Mercury walked beside Samantha as she navigated through the warren of lanes with ease. He’d liked her mother’s home. Textures and colors filled the space like a sensory feast. The cloth walls blocked the heat of the sun, but were easily pushed aside. Any wall could become an exit. He found the freedom of that appealing.
Focused on remembering the route to the man she called Felzaf, he didn’t notice the small child until she stepped in front of him. She had a colorful spray of hair sticking up from her head and her skin swirled in shades of pink.
“Up,” she said, lifting her arms toward him.
He looked to Samantha for guidance. Her eyes sparkled in the sunlight as she crouched down to talk to the girl. “Where are your parents, sweetling?”
“Inthide.” She pointed to a small tent a few meters ahead of them. It took him a moment to understand her, then the correct word popped into his head. Inside. The young one had trouble with her s sounds.
Mercury fought a burst of anger at her parent’s inattention. “Why is the child allowed to wander alone?”
“My brother thupothed to be with me, but he left.” The moment she’d finished her explanation, the girl wiggled her arms at him again. “Up!”
Samantha smiled up at him. “There are parts of the camp that are dangerous, but she’s safe enough in this area of the camp. The Cerillians look out for each other.”
Even as she said it he realized that eyes watched them from several directions.
“But Mercury is right, sweetling. You are too young to be outside alone.” Samantha’s voice had gone soft and the rhythm of her speech changed. He had no idea why, but it fascinated him.
Lo and Carn had moved up to get a look at the unexpected creature. The girl didn’t seem bothered by the crowd she’d drawn. She held her ground, arms extended.
Samantha shrugged then stroked the girl’s hair. “You want him to carry you home?”
The girl didn’t acknowledge Samantha except to nod and repeat her demand. “Up!”
Since Samantha was too busy hiding her laughter behind her hands to be of any real help, Mercury bent down and lifted the girl against his chest. One small arm wrapped around his neck and the other pointed up the street. “That way,” she said. Her little knees dug into his ribs as he extended a hand to help Samantha up.
As they moved forward together, Carn and Lo dropped back and Samantha tried again to talk to the girl. “Sweetling, why do you want Mercury to carry you?”
The girl pulled her attention from the road ahead to fix him with a curiosity laden stare. “Hith big.”
Mercury didn’t know if his size had been important as transportation or as protector, but he didn’t mind carrying her. Her small body didn’t put out much heat and she weighed almost nothing, but her skin was soft and she smelled like the sweet fruit Moira had given them earlier.
Her destination hadn’t been far, so they ended up there in no time. The girl began to squirm and Mercury set her gently on her feet. Her home looked small enough to fit in one room of Moira’s home, but it seemed well tended. The girl tugged aside the cloth covering the opening and looked as if she intended to slip inside. Instead she stopped and looked over her shoulder at him. “Thankth,” she said.
He acknowledged her with a nod and then she was gone. Back inside her home.
Samantha’s smile broadened. “Well that was exciting.”
Mercury frowned at her, but his insides had melted. He couldn’t identify the source of the warm sensation curling in his belly, but it left him feeling raw. Maybe it came from imagining Samantha at that age. Or maybe it was something about the child herself. He’d never interacted with one so young. At least not since he was that age himself.
Carn gripped his shoulder. “We should continue.”
“Yes.” Mercury welcomed that strong grip and the grounding that came with it. He put a hand low on Samantha’s back and urged her on.
“Not far now,” she promised.