Chapter 18: Partners In Slime
Latrinus sat behind a long, oaken table. A slew of maps and charts lay spread out in front of him. A bowl of fruit sat on his left, a tall flagon of ale on his right.
"Ladies," Latrinus rose to acknowledge Lila and Alexis. He gave them a look of cool appraisal, then snapped his fingers. His lackeys came at once with a couple of chairs.
At Latrinus’ behest, Lila and Alexis gingerly took their seats and stared at their captor across the pile of crinkled maps. Studying the pair with a mild grin, Latrinus speared an apple with his dagger, conveyed the pierced fruit to his lips, took a chomp out of its flesh and spat out the seeds as he chewed. His face and beard were as scruffy as those of his lackeys, but his tan eyes were bright, almost playful.
"I trust you found you accommodations suitable," Latrinus said with his mouth partially full.
When Lila and Alexis didn't reply, Latrinus said, "I'll take your silence for assent."
At a signal from Latrinus, his lackeys dragged a smaller table into the hut on which they began to lay place settings for a meal.
"You're a couple of farm girls, right?" Latrinus said, chomping and chewing.
Lila and Alexis looked at each other and then looked at Latrinus.
"Well? Are you or aren’t you?" Latrinus spat some seeds on the floor.
"I guess," Lila said.
"What do you mean, you guess," Latrinus stared somewhat contemptuously at Lila. "I asked you a question. Are you or aren't you a couple of farm girls who've spent the better part of the past week mowing, threshing and carting hay from the meadows to the grain bins? Or are the two of you protegées of the Warrior Princess or Amazons-in-training?"
"No, we're farm girls," Lila murmurred.
"Sorry, didn't catch that," Latrinus said.
"I said yes, we're a couple of farm girls," Lila spoke louder.
"A couple of farm girls," Latrinus said with a smirk. "And farm girls – their families – don't, as a rule, have very much to their names, do they?"
"Very much what," Lila said.
"Very much of anything!" Latrinus bellowed. "What are you, stupid as well as homely?"
Lila was about to respond but thought the better of it.
"Now here's the deal," Latrinus looked Lila and Alexis in the eye. "I have no intention of trying extort from either of your families the pitifully few dinars they might be able to raise if they were to put their farms and cottages on the block. When greedy warlords wipe peasant villages off the face of the map, they cut off their noses to spite their faces. When you loot and plunder a village, you take its land and livestock out of production for many sunmarks to come. Then what have you done to your sources of supply? Consumed or destroyed them. Either way they’re used up, and who's going to provision your army the next time you call up a mobilization? If you want to plant feed corn in the spring, you don't gobble up your seed corn in the winter, do you?"
Lila and Alexis sat there listening.
"Well, do you?!" Latrinus thundered across the low table.
"No," Lila and Alexis flinched reflexively.
"You store it in a place that’s cool and dry," Latrinus said. "And what happens when you go for days without penning your sheep in the fold but leave them to wander free in the meadow?"
"Is that a question?" Lila said.
"I asked you, didn't I?" Latrinus' eyes flared. "You leave your sheep to roam untended for any length of time and what do they do to the pasture?"
"They graze it down to nothing."
"And what happens then?"
"You've got three or four summers worth of weeds and wildflowers before the pasture makes a comeback."
"And the sheep and the cows have less feed to make it through the winter with."
"Because when you've got no grass in the summer, you've got no hay in the winter, right?"
"And no hay in the meadow means no hay in the byre."
"So you don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, do you?"
"Meaning that I have no interest in trying to ransom your piddly hides for diddleysquat and, in the process, forcing your families off the land and into the poorhouse. What interests me are your connections. You've got a sister who rides with an old friend of mine. If I know Xena, before she'll let any misfortune befall the two you, she'll come up with some clever way to get you out of here. More than a few warlords have tried to get the better of Xena, and guess where their efforts have landed them. Six feet under if not linked to a chain gang down in the salt mines. But making a deal – working a swap – that's a different story. Xena's best friend's sister and her best friend in exchange for a bit of assistance with a little business deal that I've been putting together. Nothing violent, nothing bloody, nothing to endanger hard working families or their loved ones."
"What makes you think that Xena’s likely to come to our rescue?"
Latrinus gave Lila a cool once over. "Your parents have never approved of your sister's liaison with the Warrior Princess, have they? They've always figured Xena to be a bit of a wild card."
"So here’s a golden opportunity for Xena to ingratiate herself with your parents by getting their little darling back to them. Perhaps whatever Xena's got going with your sister might go down more easily with your parents then. I figure I'm doing Xena a favor by providing her with the opportunity to escort you and your friend safely home to the waiting arms of your anxious families."
"In point of fact, though, you don't know what my parents think. About Xena or anything else. Xena saved us from Draco's slavers. How do you know that my parents don’t worship the ground that Xena walks on?"
"For all I know, your sister and Xena could be shacking up in some cheap bordello every night of the week," Latrinus took a final chomp on the apple. "I'm not much of a gambling man, but I do like to play the odds. And the odds are telling me that it won't be long before Xena, accompanied by your sister, comes storming up here to take this place apart, leaving no joist or floorboard unturned until she's secured your release and brought you and your friend safely home to the arms of your worried and frightened parents."
"And you're going to sit there, sipping ale and munching apples until she does."
"That's precisely what I'm going to do. When Xena comes bombing up here, as I suspect she will at any time now, she’ll find me sitting in this chair, talking turkey to her just like I'm talking turkey to you." Latrinus leaned forward and looked Lila in the eye. "I'm an entrepreneur. Warlording is for losers who can't cut it in the real world. When it comes to warlording, Xena wrote the scroll. Nobody did it better. But...," Latrinus tapped the side of his head with his finger, "the Warrior Princess lacks the smarts to make the transition from general to emperor, if you know what I mean. Xena may die famous but she'll never die rich."
"Seek nothing more grandiose than the prospect of a comfortable retirement. Fame is fleeting and fortune fickle, but these...," Latrinus picked up a handful of coins and let them spill casually from one hand into the other, "dinars, like diamonds, are forever."
"But don't they say that you can't take it with you?" Lila looked at the tinkling coins.
"To the other side of the River Styx? Perhaps not. But in this life, you can take it as far as you're going, and I intend to go as far away from these dead-end farming villages and hick trading towns as I possibly can."
"And what part do you have in mind for Xena to play in your get rich quick scheme?"
"Now that'd be none of your lookout, would it? All I want you to do at this juncture – you and your foxy, redheaded friend here – is to have yourselves a whaling good breakfast, courtesy of the management."
Latrinus' lackeys brought in the fixings: a platter of poached eggs, a tin of baked muffins, a bowl of fruit, a plate of cheese, a tub of piping hot porridge and a honey pot. Then silverware and plates and a pair of hefty clay mugs.
"Time to recoup. You've had a rough night," Latrinus gestured at the table which now lay set for a fine meal. "Go on. It may be the best grub you'll get for a while."
Lila and Alexis exchanged looks and shrugged.
"No arsenic, love potions, funny stuff of any kind," Latrinus pointed to the feast that awaited them on the table. "Just a down home breakfast, the kind you’re apt to get on the farm. Go on, dive in. The rest of you, make yourselves scarce! Give the ladies some privacy."
Latrinus shoo'ed his lackeys out the door, then rose to leave, turning, just before he closed the door behind him, to say, "Naturally, you won't be going anywhere. The only way out is through the chimney, under the floorboards or out the windows, and we've got each of these exits covered."
Lila got up and walked over to Latrinus who stood at the doorway. "If we're going to do business," she looked him in the eye, "let's get something straight. I am neither stupid nor homely. I am bright and good looking."
Latrinus grinned. "Do I detect a bit of vanity lurking beneath those long, dark, farm girl lashes?"
"Detect whatever you like," Lila said, not breaking eye contact.
"Maybe Xena’s got good taste in her choice of friends and their sisters, after all," Latrinus said, still grinning. "Very well, if you’ve got the brains to match your looks, you won't try anything as pointless as looking for a way to escape."
Latrinus slipped out the door, leaving Lila and Alexis with a sumptuous breakfast piled high in front of them. The sight and aroma almost made them forget the pain of their injuries that were still quite raw, red and swollen.
"What do you think we ought to do?" Alexis said, eyeing the feast.
"It seems silly to turn up our noses," Lila said. "From what that egomaniac was just rattling on about, it sounds as though we might not get much else to nibble on for a while."
"I wish I was back home, hassling with Dad about whether or not he was going to let me go to town," Alexis sighed.
Lila nodded. "I wish I had a pair of Dad's britches to stitch."
Alexis gave Lila a sappy smile. "Maybe we're not cut out to live the warrior life, you and me."
"I don't know about that," Lila said, perked up by the rich aroma of the fine meal that Latrinus' lackeys had set before them. "When you figure that this is our first time out, we're actually not off to all that bad of a start."
It may have been the sharp tang of the mint tea that pushed Lila over the edge of hesitation onto the cusp of resolution, but, sitting down at the table, Lila looked at Alexis and said, "C'mon, let's dig in."
Then, with a quick grace to Demeter and Artemis, Lila and Alexis had themselves a well deserved breakfast.
Continued in Part 19
The Bard's Corner