Nearly Free

The crewman laid her on a bed in one of the passenger berths as the Captain put her bag by her side, in both easy view and reach.

Both of them then stood back for another man to approach. His face went from curious frown to fury at the sight of her and Leila tried to scramble back, but her limbs refused to obey. They were aching and tingling and even trying to move made her dizzy.

The scowling man snarled. “Who did this?”

The Captain straightened. “I did. This girl is escaping Temple bondage and I agreed to smuggle her to the Scattered Isles.”

“On the same run as the deputy high priest and his flunkeys”

Leila quailed, she hadn’t realised HE had been on the ship.

The Captain shrugged. “She knew to stay silent and it was the last place they’d check for her.”

She turned to Leila. “In case you’re unsure, this is Doctor Tonio, the ship’s physician.”

The doctor stayed focused on the Captain. “Do I want to know the details of her journey?”

“I can show you the hidey hole later if you’re desperate. It would have been fine if not for the storm. As it is, she’s in need of your help so might I suggest you get off your high horse and help her?” The Captain met the angry man eye to eye.

He glared. “We will be discussing this later.”

Then he turned to her and the anger slid of his face like water, a worried-looking furrow in his brow taking its place.

He perched on the edge of the bed and carefully laid his fingers on her wrist. “Your heart is beating too fast. Don’t worry, I’m furious with the Captain there, not you.”

Leila swallowed, tried to find some moisture in her mouth, then croaked. “Deputy High Priest, scared of him. He wants me.”

The man’s mouth firmed. “In that case, I want to get a full check on your state of health now, then move you onshore as fast as possible. The minute you set foot on Scattered Isles land, you’re free. On the ship, the situation is still uncertain.”

She nodded. The examination was careful, thorough and impersonal. He sat back. “Bruises, strained muscles, dehydration. You’ve come through this remarkably well considering.”

He glared at the Captain again. “But she’s far from actually well. She needs several days bed rest, food, water, heat packs, a bruise salve, a bath and a fresh set of clothes. I presume you have somewhere that can take her?”

The Captain nodded. “I’ve an innkeeper of sorts in mind who’ll look after her and give her a bit of a start in getting to know the place.”

He stood, clapping his hands together. “Good. Do you want to get her washed and changed here, or cart her over to your friends like another piece of freight?”

The Captain gave Leila an apologetic glance. “I’m afraid the freight option is safer.”

“Then at least get some food and water into her.”

He looked sternly at Leila. “Small amounts and slowly. You’ve been clever and not completely deprived yourself but you’re still badly in need and your body will want to gorge.”

She nodded and tried to sit up. The Captain leaned forward to help, then left the room, calling for plain porridge and water.

The doctor stayed a little longer. “Why does the Deputy High Priest specifically want you?”

Words were starting to come a little more easily. “I’m a weaver. Parents are masters. They got into debt and the temple saved them. They didn’t name their price until after. They want me as the personal attendant and robe-maker for, him.”

The doctor raised a brow. “Many people would be overjoyed at that.

Leila shook her head. “He’s arrogant, mean and overbearing and I’d be confined to Temple premises for the rest of my life.”

“What did your parents think?”

“They were outraged. They hate the way the Temple trades in people, they thought it would want their wares – some of the finest cloth in the Empire. They pretended to be happy, and found Captain Saros.”

She plucked at her skirt. “I hope the Temple believe it’s just me and that my parents didn’t help. They promised it would be fine, but I’m frightened for them.”

There was a noise in the corridor, then a sailor appeared with a bowl and a mug. Leila thought it may have been the man who’d carried her to this cabin.

“Captain says you’re to get these two into you as slowly as possible.”

He lifted the mug. “Sweet tea.”

Then the bowl. “Porridge, fresh from the pot.”

Doctor Tonio took the mug, handing it on to Leila. “Start with that, slow, small sips. Get through half without bringing it back up and you can make a start on Cook’s best oats and water.”

He took the bowl from the crewman, then looked at him quizzically. “Is there a spoon?”

The man patted about his clothes, then produced a battered old spoon from his back pocket with a grin.

Leila smiled into her mug at the doctor’s grimace as he accepted it. As the sailor left, she dropped her eyes again and focused on not gulping down the tea.

Several minutes later, Leila held out a half-empty mug for inspection.

Doctor Tonio asked. “How is your stomach feeling?”

“Like it wants more. It’s not churning or anything, although it did a bit at the start.”

“Good.”

He swapped mug for bowl and spoon. “Same rule here, pretend you’re dining with the Princess of the Scattered Isles.”

That made her smile and the doctor’s expression lightened. “Captain’s right, you’ve come through this remarkably well. You’ve an impressive will and determination when you need it.”

Leila smiled and nodded, more focused on the feeling of food, beyond the two to three bites she’d kept herself to, slowly calming the growling hollow in her gut.

She took too much, too fast and her stomach clenched. She sat back, trying to breath deep and slow, trying to settle her insides. It wasn’t working.

The bowl in her lap was swapped with an empty bucket and she tried not to cry as all her careful sips and bites emptied into it in an instant.

When the dry retching eased, the tea mug appeared in front of her.

“Use one or two small mouthfuls to rinse and spit, then start sipping again. Go even more slowly now.”

She obeyed. The first sips were barely enough to wet her lips, but she was able to finish the tea with no recourse to the bucket.

She was on her fourth tentative bite of porridge when Captain Saros reappeared.

“Right, we have a delivery set up and we need to get on with it. His High-and-Mightiness has sent a message that he wishes to sleep aboard.”

Leila’s empty stomach filled with lead and she shuffled herself around to drop her legs off the side of the bunk, trying to stand.

The Captain shook her head. “No time for that. I’ll take the evidence of the meal, Doctor, you’ll need to carry her to the goods hold.”

Doctor Tonio nodded and scooped her up. Leila grabbed her bag and cradled it to her as the Captain took mug, bowl and spoon, then smoothed over the bunk and led the way down the dim corridor.

In the goods hold, she was lowered into a large wicker basket. A blanket covered the bottom but the sides were left unlined. It was made of a thick, dark reed or similar, sturdy and tightly woven, but the chinks and little warps were enough to let some light in and Leila breathed a soft sigh of relief. She curled up as she had in the ship’s nook, tucked around her precious bundle.

The lid was closed over her and the basket rocked a little as it was secured. She had to tuck her hands into her armpits to keep from grabbing at the sides as it was lifted and carried out onto the deck. Even through the filter of the weave, the bright sunlight made Leila’s eyes water.

The swaying, slanted trip down the gangway was terrifying. The lift and thump as she was settled onto a firm surface a teeth-jarring relief.

The platform jerked into motion, some sort of cart then, and she braced herself against the sides as the basket juddered and bumped along with the wood beneath it.

They jerked to a stop, where they there already? Then she heard that dreaded nasal drawl. Deputy High Priest Gasin was hailing the Captain.

“Off somewhere interesting then?”

Captain Saros’s answer was nonchalant. “The last little straggling deliveries. I like to do the smaller ones myself. It’s a good way to collect news.”

“What an excellent notion. I should join you.”

Leila stopped breathing.

The Captain barked a laugh. “With respect Your Worship, people don’t talk when sun priests are around. The Islanders have little time or trust for another country’s religions. If you want news, you’re better leaving me to get it for you.”

In the silence, Leila could picture the ugly, snarling scowl settling over Gasin’s face. She heard it in his reply and nearly fainted in relief and astonishment at his words.

“Sadly true Captain, they are woefully far from the true path. I will await your return.”

With that, the cart started forward again and Leila bit down on the side of her fist. She must stay silent.

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