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Everything is set in place. The keys dangling from the slaver’s hand as he stalks up and down the rows of slumbering property, soon to be in my own and accompanied with the bittersweet breath of freedom. The distraction of my sister, now merely slumped in the corner beside me. My own terrified self, ready to grab the keys when the time is right - and with them, an impossible liberty.
Ika’s eyes press into the floorboards, not wavering for a single moment. It’s clear that she doesn’t want me to try and talk about what’s to come. She knows how it’s going to end. After nights consumed with planning and managing every aspect of any situation, she has ensured that the procedure is engraved in both of our minds. Take the keys. Take control. And then abandon her.
A sigh escapes my lips, and I force myself to relax against the curved side of the ship’s cabin. I should be rejoicing, or at least eager. For once in my life, I have a chance to leave imprisonment behind and find a life for myself outside of this ship. I don’t know what I’ll do if I manage to escape, but any one of the slaves here know that being paraded through city after city and auctioned off isn’t a life. It’s existence, but it isn’t life.
“Rafik,” Ika whispers, “It’s time.”
I look up slowly, meeting her determined stare. She believes in this plan. I just believe in it’s hope. “I know.”
For a moment, she just sits there, a grin dancing on her lips, so confident that this will work that the repercussions might as well be nonexistent. What she doesn’t see is the void behind my gaze, the guilty knowledge that the consequences matter more to me than liberty.
No matter how wonderful freedom might be - no matter how perfect I know it will be - it isn’t worth this. I don’t want to abandon her and discover an open world while she stays behind, forced to endure this pointless reality. I’ve told her a thousand times that there is one flaw in her wonderful, perfect plan; me. My fear. My unwillingness to be alone for one final time.
But she still smiles, willing to sacrifice herself for the younger brother who did nothing to deserve freedom. And I cower beside her, terrified of leaving her behind. Silent, though I’m screaming inside.
That moment doesn’t last long.
“Would you just stop?” She hisses, glaring up at the slaver patrolling our row. The words are quiet, but in the silence of the deck they roar in my ears.
He stops, worn leather boots lingering before me. They reek of rain and smoke, the fetor rancid enough to burn my nose from a distance, much less inches away. I don’t need to look up to see his waterlogged face. It’s been burned into memory after a lifetime of abuse as he failed time and again to mold me into strong, bargainable property - nothing like the spindly coward I am. I don’t need to look up to see his square chin and crooked nose, graying hair hinting at the age he refuses to acknowledge, or to meet his dark, muddy eyes, almost black in the candlelight. The gaze of a demon.
He crouches down towards my sister, those empty whirlpools of eyes narrowing in challenge. I press flat into the corner, instinctively shying away from him and his tumultuous glare.
Ika specifically selected him for her plan. He is the one to anger quickest. The one facing blame for any irrational mistake, taunted by his colleagues and brutal to his property. Any other slaver would just taunt her and move on, but he would grow agitated, then enraged, then violent. We need a distraction, and out of all the slavers on this boat, he is the only one who will ensure we get one.
His lips pull apart, revealing crooked yellowed teeth as he speaks, inches from Ika’s face. “I’m sorry, there must be a bit of a draft. Did you say something?”
Lifting her chin, my sister glares into those eyes. I never understood where her bravery comes from, but it’s clear that she has all of it. “Stop stomping around while we are trying to sleep. It’s impossible to even think, much less get some rest.”
He matches her glare, a grim smile curling on his lips. A mockery of her sealed fate. “What’s your name, Darling?”
“And my dear Ikandri,” he breathes, leaning closer, “How would you like it if I gave you a little lesson on getting a good night’s rest? Blood loss has worked before. Interested?”
It’s my chance. The one I have been waiting for all these years, the chance we had planned from the start. He’s right there, preoccupied with my sister just like she wanted. Escape is just a few inches away, dangling unprotected and forgotten on his belt.
All I have to do is reach out and slip the keys off the loop. Just close a small fist around them and absorb their history with their master, step inside a new body and take control, even if it means losing myself. All I have to do is use my ability, my curse; the gift I never wanted, but one I can’t afford to refuse.
Fingers numb, I extend a silent hand. My mind screams inside, ordering me to stop, to leave them be and just sit here until the moment passes. The slaver would walk away after a dealing few lashes, leaving us alone and imprisoned for eternity. My sister would be furious, hateful even. After all, we won’t get this chance again. For all we know, the two of us will be sold off and separated at the next city, never to cross paths again after years of surviving together. It wouldn’t matter. That way, I at least know she would survive.
But I don’t stop. I hook the chain on a single finger and lift the keys off the belt, cradling them in my hands.
My gaze lingers on Ika, the echo of a smile still dancing on her lips. An act of defiance waging war against the slaver and his growling words, retaining the fury quivering in his fingers and flushing his cheeks. There’s a chance I will never see her again if I do this. There’s a chance neither of us will survive.
The keys are fire in the palm of my hand. I eye them for a single moment before glancing up at Ika’s lopsided smirk. Vaguely, I notice tears scarring my cheeks. And then, only a void where my soul once stood, I close a shaking fist around the metal.
Everything goes black. There is me, the keys, and the fiery link between us. I see the imprints the objects hold in their cool surface, a million stories told in a single touch. Connection to my own limbs is lost entirely as I dive into that past, searching for one imprint in particular. In moments, I identify the impression belonging to the slaver, the most recent and strongest connection out of all the rest. And, more importantly, the deepest.
Slowly, stepping through the imprint inside the keys and into the one who left it there, my awareness shifts. Whatever the slaver was about to say, the words die in his mouth. I assume control, reaching through the key and into his essence. His body is mine, now, while my own limbs remains motionless.
It won’t last long, but I can make it last long enough. It has to for this to work.
“Get up!” I force the words through his mouth, directing his glare at my sister. She doesn’t move, instead glancing at my body and offering a hopeful smile. I can’t react myself, too deeply rooted inside the slaver and focused on acting like the miscreant he is. Although, with my experience, it’s not too difficult to recreate. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
She stands on strong legs, smirking at the slaver with a confident cross of the arms. “What are you going to do, kill me?”
I make his jaw clench in anger, a movement his own soul enforces even through my control. Ika’s defiance is so uncommon among slaves that it’s a guarantee she will face punishment, and at this late hour any other slavers around would happily watch the show just to help them forget their boredom. A distraction, just like she had planned.
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. Already, I can feel my connection slipping, the slaver’s essence pushing to the surface. I need to act quickly.
“Face the wall,” he growls, fingering the makeshift whip and seething with each breath. “Face the wall!” I make him repeat, louder this time.
Releasing a triumphant grin, Ika turns and lifts her arms above her head, exposing a bony back. Watching through the slaver’s hateful eyes, I hesitate. A sliver of silence falls between us. It’s all here. The hand, the belt, and the target that is the only family I have. This is plan. This is the way to find freedom.
This is it.
The slaver’s rage bubbling to the surface and nearly escaping my control, I raise his arm, the limp belt in tow, building tension in his muscles and urging his fury to flourish, whipping the leather strap in the air with a sickening crack and - I let go. The slaver is released from my control. My awareness returns to my own body in a single jolt, but where I had hoped to find acceptance, I am greeted by sickening guilt.
The belt strikes.
As expected, a nearby slaver glances up at the sound of the whip, abandoning his post at the door to watch the punishment. Only a few slavers are patrolling, in part because the rest are busy gambling or drowning in liquor, but also due to the late hour.
The lack of security isn’t unusual. None of us Doyen slaves have attempted escape before, and the rumors of those who have always end in tragedy. None of us have the will to hope for freedom anymore. None but the foolish and the desperate.
Wincing with each footstep the new slaver takes closer to me and my sister, I scoop up the keys that had fallen to the floor in the jolt of my shifted awareness and slink towards the unguarded doorway. My pathway is shadowed and out of the sight of anyone watching the beating; another aspect perfected by Ika’s planning.
The hollow gaze of the other slaves, already woken by the distraction, follow me as I make my way towards the door. Not one of them utters a single word. They saw my ritual with the keys and understand that I have the same gift as our ancestors. They know exactly what I am doing and the risk that comes with it. Even if I do make it out of here alive, I’ll be hunted until I’m returned to binds or a corpse. The few who have ever tried jumping ship and survived were always back on board within the month, dead, or killed on arrival.
And none of them make a move to follow me. I know they won’t alert the slavers, and even though I wish that one would join me in this fleeting attempt for freedom, I also know that none of them will. They only stare me down with hollow eyes before pretending to sleep like every night before this one.
The slaver raises the belt. He doesn’t understand why he said those words. He doesn’t understand why he started to strike. What he does understand is the fury coursing through his veins and that he has someone to give it to. A thin audience has already gathered. Blood has been drawn. There’s no going back now, regardless of what he does and doesn’t understand.
The belt strikes again.
I cringe at the sound, weaving through the shivering bodies and forcing myself to fixate on the door instead of looking back at my sister. When she first formulated the idea of making a punishment a distraction, I begged her to use someone else. She wouldn’t do it. I think I might have been more mortified if she had agreed. This is my escape, but it is our victory. A little pain isn’t going to change that. At least, that’s what she claimed when consoling me. I knew she was lying through her teeth, even if I refused to believe it.
I always knew.
Blinking, I find myself at the door. The slavers are occupied with the distraction, each shouting insults and encouragement at the performance. Fumbling for the keys, I shove the first in the lock, trying them one by one.
All the slaves are awake now, and a few see me. Still none draw any attention to the slavers about my attempts, but they watch. They watch as I desperately try to open the door - the last locked door between hell and freedom. They watch and wish and dream with me that I will be successful. They watch, and I work.
The belt strikes for the third time.
I can hear my sister whimpering between the lashes, fighting tears that anyone else on this ship would have succumbed to. I know I would have. We’ve all felt it before, the unimaginable pain, the constant, numbing burn slicing through skin and lingering for weeks. Very few of us made the mistake of beckoning it again.
The lock clicks, and I find myself staring at the door handle, numb. After all the planning, all the time fighting for the dream of escape; it worked. All that is left is for me to run up the stairs, make it to the upper deck unscathed, and jump into the watery abyss. Freedom, the thing that was once a figment of stories, now seems so real, so possible, so close that I can’t help but quiver in a thrill of elation. This isn’t a dream anymore. It’s a reality. It could be mine.
The belt strikes once more.
I wince, the crack jolting me out of my stupor. Forcing myself to push against the splintering wood of the door and open it once and for all, I pause. Ika never told me what to do if I got this far. She said that she would follow me, somehow, but the details as to how were kept secret.
I glance over my shoulder, momentarily forgetting the freedom. Four lashes is more than enough. They must have had their fun by now.
I am numbed by what I see.
And I don’t stop seeing it as I stumble up the stairs, past decks of supplies and slavers, running from the hell of this existence and towards a future I can’t fathom. It still blinds me as I emerge on the upper deck, stunned by icy rain battering my skin and wind whipping across my face. I can’t forget that dreadful, hateful mirage, not even as I glimpse the flickering lights of a city far in the distance or as I force myself to scramble onto the edge of the swaying deck. And with a void imprisoned in my body, it blinds me as 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 ice, the shock leaving me to drift beneath the waves. For a moment, I stay there, engulfed by the abyss, before my survival instincts force me to scramble to the surface, choking. Somehow, I manage to stay aloft, fumbling against the water to gulp in salty air.
Nothing seems to matter. Not the icy inferno of the water or my pathetic attempts to swim. 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.