Eventually the cart turned under something that blocked the light overhead and the sound of the wheels softened. It eased to a halt this time and her basket jiggled as someone pulled at straps holding the lid in place.
Leila blinked up at the Captain’s face, peering over the side at her, reassured by the easy smile on the woman’s face. “Now that was closer than I tend to like. But we’re safe here, and once you set foot on Scattered Isles soil, the Empire’s laws have no hold on you.”
Leila reached for the top of the basket and tried to stand. It took a couple of tries, her legs felt like overcooked noodles. As she clambered over the side, onto the wooden planks of the donkey cart she’d been riding on, she realised there was an audience, and hunched into herself, clutching at her possessions, eyes darting from side to side.
The older couple watching her took a couple of steps forward, then halted, the woman calling out. “Please don’t worry, you’re safe here.”
The Captain put a steadying arm around Leila’s shoulders and nodded. “Innkeepers Timon and Juanita; they’ll rent you a room and see to your health until you’re recovered and then help put your feet on the road to a job and more permanent home. Timon is also a refugee from Temple bondage.”
Leila looked at the man and he nodded solemnly as he came forward. She gave him a wobbly smile and let him help her down from the cart. The pair ushered her inside and fussed over her as she sat on a wide bench, tucked against the wall of a large kitchen.
The Captain moved to stand beside her and spoke to them. “As I said earlier, she was confined to the smuggling hole for five days, no chance for extra provisions. She was able to eke out what she had, but she’s weak and badly battered about.”
The woman, Juanita, pulled a roll from a tray near the fire and brought it to her. “Freshly baked, but take it slowly. I’ll get you something to drink as well.”
Timon called after her as she ducked through a door. “If you’re thinking of your famous fruit mix juice, it might be best to water it down.”
Her amused voice came back from the other room. “Don’t you go telling me my business, she’s not the first waif that’s landed on my doorstep.”
Timon winked at Leila. “The first being me, you understand.”
Leila smiled and started to relax, only to jerk back as a door in the far wall banged open. Timon turned with a frown. “Marya, a little calm please, you’ve frightened our guest.”
A girl of about Leila’s age stopped and looked across the room in surprise.
Her eyes widened and Leila wondered what she was seeing.
Marya crossed the room and perched on the bench beside Leila. She was one of the loveliest young women Leila had ever seen, from the cascade of glossy red-brown curls, to dark-lashed eyes the colour of cinnamon and dusty-golden skin, everything about her caught, and held, the eye.
Leila felt a drab little bird in comparison. Even their dresses were opposites, Marya in form-fitting fresh, clean green against her shapeless, grubby grey.
Marya had clearly been doing her own assessment and reached out a tentative hand to Leila’s cheek, but drew back before touching.
“Your poor, pretty face, do the bruises hurt dreadfully?”
Leila blinked. Pretty? Her? The surprise held off the ache of the newly-mentioned bruises for a moment. She ducked her head and gave a little shrug.
“I hadn’t noticed them. The ones on my ribs are worse.”
Marya’s soft concern whipped to eye-flashing anger. “Who hurt you? They’ll pay. I’ll make them wish they’d never been born. Papa, we must do something.”
Timon tutted at his daughter. “Such a crusader you are. Leila has just arrived from the Sun Empire and endured a rough passage over. Rather than looking for a fight, how about you see to her care?”
Marya jumped up with a clap of her hands that made Leila start. “Of course. You’ve got some food and Mama’s on her way with her juice, I’ll get you a bath ready and a change of clothes.”
Timon put a hand out, pausing his daughter’s headlong rush from the kitchen as Juanita handed Leila the promised juice.
“Before you go, what was the reason for the dramatic entrance?”
Marya gasped, then spun in place. “The best news Papa. I got the job at the bakery. I’m to serve at counter but also learn how to make all the breads and fancy treats.”
Timon and Juanita’s proud delight tugged at Leila’s heart. Her parents were like that too. She hoped they would find a way to escape Gasin’s ire on his return to the Chief Temple in Carra. She hoped, but didn’t believe.
Captain Saros claimed her attention. “It’s time I was off. You’ll be well cared for here. I’ll be by again in six months or so and will bring any news I can of your family.”
Leila went to stand, but failed. She blinked back tears. “Thank you. For everything.”
Nothing else could make it past the lump in her throat but the Captain seemed to understand. She rested her hand briefly on Leila’s head, a parent’s blessing, then nodded to the other three, and left.
Mrya twirled back into movement. She was like one of the jewel-bright hummingbirds in the Caliph’s public gardens.
Juanita returned to her side. “How is the juice.”
“Oh.” Leila felt her cheeks heat. She’d been so busy watching and thinking, she’d forgotten what she held.
She sipped at the mug and a fresh, tangy flavour burst across her tongue. “Oh, that’s lovely.”
It took all her willpower not to gulp it down.
Juanita smiled. “Orange, fresh from the orchards, with passionfruit and just a touch of ginger for the stomach.”
That explained the lightly peppery tingle at the end. Leila focused on alternating bites at the soft bread and sips from the mug. Even though she went as slowly as she could, they both were finished much too soon.
Juanita seemed to be good at reading expressions. “No more just yet, let’s give that a chance to go down and do some good. You can have more after you bathe.”
Leila flushed again. “I’m afraid I must smell dreadfully.”
Timon replied. “Moderately awful but nothing a wash and some fresh clothes won’t fix.”
Juanita rolled her eyes. “My husband has no manners. I’m sure you’ll feel much better for being clean though. Marya will have the bath ready by now.”
She helped Leila stand and shuffle across to the door Marya had disappeared through earlier.
She did feel better after the bath. Marya made the water as hot as she could stand and, while her bruises protested initially, she could now move a little more smoothly, and the worst of the aches had faded.
After she was clean and dry, Marya and Juanita helped her into a nightgown and soft, blue dressing robe; rather than going to the effort of fully re-dressing so late in the day.
Marya’s eyes twinkled at her. “It’s not like you’re about to go out visiting just yet after all. You may as well be properly comfortable.”
Leila smiled as she tilted her head to one side, coaxing a comb through the bird’s nest her hair had become. She’d made some headway after Juanita gave her a soft, slippery cream to rub into it and had managed to get it to the stage where the comb moved freely and she could attempt a braid.
Marya sighed. “Your hair is so lovely, I wish mine would behave itself and lie smooth. It looks like ink being poured out of a bottle. All black and shiny.”
“But your hair’s beautiful.” Leila was shocked out of exhausted fog she’d drifted into during her bath.
Juanita huffed, but smiled. “We never want what we’ve got, only what we can’t have. You’re both of you lovely girls and should be content with what you’ve been given.”
Mayra rolled her eyes, but she was smiling when she replied. “Yes mother.”
She whispered to Leila. “She’s been saying that to me since I was old enough to listen. And probably before.”
Leila astounded herself by nearly giggling. “My mother says something very similar.”
She wasn’t given a chance to sink into loss, Juanita bustled her up from the stool she’d been sitting on, saying. “Well most mothers are sensible people, so you should both pay attention. Now, Leila, you need more food, more drink and then a good, long sleep.”
Marya leapt to her feet from her perch on a cushion-covered chest under the high window in the bathing room. “Before you whisk her off, Mama, let me get her measure for clothes. I don’t think she’ll fit mine, she’s too tall.”
Leila was no giant; she had been shorter than most of her friends at school, but Marya was every bit the hummingbird, small, neat and endlessly energetic. Her dresses would struggle to meet around Leila’s waist, although she had a feeling there may be fabric to spare in the bust. It was a pity she couldn’t simply move the cloth to fit.