A dozen hands grabbed the boy as his scream pierced the night. Struggling would do no good, there were just too many of them pulling him down, restraining him as they stripped him bare. Once naked, he was lifted into the air, held aloft, and carried above the heads of the half dozen island natives while no less than another three dozen stood in solemn witness.
There was a chill in the jungle night air as the boy was placed, not unkindly, upon the stone table. His continued struggles, futile though they may be, were a testament to his fighting instinct, bred into him from an early age by the cold northern streets of New Babbage. He turned his head. Bathed in hues of orange cast off from the flickering torches that lined the way, he saw a large bejeweled islander slowly approach. Coming to a stop at the edge of the roughly hewn slab the man appraised the boy with an almost clinical eye.
“No!” the boy shook his head as the terror of the impending reality intensified. “NOOOO!” but while there may be sympathy there would be no stopping the big man on this tropical evening. It was not that he particularly enjoyed this task, it was simply his to carry out. The current situation had been set in motion by prior events beyond either of their control; the past cannot be altered or changed. The big man and the small boy were merely actors carrying out the inevitable.
Emerson looked down, unable to meet the eye of the figure who struggled so valiantly. The last he saw, was the man approaching the altar and reaching for something beneath. The boy started to hyperventilate refusing to believe the inevitable. The man raised his hand.
“Please! “ Gadget begged. He looked around wildly. “SIR SIR ,sir!” he cried upon seeing Emerson Lighthouse, “You’ve got to stop them. ‘Taint right this. It just ain’t right!”
“NOOOO! You nasty buggers!” he cried as the sponge, soaked in warm water and fragrant oils was brought down upon him. In an instant, all his struggles came to naught… all fight draining out of him, flowing with the soapy water along the channeled edges of the table.
“I had to let them do it.” Emerson whispered to Junie somewhat choked up by Gadget’s continued whimpers. “I had no choice.” She looked over and placed her hand on his arm in support. They were both freshly washed and dressed in native attire. He was wearing a light coloured sarong with a simple gold design while she had been given a two piece animal skin outfit that left little to the imagination.
“The digestive juices of the orchids would have dissolved your clothing and caused serious rashes upon your skin.” Malus had explained to them earlier. “Here in the jungle that type of wound can fester into a deadly, putrid pus-filled lesion that would leave you dead within the week.”
An hour after Gadget’s ordeal they sat around a fire on blankets upon the ground. One of the islanders of Malus’s company grilled exotic rain forest vegetables, marinated in nut oil, over an open flame. Emerson and Junie sat beside each other basking in the warmth of the fire. Nine year old Gadget, exhausted and perhaps traumatized by the ordeal of the cleansing had fallen asleep, his head resting upon Junie’s lap as she gently stroked his head to soothe his dreams.
“So tell me Sir Sir,” said Malus signaling to one of his village people who promptly brought over a lidded box. “what is the real reason you came here?” he asked lifting the lid and retrieving a Sagrada Lucia. The former squire grinned, not missing the look of craving that flashed across Emerson’s eyes.
“You’re out already aren’t you?” he laughed, tossing Emerson one of the tri-coloured cigars.
“Son,” said Emerson catching it and biting off the end before lighting it on an ember at the edge of the fire, “thanks to an enthusiastic customs official, I was never in.”
He took a healthy drag, the distinctive purple smoke rising in a cloud all around him. He was about to take another when he felt a gentle swat on the arm. Smiling he passed the cigar to Junie before addressing Malus’s question.
“Almost two months ago I got a message from Queen Princess delivered via an ART unit telling me you were missing. I was worried.”
“How convenient I went missing in the same part of the world where you can acquire more of the Hoja del Diablo Dulce.”
“You’re too cynical, that is just a happy coincidence.” said Emerson retrieving the cigar from Junie and pulling another solid drag before passing it back across to Malus.
“Who did you come here with?” Malus asked, and though he smiled Emerson detected a justified note of suspicion just below the surface.
“Captain Maynard, Miss Ginsburg and Gadget.” replied Emerson casually as he took the cigar back from Malus and passed it directly to Junie.
“Miss Ginsburg… your wife you mean.” Malus said with a tone that bordered on his characteristic sneer.
“Yes, I call her Miss Ginsburg. She has kept her own name. We have both a progressive sensibility and an old fashioned formality. Do you have a problem with that squire?”
“Can you believe I’ve never smoked one of these before?” interjected Junie, diffusing a potential rising of tempers with a slight deflection of focus.
“Few people have.” smiled Emerson his fingers brushing Junie’s as he took the cigar from her hand.
“I actually do believe you two are married.” said Malus watching the interplay between Emerson and Junie. “But I know that kid is not yours. That’s Gadget…” he paused, “I don’t remember his last name. But he was always sneaking into the church stores and making off with supplies. It never mattered how many locks we put on that door, he always found a way in.”
“A child after my own heart.” said Emerson. “Listen Malus, you know what I’m like. I just said that about him being ours to irk your commander McGregor.”
“Yes, you are quite skilled in irking people that hardly know you.” Malus smiled before asking with an apparent air of indifference that did little to hide the suspicion lurking just below the surface. “Did anyone else come with you?”
“Who would you be expecting?” Emerson’s reply was so casual it almost didn’t seem like an evasion.
Malus was about to drop all pretense of camaraderie until his question had been answered satisfactorily when a howl came from the edge of the camp. At once he was on his feet signalling his men to investigate.
“You and Junie take my tent tonight. Take Gadget with you. We have an early start in the morning. I’d like to return to my city, Kital, by noon.” He said drawing his sword and heading off with his men. “I have a deification ceremony to prepare for.”