Journey through the hungry jungle, part 13
Part 13: Look, up in the sky!
The sound of the gently lapping lake waves (and a petit snore) were Marco’s only companions as he struggled to contain the excitement at the news. Rendezvous! Home!
He debated whether or not to wake Zheng, but it being less than an hour before they switched watches anyway he decided to go for it and share the joy.
Marco used the usual three taps on the shoulder for watch shift, «Hnn... princess... better be innis castle...» and Zheng just rolled onto his other side.
It must have been a good dream, because Zheng really didn’t want to wake up. So Marco tried again and said «Come on super brother, I’ve got super news!»
At length Zheng woke up. «Is it my turn at watch already? Feels earlier...»
Marco quickly explained the conversation with the Komissar Thinkamancer. Zheng was ecstatic, though after asking about the specifics he got back to his usual seriousness. «Why now? Why today, or rather tonight? We’ve been off the grid for weeks, but the day we go to the temple and you come out with—»
Zheng didn’t have to finish the sentence, they both turned to look at Lucy sleeping in the bed rolls. Her snoring was still soft and regular, so it was unlikely they had woken her up. It was unlikely she was listening. Still, they both felt a need for discretion so they lowered their voices.
«It’s because we captured her. The Emperor, or one of the Komissars, must have automagically felt it and gotten curious.» Marco felt a nervous thrill at the thought that they had done something that got the Emperor’s attention. In a good way!
Zheng took the glass half-empty interpretation though. «It took the capture of a high value caster to get their attention. Would they have even cared about us if we hadn’t?»
The unsettling parts of his conversation/questioning by the Thinkamancer came to the fore of Marco’s mind. «Yeah. I sort of called the Thinkamancer out on that.» Zheng raised his eyebrows in surprise.
Marco chuckled softly. «Yeah, probably not my smartest move, but... I don’t think it was malicious on their part. They probably have other priorities, or couldn’t find us easily. When the rescue team gets here we need to let them see we’re Loyal. I got the feeling from the Thinkamancer that they’re worried about that.»
Zheng’s confused and mildly offended expression at the thought was pretty much exactly how Marco was feeling: how could they possibly doubt their loyalty? Still, though the Komissars hadn’t exactly been combing the jungle looking for them, their Upkeep was paid every morning and they were being rescued.
They decided to let Lucy and Lily sleep (Marco doubted the former would wake up for anything less than a volcano erupting) and tell them the good news in the morning.
And with that, Zheng took the next shift and Marco got some shut eye.
Waking at dawn felt glorious. Usually Marco and Zheng let whoever took the second watch sleep an hour or so after Dawn to try and make up for the sleep neither was getting, but today Marco woke up at dawn raring to go.
Zheng was already up of course. Lucy was still deep asleep. Marco didn’t know if that was normal for such prolonged sleep deprivation, but it wouldn’t hurt anyone to let her sleep through Lily’s turn.
As he rolled up the sleeping lion pelt he couldn’t help wondering, so he asked Zheng «Where’s Lily?»
«Getting breakfast.» Zheng’s amused smile was aimed at a pile of birds on the terrace edge next to the lake.
Marco walked up to the pile of croaked birds. They were all neatly cut in curving halves, probably sliced by Lily’s spoon. There were three of them, and on a closer look he recognized them as Quacker Floats, an oatsy tasting, flightless kind of duck with a square bottom.
He felt a thump on the back of his head, only to see a new Quacker join the pile. He looked up and saw Lily’s big eyes peeking out of the water, having just spoon-a-pulted the waterfowl onto his head. She blinked rapidly as an apology.
Zheng almost, but not quite, suppressed a snicker. Marco ignored him and put some real feeling into it when he said «No worries, and thanks for breakfast. Diggem.»
Despite only knowing Lily for such a short time, Marco felt a pang of sadness at having to say goodbye. The only other Natural Ally he’d interacted with was Chief Viet, who he respected and felt indebted to... but there was always an edge to his presence that made him feel tense. Lily was different; even though they couldn’t talk to each other conventionally he liked and trusted her. It said something that she had stuck with Zheng when he was waiting to ambush Marco’s presumed captors.
Marco searched around for some dry wood and started a little fire to roast three of the Quackers (Lily had insisted on hers being raw). Zheng had taken off and used some Sixsecond vines to climb a few trees for Crunch Berries, which he used to flavor the ducks.
It took a couple of tries but Marco managed to tell Lily that their Side was sending a rescue, and they probably wouldn’t need a ride back to shore. They’d given her the Honey Nuts anyway, and she seemed grateful if a little confused.
Once the Quackers were done and a full two hours after dawn a surprisingly big yawn wafted up from a bedroll on the lawn.
«Oh, that smells Titanically divine.» Lucy’s lilting voice was almost unrecognizable to Marco. The vague slurring was gone, with each word being artfully pronounced. And the jagged, nervous edge was nowhere to be heard.
«Her majesty awakens.» Zheng noted dryly under his breath, so only Marco would hear.
As Lucy walked over Marco noted that her eyes were significantly less bloodshot and puffy, and the dark circles under them were much reduced. He was reminded of his and Zheng’s slowly changing Signamancy. Zheng's hair was neck length now, and he was keeping it in a topknot behind and above his tony bandana. Marco absently felt his face: no longer a scruff, he had a short beard now.
Marco couldn’t help but comment on it «Good morning, Lucy. You’re looking much better today.»
Zheng pulled out a tin plate and Marco placed one of the cooked Quackers on it, along with the prisoner ration of rice (popped cold, but heated near the fire) that had popped for Lucy, handing it to her.
«I feel fantastic, though I’ll need a lot more rest to lose all the sleep deprivation penalties. Oh my, if this is how Tar Zhay treats prisoners there must be a queue of sides a hex long just waiting to surrender!» She bit into the Quacker and chewed slowly, savoring every bite. «Thish ish jusht magically delishus.»
Zheng neutrally commented «If it’s too rich, there’s always the prisoner rations.»
This was unusual; Zheng’s sarcasm wasn’t usually this... transparent. Marco started to wonder (and worry) that Zheng might be resentful or angry at Lucy. He’d have to watch, but he decided to change the topic. «More good news, we have a rescue team en route to pick us up. You’re going to be eating rations off fine china instead of tin plates soon enough.»
If Lucy had been offended by Zheng’s jab, she gave no sign. «What you eat off of isn’t half as important as havingsomething to eat, dearie. But I’ll be glad to be far from here, there’s too many memories, too many...» she got quiet all of a sudden. Marco knew the look; she was probably starting to process that all her friends had croaked.
Lily picked that moment to down half of her raw Quacker in a single huge mouthed gulp. Marco let out a laugh, Zheng blanched a bit, and Lucy was distracted from her thoughts, grinning again.
The rest of breakfast went by as normally as could be expected. With small talk and a couple of more not-so-hidden barbs from Zheng, until Lucy finally acknowledged it. «Love, it’s not even noon and I’m already tired of this polite aggression. Just say what’s on yer mind.» There it was again, the raw, tired voice he’d heard inside the temple.
Rather than be taken aback, Zheng accepted the invitation. «What’s on my mind is that you took my stackie prisoner. You let your side fall. And here you are, alive: sleeping as long as you please, eating like a Queen, waiting for apersonal rescue from our side when we've been on our own for weeks. I don’t think you deserve it.»
The loud snap of Lily blithely opening a Honey Nut put a resounding period on Zheng’s accusation. Where was this coming from?
For her part Lucy sat up straighter, and her eyes glistened a bit. She took in a breath, then asked «What makes you think I’m being rewarded? Everyone I knew and loved is croaked, and not a moment goes by I don’t think of them. Beds, food, rescue? They barely distract me from my grief. And even if I could fool myself into forgetting, the Titans have marked my pain and failure on my own skin!» Lucy tossed off her hat, and in the bright morning light her ashen face was almost blinding; a colorless sun set inside a blaze of red hair.
Lucy was somewhere between resignation and tears «I’m being punished, Piker. Every day I live, each time I see my flesh I’m reminded of what I lost, and failed to protect.»
Marco had no idea what to do. He was preparing some spiel in his head about living being a Duty, when Zheng surprised them all.
«Save someone. Even if it’s just one unit. Then maybe the Titans can forgive you. Us.» Zheng’s tone was resolute, but also kind. The echo of the plea he’d made to Marco made it click. Zheng was seeing some of himself in her. «You never forget them, but living for others... it makes the pain bearable.»
That got Lucy to cry. There were no hugs. Marco gave Zheng a sad, proud smile. Zheng picked Lucy’s hat off the ground, dusted it off and handed it to her. She choked out a little laugh between the tears, and graciously accepted it.
The flying group appeared on the horizon an hour after noon the next day: three Red Bullseyes with riders and an escort of thirteen Red Spots. The three powerful winged beasts alighted on the island, with the smaller Red Spots immediately scouting the area by running around and sniffing everything.
They’d tried to convince Lily to leave before her turn ended, and she’d had none of it. But as soon as she saw the thirteen flying dogs approaching she instinctively dove into the water.
Marco and Zheng were standing “guard” on either side of Lucy, and kept the dogs from knocking the smaller caster over in their excited reconnaissance.
The Red Bullseyes bristled at being grounded but nonetheless held still while two of the riders dismounted. A shortish, severe looking woman wearing a Scout Master uniform , and a taller Warlord wearing an all black version of the uniform.
«Sale to the Emperor!» In perfect synchronicity and in an almost dreamlike trance, Marco and Zheng dusted off ancient memories. They executed flawless salutes and then stood at attention. This was it!
Surprisingly, the warlord returned the salute. «Sale to the Emperor!» Military protocol didn’t require it, as a privilege of rank. This guy was trying to send a message. He came closer and inspected the trio closely. Marco kept his eyes trained forward, but managed to get a few good looks himself. The warlord had the usual warm gray skin and pointy ears for komissars, a rectangular face and piercing green eyes. Even when he was standing still some part of him was always moving, usually the hands or eyes.
He lowered his gaze to Lucy and used a friendly tone «You must be the Luckamancer, Lucy Charms. A pleasure to meet you, I’m the Count of Dis, Black Friday. This is Major Raquel of T.A.L. S.H.I.A.R., The Azure Legion Serving His Imperial Army Reconaissance. And that’s Sky Captain Crunch.» The goggle wearing Captain tipped his bicorn aviator hat, and the Major merely inclined her head.
Finally he addressed Marco and Zheng in the same familiar tone «So you’re the Emperor’s lost lambs? Level 4 and 3? Not bad.» He fixed his gaze on Marco’s beard, Polo, Zheng’s topknot, and the red bandana. «The Major will debrief you, but that’s just protocol. Soldiers, ma’am, you’re all coming home.»