It was dawn when the Lord’s Compass pulled into harbor. Large white birds spun around the ship’s three masts, crying shrilly.
Kaeli stood in a shadowy place under the stairway on deck, far out of the way so the crewmen could work uninterrupted. She should have been below deck with the rest of the passengers, but she couldn’t stand the stuffiness. And besides that, everyone always gave her odd, even bitter, looks. Perhaps because of her special treatment by the Western Lord, or perhaps because of her status as a slave. Likely both. Lord Keith had sensed her discomfort and often allowed her to hide from their unfriendly stares up on top.
Kaeli kept her left hand—hidden by a gray silk glove, despite the sweltering heat of early summer—close to her chest, gently cradling the only possession she had brought with her from the East, wrapped snuggly in a thin blanket. Her other hand, ungloved, touched the smooth, planked wall on her right as she looked out across the water at the island that would now become her home.
The world before her, one of heat, and sand, and tall, oddly-shaped trees, was both her prison and her salvation. She wasn’t sure if she should weep or laugh.
No turning back, she told herself firmly, and watched as dozens of people on the large dock, only perhaps a quarter mile out now, scurried to prepare for the ship to anchor. Kaeli squinted at each person in turn, though their faces were hardly recognizable at this distance, hoping for a glimpse of her brother. There were many men in blue uniforms—the Western Guard—along the shoreline, but Gihara’s familiar shock of red hair was nowhere to be seen.
But why would you think he’d be here? Kaeli scolded herself. He has no idea you’re coming, and probably has duties elsewhere. She wondered, not for the first time, what Gihara’s reaction would be when he first saw her. Would he laugh and pull her into an embrace? Or would there be stunned silence, followed by awkward questions and hesitant conversation?
Or worse, would he shun her completely? She had not seen him since her relocation from Peran’s home to the King’s. Was that because no one was allowed to see her, or because nobody wanted to? A marked slave could seriously damage his or her family’s reputation. Despite the Western Lord’s insistence to the contrary, Kaeli knew that her being here could seriously damage Gihara’s good name among his peers.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” asked a familiar voice behind Kaeli. She turned to face Lord Keith.
“I always preferred the pine woods in the North, my lord,” she answered quietly. “But I suspect I will grow to love this place, too.”
“You will indeed.” Keith chuckled. The hot breeze tugged at his hair, pulled back by a beaded ribbon, as was proper for a Lord. He set a hand on Kaeli’s shoulder. Around them, the ship’s crew worked hard tossing each other ropes, shouting commands, and working at the two anchors on either side of the ship, letting them down slowly to create drag to help ease them into the harbor. Most of these men also wore blue uniforms, though a few, tough and tanned, were professional sailors, paid by Lord Keith to help keep things running smoothly.
Paid work. The term seemed so foreign after her four years of slavery. The Northern Lord Rector and Lord Keith had both assured her that she would not be made a slave here—Keith ruled differently than Garmadon, and adhered to different laws. It was rumored that the West was already a haven to a few escaped slaves, but Keith would neither confirm or deny that rumor: to do so would likely make a bitter enemy of the entire Amokan upper class, which made much of its profit off of the slave markets.
“Would you like me to escort you to your brother after we disembark?” Keith asked.
Kaeli pulled herself from her reflections with a start. The ship had come alongside the massive dock now, and men were tying off the vessel and securing the gangplank. “N-no, my lord,” she said, looking down and bowing slightly, still holding her bundle close. “You’ve done enough for me already, letting me come on your voyage without paying for my fare. Your kindness—”
“My name is Lerin,” Keith said, touching her chin, prompting her to look into his eyes, dark and blue, like the sea on a starry night. “Listen to me, Kaeli. You’re not a slave anymore. You never should have been made one in the first place: that was a terrible aberration of justice on the High General’s part, in my opinion. But you’re free now. You can look me in the eyes, and you can call me by my name. I’m not your lord; I’m your friend.” His smile bunched only one cheek, giving him a youthful look, though he was many years older than Kaeli’s twenty-one. “Besides. We’re family.”
“Hardly.” Kaeli’s face felt hot, and not just because of the bright sun. She and Keith shared a common ancestor three generations passed. Hardly a reason for him to be treating her, a defiled slave, so kindly. “Thank you, Lerin. Just…just point me in the right direction, and I’ll be able to find Gihara on my own.”
Keith chuckled and walked out from under the stairway. With his hand still on her shoulder, Kaeli felt compelled to follow him. “That way,” he said, pointing to the small port town just beyond the dock. “Your brother’s in the fourth regiment, so he’s likely on duty at the Keep right now. That’s over a mile inland, though, so find Jaerad, the man that works in that shop over there by the lopsided palm. See it?”
Kaeli followed his finger to the small shop in question, right near the dock. She nodded.
“Tell him that Lerin sent you, and you need a ride to the keep. He has a horse that can take you there.”
“I can walk,” Kaeli said. “Honest. I don’t want to be a bother to anybody… And besides, I don’t have money to pay for the service.”
“You’re not a bother to us, Kaeli,” Keith said. He glanced down at Kaeli’s precious cargo, then back at her large brown eyes. “Jaerad will be happy to help you. I promise. And when you find your brother, tell him that he can have the day off to help you get settled in.” He gestured with a nod to the now affixed gangplank. Sailors and soldiers were now unloading cargo. Soon the passengers would be allowed to leave the lower levels and leave the ship. Kaeli felt guilty as she realized that not only had she not been required to pay for this weeklong passage across the ocean, but she was now also allowed to leave the ship before anyone else. What had she done to deserve this generous treatment?
“Time to go,” Keith said, kissing Kaeli’s hand. “If you won’t let me take you the whole way, I’ll at least walk you off the ship. Come on.”
Jaerad, a man in his late thirties with skin darkened by long days in the sun, had indeed been happy to help her. Immediately dropping all of his duties in his shop where he cleaned and packaged customers’ fish, he saddled his horse for a very flustered Kaeli and took her to the Keep. Kaeli thanked the man, and with a hearty laugh he told her it was his pleasure—besides, he owed their Lord a favor—and trotted back to the docks without another word, leaving her on the Keep’s front lawn.
Kaeli examined the West Keep with fascination. Set apart from the other buildings in the town, surrounded by trees and colorful brush, with spotty, pale crabgrass for a lawn, the Keep was made from sandy-colored bricks, and a small fraction of the size of the King’s home.
Thinking of the King was a mistake. She swallowed hard to abate a sudden wash of nausea. He’s gone, she told herself. He can’t touch you or Aida here. This was the start of a new life for the both of them. A new day; a turned page in the book of their lives. Kaeli was determined not to ruin this moment by thinking of him.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
Kaeli turned to see a tall, uniformed man with blond hair and a narrow face approaching her. “Y-yes, please,” she said, unable to keep her voice from wavering. “Um…I’m looking for Gihara. Lerin—um, Lord Keith said he might be here.”
The man examined her impatiently—he was likely just arriving himself, and had places to be—but when he saw her gloved hand he frowned. “You’re Gihara’s…sister?”
The man continued to frown at her. Kaeli looked away from his eyes, suddenly ashamed of herself for having the audacity to look at him so boldly. It wasn’t appropriate for a woman of her rank to do such a thing.
Get a grip, she told herself. Even with your mark, you’re not a slave anymore. Let this man think whatever he wanted. All she cared about was finding her brother.
Taking a deep breath, going against every instinct that had been drilled into her since she was first seized from her family, she looked dead into this solder’s eyes. Judging by the gold cord on his uniform, he was of high rank. Likely a lieutenant. “Gihara is in the fourth regiment, and I want to see him. Please.”
Under her threadbare brown dress, her knees knocked. She had not talked this way to anyone in years. But instead of being rewarded with a feeling of empowerment, she felt more timid. What was she thinking? This was no way to—
“Check the orchards,” the lieutenant said gruffly, and pointed behind the Keep before walking off in the direction of the front door of the Keep.
“Ah—um, thank you,” Kaeli said, bowing before she could stop herself. The lieutenant ignored her.
Thoroughly embarrassed by the scene she’d made, Kaeli scampered down the path that rounded to the back of the Keep, where the orchard lay. She pulled up short in awe.
Whole acres of trees lined the backyard of the Keep. Rows upon rows, each with countless colored blossoms. Pink and white, mostly, but some were even yellow or red. Down at the end of the orchard, through the trees, Kaeli could see a sparkling body of water—a lake, perhaps, or a river. She couldn’t tell which from her vantage.
A dozen or so soldiers sat in scattered groups underneath the beautiful trees. Some sat in silence, evidently still waking up as they drank from canteens, or ate chunks of bread or fruit. Others spoke affably, stretching their limbs or practicing fencing routines with swords that glittered in the early morning light. For them, just an ordinary beginning to an ordinary day. But for her, a first glimpse at a whole new, strange world.
Kaeli picked Gihara and his red hair out among a group of sparring soldiers, and her heart raced. He hadn’t noticed her yet; he was sparring with a short, broad-shouldered man, while two other soldiers sat to the side, watching with sleepy disinterest.
Hosts. What was Kaeli supposed to do? Interrupt their match and force her presence on them? Perhaps it was best to just stand here and wait for him to see her…
Her decision was made for her when Gihara’s companion saw her out of the corner of his eye and paused mid-strike, inadvertently allowing Gihara to land a “killing” blow. But Gihara’s triumph was short-lived: he quickly realized that something unusual had distracted his friend, and turned around.
At twenty-two winters, Gihara was a handsome man, with a pronounced jawbone and deep-set eyes that now stared at Kaeli with disbelief. Then he smiled. Oh, Kaeli nearly wept right there at the sight of that smile.
Saying something hastily to his friends, Gihara sheathed his sword and ran to Kaeli. Unsure of what to do, Kaeli just stayed put and waited for him to reach her. Which he did, in only a few short seconds, and opened his arms to sweep her into one of his large, warm hugs which Kaeli had missed so dearly during their years of separation.
But Gihara did not embrace her. He paused only a stride from her, arms outstretched, staring at her face with confusion. Kaeli realized then that her eyes were welling with tears, and she dried them with the back of her free hand.
“Kaeli,” Gihara said, lowering his arms. His voice had changed—become deeper—since last they’d seen each other. “What’s… Are you all right? What happened? How are you here?”
Kaeli stared up at him, unable to speak as tears rolled with greater force down her cheeks. She made no move to stop these and instead walked into her brother’s chest, feeling both warm and bitterly cold as his arms enclosed her.
What was she to say? How did one even begin to describe what she’d been through in this past year alone?
Words were inadequate, and so she wept. Ugly and loud, she wept into his crisp, clean blue uniform, uncaring about the fact that all of the soldiers in this orchard were likely watching as this unusual scene unfolded before them. Gihara’s arms just felt so good, and she was so weary, and…and…
Finally her tears slowed some, and Gihara pulled away, examining her more closely. He touched her hair—which was badly in need of a wash after her many days on board that ship—and wiped away the hot tears that were trickling from her chin. At last his hazel eyes landed on the blanket in Kaeli’s arm, and his brow furrowed as he carefully pulled back a corner of the blanket.
The sleeping infant, hardly ten days old, scrunched her nose as the thin blanket left her face, exposing it to the light. She waved a pink fist in the air and opened her eyes a slit, glaring at the bright Western sky before curling toward her mother’s breast.
“Her eyes,” Gihara breathed. “Kaeli… Oh, sister…”
Kaeli began to cry again, nodding her head. “Her…” She sniffled and wiped her nose. “Her name is Aida. And—and I love her, Gihara. But the King…” Her throat tightened suddenly, making speech impossible. She looked around Gihara at the soldiers, who sleepy or not, began to take a great interest in what was happening before them.
“That Mena-cursed bastard,” Gihara hissed. He tenderly took Aida from his sister’s arms, touching the infant’s puffy cheek with the back of his finger. “Kaeli, I’m so sorry. I’ve been trying to save enough to bribe the King into releasing you. I wasn’t fast enough. I had no idea he would do…”
“It’s alright.” Kaeli choked on the words. Her arm hurt now, from being held in that position holding the baby for so long, but she wrapped both arms around her brother and held him tight. He held her, too, with his free arm, and kissed the top of her head. It is alright now. They were finally safe, her and Aida.
This whole year had been without a doubt the worst of her life, but that final week leading up to her escape on the Lord’s Compass had been the worst—the closest to Hell Kaeli ever hoped she’d get.
“Let’s go home,” Gihara murmured, and Kaeli nodded, swiping her wet arm across her face again.
Home, she thought, following her brother with shaking legs away from the Keep.
I’m finally home.