The Phantom Pilot Ch. 05byFive_Eight©
Jadda stood there in shock.
Then she turned away without a word.
Then Danae was outlined in the doorframe. "By the seven gray gods! Were you practicing on him, Vana? Who knows what Jadda will think?"
I grabbed Danae by the hair. "You brought Jadda over here on purpose after you started all this business."
"She wanted to talk to you, I just walked over with her." A pleased smile twisted her lips.
I never got to say another word as slave girls began piling into the coach. The midday meal was over. The love of my life might be over too. Hastily I tucked myself back into my loincloth. When I stepped into the suns light She-she squatted in the grass where I'd left her. I climbed gingerly into the saddle. All the teasing in the coach caused me an uncomfortable afternoon's ride. Nor had I gotten to eat.
I checked in frequently with Vananella. She applied more and more cosmetics each passing time I saw her. When we made camp she looked older than I did.
Danae remained cordial, as if nothing had happened, but we did not speak.
Alone with Vananella in our tent that night I asked, "Did the girls help you or did you paint yourself?"
She was examining her face in a round mirror she'd looted from Thwart's chest. "They did most of it. Isn't it wonderful? I look like a woman." She had me convinced.
"Did Danae plan that business this afternoon?"
"When she brought Jadda to the coach door?"
"No, before that. Her demonstration? She got rid of all the girls and went into her act."
"Well, I had asked Danae to explain the secret of the art to me. But what happened surprised me. I didn't know she was going to do that."
"Did she tell you to pick up where she left off?"
"That was my idea," she sdmitted. "I was excited seeing you sticking out and I wanted to try it."
Vananella seemed like an innocent pawn in Danae's plot. I changed the subject, "What were you lying to the Sheikh about this morning?"
"Nothing important," she answered casually.
"Nothing important, like an ambush?"
"I would be risking my own life not telling him about an attack."
"I'm proud of you."
"The Sheikh's a hard man to lie to." But she'd done it.
"He can be very charming when he wants to be. There is an air about him."
"You've noticed?" I started to call her Vana, but caught myself in time.
"Of course, silly. You expect that from legends."
"So exactly what were you lying about?"
A mischievous grin lit up her face. "What do you think?"
"The whereabouts of Bali Wu?"
She only grinned more.
I asked, "Do you know where he is?"
"Of course," she said. "He's not half as legendary as the Sheikh."
"Why didn't you tell him?"
She was out-thinking me. "I wanted to tell you first. Maybe you can use such information to gather favor. Was it smart?"
"Very." Gather favor, no; I had a lever. But how would I use it?
Our discussion stalled when Namtor drifted in. He made idle chat before climbing into bed. He flipped through the pages a small book for a while. I feigned sleep while he read to avoid any further nighttime escapades with Vananella. She settled into my arms and she soon slept. Only after I heard Namtor's snoring did I ease from my couch. In Thwart's chest I'd seen a dagger in a sheath. Armed with just the knife I went out into the night.
I skulked over to Jadda's tent.
A single candle flickered inside, but a guard watched the entrance. No need to have any conversations with him. I altered my course and doubled back. Behind the tent I slit a vertical hole with a single cut of the knife. I stepped through. Jadda shared a space with three other girls, but two were unaccounted for. Jadda and the other girl slumbered peacefully. I clapped a hand over Jadda's mouth. Her eyes flew wide open. When she realized who it was, I held a finger to my lips. I took my chances. She could have raised her voice in a bloodcurdling shriek, but she acted docile and said nothing.
A chain attached her to a stake in the ground. With great effort I pulled the stake free without attracting the guard. I stepped through the hole in the back of the tent, keeping the chain taut between the stake and Jadda's neck so the links wouldn't jingle. She followed me through. Then I picked her up in my arms and plunged into the jungle. She knew enough not to speak until we were out of camp.
After a while she said, "Where are you taking me?"
"Right here," I said.
When I set her down she tip-toed through the grass. "I guess you don't have a pass from the Sheikh since you came in the back entrance?"
"All I'm interested in is finding out a few things."
"About how I felt when I walked in on you and her?"
"Danae set that up."
"I well know that," she snapped. "What I don't know is why you let that girl . . ."
"Danae put her up to it."
"Stop blaming Danae instead of yourself. She got away with playing a joke on us, but she didn't force you into that girl's mouth."
"I have no excuse and can only apologize."
Pain sparkled in her eyes. "I love you, I think."
"I still love you, although it may not seem like it."
"Because of Danae and your new trollop?"
"I'm trying to save that young lady from slave chains. But she wants to be a slave."
"I can see that!"
"She's very young. Too young to know better."
"Well, my dear Thwart," she said in a fey voice, "I think she knows more than you're letting on."
"Are you jealous?"
"No," she lied. "You've always had other girls."
"Do you understand why I made the choice I made?"
"No. You and I know each other and you don't know her. It makes no sense."
"I'm trying to spare that girl a life of slavery."
"But in spite of your efforts she yearns for that life?"
She trumped me. I chewed at my tongue.
"Why don't you take me back to my tent? I need to go before I'm missed."
"You want to go back?" I asked.
"Unless . . ."
"You want to use me."
"I don't want to use you."
"Do you want to make love?" she asked, sarcastic.
"Maybe, that's different."
Jadda affected a sigh. "You can always use your tent slut."
"She's an innocent girl."
"I saw how innocent. What else have you taught her?"
Had I not been guilty of skirting the ban on making love to Vananella I would've slapped Jadda. I hung my head, feeling disgusted. "Let's get out of this camp," I said angrily. "I'll take you far from the Sheikh and his petty demands."
"You've promised that before."
"I meant it then. I mean it now."
"Just us two?"
"I must take Vananella away from this as well."
"Aha! A catch!" she snipped. "Will you return me to my tent now?"
"I want you."
"You apparently want her too."
"It's not what you think."
"I need to go now. There will be trouble if I am missed."
She didn't say trouble for me, or for her.
Scowling, I crept back through the jungle with her. Not a word passed between us. We entered through the back of the tent and I muscled the stake into the ground to secure her. The guard outside was oblivious.
As I prepared to leave she whispered, "I have enough chain to reach that cut. I can sew it closed before morning."
"You'd do that for me after what happened?"
"There's needle and thread here," she shrugged, "and I like to sew."
Before I left she kissed me quickly on the mouth.
I was just as confused as before I talked with her. She loved me and did not want to share me. Or maybe not. Possibly I overlooked the social mores practiced in the known world. People loved one another freely and without a lot of attachments. Jealousy and possessiveness would seem rare in such a society yet where there are people there will invariably be love.
Love is supposed to be great, when its not busy ripping you apart.
I slipped away from the tent and right into the path of the guard.
He regarded the point of my knife.
"What are you doing here?" I whispered.
"I heard you leave the tent," said Namtor.
"You hear a lot of things at night, don't you?"
"Not me, man. I sleep like a baby."
I stuck the knife in its sheathe. "So you awoke out of a sound sleep and accidentally followed me?"
"You aren't the only one who can fake he's asleep," he chuckled. "Besides, my curiosity got the best of me."
"What happened to the guard?" I asked.
"I relieved the inept fool."
"He's not inept, I'm just quiet."
"The Sheikh can't have folk carrying his women off at their leisure."
"And heard everything," he said.
"You've got big ears."
"But not a big mouth," he whispered.
I thought of him as a friend, but could I still trust him? He was, after all, a confidant of the Sheikh. He pretended to sleep. He did a lot of whispering in the Sheikh's ear lately. The three of us had always spoken in front of one another. Why had that changed? "What do you think of the stunt you just witnessed, Namtor?"
"I think you should get back to your couch is what I think. There's a little lady sitting up waiting for you." He rested on the hilt of his cleaver, threw his head back and laughed, laughter that rumbled behind me all the way to my tent.
When I got there Vananella was missing.
A number of mad scenes tumbled through my head. A group of warriors taking her into the woods. A midnight visit to the Sheikh. Maybe she went to bathe I thought then remembered we no longer camped at the river. Had she run away on her own? A sense of panic gnawed at me. I tilted my head at the sound of quick steps. The light of the moons shone on pale blonde hair flashing among the trees. Vananella?
I followed, my intent to catch up with her, but once I determined it was her I became more interested in where she was going. She had a bundle in her hands. She moved like she knew exactly where to go. I thought she would make for the perimeter, instead she entered the very center of camp. The reason became obvious. Intelligent jailers do not keep their prisoners close to an escape point like a perimeter. She went to talk with the Askaar captive. Even if I eavesdropped I wouldn't understand what they said. The man huddled by a post in the ground, chained. I wondered if Max and Raj still guarded the prisoner since I saw neither.
Out of nowhere Raj pounced upon Vananella. I picked up my pace.
"What do we have here, dearie?" Raj asked her, a fist in her hair.
Max's voice rasped, "That's the slave girl from the Sheikh's tent."
"Maybe the Sheikh sent her to break the monotony of our watch?"
"You know better, Raj," said Max, stepping into view. "This girl is under Thwart's care."
"What are you doing out here, dearie?"
"I came to give my friend some food," Vananella hissed. "Let go of my hair!"
"Is the food in that bundle?" Raj asked. He pulled her face toward his.
Max said, "You should let her go, you're asking for trouble."
"Who will take the word of a slave girl over that of warriors? I get her first."
As he started unbuttoning his pants I unsheathed my sword loud enough for him to hear.
"What was that?" he asked into the trees, where I slid through the shadows.
I stepped into the moons' light, it glittered along the steel of my sword. "You should listen to Max," I said, "I'm in charge of that girl's welfare."
Raj let go of the girl and said, "She's not supposed to be here, let alone talking to the Askaar."
"Which changes nothing. You intended to use her."
"I was just going to scare her a little," Raj shrugged playfully. "No harm done, Thwart."
I returned the sword to its scabbard. "Right you are, absolutely no harm done." My fist hit him so hard in the midriff he came off the ground. The force of the blow doubled him up. Vomit dripped from his mouth. I tapped him one on the side of his head and Raj dropped into the grass. He moaned in pain.
"No harm done, right?" I said to Max and Vananella.
They shook their heads agreeably.
Max mentioned, "She really shouldn't be here, Thwart."
"I know you have your orders. She only wants to give the prisoner some food. That should only take a minute, right?"
"All right, Vananella, do what you came to do."
She crouched next to the Askaar and unwrapped a handerkerchief that contained pieces of fruit and some large shelled nuts. They spoke while the man bit through the rind of an orange. I turned to Raj and extended a hand, hauled him to his feet. He didn't threaten me and I didn't apologize. After a while Vananella joined me at my side.
"Did your friend get enough to eat?" I asked her.
"Yes. Other than chaining him up they're not mistreating him."
"Nor will they," I promised. "Are you ready to go now?"
She said she thought so and we bid goodnight to Max and Raj. I waited until we got back to the tent before complaining.
"What's the idea leaving? You almost got hurt."
"You left and I got tired of waiting for you so I left."
"Don't wander off again, Vananella. Please."
"What will you do?" she taunted. She pushed her green shorts down her legs and off. "Tie me to the tent pole?" She removed her top and threw it at me.
"That sounds like a good idea, starting right now."
"What, what?" she cried when I snapped a manacle around one of her ankles. I closed the other one around the pole. She had plenty of chain to get around the tent. She stomped her pretty foot, fuming.
"I can't believe you're treating me like a slave girl."
"It's for your own good."
"Who are you? My father?"
"I thought you fancied the slave girl's life?"
She uttered an exasperated noise.
"You're not going anywhere else anyway. And you can still reach the bed comfortably. I'm not making you sleep on the ground."
She pouted a few minutes before crawling under the silks with me. She had plenty of chain. Her mouth opened to ask a question.
"Whatever you're asking the answer is no."
"You haven't even listened to what I wanted," she whined.
"If you try to practice your slave girl skills, you'll sleep on the floor of the tent tonight."
She slapped at my arm, lips crunched in disappointment.
"This is my favorite time of day with you, Thwart. In this couch."
"Charming me won't do any good," I said firmly.
"It always worked before."
"I beg your pardon, miss. When?"
"Every time we've been alone! In this tent, in Danae's coach. You pretend to put up a big fight, but you always give in. Always."
The truth of her words stung me. I had not deflowered her. Yet. How many more nights with her squirming against me would it take? Two, three? Tonight? Definitely not. "You think I'm going to give in now?"
She lowered her eyes at me. How many more days with Danae would it be before Vananella was seducing the men? I had to think of something to extricate us from the burgeoning problem of the Sheikh and his minions. The Bali Wu information initially seemed like power. Now I thought: why should I assist the Sheikh in finding his elixir? Once empowered, who knew what kind of monster he might turn into? That placed the girls I cared about in jeopardy.
One of those girls was trying to kiss me. "Let me try what I learned today," Vananella said in a husky voice.
"I said no already."
She spent the rest of the night on the floor of the tent.
At first light she crawled back into the couch. I mumbled, half-asleep, and she lay close to me. Was I dreaming or was an eager mouth kissing its way down past my navel? I dreamt I was in the womb again, feeling warm and enveloped. A release of pleasure shook me from my dream. I raised up on my elbows while lying on my back. Had Vananella mounted me while I slept? Had hers been the womb in the dream? I prayed not. When my eyes focused I saw she actually had a respectable amount of me down her throat. That accounted for the enveloping sensation.
She disengaged herself and clapped with glee. "I almost did it, I almost did it."
I swung out of the couch. Another day, another uphill battle.
"Aren't you proud of me? I can't wait to tell Danae."
I put my face in my hands. "You told me you'd keep our secrets."
"This isn't really a secret since she saw me doing it to you yesterday."
"Everything that occurs in this tent is a secret."
She said she understood.
The Sheikh was preoccupied when he received us in his tent. He did not inspect Vananella or make provocative statements. Most importantly he had no inquiries about rumors concerning what occurred in a slave coach during yesterday's midday meal. I was glad he was distracted. On the floor of the tent lay a man who'd sweated through his clothes, he breathed by sucking in gulps of air. He could not speak, but grinned maniacally. The Sheikh spoke to him in a low voice, but the man had nothing to say. When Namtor came in the Sheikh barked, "Any sign of the other rider?"
"Just arrived. He's leaving his horse with the handler. Said he nearly rode it to death."
"What else did he say?"
Namtor squinted down at the man on the floor. "He said the same as this one, before this one lost his wits. They both say it's a temple, but not like any temple you could imagine."
"This could be what I've searched for."
"How's this rider doing?" asked Namtor.
"Worse ever since you left."
"Maybe he breathed in some happy dust in those ruins."
"If he was drugged that surely means these people know how to concoct medicine. Medicine is what I seek."
"But why drug this rider?"
"It's preferable to killing him. Was the second rider drugged?"
"He doesn't appear to be."
"Did he see what happened to this one?"
A voice from outside asked permission to enter before Namtor answered. "It's the other rider," he told the Sheikh.
"Let's ask him instead." He asked the man inside the tent.
He too was drenched with sweat, a look of horror fixed on his face. Vananella and I listened to his tale. The other outrider and he had ventured out before light to scout ahead. They stumbled upon an old temple, decayed and crumbling in ruin. Obscene stone carvings decorated the great edifice, but there had not been enough light to fully appreciate the spires, ramparts and various architectural oddities. The two riders went separate directions circling the building to meet on the other side. One rider had apparently been attacked by men on foot, although the other rider came upon the scene after the initial commotion. He only saw the rider spurring his horse away from the men, who were armed with bamboo blow-guns. The second rider eluded any hostilities with the men on the ground.
"Were the men Askaar or from another tribe?"
"Just men dressed in robes with hoods hiding their heads."
"Holy men perhaps?" asked the Sheikh.
The rider shrugged, he didn't know.
"And you didn't see what happened to this wretch?"
"Are there any darts sticking out of him?"
"Maybe they blew crazy powder in his face with their blow-guns."
"I thought so," said Namtor.
"The temple is a fortress," the rider reported. "Towers, slanted walls. Plenty of carvings and statues."
"What of? Animals, men?"
"In the light of a torch I saw a statue of an animal with a horn growing out of its snout."
The information excited the Sheikh. He said to Namtor: "The Temple of the Rhinoceros?"
"That would be my guess."
The Sheikh rubbed his hands together. "Very well. We'll go in with a large group, not looking for trouble, but prepared. I want to parlay with the inhabitants of this temple. Namtor, assemble four dozen of my bullies. That will leave the other half to guard the camp. You and Thwart will ride with us."
"Do you need an interpreter?" Vananella asked innocently.
"It's too dangerous," I said immediately.
"No, I like her idea," countered the Sheikh. "You never know who we may run into. She will ride alongside you, Thwart, and she'll be safe. She's in your care and everyone knows you're very protective of her." He told Namtor to round up the troops and me to have a pony readied for Vananella. The handlers would provide tame transportation for her.