“They’re coming up on starboard. Hoist the main sails! Liver down the hatches! Shiver up the timbers! Ahoy!”
“Shut up Kai! That doesn’t make any sense!” I cried.
“Oi ye scurvy-eyed mutineer! I sailed the uncharted waters off the coast-a Meneria on a rotten raft with nothin but tha skin on ma back! Don’t ye be tellin me how ta sail!” he shouted in a terrible pirate accent.
“Amy, Runir, tell him to stop!” I said, covering my ears.
“Why? He’s doing a perfect Captain Selworthy impersonation,” said Amy, looking impressed.
“A legendary pirate from Erathen folklore. He purportedly discovered the Northern Continent back when the Bridge of Babel hadn’t been built and the continents were further apart than they are now. Or at least, that’s how the story goes in the Union. Here in the Alliance they claim Selworthy was based off the coast of Kalmarsh in the Water Kingdom and discovered the Southern Continent instead,” said Runir with a smile. “No one knows how he actually spoke but that’s pretty much how every kid’s story portrays him.”
He pointed at Kai who was laughing while turning the steering wheel in circles. Kai kept shouting weird lines that made me cringe but worse still, rather than staring at him blankly like Zoe, Amy just kept nodding appreciatively which made him act even crazier.
A loud crash rang through the air as the ship shook violently.
“Could you do the castrated black-beard impersonations later? We’re being followed by freaking dragon!” I shouted.
“Wyverns,” corrected Kai. “They can’t keep up with my ship for long!”
He returned to his crazy routine while I nursed a fast-growing headache. I took a moment to calm myself and sat down next to Zoe. She was staring at the little king who was still tinkering with his cube.
“Hey, what is that anyway?” I asked in a tired voice.
The boy didn’t respond, as if he hadn’t realized that I was talking to him. Zoe nudged him and he flinched before his cube fumbled out of his hands. He didn’t reach down to pick it up, choosing instead to shrink into his seat as far as possible.
Another crash and the ship shook again.
“Relax kid, we won’t hurt you,” I said, picking up the cube and holding it out to him.
He looked at the cube in my hand and then at my face. He met my gaze uncertainly, like a wild animal about to bolt away. He reached out and snatched the cube.
I frowned. Well that was rude.
“So what’s your name?” I asked.
He hesitated before speaking. “His Majesty King Galemor Talbert the fifteenth; ruler of Air and Wind, jewel of Laput, blessed by the kind and merciful Air Goddess, and-”
“Right, we’ll go with Gale,” I quickly interjected, feeling my headache worsening.
He blinked. The ship shook again and Kai’s laughter reverberated through the air again.
“I’m Lily. This is Zoe. The crazy guy on the wheel is Kai and the idiot clapping for him is Amy. The one coming towards us with a creepy smile is-”
“Runir Grayscale, nice to meet you, Your Highness,” said Runir with a smirk. “Forgive me for not bowing, your majesty, I have a thing against bowing to my captives. I’m sure you understand.”
This time the boy-king frowned. Runir really was quite good at pissing people off.
“Why did we bring him along?” I asked.
Zoe leaned close to the boy and twirled his curly hair. “Are we going to chop off his head and wave it on a stick to scare them into doing what we want?
There was silence after that chilling suggestion. Even Kai stopped laughing in the background. The boy-king was frozen solid.
Zoe looked at our expressions and frowned. “No? So we’re whipping him in front of the others so they fall in line.”
The king whimpered. Runir and I exchanged a concerned look. There was another explosion and the ship rocked again.
I could see the confusion in Zoe’s eyes. She frowned.
“If we didn’t bring him here to torture him to get his people to do what we want, then why did we bother taking him alive? We should throw him off the ship right now.”
It was frightening hearing someone casually suggest that we chuck a kid off of an airship because they couldn’t think of a reason to keep them. It was terrifying when the person suggesting this was barely ten years old and when they were confused because you weren’t about to torture someone or cut off their head.
What a fucked up world.
“Zoe…we didn’t pick him up so we could kill him or torture him or something,” Runir said, flatly.
Zoe furrowed her brows. “But then…why did we bring this asshole with us?”
I frowned too. “You just met him. How can you call him that-”
“Just met him?” she cried furiously. “I’ve known bastards like this for a long time! Him and all the self entitled pricks sitting on their asses with a silver spoon in their mouths while his cronies do this!”
She lifted her shirt to show the crisscrossing scars and nauseating burn marks on her stomach. She turned to face the paling boy-king, her eyes full of disdain.
“So if we’ve got no use for him, we should kill him already. Or rather,” she smiled crazily. “How about you give him to me? I’ve always dreamed about a little revenge. I made a list of all the worst things they’ve done to me.”
She moved her face closer to the trembling boy trying to shrink even further into his seat.
“I’ll need supplies though. Needles, knives, acid, hot metal, something to shove up his ass, scissors to cut off some fingers, maybe a bottle of something to make him choke on. Oh and give me something to chop off his-”
“Stop it Zoe!” I shouted.
“No!” She glared at me. “I want my revenge! I want to make him pay! And then I’ll go to the other bastards behind it and I’m going to make them pay too!”
“Zoe, he’s the king!”
“So what? Daddy was the mayor.” Her voice was quieter but thick with emotion. “And he deserved to die. He deserved it. He deserved it…he…”
She was breathing quickly now. I reached for her shoulder but she jerked it away and turned her back to me.
“I’ll be in my room.” She walked down the stairs, slamming a door below-deck.
Another explosion and the ship shook again. None of us said anything but Gale was still trembling and his cube had fallen onto the ground unnoticed. Zoe’s reaction had left us all shaken.
We knew she was facing a lot of mental anguish. Her emotions were always all over the place. She’d be fine one moment and wallowing in anger or self pity the next. Then again, she’d lived a pretty messed up life here and if what she’d just said was anything to go by, her previous life may have been even worse.
A gust of air shot past me. I turned to see a giant gray wyvern barreling towards the ship. Just as I prepared to fire a Laser at it, the ship swerved violently to the side and I fell on my back.
I stood up and glared furiously at Kai. He laughed and spun the wheel again.
“This was fun mateys, but now it’s time fa cap’n Kaiworthy ta disappear!”
He left the wheel, took a bow facing the angry wyverns and waved his hands magnificently. Then he steered the ship in a completely different direction and started laughing again.
The wyverns shot past us and stopped. Then they shot past us again. They shook their heads from side to side and breathed loudly. I could barely hear their riders shouting something but couldn’t make out what they’d said.
Soon, we’d left them behind and were safely cruising across the sky. I sighed and Runir shook his head. Even Amy didn’t cheer for Kai this time. If he could have done this all along, why did he go through the cheap pirate show?
Kai chuckled. He left the wheel and joined us.
“Hi! Mind telling us who you’re trying to signal with this? I’ve cut off all communications anyways so it doesn’t matter but I’m still curious.”
He picked up the cube and handed it back to the wide eyed Gale.
“N-no one! It’s a prototype. It doesn’t work yet,” said Gale, stuttering.
I didn’t buy it. There was no way that the king wouldn’t have some sort of emergency gear on him but I decided to trust Kai’s Ability for now. Besides, the kid had had enough of a verbal beating.
“I originally planned to leave you somewhere safe after we left the shrine but since Lily says that the Goddess won’t help us achieve our goal, I’m afraid you’ll have to stick around for a little longer. But don’t worry, we’re loads of fun to be around!” said Runir, patting Gale’s shoulder.
Gale nodded cautiously. “But you will let me go right?”
“Of course. I don’t plan on keeping annoying brats with us for long,” I said, flashing him a smile.
“I agree. However, there is something we need to ask you.” Kai turned to face him. “How do we free the bonded laborers?”
Gale looked confused.
“Why would you want to do that? All the scientists and statisticians say that would be a disaster. The numbers indicate that free labor constitutes half of our total labor. Without them, our production would fall drastically!”
“Not this bullshit again. That damn Goddess has everyone spouting the same heartless shit,” I snarled.
“How dare you speak about the Goddess like that!” said Gale indignantly.
“How dare you speak about people like that! They’re not numbers or statistics. They’re real, living, breathing people. How can you talk about production and money or whatever when you’re treating people worse than animals?”
“We have the lowest rates of poverty in all of Erath. Free education, free hospitals, and cheap food prices. Our unemployment rates are envied by all the other countries. Everybody wants to be us but they can’t!” said Gale. “At least that’s what Ezu says…”
“Ezu? The scientist hosting the Exhibition?” asked Runir.
“Yes, she’s my chief scientific adviser. She gets her orders straight from the Goddess so I know I can trust her judgment.”
“And why do you think you can trust the Goddess’ judgment? She’s a bitch,” I said.
“Stop insulting the Goddess!” Gale stomped his foot. “What do you know anyway? Who are you to talk about her that way?”
“Trust me kid, I can say what I want about these damned Goddesses of yours. Besides, can’t you see that your Goddess is wrong here? She promotes torture and slavery! How can you respect her when she doesn’t even respect her own people? You’re a king, you should understand that logic,” I said.
“She does respect us! She loves us! She blessed us with knowledge and ingenuity and the bonded laborers are made to work hard, sure, but it’s all for the betterment of society. So what if some people’s freedom has to be sacrificed for the betterment of all? We’ve maximized happiness!” insisted Gale.
“But is it worth it? You’ve seen a bit of the hate you’ve created,” said Runir.
“What do you mean?” said Gale, turning to face him.
“Zoe. She’s a freed laborer. Didn’t you see the hate in her eyes? The revulsion on her face? She detests you and everything that you stand for and, if I may, she has every right to.”
“But, doesn’t she realize how effective our system is? How many people’s lives she improves through her hard work? The graphs all say-”
“Screw the graphs and the numbers! Go see the fucking scars!” I spat. “God! I thought you were a kid so it wouldn’t be so bad but I can’t do this. You’re going to grow up to be one of them. Just another useless piece of shit getting fatter while everyone else rots in hell.”
“Lily! You’re going too far, he is just a kid!” said Amy.
But I didn’t give a damn. I could understand Zoe’s anger because I’d felt it too. Watching your ‘leaders’ getting praised for increasing the GDP or productivity or whatever while your stomach is empty is unbearable. Knowing that you’ve been ignored, knowing that you’ve been sidelined, dismissed as a number or a casualty of the system is infuriating.
If I’d met the mayor of my city who was being adored by the media for his welfare schemes while my mother died of hunger because he’d actually been pocketing that money for himself, I would have wanted to rip his guts out too.
I could only imagine how much worse the feeling was for Zoe. For her, the gray haired kid in front of me wasn’t just a kid being led around by adults, he was complicit in her pain. In a way, he could have stopped it. He could have saved her years of pain and torture, but he didn’t.
How could Zoe think of him as just a kid after everything she had been through despite being just a kid too. Wasn’t it unfair that he gets pity and sympathy when all she got was ridicule and disdain? She’d lived two lives like this. She’d experienced two messed up childhoods.
Didn’t she deserve some justice? Some kind of revenge to give her a bit of closure?
And if the king was so pathetic that he still didn’t realize his mistakes and if he was so utterly brainwashed by that damned Goddess, was it really okay to let him go back? Wouldn’t he go back and continue this messed up system?
Then again, killing him wouldn’t change anything either.
“Scars?” said the boy-king weakly, breaking me from my thoughts.
“Hmm? Yeah, scars. You should get a look at what you’ve been a part of. What kids like you have been going through while you sat on your throne playing with your toys while your maids fed you numbers and charts. Go get a look at the real word, kid,” I said, walking below-deck.
“I think that’s enough for today. We should reach the capital in a day or so but for now, you all must be very tired, so please go rest in your rooms. We’ll need to be at our best to pull off the next part of our plan,” I heard Kai say as I slammed the door behind me.
I’d tried to go to sleep but I couldn’t. Zoe’s words were still echoing in my head. I couldn’t dismiss her feelings because they reminded me of my own, or at least, of the way I’d felt before the old lady picked me up.
I sighed and sat up on my bed. I slipped on a robe and walked out of my room. I walked aimlessly down the hallway, trying to think through what I was feeling. I didn’t even notice when I walked up to Zoe’s room.
All of the rooms had been labeled with our names for some reason. No doubt Kai’s work but I didn’t see the point. Then again, Kai did a lot of pointless stuff.
Should I go in to comfort her? Maybe tell her that I knew what she was going through? I might be able to help her get over her hate or at least teach her how to ignore it the way the old lady had taught me.
I stopped. I’d heard something. Whispers? Was Zoe talking to someone? Was there someone else in the room?
I pressed my ears against the door and filled them with mana, activating a small Air magic spell.
“No! I must apologize for everything I’ve done. I want you to forgive me!”
“That’s not how it works. You don’t get my forgiveness just because you want it. Besides, you’re a pathetic pervert too. I’d kill you right now if the others hadn’t told me not to.”
“It was a misunderstanding! I came to ask you why you hated me. I wanted to know your story but-”
“But what? Were you too scared to come in and decided to peep instead?”
“I wasn’t peeping! I just-you were-I…”
“…just get the fuck out of here already.”
Something shuffled about and hit the floor.
“Please! Forgive me!”
“Fine, I forgive you for peeping. Now get out!”
“No, not just that. You know what I’m talking about. I saw them! I…saw them…I’m sorry.”
“You think grovelling at my feet changes anything? You think it makes up for all of this? Or for this? Or this? Or this? Of course it doesn’t. Come on, you’ve already seen them, look at them again.”
“Don’t you dare look away now! Look at this one, it was the first one I got in this world. I don’t remember how I got it because I was still a baby. A baby. They gave this kind of scar to a baby! You gave me this! You!”
“Let’s go to one I remember. This one. I got this one because the owner needed money for a wedding ring and wanted to make us work harder. Kept poking me with a red-hot iron rod. Over and over again. The manager got bored so she started doodling. Here, look at this. Artistic isn’t it?”
“They tried connecting us to a machine that drove needles into slackers. Of course, I was the test subject. Look at this, looks like a pincushion doesn’t it? Just put me on your goddamn desk why don’t you.”
“They tried out different whips too. Look at this, pretty pattern isn’t it? Or this, it has flowers and shit on it. Oh look, a butterfly, Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Stop it please!”
“Stop it? Do you know what happened to anyone who said that back at the factory? They got this!”
“…that’s…” He sounded nauseous.
“A hole, yes. Magic is amazing isn’t it. Look, I can poke a finger through it. Wanna try? Or how about getting one for yourself? You can keep a pen in here if you like.”
“No! This is wrong! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m s-sorry!”
Sobbing noises. Someone banged the floor a few times too.
“Please, I’m sorry. You-you can do whatever you want to me. I’ll do anything you say. I’ll accept any form of punishment. Torture me, kill if you like. But please…please…forgive me.”
After a while, someone stood up.
“Fine, take off your shirt.”
“You said you’d do what I say. Take off your shirt and turn around. Now.”
A pause. Then something rustled.
A few footsteps. Nervous disjointed breathing. A deep breath. A sharper breath.
Then someone screamed.
Someone pushed me from behind and the door opened. Gale was lying on the ground, writhing in pain. Amy had appeared by his side while Kai stood next to him.
Runir pushed past me and walked up to the boy rolling on the ground.
When did they get here? Wait, more importantly…
She stood there expressionless, her hands still outstretched. She was looking at the boy with cold eyes. Unforgiving eyes.
Kai waved his hand and the boy stopped flailing. Amy ran her hands over his body, checking for injuries until she noticed something.
“Have you forgiven him?” I didn’t even notice as the words came out of my mouth.
Zoe walked towards me. Her shoulder brushed past mine as she left the room.
Amy turned the boy over and stared at his back. There was something written there.
‘I am not the master of my people, I am their slave.’