Chapter 17: Westward Oh Crap
Maiala paced the confines of her prison, rocking the dark-haired baby in her arms. Though she tried to hide her fears, all three of them knew something was wrong. They burbled softly, and smiled a lot, but rarely cried – perhaps responding to her undisguised terror of anything disturbing the Centurion.
Little Red could roll himself over and lift his head for short times, Dark kept trying to pet her cheek, sometimes managing and more often smacking her, while Pale would watch her intently as though he was trying to make something happen just by staring.
All three had outgrown their swaddling, which Maiala now used for them to lie on. After near two months at sea, her supply of rags was all but gone. She doubted sea water would help to wash the few rags she had left. It might wash out the baby mess, but the salt that would be left in the rags would do terrible things to their skin.
That was less of a worry than the ever-diminishing levels of food and wine. Earlier in the journey, sailors had brought her cooked fish they'd caught, but there'd been none of that lately. From what she saw and heard of them, they were worried about something as well as being unhappy over the long time without sight of land.
Some of them were ready to revolt, claiming they were being led to sail over the edge of the world. Only fear of the Centurion kept them obedient.
He was in a foul temper, to judge from what Maiala heard. She'd huddled in a corner, clutching the babies and whimpering while a man screamed and died on the deck for the 'crime' of tending to his duties rather than the Centurion. Learning that the unfortunate sailor was one of the men who'd play with the babies because he had little ones in his hometown, and missed his wife and children…
The ship lurched, triggering shouts and curses from the sailors. Words like 'shallows' and 'banks' and 'uncharted' were mixed in with the cursing. The captain's voice called for poles, ordering all the men to the deck. It sounded like he wanted everyone to help push the ship away from whatever had caught it.
The Centurion's voice made her cringe. "What in Solarius's name are you doing?"
The captain sounded much calmer than Maiala would have been. "She's hit shallows, m'lord. Always a risk when you sail uncharted waters. We're pushing her off, then we'll have to go slow, find a way around."
A meaty sound, then a thump. "There's no time for this nonsense."
The captain's voice again, still calm. "There's two ways to get past the shallows, Lord. One is to push off and sail around. The other is to throw passengers and cargo overboard to lighten the draft – and that might not be enough. You see those breakers? The white?"
"What of it?"
"That's where the sea is so shallow waves can happen, Lord." The captain sounded like he was trying not to be angry. "We can't pass that, not in this ship, not even if we threw off everything as ain't needed to sail the ship."
The Centurion didn't say anything for a while, and when he did, he sounded like he wanted the captain dead. "How long will this take?"
"Depends, Lord." The captain didn't sound happy either. "Once we're clear, we can make south, but we'll have to sound our way." A pause. "That's lowering weighted ropes, Lord, to make sure the bottom's deep enough." Another pause, this one longer. "This ship is deep-drafted, to have space for cabins and cargo, Lord. She's for supply, not attack. As is, we're lucky we ain't stuck fast."
While he spoke, the ship tilted, then jolted again. Men started running, and Maiala heard several drop onto the rowing benches, then the creak of wood as they worked the oars while the captain shouted orders to the men still up on the deck.
She swallowed in a dry throat. If not for the ever-present fear of what the Centurion would want of her, this would be far more pleasant than her old life. There were no sand chiggers to burrow into exposed skin – which for her had always been all of it, because who would waste precious cloth on a slave? – no blown sand to sting and get in her eyes, she had food and drink, and her only duties were to tend the babies.
The babies who must have a mother and a father somewhere who wanted them back… Magical parents, too, if those glowing eyes meant anything.
It was better not to wonder about that, she reminded herself. Again.
Better not to think at all, if she could avoid it.
How long the ship inched on, powered by the sailors at the oars, Maiala could not have said. It was long enough that she ate, fed the babies, and slept. And repeated the process until at last she woke to a different tangle of sound from outside her prison.
The captain's shouted orders were more about ropes and holding things. They must have reached land at last.
Maiala swallowed. That meant that whatever was to happen to her would happen soon.
Red made a reassuring cooing sound, and she smiled. "Yes, I should listen to you, little one." She cleaned all three with one of the few remaining rags, then set to getting the babies in clean rags before half-wrapping them in the remains of their swaddling so that she would be able to carry them. Hopefully she wouldn't be expected to carry all three at once, but if she had to, she could.
Just as well she did – by the time she had Pale wrapped, she heard the bolt on the door being drawn back.
The captain entered the prison. "Ah, you've got it figured. Smart of you, girl." He stood on his toes to free her chain. "Can you carry all of them? Centurion's got a fire up his ass over something."
"Not if I have to climb, sir, but for anything else I can," she told him. The captain had been kind in a gruff sort of way. He and his crew had, even if part of it had been fear of touching anything the Centurion claimed as his property.
"I'll help for that. Hurry along now."
Climbing the ladder wasn't the difficult part. The difficult part was how much her eyes hurt after so long in a dim little cabin. Maiala had to keep her eyes narrowed to slits to see at all, and even then everything was blurry. She held the babies tight, and they, clearly aware something was wrong, had their little hands making fists in her hair.
Stumbling down the swaying ramp between the ship and the stone dock was bad: she nearly fell. The Centurion held the other end of her chain, and Maiala didn't think he'd care if he had to drag her wherever he wanted to go. She couldn't hear much beyond wind and birds and a rustling old memories told her was made by trees. Her eyes made little more than a wash of gray-green between yellow and blue.
She moved from the stone dock to sand almost as hot as the desert sands in summer, then into cooler, shadowed sand mixed with twigs and other bits of plant. In the dimmer light, Maiala's eyes started to adjust, allowing her to see tall trees with narrow leaves of gray-green mingled with smaller shrubs covered in golden puff-balls of flowers. Other shrubs grew here too, things with spines as long as her fingers that twined around everything, and others that dropped spiky seed-balls that would shred bare feet. Maiala avoided those as much by luck as anything else.
The further she was taken into the woods, the more nervous Maiala's guards became. Even the Centurion seemed nervous, although nothing about the woods seemed odd or wrong to Maiala. Even the giant creature they disturbed that bounded away on two oversized back feet didn't seem particularly hostile. Just... big.
The path meandered through the trees, apparently made by something other than feet. Possibly animals that liked the sea used it. Sheep certainly would follow the same path without ever considering going any other way, and made their own trails through the sparse grasslands of Ruboria.
The man in front disappeared into a hole that hadn't been there a moment before. She heard him scream, glimpsed long black legs that wrapped around the Centurion's feet in the moment before the man hacked at them. The legs retreated, their owner apparently content with the screaming man.
The Centurion's voice wasn't steady when he said, "Cursed spiders. Worse than cursed Everlight."
That was a spider? It was a terrifying thought. For spiders to grow that big they needed magical help.
The group edged along the side of the path, avoiding the place where the man had vanished.
If she looked carefully Maiala could see a thin line, and some faint traces of spiderwebbing. Spiders that built traps? They had to be magically made.
The Centurion ordered another man to the front of the little group, and had him start prodding the ground ahead of him with his sword. That made moving along the winding trail even slower.
Maiala's arms ached: she'd never held anything this long, but she couldn't shift the babies for fear of dropping one of them. She didn't dare ask to rest, or for one of the soldiers to carry the babies for a time.
They reached a cliff, a wall of green with flowers of all colors and massive thorns. A few spikes of rock poked through the mat of vines.
The man in front carefully used his sword to push some of the vines back, revealing a dark opening in the rock behind it.
The Centurion entered, leaving Maiala no choice but to follow.
Inside was a large cave with a stream running through it. Light came in through where the stream left the cave, and the cave floor held piles of twigs and leaves as well as an impressive variety of animal droppings.
Towards the back, a sandy area held barrels and crates, a rough-fired clay cup, and a hook someone had hammered high into the wall.
Maiala didn't say anything when the Centurion threaded the end of her chain onto the hook. She didn't even say anything when he pushed the hook, and it closed with a click. She wouldn't be leaving here unless someone cut or burned through the chain.
At least it looked as though the chain was long enough to let her use the stream to get water.
The Centurion turned and left her. Outside the cave she heard him ordering his men to set up traps along the path, then feet, then finally, only the stream and her own breathing.
She sank to the sandy cave floor and sighed. Whatever this was it made no sense to her.
Thorn paced the deck, swearing in the most blistering language he knew – language that would have shocked even an Imperial soldier. He cursed the Centurion's ancestry back several generations, including family pets and horses. What was the man doing, depositing his hostages in the middle of the wilderness?
He'd been careful to stay out of sight of the Imperial ship, using his link with the babies to track it, but seeing them abandoned...
The burning desire to punish those who had stolen his children warred with the need to retrieve them and protect them.
If that was not enough, now that the Centurion had made land, the favorable winds had become decidedly unfavorable before dying altogether. The minions would have to row in, making what had been a day's sailing at least two miserable days of rowing. More time for something to go wrong.
He was going to feed that cursed Imperial to his minions for this. After he had taken a satisfyingly long time to learn everything the man thought he would be doing.
The babies first. Fay was almost a ghost herself, despite Storm's best efforts. She might not survive him taking vengeance first.
After he had the children back in the Netherworld he could pursue a leisurely vengeance.
The town – village, really – of West Imperatrix nestled in a deep harbor that was almost invisible from the ocean. Ruins had been scavenged for stone, as much to protect from the wildlife as for building materials.
Lucilla didn't care about the previous occupants. They'd been killed when the Empire established this colony, and if there were more of the filthy creatures, they hadn't bothered the colonists. All of which made the whole place ideal for her mother's grand plan – a plan Lucilla carefully avoided thinking about, especially as she was about to see her mother in person for the first time in over a year.
A scrawny slave showed her into her mother's receiving room, where her mother reclined on a couch. "Ah, my dear daughter. You look as though your ordeal has done you well."
Lucilla bowed her head. "I am here and healthy, Mother. The packages are safely stowed in the place you arranged for them." Of course, that idiot Lucius had managed to lose one of his men in the process. It took effort to get your people eaten by a giant spider.
"Wonderful, my darling." Her mother stood, the loose drape of her gown doing nothing to conceal that she was still a beautiful woman. "You have the ingredients for that special perfume?"
"I have them." Lucilla swallowed. "Mother, he has three Mistresses already. What is to stop him..."
Her mother laughed, soft, musical, sensual laughter. "My dear girl, have a little trust in your mother's skills. With that perfume, he won't so much as look at his soon-to-be-former Mistresses. He'll be putty in your hands." A touch of hardness, showing the steel resolve beneath her mother's lush appearance. "And you will be sure to guide him properly, won't you my dear?" A smile. "Now, you need to know how to make it yourself, since I won't be able to show myself for a while yet. He needs to be properly hooked before that."
"Of course, Mother." Lucilla had no intention of arguing about that. The very... specialized perfume could be adapted to entrance any man, and the secret of making it would allow her to at last be free of her dear Mother.
After washing herself and the babies with a rag soaked in the cool water of the stream, Maiala drank until she was no longer thirsty, then ate, then drank some more. No matter how dire her predicament, it was good to be able to eat and drink as much as she wanted, and water, not vinegary wine.
The little ones picked up on her improved mood, cooing at her and waving little limbs. Red rolled himself over and lifted his head, burbling.
She smiled. "Well. We're still trapped, but at least we've enough to drink and food for a while." She picked up Dark, who was looking a bit pinch-faced. "Meal time for you three as well, then we can sleep a little, hm?"
They would sleep, at any rate. Maiala hadn't done much more than doze. Not that she missed the lost sleep, which was... odd. Although not as odd as suddenly finding herself able to feed the little ones. Nothing that dramatic had happened since, but then, there hadn't been a need for it either. Maiala wasn't sure what was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't going to complain about it.
The babies soon drifted to sleep, full bellies and their nurse's relaxation more than enough reason for sleep.
She had barely started to doze when she heard something approach, then a harsh hissing sound, stronger than a snake his.
She bounced to her feet, putting herself between the immense armored lizard and the babies even as she realized she'd be nothing more than a bite for it. It – no, her -- opened jaws filled with terrifying teeth and hissed again.
Maiala swallowed. Emotions that weren't hers washed through her: fear for the young, for babies that were... "Easy there, mama," she said in an unsteady voice, holding the magical link as tightly as she could and trying to send reassurance and calm through it. The mind behind that massive body was much more intelligent than a giant lizard should be, and she could almost taste the twisting that had come from the Wastelands. "Easy. I don't want to hurt your babies. I have babies to look after too."
The jaws slowly closed, and the huge lizard's body relaxed. It moved to the large pile of leaves and twigs, poking its snout in, then using the long nose to push the pile open.
After a while, a clutch of perhaps two dozen eggs emerged beneath the damp, steaming almost-soil in the depths of the piled foliage. One of them had already cracked open, and a moment later an armored lizard no longer than Maiala's forearm crawled out, chirping.
The mother lizard growled, a low rumble that seemed to be more of a reassuring sound.
More baby lizards hatched, all of them chirping and and looking at their mother for... Maiala supposed they wanted food.
Well, she had dried meat in plenty, and while the bond between her and the mother lizard remained, it wouldn't hurt to give them some.
She walked carefully, blinking when one of the baby lizards scampered through her foot. That was... weird. She didn't feel anything, but the lizard definitely went through her body. It was as if when it was looking for something it forgot about the things in its way and somehow made them not exist for it.
"Here, mama. For your babies." Maiala moved slowly to lay the meat on the cave floor, and didn't flinch when little lizards swarmed over and through her to reach the feast.
The mother lizard seemed surprised, but she didn't object. Instead, she slipped into the stream, returning a little later with a mouth full of freshly caught fish.
The baby lizards ate that, too.
Maiala retreated with equal care, settling herself beside the babies where she could watch the mother lizard and her clutch.
After the fish had been eaten the mother lizard ushered her babies over to where Maiala sat, then curled her body around her little ones, Maiala and the infants.
To Maiala's astonishment, the mother lizard's mind radiated contentment, even pleasure. What had she done?