The sound of rain pounding on my rusted metal roof awoke me from my restless sleep. I sighed, already dreading walking around in the flooded streets of Temrys with my worn-down leather shoes. It had been raining for almost a week, and the entire valley was covered in three inches of water. Worst of all, was that the sun had not come up for days. I missed the sight of the early morning rays coming up to bring the dawn and dispel the night. It was silly and childish for someone my age, but I had an irrational fear of the dark. Rainy days led to pitch black, moonless nights, which put me on edge.
With the rain came the horrible coughing fever that spread like wildfire amongst the poor, unsanitary northern areas of the kingdom, especially in larger cities like Temrys. My brother, Jace, had come down with what I hoped was a cold two days before, but I feared that it was more than just your standard bug.
Pushing back the threadbare quilt, I crawled out of my makeshift bed comprised of a thin layer of hay and a few old shirts I had sewn together. Jace still slept on his side of the bed, unmoving. I thought to let him sleep in a little longer. Even if he was still feeling poorly, he would have to go to work. We were both signed bondservants destined to be enslaved under Master Typhon for our entire lives. Our parents sold us to an orphanage for a few gold coins when we were babies, and once we were old enough to work, we were sold as child slaves. We had never known any other life other than that of hard labor and meager suppers. Typhon had given us the names Jace and Cara and put us to work before we could even count to ten.
My mind wandered back to the early years. Jace had always been a bit of a clown, overcoming our dim situation with jokes and laughter. I was the responsible and practical one. Somehow we made it work, and Jace and I had been there for each other from the start. I remembered back to a time when I found an abandoned kitten on the street. Her fur was matted, and her paw broken. I could not have been more than eight years old, and I had pity on the poor creature. I brought her into our master’s shop, patched her up, and snuck some food for her. Typhon, always the greedy type who kept track of every grain of rice in his storehouse, noticed the missing food. He called all the slaves together and demanded whomever had stolen from his stock to come forth. Jace, seeing my panicked face and realizing I was the culprit, stepped up before I could stop him and confessed to the crime. He was beaten twenty lashes and threatened that if he ever stole again, they would cut off his right hand. Jace never mentioned the incident, and from then on until the cat ran away, gave up a good portion of his scant rations to feed the creature. I knew I could depend on my brother for anything, and although he could be a bit of a goof at times, he always had my back.
A shiver ran up my spine, bringing me back to reality as I set to work boiling a pot of water for tea and scraping the last bit of oats out of the bottom of the barrel to make porridge. Jace’s rations had been reduced for the past three weeks. According to Typhon, he had been playing around at the docks, and our master told me to warn my brother to start acting like a man and not engage in such ‘childish behaviors.’ I had not brought this up with my brother, knowing that it would embarrass him. Instead, I had masked the decrease in food by giving him the majority of my own ration. I hoped this was the last week of punishment as I scraped three quarters of the porridge into Jace’s bowl. The dirt floor was damp and cold under my feet, and drops of water leaked from holes in the roof. Our house was not much, but at least it kept out the wind and most of the rain. Master Typhon was no saint; still, we were luckier than most bondservants in the fact that we had a place to call our own.
Jace coughed as I poured the boiling water into two metal cups and added in a sprinkle of tea leaves.
“Breakfast is ready,” I said, laying the watery oatmeal and weak tea on an old wooden carton that we used as a table. When Jace did not respond, I went on, “we better hurry. You know Master Typhon does not like it when we’re late. Don’t forget what happened last time.”
It was true, Jace had to be on the docks first thing in the morning to help unload the goods that ships brought in from neighboring cities and sometimes even other realms. It was hard labor, and Master Typhon did not allow for any laziness. The day’s supplies had to be unloaded and stocked in our master’s mercantile before sunrise. I worked in the shop doing odd jobs and tidying things up. There were a few other slaves who worked in the shop and Typhon’s house, but the only real employee was a uplander named Roland. He was from a wealthy family in Cangary and had moved down to Temrys four years before to apprentice under Master Typhon. He had no use of his right leg, and, therefore, was not suited for jobs more rigorous than weighing heads of cabbage and measuring lengths of fabric. Jace and I speculated that his parents sent him to the valley to put him out of sight, as having a cripple in the family was an embarrassment. Roland’s disability made him all the more hardened and cruel. I felt sorry for him, but Jace thought he was a good-for-nothing snot who delighted in bullying others because he was not satisfied with himself. Since Roland’s arrival, Jace had received double the amount of beatings as before, so I understood his resentment toward the apprentice.
I was worried that Jace would receive another beating if he did not hurry up. He did not respond to my call for breakfast, so I went over to the bed to shake him awake. I reached out to touch his arm and pulled back when I felt that it was burning with heat. I did not even know that a person could be so hot and was afraid to even think how high Jace’s fever must have been. I immediately got a cold rag to place over my brother’s sweaty forehead and started praying that he would wake up. We had no money for a doctor, and if Jace truly had the coughing fever, there was little hope that he would recover without the proper medicine. The particular medicine needed was only made by elven healers who lived far away in the forests of Ardgal, so the price was exorbitant.
“Jace, wake up, Jace. Please don’t do this to me,” I sobbed, my brain searching for a solution. My brother was the only family that I had, the only person in the world I trusted. My only chance was to bring my plea before Master Typhon and hope that he would be generous.
Pulling a sweater over my patched-up dress and donning on two layers of stockings, I stoked the coals in the fire and doubled the quilt over Jace’s shivering body. He looked so helpless lying there and trembling with cold, something that I had never thought of my brother in the past twenty or so years we had been together. He was far from muscular with his slim build, but he had the willpower of a thousand mules but too good of a nature to ever use it against anyone. He was never serious, and there were only a few times I could remember seeing him without a smile on his face or making a humorous comment about something.
Strangely, as if a huge gust of wind had billowed from the air just in front of me, the door blew open to the outside, letting even more of the excruciatingly chilling dampness inside. I took that as my sign to go. Before I let myself succumb to the bitter despair that threatened to gurgle up from the pit of my stomach, I said one more quick prayer and stepped out into the inundated streets, pushing the door closed behind me against the wind.
Unsurprisingly, I found Master Typhon in the back of the shop calculating expenses and noting inventory. The man was probably more comfortable with a scale than his own right arm, and I considered his money pouch as an extension of his body. As always, Roland was by his side with a sneer on his face and a cane in his hand. I had learned to always stay out of the reach of Roland’s cane because he wielded it with the vigor of one of King Zeid’s knights fighting dragons in the eastern realm.
Typhon looked up when I entered the room, his spectacles sitting on the bridge of his nose and his copious rolls of fat hanging of the sides of his armed chair. “Can’t you see I’m busy, girl? What is it?” he snarled.
“And you’re late, Cara,” Roland added, “Where is Jace? He should have brought the shipment in by now.”
Bowing my head, I gathered the courage to speak up. “Jace is very sick. I’m afraid it’s the coughing fever. Is there-“
“If you’re going to ask me to pay the doctor bills,” Typhon interrupted, “you need not say anything more. I’d be able to buy two slaves for the price of that elven medicine. I’d advise you to leave him on the streets before he infects you with it. Two men on the docks have died this week, and I’d hate for your pretty little face to end up in the morgue.” Typhon looked back down at his paper, signaling to me that the conversation was over. Roland had an odd expression on his face, probably remorse for the loss of his favorite punching bag. I had to bite back the urge to scream at both of them, turned, and stalked out of the office.
“And you better get straight to work, Missy,” Typhon yelled after me, “you’ve already wasted enough time this morning.”
I bit my lip and tried not to give into to the sobs that were swelling up in my chest. As I turned to go, there was a small flash of light and a vase toppled off of the shelf above Typhon’s desk, just barely missing his head. The man swore loudly, complaining about how much it would cost to get the vase, a gift from his mother, fixed. I caught Roland looking at me as if he were trying to figure out if I were to blame. I’m sure he would love spinning a tale about me taking my vengeance on my master by smashing his head with a enormous piece of ceramic. He seemed to lose interest in the idea because he shrugged an looked away. I used the distraction as my chance to escape and fled out of the shop without thinking of where I was planning to go.
There had to be some way for me to save Jace. My mind searched for a quick method to get the money I needed. It would take at least two silver coins, maybe even a gold, just to see the doctor. My desperate thoughts reminded me of a friend of a friend who owned a business selling hair to men and women from higher class who were going bald with old age. It paid decently, but I hated the thought of losing all my hair. I was not a vain person, but it was one of my best features and would take forever to grow back to where I had grown it to just above my hips. However, I knew my loss would be worth it. It was my only chance to get the gold I needed, and I knew I could make a good amount quickly. Blond hair went for more than any other color since it was so rare. Both Jace and I had golden hair and deep green eyes, an oddity in the entire realm of King Zeid. My looks would finally help me get something that I desired.
Leaving my house into the dark streets would be the hardest part, I told myself. I shuddered thinking about walking alone in the lightless alleys of Temrys, but Jace was worth it. I tied up my thick locks one final time and made my way toward the wig maker’s house.