Kibure sat up, rubbed his face with his hands, then rose to his feet, frustrated that he could no longer sleep. The glow of the two moons illuminated the room enough for Kibure to see his way to the door of his slave hut. He tiptoed carefully to avoid waking the others who claimed their own crammed spaces along the floor; he would have hell to pay if he caused a disturbance that woke one of the elders in his hut.
Pushing gently, he cringed in anticipation of the squeak that, surprisingly, didn’t come. When did they oil that hinge?
As Kibure stepped out into the night air, he noticed another oddity. The light he saw coming from the moons was, of course, limited; but even that partial lighting lacked the slightest semblance of color. He blinked, then reached up and rubbed his eyes; something felt wrong. Confused, Kibure swallowed hard and realized how acutely dry his throat felt. Water. I need water. He felt his heart thump, and started toward the nearby well.
He would have to be extremely careful to avoid waking one of the overseers who lived in the cottages beside the estate. Kibure stopped when he was only halfway there. The penalty for stealing a strictly guarded commodity like water was no less than twenty lashes, and yet he resumed his movement toward the well.
Once there, he took hold of the rope and pulled nervously, and slowly, so as to avoid causing the pulley to squeak. He looked over his shoulder as he did so, making sure he remained alone. Slowly, slowly—the rope slipped from his hand. Noooo!
The pail fell and Kibure scrambled to catch the line. He didn’t. The heavy bucket landed with a—silent—nothing. No sound whatsoever. Kibure looked from side to side, then leaned over the well. Something was very wrong here. Then it hit him like a lash to the back: his breathing, heavy as it was, made no sound, the door had made no sound, even his footfalls had been silent. He brought his hands up and clutched his ears. What was wrong with him? He turned and ran back to the slave shack as fast as his twelve-year-old legs would take him, his fear of retribution from the other slaves gone.
He threw open the door and ran to the closest thing he had to a mother, Berta, then stopped just before her bed. It was empty. Scanning the room, he recognized that he was completely alone; there was not a single soul in the room. He fell to his knees, closed his eyes, and cried out; only his cry was as silent as the pail of water at the bottom of the well.
Kibure shook as he knelt on the ground, uncomprehending and afraid. When he opened his eyes again, his vision was blurred by tears. He gasped; a rush of sensations returned, primary among them sound, and the sound was him screaming. But he was no longer kneeling, he was on his back staring up at the ceiling. So satisfied was he to hear his voice that the hand gripping him had almost no effect. Then a second hand slapped him, and he quieted.
“Kibure! What’s wrong?” whispered Parvel, trying to cover Kibure’s mouth with a hand. Parvel, who slept beside him, was a few years older, and much bigger. Kibure’s face grew warm where he had been hit. He didn’t care.
“I—I—” What could he say: I was walking around outside and tried to steal water when I realized I was seeing no color and hearing no sound? Parvel would think him mad. Maybe I am.
“I think I—” Understanding dawned on him. “I think I had a bad dream. I’m—sorry.”
Grumbles sounded throughout the shack and Kibure did not dare move or speak again for the rest of the night. Neither did he dare return to sleep.
Kibure’s concern over his nightmare faded with the resumption of labor the following day. It was difficult to worry about much of anything once back in the familiar monotony of exhaustion and routine. After a brief lunch, Kibure started back at his work, cutting the heavy, greenish-red drogal fruit from the stalk with the dull wooden tool barely sharp enough to do the job. He fell into a familiar rhythm of work and song:
Toil, toil, in the field,
To Klerós we are bound,
The thin spot, don’t bruise the drogal,
Crack, crack, goes the whip,
Pick up the pace,
The thin spot, don’t bruise the—
“Hey, what I tell you about that rippin’ singsong stuff?”
Kibure looked up to see Jarlax, a crotchety old slave, just a few trees away. “Sorry.”
The slave shook his head. “Yeah, always sorry, but still always singin’. Just shut it, already!”
The other slave returned to his work, mumbling under his breath. Kibure resigned himself to labor the rest of the afternoon in silence, mostly. He hummed the tune loud enough for only his ears. As the day progressed, Kibure worked his way along the edge of the field, away from the others, filling his bag with fruit ahead of schedule for once. He carried his bag to the next tree and set it down with a satisfying thump. The bag, nearly full as it was, caused him to lose his balance in the process.
Kibure landed atop the bag, then slid down to the ground and rolled over so his back leaned against the bag of hard fruit. Sitting there, he let out a loud, satisfying breath, then he yawned and his eyelids drooped, pulled down as if by some unseen force. Should stand up before I—
He did not stand up.
Pain exploded across his thighs and Kibure’s eyes snapped open, his heart instantly pounding as if he had just sprinted full across the field.
“Sleeping on the job, are we?” Musco Zagreb’s thick, full-figured body towered over Kibure’s lounging, diminutive form.
Kibure could feel the burning heat where the whip had lashed his skin. There would be a welt, and perhaps a few spots of blood. He didn’t dare look. He also dared not speak for fear that whatever he said might make things worse.
Zagreb shouted gruffly, “Up! Now! You know the penalty, and that first one don’t count.”
Kibure did know the penalty. Fifteen lashes—no small sum where Zagreb’s heavy-handedness was concerned. But Kibure rose to accept the judgment. He had no excuse, and Zagreb would have heard none, anyhow.
Kibure removed his tattered shirt.
Zagreb did not waste a moment, and Kibure shuddered as the rough whip sliced his scarred back. Kibure bit his lip to keep from screaming, knowing that Musco Zagreb believed silence a penance, a revered act for a slave. Kibure remained fixed in a standing position for the next ten lashes. But with such effort fixated on keeping quiet, he faltered. An attempt to regain his footing failed as another crack of the whip reopened old wounds.
His face crashed into the sand. Now I’ve done it.
His weakness would only serve to ignite Musco Zagreb’s rage. The whip struck again.
“Don’t count if you on the ground!”
Kibure worked shaky muscles, urging them to cooperate with his will, and managed to secure a kneeling position. He paused as he spotted a boy his age, one of Zagreb’s children, a true-blood. The boy was cutting away at weeds with a stick along the wall of the estate.
Freedom, thought Kibure as he spat jealously. It was almost unfathomable, and still he tried to imagine it, wondering at escape, though he had no idea where he might go. As far as he knew, there were no free-folk within the Lugienese Empire besides those of the true-bloods. Kibure imagined a faraway land where everyone smiled and no one used whips. Could such a place truly exist? He shook his head. He wouldn’t survive more than a few days alone.
The next blow returned Kibure to the sandy soil, and the present. His back became a cauldron boiling over with pain. Kibure turned back to his musco, eyes pleading him to stop, but he knew the man wasn’t finished. A slave’s weakness was defiance. His musco raised the whip even higher. Just as he readied to strike, a flash of movement above caught Kibure’s attention, followed by a thick white substance, which suddenly oozed down Zagreb’s face. If the man’s previous expression had been one of contempt, this new one was pure malice. The man wiped his face, then looked at his hand, recognizing the pungent white goo for what it was. He turned his attention to the sky. Kibure breathed a sigh of relief. His master’s anger had been redirected. This might just allow Kibure a chance to rise again and return to work, forgotten.
Zagreb scanned the sky where the flying lemur, a raaven, circled, cooing and cawing its approval at having hit its target.
Slowly, now. Yes. Still distracted. Kibure slowly crept beyond reach. Yes, that’s it.
Kibure froze. Oh no.
“Dagnammit, you baggin’ winged rat!”
Kibure blew out the breath he had been holding. He’s not talking to me. Keep moving.
“When I get my hands on you, I’m gonna break every rippin’ bone in your body, then leave you strung to a post to rot! You maggot-laying, roach-infested, flying little grumpkin!”
Kibure was surprised at the creativity of Zagreb’s insults while the raaven disappeared beyond the walls of the estate. But he was mostly just glad to no longer be the object of Zagreb’s ire.
The young slave watched out of the corner of his eye as the winged, black lemur drifted out of sight, jealous of its freedom to come and go, something Kibure the slave would never know. He smiled nonetheless, imagining himself soaring through the sky, teasing the wicked, like Zagreb, just for the fun of it.
The raaven had been a fixture of the estate for as long as Kibure could remember, stealing whips and other tools as well as getting into the food stores. It was no secret that Zagreb hated the thing.
The slave master mumbled as he wiped the slimy, white substance from his brow with the rag he carried at his waist to dab away sweat. Then he turned back and spotted Kibure, who froze at the man’s stare.
“Thought I’d forget on account of your little friend’s distraction, did you? Come on back here,” he barked. “We need to finish your punishment, else you’ll never learn.”
Kibure felt blood running down his back from the most recent gashes. He returned to stand before his master.
“Only thing I forgot was where I left off.” Zagreb grinned. “Guess I’ll have to start over.”
“Twelve while standing, sixteen altogether,” said Kibure without looking up.
“What’s that, now?”
“Struck me twelve times while standing, and another four while on the ground.”
Zagreb tilted his head. “You trying to be smart, but it’s coming off real stupid. Gonna be twenty for you now. Any more numbers you wanna say?”
He lifted the whip to strike, not seeming to care that Kibure was still facing him. He swung, the whip taking Kibure full in the chest. This time he did cry out. And by the time the second strike came, Kibure had turned his back, his chest stinging intensely. But there was something else, too. Feelings Kibure didn’t even know existed bubbled to the surface of his consciousness and poured through his veins. And not just feelings.
Something was happening to him.
He set his jaw as another connection was made between the leather whip and his bare back. Kibure stood more upright, teeming with alien emotion, and something more. Zagreb paused, confused by the change in posture.
Another sense awakened in Kibure, a sense of certainty, and a sense of—defiance. Kibure squeezed his eyes shut. No! No more.
He felt himself straighten completely. Then he opened his eyes, slowly, resigned to allow his emotions to take control. His mind pulled away. He did not try to stop it. His body went numb, replaced by a deeper, nearly overwhelming sensation, as if he were suddenly connected to every particle of orange soil beneath his bare feet.
An instinctual awareness overwhelmed him and his body became an unfathomable vessel, acting of its own accord. I’m going to do something very bad. He shook his head again. What do I care? I have nothing to lose. He turned to face his master, who raised the whip to deliver another blow. Kibure’s body quickly closed the gap between himself and his master. Time seemed to bend as he moved, the seconds becoming hours, nothing going unnoticed. He saw the whites of Zagreb’s teeth as his grin became a snarl. He saw the dirt beneath Zagreb’s nails as he gripped the handle of injustice, preparing his swing. The man appeared still unconcerned about the frail slave who flowed toward him.
Kibure could hardly believe what he was doing. He narrowed his eyes and drew back his fist. Considering his small, slight stature, it was a vain attempt, but he was done caring.
His arm swung to strike the much larger, much stronger man, who looked down at him bemused. Zagreb’s inevitable retribution would come later, Kibure knew. But with shocking speed, Kibure’s fist moved toward the target, Zagreb’s chest.
A wave of heat washed over Kibure as his fist continued forward. But as his closed fingers approached Zagreb’s body, a surge of—something—pure energy?—shot out from that very same fist. The strike never directly contacted Zagreb’s body, but the energy sent the slave master hurtling fifteen paces through the air. Zagreb’s scream radiated both shock and pain as the air was forced from his lungs. Then he slammed into the hard desert floor. Displaced dust floated into the air around his body.
All was still and for a moment, Kibure thought he had killed the man. He let out a breath when Zagreb groaned and rolled to his stomach, calling to the overseers for help.
Kibure stood there somehow buried to his calves in the rock-hard sand, which had become more like overripe drogal fruit, thick, mushy, and malleable. He pulled his legs free then fell to his knees. That was where he remained until two of Zagreb’s true-blood overseers approached cautiously from either side to take hold of him. Kibure spotted Zagreb a safe distance away, holding his chest, hatred oozing from his expression.
The men secured the shackles slowly, hesitantly, but Kibure did not resist; he couldn’t. Whatever otherworldly power had come over him in those moments of passion had fled his body the second he realized what he had done.