Part I: Seth of None - Prologue
The world was white and unforgiving.
I looked into Lydia’s eyes, red-rimmed and ice-blue. She was beautiful, like an angel, her face dirty and her waves of pale hair matted underneath a stained, green winter hat. We were in different lines of prisoners, I in a line of spiny boys, her chained to a line of budding adolescent girls. The train taking us away jittered underneath us. She looked like she was a year or two older than me, and in a bad way. She was pretty. I heard what happened to pretty girls no one cared about, and apparently smooth-skinned little boys, too. We’d be separated to different destinations by the Xavians the moment we left the train. We’d be friends only for tonight, and say things we didn’t mean so we wouldn’t be afraid.
I shouted over the engine that I would escape the work camp and come after her. Just wait for me, one day we’ll run away, we have a promise we’re going to run away. She nodded hard.
“I’ll come for you, you just hold on! You just have to hold on!”
She nodded to me. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Seth!”
The moment they pulled me from my mother’s arms, something in me died as surely as the gunshot that would tip her over into a mass grave. “It’s okay, Seth, you go. You go with them. I love you, Seth, be brave,” she was bargaining with the Xavian deportment guards like we were all on the same side now. “He’s a boy. He’s small enough to fit in the machines. He can work a few years.” Her hair was long and soft and the color of ink, her eyes had been furrowed with determination. No fear, no panic, no pain. She didn’t cry. She just pushed me into the hands of the men with red hair in the grey, stiff-pressed uniforms, the men that we’d hidden and ran from, while they pulled the two of us away.
I called for her, but she’d prepared for this. The comb my father had given her, the only thing she’d kept when we fled our manor in the dead of night without me knowing why—she’d tucked it into the back of my shirt, where it stayed, the lines of its teeth and the smooth drops of pearl pressed into my small bare back by my spine. It was mine, even though I had no hair to comb through. She looked over her shoulder, nodded to me. “Seth, you live. No weakness.” I reached for her, my eyes blurred. They’d carried me sobbing to the train and clapped me into the irons, she was gone in the blurring world of tears and crowd, and was gone. The train rocked and began to move. It was taking us back into Xavia. We had almost made it to the Kyja border, but it was crawling with Xavian soldiers there. Of course we were caught. There was no change we’d have smuggled through the wall and back into our home country unnoticed. It was a pipe dream.
Lydia and I didn’t have to say anything else. We just looked at each other, eye to eye. Hour after hour. The two of us. It was almost like a meditation, like a trance. We’d stopped our tears. I’d long since lost any and all feeling, but we both knew the worst was to come. Inside the car, everything was metal. As much as possible, we’d clustered to burn our fingers on few vents in the floor that gave a few meager gusts of heat, pushing against each other, pulling against the chains that always left someone caught between two groups to freeze. White and steel as the wind blew and slammed the train in shuddering gusts, like the winter was hyperventilating.
I didn’t know how much time had passed, but then the train whistle was blaring so loudly there was nothing else. It was deafening the wind and the sound of the track in pure alarm.
All the sudden I had no weight. The world threw me hard into the body of another boy. The chains on my arms tore into my wrists and wrenched the sockets of my shoulders. The roar of screeching metal wracked the car. I saw it from the outside like I’d left my body. The car of the train tore off the track, slalomed and shaved against the side of the ravine, ricocheted when the remainder of the train stopped, and fell over on its side. My ears were ringing. In the haze, there was a groan like the roar of a dying giant, and then a sickening crack. The train settled slightly and stopped.
I blinked, dazed. Everything was… crooked. The whole train car was sideways, and had torn open before it tipped on its side. My back was in the snow, there was freezing wet on my neck. Someone was on top of me. A boy. He wasn’t moving. When I pushed him, he fell heavily, with his neck not quite at the right angle. I heard my own voice before I knew what I was saying. “Lydia?”
I was looking around for Lydia. I saw a twisted piece of metal that had buckled and begun to stick up, torn. I looked at my hands, at the irons. They weren’t well-made, simple and low-tech, if I could shove something inside the lock, it might come loose. Dizzily, I stuck one of the cuffs on the broken piece of metal… a piece of window pane, that had been twisted up sharp during the crash. I drove the point into the lock and thrashed uselessly. The lock popped. I couldn’t get my other wrist to do the same thing, no matter how hard I tried. Then I realized I could use the other cuff, the latch that stuck out of it, maybe. I tried to work quickly, my hands were shaking, too cold. Seth, be brave. The cuff loosened a little, but wouldn’t open all the way. It moved enough to me to pull out a raw, aching wrist, scraping the skin off my knuckles and the meat of my palm. It didn’t matter. I tried to take a step, I tried to take the chains off my feet. I don’t know how long that took, but then I was looking at my feet in the mismatched boots my mother had stolen from a boy who was asleep in a gutter three weeks ago. “Lydia?”
I was standing in a sideways train car of fallen people. Some boys and girls were sitting and standing, some were looking dazed. “Look, the metal. I can unlock it.” I said to a boy, one with dark hair and dark eyes, pointing to the spike on which my irons had become disengaged. I looked around, looking for Lydia. I saw her chest moving in the thin, brown leather coat, I saw the frizz of her hair under the green hat. I stumbled towards Lydia. “Lydia? Lydia?”
“Seth.” She said, her lips moving, as if underwater.
“Lydia, you should get up.”
“Seth, I can’t feel my legs.”
She had blood on her head. I pulled a scarf off someone who wasn’t moving and pressed it on the gash in her head. “Lydia, hold this here. I’m going to get this person off of you.” I said, pushing the draping body that wasn’t moving at all.
She pushed the scarf to her head quietly. Minutes passed. Maybe it was years.
“Have we found all the supplies? What is that one?” A voice came from outside, almost snatched by the wind. I looked up.
There were feet and hands pressed to the windows above us, blocking the light streaming in. And then pair of gloved hands was opening a window above all of us.
“Prisoners, sir. Some are still alive.”
A man with a big chest and a thick, warm, fur coat dropped into the lopsided car. He looked around.
“You, you, and you.” He said, pointing to a big boy, and the black-haired boy that I’d shown the spike to, and a blonde one who limped. “Come here.” They went to the man in the big fur coat. “Are you injured?”
“No, sir,” said the big boy.
“No, sir,” said the black-haired boy.
“My leg’s wrong, sir.” The blond, limping, his ankle and his knee looking wrong.
“You can go back and sit down.” The man in the coat said to the blond boy. He had to be warm, under that much fur. He didn’t call any of the girls.
“But sir, I can work—”
“Sit down.” He commanded. He looked at the big boy and the black-haired one. “You two will come with us.”
“What about the rest of us, sir?” I called, holding the scarf to Lydia’s head. Lydia was holding my hand and breathing even and slow.
“We can’t take you.”
An older boy dropped into the car, bundled up and covered in snow. His voice was stony and dispassionate, his hair was red under his hat and his hood. A Xavian, but he spoke the northern language. “There’s a blizzard in the distance, sir. We need to go.”
My heart sunk. Seth, be brave. “Please, she’s injured. She needs some help.”
The red-haired Xavian looked at me. “All the more reason.” His disinterested, maroon-eyed gaze landed on the two boys in front of him. “Who let everyone out of the chains?”
We froze, paralyzed. I was dead already. Seth, be brave. “It was me, sir. There was a spike from the window pane that fit in the lock.” I said, my voice thin as the threadbare patches of my coat, swallowing.
“We should take him over one of the others, Master Teacher. He’s smart.” The big boy and the black haired boy looked at each other.
“We’ll take all three if you have room on your horse.”
“As you wish, Master Teacher.” He knelt and laced his fingers and the man stepped on his hands and he lifted him up through the window. The Xavian boy cocked his head for the two that they were taking with him, among the chorus of “please don’t leave us,” the girls and smaller boys crying that they were healthy too. He cocked his head to me.
I choked, “Sir, I can’t leave her.”
“She’s going to die. You can either come or die too.”
Lydia squeezed my hand, her eyes shut. “Seth?”
“Yes, Lydia? Yes?”
“What was your home like?”
“I don’t know, I grew up in Xavia on the Olesgren coast.”
“No, where’s your family from?”
“Andhiem,” I replied. I looked to her, looked to him, looked frantically back to her. We’d just met yesterday. We weren’t going to leave until we were dragged apart. Why was she asking me about the capitol of Kyja? Andhiem was a terrible place, my mother said, the city of missing kings, there was a running saying that everyone in the city was someone’s bastard with some royal blood and a bogus claim to the throne, that there wasn’t a person alive there that wasn’t involved in some sort of coup attempt, and anyone would slit his father’s throat. My mother called it the city of sin.
“Then you have to go. You could be a king.” She squeezed my hand and slowly pulled mine from hers, but she looked so afraid. We’d promised, and we’d met yesterday, when my world ended, when I was pushed from my mother’s arms. We were no one. We were refugees, not kings, not queens, and no one would remember us. She was going to die of exposure. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do.
A voice shouted down to the Xavian boy. “Keep it moving, Zimora!”
The Xavian boy’s—Zimora’s—arms picked me up like I was an empty sack and lifted me into the grasp of the man with the coat. He put me aside on the top of the train roughly. The world was white, the snow coming in drifts. At the head of the train, a landslide—an avalanche—of snow had blocked the way. The world was white, and I wanted to get back in the train where Lydia was.
The Xavian boy seized one of my forearms and I stumbled along behind him, up the rocks making up the side of the ravine the train rain through. Horses and more men were on top. He lifted me and loaded me onto a horse, and settled on behind me. A sharp order was given but I couldn’t remember what it was, and the horses and sleds, loaded with sacks and boxes of supplies, began to sprint. I didn’t know why I was crying. The boy, Zimora, didn’t say anything to me. Just kept kicking his heels into the animal and pushing it hard.
“Where are we going?” I finally found enough voice to say.
He looked at me and I shuddered, he had eyes the color of the blood that was always draining between the cobblestones of the butcher shop where our cook bought her meats when we lived by the sea. A pound of pork, a side of beef. I didn’t want him to look at me. “A village,” the boy said blandly, like I was stupid.
“Why?” I demanded.
He didn’t answer the question.
“Who are you? Are you Xavian?”
He still didn’t answer the question. The miles passed as the horses sprinted to outrun the storm. I was taken into a big cabin, where there was an old woman who was peering in my eyes and at my teeth, with a teenage girl with dark hair helping her heat something on the fire. I didn’t think I could eat food. The Xavian boy was looking at me again when he said, “You train hard, and maybe some day your life will be worth something.” I wanted to hide, but wanting to hide made me feel angry with a heat that would never die down. And then everything blurred—
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