Chapter 12:

Wait for No One

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


I stood at once. “You lost twelve boys?”

“Well- they can’t be that far,” the guard said. He laughed uncomfortably. "I mean, where could they have gone?"

I started walking at once, back through the cells. The prisoners kept jeering. I didn’t know if I felt ill from the movement of the ship or the smell of rotten wood. I ignored it all. I took the stairs two at a time and leaned over the side of the ship, peering towards the small boat I’d seen going towards the quarantine ship docked just slightly to the west. I could just barely see it past the glare of the sun off the water. It was moored right at the edge of the harbor, where only a few merchant ships would sail by every day.

I leaned over further and frowned.

Another small boat was rowing towards the ship, like the one the Infamy had used to fetch us. They’d been rowing an awful long time, if they’d left the dock before they’d gotten to us.

There were too many of them. My headcount was up to thirteen. Who sent more than a dozen nurses to bring a few supplies and check the poor merchants and visitors for the festival for fever?

“Where did you put that boat?”

The other guard groaned as I turned around and started walking towards where we’d taken the ladder before. He’d already opened a jar of mead.

“What now?” he groaned. He scrubbed at his head with the heel of his hand.

I looked over my shoulder. Apis was just walking out on deck, blinking in the bright light. He had the clothes tucked under his arm, still neatly folded. Duran was a few paces behind me, running to catch up.

“Do you want your prisoners back or not?” I said. “We need back in that boat.”

He stared at me. “I thought you’d be happy your kid was free.”

I said a few words that probably weren’t appropriate under my breath, then glanced back at Duran. “Don’t repeat that.”

He saluted back at me.

“They’re getting away. They’re already rowing.” I snatched the mead out of the guard’s hand. “If you don’t help, I’ll go up to the barricade and start saying you let the murderers out.”

I had seen Durandus the First find a scorpion in his boot, once. His eyebrows had shot up the same way the guard’s did.

“No need to be rude about it,” he muttered. He reached out and took the mead back, taking one last swig before putting the lid back on and nestling it back next to the other jars. “Come on, then.”

It took too long for us all to slide down the ladder and fall back into the heavy prison boat. It took even longer for us to row around the bow of the Infamy, even with me on one set of oars and the guard on the other. Apis was standing in the cage, scanning the horizon for any sign of our prisoners. Duran hunched in the back, too, trying to even out the weight.

“Good news!” said Apis. “They’re slowing down, too. Looks like they’ve overloaded the boat. They’re trading positions for the oars.”

I could feel sweat trickling down the back of my spine. My shoulders were aching. I’d thought I was reasonably strong, after years of moving flour and potatoes in the cellar and taking supplies up to the kitchen. I was wrong. I was nothing but a bait-worm in comparison to the great fish of the sea.

I gritted my teeth and glared at the guard, who just looked mildly annoyed. He couldn’t know I was struggling. I threw my back further into pulling the oars.

“I can’t tell if there are thirteen or fourteen,” he reported. “They keep moving. Oh- looks like someone’s throwing something. Duck!”

A splash came from the water, drops falling on my cheeks and dampening parts of the boat.

“Stop running!” shouted Duran. “We just want to ask some questions.”

I glanced up. We were still too far away to hear their responses. Someone was standing up, making their entire boat sway. Apis was right; it was too small for the amount of people on it. We were gaining on them, slowly. It was only a few ship-lengths in between the Infamy and the quarantine ship, which I could see now was named The Queen’s Grace.

A second object came flying at us. I was just able to see enough to duck as it came thumping into the boat. It came rattling to a stop barely to the left of my calf. A shoe. I kept rowing as Apis leaned out of the cage and picked it up.

“Looks like the right size for a letterboy,” he said. “See how well it’s worn down? Someone’s been running across the streets on this.”

We were within shouting distance now. They were mostly dressed in the dusken cloak; a mass of gray, unevenly wobbling across the still water of the harbor. Every time a gentle wave came by, the entire boat shook. The missing letterboys.

I heaved across the oars. “I’m not here to arrest you!”

“I am!” said the guard.

They were still rowing, that was the problem. As soon as they saw we were close enough to make an attempt, the efforts resumed in double-time. They were beginning to pull away.

We had lost our chance.

Something else came flying out from the boat. One of the boys blew a raspberry at us. Another shoe?

There was another massive splash. “Stop throwing your shoes!” I shouted. “Those are expensive!”

I might return them. If they told the truth about what they knew.

“Elysia,” said Apis. “That wasn’t a shoe.”

When I didn’t stop rowing, he grabbed my shoulder. The boat slowed. In the water, paddling like he’d never been in a body of water larger than a pond, fighting furiously to keep his head out of the water- was Duran.

How had he managed to move out of the cage and jump in, all without me noticing?

He swung forward, trying to move towards the other boat. It did absolutely nothing. His head dipped underneath the water again. I glanced towards the cage. He hadn’t bothered to take off any clothes first.

He is your apprentice. I glanced at Apis first, in case he was going to jump in.

He didn’t do anything other than look mildly panicked. “Swim for the boat!” he said.

“I am!” sputtered Duran. He was doing his best to keep his head out from under the water, and he was failing. He had a few minutes left, at best. I wasn’t sure if we had anywhere back home that was deep enough that you couldn’t touch the bottom. Did he even know how to swim?

He was also going in the wrong direction. What boat was he thinking of?

Of all of the foolish, impulsive…

I had already taken off my cloak, my top two tunics, and my top pair of skirts. I kicked off my boots as Duran fell underneath the water again.

“Don’t start rowing away,” I said to the guard. “I’ll make you regret it.”

Then I jumped into the water.

The harbor was just as miserable as I’d expected. It was slightly warm, salty enough to make my eyes burn even when they were closed, and when I emerged, sputtering, it poisoned my mouth with the taste of fine silt and what felt like the taste of every rotten fish at once.

What clothes I had were dragging me down. I could feel the muscle memory kicking in, though. I floated to the top of the water before beginning to kick over to Duran.

He was just barely underneath the surface, flailing in panic. I dove underneath and felt about, grabbing whatever felt solid and hauling him up.

He was resistant in his panic. For a moment I felt myself panic, too. He was going to drown the both of us.

I kicked once, twice, my legs burning with the effort. My eyes blinked open as I finally breached the surface. Coughing out what water I’d inhaled, I yanked once more on the fabric I’d gripped.

An elbow hit me in the side, then a hand. Another yank, and Duran finally emerged. I’d grabbed him by the back of the neck like a lost kitten.

“You’re swimming over too?” he said, in between coughs. His lungs sounded like they were half water.

He was still flailing so wildly he was probably going to drown me at any moment. I grabbed one of his arms and put it over my shoulder. At least he wasn’t very heavy.

I frowned. “Why do you still have that sword?”

It was slamming into my leg, over and over. It was probably worth half of his body weight.

In front of me, I could see Apis rowing the boat over to meet us. The guard had apparently decided to stop helping. I didn’t turn around to watch for the boat of escaped prisoners. They were surely long gone.

“What else am I supposed to use?”

“It’s going to drown you!” I was treading water with all of the strength I could muster, but with Duran trying to ‘help’, it was making it twice as difficult. I was already running out of energy. “You- for once in your life, think before you act! Don’t just hold onto the same fool idea!”

Duran’s face went red. “I was trying to help!” he said. “I need that sword!”

An oar swung into view, right in between our faces. I grabbed onto it with one hand and swung Duran’s hand onto the other.

“Next time, I’m leaving you in here. I don’t rescue fools who put themselves into danger.”

By the time I was up on the boat, dripping and smelling of the harbor water, the anger had solidified. I ignored Duran’s stare as Apis dragged him on-board.

The group of boys was nowhere in sight. They had probably been taken onto the quarantine boat, by now, but there were countless small pieces of rock they could have pulled up onto, if they had taken a small turn in the harbor.

It was impossible to know. We’d wasted the time we had.

I sat back and tried not to sulk.

“Are you going to send me off to someone else?” said Duran.

I folded my arms and turned to stare at him. He looked miserable, dripping onto the boat. He’d gone back into the cage, gripping at one of the bars like I’d trapped him in there.

“Why don’t you think about what you’ve earned for yourself."

“I’m sorry,” said Duran. “I am. I just thought- you remember what bard Felix said.”

This was unexpected. I stared for a moment more at him. “No. I don’t.”

Bard Felix had exclusively performed at night. I exclusively made food at night. As such, I had only spoken twice to him. Once, he’d told me he preferred his oatcakes with cardamom instead of cinnamon. The second time, he’d asked me to please stop making them like that and that he’d never make a complaint again.

“Well-”

“Are you saying you never came to night service because you were listening to bards?”

“He said you should always act quickly, because heroes wait for no one!” cried Duran.

There was no response to that. I turned to the side of the boat and started to wring out my tunic.

“Don’t worry,” said Apis. He’d started rowing again. “She’s not really angry at you. She’s just worried. You nearly died.”

That didn’t even justify a response. I sniffed and sat down. The guard started rowing again after a particularly nasty glare from me. I turned back to Duran as he sat back at the stern of the boat, curled up.

“You aren’t a hero. You’re my apprentice. You wait for me.”

“Yes,” he muttered. He shivered slightly.

I crumpled up my cloak and tossed it over to him. The day, still muggy and warm, had a breeze picking up over the water.

“We can still keep the mead, can’t we?” asked the guard.

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