“Why?!” the young blond demanded, face burning and eyes stinging as he stood out on the dusty lane. Oh, he’d wanted to leave. But not like this. Never like this.
“Ungrateful wretch,” a mousy-haired lady harrumphed, looking sideways at the boy, more than a little cross. “We let you stay with us for two whole years, rent free, giving you 3 meals, a warm bed, and now you get all uppity because you don’t want to work and earn your keep?!” She turned her attention to a man with richer, darker brown hair, whose mustache twitched as the frown on his face deepened into a scowl.
“What did you expect, Herbina? We spoiled that boy... we should have made him begin working the day he got here... We were too soft. The only way a kid like him learns respect is through hard work and discipline.”
“Indeed,” Herbina turned her attention back to the boy who was already shrinking back, clutching the handle of a worn, brown leather suit case, trembling just as much with anger as he was with fear. “The boy’s always been a worthless lout, sitting around all day like the world revolves around him.”
That’s only because every time I left the house, you beat me, the blond thought to himself as he lowered his gaze, staring down at his shoes.
“Well, brat, it’s time you learned what life is really like. Living costs money, see? And money doesn’t just fall into your lap. You have to work your fingers to the bone to scrape by in this world, and we’ve had to work those bones to the marrow to support a dependent little whelp like you.”
And to support Uncle Felbus’s drinking habit... The blond frowned to himself, not having the courage to speak his thoughts aloud. He knew better than that; Aunt Herbina had always been passive aggressive towards him, but it was Felbus that he was really afraid of. Felbus had once beaten him senseless after a night of particularly heavy drinking, accusing the blond of sneaking the last of his stash, though he himself had spilled the last of it not moments before while staggering to the ice-chest for something to help kill the harsh taste of the hard liquor. Herbina, obviously, had not defended him from Felbus’s wrath, and long since then, many of these incidents had ensued. Not once had either of them apologized to him. But... well, they were family. Since his parents died, that little loft space and those two abusive caretakers were all he had known. It had been so long; he had nearly forgotten what it was like before these nearly-daily beatings and demeaning comments about his personality and behavior.
“So, now it’s your turn. You’re going to help support us now.” Herbina interrupted the boy’s train of thought, speaking very matter-of-factly, as though he should have known this day was coming and that he should have been more prepared for this “inevitable” fate than he was. “You’ll be working for a nobleman across the seas, on the mainland - Foriel.”
Foriel? the blond balked. That’s nearly halfway ’round the world!
“He lives in Pengrad, and that’s a high-end town... It’ll take a bit of getting used to, so do it quick! We don’t want your rural ’charms’ startling him.” Pengrad... not quite half way around the world, but it might as well have been. “Now, we want you to blend in there; knowing you, you’ll probably find some other way to stick out like a stupid tourist and get laughed at by the locals, but in any case...” Herbina handed the boy a little satchel filled with a few gold coins, “use that money to buy yourself some local attire. You want to look your best when you meet your employer. Use it all. Don’t want you getting fired before you even begin, showing up at his doorstep looking like a country bumpkin...”
“That’s the last of the money we’ll be giving you,” Felbus interjected, “after you get settled in, you’ll be sending the entirety of your paycheck to us.”
“A-all of it?!” The boy’s jaw dropped, “b-but how will I buy food and --?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll be working as a butler, or something like that, which means you’ll be living at the manor. They’ll be feeding you and housing you. There’s absolutely no need for you to have pocket money. Especially not with that horrid Frillex trade going on in Cindel lately... wouldn’t want you turning into the one thing worse than the sorry codpiece you already are.” The blond frowned at this. Frillex - a hallucinogenic, highly addictive drug that had been exploding in popularity in Foriel lately. They said the count’s son in Beziquial was a notorious Frillex addict and a wastrel. But with all the things he was going to have to worry about, Frillex was the least of his problems. How was he going to buy new clothes? Herbina and Felbus had provided him with enough for two new outfits at most. And that would be buying lower-class attire... buying something suitable to present oneself to a noble in would require nearly twice what he was given. He might be able to afford some high-class panties when he arrived and maybe have enough left to ship his dejected ass home when he got fired. What were they expecting him to do? Sell all of his belongings and work the corners like a slattern to raise the rest of the money?!
“Now, then, you’ve dawdled long enough. Get your ass in the carriage and get a move on. Just remember, your aunt and I worked hard to secure you a position there, so don’t screw this up! And don’t get any funny ideas. If you don’t keep sending us the money, you better expect to stay in Foriel for a long time. Keep any of your paycheck and you can kiss your room here goodbye, is that clear?!”
“Y-yes, Uncle Felbus...” the blond muttered, tossing his bag onto the rack on the roof of the rickety, horse-drawn buggy.
“And you better spend the trip practicing how to speak properly; if that noble hears you stutter you’ll be out on your ass faster than you’d finish the second syllable!” Felbus slammed the door shut after the boy clumsily clambered inside.
“And don’t bother writing.” Herbina added. “We don’t need you slacking off on the job to scribble out some half-baked nonsense about how great your new job is. Just send the paychecks... saves money on postage.”
“Yes, Aunt H-Herbina...” the blond cringed at the unintentional stutter.
“Damn it, Emory. Stop it with the stuttering! Just get the hell out of here! That ferry’s not going to wait forever!” Felbus folded his arms irately, with a glare directed at Emory – a glare that didn’t address him as a person so much as it did select his general location with a sense of loathing. Somehow that hurt worse.
Emory gave a half-hearted wave and nodded to the driver, who started the carriage off with a click of the tongue and a flick of the reigns.
The carriage swayed side to side, rocking gently over the uneven trail that curved around the banks of Kettle Lake, steadily making its way toward the bridge to cross the Tiller River. The creaking of the wooden joints and the steady pace of the steed’s footfalls were somehow soothing to Emory. He found himself drifting in and out of consciousness, lulled to brief lapses of slumber as the carriage rattled on along the well-worn path. He had few dreams, and those that he did have were more nostalgic than comforting. He remembered his mom, the way she used to smile and usher him outside to play while she did the laundry; the first time she ever walked him to school, a satchel of lunch, a little note in that gentle curving cursive of hers next to his sandwich, wishing him a good day, or beside his bottle of soup and his dragon cup telling him to get well soon on the days that he toughed it out with a stubborn cold. He remembered his dad, too. He always made such bad jokes in an attempt to cheer Emory up whenever he was upset about something, and had always been the rock in the family, the steadfast one that you could count on for anything. Emory missed them both. Even though his aunt and uncle had served as a substitute nuclear family unit, Emory didn’t feel the kind of connection most people might expect with blood relatives.
He had felt like an intruder, even from the start, before he had become the submissive, timid, boy that he was now infamous for being. He had moved to Torrundshire with nothing but the clothes on his back, alone, completely alone... His mother had told him to seek out his Aunt Herbina and Uncle Felbus in Torrundshire, told him to seek refuge there, escape the horrible massacre at Coasta Danora. But, after living with them for two years, Emory felt like it might have been better to just die there, with his mom and dad. At least he would fit in there... in a coffin with the rest. But, Emory was too strong to die, too spirited to just give up. He had been different then. It was his mother’s sister, so he supposed at the time he expected Herbina to be like his mother. Now, Emory wondered what insanity could have made him believe that delusion. Herbina had been nothing like his mother, and whatever expectations he had for the town were crushed soon after.
Torrundshire had never taken a shine to strangers, and if his relatives’ reactions were anything to go by, Emory should have expected the less-than-cordial welcome he received from the rest of the town. He might have been prompted to stand up for himself if they had been cruel immediately, might have met harsh words with some of his own, might have proven himself to be a confident young man who had merely hit a patch of hard luck, someone who deserved respect and pity for the fate he had been dealt. But this was not the situation he was met with. It was with initial dismissive regard and lack of recognition that the town had “welcomed” him and that had made Emory the soft-spoken, shy young man he was. In many ways, being ignored was worse than being hated. At least, if you were hated, you were acknowledged, you were a person, you existed... Emory was not given any such blessing as to be hated... he might as well have been a speck of dirt for the first few weeks he was there. A stray dog would have received more attention than he did.
After a while, that passiveness grew into loathing, and while this should have triggered Emory to rise up against the antagonism, he was too worn down by that point to do much of anything. It was a kind of learned helplessness, really. It didn’t matter if he spoke his mind or went along with the masses. It didn’t matter if he stayed out of sight or was open about everything. They always found something to attack him over. Even when he agreed with them, it was never for the right reasons or never genuine enough or some other stupid argument. Maybe they were just mad at him for surviving. Most people from Torrundshire lost family during the massacre, and perhaps it was simply because he was there and their family wasn’t that the people of Torrundshire were disgusted with him. But then, of all the people in the town that should have been happy to see someone had survived, why should it be that his own family hated him most of all?
Oh he’d tried to be happy there. He’d tried to amuse himself, since he was never much good at making friends. Apparently his methods of amusing himself were all wrong. He’d gone fishing by himself, as he’d always done back home, and had been swiftly punished for it, for one reason or another. Going out too early, going out too late, going out without permission, being frivolous, wasting time. Attempts at conversation always ended with them belittling him, calling him stupid and naïve. And then came the drunken beatings when Felbus came back from the pub after work. Emory eventually learned to just go to keep his head down and stay in his room most of the time. They didn’t like that very much, either, but at least he dodged a fair portion of the verbal and physical abuse.
Indecisiveness, submissiveness, anhedonia, sullenness, these were all things that grew inside him as he endured his stay with his aunt and uncle, and sadly these were also the things that earned him that negative attention. He would hesitate when questioned, and Felbus would lash out for him not being confident. He would do as he was told, and they’d share condescending looks. “Eliza raised a damn pushover,” they’d say. He’d stopped doing much of anything, since that seemed to only make them mad at him, and was screamed at for being lazy. His attitude had grown sour from having no one to talk to, no one to support him, no one to tolerate his company. And of course, that attitude was a problem too.
And he knew deep inside that the only way to escape this abuse was to escape them. They were never going to change. People never change that much. Sure, they might eventually get to the point where the beatings stopped and the abuse became less frequent, but they were always going to hate him. They’d made that abundantly clear. So he’d thought up a plan. Foriel had resumed trade recently, after a long stint without it, due mostly to political unrest. Surely there he could escape. He could get away from everything, his relatives and memories of what had happened in Coasta Danora, all of it. He’d dropped hints from time to time, saying he’d heard good things about the schools there, hoping they’d send him to further his education and get him out of their hair. He’d taken a few odd jobs around town, at least where they would tolerate him, trying to earn some cash to at least get back to Coasta Danora. But none of it worked out.
Instead they decided to ship him off with no notice. Just threw a few things in a suitcase for him and yanked him outside with barely the details. Gods, he wanted to leave. And he hates himself for being upset. He got his wish. But he’d wanted to do it on his terms! He had plans! He had dreams! And now that he finally has his chance to escape? They’ve taken that away from him too. He was so close. Seventeen, this year. A fair amount of coin under his mattress. His eyes set on prospects across the sea. Hell, he’d have had a house in Coasta Danora, too, if his Uncle hadn’t ripped that away from him too. Forced to sign over the deed so it could be rented out or risk facing a beating. Just when freedom was in his sights, he was right back under their thumb. He wouldn’t be so sore about this if only he’d had more time to prepare, or had any say in the matter at all.
But, still, he tried to make the best of it. This rejection brought him nearly as much relief as it did pain. The only place he had left to call home, the only living people left he could call family, the last “safe” place he knew he would always have had just abandoned him, refused him, threw him out. No matter how horrible a place it was, it was a terrible thing to lose one’s only sense of “home,” and to have the choice to leave be stripped from you, for better or worse. But it was liberating. He could reach beyond that false self for a while, and dip his toes back into his true self. This felt inviting, this felt encouraging. He was moving on, starting fresh, and crossing the threshold into a new life. And the cementation of this reality was just around the bend; he was literally going to be waving goodbye to both his old selves, both his “homes,” leaving everything familiar. It would be a new continent, a new nation, a new province. And he couldn’t possibly sink lower than he already had. That was the only true benefit of hitting rock bottom - there was nowhere left to go but up. The natural inclination to fear the new and cling to the familiar was certainly a part of his current emotional state, but that wanderlust and thirst for something new, something brighter, was far more consuming than some petty fear.
The carriage lurched as it went over a bump and the soft sound of trotting hooves on dirt suddenly morphed into hard stomps on brick-paved streets. The carriage turned a corner and ground to a halt, the driver muttering a tranquil “whoa” to the draft horse pulling the cart. Emory rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and sat up, stretching as he felt the cart-driver dismount. The door to his left opened and the man held out a hand to help him out. Emory stepped out into the salt-thick air and the screeching of the gulls, shielding his eyes against the bright sunlight of his hometown, Coasta Danora. It looked much the same as Emory remembered it, brightly colored, whimsical architecture, flowers decorating the plaza and windowsills. It was recovering well for a town that had been attacked and nearly decimated not more than two years ago. The driver lifted the suitcase from the roof of the cart and handed it down to Emory who took the bag with a small “thank you.”
“So,” the old man mumbled, “you know your way around here? You sure you can get to the proper dock and everything?” Emory nodded. “Alright... Safe travels, boy.” The man tipped his hat and climbed back onto his cart again, heading back along the road to Torrundshire.
Emory sighed, hoisting the suitcase over his shoulder and heading off toward the docks. He took lovesick glances around him as he passed various landmarks, the school, the churchyard, the park benches and tables in the square. Everywhere he looked, he had flashes of his childhood here, of his mother and father, his old friends. This was the hardest thing to leave... Deserting this place, no matter how painful the memories of that dreadful night were, was going to eat him alive if he stayed too long, because the joyful memories he had were clawing at his heart, rending it in two, making each step harder and heavier. The weight of it all threatened to drag him to his knees, the anguish summoning tears to his eyes.
He kept on walking, even as that nostalgia tugged at his heart. He had to leave. He just had to. If he missed this boat, he would miss his chance to escape, and worse, he’d have to face Felbus again, having wasted the money they’d spent on his ticket. He doubted he’d survive that. He kept his eyes fixed forward, turning the corner down toward the docks. Then he froze, the air around him just as cold and still as his heart.
Before him was the familiar white form, terracotta shingles, squared windows, porch facing north with the little wind-chime and bird feeder hanging off the eaves. This was his house... this was where he grew up. It had been rebuilt almost perfectly, probably to match the other houses on the street that had managed to evade the flames, but he could pick out the differences; the tiles that used to be missing had been replaced, the bricks on the front stoop had been laid in a slightly different pattern, the little drawings he had done on the north wall with Mom’s expensive paints; the drawings his mother had scolded him for; the drawings that they all grew to love, of “Mommmy” and “Duddy” and “EEMORY!” with the backwards E’s... They had been painted over... The little handprints he had made in the fresh mortar when they poured out the porch foundation when he was five, gone, filled in.
The gnarled tree he used to climb as a boy, the one he had fallen from and skinned both hands and knees when he was seven, and mommy had been out, so daddy had to kiss them better; the tree where he had played house with Leah, his first friend ever, where they had “married” when they were 10 - absent, vanished, either burned during the Purge or uprooted during the remodeling and replaced with lilies and carnations. He knew that Leah herself was gone, too.
He remembered the time he had spent with her, his only real “friend.” It wasn’t that Emory was particularly shy... at least, not nearly as shy as he had become now. You could say he was just lacking in the people skills department. Leah was his first friend, and really, the only one he had needed as a child. She had kind of forced the relationship on him, tackling him on the field one day at school when Emory was about five-and-a-half. She had initiated and perpetuated the whole thing single-handedly. All Emory really had to do was sit there and let it happen. She was the talkative type. Maybe too talkative... Emory didn’t mind, though; a friend was a friend. She was a very... physical girl, too, always hugging him and tugging on his hair, pulling him this way or that by one of his arms to show him something so she could talk about it. They were both kind of misfits, really. He was so quiet that no one else paid him any mind; he was so easy to ignore. Leah, on the other hand, was so rambunctious that most other people couldn’t stand her. So that made them a pair of misfits. And in that, they were united. They weren’t alone anymore; they belonged.
Leah was always an odd child. She’d always had a habit of pairing things off, as far back as Emory could remember, even before Leah was really familiar with the concept of marriage. Once she was acquainted with the concept, however, she began to marry any two things that had a pulse, sometimes even things that didn’t. Aside from herself and Emory, Leah had married the pair of doves that visited their window box each year, even when it was obvious it was a different generation, the neighbor’s cat and dog (twice), the two squirrels that frequented Emory’s backyard, though they were both male and fought constantly, any two seagulls that were seen within close proximity of each other, regardless of the maintenance of that proximity, and once, she had married a dead skunk (found dead in the plaza after being hit by a carriage the previous night) with a pigeon she had spotted across from the fountain.
Emory hadn’t really understood it as an obsession back then, and even now, looking back, it still befuddled him. But he tolerated it then and it had become more endearing with age. Marriage, according to the general consensus, was “the most important event in a woman’s life.” So it vaguely made sense to Emory that Leah would be conditioned to try to marry everything. And Emory hadn’t minded being “married” to Leah, really. He didn’t see it as a serious thing, and he accepted it more to humor her than anything else. In reality, he had never had much interest in girls. Not in the same way Leah was interested in him, anyway. He wouldn’t be interested in that until he was 14. And when the interest did arise, it was never as important to him as it was to her, and to be perfectly honest, she just wasn’t his type. Hanging out with her was fun, but the thought of having to spend his entire life with her, together all the time, was exhausting.
His father had often teased him about their little “marriage,” asking him along with the usual “How was school today?” a playful “How’s the ‘wife?’” And “wife,” to ten-year-old Emory, had very little meaning outside of “Leah” and “my father is to my mother as husband is to wife.” So Emory wasn’t really all that bothered by the affectionate teasing at home, and the teasing had stopped well before he hit 13. Any bullying that had occurred because of it was usually dealt with by Leah. She chased away almost anyone that tried to poke fun at Emory about his “girlfriend,” correcting them by introducing the term “wife” and beating the tar out of anyone stupid enough not to run when she charged at them. Needless to say, she was sent home quite often.
The last time he saw her was after the events of the Purge. Nearly everyone lost their home, and a lot of people in Emory’s neighborhood died. He lived near the docks, so “escaping” meant running into the plaza and then out to the fields. That, of course, meant running toward the people with the swords. Emory lost both his parents that night, and Leah lost her mother. Her father, Borris, had offered to take him along with them now that he had no family. They were going to travel the world, as Borris had always been the religious sort, and he felt it was time to spread the good word beyond their little seaside town. Leah had begged him to come with her, but Emory clung to the last thing his mother had told him: go to his Aunt and Uncle in Torrundshire. That meant family. That meant a home. It was more appealing than traveling, anchorless and alone, at the time. This was, of course, before Emory knew what horrible people his Aunt and Uncle were. He wished he had gone with Leah that day, but there was no way to change that now. He had no way of knowing where she was, no way of contacting her. She might have been in Foriel for all he knew. But the only way he’d be meeting her again would be if some ridiculous spark of luck brought them together. And with the prospects ahead of him, that seemed the most unlikely of chance events. All things considered, she was gone.
Rage boiled up within him, wetting his eyes with tears of frustration. Nothing was sacred, was it? He’d felt it when he had to sign things over to Felbus, and he was feeling it just as strongly now. This home was his birthright. Felbus went around the law to take it from him. Leah was his oldest friend. Circumstance had parted them. His father and mother had always been there for him. Death stole them. The happy memories he made in this town, the only things that couldn’t be taken, were tainted instead by the memories of that dreadful night. Everything started with that night, didn’t it? If his parents had lived, he wouldn’t be here. If he had gone with Leah, he wouldn’t be here. If that night had never happened, he wouldn’t be here.
It had been haunting him at the back of his mind, the likelihood of this horrid reality, but he had denied it, avoided thinking about it, ignored it for so long because it gave him one ray of hope. He couldn’t ignore it anymore. Now there was nothing left for him in Coasta Danora... Nothing. The bitterest of tears stung his eyes and poured down his sorrow-streaked cheeks, tracing over the tears that had come before. Goodbyes were always difficult, Emory knew that... and every minute he spent there, surrounded by broken memories, made it harder to stay, but infinitely more painful to leave. He had to remind himself that pain like this wouldn’t last, and more importantly, that his new life awaited him across the seas. He couldn’t let these emotions drag him down, not with everything else that was at stake. Wounds of the past would heal with time, so he needed to focus on the future. He hurriedly wiped his tears away on the corner of his shirt, dashing off toward the harbor to board the vessel that would take him away from all this... the ship that would take him to Foriel.
Knowing his cheap relatives, he half-expected a dinghy, but was pleasantly surprised when he arrived at the dock, taking in the form of the majestic vessel as it loomed over the others at the jetties. Though steam engines were starting to spread across the sea, they were rare here, so as much as Emory had wanted to see a steamboat, he couldn’t be too disappointed by their absence. Steam-power was costly, even in Foriel, and Carmella had only a few steam-ships, most of which were on commission for Boreo for business and trade purposes with Foriel. So to see one here would have required an excess of luck that Emory didn’t really have. He didn’t mind, though. He’d see one someday. Besides, there was something nostalgic about the old sailing ships.
The ship he was to board was a sturdy looking vessel, with crisp white sails and a robust wooden hull - Emory figured it was probably an oak hull with what smelled like cedar planking (how unusual that after years at sea it still retained some of its spicy scent.) It had the same smell as his uncle’s workshop, but stronger, wafted on the scent of the sea. The smell made him uneasy. Add some lacquer and it would have smelled just like those gruff hands that flew at him without warning. Add the smell of leather on top, and it would match the scent of the boots that were thrown at him from across the room, followed by that booming voice. Top it off with the smell of liquor, and it matched his chapped lips, vomiting abuse and a bellyful of whiskey, neither of which were pleasant and both in the same night was not uncommon. Emory swallowed hard, trying not to think of it.
He did manage to appreciate the look of the ship, however unnerved the smell made him. He had never seen a ship quite like it. The artistic aspects - carved figure-head, rail detail, and all the rest of the little novel wood-workings - were unlike anything Emory had witnessed before; it was undoubtedly of Forielic origin, if only because it was so unique. He knew only a little about seafaring and boats and the like and much less about carpentry and the technical things more suited to a shipwright than a boy such as himself. It was a caravel, he knew that much at least, but it was the first time he’d be riding on one. As a boy, he’d been to the harbor, learned about the different ships and some of the nautical terms: port, starboard, fore and aft... Main, mizzen, and foremast, but the individual sails were beyond his scope, never mind the complex rigging. He recognized words like “keel” and “hull,” but didn’t really remember how to distinguish the difference... the keel was the back part of the hull if he remembered correctly, but he wouldn’t feel confident in that answer if you asked him. He also knew of something called the “Fo’c’s’le”, but he didn’t have any clue what that was or where to find it on a ship; he only remembered because it was such a strange word. And of all things he remembered learning, marlinspike stuck out, if only because it reminded him of the inn he’d be staying at when he arrived in Vassoca. “The Marlin’s Tail,” it was called. After that, he would be taken from Vassoca to Favela by cart; two Goravords named Skurl and Chel had agreed to take him. From Favela, he’d be escorted on horseback to Pengrad by an orc, Batulin Grashol. Emory wasn’t all that eager to be mingling with the beast-folk and orcs so soon in his travels, but he supposed he’d be meeting all sorts of people in Foriel, and he would just have to get used to it.
Still, all these concerns paled in comparison to the thing that had been bothering him most about this new “job.” He still had no idea of the particulars. He knew not for whom he would be working, nor what position he might be expected to fill, what capacities he might be required to demonstrate. He’d really only been told the bare essence of it all: he was to meet with a man named Haskell outside of the Inkpot Inn, and from there, he would be shown around town before being led to his new residence and workplace - the manor of his new lord and master, some nobleman whose name his aunt and uncle hadn’t even done the favor of providing. Emory could really only think of two reasons for that: either his aunt and uncle didn’t care enough to mention something as inconsequential as a name - or perhaps just couldn’t be bothered to remember it - or, as Emory was more inclined to believe, they deliberately avoided mentioning the name because this noble was infamous for one reason or another, and didn’t want to lose the prospect of a potential income just because Emory (or any sane person) would refuse to work for someone like that. They seemed just the kind to do that, to place him in the servitude of a less-than-respectable rich man just to earn a little cash and avoid dealing with their “burden of a nephew.” Still, Emory wasn’t going to worry too much about that, not yet at least. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than his current life, and he couldn’t imagine anyone crueler than his aunt and uncle. Already, just the relief of being away from them - far enough that it would be a bother to come after him and drag him home by the hair for abusing - made him optimistic. If things somehow managed to get worse, he’d worry about it then. Worrying, after all, didn’t make his life any better, and at the moment, the possibility of change seemed much more inviting than living this hellish life any longer.
He dug around in his pockets for his identification papers and the ticket his aunt and uncle had given him. He presented the papers to the burly man guarding the ship. He scanned them, gave a quick nod, tore the ticket, and handed the rest of the boy’s personal papers back to Emory. “Down the stairs on the foredeck, first room on the left. Dinner is at 5:00, breakfast at 6:00, and lunch at noon. But, remember, this ain’t no pleasure cruise, so in the event of a squall, everyone helps, including you. Other than that, you’re free to do as you please. You get your orders from that man there.” He pointed to a tall, dark-skinned man with wiry hair and a scruffy beard and a long coat who was standing behind the helm, taking wind measurements and charting a course on a map. “Captain Tucher’s his name. If he tells you somethin’, you’d best do it. Not that he’d have a reason to, unless... you know, a storm blows up. Just try to stay out of the way, alright, kid?”
Emory nodded. He stuffed his papers back into his pocket and hoisted his case over his shoulder, climbing the ramp from the dock to the deck, stumbling a bit as the rolling waves shifted the boat. He blushed and righted himself quickly before anyone noticed his clumsiness, and took extra care in walking in a (somewhat) dignified manner as he ascended the rest of the ramp. It wasn’t that he didn’t have sea-legs. He did. He really did. Seemingly permanent ones actually. Thankfully, Emory had grown up around boats most of his childhood, and he never got sea-sick, but he didn’t have the most graceful gait, even on solid ground, so movement didn’t help him much. Once on deck, he was a bit better, not having to adjust his stride to accommodate an incline like before. He took a quick look about the ship, trying to remember all the things his dad had taught him about ships as a boy. He wished he had listened more, but... well, he was a boy, short attention span and all that. He had never really expected to need to know things like rigging and navigation, but now, when he might be asked to pitch in during a storm, he was a bit worried that he’d mess things up, or just plain embarrass himself, not knowing what was what. He had never really expected to be without his father, either, and a small part of him that had recognized the importance of the lessons as a child had just assured him that, if he needed a refresher, he could always ask Dad. Now, that was not an option. He wracked his brain, able to recall a few things, the names of the masts - the foremast, main mast, and mizzen mast, all in the proper order from the bow to the stern; the booms which could be manipulated easily to hoist both square sails and lateen sails; some of the running rigging (though he mostly remembered the terms themselves and not their purpose or the actual thing referred to by said term), mainly the clewgarnet, halyards, tacks, and sheets. Other than that, he really only knew the basic terminology that any layman would know who had ever heard of a boat - sails, rudder, helm, flag, rope, anchor, chain, hull, deck, cannon, crew, wind, squall, seagull, and ocean.
He felt more and more useless every time his eyes glanced over at a thing he could not name, or muddled with some purpose of a component he could not decipher, and he dejectedly trudged down the stairs, hoping for fair weather for the expressly selfish purpose of not having to help out. He turned the old brass knob on the first door on the left, and slunk into the room, kicking the door shut with his foot as soon as he was inside. It was smaller than he thought it would be, about half the size of his room back home, but he supposed that ships like these reserved much more room for cargo and supplies for profit and ease of travel. Most of the crew was on deck during the day, some continuing for part of the night watch. Only 40 percent of the crew was ever really below deck at any time, and usually all sleeping, preparing to rotate for the next shift. Emory supposed that made excessive sleeping space meaningless and unprofitable.
There were two hammocks, hanging one above the other, on the left side of the room, and a small table and two chairs directly ahead of him. A storage rack was to his right, bolted to the floor with netting around each shelf to prevent the contents from shifting out during rough weather. A few bottles of preserves and some medicine took up some space on the bottom shelf and a bag of flour rested on the second shelf. A tunic and belt were folded in a tight bundle beside that and what appeared to be a loincloth was hanging over the netting. Emory cringed and wondered idly if it had been worn recently as he stuffed his bag into the space between the third shelf and the top shelf, right beside a small floral print dress and leggings. The blond sighed and walked the short distance back over to the hammock, collapsing onto what he thought was an unoccupied pile of blankets and pillows. Unfortunately, the pile was not quite as unoccupied as he thought...
“REEEEOOOOOW!” A sound akin to an amplified cat’s yowl pierced the air, and claws sank into Emory’s tender buttocks as the covers beneath him stirred into a little, musty storm of faded green and white as whatever he had sat on attempted to claw its way out from under his buns. Emory let out his own wail of pain and surprise as ten little daggers hooked into his ass and he sprang immediately to his feet, rubbing the spot where he had been groped and staring at the frumpy mess of sheets as his “attacker” emerged.
“What is the big idea?! Ma’I’Kau will skin the fool alive!” A feisty ball of sandy fur and fury sprang at him, claws and fangs bared. So close to a lion, but not a lion. It was a child, or, at least, it was almost a child. It had a body like human, but the face and legs were too dissimilar. It had fur, top to bottom, and walked on its toes. Round, fluffy ears swiveled back in anger, whiskered muzzle wrinkling as pearly teeth gleamed, nostrils flaring and a piercing glare burning through amber eyes. Paw-like hands were at Emory’s throat, claws extended, and a being almost too light for its apparent frame was upon his chest, pinning him to the floor. “Ma’I’Kau does not appreciate being sat on,” the creature hissed.
Emory, dumbfounded, stared up into those golden eyes, not knowing how, exactly, to classify his assailant or what he ought to do to avoid its wrath. He supposed he should begin with an apology, but he found himself nearly entirely disabled, simply from the shock of such and unexpected confrontation. “I-I’m s-s-sorry...” the blond mumbled, flinching as the grip around his throat tightened, nails digging into his skin.
“What is ‘it’ doing in Ma’I’Kau’s room, and what does ‘it’ want?” By now, Emory was certain that this “Ma’I’Kau” was this cat-boy’s name, but the “it” in this context made no sense.
“’It?’ What ‘it?’” Emory asked, earning a frustrated growl in response.
“This is Ma’I’Kau,” the boy pointed to himself, “What is it called?!” Ma’I’Kau pointed at some non-descript component of Emory.
“Y-you mean me?” Emory wondered aloud in a skeptical tone. The furry child flew into a fit.
“Agh! Kekefa Forielta liktaa! Yes! The one that sat on Ma’I’Kau! The one that has just been pounced on! The one Ma’I’Kau is on top of! What is its name?!”
Emory blushed, suddenly feeling responsible for this miscommunication. Of course the creature would be asking who he was. “O-oh... I’m Emory...” the blond muttered. “Sorry... I’ve never talked to a creature like you before, and--” The claws at his throat curled against his flesh, dangerously close to drawing blood.
“Ma’I’Kau... is not... a ‘creature.’” The threatening tone made Emory shake, though this might have appeared an empty threat to an outsider, who would have seen the ridiculous size difference between the two, with Ma’I’Kau being comically diminutive compared to Emory. “Ma’I’Kau is Allurinthine. Ingonyan Allurinthine, okay?”
“Okay,” Emory squeaked.
“Good.” Ma’I’Kau forcibly let go of the boy. “Now, what does ‘Emory’ want, here?”
“I-I was told to c-come here. Th-the man at the d-dock told me that this w-was to be my room.”
“Ah, so it is the ‘fresh meat’ Ma’I’Kau has heard about... such a mata allu Emory is...”
“Mataloo?” Emory pointed to himself with a questioning look. He had smashed the words together poorly, but even had he not, it would have been impossible for him to extrapolate the meaning.
“Mata allu.” Ma’I’Kau corrected. “It is what Ma’I’Kau’s people call their young. Torens might use the term ‘kitten’ or ‘cub.’”
“Torens?” Nearly every term the Ingonyan boy was using confused Emory.
“Emory is not Toren? Morson?” Emory shook his head. “Well, he is certainly not Embralten.”
“Embralten? I don’t understand!” Emory threw his hands up, too frustrated to care that he was acting more childish than Ma’I’Kau.
“Ngh... men use some term for this... ‘Race?’ Yes, that is it. What race does Emory belong to?”
“Human.” Emory said indignantly, as though that should be obvious.
“Yes, but what kind?”
“No kind, just human.”
“What were the parents?”
“So he does not know his own race. That is amusing.” Ma’I’Kau howled with laughter, seeming to forget his prior anger toward the boy. “Then Ma’I’Kau decides that Emory is a Morde. That is the closest Foriel has for ‘just human.’” He folded his arms proudly. “Ma’I’Kau is smarter than little Morde kitten! Even though Ma’I’Kau only has ten years! How many years has Emory got?”
“Huh? Oh, how old am I? I’m seventeen.” Emory found it a little easier to understand Ma’I’Kau now that he knew what to expect from the boy’s peculiar speech pattern.
“Ha! If Emory was Allurinthine, his friends would be embarrassed and would never let him take the nickname Gan’Emory! No! Not even Mata’Emory! That is what Ma’I’Kau would do! Mata allu sen loro loro ma’te’yuuran va ha oto se wa mata’marrahma. Mata mata’marrahma M’Emory!" Ma’I’Kau said, before he burst out laughing hysterically.
All Emory could make out was a lot of “ma” syllables and something like his name before the Ingonyan was rolling on the floor, screeching. “Wh-what’s so funny?!” Emory demanded, picking himself off the floor and dusting himself off at last.
“Ah, it cannot be translated to be quite as funny; Sher’Liktaa does not translate well to any language. All it needs to know, ‘M’Emory,’ is it will always be a ‘kitten’ if it doesn’t get out and see the world!”
“’M’Emory?’ What are you talking about now?!” Emory was frustrated beyond words, barely able to follow the conversation. Just when he thought he’d gotten the hang of it, the boy was throwing new words at him.
“’Ma’ is a Sher’Liktaa word, meaning ‘small’ but is used for many words like child and virgin! Ma’I’Kau is a child. M’Emory is a virgin!” Ma’I’Kau snickered, swishing his tail.
Emory turned a bright shade of pink. “I-I’m not--! W-well, I kinda am, but... What d-does that have to do with anything a-anyw-way?!”
“Virgins are,” Ma’I’Kau took a few moments to find the right word, “in-ex-per-i-enced,” he enunciated to make sure he said it right. “M’Emory has much to learn.”
“W-well, then teach me!” Emory said with a determined look.
“Hmph, Ma’I’Kau would like to teach little Morde, but Ma’I’Kau must sleep now. Ma’I’Kau must be alert for the Night Watch.”
“O-okay! I’ll sleep, too, and come with you for the night shift! You can teach me then!”
“No, Ma’I’Kau has a job. Ma’I’Kau is the only Allurinthine on Night Watch. Ma’I’Kau must use his natural eyes to watch for rocks and must help the Captain with his charts, and climb the yards and haul the lines, and much, much more work that only Ma’I’Kau can do.”
“Oh... Oh, I see.” Emory sulked. He really knew so little about Foriel, and this boy was a native to that land. He could afford to learn so much before he arrived, and he would need to if he wanted to make a good impression. He didn’t want to accidentally insult his new boss like he had insulted Ma’I’Kau, and knowing the traditions of the land, its various cultures and customs, the social hierarchy, everything was important.
“However...” Ma’I’Kau added, “Ma’I’Kau can teach M’Emory at meals... And if M’Emory wants to follow Ma’I’Kau, he won’t try to stop M’Emory.”
“R-really?! Thank you!” Emory was beaming.
Ma’I’Kau climbed back into the hammock and balled up under the covers. “In exchange, mata allu will help Ma’I’Kau to master this ridiculous language. Deal?”
“Deal.” The Allurinthine stuck his paw out from under the covers, a gesture that was unmistakably meant as a handshake cue, and Emory took it in his own hand without hesitation.
“He may take the top.” Ma’I’Kau pointed at the hammock hanging over him. “Ma’I’Kau will explain things to Zho’Ka’Sha when she gets back.”
“Zho’Ka’Sha?” Emory inquired as he climbed the narrow wooden steps built into the wall, practically throwing himself into the hammock to avoid losing his footing trying to make the awkward reach-around to the suspended cloth.
“Ma’I’Kau’s kanpa. Morde might prefer the word ‘sister.’” Emory thought to himself that she must be the owner of that dress he saw. “She is the only other Allurinthine on this boat. Sister does all the Day Work, because she is older and can do more than Ma’I’Kau can. Ma’I’Kau is important because Ma’I’Kau is small; Ma’I’Kau can fit places others cannot. Soon, Zho’Ka’Sha will be too big, and Ma’I’Kau will have to take the Day Work instead. Right now, we are valuable because we are small, but soon, we will be valuable because we are Allurinthine. We see in the dark, and are natural climbers. Zho’Ka’Sha is good with magic, and Ma’I’Kau is an acrobat; together, we get the important things done here.”
“So... You don’t have parents?” Emory asked hesitantly. Surely someone so young wouldn’t be working if he did have family, right? Emory was familiar with the pain of losing his parents, and he knew how touchy this subject could be, but his curiosity just couldn’t be contained. Besides, talking about it was supposed to help, right?
Ma’I’Kau took a moment to reply. “Morde really doesn’t know anything about the world, does he? Our parents... Allurinthines in general... are taken from Agh’tarra, our home. Zho’Ka’Sha and Ma’I’Kau were lucky. We journeyed to Cindel. We got work, we keep our freedom. Some are lucky like us... some are not so lucky.”
“What happens to the... ‘not-so-lucky’ ones?” Emory probed prudently, curious, but knowing full well that the slightest mistake in his wording could provoke anger or stir up bad memories in the boy, and Emory was not only concerned for himself (additional claw marks were not a fashion he coveted), but he sympathized with the young Allurinthine. His own parents had been “not-so-lucky.”
“They become slaves; old, young, doesn’t matter. Different provinces take them, but mostly Al-Athir. Slavery is still common there. Most who are taken never come back...”
“I’m sorry...” Emory muttered, genuinely upset to hear that such a thing was not banned. Slavery tore families apart just as much as war did. And at least the refugees of war had some closure in knowing their loved ones were dead. The Allurinthines left behind did not even have the benefit of knowing whether their loved one was still suffering. Emory wrapped the blankets around himself tighter, starting to dislike this new nation and its providential laws.
“Mata allu has no reason to be sorry. He should be happy he does not grow up knowing this. He was blessed to be kept innocent M’Emory all these years. Ma’I’Kau had to grow up early to survive. But Ma’I’Kau is also lucky, and so he is happy. Ma’I’Kau got away; Ma’I’Kau got a chance to grow up. Growing up early and free is better than not growing up at all...”
What a morbid thing to say. Emory whimpered, suddenly preferring the hellish life on his own shores to this horrible New World. “Is it like that everywhere?” Emory whispered.
“No. Most places not. Some places are worse than Al-Athir, some are better.”
“Wh-what about, uh...” it took Emory a few moments to recall the name of the province County Pengrad was located in, “Cindel. What is it like there?”
“So far, Ma’I’Kau thinks it is the best of the provinces he has visited. Slavery is banned, but it was not always. The laws are still a bit fuzzy too. But at least there is the freedom to grow and change. Cindel is many things, but above all, it is free. Ma’I’Kau likes that best. You can buy Cornrot there...” Ma’I’Kau purred.
“It is a gift from the gods, according to Ma’I’Kau’s people. They say that when the first Allurinthine was taken from his home by a foreigner, the gods wept for him, and the damp of their tears let the spores of Cornrot grow in his fur. And when he arrived and set to work in the fields, the fungus spread to all the corn. The foreigners, they took the fungus and tried to poison the slave, to punish him for bringing the curse, but it did not work. Instead the slave had sweet dreams of his homeland. His captors eventually died, for they had no corn to trade or eat, and the slave was soon free. We Allurinthine eat it, and we receive the blessings of the gods to make up for the curse of mortal greed which causes others to enslave us. Ma’I’Kau loved Cornrot as a mata allu; used to sneak out to the fields late at night and steal a bit, because young ones usually aren’t allowed to have it, except on very special occasions.”
“Sounds... interesting...” Emory nodded, wondering what could possibly be so special about this fungus, and if the young Allurinthine actually believed that legend. “What is it used for? Ceremonial purposes?”
“And Frillex...” The Allurinthine boy yawned.
Emory gaped, certain he had heard wrong. “Wh-what?!”
“Cornrot is refined to create a drug: Frillex. Men and fen tend to not be able to handle its effects like Allurinthines do, so it is usually best for them to not touch the stuff. However, some seem to have quite pleasant reactions. Depends on the person. Used for fun, mostly, especially among men in Cindel.”
Emory fell conspicuously silent. His bunkmate, a mere child, was already familiar with - a user of! - Frillex, the one thing his aunt and uncle emphatically forbade him to get involved with. Not that he cared all that much about what they thought of him. They just happened to share the same opinion on the subject. Emory had a certain disdain for drugs. Maybe it was just from lack of knowledge on the subject, or the prevalent stereotype that all drug users were all self-abusing addicts suffering from the vices of one drug or another. More than likely it stemmed from Felbus’s poor example as an abusive alcoholic. Whatever the case, Emory didn’t fancy keeping drug-users in his circle of “friends.”
But, this boy was his only teacher... this was his only chance to really familiarize himself with this new country, its citizens, and their cultures. And the kid seemed all-in-all a good person. Maybe he was just making it all up, to seem “cool” or “adult” to Emory, showing off and perpetuating his own notion of superiority by demonstrating his knowledge of the dark, seedy underbelly of Forielic life by falsifying experiences that would seem “mature.”
“I see.” Emory’s blunt response finally came, hiding whatever distrust the boy’s tale - false or not - had instilled in him.
“This ship stops in Vassoca. M’Emory is lucky. Cindel will be the first province M’Emory will see. Travelers always remember their first province fondly.”
“I sure hope so...” Emory murmured. He thought on the new hardships he would have to face, assimilating into the culture. From what he’d heard, the country had recently been in turmoil. Something called the Outlander Crisis had just been resolved, and many of the provinces and counties therein were still recovering from the damage done. They likely wouldn’t be too accepting of strangers, and national relations were only stable between Carmella and Foriel because of the trade routes established between the Empire and Boreolan Kingdom. The only time Forielans were seen in Carmella was at port cities, conducting trade, and they hardly stayed longer than a week at a time. The same was true of Boreolans and Avalornians in Foriel. Heck, up until recently, Boreo and Avalorn weren’t even on good terms with each other. Emory’s prior excitement at the prospect of a new life was quickly fading, suddenly aware that it would likely be the same as his assimilation into life in Torrundshire. No one would like him, he’d be pushed around and bullied, and it would largely be the same life as before.
Emory had been falling in and out of phases of complete ecstasy and dejection. Certainly there was elation at the fantasy of a pleasant, carefree, promising future that awaited him across the seas - a place of unlimited opportunities and endless possibilities. But that discouraging sense of doom, kept creeping in, that pessimistic sense of certainty that a life of hardship and toil would be foisted on him upon his arrival in a land so alien and different, and that lingering realization that he would be more of an outsider than ever before. Conflicting emotions had been stirring in him, even as he boarded the carriage to the port at Torrundshire. But deep down, Emory - like all people - hoped for happiness, yearned for fulfillment with every cell in his body, and only that kept pushing those bad thoughts to the back of his mind, repeating to himself the same mantra that assured him “change will be good. Opportunities, freedom, and happiness await you; you just need to get there...”
The emotional turmoil of the day had exhausted him, and by now, drowsiness had begun to take hold. Emory pulled the blanket up over his face; it was old and smelled of the sea, but it was comforting. It smelled like home... Coasta Danora... If he could find a single comfort that quelled both the excitement and depression and brought him some measure of peace, it was the comfort in knowing that the same sea connected his old home to his new home. “G’night, Ma’I’Kau...” Emory mumbled, closing his eyes, letting the swaying of the hammock in response to the rolling waves soothe him.
“It is not night.” Ma’I’Kau snickered. “We say ’benne dara,’ or ‘good sleep’ to avoid that mistake.” Emory just hummed, too tired to really pay attention. “Ara mon’temo. Until moon-rise, then, M’Emory...” the Allurinthine whispered with a smile. “So much to learn, and only a month to teach it...”
As both boys drifted to sleep, the ship pulled up anchor and set off toward Foriel, and Emory’s future.