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In the end, Miriam took two women with her when she left Prince Raymo’s castle. The prince was unfortunately, regretfully, unable to provide her with any additional mounts, he apologized, but he was generously able to share some supplies. Since neither of the slaves looked particularly strong or healthy, she had them ride whilst she led the bird through the dunes. It was slow going, as expected.
Hareshi was a thin girl with dark hair that hung long over her eyes which were a similar dark shade. She seemed to Miriam to be meek and terrified of her own shadow, and wondered what she had done to warrant mistreatment, as none of Raymo’s other slaves appeared to be in the slightest bit malnourished or injured. The second, Mireko, showed no immediate signs of injury.
They departed the castle in mid-morning, once Miriam was certain they were adequately prepared for the journey. Her passengers initially were wary of riding while she walked, but obedience won out in the end, and they climbed hesitantly aboard the bird.
Miriam spoke little to her companions as they walked, focusing her mind on any potential dangers that might be about. Sandstorms had troubled her little while she traveled alone, thankfully, but she knew the warning signs from her time with the caravan.
They stopped at mid-day, at no particular place. Miriam suddenly felt as though her feet would not take another step, and the bird was seemed quite agreeable about resting. She helped her companions down, then unfolded a blanket suitable for seating and spread it on the ground. “Sit,” she commanded, and they both did.
The meal was simple travel food, some dried meat, a bit of bread and cheese, and some water. Both Hareshi and Mireko stared at it, wide-eyed, until Miriam confirmed that they were, indeed, permitted to eat it. Even then, they hesitated briefly, biting into the bread slowly, afraid she might change her mind.
Once all the Tauese slaves returned to the Kingdom of Tau, they’d be set free, to do whatever they might please. Ideally, to return to their homes. To say such a thing to Raymo, the other princes, or even to the Holy Sultan, would end their willing cooperation. Not even the slaves were told that they’d soon no longer be slaves.
“Did you say you were born near the ocean, Mireko?” she asked, attempting to begin casual conversation. Neither slave would speak unless first spoken to, although Miriam vaguely suspected they might whisper to one another while they rode. Hareshi had little memory of her past, but Mireko seemed to recall it quite easily. Another mystery.
“Yes, my lady,” Mireko replied. “In a village near Shintau. My mother was his lordship’s maid, and my father one of his farmers.” She paused suddenly, as though afraid she had spoken too much.
“I know Shintau,” Miriam said, conversationally. She knew it well. Her sister had married a nobleman from the coast, and would likely be Lady of Shintau one day. She had spent a beautiful summer there, before she herself had been wed.
“I…I don’t remember a lot of it,” Mireko admitted, quietly.
“What do you remember?”
“The smell of the salty ocean,” she answered after a moment of thought. “The cry of the gulls, and the soft, hot sand. Not like this sand. Different.”
“Have you ever seen the ocean, Hareshi?” Miriam asked, and though she spoke gently, the young woman seemed surprised by the question.
“I…I don’t know…,” she said quietly, and then frowned in thought. “Well…maybe.” She paused, and then added on, “my lady,” at the end.
The sun was high in the sky, the temperature soaring. Miriam finished off her stick of dried meat and drank a gulp of cold water. “We will rest now,” she told the girls, “and continue once the sun has set. I must send a message.”
They waited a day, and then another, and on the third day, Theodore rode into camp. Ted had a young boy, not yet in his teens, in the saddle behind him, holding on for dear life. Danu was tending to princely duties, but Marcus watched him ride up and waved a hand in greeting. Ted halted in the center of camp and dismounted.
As he had no wife, Ted had not bothered with bringing servants or attendants on the journey, and he was thus easily able to dart off on smaller journeys. His mother was distantly related to the Desert people, somewhere that Marcus was never clear on, and so he was fairer of hair and skin than most of the Tauese people, making him a magnet for many young ladies, although he had no current favorites. He grinned at Marcus as he approached, and turned to coax his companion down from the bird.
The boy was thin and dark haired, with wide eyes that peered out at them all with a sense of wonder and astonishment. He wore a thin silver collar around his throat, identifying him immediately as a stolen slave.
“Oh, it’s great to be among friendly faces again,” Ted said as he greeted Marcus, shaking his hand vigorously and briefly embracing him. “Please tell me you’re not planning to pull up camp in the next hour; I could use a rest.”
Marcus shook his head, finally pulling his arm away. “No, we’re here a few days more, I think. Waiting my lady’s return.” He glanced meaningfully toward the boy.
“She’s not back yet?” Ted asked, missing the unspoken question. “Is everything all right?”
“She sent me a message that she will arrive soon,” Marcus answered, “and she has a companion or two. As do you, I see.”
“Oh, right,” Ted said, and put an arm on the boy’s shoulder. “Do you think his highness is free? I’d like to get the ceremonial part taken care of quickly.” He said ‘his highness’ with a grin so contagiously mischievous that Marcus found himself grinning back.
“Let’s find out.”
Danu was not free, he was rarely free these days, but he was happy to interrupt his meeting with the Desert Lords who accompanied them all. Marcus had never managed to remember any of their names, and considered himself lucky to avoid them as much as possible. Danu would have been pleased to dispense with all the formality, but if he was going to call himself a prince, the Desert Men expected formality and ceremony, even in a camp, and so they all persisted with ceremony.
Even though the heat was high enough to boil one’s blood in one’s own body, Marcus was thankfully already dressed in a relatively formal outfit, with a jacket of all things over top his long sleeved shirt, which had the advantage of hiding all his sweat stains at least. He took his place near the ornate chair they’d dragged across the desert to serve as Danu’s throne, and watched as Ted and the small boy he’d brought with him made their way into the tent.
“Your highness,” Ted said with a gracious bow, sinking to one knee as though he was within an ornate palace rather than a canvas tent in the desert. He drew his sword and held it out. “I am at your service.”
Danu had an expression partway between amused and bored. “Welcome back, Theodore of Yantau. We are…pleased to see you returned without injury.” He paused. “You are without injury, yes?”
“Indeed, your highness!” Ted replied, dramatically, as though gravely insulted. “Nary a scratch upon myself – or my charge, either. If I may?”
“You may,” Danu allowed, for he had also not failed to notice the boy, who was meekly kneeling beside Ted. “Who do you bring us?”
“Your highness, I bring this boy from the palace of Prince Aram. He was a bit reluctant to give him up, but, as he is clearly Tauese, the Holy Sultan’s paperwork convinced him.” He patted the boy on the back; the boy nearly fell over from the force of it. “Tell his highness your name.”
“Ben, master,” the boy mumbled quietly.
“From where do you come, Ben?” Danu questioned, his voice lowered to conversational levels.
“This one was born in Jantau, near the forests, master,” the boy replied.
The tent was filled with quiet whispers amongst the Tauese. Ted smirked. Marcus heard his heart beating in his ears. Danu himself seemed stunned, almost pale. He recovered quickly, before the Desert Men could notice.
“A splendid place,” he said instead, and set his eyes on Ted. “Has he been harmed?”
“No more than any other, your highness,” Ted replied, his voice now appropriately serious rather than dramatically flamboyant. “We had a somewhat treacherous journey, but we both survived with nary a scratch, as I said.” He paused briefly, and then continued. “I should gladly continue to oversee his well-being, if you would allow it.”
“So be it,” he agreed.
With the ceremony completed, they left Danu to his meeting with the Desert Men and returned to the camp’s open space. “Let me help you get set up,” Marcus offered. “I’ve got a handful of servants with nothing to do since Miriam’s been away. You both probably want a bath, and help putting up a tent.”
“How long as she been gone?” Ted asked, concerned filling his face.
“A few weeks. She returns soon; until she does, we are staying here. I’ll tell you more later, when we have some privacy,” Marcus answered in a low voice. “In the meantime, I’ve got four servants and you’ve got none, so you might as well have some help.”
They’d been walking, and now approached his tent, where he found, as expected, that neither of his male servants were presently occupied. With little difficulty, he persuaded them to help in setting up Ted’s tent, and preparing a bath for each of them. With slightly more difficulty, they urged Ben toward the bucket of water, promising not to harm him.