamboo sconce. Beside this was a string of multi colored beads and a small stone bowl of what might, to the human eye, appear to be an off-white powder. Ennie touched the powder with the tip of her forefinger then lifted it to pinch a speck into the flame. The dull fire suddenly spirited to life and the woman, lifting the beads to her chest, closed her eyes, her body swaying back and forth, and she began to chant.

****