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Everything is set in place.
The keys dangling from the slaver’s hand as he stalks across rows of slumbering property. The distraction of my sister, who now merely slumps in the corner beside me. My own terrified self, itching to clasp those keys when the time is right, and, with them, a daunting opportunity.
Ika’s eyes dig into the floorboards. The air is thick and humid, but goosebumps prickle along her scarred skin. Her hands rest at her sides, balled into twin fists. She doesn’t utter a sound. If it weren’t for the steady rise and fall of her shoulders, she might as well be dead.
So much time has whittled away, spent perfecting every aspect of the procedure. Now, on the precipice of its beginning, there isn’t anything left to do but wait.
The slaver shatters the silence with each ominous step. He is close to us now. Close enough that her voice will certainly be heard. I take a deep breath. The plan is emblazoned in my mind, but I recite it again anyway. Take the keys. Take control. And then...
“Rafik,” Ika whispers, “It’s time.”
I meet her determined stare, white eyes boiling. She believes in this plan. I just believe in her hope. “I know.”
For a moment, she pauses, a smile dancing in her eyes. Her confidence in success blinds her to the consequences of failure. What she doesn’t know is that the repercussions matter more to me than liberty ever could. I harbor the leaden secret of understanding exactly what her plan entails, and what it plans for her, and here I cower, eyes burning, as she prepares to waltz into her own execution.
That moment doesn’t last long.
“Can you stop?” She hisses, glaring up and beyond the slaver’s shadow. Her words are hardly more than a whisper, but in the silence of the deck, they roar like thunder.
He freezes, worn leather boots pausing before me. They reek of rain and smoke and oil. I don’t need to look up to see his square chin and crooked nose, grayed hair hinting at the age he refuses to acknowledge, or to meet his dark, muddy eyes, almost black in the candlelight. He etched that face into my nightmares, the whip his quill, my blood the ink, a long time ago.
The man crouches before my sister, those empty whirlpools of eyes narrowing in challenge. I try to melt into the wall and escape him. It doesn’t work. As his lips pull apart and reveal a maw of yellowed fangs, I realize that he is smiling. “I’m sorry, there must be a bit of a draft. Did you say something?”
Lifting her chin, my sister glares into those eyes. “Stop making so much noise while we are trying to sleep. It’s impossible to drift off with you stomping around.”
He matches her glare. Then, his hand leaps to my collar and pulls me towards him. I cringe at his touch, limp. I know it’s useless to resist. “Is it?” As he turns to me, I can taste the alcohol dripping on his breath. “And are you having a hard time sleeping, boy?”
I shake my head, feeling Ika’s scowl claw my spine.
The slaver releases me with a shove, turning to my sister with a lopsided grimace. “What’s your name, darling?”
“And my dear Ikandri,” he breathes, leaning closer, “Would it be easier to sleep after going deaf of your own screams, or comatosed due to blood loss?”
It’s my chance. His focus is narrowed on Ika, not the cowering boy in the corner. I extend a silent hand, blood blistering with each beat. My bones are stiff and cold and lifeless, as though the flesh has already been stripped away. I don’t stop. Fingers shaking, I fumble with the keys, cringing as he spits another threat at my sister. Then the keys are in my grasp, and I clutch them to my chest like a second heart. My whole body is trembling.
When I look up at Ika, she is smiling while the slaver scowls. The keys are fire in the palm of my hand. There are tears in my eyes, and a void in my heart, and a terror captivating my whole body. In the mess of it all, I remember the plan.
Envisioning Ika’s confident smile, I close a shaking fist around the keys.
Control of my body vanishes with the drop of my eyelids as I feel the invisible strings tying the keys to everywhere and everyone they have encountered. I can feel the thin connections as though they are extensions of my limbs, and, in silence, I test each one with a mental tug that lurches in my gut. It doesn’t take long to identify the one connecting the keys to the slaver; it’s fibers are thick and recent. I follow the string, stretching myself along it until I step into the slaver himself.
My awareness shifts.
Whatever the slaver was about to say, the words die in his mouth. I assume control, using the metaphysical strings between the keys and myself and him to make him a puppet at my dispense. The dominance won’t last long, but I will make it last long enough. I have to.
“Get up!” I spit the words through his mouth, directing his glare at my sister.
She glances towards my limp body, then back to the slaver. A grin crawls up to her eyes. The slaver, despite my influence, trembles with disgust.
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Ika takes a deep breath before rising. When her eyes meet the slaver’s, there isn’t so much as a wisp of fear. Her voice is steady. “What are you going to do? Kill me?”
With my urging, the slaver’s hand goes to the buckle of his belt, unlatching the leather strap and letting it fall, limp, in his fingers. My connection falters.
“Face the wall.” He fingers the makeshift whip with sweaty palms. Ika doesn’t move, and a wave of anger nearly severs the connection between us. “I said to face the wall!”
She turns and lifts her arms above her head, exposing a bony back. The slaver’s hand itches to wield his weapon, but, all too aware of what little time I have left, I hesitate. A splinter of silence settles between us.
It’s all here. The control, the belt, the distraction. This is the plan. All the air escapes my lungs in a single, steady exhale, and I realize something.
I can’t do it.
The connection snaps. Free of my control, the slaver’s arm raises, building tension in his muscles and feeding his fury like a fire, whipping the leather strap in the air with a sickening crack and--
The belt strikes.
She doesn’t scream or cry or whimper. She just stands there, wincing, and takes it. I slump against the wall, quivering as feeling returns to my own limbs. The keys burn in my palm. Every instinct tells me to move, but I can’t tear my eyes away as I see a streak of crimson seep through the thin cloth of Ika’s shirt, spreading like mold. I can’t breath.
What have I done?
The slaver pants, flicking the belt behind him like a tail. His attention is consumed entirely by my sister. Some part of me recognizes this as the distraction she had always talked about. The rest can’t recognize anything other than the fact that she shouldn’t be up there, bleeding, because of this impossible plan.
Instinct overwhelms my shock. Clutching the cold metal of the keys with a trembling fist, I slink behind the slaver and towards the opposite side of the cabin. Pale eyes buried under thin blankets follow me as I move, the Doyen slaves woken by our distraction. All they do is watch, and feeling a thousand eyes burning into my back, I inch towards the door.
I watch the slaver’s shadow as he raises the belt. He doesn’t understand what happened, but he certainly understands the fury pounding in his veins. Blood has been drawn. There’s no going back. My throat is tight, stomach folding, heart aching.
The belt strikes again.
With a blink, I realize that the door is right in front of me. A muffled groan croaks into the air, and I find my eyes burning as I fumble for the keys. My hands are shaking so much. It takes an eternity to isolate one key and shove it into the lock. The air is thick and hot and humid. The lock refuses to click.
An animalistic whimper leaks out of my throat in dismay. The eyes of a hundred slaves are like a hand around my neck. None of them purposefully draw attention to me. They just watch, and wait. I swallow my growing nausea, take a deep breath, and try the next key.
A sickening crack pierces the silence, and I squeeze my eyes closed, cringing.
The belt strikes for the third time.
Ika isn’t able to hold back the scream. Vision blurring, I wipe my eyes; my wrist comes away wet. The world is incorporeal, as though a bunch of invisible strings really is all I have rooting me here. Inserting the next key into the lock, I wish Ika had never discovered my ability. I wish I never developed it. I wish it didn’t come to this.
The lock clicks.
I freeze, staring at the clasp in wonderment. After all the planning and scheming and despair… It worked. Now, I just have to run up to the upper deck, leap into the water, and swim as far as I can. Freedom, that strange idea only spoken of in whispers, is only a few feet away.
The belt strikes once more.
I wince, jarred out of my shock. With trembling hands, I push the splintering door open, letting a sliver of light claw into the deck. Past the rickety stairs, I can see a small ladder and the trapdoor leading to the upper deck.
I pause. Four lashes is more than enough. They must have had their fun by now. Momentarily forgetting my stolen freedom, I glance over my shoulder. If Ika can retaliate and regain the strength to follow me, this might not have to be a lopsided victory. It could be pure and perfect and no one would be hurt. So I glance over my shoulder, hoping.
I am numbed by what I see.
And I don’t stop seeing it as I stumble up the stairs to clasp the rungs of a splintering ladder or as I pound against a locked trapdoor even though I can hear the slavers scuffling and shouting behind me. It still blinds me as the trapdoor cracks open and I leap onto the upper deck. I can’t forget that dreadful, hateful mirage, not even as I glimpse the flickering lights of a city on the inky horizon, or as I force myself to stand on the slick wooden railing. And with a void pounding in my veins, it blinds me when I leap off the ship that has been my home for as long as I can remember.
The impact of the water is like being swallowed by death, and I drift, limp, beneath the waves. The thought crosses my mind that I could just stay here, engulfed by the abyss, instead of facing the bloody world above. But instinct forces me to scramble to the surface. Fumbling against the water, I take a deep gulp of the salty air, and stare numbly at the towering ship that already seems so far away.
Nothing seems to matter. Not the icy inferno of the water or the shouting slavers or the salt swallowing my skin. All I can see is the slouched, bleeding figure of my sister, falling to the ground as the whip is raised for one final, pointless blow, eyes hollow and glassy.
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