“He should have been back days ago.” Jurgen paced the balcony.
“None of them have returned.” Koert leaned on the wall, near the door into the queen’s chambers. “It is possible they are delayed by the weather, or —”
“I told them if they returned without him I’d kill them.” He took a deep breath. “Do you think she…?”
“Jurgen, she wouldn’t.” Koert exhaled. “Emotions aside, simple pragmatism would have stayed her hand. If it became known she arranged the death of her own child on his rite?” Koert shook his head. “She’d lose everything she’s built over the past few years.”
“And that, at least, she cares about.” Jurgen sighed. He walked to the railing and looked over. The city spread out below, and torches were being lit against the coming night. His mother ruled well. Darodelf was at peace, and their lands prospered. Some were speaking of the Dragon Queen’s rule as a golden age. Her father had ruled only Darodelf itself, but Thirza had multiplied their holdings by a factor of ten. She was building a legacy. And his own upcoming wedding would nearly double the strength of what they already had.
He turned to see his mother come out to the balcony, cradling Rutger. She smiled at him warmly before turning her gaze to Koert. Had she looked at his father that way? His memories of the man were more memories of dreams. Levi he remembered only as screams, a bloody wreck of what had once been a man. His mother had started by having Levi’s hands and feet burned off, under the care of a healer to ensure the man survived. No doubt if Levi hadn’t managed to bash in his own skull she’d be torturing him still. The man had served him poison in a plate of strawberries. A dozen years had passed, and he still couldn’t stomach the taste of that fruit.
His father had been a chief. Levi had been a noble. Koert, however, was a slave and before that had been one of the lowest members of his clan. Had he been free, his status would never have permitted him to come to the attention of a queen. He couldn’t help but smile when he saw them kiss, and his smile only widened when Koert whispered something that made her giggle and blush like a maiden. He withdrew quietly, leaving them together on the balcony.
From his doorway, he could hear Koert singing to her, and knew his mother would be smiling. He sighed, and went to the map. Lammert was only a few days late, and there was always some give on a raid. A horse could have broken a leg, they could have learned of a better prize, and for that matter they could have gotten a bit lost. Jurgen shook his head. It was too early to be worried, but he couldn’t stop himself. It wasn’t like Lammert had anyone else to worry about him.
She couldn’t help but be worried about the boy. Most of the time he was silent and withdrawn, clearly traumatized. Despite clearly understanding every word they said and responding in perfectly fluent Ilael, he continued to deny being able to speak the language. Uduak was beginning to wonder if his brain had been rattled when he’d been struck unconscious. She’d seen such a thing before, a man who’d been knocked in the head during a storm. He’d been addled for a few days, and when he’d come out of it he’d completely lost his memory of the past six years of his life. A woman had nearly drowned, and when they’d brought her back she’d proved unable to retain new memories for longer than a few hours.
Uduak exhaled. Considering those that he’d been with had been slaughtered, perhaps it was best to leave him be. No use making him relive such things. He was a sweet lad, quick to jump up and assist her with any task. He’d taken to doing her washing for her. “He understands what they say.”
Baako’s voice made her turn her head, and she raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“The Tebota. Earlier, when they were giving instructions. He understood, acted before I translated.”
Then she hadn’t been imagining it. “What did you tell them I would pay?” She gave the boy a contemplative look.
“Five times what the Unitafels charged for him.” Baako shrugged. “I figured they wouldn’t charge much and…”
“He understood.” She frowned. “Not only did he understand you, but…” She thought back to what he’d asked her. “Did they tell you how much the Unitafels charged?”
“No.” Baako shook his head. “I figure they’ll decide how much you’re willing to pay and claim that —”
“Three gold.” She slowly nodded.
“He understood them as well. He said they’d paid three gold for him, and you’d promised to pay five times that.” She leaned forward. “You speak the tongue of Ocia as well, yes?”
“Badly.” He nodded. “Enough to do some dickering.”
“Ask him something in that tongue.” She raised her voice. “Little lamb, would you come here? And bring the waterskin?” She made the request in Katarin.
Baako’s eyes widened when the boy picked up the waterskin and brought it to Uduak. Then he glanced at her and asked the boy something in a language she didn’t understand. Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the boy reply in the same language. “Thank you, my lamb.” She smiled at him. “You can return to Efua now.” He nodded before going back to where Efua was showing him how to tie knots.
“How does a Wilderfolk boy…” Baako stared after him.
“Keep quiet about it, and let us hope the Tebota do not notice.” She gave a small shake of her head. “I’d rather not have to pay a thousand gold to claim him.”
“He should have returned a week ago.” Jurgen shook his head.
“They have not come back over the border.” Thirza examined some parchment on her table.
He blinked. “You checked?” Could she actually be concerned?
“You made your feelings on the matter abundantly clear, Jurgen. I wished to avoid you doing something stupid.” She frowned. “Should any of them cross back, I will be —”
“I’m going after him.” Jurgen stood.
“You are not.” She narrowed her eyes.
“Mother, I —”
“Jurgen.” She straightened. “Given the time that has passed, if they ran into trouble there is likely nothing you could do. Matters are delicate and —” She sighed. “I know your suspicions, Jurgen. My feelings toward —” She took a deep breath. “I don’t…” She shook her head. “I don’t want him dead, Jurgen. Please believe that.”
“Then why…” He moved to stand across from her.
“I cannot look at him without…” She leaned on the table. “His father played me for a fool, and you nearly paid the price.” She was quiet for a moment. “He has Levi’s eyes.”
“I need to go —”
“I can’t lose you too, Jurgen. I need you here.” She looked up at him. “I can’t. All we can do for Lammert is pray.”
It took him almost a minute to nod, and doing so hurt. “I understand, Mother.”
The dreams were changing. The images of fire and destruction were fading to more immediate terrors. And they were becoming stranger. He dreamed of a prisoner in the barracks going berserk and killing Baako. Upon being placed into the room, he’d seen the man from his dreams. Baako had started to go fetch a waterskin and he’d grabbed the man’s arm, clinging for dear life. The fight had broken out mere moments later, leaving four prisoners dead.
Lammert couldn’t explain, but he noted a subtle difference in how his newfound companions looked at him. Uduak never let him stray more than a few feet from her side after that. That part was nice. She was there whenever the dreams woke him, holding him and singing softly. Being her slave didn’t seem bad at all.
Each day they were taken further south, along the river. Uduak explained that as long as they kept their heads down and didn’t cause trouble or draw attention, the Tebota would simply ransom them back to her people. “Have you ever seen the ocean, my lamb?” He liked her nickname for him. It felt warm.
“No.” He smiled up at her. “I read about it once though. It’s like a very big lake.”
“It’s much more than that, my lamb. It’s life.” She rubbed his back gently. “Can you swim?”
“A little.” He shifted a little, uncomfortable admitting that weakness. She could still change her mind and leave him.
“I will teach you.” She smiled at him before kissing his forehead.
“Will I stay with you on your ship?” He raised an eyebrow.
“My ship?” Uduak blinked.
He nodded. “You did what the shaman asked, so even though you got captured you’ll still get your ship.” He smiled. “What’s a phoenix?”
“How did you know about my ship?” She tilted her head.
“I…” He frowned. Had she told him? No. “I saw it in my dream.”
“I see.” She leaned back, and pulled him in to snuggle against her side. “A phoenix is a spirit of fire, my lamb. It dies, then rises from the ashes strong and reborn.” She continued speaking, telling him the legend. He fell asleep listening to her voice.
“You’re not going after him?” Diantha raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t actually know where to look.” Jurgen sighed.
“I’m sorry.” She leaned against him, and he put an arm around her. “He’s your brother, Jurgen. If he’s alive, he’ll make it home. And —” She cut herself off.
“And if he’s not…” Jurgen closed his eyes. “There is nothing I could do anyway.”
Uduak tucked the boy in, placing the thin blanket over him gently. She was reluctant to get too far from him while he slept. Everyone needed to stay quiet anyway. If one of their captors who spoke Ilael heard them… The shaman had said she’d be rewarded for returning the gem. She’d assumed the woman was speaking of her ship. Her face softened as she watched her little lamb sleep, and she brushed hair back from his face before joining the others.
“Who is he?” Enu glanced at the slumbering child.
“He’s a lost and hurt child.” Efua folded her arms. “That’s the important part.”
“I won’t argue with that, but…” Baako exhaled. “I think he saved my life this morning.”
“I think he knew what was going to happen.” She positioned herself to watch him.
“How?” Enu frowned.
“I’’m not certain.” Uduak frowned. “Do any of you know what I intend to name my ship?”
“I’d assumed after your grandmother’s vessel.” Efua shrugged. “The Reliant.”
Baako and Enu agreed, stating they hadn’t thought about it. None of them knew, thus they couldn’t have told the boy. She slowly nodded. “He knew.” She took a deep breath. “He said he saw it in a dream.”
“You think…” Enu leaned back against the wall, resting his head against the wood panel. “Merciful waters.”
“If he…” Efua took a few breaths. “If he sees things in dreams…” She looked up at Uduak. “Why does he wake screaming?”
“Merciful waters,” Enu repeated.
“We aren’t going to return him to his people…” Baako met her eyes. “Are we?”
“I’ve yet to hear him express an interest in returning to his people…” Uduak narrowed his eyes. “He screamed the first time. Before the Unitafels…” She felt sick when she remembered what the boy had endured at their hands. And yet he’d woken screaming even before that.
“A child should never have been anywhere near those monsters. That would be reason enough to keep him, even without knowing…” Efua had tears in her eyes when she looked at the boy. “They didn’t protect him. We can.” Her face was fierce when she turned back to Uduak. “We will.”
“Yes.” Uduak nodded. “We will.”
The world around him seemed alien, now that he could see more of it. For the first time, they were taken out in the open instead of in carts. Most of the people around them were almost as dark-skinned as his fellow captives. He drew stares when they were taken through public areas, and drew closer to Uduak. She took his hand, squeezing gently.
The architecture was wildly different. Nothing here was built of stone. The closest to rock were clay tiles, and the rest was wood. Some of the interior walls were made of painted paper. The designs were intricate, and sometimes he could see poems incorporated into tree-branches or the flow of water over rocks. He read one aloud to Uduak, and she smiled at him proudly.
During meals, he traded his share of mushrooms for Enu’s peapods. The food was strange, but they were given enough and none was rotten. Enu would tell him what spices he tasted. Ginger was rapidly becoming his favorite, and when the meals included thin slices of the stuff Efua gave him her share. And it seemed as long as he stayed with these people, he was safe. To their captors, his companions had value.
They were given fresh clothes that morning, with cloth slippers, before being led outside. The others seemed a little nervous, and Uduak told him to stay with Efua. Efua kept a protective arm around his shoulders. Even with that, though, his eyes widened when he saw the four gray beasts. They were ten times the size of a horse, with snake-like growths coming out of their faces and fangs jutting out of their mouths. Horror filled him as he realized they were being taken toward the things, and he tried to balk. Efua glanced at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Are they going to feed us to —” He stared at the creatures.
Quickly, she started shaking her head, but a smile danced around her mouth. “No, little lamb. Those are elephants.” She gave him a reassuring smile, and when he stared at her blankly it widened a little. “They only eat plants.”
“They have spears for teeth…” He looked back at the creatures.
“Those are more like horns than fangs.” She put her arm around his shoulders again. “Think of them as…” She shrugged. “Big gray cows.”
“They have arms growing out of their faces.”
“Arms growing…” Efua laughed. “Lamb, that’s its nose.”
“It’s…” Lammert gave her a disbelieving look. “It’s nose?”
“Merciful waters.” Efua shook her head fondly. “I can’t wait until the first time you see an octopus.”
She caught Baako’s smile, and shook her head before giving one of her own. The boy had gone from terrified of the elephants to thoroughly entranced by them in only a few minutes. The elephant’s handler had given the boy some treats to feed them, and her lamb was laughing as one caressed his face with it’s trunk. It was good to hear the sound. The boy still woke screaming or sobbing each time he slept, and it was becoming increasingly clear from his mutterings that few of his nightmares involved the Unitafels. It hurt her heart to gag him when he went to sleep, but she had no other options. Perhaps once he knew he was safe, the nightmares would stop.
They were in Hye’s hands now, almost as good as free. He drove a hard bargain, but he traded with her people often. And if she were any judge, they’d be at the port tomorrow. She was sure Hye had picked up on her affection for the boy, and would charge her accordingly. And yet the boy seemed so starved for affection she couldn’t bear to distance herself from him at all. She’d pay whatever they asked, and take it up with the Queen later. Her lamb was worth the cost.
The boy went silent, and she saw him tilt his head at a newcomer before frowning and coming to her. “Uduak?”
“Yes, my lamb?” She bent so he could speak directly into her ear.
“The man that is ransoming you…” He glanced at the newcomer. “That man is here to kill him.”
“And you know this…”
He hesitated. “I saw it in my dream.”
“I see.” She kissed his forehead. “Thank you for telling me.” If she warned Hye, he’d want to know how she knew, but she could manage to turn it into him owing her a debt. If she didn’t, their situation could worsen and she’d lose an ally. It was still a gamble. Murder was something she could not condone. “Stay with Efua, my lamb.” She straightened. “Baako, come with me.”
When he joined her, she headed up to request an audience with Hye.