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Chapter Ten: Lucky Number Four

The cold smell of dirt and rocks woke Takkris from his deep slumber. He was lying on his back against what felt like a pile of stones. Every ounce of his being begged him to sleep, but he resisted. He only needed the tiniest opportunity to seize in order to wake himself fully. He gritted his teeth and rolled sluggishly onto his right hip where he kept the pin. The pin jabbed smartly into his hip and he felt it stab into a fresh wound, narrowly avoiding nicking his bone. In an instant the pain jarred him from his addled stupor and brought back his full faculties. His eyes adjusted to the dim light easily after having been asleep for however long. Clearly not long enough for the tellis leaf to poison him yet. He moved his arms and hands but found them braced with cold, heavy metal. He looked down at them and realized his hands and feet were in shackles. While the shackles on his wrists were clearly made for a child, the ones on his ankles weren’t. Amman no doubt wanted to safeguard against his attempts to escape and rob him of such a generous payment.

He pulled himself to the left, and struggled to sit upright. Thankfully only the shackles at his feet were chained to the wall, those at his wrists were a simple pair of Kingsley shackles they were made by the Kingsley Company, well known locksmiths from Grachyr. He pulled them closer and twisted his body so he could pinch the fabric at his waist and pull the pin out from his skin. He found movement and articulation with shackles on rather disagreeable as it took him several long minutes to not only pull the pin out and move it to its side so it no longer would stab him, but also to remove it from the seam. Once the pin was in his hand he pulled his legs to his chest and placed the shackles against his knees. He fingered the pin until he had it at the right angle and gingerly inched it towards the lock. Kingsley shackles had an easily exploitable mechanism between the second and third pins of the lock. If pressed with enough force the rest of the pins vibrated enough that they’d slide past the shear line and the lock could be opened without a key. Normally it would take Takkris a few moments to pick the lock, but as awkwardly as he had to curve and twist his fingers and wrists it was nearly impossible to enact the proper amount of force.

His fingers and palms began to grow slick with sweat as he finally managed to slip the pin into the right position. Now all I need is to get enough force on it to open. Which I can’t do because my fingers are stretched and contorted like balloon animals. What I wouldn’t give for longer, more refined fingers, why can’t I be older already? Well, were I older I’m not too sure this would have happened to begin with. I at least would have stood a decent chance of escaping on foot. My legs are so small and short that each of their steps must have been equal to at least five of my own. But complaining over this isn’t helping me, think Takkris! He groaned quietly to himself as he mulled over his options. He could try and press with all his might but it generally required a precise and forceful approach. He had one but not the other and it wasn’t as simple as slamming a rock or something hard against the pin. It had to be more precise than that. He looked at his knobby knees the shackles were resting on. He stared at them for a moment. No, it can’t be that easy, but maybe… Without a second thought he used his thumb to keep constant force between the pins and then he lifted and slammed the shackles at a sharp angle against his bony knees. The force sent shockwaves of pain deep into his legs but miraculously the lock clicked open and the shackles around his wrists pulled away enough for him to slip them off without having to fully open the cuffs. He slipped them out easily and then holding them close to his chest so that prying eyes might not see, he rubbed each of his wrists delicately. They were chaffed and sore, reddened from the tightness where the metal had slightly dug into the skin. The pressure of rubbing brought on a small relief, any longer in the shackles and if he had moved anymore in his sleep or otherwise and he’d have to worry about open wounds and infection setting in. At least if he were able to escape.

Naturally the slavers would have a doctor of sorts that would make sure their precious cargo didn’t get too sick to show off. Takkris’ stomach flipped at the thought. A man or woman who took on an oath to protect and heal sick people regardless of their status, turning a blind eye to blatant slavery, and child slavery at that was a sickening thought. Just how many people in this damnable city are sick and perverted? What would cause so many people to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their fellow man? Do they not care or is it simply that it’s easier? Do they want their precious items and high profit margins so badly that they’d be more than willing to build an entire civilization off the bloody backs of slaves? Would they really sooner pave the streets in the blood and corpses of those so less fortunate than to even slightly dirty their hands? The people of the Capitol weren’t this bad, surely they wouldn’t have stood for something so profane, something so, so disgusting and despicable as this. But then, my own father did sell me into slavery, perhaps this is just how people are.

He pulled his arms close and looked around, realizing he had been so engrossed in his own freedom that he had failed to remain observant of his surroundings. He was in a roughly hewn cavern with several other slaves of various races, most if not all were fast asleep. The others didn’t bother to struggle against their bindings nor did they bother to even glance at their newest roommate. They only had shackles to one ankle with a chain leading back to an anchor set deep within the gray stone wall. The door was a simple jail cell door made of steel bars and a single rudimentary lock that even a child with a twig could pick. It was clearly not meant to be a means of great deterrent on its own. But then again, most of the slaves appeared poor and uneducated from different parts of the continent and many bore tribal tattoos or markings and colorings that were unknown to exist in ‘civilized society’ as his books referred to it. The door wasn’t well made expressly because it didn’t need to be, the slaves kept inside were not like Takkris, they wouldn’t know how to pick the lock and there certainly appeared to be no tool in which one could fashion a pick.

He curled his legs closer to his chest, hiding his hands as he slipped them out of the cuffs and rubbed his sore, chaffed wrists surreptitiously. He shut his eyes and brought to bear all the knowledge he had on Fresin. It was a rich and well respected city. It had more merchants per capita than any other district in the Kingdom. And it had a wealth of precious stones and metals, most notably platinum and diamond. The rock was not contiguous with the sort that held hidden veins of metal, but rather the hardened sort that birthed diamonds. While there was no talk of slave labor used for mining purposes, he had long suspected such dark deeds. After all there were no miner unions or labor laws and those who owned the mines and their rights were ridiculously wealthy. The sort of wealthy one gets when they have no need to pay a fair wage.

Takkris seethed at that. He had once aspired to be a lawmaker, somebody who enforced and persecuted the sort of people who were now responsible for his capture. Perhaps it was a certain poetic justice that he was here, or an ironic twist of fate. He knew there was a large mountain to the northeast of Fresin, just outside its walls. That, he concluded was where he must be. Since diamonds naturally formed in channels where magma had brought them up from the depths of the crust and deposited them. Seeing that Mount Kesri was once an active volcano some five hundred years past and had since gone dormant, it was the likeliest of possible locations. It also meant that there would be vents formed from the magma pipes that he might be able to use to get around unseen, so long as they were small enough for a thin, malnourished boy of twelve.

He looked at the slaves, none of which would look him or each other in the eyes. They avoided each other’s gaze as if they were trying to forget where they were. They were decently fed at least, they were lean but they had muscle to swing a pickaxe and clear a tunnel. They had to be strong enough for their duties but it didn’t mean they were treated fairly or well looked after. Takkris wondered what the price of a slave was and at what point did they become too costly to keep alive. He couldn’t think of how anybody would view a human life like that, as a commodity. It turned his stomach into twisted, painful knots of anger. Only then did he realize that it wasn’t his disgust at humanity, but the tellis leaf he had yet to expel that was causing his distress.

He clutched his stomach in abject pain and curled into a tight ball, his muscles tightened and seized on him. Tellis poisoning was fairly quick once it was in the bloodstream but it required a constant source. If he could get it out in time, he could still be okay. He tried to cut a swath of clarity through the pain and agony as it filled him up like an overflowing pitcher. He strained to put his finger into his mouth and with a minor hesitation violently jabbed his uvula. The gag reflex was made more powerful by the rapid and rhythmic seizing of his muscles. The contents of his stomach came flooding out and he barely had enough time to turn his head to the side before he spewed the acidic sludge all over the nearby stones. He stared blearily at the mess, and his heart sank when he didn’t see the pink mash. Takkris steeled himself and gave his uvula another good jab.

It took him four times to finally cough up the pulverized leaf, by then his body was racked with so much agony it was all he could do to stay conscious. Without the source of the poisoning feeding the pain his symptoms began to abate and the sweat that slicked his whole body calmed. He shivered as a cold draft blew against him. He wished his mother was there to drape a cool, damp washcloth against the back of his neck and murmur soothing words. She’s gone. I won’t see her anymore and it does me no favors remembering her. I’ll be throwing away everything she ever gave if I die here, or worse get sold. The thought sent shivers down his spine. He slowly righted himself and wiped his mouth with a sleeve. He had no weapons, no tellis leaf to ambush with. All he had was free hands and a small brass pin to pick his way to freedom. All of which would do absolutely nothing in the face of his captors. He wasn’t strong or swift. All he had on his side was a particular brilliance and a stubborn streak.

He couldn’t even wait and tour the mine in hopes of finding a way out. The next time somebody came for him would likely be for auction, if a buyer wasn’t already lined up. He had no time, no intricate knowledge of this place and no aid to rely on. He thought for a moment of picking the locks of the slaves and setting them free. But they were large and unpredictable. If they even spoke the same language he might be able to help them escape but the odds were high that they would be caught and then they would be killed. He would be doing them no favors by setting them free. Even if they made it out, they’d just be recaptured again or worse. The sad truth was that they were outsiders here and Takkris had no influence or protection to offer them.

It was then that a dark thought passed through his mind. He could kill the slaves, poison them or try to cause a cave-in. The mine would be rendered inoperable, costing the owners a fortune and exacting a small amount of payback. But they’d just buy more slaves and throw them at the collapsed tunnels until they re-opened. And the slaves did not pose a present threat like those in the wagon did. They were doing their best to ignore him, and so long as they did he knew it was in his best interest to do the same and get out as fast as he could. On the streets he could clean some of the dust and dirt from his face and clothes and pass as a normal upper class child. Perhaps from one of the visiting merchant families looking to settle down, he knew the customs and accents well enough to be passable. He could fake an air of superiority and likely get on a cart out of town. But first he knew he had to find a way out. That fresh draft of cold air was the first lead he had.

He leaned forward bringing his knees to his chest and he craned his neck down to look at the shackles on both his ankles. It was a double-notch lock requiring two keys at the same time. He cursed quietly to himself. He had one pin and only one. If the locks weren’t turned at the same time they wouldn’t open. He wasn’t well versed in that particular lock, but it had to have a mechanism inside that halted one if both weren’t turned at the same time. The pins were readily visible to the naked eye, and there were only two so he could easily pick them on visibility alone. Both locks appeared identical and were thankfully on the same side, luckily facing him – what he could have only imagined was a simple oversight. He looked around for anything he could use as a thin sliver, something, anything that he could use to manipulate the pins on the other lock. But there was nothing.

At first he tried breaking rocks, but the noise was too loud and the other slaves were beginning to stir. What’s more, he didn’t have the strength or the right stones to be able to splinter into small thin pieces like he needed. There were sharp stones and flat stones and rounded stones of all shapes and sizes but nothing as small or thin as he’d need. He desperately wished he had some flint at this point. If only I had some bone of some sort, or a twig! And then it dawned on him. He didn’t have any twigs, but he did have bone. He wished he had the foresight to keep the nails from the wagon now. He calmed his nerves for what he had to do and ripped a piece of his shirt to act like gauze. His heart skipped and pounded against his chest as he found a small rock not much larger than a large marble and another rock bigger than his fist. They would serve his needs, now there was just the small matter of slipping off his shirt. He set the two rocks down and folded up the small strip of fabric into a rounded cube, placing it in his lap.

Sparing a glance as his vomit spilled on the floor his eye caught the mashed up leaf. He knew his shirt wasn’t clean and that pressing it to an open wound was simply begging for infection. It wouldn’t do well for him to get a simple infection and die after so recently winning his freedom. He took the leaf and cringed at how wet and slimy it was. He wiped it off on his pants the best he could before he placed it within the folded up fabric. Its juices would work as an antiseptic and hopefully prevent an infection, assuming there was anything left of the leaf. He looked around to the slaves and then quickly tugged off the now faded, royal blue shirt. He balled it up and to test, pressed it against his face. The soft fabric covered him completely.

He set it down into his lap and tried to calm his cold, shaking hands and shallow raspy breathing. Knowing that it was his only choice for escape didn’t help him prepare for what he was about to do. “Do it quickly, just rip it off fast like a bandage sweetie. That way you’re done and it’s over and you don’t have to over analyze it,” is what his mother used to tell him. But he had no choice but to plan it out, everything had to go off without a hitch and it had to be quiet or else he might rouse the slaves or worse, the guards who no doubt patrolled outside in the halls.

Knowing he couldn’t settle his shaking hands he felt around his mouth with his tongue along one of his canines on the right side. He picked up the small rock with his left hand and awkwardly pressed it against his face atop where the tongue was. He angled it so only the smallest part of the rock was making contact. It was cold and frigid and his heart beat erratically in anticipation of the pain to come. He took a deep breath and with his right hand lifted the heavier larger rock that he would use as a hammer. He breathed out until his lungs were emptied of all air. Without hesitation he swung the rock out and then yanked it back into the small rock with a mighty thunk.

As impoverished of air as his lungs were, the scream of gut-wrenching agony that escaped his lips barely registered as a rasping wheeze. He dropped both rocks in shock and picked up his balled up shirt pressing it into his face. He gasped for air and screamed at the top of his lungs into the royal blue fabric. He screamed and breathed then screamed again as the pain wound its way around his brain and choked it of any reason or thought. His body ceased to function and he lost complete track of time. Metallic blood filled his mouth and he forced himself to spit it out into the cloth. He didn’t want to accidentally swallow the tooth he had dislodged. He felt woozy and cold, his limbs shivered incessantly but at least the pain was becoming manageable. He lowered the cloth from his blood soaked mouth and picked up the folded strip. He gingerly placed it into the bleeding socket and bit down on it to provide pressure. He must have pulled free a nerve because the pain of biting down on the tellis leaf soaked ‘bandage’ surged through his skull like a bullet. He nearly cracked his teeth keeping his mouth shut from the impending scream. Tears rolled freely down his cheeks like miniature flooding rivers. He nearly gagged at the acrid, disgusting taste of his own regurgitated leaf, if not for the pain distracting his senses he surely would have.

He took his shirt and plucked free the bloody tooth. It already had a long crack running down the side of it from the impact, and the side of his face was starting to swell and bruise. With shaking hands he placed the tooth upright on the stone floor and struck it lightly with the small angular rock, cleaving off a sliver of white. But it was too weak and it would snap when placed under the pressure he would need. So he tried again, making another crack and splintering the tooth into a decently thick piece of enamel. He would have smiled, if he wasn’t in mind-numbing agony. How he wished he hadn’t been convinced by his housekeeper to let her pull a loose tooth just a month prior. He took the sliver of tooth and the brass pin, the tooth in his right hand and the pin in his left. He gently manipulated the pins on the left with his weaker hand and when they clicked into place he mimed his actions in his far more gentle and refined hand. Turning both locks at the same time the lock released with a metallic clunk and the cuffs around his ankles opened.

He pocketed the remains of his tooth and the pain before he donned his blood stained shirt. Time was of the essence as he carefully and shakily strode towards the iron door. He pulled out his pin and pressed it in and the door slowly swung outward. Whoever had put him in the slave quarters had forgotten to lock the door. Takkris breathed a tiny sigh of relief at his own luck and slowly pushed the door open. It made a slight creak but otherwise was quiet. The cell door opened into a long expansive tunnel that ran perpendicular to the room. He struggled to swallow his own saliva mingled with tellis leaf and bile, the disdain for the repugnant taste only seemed to spur his mouth to produce more saliva. He cringed every time he forced himself to swallow another mouthful of the noisome mixture.

He could feel a fresh breeze blowing through the dark corridor, there were glowing lamps hanging from wires on the ceiling down its center but they left the dark edges of the corridors to their own devices. Takkris pressed himself up against the edge and slid along it, the tunnel was empty but he could hear the clinking of pickaxes and barking of orders in the distance. His heart pounded madly against his ribcage like a crazed animal against its prison. All it would take is one glance, one single person looking in his direction and he’d be discovered. The light was dim but not completely dark as he had thought. There was no place he could hide in the corridor, just a long open pathway that screamed with vulnerability.

As he continued the breeze grew stronger and he could smell the cool, slightly damp night air. He looked around but all he could see is similar rough walls of stone. It wasn’t until he was nearly beneath it did he notice the small natural pipe that whistled with fresh air. It was hardly seven feet up but still more than out of his reach. He tried to jump at it but still couldn’t reach. It was only as a last resort that he painfully dug the tips of his fingers into the tiny cracks and crevices of the stone wall. His joints ached and screamed for relief but he pressed on, finding the tiniest purchases and struggling to pull himself up. He had just reached the mouth of the vent when he gripped something large and bulbous, he tested it by tugging sharply on it and it gave way in his hand. It looked like a lump of coal and it was a decent size. It fit cleanly in his hand and he could use it as a bludgeon if he needed so he slid it into his pocket, his remaining fingers on his left arm barely holding him where he was. He briefly wondered how it was that his joints didn’t break and fall off with so much force on them. But he forced those thoughts out of his head as he found tiny crevice after tiny crevice in which he could dig his fingers into and shakily pull himself up into the vent. It was relatively smooth save for a few rough jagged edges halfway up.

The vent wasn’t a sheer climb like the wall had been and so he had an easier time of his ascent. What he hadn’t known is that the vent narrowed about a hundred paces in. He had to squeeze himself tightly between the rocks as they scrapped and shredded what little protection his clothing provided. It wasn’t long before hot lines of pain screamed for his attention, but he couldn’t stop, he refused to go back. Each rip felt like a hot dagger stabbing into his skin but it was also one step closer to freedom. Up until now he had hardly known pain. When he was hurt there was a soft bed, sweet words and bitter medicine to soothe his pain. But now there was nothing but his burning thirst for freedom between him and his pain. He sobbed to himself as the pain washed over him in breaking waves. His movements were mechanical and devoid of life. They shook and trembled with lines of bright red streaked across every inch of his arms, legs, stomach and back. A few cuts and scrapes found their way to his cheeks but for the most part his face was spared the torture.

It felt like the mountain itself was trying to crush him between two razor sharp molars. For every tiny movement he received a dragging cut he could not escape. He could rest, he knew the pressure from the rocks would hold him in place but it would also make the cuts grow deeper and more dangerous. There was a small part of Takkris that feared if he stopped, even for a moment, that he would not have the will to carry on. So he refused his pleading body any repose and drove it onward like the slave masters must to those poor souls down below in the mines. I will come back for you. I will see this right. He promised to himself and them as he thrust his hands into the open, cold night air and pulled himself out of the small shrouded hole in the side of foothills. He tumbled out of the scrubby brush and down at end over end until he came to rest at the base of the lowest foothill facing the eastern side of Fresin. He coughed and struggled to get up, but his muscles refused to be his slaves any longer and he fell back into the cold, itchy grass, the thousands of crisscrossed angry red lines continued to bleed onto the dry brown grass as he lay there paralyzed.

Takkris knew he couldn’t stay there any longer. He had made that mistake before, thinking he was safe, that he would be okay to take a rest and continue in the morning. That is how they got him before, but he wouldn’t allow it this time. The next time he saw Amman would be when he was driving a dagger into his gut. He rolled to the side despite the racking waves of pain that clung to him like a swaddling blanket. They still hurt, threatening to topple his mind with towering monuments of agony. Takkris considered that a good sign, if he was unable to feel the wounds it would mean he was either in shock, which often resulted from extraneous loss of blood, or his wounds were infected. Neither of which were good prospects to carry on living for such a young boy bereft of any power or leverage.

He miraculously managed to pull himself up onto his feet, his shirt was a shredded mess so stained with blood he couldn’t see a scrap of blue. His arms were crisscrossed with so many superficial cuts that it looked as if he had wound red string around them. They bled, but it wasn’t significant. His pants fluttered in the breeze partially exposing himself when the wind blew at the right angle, but his pockets had managed to stay somewhat whole. He still had the large rock but he couldn’t find his pin or tooth. I wouldn’t be surprised if both were lodged in my leg the way it feels. He was about to head towards what looked like a road in the distance heading to the northeast when a shadowy movement caught his eye. A field mouse was scurrying along and stopped on a nearby outcrop of rock. His stomach growled angrily and he was half sure that the noise would scare the mouse away, but it didn’t. The mouse sat obliviously on the rocky outcrop nibbling on something it had found in the grass. He was hungrier than he had ever been in his life and while he knew the dangers of eating raw meat, it paled in comparison to the gnawing emptiness in the pit of his stomach.

He took the blackened stone in his hand and aimed his arm as well as he could. Strewn with cuts as it was, it looked like something straight out of a horror story. He chucked the rock with all his might and he watched in vain hope as the rock missed the mouse by at least half a pace and then shattered into a dozen glittering pieces from the impact, spurring the mouse to disappear into the grass. Takkris hobbled over to get a better look at what had happened. He realized he missed the mouse, but the rock had felt solid and heavy, he didn’t think it would have reacted that way. As he drew closer it became evident what he had, what he would have never known he had if he hadn’t tried to hit the mouse. Diamonds were scattered about like bits of glitter. Most of them were no bigger than dust and relatively worthless but there were two pieces that stood out; One that fit handily in his palm, and another the size of his thumbnail. The larger one could feed him for months at their current prices while the small one could theoretically buy him passage anywhere he wanted to go.

Theory, that was something Takkris was quickly growing estranged with. He had always thought theory could be applied in practical matters and work as intended. The harsh reality of his lessons was marked all over his body in bright, blood-red crisscrossed lines. He was beginning to understand that theory was all well and good, but the reality is far harsher than any theory could predict. The truth was that although the diamonds he had in his possession should easily go for several thousand Drachmae, almost a full Talent, enough that he would be able to buy his own plot of land, build a home and live comfortably for a year, that wouldn’t be possible. The diamonds weren’t his, they no doubt bore the trademark attributes of the specific mine and would be considered stolen or otherwise untowardly gained. That not only meant that he would run a severe risk in getting caught trying to sell the diamonds, but that anything he could possibly get for them would be a mere fraction of their value. If he wore proper clothing, perhaps he could push the price up, but the way he looked there was simply no way.

He sat hard on the rocky outcrop, holding more money than he had ever held before all the while knowing that they were little more than decorative rocks in terms of real value. He watched what looked to be a distant road to the north. That would be the Crosser’s Highway. It passes the border between Grachyr and the Interis Empire. While the border is still open during the conflict, it’s tightly regulated and only merchants with special passes are capable of traversing according to the Freedom of Commerce Accord. It’s also my best chance to get out of the grasp of the slavers. If they dared chase me there, they’d open themselves up to reprisal from the Interis Field Army. Now to find a merchant caravan that’s reputable enough, but not above smuggling across the border, piece of cake. It’s not like there are slavers after me or anything and every second I sit here they get closer to recapturing me. No pressure Takkris.

Takkris forced himself upright, his stomach growling viciously and knotting into a tight stabbing cramp at the mere thought of cake. He limped and hobbled his way across the field of grass to the wide, tightly packed dirt road. He hopped over the deep ditch, the rains were heavy in the Month of Floods and the ditches would barely keep the roads from flooding on the lighter days. The better roads, the ones paved with stone and mortar had actual sewer systems that ran beneath them to catch and funnel the overflow of water and massive drain fields where they emptied out. But land up near the Empire was too scarce and too rocky. The soil was mostly clay which made water retention even after the rains a significant concern. In the central and southern provinces of the Grachyr Kingdom where the soil was partly sand, drainage into the aquifers and ground water below made short work of all but the most severe storms.

The dust from the road was minimal if completely non-existent, it was late and there wouldn’t be much traffic. Takkris figured anybody who was willing to take Crosser’s at night would be willing to at least listen to his proposal. He knew he had little to no leverage, but he couldn’t risk going back into Fresin. Even if he wouldn’t immediately draw attention, he had no money. And selling a diamond from a Fresin mine was about the most foolish thing he could think of. Right next to flagging down merchant caravans half naked and paying in bloody diamonds worth more than their entire cargo. There was a small copse of trees across the road, he could hide beneath their shade and watch for wagons coming up the bend from the south. The lights of Fresin were beautiful and he could just scarcely smell the cherry blossoms that fell all over the city like pink snowflakes. It was said to make the city smell as pretty as it was, Takkris thought it was to cover the smell of decaying slaves and other horrid unspeakable things that went on beneath the beautiful façade of white and pink. In his mind Fresin was the perfect representation for the upper class and highborn of the world; beautiful and resplendent on the outside, but rotten and grotesque just below their carefully crafted exteriors.

Takkris shuffled behind a tree as fast as he could manage. He didn’t want to stay out on the road any longer than he was forced to. At least the trees offered an illusion of protection and cover. He wanted to climb, to get up to a better vantage point and to better hide himself, but his hands were bloody and raw. Holding the two diamonds was near agony and would be completely intolerable if not for their capacity to pull the heat from his hands and cool them off, soothing the multifarious wounds that made his palms look like ground meat. He tried resting against the tree, but the cuts on his shoulders stretched and began to rip from the pressure. He shocked backwards from the pain and staggered to a halt, barely capable of keeping his feet. Every second was spent in terror wrapped in a tight ball of agony. He only blinked when his eyes began to dry and he could feel time slipping through his fingers like a fistful of sand each time he blinked. He knew he was tired, the effects of the lochjir could possibly still affecting him, or it could be any number of physiological responses to the stress he’d been placed under. His body was slowly shutting down. The higher logical processes of his mind were going to be the first to go. They were unnecessary to survival as considered by the body. If a wagon didn’t show itself soon, he would barely have the mental prowess to walk in a straight line, much less negotiate and arrange passage to Interis.

In between the fifth and sixth blink, which could have been anywhere from five minutes to two hours, Takkris caught sight of a large merchant wagon. It had the unmistakable signs of uncouth merchants. Fewer than the usual guardsmen, only one that Takkris could see, and the driver was clearly the merchant as well. The wagon was tented and covered in the brilliant reds of the Interis Empire – a conspicuous ploy for favor – and the right hand side while facing it had the markings of the Interis Empire, while the left had the markings of the Grachyr Kingdom. To an layman this would mean nothing, but to the Interis who considered shaking with the right hand as a form of friendship and camaraderie while the left hand was considered an insulting display of clear disrespect, this marking orientation spoke volumes. Which meant to Takkris that this merchant knew what he was doing, or else was very skilled at faking it.

The wagon was pulled by a team of three large, dark horses. A loamy brown with dark spots on their haunches declaring them common Interis stock. They were broader and larger than Grachyr horses, able to rough the harsher climates and landscapes of the north. Interis horses were considered smarter than the standard Grachyr fare, but they were harder to train and more finicky about where they travelled, preferring to stick to the northern territories. But they were smart enough that after a while and proper training, they could ferry people and cargo back and forth along a familiar path well enough that there was no need to stop at night and they did not spook easily. Compared to Grachyr stock, which were slimmer and faster but lacked the staying power of the Interis breed, the Interis horses were a clear and obvious choice for any long journey. This was most particularly true of a journey in which time was not the major determining factor. Takkris staggered out, forcing his back straight as he could and his chest out. He looked terrible enough, but if he could at least fake the appearance of anger and a semblance of fortitude, they would think twice about whether to simply try and kill him and take his diamonds.

He waved his arms to flag down the wagon. They had two hanging lanterns at the front of the thing, on two outward poles just behind the two rear horses. The two men looked at Takkris and then each other, talking in quick sharp tones before issuing the command to slow and halt the wagon. Takkris wasted no time in approaching them, steering wide of the irritable looking horses. They stamped the ground impatiently and stared at him with their large, dark eyes. Looking at them up close it was hard to deny they weren’t intelligent, and almost instinctively Takkris gave a subtle nod of greeting to the one nearest him. And to his surprise, it shut its eyes and returned the gesture. Takkris couldn’t help but smile even as he approached the two men sitting tall in the driver seats. Or what would normally be considered driver seats, if they actually steered or directed their caravan. Takkris doubted either of them would know the first thing about how to direct the animals they had and suspected there might be a driver or the horses were particularly familiar with their particular path.

As he approached he got a good look at both of them, they were easy to see in the lantern light, as easy as he imagined his terrible state was to them. The guardsman was a pot-bellied man with an oversized breastplate custom made to cover his girth, making him look similar to an old stove. He had a ridiculous pointed hat and mean beady black eyes that sparkled with malice. His thickly gloved hand gently wrapped around the hilt of his sword, hidden from view. The merchant wrapped himself in fine silks and furs of all kinds while bedecked in costume jewelry that tried in vain to pass off as the real thing. Upon closer inspection the furs as well looked fake, but they were a far better imitation than his tawdry jewelry, if it could even be called such. Takkris imagined that any other person probably couldn’t have told the difference, but growing up at the heart of the Grachyr Kingdom, Takkris saw finer things being thrown away than what this man was wearing. He had a faux fur hat that wrapped itself too tightly around his fat, pumpkin shaped head. His face was richly red like a beet and his eyes were tiny chips of gray flint, there was no mercantile greeting or that famously fake fondness for a customer about him. He looked every bit as annoyed as the guardsman was, but he placed a thick sausage fingered hand, ringed in more fake jewelry, on the other man’s sword arm. The guardsman relaxed and placed both hands in his lap, but he never took his beady eyes off Takkris.

He smiled at them both as gently as possible. But what came out of his mouth was far from gentle. “I see you are both headed to the Interis Empire. I would ask to accompany you,” he began. His voice came out raw and rough, far more than he looked or felt. The surprise on both their faces told him that he had blown any chance of being seen as a helpless child in need of protection. He had thought of using the kidnapped son of a wealthy merchant, but that was now lost to him.

The two men looked at each other, then him. “You lost your brain child? You need one of these silver plates to pass through the Interis Checkpoint,” he said, pulling out a silver engraved plate on a leather thong from within the eternal depths of his fake furs, “ain’t no way, no how you’d be allowed in besides. So piss off brat before I have my man here teach you proper manners!”

Takkris had prepared for this but he didn’t move back in respect as was clearly the expectation, instead he strode even closer. Close enough that the guardsman could strike out with his sword and shear his head clean from his shoulders before Takkris could move. “I can pay sirs. I’m not stupid, I know what risk you would be taking and I know the worth of what I offer. I imagine you’re both smarter than you wish people to think of you, a wise ploy indeed. The covering of your wagon tells me you’re well versed in Interis culture and your use of Interis stock horses is simply brilliant,” he said, showing the large, uncut cluster of raw diamond to them. He put on his best ingratiating smile. He doubted either of them were truly that smart, both had looked surprised when he mentioned what he did. Which either labeled them as idiots working for a wise owner who likely paid them in shiny – but fake – trinkets, or they were bandits and had killed the merchants who owned it and were having a bit of fun parading around as guardsman and merchant.

The both of them bulged their eyes so much that they nearly popped out of their heads. It took them each some time to calm down and put on their most terrible act of disinterest. “That hardly looks real child, you could have found any sort of quartz or crystal and claimed it as a diamond. Let me see it to verify,” said the merchant, practically salivating with anticipation.

Takkris shook his head and stepped back, out of reach of the guardsman’s sword and his reach. He stepped back, further than he needed to and relished in seeing the panic on the merchant’s face as he realized the boy could easily just leave. “I want passage to wherever you plan to go within Interis and I expect to have food and water regularly available. This diamond is worth at least five times that of which you carry, and you know my words ring true. All you need to do is smuggle me across the border and you’ll have made easy money. Money, that I needn’t tell you never has to be reported to your employer,” Takkris said, leaning in with a wink.

The merchant and guardsman put their heads together for a few moments. Takkris casually turned his head to the side, as if he was sizing up the prospects of waiting for another merchant. But what he saw turned his stomach upside down and set his heart thumping madly in his chest. Multiple lights were bobbing in the distance, coming his way, spreading out in a wide net of steady beads of light. They’ve sent a search party out for me. I’m almost curious enough to ask how much I’m worth. If they’re able to spare so much manpower for a single person, they must either pay their workers horribly, or I’m worth quite a sum.

Takkris fought to keep all emotion from his face as he turned back with what he hoped was a bored expression. His face was dirty but not covered in bloody marks, which he hoped would make him seem less dangerous. The merchant and guardsman looked at him once more. “All right child, follow me around back. We’re close to the border now, so you’re going to hafta hide in one of these barrels see? We’ll put a false top over your head, fill with fruits and the like and if it’s opened they’ll be nothing out of the ordinary,” the merchant said, grunting and heaving as he pulled himself down from the driver’s seat.

Takkris walked along back like he was asked and came to the rear of the tented cloth wagon. The merchant pulled out a set of telescoping stairs and trudged up them, puffing and wheezing the whole while, his face growing brighter and brighter red. He motioned for Takkris to follow, who resisted glancing back at the lights. They had to disinterest him if the merchant was to believe they weren’t for him. The light shone on his back like the blazing sun and he fought every frightened nerve to not turn back to look at his captors and see the distance they had gained on him. The merchant unbuttoned the flaps of the heavy canvas and pulled it aside, letting Takkris into the back. The wagon was filled with various crates and barrels as well as bags and hanging, drying meats and spices. The scents of the various food stuffs would throw off any hounds at the checkpoint looking for smugglers. Takkris nodded to himself.

The merchant coughed loudly and held out his hand. “Payment, please,” he said sneeringly.

Takkris placed the diamond in his palm, trying to hide the other in his left hand. The blood on the diamond piqued the merchant’s interest for a moment before he shrugged and wiped it away on the canvas flap of the wagon. He quickly pocketed it afterwards and pointed to a barrel. Takkris moved over to what looked like a fairly random barrel amongst the others. “This is out in the open, wouldn’t they check this first?” he asked.

“No, no child. That’s the beauty of it see? It’s so obvious, they don’t bother checkin’ not when the rest of them there barrels is so ripe for smugglin’. You needn’t worry yer little head about it. All you need to do is getterin this here barrel and then we’ll knock when the coast is clear and let you out. Simple as pie,” he said unctuously.

Takkris shivered slightly as the man smiled at him with that oily façade of a merchant or innkeeper who would sooner sell your organs than see that you get a fair deal. But he nodded thankfully all the same. “Thank you sir, I appreciate it,” he replied.

The merchant pried the lid off with a small crowbar and dug his fingers in through the various fruits found within. He pulled at two black cords nestled beneath the fruit and lifted the false bottom out. Takkris needed no cue to climb in, though it was far from easy with his battle scarred body. The merchant took some pieces of meat and cheese, tossing them inside after him. “Might be a while before ye get out, wouldn’t do to have us transportin’ a corpse around near all this food. Mighty unsanitary,” he finished with a self-satisfied chuckle.

Takkris tried to weakly smile back. The joke wasn’t funny, it was an all too real possibility, but as the false bottom was lowered in atop him and his world plunged into darkness the smell of the meat and cheese outweighed all his worries. He wanted to stuff himself, but he knew that when in a state of severe hunger as he was, eating too much could actually shock his system. And so he forced himself to nibble on bits of hard, leathery jerky that had practically no flavor at all, and crumbly bits of hard cheese that weren’t fit to be called cheese. The food was torturous enough, but he also had to self-inflict his own torture of small rations of food to make sure he didn’t get sicker than he was.

The barrel jostled about but Takkris was wedged inside with his knees nearly pressed to his chest that he moved with the barrel as one. The rumbling settled and he could tell they were finally on their way. With nothing else to do, Takkris leaned his head against the hard slightly bowed interior of the barrel. He had been afraid to sleep before, but now it was just about the only thing of merit he could do. He hoped that the payment had been enough that the two wouldn’t think of double crossing him. But he knew greed was like a virulent plague in the hearts of men. It grew and festered, driving men to ever greater deeds of wickedness and depravity. As Takkris shut his eyes, he wished he could feel as if everything was going to work itself out, that it would be better from there on out. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that it wouldn’t be, even if he made it to Interis he hardly had any money, no clothes and only a much smaller diamond to barter with. He had no skills and no desire to stay in the company of the two men who he had entrusted to ferry him to safety. Regardless of what happened, he’d still be a child in a world full of angry, depraved hearts.

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