Previous Chapter: 1.1 – Six Years a Slave
I woke with a start when I hit my bed after falling from my roost – the perfect alarm clock. I must’ve hopped onto the perch while half asleep because I had no memory of getting up there. It was impossible to accommodate a body that was avian by night and human again by sunrise. Unfortunately, that meant if I was comfortably perched by night, I’d be uncomfortably falling by morning. Most of the time the falling was nothing more than a shock, but this time I was injured. I had fallen on the shoulder that had been swiped by the controller. I winced as I pushed myself upright on the bed and hung my legs over the edge, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. My elbow, heavy from exhaustion, was creaking like an old door hinge.
The strange room I awoke in was small. It contained the compact bed I was on with a perch situated above it. A desk and chair lay cramped in the corner of the room. My eyes went wide with desire when I noticed a glass of water had been left on the table. I stood up carefully, ducking under my perch before hurrying to the table to gulp the water down my parched throat. I took the next moment to stretch as I scanned the room again, noting nothing new. It was the same few pieces of furniture; there wasn’t even a window. I hobbled over to the door and tried it. Locked. I shrugged and returned to my bed, laying down gingerly to avoid putting pressure on my shoulder.
I guess I won’t be working today, I thought, suddenly glad the locked door gave me an excuse to stay put. But I wasn’t able to relax much. Where was I? Did they take me to the castle? Why did I awake in this simple, unfamiliar room and not penned? As my mind drifted, I was reminded of my aches and pains with every turn. I looked down my worn body, realizing how poor shape I was in. I rubbed my aching shoulder, noting a bandage that was falling off. It had survived the changing into my avian form, unlike my jacket and undershirt, which were strewn across the floor, soaked with sweat and dried blood. I felt my face and hair, hoping I didn’t look too worse for wear. I didn’t feel any egregious bumps or bruises so I probably still had the same teenage look under my unkempt, shaggy black hair.
I heard a click on the opposite side of the room and the door swung open.
“Done admiring yourself, kid?” called a stocky man with a mohawk from the doorframe.
“Y-yeah, sure,” I stuttered as I withdrew my hand from feeling my face.
“It’s okay, not much to do down here – might as well feel yourself up.” the man smirked, “Come on, throw on a shirt – don’t want to keep the King waiting.” He waved me forward, gesturing for me follow him down the hall.
“Uh, the King?” I tugged at the hem of my shirt. “I didn’t mean to tackle the guard….” I hoped my clumsy attempt at an apology would resemble something accidental.
“First off, you did mean to, and second, don’t worry – he just wants to talk.”
Why? What did the King of Elodine want with me? My stomach did a flip and goose bumps covered my skin as I shoved my hands in my pockets. I bit my lip as we entered the hall, walking the rest of the way in silence. There were several twists and turns until we came upon a slender passage. Torches lined the walls every few feet but I couldn’t see where the passage lead, despite the flames. We approached a heavy bronze door that was a few feet ahead of us to my right. It was guarded by a couple of controllers. Fortunately, they wore black and not the skin of Union workers, like the rumors had said. The stocky man I had been following pointed toward the wall, motioning for me to wait. He nodded to the guards as he walked into the room. The resounding echo of the door shutting behind him filled the silence of the hall.
What is going on? I sat, hugging my knees to my chest. I closed my eyes, willing the heartbeat in my ears to slow. The man had assured me not to worry. What could be worse than working?
Once I managed to calm my heart rate, the murmurs of conversation leaking out from the room became clearer. I couldn’t make out what was being said until I diverted my attention to my ears. I shut out all distractions (all two of them) and was able to identify their two voices.
“I am the Second Scarred King of these lands,” the first voice said. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that. How did I end up here, Hyde?”
There was a silence. Feeling like I was missing out on some essential body language, I diverted my conscious energy to my closed eyes hoping that I could have an out of body experience, like a fly on the wall. A few seconds of nothing and I realized whatever sensory skills I did have, becoming an apparition was not one of them. The first voice continued.
“It’s okay. Let me think aloud. I do sometimes wonder ‘Why me?’”
Another pause before the voice resumed with decreasing volume.
“I am sure Rayon could have found someone far more loyal to his cause. I am capable, but is that reason enough to make me the most powerful man in the land?” Another pause. “That you can answer.”
“You must not worry about his reasoning, use what you’ve obtained for the people.”
“You’re right, Hyde.”
Another lengthy pause. I could imagine the speakers deep in thought. Why were they speaking so candidly with two guards and a prisoner right outside the door? Why was I being taken to the King? Wouldn’t this be a job for the Captain of-
My thoughts were interrupted, “Trying to determine his motives would only serve to confuse us. I must use my public persona as King in conjunction with the, well…” the voice trailed off, “only then can I develop this Kingdom into a place I can be proud of.”
Silence once again filled the room. I had a million thoughts running through my head. I looked up at the friendlier looking guard to my left and began to speak.
“Sir, where am I? Am I being taken in there?”
The friendly-faced guard responded with a grunt. So much for that, I thought. This kingdom was great with keeping its secrets.
I tuned back into the conversation coming from the room but there were no voices. Instead, the door opened and a tall man strutted out of the room. He was wearing a long leather jacket that extended in the back almost to his boots. The front stopped at the normal length of a tunic. It was the typical tan of most Ikalgan clothing (rags) but the overcoat had forest green accents that looked hastily sewn in. Tied around his waist was a tan, almost yellow sash that hung down in front. The tall man made eye contact with me and let loose a wide smile. The stocky man from earlier followed him out.
“Sir, why did they bring this prisoner to you?” Hyde asked him.
I could see half of a smile appear on the King’s face as he turned to face me in the flickering torchlight. He had handsome features – blond hair and blue eyes with a strong jaw worked to frame his disarming smile. If Rayon had based his decision solely on looks, I wouldn’t debate why this man was chosen. However, as the new King continued to turn to fully face me, I realized why he had earlier referenced himself as the Second Scarred King. The torches illuminated the side of his face that bore wounds resembling a mask of burnt flesh. His grin dropped as my eyes widened before I could stop myself. I tried to make a conscious effort of keeping myself from staring. The King’s smile returned and he replied to Hyde.
“That is a good question. I do wonder if they’ve selected a new Captain to replace me now that I am to be King. Or wait, maybe that’s my job…” He shrugged and continued, to me this time, “Well, now that you are here, what is your name?”
“Jochro,” I answered.
“Ah, not D42 or some other combination along those lines?”
Pausing to choose my words carefully, I responded, “Well yes, My Lord, F62. But, I just thought… that a proper name would be a better introduction to the King.”
“Delightful,” he flashed his large smile again and suddenly I knew I was not here to be beheaded or penned. “It’s quite funny you call me My Lord. The titles in this kingdom are quite a cluster-,” Ace paused, bringing his hand to his mouth, “I mean… a mess. There’s absolutely no uniformity.”
“Well, now that you’re the King you can do something about that,” I said, standing up.
“Aye, lad. That is true. I would give you my boyhood name but I suppose I should start getting used to being addressed by my so-called ‘proper’ title. You can call me King Acetate, Ace if we are alone.” He shrugged, “Wolfie, Two-face, whatever you’d like.”
King Wolfie. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the indifference in his voice.
Ace turned, looking up and down the hall. “Come, Jochro, we’ve got a bit to discuss and we can certainly do better than this drab hallway.”
Quickly turning, Ace began walking down in the opposite direction. Hyde and I followed, I had to trot to keep pace.
In the front of the group, Ace placed his hand on his chin and said, “Hmm, where were we, ah yes… this is my closest friend and advisor-”
“Hyde?” I interrupted.
“What? Oh yes, but how did you…” He crossed his arms, eyeing me warily. “Son, what is the form you assume when you change at night?”
“A bird, about this tall,” I spoke hesitantly, “With a wingspan of, um, double that?” I said as I held my arms apart as wide as I could.
Usually, speaking of one’s nightform was a taboo. The only time you knew someone else’s form would be if you saw them change accidentally – and that could get dangerous. Although, most people could control themselves after they’ve changed for the night, this was not true for all. There were some with forms like giant cats or massive gray, horned beasts with power beyond belief. They needed to be caged; at night, they became truly unpredictable.
The King rubbed his chin again and continued, “A bird, eh? So that explains it.”
“Explains what?” I said as I hurried to keep pace, hoping to finally obtain elusive details on the changing.
“How much did you hear?” The King ignored me.
“Well, the whole thing?” I smiled as harmlessly as possible.
“I see,” he turned to Hyde, “Remind me not to whisper potential secrets around him, especially now that I am so important,” he sighed, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Jochro, your avian form explains why you were able to hear us. You know we were whispering, right? Put a normal person in the doorway and they wouldn’t have been able to hear a word of what we were discussing. Some individuals do find their animal qualities bleed over during the day. For example, Mr. Pig over here.”
“Boar,” Hyde corrected.
“Yes, yes, Mr. Boar has a nearly insatiable appetite. Not to mention, a very similar haircut.” The King chuckled as I pictured Hyde’s mohawk on a pig.
“Oh, Hyde!” The King stopped in place and turned to face me and Hyde. “How did we forget about the kid’s shoulder? Can you brief him on the possible mission and I’ll meet you at the castle entrance.” Ace didn’t stop for a response as he turned down a corridor. He passed a torch and I saw the scars on the side of his face once again.
The two of us continued down the hallway once the King had disappeared. “So, any questions?” Hyde said when neither of us spoke.
“What about the scarring?” I blurted, unable to contain my curiosity.
“On Ace’s face? Now that is recent. Neither Ace nor I know. But Rayon is responsible. Probably related.”
I thought of what little I knew. What could I get Hyde to confirm? I had already learned more in the past five minutes than in the past six years as a slave.
“Don’t worry, Jochro,” Hyde continued, “You won’t be going back to the slave trade unless you want to. Ace thinks you can help us. You showed a lot of mettle yesterday. No need to ask all your questions now.”
“One more?” I pleaded. He nodded, “How many other villages are there?”
“Besides Ikalga, there are three other settlements. Rayon started sending settlers to them about thirty years ago. I bet you were born in one,” Hyde answered.
We reached a giant set of doors that were already open, letting in the light of the day. I held my hand up to block out the sun and squinted as the two of us approached the threshold. Ace’s footsteps thumped on the floor as he strode from the dark depths of the hallways. He was mumbling to himself. “We’ll have to get you some more herbs for that shoulder. The controllers really shouldn’t be hitting that hard. Here, stand still – let me wrap you up. After I finish, I’ve got a few things I have to attend to so this will be our last meeting for a while.”
“Wait,” I held up my hand. “Where am I going? I still haven’t agreed yet.”
“True, but give me a minute with no rebuttals, and I’m sure you’ll see how this is beneficial to all of us.” Ace flashed me his trademark smile. I nodded as he continued, “Reason one: Yesterday could have been your last day as a working slave if you wish it so. Convinced?”
I shook my head, “As tempting as that is, it’s been my life for the past six years. For all I know, your quest could have me jumping into the Burning Sea.”
The King turned to Hyde, “Damn, I thought for sure he’d only need the one reason.” Chuckling, he turned back to address me, now finished wrapping my shoulder. He waved us out to the castle stairs. “You can see a bit of the city from here. What do you see?”
“People living. A couple of kids heading off to lessons, Miss Towers opening up shop, and a beggar. Why?”
“Are they happy? Every day these individuals wake up from their roost or pen. Jackie Towers crawls out of a cage at sunrise. People were not meant to be treated as beasts. Rayon created this. He wanted us strong and able to protect ourselves and sure, he succeeded in that but at what cost? Not only the astronomical magical price, which we still haven’t determined the extent of, but think of the sacrifices we’ve had to endure. Look at me,” he gestured toward his face, “Do you think he told me what this was for? I have a feeling he never will. But forget about me, think of all of those individuals out there. They are living this life because it’s all they know. I am probably over one hundred and fifty years old at this point, lad. I’ve seen the old world. It had its troubles, but the citizens weren’t ever creatures trapped between walls of fire. Rayon wanted an efficient and strong society and he’s got one on paper. But if he looked through unbiased eyes, could he honestly tell me that this is what Elodine needs? Of course, he never will, but that’s where individuals like us need to step in.” He pursed his lips and briskly walked down the stairs, not waiting for my response.
I jumped down the stairs two a time to catch up. “I know it’s not the best life, but what do you expect us to do? Refuse to do our chores?”
“Son, there is no quick fix. It will take years. Your children’s children will not see the fruits of our labor. But, if rebellion begets further rebellion, we can take back this Kingdom. And I’m willing to do so, whether we complete it tomorrow or in two thousand years.”
We walked past a group of domestic rentals, backs hunched, being led down the street. The rough shape their feet were in could be seen from a distance and their faces looked impassive, almost haunting. I knew better than anyone a numbness was required to survive, but did I look like that? I had grown so used to it…
“Fine. I know better than most that this land is cruel. The slave trade has been my life from sunup until sundown every day for over half a decade. Let’s say I am willing to consider your mission. Why should I trust you? Rayon didn’t make you King because of your ability to lead a revolt. You’re one of the oppressors. You were Captain before this. Where were you when my best friend Patterson broke his back on the job nine months ago?”
For the first time, there was no smile on the King’s face as he stopped and faced me.
Hyde interjected, “I understand where you’re coming from but you haven’t seen what he’s put into this cause. He’s been at it since day one. At the very least, help us find Anroma – she’s the key to the rebellion. After that, you will have no obligation to go back to the Union. You will be a free man in exchange for a few months commitment.”
“And… we might even let you pick the rebellion name!” the King exclaimed with a wink, lightening the grim mood.
“Shit, kid.” Hyde reasoned, “I’d take that deal if you don’t want the rebellion referred to as the ‘Nightlights’ or something.”
“Ace, no,” Hyde spoke, concealing a chuckle.
“Okay, okay, I’ll do the mission. No promises after that,” I said, hoping to end the debate.
“How about… The Night Shift?”
My turn to hide a laugh, “My lord, I thought you had things to do…”
“You’re right. I’ve got to go meet the scribes to finish drafting the Council creation papers.”
“How about abolishing the slave trade?”
“I’ll look into it. You go save Anroma and I’ll do what I can here.”
I nodded, “Deal. But a few questions before you go.”
“Sure, anything for you, JoJo.”
I rolled my eyes, “I want to know what to expect on the trip to retrieve the girl. And why is she so important? What assistance will you be providing me?”
“Well,” The King began, “You’ll be going with Hyde. Unless there is an emergency, you will travel by day only. Flying might be possible for you; however, you’ll need Hyde for daytime protection and even more so once you reach the settlement. We will provide you with the basic food supplies and, if you are familiar with weapons, you can take a look through the armory. Hyde can fill you in on the rest, I just remembered I needed to see Elder Grinter about my new scepter.” He walked to Hyde, gave him a firm handshake, mumbled something, and walked back toward the castle with a thumbs up.
“Okay, so Anroma is Rayon’s daughter,” Hyde continued where the King had left off.
“Um, what?” was all I could manage to mutter. What ever happened to transitions?
“Yep. We believe she was born around six years ago. As of a few months ago, we know she survived and is in the general vicinity of North Settlement.”
“Survived what? How’d she get there?”
“The natives that lived in these lands before we migrated here traveled en masse to Ikalga and stole away baby Anroma. We have no idea what Rayon was planning but the natives found some reason to mobilize. If Rayon was attempting an Act like the nightly curse, they likely stopped it.”
I tried to let that digest. Anroma, the daughter of Rayon, could be a Whisperer. With that kind of power, maybe the rebellion could make a difference.
“Okay, I’m in. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though,” I sounded off, trying to convince myself, more than anything else.
“Just this mission,” Hyde replied. “Come on, let’s stop by the market and then we can go back to the castle armory. Ace wanted me to show you more of the city. Your first view of it as an equal, I imagine? I’ll brief you on the rest of the trip then.”
The two of us turned and continued walking. I followed Hyde because I didn’t know where the market was though had lived here six years. Yes, this city needed a change. Hopefully, I could live up to Ace’s predictions and be one to help provide it.