Chapter Eleven: Passage Bought in Blood

It should have come as no surprise to Takkris when he found himself still inside the barrel long after he had fallen asleep. It should have also failed to surprise him when there was no movement, no sound of hoof beats and no creaking of a wagon. Panic began to set in and he started to press hard on the lid, but he either wasn’t strong enough or the lid would only open to a prying bar of some sort. He instead chose to rock back and forth, tipping the barrel from side to side until it fell. But it didn’t just fall over onto its side as he had hoped. It rolled with a gathering force of an avalanche downhill as his back was pinned to the interior curved wall of the barrel from its constant force. He pulled his arms to his chest and craned his neck downward. Takkris strained to pull his arms up and over the back of his neck tucking his head down near his knees to his chest in a protective curl. He made sure to cover the back of his neck and the vital parts of his body. The barrel finally halted its rough, violent trip and for the span of a single heartbeat, Takkris felt weightless like a feather drifting on the wind. And then his stomach bottomed out and he could feel the stark, terrifying sensation of falling. The barrel crashed to the ground and blew open like it had been struck with a stick of dynamite.

Curled up as he was he avoided the worst of the damage. The shattered bones of the barrel scraped roughly at his back, sides and arms but otherwise did no significant damage to him. The sudden burst of light from the clear early morning blinded him as he slowly and anemically got to his feet, staggering back and forth from the stiff salty breeze that blustered about the countryside. He shaded his eyes with a hand and looked about. The Interis border had no coastline, no ocean nearby to carry such a smell. It was then that he realized he was nowhere near the Interis border. He was down a rather steep hill with a prime view of some ocean to his left. The small green expanse he found himself upon quickly dropped off and out of sight, leaving only the blue of the ocean in the distance.

Takkris’ mind raced with worry and anger. There was no way this had been an accident, he knew it shouldn’t have come as a shock, but he couldn’t help it. A burning vitriol roiled up in the back of his throat but he quelled it and quieted his anger. It took him a moment to find his head and calm down enough to think clearly through the rage and anger of betrayal that seemed all too common. He took a tally of his current standing: he was still badly injured, though he had eaten it was only enough to keep his stomach from twisting into a balloon animal, he hadn’t proper clothes and he could really use a bath. Not to mention, Takkris was still without a home, without any person who would want to take care of him and he was still most likely being hounded by the slavers. Who no doubt had made significant gains on him depending on how long the bastard merchant had left him behind. The side of the road he was likely left on was up a steep rolling hill of waving emerald green grass, dotted with tiny yellow flowers.

He had no clue where he was and no way of knowing exactly how he would get to Interis and out of reach of the slavers now. His only hope was that the merchant had travelled far enough before setting him down on the side of the road like a bin of trash. It was only then that it dawned on him that he didn’t know where his second diamond was. He frantically checked his pockets but found nothing but the pin and tooth with adjoining fragments. He realized stupidly that he had eaten with the gauze still pressed tightly against his empty socket. No doubt by now the blood had clotted and adhered to the gauze, his facial swelling had gone down as well since last night, a promising sign that it wasn’t infected. It still felt swore and thick but it wasn’t quite as bad as he had assumed it would be by this point and so he paid it little mind. Every part of his body checked in with pain and varying degrees of hurt, he hadn’t incurred any devastating damage from the barrel, more scrapes that broke the skin but no shrapnel or serious injury.

He sighed sharply and looked about the ground in what he knew was a fruitless attempt to find the diamond. It was quite likely that it was stolen while he had been sleeping. The merchant probably reached in to take the food from him when he had passed out for the night, and saw him holding the rock. He cursed himself for not hiding it somewhere, somehow. But ruing over the past would do him no good. There was no sign of the food, hid diamond but by a happy coincidence the fruit on the false top had been kept. They were strewn all about the field next to chipped and shattered fragments of the barrel. He went about grabbing a few apples and plums before sinking his teeth into a soft looking pear so perfect looking it was almost like a painting. His teeth scrapped hard against it and he tasted something bitter. He pulled back and stared in disbelief at the pear. It had been too perfect, and just like a painting it wasn’t real. He peeled the veneer of paint that had stuck to his front teeth and dropped the remaining fruits. They were made of some hard material he wasn’t aware of, it wasn’t stone or metal but it was not wood either. Beneath the thin layer of paint the pear was as white as bleached bone.

And now I also have no food. So let’s add that to the checklist of a red letter day. No food, no diamond, no clothes, no medical assistance, no map, no knowledge of where the hell I am, no way of knowing how far the slavers are and no method of travel besides my own two bare feet. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

Takkris started the long trek up the side of the hill, walking at an angle to it to make it easier on him. He had read about that making climbing hills simpler, but it didn’t feel much different in practice. By the time he had reached the lip of the hill he was out of breath and shivering. The salty sea breeze coupled with his copious sweating and the cool morning sun combined to make a chilling reception. The road was paved with brick or paving stones at one point, but that was so long ago that a decent layer of road dust had deposited atop and settled into every nook and cranny that only the odd bit of roadway showed it had been anything but dirt. The opposite side of the road had an expansive field with several large, beautiful houses up the hills in the distance. They were built of stone and some other sort of colorful material he couldn’t identify from the distance he was at. There was absolutely no place for him to walk along or follow the road without being seen, but at least from the tops of those hills he’d have the advantage of height.

It took him the better half of an hour to make the relatively short trek up through the various paved country lanes that crisscrossed the green fields like slashes of white chalk. There were small half walls of white stone, the mortar filled with small glistening seashells of all kind and color. The houses were large and their plots of land even larger. They weren’t as grand or as beautiful as those Takkris had grown up around, but they had a freedom of space that took up more than an entire city block. He made sure to stay low as he could trying to hide behind the short walls that marked different plots of land. Gardens were rather popular but of course, being rich and privileged they had gardens for beauty, not anything as foolishly practical as food. He swore he saw a few medicinal plants, but the gardens were set on display for all to see, as if the display of living plants was some sort of status symbol. His presence would be immediately detected and he wanted to avoid any human contact. He wouldn’t go to them for help, he was done with asking people for help, at least until he looked the part.

Takkris knew that there was a sort of social hierarchy, those below did not ask for help from those above, and those above or on level ground were wont to help one another if only because they looked similar. His features were remarkably highborn, obviously so, seeing as he was born into a highborn household. He just needed to have the right costume on to get what he needed. Not from here obviously, this was a community of the few and privileged, he would be an outsider no matter what. But in a nearby town or city, he could get things he’d need if he acted the part. It took him at least a few hours of scouring the country lanes and ducking beneath the short white walls to find not only a clothesline but one that was unattended and had clothes in his size. Up over the wall he was currently pressed against was a decent sized meadow, set on the other side of the house, its large height and girth would easily block him from view of most prying eyes. With nobody on the road he was skulking on, it was a relatively short hop over the wall and a shambling dash across the empty yard to the rows of tall clotheslines with pinned sheets and clothes of all types.

It was the small emerald green long sleeved shirt and gray slacks that he was most interested in. His body rebelled against his attempts to move over the wall, forcing him to roll over the thing that was barely up to his chest. He collapsed on the other side of the wall with a grunt of pain as the shock jarred his wounds and joints sharply. He struggled to crawl to his hands and knees and it was almost too much to ask of his poor broken body to stand once more. Through some miracle he managed it and barely staggered to the clothesline and used a polished wooden pole for support before he fell over. He stood there a moment, hidden between the rippling sheets and clothes. He slipped between the curtain of sheets and into the nest row, where he nearly stumbled into a wash basin with a scrubbing board still half submerged. He glanced at it and immediately knelt down to it. Highborns were rarely ever dirty and the water looked reasonably clean. He could wash his face and hands and feet. As he peered down at the placid pool of water he noticed the various scratches and scrapes, but more than anything was an odd marking on his forehead. It looked similar to a brand, but when he touched it he felt no swelling or wound there like a brand would produce.

The realization dawned on him. He had been marked by the slavers. It made more sense as to the betrayal of the merchant. The brand would have been clear as day to them in the lantern light. Which means they had always meant to betray him; they knew full well what he was. Suddenly Takkris felt grateful for their greed rather than incensed by it. He was lucky that they didn’t return him for a tidy profit. I guess losing both diamonds is a small price for my freedom. He cupped two handfuls of water and splashed it onto his face, scrubbing furiously at the mark, but nothing happened. He would have felt if they tattooed it on, so that left some sort of special ink that stained deeply into the skin. It might eventually come out, but every second he stayed where he was, trespassing on some rich person’s property was a second extra he could be caught. He finished washing his face and his hair. He would at least look moderately clean, as clean as any child his age would allow. He tied his long hair back into a ponytail, ripping a small piece of cloth from a red sheet to secure it behind his head. Lengthy bangs framed his face as his hair, now cleaned, was returned to its former glory of beautiful spun gold. He found a white sheet and ripped off a long strip about the width of two fingers. He wound that around his forehead, pulling his hair out of it so it looked more professional. Now he only looked like he had a head wound of some sort. And with the scrapes and marks on his cheeks there would be no reason to question it.

It didn’t take him long to strip off his clothing, if it could even be called that anymore. He quickly splashed water on his bare body, washing away what little dirt, caked blood and sweat that he could. He pulled on green shirt, gingerly placing his arms through its sleeves. The fabric was thick and smooth. He imagined it was a sort of cashmere blend based on its feel and richly dyed color typical of such expensive items. He pulled on the stormy gray slacks, zipping up the fly and buttoning it at the top, they fit reasonably well, which meant that they were too small for him normally, if not for all the weight he’d lost they would have looked out of place. And a highborn never wore clothes that fit improperly. He dipped his feet into the water, one by one washing all the mud and caked filth he had accumulated since being stripped of shoes of any sort. Shoes. That’s what I need. He looked about for any sign of shoes. They would probably be near one of the doors, placed out so the children didn’t run into the house with dirty shoes, marring their pristine home with muddy prints. He saw a small slanted rack specifically made for shoes. It had slanted bits of wood to prop the shoes up and drain any muck or filth that was on them. But as he suspected it was dangerously close to a side door to the house. While better than the front, it still exposed Takkris to great risk and stealing from a rich person, regardless of their status was ill-advised. They were among the most pedantic of people and would sooner spend two or three times the money of the item stolen to retrieve it and see the thief summarily punished for the crime.

Without shoes the whole façade would crumble away into nothing but a series of stage props. Besides, his feet were blistered and cut up from his escape and all the walking in between. He bent low and scurried forward, trying to keep as low as possible. He reached the side of the house, a few steps led up to a screened white door with a small awning extending out above to keep out inclement weather. The rack of shoes was right next to the door on the small entryway up three stone steps. He scanned the few that were there. Dark brown shoes that were oddly formal, those certainly wouldn’t do. The next were a pair of black boots which would work but with his casual outfit would look just as out of place as the formal, pointy-toed shoes. That left him with a pair of earthy brown shoes with brass buckles and black laces. They weren’t perfect, but they’d do. He reached forward, crouched down next to the wall. He watched in horror as the screened door swung open with a gentle creak. It opened halfway before a voice called out from inside and then the door shut and Takkris could hear a child’s voice respond.

He nabbed the pair of shoes and darted off, with his feet slapping against the inside of the shoes and the laces flailing about like a man on fire. He had every intention of hopping the short wall to the lane on the other side. But what he intended and what actually happened were two very different things. He had tried to jump, to place his hand out and vault over the wall, but his body resisted every movement like his tendons were made of stiff rubber bands and he hadn’t the strength to stretch them. He slammed headlong into the wall and bent painfully just above his navel. The world flipped and he launched himself head first over the wall and hard onto his back on the other side. He gasped and wheezed, trying to catch his breath. It took him longer than he could have thought to regain a semblance of composure. He sat up and painfully pulled one shoe, then the other close enough that he could tie them properly. His fingers fumbled at the rather simple knots he was attempting, the cuts and bruises and swelling had made them difficult and foreign to him.

He finally managed to pull himself upright and he gently dusted himself off before he strode as quickly as he could away from the house and back to the hillside that looked over the main roadway. He walked along it, strolling as lethargically as he could while looking slightly bored and annoyed, a common sight amongst the upper class, and children were ever wont to mimic their parents. It wasn’t until he placed his hands into his pockets to hide their cuts that a smile touched his rather dour face. There were several coins inside and though he didn’t want to look at them just yet, they felt like silver Drachmae. Not enough money as he had had with the diamonds, but enough to buy himself a warm meal and good lodgings for at least a night or two. Looking the way he did he could likely swing an even better deal through a mixture of promised favor and mild threats.

Takkris had been mulling over the various choices of food he might order when a familiar red wagon popped into view just as the main road bent away from the country lanes and down towards what looked like a portside town. He cast a quick look around but there were no other souls in sight, just a single wagon without its horses parked on the side of the main road. He knew how dangerous it was to go closer, but his curiosity got the better of him and he found his feet taking him towards the thing before he had finished deciding. It was a relatively long walk, passing through several knee-high fields of tall wavy grass and over a few rocky outcrops between the hill that overlooked the main road and the main road itself. The way down was easier than the way up, but only by a fraction. His legs still refused to work right and would snap back into a straight, locked position making his footing anything but sure.

When he got to the ditch on his side of the roadway he looked left then right and twisted around to cover all his angles, making damn sure that nobody was around. He slowly hopped over the ditch and half sneaked, half scurried to the rear of the wagon. The canvas flaps were shifting in the wind and when he grabbed hold of one to open, he saw all the cargo had been completely emptied. There wasn’t a single morsel of the dried meat or cheese, not even a single leaf or sprig of dried spice. He cursed to himself and groped around the underside of the wagon for the latch he had seen the merchant use. Cold metal met his hand and he tugged on it, pulling the telescoping staircase down to his level. He used it to ascend into the back of the wagon to get a closer look.

Just as his initial observation had yielded, there was nothing left. Not a single crumb or leaving of any kind. They even took the straps the barrels and crates were secured with. Not so much as an errant bolt was left behind. He crept forward towards the driver’s seats and slowly drew open the flap behind the two men. The smell hit him before he noticed the gashes on their necks. The very same killing wounds as the traveller that had given him up to the slavers. Takkris felt a mixture of dread and justification. While the slavers had found them, and inevitably would have found him had they not dumped him at the side of the road sometime in the dead of night, the two also deserved what they got for stealing from him. The smell was heavy in the air, and by that alone he had known they died several hours ago at the latest. Much of the daylight was already spent and the sun was slowly sinking westward against his back. He quickly leaned forward and rifled through their pockets and found only a few oboloi rods, hardly enough for a single drachma.

He took them anyways, knowing that the small finger-length rods were at least adding to the small amount of currency he currently had in his possession. He lingered no longer and quickly departed back down the telescoped stairs, pushing them back in to hide his tracks and he hurried back up to the hillside. However he only opted to go partway up the hill, as it fell away into a larger rolling hill and intersected with the main road some distance ahead. In the bloody golden light of dusk Takkris’ shadow stretched out tall as any man’s and kept him company as he carefully made his way down the large hill. There was a portside town up ahead on his left towards the north, the road butted up against the walls before passing on east and west as it had been running.

As close as he was to the town, which upon further inspection was closer to a small city, the roads became more packed with people and merchants alike. Large caravans came and went down the road, the vast majority of them heading due east, likely into Interis territory or at least the border provinces. Large masts stuck out among the skyline of mostly squat buildings, a few rose up to three stories but only large important looking ones like the city hall and judiciary office. Both of which Takkris would want to avoid. No doubt the slavers had the city officials in their pockets, looking for strays to enslave and sell to the highest bidder. Instead he cut across a thick field of grass and made for a side entrance to the city, one that only admitted foot traffic and would be closing soon. Side gates were rarely staffed by more than one or two guardsmen who would barely check papers let alone report their findings to their senior officers. If his description was passed around, he’d want to avoid as much official interaction as possible.

A long queue of people were waiting to get in, the guards at the small gate, which was closer to a very large doorway, were slowly admitting people at a languished pace. Takkris knew that as soon as the sun set down, the only way into the city would be the front gates, and those were heavily guarded and every person was checked for proper papers. While he couldn’t be certain this particular city was like that, he dared not risk it. Instead of queuing up behind the people and inevitably being shut out, he strode straight to the front guardsman who gave him a harried look. Takkris could tell he was just about to tell him to get to the back of the line when he noticed he paused and looked at his clothing. The green long sleeved shirt of fine cashmere wool and the stormy gray slacks with brass buckled earthy brown boots gave him a striking presence. But it was his highborn features, things that could not be faked that pulled the ensemble together. His look more than anything is what brought the guard up short.

Takkris smiled at the two guards and slyly pulled two silver drachma coins out and let them clatter to the ground. He looked surprised at them, then back up to each of the guards in turn with a gentle smile of obedience. “Excuse me sirs, you seemed to have dropped something. If you’ll allow me?” he asked and bent over without waiting for a response. He picked up the two coins and held them out to each of them, “These seemed to have fallen from your person. I would not wish to see you departed from your hard earned coin.”

The guards took a coin a piece and inclined their head knowingly. Without another sound they stepped aside, just enough to admit him into the gate and then stepped back in front of it their burnished suits of armor gleaming gold in the dying light. The city smelled of coal dust, fish and the brine of the sea. It was a mingling, odd scent that took a great deal to get used to. The streets were cobblestone, lumpy like dumpling stew with storefronts of paved granite, their borders made of clay brick. There was obviously very little metal work due to the sea breeze. Most things were made entirely of stone with a few visible pieces of treated lumber. Wood was almost as bad in the sea air if it wasn’t properly taken care of. The rooftops were exclusively a sort of odd pink shell, not clay tile, slate shingles or terracotta. They gleamed brilliantly, stripes of salmon pink and bone white. They overlapped each other like crescent moons and gave the slanted rooftops a whimsical appearance.

Takkris’ first order of business was to visit the nearest inn to get some food and lodgings. He hadn’t intended on spending two silver drachmae already, which drastically cut his funds but it had been a necessary sacrifice and he still had enough for a simple meal and simple lodgings for the night, perhaps longer if he could set something up with the innkeeper. He walked with hands in his pockets, looking for a reputable inn, watching the people who came and went from the various establishments on the main street. He could recognize an expensive inn from a cheap one. One will openly rob you blind in exchange for pleasant service and finer goods, while the other would rob you blind without your permission. He was hoping for somewhere in between, respectable but neither so cheap as to be suspicious and attract the wrong sort, nor so expensive he couldn’t even afford a seat to sit in.

It was halfway to what looked like a good prospect, some inn called, “The Sinking Gull” that he spotted a child, a few years younger than him begging in nothing but stained and dirty rags. He shakily held out his hands while shamefully kept his head down. Takkris’ heart wrenched at the poor wretch. He had barely enough money for himself, but he could spare the money for a side of potatoes or some other nicety, so that this child could fill his belly. He smiled at him and knelt down as he reached into his pockets and pulled out a drachma worth of oboloi and plunked the metallic rods into his hands.

“Go get yourself something to eat, on me,” he had said as softly and kindly as he could.

The kid didn’t look up but immediately closed his tiny fists around the money and blurted out, “Thank you so much mister!”

Takkris smiled to himself and stood upright, fingering the few coins left in his pocket. He still had enough for something to eat and a warm bed to sleep in and he had done something good for another human being. Somebody who could definitely use a bit of a break he thought to himself. He passed several small alleyways on the way to the inn. He was too busy daydreaming of the prospect of a warm meal at a proper table and a warm, soft bed to sleep in for the night when he felt somebody slam into him, forcing him to stagger into the alley and straight into a stone wall.

He bounced off it and fell backwards before a boot caught him in the ribs, another in the head. He felt hard boots and bony feet kick and stomp on him as he curled himself up defensively, protecting every vital organ he could, save for his kidneys. Pain shocked through his body like heavy rocks dropped into a calm pond, the dozens of small cuts broke open at each impact and he barely felt the hands rifling through his pockets for the remaining coins. He spared a look at his attackers, the little kid he had given the money to was amongst them. Once they were sure he didn’t have anything else on him they stopped beating on him, but one of them lobbed a sharp kick to his head, rolling him over with the force and dancing stars into his vision.

“Stupid git, ye hardly had any dosh on ye. I should gut ye for wastin’ me time! Next time I see ye, best be sure ye got enough for a full round of drinks, ya hear?” he shouted at Takkris before turning away, “Looks like it’ll be the piss water down by the docks again.”

Takkris shook there in the dank alley. The pain was one thing he had begun to grow accustomed to but the betrayal. The kindness he had gone out of his way to show, that was too much for him to bear. A raging inferno of indignation rose into his chest and hot wet tears rolled down his face as it contorted into feral growls. He pushed himself up with more strength than he had thought he had. He had been pushed to the breaking point again and again, but this time he wouldn’t stand for it. He forced his body to obey every single command as he stalked angrily out of the alley, the group of boys hardly older than him. A few even younger than him were running down the sloping street towards the docks. Takkris hurried after them pausing to remain hidden and dashing after them when the coast was clear. He passed by a bulletin board with several posters secured with square nails and halted a moment at it. He wrenched free three nails, sliding them in between his fingers on his right fist, so that three dangerous iron spikes jutted out a full inch beyond his knuckles. As he closed in on them, he picked up a small piece of broken wood and placed it in the palm of the same hand, using it as a hard backing for the flat, square head of the nails.

They ducked into one of the bars on the waterfront, one that didn’t even have a sign anymore, only rusted chain links that dangled in the breeze above the door. The windows were sooty and darkened and the drunken men and women that staggered in and out, throwing fists at imaginary opponents labeled it one of the most disreputable places he was likely to find in the city. He stalked in, blood dripping from a gash over his left eyebrow, his shirt staining red with blood from the opened wounds and ripped in other places. The majority of the boys were up towards the bar ordering or talking to the barman who clearly didn’t care what age they were or whether or not it was illegal to sell alcohol to minors. Several dark faces watched Takkris from the dimly lit corners of the room, the red hot cherry light of their cigars was all he could make out as he quickly glanced around. But he found the leader easily enough, the one who had kicked him in the head and ran off with his money. He was sitting with a big grin on his pinched face, lounging back in his seat with his back to Takkris like he owned the place.

Takkris stalked over to his back like a predator and without any warning or hint of honor he thrust his fist into the meaty muscle between his neck and right shoulder. The nails sunk in up to his knuckles and the blood curdling scream was melodic to Takkris’ ears. He pulled them out and sunk them into the other side before the boy could finish his first scream. He gripped a fistful of the kid’s dirty, greasy hair and pulled it back, yanking the chair onto its rear legs, balanced precariously. He made him look into Takkris’ eyes, the rage boiled over inside him and tears spilled over onto his cheek as he repeatedly punched the boy in his exposed chest. His filthy shirt peppered with tiny holes that bloomed crimson and his weak, shocked attempts at resistance slowed and then stopped as he went limp. Takkris stabbed the nails into his chest over and over, a feral scream bellowing out from deep within his stomach. He watched as the light left the boy’s eyes and he wanted more.

He had been the victim for so long, and treated so badly that all of his pent up rage was unleashed on this one boy, hardly three years older than him. A dribble of blood leaked down the side of his lip as his shirt became one solid sheet of crimson. Takkris let go of his hair and the chair fell backwards with a crash that echoed among the entire pub. Not a single sound was made as all eyes turned to the small, blood stained boy that had just brutally murdered another child in cold blood. His partners in crime stared with wide, frightened eyes before they bolted out the back like startled rabbits. Takkris looked down in cold, detached disdain at the corpse of the boy, and he broke down crying madly into his blood soaked hands. He fell to the ground on his knees and cried for long enough that a member of the city guard walked into the pub or perhaps was summoned. The rest of the world was dead to him so he had no idea until he felt himself yanked upright by the collar of his shirt.

Takkris took in a sharp breath and looked at him with empty, hollow eyes. Tears streamed his blood splattered face and the guard stared down coldly. “You’re coming with me boy. We don’t take to murderers ‘round here, even if you are just a child, murder is murder. Come along now unless you want to end up like him,” the guard said in a deep, booming voice full of authority.

He dragged Takkris towards the door, his heels scrabbling against the floor as he tried to find his feet beneath him. Takkris grabbled at the guard’s mighty gloved hand that held his collar firm but he could not get him to loosen his grasp, or even to slow down. The fight had completely bled out of Takkris as he was carted off towards the door. He could barely see it, craning his neck around as he was. But it looked closed, with a dark figure in its frame.

“This is official business, you won’t be wanting to hamper the law now would you? Step aside and let me on my way, this scrag has an appointment with a cold dank cell,” barked the guard.

“Aye, that I would if I could, but you see this here boy has managed something so few of your stiff-legged people have in the years I’ve been visiting,” said a smooth, accented voice from the doorway.

“Oh? And just what might that be?” asked the guard, pulling Takkris firmly to his feet, “look at the boy, ain’t nothing special about him ‘cept his murderin’ and you’ll find plenty of that around here I reckon.”

The man that stood in the doorway had a tattered leather tricorne, bedecked with tassels, talismans, beads and trinkets of all sorts. His eyes blue and green, dark colors that reminded Takkris of the wide open oceans that wrapped around the world of Gran’ich. He was clearly handsome, though some might have referred to him as a roguish sort of handsome. The kind Takkris had seen in the romance novels several of the upper class women would read. He had scruffy beard and two earrings that looked each like a dangling fang. He had a ring on each middle finger, something Takkris couldn’t make out but he fit the striking image of one of those daring pirates that would sweep a boring housewife away for an afternoon of tawdry adventure. Even his voice was smooth, melodic and dripping with charisma. He wore a black leather jacket with a few straps, belts and silver-gold buckles and buttons, over a white ruffled shirt, its long cuffs stuck out from beneath the jacket sleeves. Takkris could just make out the shape of a sword of some sort at his hip, tall boots turned down partway to the top and long black pants of some sort, probably leather too he guessed. In the dim light of the pub he was every bit as striking as a shadow given life.

“My business is with the boy, and the boy alone. You give him to me, easy as you please and I’ll take him off your hands and out of your fair city of stone. How’s that deal strike you? No paperwork, no having to leave this lovely little establishment,” he said smoothly, and then looked beyond the man, but never raised his voice as he spoke clear across the room, “How about we get this fine gent a flagon of your finest ale for all the hard work he does?”

No sooner had the words left his mouth did the barman and a serving girl pull out a tall fluted glass flagon and fill it to bursting with foamy ale and bring it over straight to the guard. He looked at Takkris, the beer and his one hand still resting on his sword. He sighed and pushed Takkris ahead of him roughly and reached out for the beer. The guard lifted it in a ‘thank you’ to the man and began to guzzle it down. Takkris staggered and nearly tripped over himself as two sure hands gripped his shoulders and stopped him cold in his tracks. The man in the doorway looked down at Takkris and smiled a sly grin.

“You didn’t really want to stay here, did you lad?” he asked.

Takkris couldn’t find the words, so he only shook his head.

“There’s only one rule that I have, you don’t kill, you don’t steal, you don’t kidnap, and you don’t cause mayhem without telling me first. Do that, and we’ll be thick as thieves you and I.”

Takkris nodded dumbly, he didn’t completely understand what was going on but this man seemed to have all the answers, at the very least he made it look like he did. He placed a firm but gentle hand on Takkris’ back just between the shoulder blades and as the door opened he ushered him out into the waking world beyond. Several people stopped and stared at the pair then quickly averted their eyes, gluing them to the tops of their shoes as they quickly hurried away. If this man was somebody famous he must only be in the north because Takkris had never heard of a man who looked or dressed as oddly as this man. Though he seemed less unsavory than any of the other sorts of people he’d met so far. If he was evil he would have expected him to look a lot nicer but feel a lot nastier, instead it seemed the opposite. He looked like a man who cared for his appearance, but that it was carefully sculpted to be antithesis to the way the capitol and most of the civilized world dressed. Beards were definitely not in style and had failed to be so in Grachyr and Interis both for some years now.

They had walked past large, beautiful ships of glowing scrubbed wood, eventually turning down a large wooden pier that had an absolutely massive ship docked near its end. It was made of rich golden oak and it practically glittered in the twilight like a star had come to rest and cool in the bay next to the city. Takkris smiled, he hadn’t ever wanted to be on a ship but looking at such a work of art it was hard not to want to be part of something greater than himself. His mind went rabid with boyish fantasies on the high seas. And so it wasn’t until he had passed the massive beauty of a ship that he noticed he was boarding a small craft, just barely fit to be out in the open sea. It was hardly twenty paces long and half as wide with only a small below deck with a pair of bunks and tiny table to eat at. It had the smallest cannons he had ever seen on its bows, small enough that he could probably operate them without great trouble.

The shock on Takkris’ face must have been plain as the man who rescued him smirked and then broke out in a great laughter filled with mirth. A few of his crewmen came aboard, loosed the lines and casted off. They rowed out a little ways until the sails were loosed on the large mast in the center of the ship. When it unfurled it puffed out like a great white cresting wave. The oars were pulled up and the crewmen went below deck, leaving the man to man the wheel and steer them through a fairly crowded harbor and out into the bay at night. With naught but starlight to see by the sea was a black and frightening thing, making Takkris quickly huddle towards the mast, at the center of the ship. His legs shifted and grew weak from the constant swaying. He would have felt sick if he had had anything to eat and he was partially grateful for that. Until he remembered why it was he hadn’t been able to eat, and what he did.

The scene came back to him and he sank to his knees, gripping the thick mast like it was his mother trying to comfort him. He cried and sobbed as the waves broke against the ship and tossed it about like a cork in turbulent waters. The ship bobbed and bounced, the spray of sea spritzed him and he could see where he had the boy’s blood splattered over his arms and soaked into his hands. He hadn’t meant to kill him, not truly. He had just been so angry and it was building up for so long. It was the last straw to have his small kindness repaid in such a terrible way. He recognized the part of himself that liked it, that reveled in the power that came from taking away a life, and seeing his vengeance enacted. But he cast that side away, he wanted to lock him in an iron cage and throw him over the side of the ship to sink into the abyssal depths below.

The beating of his heart made loud, methodical thumps into his ears but he remained fastened to the pole and he did all he could to keep his eyes shut against the world around him. He knew he should have been happy, ecstatic even to be away from the slavers. And something about this man told Takkris that he wasn’t going to hurt him, he wasn’t like the others who would just as quickly sell him for a bag of gold. There was almost something noble about the man, but as to what, he could not say. The words eluded him just as much as he wanted to run away from what he had done. He deserved to be put in jail, he was no more fit to be a human than any other murderer and killer that roamed the streets. The boys were just trying to survive, it was too cruel what he had done and yet a small portion of his soul felt it was right, and that there was no reason to hide from it or feel shame. But rather than it should be celebrated as his awakening.

A firm hand clapped to his shoulder and peeled him away from the mast with ease. Takkris staggered about on the slick deck of the ship as the hand pushed him towards the bow. He pressed him until Takkris stood at the bow of the ship his hands on the railing at the front, pressing his hands worriedly into it as the spray of the sea washed over him like a baptism, washing away his anger and his doubt and the blood of his sin.

“The sea, she forgives all lad so long as you swear by her. She will protect you if you protect her and there is none other alive or dead that can offer you such salvation. She loves you, even if you don’t love her back. She gives as you take from her and she carries you wherever you need to be, even if you didn’t wish to go. She makes men out of boys and casts the weak to the depths. She is your new mother, your lover and your closest confidant. Even as you refuse to forgive yourself for what you’ve done, she’s washing you in her tears. She forgives you but she does not absolve you of what you have done. And do you know why?” he asked.

Takkris shut his eyes and let the spray of water wash over him peppering him with cold salty bliss. He shook his head in response and relished in the experience. He couldn’t place why, but he felt safe and secure, he felt truth ring in the man’s words.

“Because you have done no wrong. You did not kill in cold blood, you protected what was rightfully yours. And a man who does not stand up for himself, a man unwilling to fight for what he wants, that man deserves what he gets. You have the makings of something great in you lad and I aim to see that brought out. But I’ll give you something I bet you’ve not had in a good long while. I’ll give you freedom of choice.”

Takkris turned slowly to look at him his brows drawing down in confusion. He didn’t understand what he meant and a pit in his stomach was beginning to form from the worry, and the lack of food. The man’s eyes, the right one deep as the blue sea and the left green as tropical waters knelt down to get on the same level as Takkris. He looked into his eyes, full of compassion and sincerity.

“I can take you away from everything that ever happened to you, I can show you true freedom, the likes of which you’ve not even read of in books or heard about in tall tales. I can make you into the man you would be proud to be and others would turn green as seaweed with envy,” he began, as he placed his hands on Takkris’ shoulders, “or I can take you somewhere, anywhere water touches and let you on your way. The choice is yours, but I need your answer before we step aboard my ship. Once you have chosen there is no going back.”

Takkris raised a brow, weren’t they already on his ship? “Um, sir, aren’t we already on your ship?” he asked quietly.

“Dear heavens boy, do you really think this is a seafaring ship? This is nothing but a supply vessel. We use when we want to go into town. There aren’t many people that don’t recognize my ship and parading it about in front of the law is the sort of foolishness that gets otherwise good men killed. I’ve got my baby hidden in a cove up ahead. You can probably just make her out now,” he said, pointing ahead.

The ship was skipping across the choppy waves and in between the spray of seawater a large black cove reared up on the side of a tiny island just north of the port. Inside it several lanterns hung making pinpoints of light flow over the smooth mahogany lumber. It was hard to see at first, but as they grew closer and the clouds parted overhead the ship revealed itself dramatically beneath the piercing starlight. It slowly pulled out of the dark cove and out into the pale blue light of the stars. Takkris had never seen a ship so beautiful, so glorious. It was a veritable floating fortress of mahogany and black iron. The ship moved forward without the aid of oars or rowers of any sort, its masts were three naked polished mahogany beams of wood wrapped with gold accents at set intervals. And yet despite what Takkris knew about ships – little as it was – there it was, moving with the aid of neither the wind nor rowers.

The man saw it and smiled, the sort of smile a man would when coming home after a long journey away. “There she is lad, my one true love, my beauty above all worldly and unworldly goods. My ship, The Empress. Say hello lad,” he said in brisk, pleased tones.

Takkris blinked and looked at the ship rising out like a mountain ahead of them, the ship they were on looked shocking dismal and pitiful by comparison. Takkris cleared his throat and looked at the ship. “Hello, Ma’m,” he said, looking to who he could only assume was the captain for approval. With a pearly smile and pleased grin he nodded in reply to Takkris, who continued, “pleased to meet you.”

“Aye, that’s a good lad. Have you decided yet? All the world at your fingertips, the wind in your face and more freedom than I bet you’ve even known to exist. Or would you rather be set back onto your flat, stable pieces of rock where people fight and bicker over imaginary lines drawn in the sand? The choice is yours but it’s fast approaching time to call it. Heads or tails boy, the sea or the land, freedom or servitude?”

Takkris swallowed hard. He didn’t know how to respond, and he had no clue how to go about his life if he were to be set back on the land. He had noticed his legs were quick to adapt the rolling, rocking motion of the sea. It felt almost natural the way the ocean moved and the thought of being on stiff, firm ground was almost sickening. It didn’t move it didn’t yield or heave like a living breathing thing. It was like a dead husk of some fossil. It simply wasn’t natural like the ocean felt. The Captain let his hands off him and went back to man the help, throwing off the piece of rope he had used to keep it steady and turning the ship to meet parallel with The Empress. Takkris stared up at it, as the ship swelled above like a towering wall of smooth mahogany and all sorts of black and gold accents. Row after row of cannons poked out from its sides like vicious little eyes, black as night.

He couldn’t imagine his life on it, but he couldn’t imagine his life even if he was somewhere safe on land. There was nobody willing to protect him, nobody willing to show him what to do. He had a great deal of knowledge and learning but it would be for nothing if he hadn’t a sponsor or patron to see him pursue higher education. He racked his mind for an answer, but even as they neared nothing came. Logically he should choose the land rather than being in the service of somebody he didn’t know, his experiences told him that anybody offering a hand was doing it out of self service and not any sort of kindness. He had known that first hand. It wasn’t until the lines had been thrown down and the crewmen, and women, got out to tie up the ship to the side of The Empress that he felt the answer come to him. It wasn’t from his head, or any place of logic as he had always based his decisions on before. Instead it was his heart that spoke for him. He felt it deep within himself like a long buried and forgotten secret, something he had always known but never believed. There was a part of himself out there amongst the waves and the open sky. He wanted to be free ever since he was a little boy, free from protocol and rule of unjust men who send others to die in their stead. He wanted the sea.

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