Here are previous chapters.
By midday, we have finished our explanations and begun discussing how to begin rebelling against Izyphor.
“Yes,” Elesekk says. He readjusts on one of the crates we’ve dragged to form a circle. “We ought to start with gaining the royal Yrin’s patronage.”
I squint against the sunlight that dances off the ripples of the ocean as if they’re made of faceted crystal. The air wavers between pleasantly cool and humid warmth, depending on whether or not the breeze is blowing. “Remind me what it means for him to be called ‘royal.’ Izyphorn titles have always confused me.”
Saviayr answers, “You know the sultan is the ultimate authority, yes?”
That was the second thing I learned about Izyphorn leadership, right after I learned to fear the slave master. “Yeah, even if I don’t fully understand what he does.”
Elesekk shrugs. “He basically does whatever he wants. He has ultimate say on any matter that concerns him.”
I think through the structures I’ve encountered in life: With the kaites, in the slave village, and on Ira. “So he’s like the slave master was over our village, when the royals and nobles left us alone?”
“Roughly,” Saviayr says.
“Only he’s far less concerned with the minor people than the master is.” Nihae wrinkles her nose.
“Than he was?” Savi corrects gently.
Nihae nods. “Than he was.”
“And recently,” Saviayr adds, “the royals and nobles have tried to limit the sultan’s power some. The royals, like the royal Yrin, are descended from the sultans’ immediate families down through four generations. In the fifth generation of separation from a sultan, they become nobles.”
I nod slowly. “So the royal Yrin is closely related to the sultan? I always pictured him more as an eccentric with little power living on the outskirts of the empire.”
Saviayr scratches the back of his head. “No, he’s only third generation removed. His mother was the sultan’s aunt on his father’s side.”
I blink, trying to fit this information into my understanding of Saviayr’s employer. It seems I have a lot to catch up on with Saviayr. How did a humble slave boy become an advisor to one of the most powerful men in Izyphor? How much has Savi changed while I was gone?
He touches my arm. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
I smile. “Nothing. I’m just realizing I missed a lot while I was on Ira.”
Savi lifts the corner of his mouth. “I know you, Rai. You’ll catch up easily. Just ask if you have any questions, okay?”
I squeeze his hand and nod.
The ferry captain interrupts before we can say any more. “We’re approaching the mainland,” he shouts to our group and the few other people aboard. “Get out your seals of freedom.”
My mouth opens. I glance between Saviayr and his parents. I have no seal of freedom; technically, I’m a runaway slave. Savi’s hand on my arm tightens.
Nhardah leans over the railing a few paces away, as he’s done the whole trip. I subtly wave a hand to gain his attention. “Nhardah, what do I do?”
He shrugs. “You’re the leader. Figure it out for yourself.”
I clench my fists and squint. Nhardah got me into this mess, with his questions about my name. He should be the one to help. The anger quickly passes, though. I chose this. He didn’t force me. Instead, fear of being caught rises up. I take a deep breath.
Elesekk shifts on his crate seat. “Rai, you can have my seal of freedom.”
Nihae reaches for his hand. Her eyebrows dip toward each other. “Elesekk,” she entreats.
“Nihae, beloved, I’ll be okay. I won’t be much use to you, anyways,” he tells me. “This can be my sacrifice in freeing our people. Besides, it won’t be for much longer.”
I’m shaking my head before he finishes. “No. Absolutely not. Elesekk, you’ve already done so much for me. I can’t let you give up your freedom, too.”
Savi murmurs, “Then what will we do?”
My only idea makes my heart race. I force my shoulders to stay relaxed and breathe out. “We try to act like this is normal, and see if they let me off the boat. If Aia wants this, He will get me off this ferry without being taken as a slave.”
“What makes you think that this isn’t Aia’s plan for your safe return to Izyphor?” Elesekk asks, pulling his seal out of his tunic and glancing to make sure none of the ferry men see it.
It’s a copper disc, no wider than my little finger. One side is stamped with a horned viper twining around a scorpion, vole, caracal, crocodile, and desert wren: The symbols of the divinities Zyphor, Tivan, Api, Rezik, Havil, and Yza. The only divinity absent is Akir, He Who Consumes. Instead, Akir’s hyena is on the other side, mouth open to consume the Maraian chanavea. This seal marks its carrier as a former Maraian slave. “Maybe He put me here just so that we could do this,” Elesekk says.
I shake my head again. “No. Aia would not free His people by returning one of them to slavery, even for a short time.”
“Rai,” Nihae says, “we know you learned about Aia from the kaites, and we only learned about Him from our parents. But you must admit that Aia does not always act in the way we’d expect.”
She’s right. I bury my head in my hands and try to think. In the end, I come to the same conclusion: “I can’t take away your freedom, Elesekk. I can’t let you do that for me. We’ll see what happens first.”
No one looks pleased with my decision, but there is no more time for argument. The ferry slides past the sentry towers rising from two massive jetties. I gather my bag and turn to take my first look at the Izyphor mainland in three years.
Ahead, the waters fill with boats of all sizes. Small fishing craft bob between low-riding construction material ferries. Kayaks dart around large, awning-covered party boats overflowing with nobles and their slaves. Our ferry weaves its way through the moving maze toward rows of salt-bleached piers floating on pontoons.
Beyond that, merchants and tradesmen bustle around brick buildings that blend in with the amber desert earth. It’s hard to tell where the city ends and unsettled desert begins, but flat coast raises into crescent-moon dunes broken by a few shrubs. To the east, gold darkens into the fertile green of plant life growing in the many mouths of the great Izyphorn river, the Havilor.
The ferry scrapes against the pier. We sway with the impact, and Nihae stumbles. Savi jumps to catch and steady her.
The captain shouts orders to the crew, who jump between the deck and the dock, looping reed ropes around posts. Then he calls, “Line on up with your tokens ready.”
Elesekk, Nihae, Saviayr, and I shuffle forward in a close group, just behind a pair of traders. Nhardah slides behind the captain and off the boat without drawing any attention. He winks at me, then sits on a railing on the shore.
My eyes dart between him and the captain. Could I pull off the same move as Nhardah? Even as the thought enters my mind, I dismiss it. Hundreds of years have taught the Firstborn an easy air of authority and stealth. I would surely draw attention, especially in my fine but wrinkled Iranine clothing with a chanavea hanging over my heart. Instead, I wait our turn and pray.
Saviayr hands his and his parents freedom seals to the captain. He looks the disks over, bangs one against the rail, and waves us past.
That was too easy. My eyes and ears sharpen. Something isn’t right.
Nihae pushes me forward. I stumble off the boat, peeking back at the captain. His attention is on the next passengers.
A hand closes tight around mine. Saviayr pulls me closer to his side. His eyes stay fixed on the end of the pier, and he hastens our pace.
When we reach Nhardah, I whisper, “What was that? That was too easy.”
Nhardah stares at me, expressionless. “You asked Aia to get you ashore undetected, did you not?”
I glance back. The ferry men are unloading cargo, focused on their work. “I did. But without any trouble?”
“Why would Aia do such a thing?” Nhardah asks, in the same tone the kaites used to use when they wanted me to answer my own question.
“I don’t know.”
Elesekk, ever the peacekeeper, steps up to us. “Come, we should find a caravan,” he says.
I frown. “Why do we need a caravan?”
Saviayr and his parents exchange a look. “Remember, some things have changed in your absence,” Saviayr says. “Traveling alone isn’t safe anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
He sighs. “I told you about the royals limiting the sultan’s power, right? Well, with them focused on the capital, they’ve neglected their territories. Bandits are everywhere, and they’re hunting in groups. Traveling without a large company would be taking our lives in our own hands.”
“Hurry,” Nihae says. “We should get back to the village before dark.”
“You mean the city?” Elesekk chuckles, and pokes her side. “The royal Yrin’s home is bigger than a village, dearest.”
Confusion passes over Nihae’s face so quickly that I’d miss it if I wasn’t looking at her. She laughs. “Of course, you’re right.” She takes Elesekk’s arm and follows him into the port city.
Saviayr and I trail behind. “I’m thankful we got off the ferry with no problems,” he murmurs, leaning close, “but it’s gotten me thinking. We’ll probably run into this problem again.”
I squeeze Savi’s hand. “We’ll deal with that when the problem arises,” I reassure him.
“Okay, but like I said, I’ve been thinking,” he goes on. “I’ve almost saved up enough to buy Yorchan’s freedom. I’m sure she won’t mind if I buy yours first.”
I stop walking. “Savi, I couldn’t take that from my sister.”
He turns to face me, eyes soft. “Rai, she would want you to. Yori’s been part of my planning all along, helping me with the royal Yrin so we could somehow find a way to make life better for our people. She would be saying this if she was here.”
I wet my lips, already chapped from the dry Izyphorn air, and think of my sister. Longing to see her fills me, stronger than my sadness at leaving Tatanda, Anik, Maylani, and Pitka. I wish there was a way to travel instantly to a destination, so that I could be reunited with her immediately. I can’t wait to hug her and hear her laugh. “I’m sure what you say is true,” I tell Saviayr, “but I could never accept that, even if she was offering. Besides, I think I should stay a slave for now. To lead Maraiah, I should be like her.”
Savi pulls back and wrinkles his face. “What do you mean, be like her? You are Maraian.”
I look away, then back at him. “I mean…you’re free, but your story is the same as every Maraian. You were washed up on shore in a box, discovered and raised by slaves. You were saved from the water–your very name attests to that–and you were freed from slavery, as Maraiah will be.” I step closer to Savi and lace my fingers through his. He looks down at our hands, not into my eyes. “I’m different, I’ve always been. I wasn’t raised by our people, I was raised by the kaites. I’ve lived in exile. As their leader, though, I need to be one of them. I can’t change my upbringing, but I can stay a slave like them.”
He sighs deeply, and his shoulders sag. “Okay. I guess I understand your point.”
I relax and smile. “Thank you.”
“But,” he brings our joined hands to my chanavea resting over his heart, “this is what truly makes you Maraian. This, and your obedience to Aia.”
I look at the charm, then up into his earnest green eyes.
Just as I nod, Elesekk calls our names. “Hurry,” he waves at us. “We found a caravan that’s leaving now.”
I press a quick kiss to Savi’s cheek, squeeze his hand, and let him lead the way after his father.
I’m back in Izyphor now. The dry air around me conjures back up my nightmare. I try to focus instead on the tasks before me, the plan we settled on during the ferry ride.
First, I must reach the royal Yrin’s territory. Then, gain an audience with him and convince him to champion our cause. Next, find Yorchan and hug my little sister as long as possible.
After that…the capital?
Just on the western horizon, the sky is dark gray. It could be regular clouds, but it reminds me of the storm two nights ago. The aivenkaites are still out there, and they still want me dead. Soon, unless Yrin helps us, a powerful Izyphorn will be aiming for my life, too.
Hopefully the route to the capital will come soon. Right now, I just pray that I live long enough to make it.