The next morning, Androkles found Garbi sitting up on the edge of the bed and whispering to Wolfscar, who could scarcely contain himself. He jumped all over and flew around in circles energetically while Garbi spoke through cupped hands to keep any sound from getting to Androkles.
“Are you better now, little one?” he asked.
“Oh! You’re awake now. I think so. I was asleep for a really long time, but Wolfscar told me about all the stuff that happened, and he said that I was walking around like I was awake but I wasn’t really. He said that...”
“That’s wonderful, girl,” he said, cutting her off and hoping she would tone it down a bit. For some reason, he wasn’t quite ready to deal with her energy yet. It was too early. She had other plans, however, and she reached over and hugged him awkwardly around the neck. He had to sit up to accommodate her, and she hugged him more tightly, kissing him several times on the cheeks.
“Thank you so, so much for saving me! Wolfscar told me all about it. I knew you would save me. You’re the best man who ever lived! I’m so glad you were on my side,” she said tenderly. He hugged her back, patting her on the back of the head while he scowled at the wall.
As relief at her recovery soothed his mind, some part of him began to heal, something he hadn’t really noticed was injured. After a moment, he said, “I gave my word, little girl. I’ll always be on your side.” He stood up, and she clung to him, refusing to be put down, so he carried her to the door and opened it. Two servants waited for him nervously.
“Master Androkles, our master bid us give you this note. A merchant the house trades with has seen your Skythanders,” said the young man.
The servants waited with forced patience while Androkles read the note. It was written with Laophilean letters, and strangely enough, well-drawn ones. It read,
This is my recounting. Eleven days ago, two armed Skythanders purchased from me two bags of grain, a bag of salt, a bag of apples, five large skins of water, and fifty arrows with southern silver. At a time they thought I could not hear them, they spoke of traveling northeast. They mentioned ‘the others,’ a bargain, hiring someone, and keeping money hidden. For the breaking of confidence, let now my small debt to Master Gotzone be forgotten.
Androkles read the note three times, carefully considering exactly what it said. That had to be Della. Everything lined up perfectly, and Androkles knew he was closer than ever, catching up to her even when slowed down by all the children. She was so close now he could almost feel the weight of the silver in his hands, and his increasingly conflicted heart suddenly threatened to tear into halves. He could feel it beating against his sternum.
One of the servants, seeing he was finished with the note, said, “Master Androkles, our master wishes to let you know that your baths are ready, and your morning meal is being prepared. We will have your travel pack ready by the time you’ve eaten.” The youth looked him in the eyes, as though trying to read his intentions, then looked away.
“We’re going to take a bath?” Garbi asked cheerfully. “What kind of one?”
The servant girl gasped and put her hand on her chest. “Garbi, you’re all better? Oh, thank the gods!” Then she reached out and took Garbi from Androkles’s arms and gave her a hug. “Oh, I’m so glad! We are going to make you so beautiful, you have no idea. Now come on!” she said, taking the little girl’s hand. “Oh!” she exclaimed, turning toward Androkles, blushing. “If we have your permission, that is. Would your party like to be bathed now? I’m sorry, I forgot myself.”
Androkles dryly said, “Now is fine.”
The youth who’d presented the note said, “Can you go ahead just a bit, Maialen? I want to ask him something.”
Androkles stayed out of curiosity. When the others were out of earshot, the young man gave Androkles a troubled look and said, “Master, last night after Maialen got back, I made her tell me what you were talking about with Master Gotzone. It’s my fault. I made her break confidence. I will submit to any punishment you feel is just. So I don’t want you to be mad at her when I ask you this.”
“Ask me what,” Androkles said darkly.
The youth took a deep breath and braced himself to speak. After gathering his courage, he said, “The goddess ate my big brother, when I was just a little knee-high, younger than Garbi. I hate her. With my whole soul. Her monster killed my father, too, and now it’s just my mother and me, and we were getting awfully hungry before Master Gotzone brought me on. I pray for vengeance every day, even though the lost gods can’t hear it. All my friends are the same, too, so …”
“Get to the point.”
“Sorry. I’m just nervous because you’re such a great man, and I’m a servant who shouldn’t even be talking. I just have to know, and I’ll respect you forever no matter which it is, but I have to know if when you leave today, if you’re going northeast to, um, get Garbi to safety, or south to face the goddess,” said the young man. He gave Androkles an unsure, apologetic look, arms held rigid at his sides like Flower used to do.
So the youth had read the note, aside from prying into his conversations. It was lousy behavior for a mere servant. However, as Androkles weighed his options to find the appropriate response, he knew there was only one right answer. Anything else would have betrayed what he’d always believed himself to be: a man of honor.
He scowled at the youth and said, “What’s your name?”
“You’re not a slave, are you?”
Androkles gave him a long, considering look, under which Ganix grew increasingly uncomfortable. When he finally knew he had the youth’s full attention, Androkles said, “You Kelthuars made yourselves into prey. You’re food. You’re cowards. If you don’t like it, then exercise properly, stand with your friends and brothers, and defend what’s yours. Show everyone else what a man with grit and a spine looks like. If more of you stupid Kelthuars did that, you wouldn’t be in this predicament, would you?”
“And I’m going south, of course. Tell that idiot girl that if she’s going to spit out all my secrets, she better at least pay attention. Of course I’m going south. That’s where my boys are,” he said. The conflict and turmoil in his heart subsided once he spoke his intentions aloud. Androkles had declared his path, and his course was set.
He added, “And if your wretched, hideous, pathetic goddess gets in my way, I’ll bring back her bones for your master to hang in her hall. I can go northeast later. Now: bath,” he commanded, pointing.
The youth gave him a look that conveyed an entire poem’s worth of emotion: shame, pride, encouragement, resolve.
“Yes, master. At once.” As he led Androkles onward, he wiped his eyes free of tears more than once, but walked straighter and taller than before.
Once they caught up to the others, they found Garbi chatting away, talking about good baths she’d had when she was littler, and how her mother used to do it sometimes, and so on. Only two days since she’d said her first words after the cyclops, and now she acted like nothing had happened. Androkles wondered if all those war-orphans from cities he’d sacked had recovered, too. He’d always figured they hadn’t.
Throughout the bath, Garbi kept talking, to the entertainment of everyone. She never stopped.
“Oh, that water is warm! That’s so nice! We always used normal water,” and, “Oh, that oil smells good! I love it! Will the smell stay on me?” and so on. And on. Androkles wondered if he should carry some dried meat for her to chew on if he needed her to shut up. Not that he minded at the moment, but a man should be prepared.
The youths washing Androkles kept whispering to each other about Garbi, clearly amused. Androkles heard one say, “The only part of her that isn’t moving is whatever’s being washed. Maialen should call for help,” which made him grin. It was true, though; the little girl kicked her legs when she sat down, and talked with her hands when she stood.
The young woman washing Wolfscar had to keep grabbing him and putting him back down, because he’d get into a conversation with Garbi and instinctively try to fly over to her. Each time, he apologized, and Garbi giggled.
“Stay put, Wolfscar!” she’d command, and he’d obey for about a minute.
With everyone finally clean and scraped free of oil, the servant bathing Garbi asked, “Master Androkles, my master received a gift of a very, very fine dress from the king for Garbi. However, she recommends that the girl wear something a bit more suitable for travel. May I have your thoughts?”
Androkles looked at Garbi, whose eyes had suddenly grown wide. “Put the dress on her, and those slippers from the other day, and put that silver stuff back in her hair. We’ll change her after breakfast, but I think she’d like to dress up first. You,” he said, pointing at Ganix, “go get my spear. Bring it here. And you can get me back into my robe,” he said, pointing at the other.
Ganix left for the spear, and one of the young women left for the dress. The remaining servants dressed Androkles and Wolfscar. Once Wolfscar’s robe was tied shut and fitted, he asked Garbi, “Do you like it? I didn’t wear anything before so I didn’t know if you would. But everyone else usually wears clothes and now I do, too. Do you like it?”
Garbi regarded him with her finger on her chin while she thought. Then she said, “Well, I’m happy you’re a boy. But I don’t want to see your little parts all the time. And you look very handsome in that robe.” Then she leaned over and kissed him on the head.
Wolfscar grinned shyly and blushed, his cheeks turning purple, since they were usually blue. Androkles chuckled at that, and the fairy blushed even harder.
The servant returned with Androkles’s spear and presented it to him with a quizzical expression slipping its way around his decorum. When Garbi saw it, she seemed to remember looking into it before, in the cyclops’s pit, and became very quiet. Her somberness quickly made everyone else nervous and the good mood slipped out the door.
Then the young woman returned, dress draped across her arm for safe travel. When Garbi saw it, she starting looking nervous herself, almost afraid. It was certainly an impressive garment, made of the finest green linen and embroidered along the edges and at every seam with colorful flowers. It looked complicated to get into, as well.
No one spoke as the young woman carefully helped Garbi into the dress, tying all the bows together and tugging here and there to make sure everything draped properly. Then she delicately weaved Garbi’s hayfield-pale hair into the silver netting, every strand in place. Not once did Garbi so much as look down to see the dress on her, or say a word.
Once the slippers were placed on her feet, Androkles said, “Stand up, girl. Look at yourself,” and held the reflective spearhead near her head so she could look. Garbi clenched her eyes shut.
“Garbi, never disobey me. Got it? Never.” Then more gently, he said, “Now open your eyes and look at yourself, and see what you look like now, and forget all about that dirty little thing in the pit. Open your eyes, girl. See what you’re supposed to look like.”
“You can do it, Garbi. You can look. It’s okay,” added Wolfscar tenderly.
After a little more coaxing from the servant, she opened her eyes to a squint, looking into the spearhead. Then she opened them all the way and gasped, “Oh! Oh, I’m!...” She looked down at her dress and slippers, and touched the fabric in amazement. Then she looked into the spear head again and said, “Oh, my hair is so pretty now! And oh! It’s real silver! Oh!” Soon, she couldn’t contain herself anymore and started to cry. She wiped tears off her cheeks with her hands, then held them out in the air, not wanting to wipe them on her dress.
“Who can I hug?” she asked desperately. Androkles laughed to hide other emotions and picked her up, hugging her tightly while she cried. In between sobs and sniffs, she explained, “Only … ever saw … in the … water … al—always … dirty …” Much of it was incomprehensible. Wolfscar stood on Androkles’s shoulder and awkwardly hugged her forehead. The maid-servant was wiping her own tears away, looking at Garbi’s back with matronly pity. The young men smiled awkwardly and looked away, eyes a bit moist.
There were way too many feelings in the room, Androkles decided, blinking away a bit of dust. “Garbi, girl, Master Gotzone is going to fall over dead when she sees you. Let’s go show you off,” he said. She wiped her eyes off on his shoulder once more, then slid down. She walked over to the young woman and gave her a hug. Then, decided that wasn’t sufficient, she pulled the maid-servant down to her level and gave her two tender kisses, one on the lips and one on the cheek. “Thank you so much,” she said.
“I am honored to serve you and your master,” the young woman replied.
“I told you you were a princess!” said Wolfscar proudly. “I even saw a prince. Two princes, a younger one and an older one!”
“Take her hand, and let’s go find your master,” Androkles told the young woman. “The rest of you go make sure breakfast is ready.” The other three servants nodded and left at their usual quick pace.
Gotzone met them just outside the door to the common room, in the courtyard. She was dressed up as perfectly as ever, and when she and Garbi saw each other, in perfect unison they each covered their mouths with both hands and said, “Oh, she’s so beautiful!”
It took them about three eyeblinks to become best friends. They cooed over each other for a moment, and Gotzone took Garbi’s hand and led them inside. A feast fit for a dozen men lay before them, with heaps of vegetables of every variety surrounding an entire roasted pig. A plate of eight roaches drizzled in some kind of thick brown sauce waited for the fairy. Androkles began to wonder how many more of those they had back there.
Throughout the meal, Gotzone instructed Garbi on proper aristocratic table manners, which she greatly appreciated. Garbi mimicked her in every motion as closely as she could, even her posture and facial expressions. It was highly droll, and it kept Androkles amused throughout the meal, partially because she was so good at it. The girl had a knack.
Watching them, he remembered that at some point he would have to decide what to do with Garbi, now that she was awake. Once the goddess was dealt with, if she wanted to stay with Gotzone, it would be a good life for her; the fairy would never be safe here, however. Would the two want to split up? But all of this would have to be decided later. Mari might solve the problem by eating them all, he thought with a grin. As far as deaths go, that would at least be fairly uncommon. Eaten alive by a barbarian goddess. It was a funny thought.
Once the meal was over, the group began their preparations for travel. A servant brought in a pack which contained food and clothing for everyone, including two robes and a skirt each for Androkles and Wolfscar. Garbi was given several tunics and gowns, as well as slippers and a pair of shoes. The fairy decided he had to try his new skirt on immediately once he saw it, and stripped and changed right on the dinner table. Garbi and Gotzone giggled behind their hands and gave each other knowing looks.
The pack also contained plenty of dried meat and a stack of flatbread, and four waterskins tied to the outside. The two iron daggers in their sheaths had been tied to the exterior so they’d be handy if needed. The servant explained that he had placed a sparker, needle-and-thread, and a few other things in there as well. All told, this pack was even better than the one he’d left the Glories with.
Then Gotzone said, “Master Androkles, if you will wait just a moment, I have one more gift.” She left the room and returned with a brightly-polished bronze shield reinforced with wood. Engraven across the entire front, a lion’s face snarled, teeth bare. This shield was a true, civilized hoplon--heavy, sturdy, and impressive, and almost as large as the ones he’d used in the army.
Gotzone said, “This was my father’s. His father was a hoplite, in the time before the republic. He never found much use for it, but he spoke many times about his wish for a son who could carry it into battle. He died before that could happen. You would honor me deeply if you would accept it, and carry it into battle against your enemies. Please, accept this gift.”
Androkles took it from her and strapped it on his left arm, testing its weight.
“This is a good shield. It will serve me well in battle. Thank you for this noble gift, Master Gotzone. I am honored,” he said.
Finally, the time came to depart. The maid-servant took Garbi behind a curtain and changed her into a tunic more suitable for travel while Androkles counted out five silver coins, one for each night, which Gotzone accepted.
Nodding, she said, “Farewell, Master Androkles. This house has been honored by your stay. I will pray to the gods that they will return you victorious, and perhaps they will hear this time. You are welcome here on your way back north, at the same price; I would be pleased to meet your boys.”
“Master Gotzone, you have done your house and your father great credit. Your wealth and dignity demonstrate your character and skill. You should get married someday and carry on the line,” he said.
“If I were to marry, I’d have to give everything I own to my husband. I am not interested,” she said.
He smirked and said, “I suppose that’s one way to look at it. Farewell, Master Gotzone. If I make it down and back in one piece, I’ll stop by again. Your servants are the best I’ve seen since I was a child. And I’ll be happy to show you my boys. Unless they’ve been eaten, in which case I’ll probably just show you a little tuft of fur that gorgon Mari left on her plate.” Then he strapped his shield to the pack and lifted it onto his shoulders. Pleased to find that it fit well, he took Garbi by the hand and opened the door to the road.
A wave of sound hit him before the door was even completely open. “All Hail Androkles! All Hail Androkles!” Dozens of Kelthuars, both men and women, young and old, had gathered to see him off. Only a short time ago, they’d all been slinking out of the inn after the unpleasant encounter with their goddess, afraid to meet his gaze, but now they were cheering him publicly.
Androkles couldn’t fathom how they’d know to come until he found the servant Ganix leading the young men who came to exercise. They stood in formation, arms on their chests in a good Glories soldiers’ salute. Gotzone must have taught them that.
He grinned and raised his spear to hail them. Garbi wasn’t sure what to make of it, so she imitated one of Gotzone’s serene poses, head held high. Androkles noticed the old man who’d given him the knives approaching, leading two fine horses, complete with saddles and bags. Androkles was more than surprised when the old man handed him the reins with a bow. Even without the bags and saddles, a horse was a princely gift, especially considering that Androkles hadn’t seen that many horses around. Androkles smiled and gripped the man’s shoulder, nodding to express his gratitude.
The old man motioned for Androkles to lean down, so he did. Then the old man cupped his hands around his mouth to get past the sound of the crowd and loudly said, “Wife had a dream about you. I don’t argue with her.”
Androkles nodded and began to stand up straight, but the old man motioned him down again and said, “All of these people want vengeance. Goddess has taken so many. Don’t get eaten or we’ll all feel stupid.”
Androkles laughed and replied, “I’ll do my best. Wait, everyone? Even you? Aren’t you a noble?”
The old man yelled, “Gave her my firstborn. Hated myself ever since.”
Androkles nodded again. He picked up Garbi and placed her on one of the horses, although he kept a hold of the reins himself. Wolfscar tried to sit between the horse’s ears, but the horse huffed and shook its head, throwing the fairy nearly to the ground before he got his wings going. Androkles leaped onto the other horse and hailed the crowd again with his spear. Their cheering redoubled. Then, turning southward, he left the city through the south gate.