Chapter 15: Studies
The captain's cabin of the Imperial warship had two occupants, neither of them the captain of the vessel in question. Not that the captain was complaining: Centurion Lucius wasn't the kind of man one complained to.
With one exception, currently pacing the cabin. She was almost as tall as the Centurion, a slender young woman with the kind of lush figure men dreamed of. Her dark hair was currently worn in a simple braid, and her clothing an equally simple, if well-made, long tunic that she could manage without the assistance of servants. Her green eyes were narrowed, and smudges of dirt and ash remained on her skin and in her hair: the remnants of her disguise as a palace slave and then a slave of the Overlord.
Had any of the ship's crew been watching, they would have been astonished to see the Centurion make a placating gesture. "Lucilla
"Don't give me that, brother dear," the woman said with soft venom. "I told you to hire a competent wet nurse before you left."
Centurion Lucius looked panicked. "But
That's a woman's "
"You have your doxies. You could have sent one of them." Lucilla's voice dripped scorn. "You had the simplest part in this, and you still failed." Her eyes narrowed and she turned to glare at her brother. "So now we're stuck with a Ruborian half-breed savage."
Lucius returned the glare. "The brat's too scared to do anything stupid."
"Too scared to do anything intelligent, either, no doubt," Lucilla sneered. "Especially after you left a clear sign for the Overlord."
Lucius stood a bit straighter, clearly stung by that. "The Overlord hadn't been there. They still thought they were Imperial territory."
"Oh, that will surely matter when he starts tracking us. And he will brother dearest. Have no doubt of that." Lucilla shivered. "We should have left no trace."
"I'm not afraid of him." Lucius growled. "I saw him in the Arena: he can be killed."
"I saw him too, you ass," Lucilla snarled. "He tore the Arena to pieces and would have killed the Emperor then if Speaker Marius hadn't got him out of there and that was with nothing more than newborn minions who'd been drained of most of their magic, after he'd been drained of most of his." She shook her head. "If it wasn't Mama planning this, I'd never have touched it."
Lucius sniffed. "Your mother is"
"A sight more intelligent than yours was, brother dearest." Lucilla folded her arms. "Go stand on the deck and look scary. It's what you do best."
The centurion opened his mouth to object, then closed it again. He needed a moment to compose himself and settle his expression back to its normal forbidding glare before he exited the cabin, pointedly not slamming the door behind him as he departed.
Lucilla watched him leave, frowning. Only after she heard his boots on the ladder to the deck did she sit on the bunk and let her shoulders slump. Why Mama had saddled her with this useless lump
There were smarter Centurions who had survived the Overlord's conquest, and she could control them. She couldn't control her brother who was really no blood of hers, since her father was long dead when Mama married Papa.
Lucilla wasn't sure, but she thought her father wasn't even Imperial. Senator Julius was officially her father, but Mama had been married to him for maybe six months before Lucilla's birth. Not that Mama ever said anything. When Senator Julius died, no-one minded Mama inheriting his estates on Lucilla's behalf.
She took a deep breath, then focused. The Empire might hate magic, but Mama didn't, and she'd taught her daughter some very useful things. Things that let Lucilla avoid being targeted by the Sentinels although the concoction suppressing magical ability tasted horrendous and left her muzzy-headed, something Lucilla hated. It had helped her to stay unnoticed in the Overlord's tower, despite a horribly close call when that bitch Rose had arrived unannounced to assist while the Mistresses were giving birth. If she'd been in the private quarters at the time
She hadn't, and she'd had the sense to stay deep in the slave quarters until the bitch-queen Rose was gone. None of the Overlord's Mistresses looked twice at a slave so long as she acted like one, and the Overlord himself was out of the tower most of the time.
Lucilla had no doubt that if she'd attracted his attention her disguise and that disgusting potion would never have held.
I'm as skittish as a day old colt. This has to stop. Once more, Lucilla focused, forcing all thoughts from her mind except the shape of the magic she needed. She released the trickle of energy slowly, minimizing its profile so it would be less noticeable if anyone with the gift chanced to look her way.
After a moment, the air in front of her shimmered, and she saw her mother's face. "You've done it?"
Lucilla nodded. "We're sailing east. Expect us in a month if the weather holds." It was better not to mention her dear brother's failings. That would look too much like making excuses.
Her mother smiled. "Well done, my girl. I look forward to your arrival." The image faded.
Kaff landed hard, knocking the wind out of him for a moment. He rolled to the side in time to avoid Stench's wrist blades poisoned, too, and the green leader made sure Kaff knew it. He'd probably survive long enough for Drizzle to heal him before he died, but Kaff didn't want to find out. He'd seen browns screaming when greens stuck them, and while he'd laughed with the rest of the minions, now he was actually facing the blades he didn't think it was funny anymore.
Well, maybe a little bit funny, so long as he didn't get stabbed.
Green stink didn't help.
Kaff rolled back, and got his claws wrapped around Stench's arm before the green could pull back. He might not be as fast or as slippery as a green, but he could hold on. Mostly.
Stench hit at him with his other hand, forcing Kaff to let go rather than get those wicked blades in his arm. The three wrist blades flashed with greenish light and made a hard sound when they hit the stone floor and not Kaff.
Stench giggled. "Smart brown, fight like greens. Still squeal like browns when stuck."
Not gonna get stuck. But Kaff was tired after facing Gloob and Blaze, while Stench was fresh. And ripe, too. He smelled like dead seal rotten past eating, but only if you crammed a whole lot of seals into a teeny room and locked someone in to smell it. Kaff understood now why Master made the greens wash before he took them anywhere he needed to be really secret. You couldn't be secret smelling like that. Even humans noticed it.
Stench pounced, his wrist blades slicing through the fur wrap around Kaff's shoulders, and then his loincloth. That fell off too, and he could hear the others laughing, but he was too busy getting out of a tight roll and turning so he didn't have his back to the green leader.
The green saluted with a grin. "Got slower horde greens." The pelvic thrust suggested that Stench's method of motivating his tribe wasn't something Kaff wanted to experience. It never took any minion long to learn that doing was better than getting done, but if you had to get done, your own tribe was better.
If you got done by a fellow brown, he might actually be just having fun. Any of the other tribes, chances were he wanted to make you hurt as part of the fun.
That was part of being a minion too, but Kaff never heard anyone say minions had to like everything about being minions. So long as they served Master, nothing else mattered.
Besides, if Stench got him that way, Kaff would need healing.
He and Stench slowly circled each other, Kaff watching for the green's next move.
When Kaff's circling got him back to his furs, he kicked them up, into Stench's face. It didn't get him much time, maybe a few heartbeats, but it was enough for him to jump at the green and get his hands around Stench's wrists.
Kaff held on for all he was worth, kicking as hard as he could. Stench kicked and writhed, trying to get his hands loose or stab Kaff with the wrist blades. It wasn't just that Stench was about as strong as Kaff: the green leader moved like snakes, twisting in ways Kaff just couldn't do.
Stench's toe claws scraped down Kaff's legs, stinging more than a scratch should. He probably poisoned those too, although the way greens avoided anything that might take the stink off meant he didn't need to poison them. They wouldn't even take a nice warm sand rub if Master didn't order them to clean up.
Stench pulled one hand loose, raking Kaff's belly with his wrist blades.
That hurt. Kaff curled up and tried not to scream even though he wanted to, badly. Not gonna scream. Not gonna.
Drizzle's clammy hands felt really good. It stopped hurting right away, although feeling things slide back to where they were supposed to go was strange. Kaff never knew insides were that slippery.
When the blue leader was done, Kaff climbed to his feet, wondering what would be next.
Gnarl looked liked he'd just finished a nice fat beetle. "Why aren't you in the horde, Kaff? You're more than good enough to earn a place there."
Kaff blinked. "Me young. Scrawny. Fight like greens, not proper browns."
Stench grinned and saluted with his wrist blades. "Fight better than most greens, too. Get you some of these, you be real fun to fight."
Kaff shook his head. "Me not green."
"Yes, you'd have problems with poison, and that's just to start," Gnarl said. He sounded a bit sad about that.
"How you fight not matter," Gloob said. "You just got to beat enough to be in."
Gnarl shook his head. "Sadly, Gloob, that's not the case. Some fool would get sand in his nostrils thinking Kaff fought dirty. Even if minions are supposed to fight dirty."
Kaff never knew minion ears could make something sound mean. He wondered if he watched Gnarl he could learn how to do it too.
Blaze, Stench and Drizzle all nodded, then Mortis said in his gravelly voice, "So what do we do with the youngster?"
"We do what the Master said, of course." Kaff hadn't seen much bother Gnarl. He even stayed calm when Master was angry with him. "Gloob, you and Stench work with him. Make sure he gets familiar with good armor and weapons, and can use that bouncing around trick of his when he's got a full kit on."
Kaff's ears rose a bit. Real armor would be good.
"Nothing without a blue around," Gnarl added. "The Master doesn't want Kaff taking any unnecessary damage."
Which meant getting injured when there weren't any blues to heal him. Kaff knew about that. If a minion was hurt and he had to heal without help, he got scars. Sometimes things didn't work right after, and blues couldn't always fix that.
There were lots of things blues couldn't fix. If something got cut off and it healed over, they couldn't put it back on. If you died and you didn't have all your bits and pieces with you, you wouldn't get them back when you got brought back. Blues couldn't heal the mad magic from the wasteland either. All the minions were glad the new God made that go away.
"I'll leave you to arrange it." Gnarl turned to Kaff. "Come with me, young one."
Kaff would almost rather fight Stench again.
Gnarl led Kaff through the minion-ways to a small room with a human-style bed in it. This had to be one of Gnarl's holes Kaff couldn't imagine the Minion Master having more than one hole. He must have this one so he could be near Master, as well as whatever he had in the barracks. Maybe more. No-one ever knew where Gnarl went when he wasn't with Master or in the throne room.
"Well." Gnarl sat on the bed. "Now things get interesting." He pulled something out from under an old fur. "What does this look like to you?"
Kaff caught the board when Gnarl tossed it to him. One side was plain but the other one had pictures on it. It looked like the pictures got rubbed off with something a long time ago, but if Kaff squinted he could see what looked like faces. Some were minion faces, all on one side of the board, with the special squiggles Mistress Fay called numbers beside them. On the other side of the board there were human faces, and elf faces, and beards, and they had the number squiggles too.
"It old picture?" Kaff guessed. "Only special?"
The Minion Master cackled. "Yes, very special."
There must be more Gnarl wanted him to see. Kaff looked harder. He thought he saw Master's banner on the minion side of the picture. The middle had pictures too, but they were fainter, and they were things like trees, or squiggly lines, and there were lines, like whoever drew the picture was pointing the minion faces at the other faces. "It tell story about big fight?"
Gnarl grinned. "Close, Kaff, very close." He took the board from Kaff and laid it on the floor between them. "This is how battles are planned. These are where the Master wants minions to wait for his command." He pointed to the minion faces. "And how many of each tribe he wants where." He paused.
"Is them enemy?" Kaff pointed at the other faces. This was easier than he'd thought.
"Indeed they are." Gnarl rubbed his hands together. "Elves, humans, and dwarves. It's a long time since all three races allied against the Master... that was... oh, more than ten Masters ago." He sighed. "That was a glorious battle, young Kaff. The screaming, the dying, the pleas for mercy while minions played with their entrails... Ah, I miss the old days when there were hundreds of minions in the field at a time."
Kaff tilted his head. "Why there not now?"
Gnarl sighed, and his ears drooped. "It's the power." He sounded like he'd forgotten who he was talking to. "It takes so much magic to field so many, and every talisman that's destroyed takes magic away."
"Not make more?" Kaff asked.
"I can't." Gnarl shook his head. "Perhaps one day a Master will start making more talismans to hold power."