Ch 129: Don’t Jump
"But then it broke super easy, like lots of things, and that's what happened. And I don't why it's bad but I know Gable didn't let me have dessert the whole day and I'm sorry I broke something again."
That something was my hair??! I'm almost bald you damn brat. That excuse of a sorry isn't going to cut it!
Even worse, my own mother got mad at me. The innocent party! Gable salvaged what was left on my head and evened it out, but Mother still screamed like a banshee when she saw my lack of locks. Locks that for a long while will not see any more pigtails, buns, or any other cute little style.
Awaiting the verdict, the grand judge, the great fearsome mother, lays down her mallet of judgment.
"Ohhh you pooooor thing! I understand completely!" Mother sobs, snuggling the boy back and forth in her deadly hold.
"It's just sooooooo hard when everything breaks so easily, right?! You don't mean to smashy and break things but why is it your fault? Why can't other things be stronger?" Mother sniffs and cries, squishing Lukas into a pounded mochi in her unrestrained affections.
"Yeah! That!" Lukas exclaims, agreeing exactly, somehow molding and surviving.
Ah, I see.
They're the same genus-group of monsters. Possibly made out of dough or mochi or some similarly resilient shit.
A part of me is still having great difficulty computing the frail delicate memory of my lady mother into....this....or even in comparison to the hyperactive mess that is Lukas. But in the same way, it doesn't register how that boy is the same mob character minion in the crowds of my death.
It just literally does not match up.
"They just break so easily!"
"And then we get punished and lots and it's not fair because I don't mean for things to go crack or smack or -"
"But they do! Bones break so easily!!! Oh darling!!!"
Clutching one another, my mother has once again forgotten her own family to cry into the arms of another little boy. Another homewrecker of unfair soft cuteness, only this one comes in another color and extra squishy.
Have we forgotten this sinner is the reason why I've been reduced to this state? Why I got in trouble with the great mother in the first place?
I don't mind short hair, really. But this is barely better than a buzzcut! This is some grampa-approved military shit!
"Awwww baby girl, look! It's so much like those times way back when we had to shave you bald to prevent fleas!" Grampa coos at me, all before receiving a pillow to the head.
Somehow, it was thrown with enough force to explode in feathery itchy death.
"...fleas?" I repeat through the shower of feathers.
"So many types of fleaaaas!'' Grampa disappears under the veil of slowly drifting feathers, a flash of something colored Mother's voluminous hair seemingly dragging him to shut up.
"It's flea season!" Lukas agrees, having escaped Mother's grasp.
"This is all your fault." I consider tackling the boy, but unfortunately, I don't have any sharp hair shaving weapons on me.
I don't think bald will be a good look on him, but it's only fair. Right now, he's too hatefully adorable, stealing the hearts of other people's mothers. It's the sailor suit, it must be. Today's suit is a grey and white lined pattern material, cut in more of a vintage schoolboy design instead. This cut of cuteness is obviously stolen from my modern designs and recycled pile.
Darn it, Georgie!
Selling out my draft designs to Mother just like that? So easily!? Well, at least I know where she's getting them from now.
There is no loyalty.
"Ahem, my young 'master', if you are so interested, we may be able to tailor a... sailor suit of your own. In fact...." said bad assistant snickers in his place, carrying my cooing babbling sister.
He's beginning to look more professional, but who cares when his personality is like this? Who does he think he is?! Just wait, the first chance I get at picking up a pretty obedient cat boy OP fantasy world butler and Georgie is going back to the kitchen!
"Oh no, my young 'master', whatever are you doing in young Miss Lilyanne's dresses? Do not fret. I have the solution." he breaks character every few seconds, laughter on his face.
From behind he pulls out a rack, hanging even tinier boys' clothes, bunched and sewn up perhaps, but still luxuriously small.
Ah...I'm stuck with him, aren't I?
Meanwhile, Lilyanne seems to be trying non-stop to reach for me. When Georgie finally puts her down to apparently select my new suit, she immediately comes to rub herself all over my head.
"Ooooohhhh." the toddler marvels, feeling up the texture of short fuzz.
"Ooooooooh Lily too! Lily want too!" she pulls at her own perfect curly locks, at three years old they're as naturally long as reasonable, halfway between her rounded shoulders and chubby elbows.
"No." I deadpan.
"Lily too!" she shouts, turning over to the monster responsible. "Lily wanna same with Rosa too!"
"Don't you dare. I will scream and break your ears." I follow, glaring at Lukas to not try anything funny. Say accept my sister's very strange request for an innovative haircut.
"I'm no dummy, if I do it again Gable gonna get mad. Again!" he shakes his little head, also perfect hair fluffy and bouncing in each cute shake.
Ahhh, I want to shave it off. I want my revenge. If anyone is getting another haircut, it should be Lukas. Shave him bald. It prevents fleas after all.
"If your hair is that important and stuffs, let's just ask for one of Amar's weird candies. The one that made Cap grow his hair all super long to the floor and stuff!" Lukas exclaims to me despite Lilyanne trying to headbutt him.
Or is she rubbing her head at him?
"Same wit Rosa." she sounds very determined.
Lukas looks to be considering it and I already have my hand to pull my sister back before she loses one of her pigtails. Luckily, the decision Lukas goes with is to swat her away, and off the seat.
"Noooooo, Lily want too." she clamors back.
"Mother!" I call to the only one who can truly control this weird little girl.
In a flash, the woman is right around the couch to fuss and coo over us. With Grampa suddenly not only limp and weak but looking to be sporting a very sore jaw. Huh, he must have hit something? Mother and Grampa can be very rough sometimes.
"No no no my cutie patooties. You must get along and play nice." she tuts happily, pulling Lukas up and away from any short kiddie's reach, cuddling him in her arms.
Mother...we've been over this before, but it's your daughter that you should be defending. Look Lilyanne. The chosen one. Your precious little girl. Though she doesn't look too precious right now trying to climb and crawl right up Mother's dress. One who is trying to make herself bald in an imitation game.
I should focus on teaching Lilyanne not to follow along and copy things so easily next. Goodness gracious, she's so damn impressionable. Even more so at this age!
"Why is she like this?" I sigh a line I recall saying many times before.
Only this time in a voice much younger and pathetic sounding. It's as high as a squeaking kitten and I still occasionally lisp and miss a word. Though I hear it every day when I speak, I can't help but sigh again at how odd and foreign it sounds.
"That might be a good idea, baby girl! It is flea season. Wouldn't want them bugs make nests in our little Lilyanne's hair like your-" Grampa mentions before Mother gestures for Georgie to take the children, then smacks at him with her free hands.
"Oh ho ho ho! Papa, you are just too much of a joker! However, will my little LADY be infested? Never! Of course not!" she giggles.
"So that's a no? Even if you know what that means?" Grampa looks back, oddly serious.
I look around, wondering if the mood has changed.
"....I understand but...the girls' safety come first!" Mother says.
"Of course! When would I ever risk that?"
"Papa! Oh, I won't mention it right now, don't distract me!"
Ah yes, I just love it when Grampa starts vaguely talking about something else that I don't understand and am not privy to. Especially if it's important to any of my plots.
That or I missed it getting distracted.
"If it was just me, Papa, I wouldn't mind at all. But the girls are different! I...I have to think of the children now. I won't risk them getting sick again in any way."
"Even if it means innocent people die?" Grampa asks with a light tone, as if he were talking about the weather.
Oh yeah, I definitely missed something. However, an uncomfortable feeling inside me says it sounds familiar. Something I know.
Mother's face is no longer smiling, but stubbornly she holds her stance.
"The girls come first. My family comes first." she says without much thought, the lightness and clarity of her voice only make her statements crueler, "People die every day. Hundreds. Thousands. All around and past where we can reach. Save one and that's wonderful but there will still be countless more. We cannot save everyone. We are not...we're not responsible for that!"
"Is that you talking? Or your very smart and reasonable husband?"
"You papa! You taught me that!"
"Huh? Did I now?"
Mother huffs, hitting him in the chest with another pillow repeatedly. It's the only time I see this oddly childish side of Mother, but I suppose it makes sense given that the crazy old man is literally her father.
It's an odd thing to think about.
"The truth is Papa, I want to say no. Absolutely not. I want to lock away my babies from all such dirty matters and raise them as proper lovely noble ladies. It's only right! And they don't even break anything, they can't, they're so wonderfully delicate and dainty. Just like real ladies!" Mother's emotions seem to be going up and down.
The implications aside, that's exactly how we were raised a lifetime ago. Sheltered would be underestimating it. Lilyanne was holed up in her sickbay tower, like any princess in a fairytale. While I got to live the fulfilling life of every overworked over ambitious student ever!
History. Art. Mathematics. Poetry. Language studies. Fencing. Horse riding. Music. What could pass off as Micro and Macro Economics? Embroidery. Accounting. Political Science. Natural Science. Basic alchemical chemistry. Much much more history, god damn it, we do not need that much mundane history on the houses of the aristocracy! Even fashionable philosophy, because who else can afford to sit around discussing such thoughts but the very wealthy and free?
All that and more, on rotation according to my age and skill level at the time.
Thus I had little to no free time. Ever.
In my youth, I had not so much involvement in anything to do with the troops. My education was either based at home with private tutors, Father's own strict orders, or the occasional appropriate class or lecture in a big city if not the midways lands on my visits. If the instructor was someone related to the troops, such as uncle Geoff in my light weapons training, they would travel to privately teach somewhere in the home villa.
My family home is not a castle, but it is built like a fortress underneath. My sister and I never had to step out if we ever needed anything. Every material good was available and provided.
How extremely limiting.
"Have to admit, don't know much there. Never did." Grampa shrugs, half nonchalant and half tiredly apologetic to Mother huffing.
As if they had this conversation many times before.
"I feel like, in another instance, I would accept your answer without another word. Because you're right Maria, I did teach you that. Maybe not in ways that were best for us, but I did. We can't save them all, and we can't keep pushing ourselves past the brink even to save just one more."
"That's what you always did, Papa! I couldn't even blame you for it because that one more matters. It's someone's life on the line. It would be vile, selfish of me, to hold you back from that. But I married my darling because I'm foolishly selfish, he lets me in all the worst ways and heaven knows I let him get away with so much...though he does try."
"Yes, I admit Freddy's gotten better with the whole...ehhh him things. Meh, it's fine.” Grampa waves off.
"So with my children too, I want to be selfish for them. I want them not to be raised the way I was. They'll be perfectly good and happy young ladies, as their birthright. But..." Mother hesitates, right into Grampa's too strong arms.
"But? ...I know baby girl, I know." he rocks.
I am very lost and I swear they either shamelessly do not care or have forgotten I am still sitting right here. I don't even have any popcorn or snacks to munch on.
"What does Grampa want? Are we going to go heal something or someone using Lilyanne? If it's a special request already filtered out from Grampa, then it should be alright. She might be small but she doesn't get fevers anymore." I adjust my cushioned seat in boredom.
Mother's eyes pop over to me in shock.
"Papa! Why is Rosalia-what?"
"Why she was always there, baby! The whole time! And that noggin of hers is still darn cute and terrifying even when we cut Freddy's hair off, yep. Awww just like old times with the fleas. By the way, did I mention that the girls may occasionally be able to see into the future? Juuuuust a little bit."
I facepalm for too many reasons to reasonably count off.
"They can what?!" Mother focuses on the last part, already forgetting about forgetting me, again. Thank you, Mother.
Maybe I should just let Georgie put me into a tiny sailor suit. That seems to work 100% in keeping her attention. I already have the boy's cut.
"Technically, it's only Lilyanne," the crazy old man looks up, stroking his chin. "But Rosalia makes more sense of them and right now that's much more useful!"
"They can WHAT?!"
I admit I have thought out many ways to reveal bits and pieces of the truth to parental units. For it would just make life easier for us all, giving me more advantages to act on my plans and preventative measures. While I'm more than fine with Grampa currently taking the reins, and acting as my cover, it won't do for the long term. There are things I would like to act on for myself without gathering damning evidence to be burnt as a baby witch. Yes, many ways I tried imagining I could dilute my cheat and make public excuses to Mother and Father.
This was not one of them.
"Yeeeeeah, so Gable and I figured that Lilyanne might kinda get these little bursts of visions. Think of them as cuts of foresight. It happens maybe like...." he looks over to me, confirming my compliance in building this dam of half-truths built on lies.
I admit it's a very straightforward method. Simple and awkwardly painful, but hopefully effective, as Grampa is already an established crazy man.
"Once a year, on our birthday. Maybe more when Lily's a lot older." I sigh, playing along.
"Right! About once a year! Since we threw the girls and bundled them up together all the time, Rosa here eats up our Lily's big bad powers, siphons them, and well here you have it. Side effects! You know, blurry prophecies of death, destruction, and apparently handsome young men. The usual."
What a way with words this man has. Mother is speechlessly limp. The lights are on and no one is home. Mother is offline.
"And that's why Rosa likes to play acting she's a very mature big girl. Thinks she knows soooo much, though that's probably just Freddy's contributions talking. It's soooo cute. Aren't you pumpkinpoo?~" Grampa coos.
I throw a pillow at him.
Unfortunately, it does not explode in feathers like how Mother manages to do it.
Speaking of Mother, I take a deep breath to bite the bullet. I'll be lucky if she doesn't throw me into the fire to burn. She wouldn't right away right? Grampa's excuses kinda hold up? It ties in Lilyanne too! She's the one with future vision powers, not me, and no one's scared of her!
Slowly, I look up to see if Mother has mentally recovered from that shock yet, if not ready to hand me over to be exorcised by fire.
"Ooooooh that does explain so much. I thought she just took too much after Frederick!" she buys Grampa's story up perfectly, nodding up right at me.
"That too." Grampa agrees solemnly, the most serious he's ever been, "I'm afraid that part is untreatable. You may not see the red hair right now since we chopped it off, but most likely it will be back."
"Oh dear! Don't worry baby! We'll get you all the hats, we'll stop it this time." Mother cries, diving into the cushion to snuggle me against the horrors of my father's bloodline and the sun.
"...Mother...that is the part you're concerned about. Really? Anything else? Perhaps the part about...the future?"
The situation is so ridiculous I can only go with the flow. One of the most horrible complications has been revealed and ended up in this way? That I hold the knowledge of the short-term future, of about the next 13 or so years, but am practically powerless, ineffective to do anything about it but act in silence?
And here Grampa just goes around shouting it just like that!? Even worse! Mother just takes it without any further concern or questions!!?
"Remember Maria, she likes to be a 'big girl.'" Grampa says in a suspicious tone.
"Oh! Oh right! Oh yes. Ahem. Oh of course my darling Rosa, you are my very brave and mature girl. It can't be helped. Your grandpapa and I will love you no matter what your hair looks like." she says emotionally, hugging me tighter.
I can feel the still blankness of my face set automatically due to the overwhelming shock going on inside.
Why. Is. She. Like. THIS?!!
You know what, I think I just answered one of my earlier questions regarding Lilyanne. It's from Mother! And thus Grampa! All Grampa's fault! Again, it's all Grampa's fault.
"Oh dear, she has his facial expressions too! I see it! Boo hoo!"
"Shhhh, baby girl, I know. I know. We'll make Freddy take full responsibility and then some!"
Someone come help get me out of this family of crazies. Help.
A light knocking raps on the door. A short moment and confirmation later, Georgie half steps in, his expression cooled to a professional still. Though his frazzled occasional knee shake betrays his nerves, he is getting better at acting.
"Great Lord Commander. My Lady. A giant....balloon has ...parked outside the residence." he announces.
Both members of my direct biological ancestry, then forget about me again, throwing me to bounce lightly on the couch cushions as they fight each other over who gets to wave first at the window in their race across the sitting room.
Hey, no fair I want Gable too! No one said Gable was coming today!
"Do not jump out the window!" a beautiful angel's cry comes angrily from outside.
"No no no! Not the both of you!!!" the outside yells again.
In the end, they somehow both slip over. What a coincidence. Huh?
Well, nothing a Ventrella can't handle. Mother is oddly very resilient no? Very much Grampa's alright. So much healthier, I do wonder what really caused her to be so sickly and frail in the last life when reality says she can survive jumping through windows weekly.
"I said not both of you! How old do you two think you are?!!" Gable curses from below, still sounding like music to one's ears.
Even if it gets drowned out and dirtied in that father and daughter's babbling nonsense. Sounds like they survived just fine.
"We miss you." "You only pay attention to little brother now!" "We got lonely."
"It's been a few hours Ron! ...Where's Lukas?"
"See Papa, this is what I mean, he only pays attention to-"
"-Well baby girl you must be understanding, after all Lulu is quite young and ever the handful."
"Oh, I don't blame the precious child. I remember what it's like."
"What is Lukas doing on the roof!?!" Gable screams.
From inside the room, Georgie and I awkwardly try looking up out the window and at each other.
"Georgie....didn't you take him?" I ask.
"Yeah but not to the roof? When did...how did he get up there?!" my poor little assistant starts panicking.
Common sense says I should just...step right back inside and ignore everything. Yes. In this family, and our households, nothing ever goes as expected. Let's just not worry about it.
"Gable!" yells out another childishly familiar, but unexpected voice now heard at my house. Lukas somehow worming himself in and around like an annoying rambunctious neighbor who constantly shows up on my property.
"No! No Jumping! I said-, oh never mind." Gable gives up, as it's already too late, taking only a facepalm before focusing on his palm to gently slow Lukas's freefall from the roof into a giggling float into his arms.
"Oh, we didn't get that," Mother complains.
"It's not fair but he is the smallest and most likely to die," Grampa agrees.
"That would be unfortunate, he's too cute." Mother nods, clinging on to Gable from below as Lukas finally touches down.
As insane as all of this is...it feels a little lonely simply watching.
"How did she get on the roof!?!" I look over accusingly.
"Lukas? I don't know??? I locked them in the nursery and said I would be back!?" yells back Georgie, watching all this in horror.
Note to self, never let Lilyanne be alone with any such bad influences ever again.
Mother screams, finally acting like a concerned parent.
"Stay there my sweet! Don't move!" she instructs.
"Lily wanna play jumpy too!" my sister's very strong voice shouts out. My what strong lungs she has.
"Lilyanne Mariana Ventrella! You shall not! It's not playing! Oh, Papa go get her. Lilyanne, disobey and you shall see what happens when I get my hands on you!” Mother threatens.
"Lily just wanna play too!" the daughter cries, quite literally starts crying her broken wet tears.
The same kind I've forcibly grown immune to after years of headaches. Lilyanne wants to go to this one ball. That's all she wants. Now that ball. That dinner party. Someone else's summer palace. Just all the balls all the time! She just wants the same new dress that one courtesan was seen wearing, so buy it out even if it is only fashionable for half a season. Or the necklace that other lady had, so a stupid harem boy goes and steals it for her and causes a scandal. Blah blah blah.
"I'm taking the stairs. Come on, Georgie." I sigh again.
"Where are we going and should I pack?" he follows, probably already going over the babysitting bag supplies.
"Most likely. And bring snacks!"
By the time I reach outside the grounds, where the balloon is indeed parked, Grampa has already scaled the vineyard manor like a parkour artist. Like a chimpanzee with its young, a still crying Lilyanne clings under his arm, sobbing into his full strong bosom.
"Hi again Rosa!" Lukas exclaims, first to see me and no longer wondering how to identify me compared to my identical twin sister.
I swear, we used to be identical. These are all outside factors I have no control over, like my hair.
"And where did you come from, young lady?"
Gable looks down from where I approach them from behind. His gorgeous face, those swoon-worthy cheekbones, in full display with his silky hair half pulled up is a classic elven style today. Legolas wishes he could look half as good!
"The stairs." I answer politely, trying not to let the inner fangirl rule out over respect and manners.
"Oh thank god." Gable lets out a great breath, looking to be beside himself in relief. Perhaps grateful it's only been three and a half people jumping from high surfaces at him.
As much as I would like to fall into Gable's perfect arms and chest, I know reality is....well reality!
"She gets it from Frederick darling." Mother bows her head low, apparently in shame as she's somehow been tied by seatbelt inside the balloon.
"We fear it's fatal." Grampa yells out
He runs with Lilyanne over to tuck her into the balloon's baby seat while Gable has Lukas marching himself into his seat all by himself, though he doesn't trust the natural daredevil to do his own seatbelts.
"Are we going somewhere? Is that okay Mother?" I ask, walking up to her legs. Indirectly mentioning the topic from earlier.
"Well... if Gable says it's alright." Mother replies, reaching to pull me up. "And I suppose, it matters..."
She's worried, I can tell despite her light, easy tone and almost comical tie down to her seat. More than me, she's the one that looks like a witch put to the stake.
"Alright then." I nod along, knowing I'll see where we end up and what we're doing soon.
I know it involves Lilyanne somehow, using the knowledge I've provided about her in secret. And I know that despite the insanity Grampa naturally gives off, he would never do anything to threaten her or endanger her.
"Are we all good? Maria, let Rosalia go so she can get into her seat." Gable looks over the car.
"Wait! Can I bring my snacks?" I raise my hand.
"Well, I suppose." he looks over to the side where my dumbstruck assistant still stands.
"Great! Georgie, get on."
Georgie points between the babysitting and snack bags and himself.
"Wait. Seriously? Me?"
"Yes. Don't be rude and keep his graciousness sir Gable waiting! In in in!"
And that's how we ended up taking my snacks, and snack carrier, Georgie, on his first flight. The teenager internally screaming while frozen in his seat the whole time. Good job
It's a very odd arrangement of people. Mother dotingly talking back and forth between a chattering Lilyanne and Lukas. Grampa and Gable in the front going over the directions like some old bickering married couple. Ha! I'm funny. Then there's the kinda official teenaged babysitter at this point really, and I. Very odd indeed combination indeed, yet it doesn't feel out of place at all.
Maybe I'm just getting too used to all the crazy.
Flight by hot air balloon is generally a pleasant experience and sight, once you get over the fear of crashing in a fiery inferno.
I'm not entirely lost or directionless, recognizing enough landmarks and features to know we're heading eastward of the family’s northern vineyards. But my suspicions grow as we fly over gray mountains and patches of dry barren lake beds. Further and further remote. An area that will erode even further into uselessness in the short term future. One already called by the name 'badlands'.
I know exactly what lies beyond the badlands of my family's territory.
The leprosy colony.
Bonus Side Story! East European Summer Road Trip (of doom). Part 1(?)
Skippable, but please enjoy.
"Is he always like this?" the young woman asked.
For once, in a very long time, her clothes were neat and pristine. Vibrant actually. Too colorfully dyed and embroidered to blend in, but hidden under modest veils and a traveler's cloak. A smaller youth, hardly a teenager, was in a plainer tunic and similar cloak. Without the hood up it couldn't hide the flash of sunlight fine hair, and a slowly developing handsome countenance. He roughly kicked the wooden wagon.
"Honestly. Yeah." Yuna threw his other party under....
No, it was accurate to say that Vincent was already under the wagon, well hidden. On the ground, underneath the great big wheels capable of crushing a man alive by running him over, the older teen was not curled up crying.
He was simply...practicing dying.
"All that work," Vincent whimpered wetly, though no one could really see him under the shadows, "everything that could go wrong..."
"Did not." reminds Yuna. Playing devil's advocate to not only be a voice of common sense but just to mess with Vincent.
"It didn't go wrong till now! Now! Too smooth. Of course, it would! Nothing can ever go right. Now we'll pay thrice fold!"
"It's one broken wheel." Yuna deadpanned.
It was a clear blue sunny day. One of summer's finest. The air fresh and beautiful. The hills were lush and green, summer flowers blooming in the wake of fresh storms.
That also meant that the rural outback roads, if there were any roads, were muddy. Sludge and slippery annoying rock really.
It wasn't a dire situation. Their strength was at full peak, well-rested and well-packed from their time as 'guests' at a certain castle.
Now it was just about getting back.
Of all the things they prepared for, double and triple checked, things to account for going wrong, somehow a broken wagon wheel wasn't on the list. It really should have been now that they thought back on it.
Vincent was stressed enough. He was already over worrying on the whole 'oops I walled in a noble matriarch alive in her own estate’ thing.
"We shouldn't have done that. We should have just..." Vincent moaned into the cool dirt underneath his hiding spot.
"We left a little hole? It will be ok." the youngest of the group spoke up.
Merely a small tender looking child, yet the most comforting. Amar was also the only one small enough to easily slip in and out of the under wheels.
"No, it won't! We're trapped now! Trapped!" Vincent cries.
"His spirit is solid and strong as a bowl of ganoush." Cass bluntly noted.
The eldest and only female of the group tried shooing little Amar away from what she saw as a bad influence. Not that she particularly disliked Vincent or anything. There were bound to be many types of people. Something she knew well from her travels. But she grimaced at the thought of the young charge picking up any such behaviors.
That and she didn't want him dirty in the mud.
Traveling was always filthy business but even more so in these strange lands. The common people drew wells, not pumps, and had few if any sewers or cisterns. They knew not much of running water controlled by the hands of man. There were even people, the locals, that did not purify themselves with simple water.
She shudders in how a small lost child would care for themselves in such a world. Almost mournfully, she instinctively brushes the edges of the boy's hair, curling at the ends. She remembers them feeling so much softer, scented in baby's soap, almond oil, and rose water. She remembers it from a long time ago and the boy pretends he doesn't.
It's a good thing they're not alone, for then the boy might just forget it all.
"He just needs a baba to feed and spoil his ganoush." Yuna tormented, "Shaaaaame, I think Georgie's more of a -"
"Stop mentioning him!" Vincent screamed, turning pink under the shadows.
"Who is this Georgie and why do you hold his name like a gold cheese to a dying rat that cannot eat? You're telling me this one holds a lover?" Cass points down, unbelieving.
"Ha! Nah, he wishes he could even think about it without exploding-"
Suddenly under the wagons sounds out screaming, groaning, and begging wishes to just end him, and other insane nonsense.
On the side, Cass had already given up on reasoning with the possibly crazy pale young man with a bad crushing case of...whatever it was Vincent had. Instead, she was dusting off and fussing with the little boy.
"I'm fine." Amar groaned, getting his face wiped, bandages checked and worn clothes inspected for the 13th time today.
Caspara sighed at the stubborn wriggling child. The summers here were cool and lovely with its meadows of soft green and wetness, yet the boy sometimes burned still so hot inside. It was as frustrating as it was familiar.
"...We'll set up camp here for the night. It will take time regardless and there's no use in sitting around watching a grown fool cry in the mud." she reasoned, voice forcibly gentle.
A snort and a sorry cry came from the others, above and below the wagon, but she kneeled to speak only to the boy directly.
"Little kahk, can you scout around for a good spot? Flat dry land. Remember? Nearby water and a source of firewood? Do you have all your knives? Your whistle? Call if there's trouble or- "
"...I don't. But ok." Amar nods, quickly running off.
Steps quicker than a wild rabbit escaping from its cage.
He's gotten so much faster in the time Cass hasn't seen him. Taller too. It does not reassure her heart at all.
"You call him kahk? As in the cookie, for breaking a fast?" Yuna kicks the wheel again, tucking a strand of loose hair behind his ear. It only came a little below his chin but that was enough for the light to reflect and shine.
If he was paler, his features fuller and cut just a more roundabout way, he could be mistaken as one of those far Western foreigners dressed like that, with hair like that. Fine and fair, spun like gold thread.
He could be wrong in his guess, but it was fitting the teen thought. The small bites of sugar sweetness, buttery baked only on special occasions. They called them 'cookies' around the troops, though it varies as others claimed other words such as 'biscotti'. His mouth salivated only in his memory. He hasn't had a kahk in years, hasn't seen or smelled a lot of things that were once home.
But that's the thing, once meant no more, and that's the lot most of them were in. Yuna especially.
Cass quietly sighed at the empty green hills, nodding.
"If that's what you call them... the small ones always complained unless it was served plain," she confirmed.
"Plain is the best way to go." Yuna sneered
"Don't be ridiculous. Agameya flavor is best." Cass bit back, humor rising dark in her voice.
"Meh, if you gotta add something, make it at least malbam or agwa." the blond spoke, words rolling off his tongue as if it were never in disuse.
"Agameya is superior."
"Is not! But damn could I go for one."
"I may be down here quiet but I'm not actually dead." Vincent complained, interrupting only after long losing the conversation. Lost in translation.
As overly stressed as he was, a part of Vincent was glad that Yuna had another person he was actually willing to talk to. Someone that made the boy open up, even just a cruel crack. The younger boy was frigid, and hard to reason in this sensitive age. A whole new can of worms.
But on the other hand, couldn't it have been someone better for his nerves?!
"A ganoush without a baba" Cass agreed with what the younger teen earlier said.
"As good and reliable as a basket of frogs." Yuna added on.
"I've known great great grandmothers carrying a village's worth of babies with straighter spines than you." she yelled down under the wagon.
"I don't understand! But that sounds about right." Vincent whimpered to that.
For a weak moment, he allows himself to miss Tamera and her familiar brand of painfully annoying.
Her punches hurt but it was only his bones and body, not his very delicate heart and liver when this Cass girl spoke her sharp words. He did not need it after a long and terrifying week of getting pushed and poofed borders of countries away from his safe spaces controlled by the Troops...to playing 'guest' in the too big airy castle. aka the far and out of sight residence of a 'sickly' madame Damia.
Yeah, Vincent was still mentally and physically recovering from that, ok?! But staying any much longer at that place, despite how friendly Damia's sons welcomed them after their 'transaction', really was worse for Vincent's health. The soundless screams that must be going on under the castle, just being there, was also bad. Lots of bad.
So they were on the road back to any of the troop's outposts, though most likely just the long way back to Ventrella lands, because that portal did not offer a return trip. With his magical monstrous 'creations' that neither needed food nor sleep, oddly disguised as very dark stallions per Lord Ventrella's request, if they followed the schedule perfectly, and nothing went wrong ever, they could do it in under a month.
'If' was already ruined, it's been less than a week since setting out and they've already broken a wheel. Great. Just great.
"If you get out from under there, I'll get it up and out of the mud pit you drove it in." Cass offers blandly.
"Told you this, 'oh we don't need to stop for rest, not if we rotate and follow the schedule' bullshit was a bad idea." Yuna snorted.
"It is a very stupid schedule. Though you are a spineless whining weakling, you are useful for running the bony steeds. Nor I do not wish to see you truly bury yourself alive. Children are watching. It's not good for him." she took a long stick to start poking about.
"Oh, I don't think you know Amar then." Yuna kicked, still trying to get it at a better angle. Would be easier if Vincent would just climb out.
"I know plenty."
"So much so the brat runs like hunted prey, only from you."
He does not miss how she flinches before sternly holding her glare.
Yuna enjoys the older woman's presence, really now. At least more so than Vincent on an average day, while Amar was just still a brat. Precisely because he's a child, sensitive as they are, that Yuna can't ignore the way he flinches and twitches away. There is a history, anyone with eyes out of their ass can tell it is a complicated one.
But don't they all have complicated stories hidden under the sand? Especially them? Foreigners in a strange place, far from homes they can no longer return to.
Yuna remembers a little boy, too young and small, when the sergeant leader first assigned him to his section. They had chosen Yuna, of all the older children, to look out for him, not because the ex-slave was particularly strong or responsible. But the shades in their skin, the assumed shared background.
It didn't matter.
They were like islands of a home better off forgotten.
Yuna remembers how the child was so mutely dumb, unresponsive, that others feared he was retarded. But Yuna knows fear so intense you lose yourself. Lose your mind. Knows well what it tastes like personally in not-so-distant memories.
He can feel it again here, now. In between moments with this stranger Amar let tag along specifically.
Personally, he doesn't mind Cass, could be a lot more annoying. And she was actually useful. But he doesn't like how quiet that boy got again.
"Are you two fighting? Can you do it away from the wagon? I'd like to rest in peace." Vincent whimpers, feeling the imaginary bad air already.
He typically left this kind of stuff to Tamera, but overreliance on his roommate and admittedly friend was a bad thing. Having no idea what to do now. He wishes to bury himself and let the problems all fix themselves, but of course, that's impossible. Death was much easier than living, a lot less complicated.
"No." Cass smirks, crossing her arms in a challenge. "Just a filthy brat being stubborn. Typical."
"Whatever. Whoever has a head-wound keeps feeling it" Yuna raises back, knowing the exact translation is lost on Vincent, despite him understanding each word individually.
'A guilty person will give himself away.'
Cass understood like he knew she would. Like Amar still does though he's so young, so far from the home that birthed him. They drank the same teas when others here drank the wine of their grapes and ales of grain. They preferred the same type of bread, missed the same bites of sour, sweet, and spices.
"He who doesn't know, says "lentils." she answers back, without any weight on her shoulders. Her height was taller than Yuna's current own, looking down on him, though he's growing damn it.
'Those who don't know the true story will just say anything as an explanation.'
"I am so confused," Vincent complains from below.
In the end, both of the 'foreigners' relent, calling back to their only slightly awkward truce. They still had a long way to get back to the troops, and though Vincent's set schedule promised under a month, they both knew reality would take far longer.
"I know you already like it, but lay down and keep low." Cass instructs the somewhat trapped teenager below their vehicle.
Vincent gladly complies, sinking himself comfortably into the mud. It's cold but almost like those relaxing mud baths that Rosalia introduced him to. He'll gladly take his pay from her in mud baths and spa treatments from now on. Gold merely children's pocket change compared to what her Lord Father paid.
What a terrifying family.
He's so comfortable he hardly notices when the wagon steadily lifts off of him, though it does expose him back to sunlight. The stuck wagon seemingly floating up in the air until it carefully repositions itself off the side of the muddy road. Yuna yelling out instructions such as "more to the left" as the Cass woman concentrates.
"It's not so bad." she inspects, looking up at the damage before willing it back down.
"Yeah. I can whittle something that will work till the next town, but camp first sounds like the best idea." Yuna remarks, stomach already growling.
"I saw boar and deer tracks around, I could hunt something. I tire of the rations." Cass sighs, thinking about the hardtacks, lentils, and salted jerky the troops supplied.
Even better, the fish oil like edible nutrient jellies that Vincent seemed so fond of. Something he's been over-relying on, "like all he ever eats regularly when no one looks after his ass." Yuna informed.
Sure they worked, somewhat, at staving off the worst hunger and providing energy. But they satisfied nothing else, not to mention the hunger pangs still remained. Though they managed to get a few more travel provisions from their grateful hosts at that awful castle before they set off.
The food wasn't quite to her tastes, nor Yuna's, but their complaints were only among themselves.
She didn't want to dip too much into her own personal stowed away supplies, though she would, should the child ask for it. Like how he requested her help to sell the broken jewels. How she pulled out, even more, even grander ones, to his uninterested eyes.
Cass can think long and hard about how much he's suffered in this land, all alone, but that changes nothing and only makes her feel worse. The best she can do now is provide what she could where she could.
She did not take offense to the young blond's accusations. Nor Amar's flightiness. It could only take time, heavens willing, for them to become comfortable again.
Until then, the one called Yuna works to clean and repair the parts of the broken wagon, while she helps lift and carry what is available in her space. The Vincent one, lays in his spot, a strange one that does not sleep nearly enough.
A rustling sound comes at them, like tiny bells, indicating safety.
"I found two? Do you want to camp in the shelter of a grove? Or near a water pond?" Amar asks, hopping down.
"The wooden grove!" Yuna exclaims, immediately annoyed by the thoughts of insects.
"That will work. Thank you little kahk," she gently agrees, and when she pulls out the hidden sugared and stuffed cookies, kept fresh all this time in her space, the little boy smiles back and accepts.
When Yuna gasps and balks, she's forced to hand him some too, and Amar giggles.
"Needs tea. Are you getting up now?" Yuna asks, having already stuffed two of the sweets down his mouth. Of course, he went for the date paste flavored ones.
Cass wonders if it was worth exerting effort to move Vincent by force. It was quite a lot more work lifting a person than immovable things. She'd rather save her strength for building camp, repairing clothes, watching closely if Amar's tastes have changed.
The boy seemed to enjoy more things now, not simply eating just plain sugared ones anymore, but the pistachios, the rose water, the malbam, the agwa, and all the flavors he seemed to have missed when once avoided. He had grown and none of them were there to see it.
"Up. Up. I'm moving." Vincent groans, lazily crawling up to call for his undead steeds to rearrange themselves to help move and make camp at least.
This schedule wasn't going to work out at all but he would try. Weird party mates of, one very crass though secretive woman, one very grumpy teenager with a mean streak, and an honestly unpredictable six-year-old.
This was going to be a hell of a return trip.
"Who has the map again?"
DAYS TILL DESTINATION: 3/49.