Lydia, the last day of our life.
We were in different lines of prisoners, I in a line of spiny boys, her chained to a line of budding adolescent girls. Frost had long since encroached over the windows and steel walls of the seat-barren car. All of us strained against each other and the shackles to huddle. The world was white and unforgiving. The train wracked and shuddered every time a gust blew, cranking its way up—I was sure I felt an incline. She was the girl who was the only one still looking around, alert.
I caught her gaze, red-rimmed and ice blue. Her cheekbones that were just starting to lengthen out of childhood, too sharp. Her skin had gone from olive to an ashy grey. The emaciated face of another refugee-turned-scapegoat, framed by jet-black hair, matted underneath a stained, green winter hat. I thought if circumstances were different, we could have been friends. There weren’t many people who were willing to meet your eyes in a place like this. When she didn’t look away, I found my gaze settling into hers, like an albatross landing on the only island for hundreds of miles crossing an endless sea.
“Lydia,” she introduced herself, her voice no more than a whisper. But it was a name.
It meant moving several precious inches back from the vent, but I reached out in my shackles with shaking fingers and clasped her hand.
“Do you know where they’re taking us?”
I shut my eyes and tried to remember the maps—instead a blur of open books, sunlight and the smell of paper flashed through. I watched his hands smoothed the map, a blood-colored stone set in a thick signet ring on his pinky finger—my mother wore that ring sometimes. I saw her pluck it from his night-table once while he was singing in the shower. My thoughts were blurry with hunger, I could see the map, but I couldn’t visualize half the cities inside Xavia’s jagged outline. Think, Seth. Cold. Incline. His fingers pinned down the Northeast Factories on the parchment, his other hand landed on Islingraet, on the southwest coast, and traced a trade route between them. Up, then west through the mountains in the Northern Territory at the top of the country, to the factories, then south beneath the mountains, before going east again, he sighed, through three tax checkpoints.
“Why not go back through the mountains?” I asked, tracing my small finger over them.
“It will be too late in the season. You can’t bring a caravan through there for two thirds of the year—you’ll lose the goods in the weather and your transport team with it, if not your life. The most you can manage without an engine is one trip per season.”
“What if you have an engine?”
“If you have an engine, you’re imperial and you have no reason to be traveling through a mountainous, uncivilized badland where people have some semblance of freedom anyway.” My mother looked up from her book and shook her head at him.
“Can I come?”
“Not this time.”
“But I came last time!”
“You did, little mouse. But the labor policies in the Northeast Manufacturing district are getting worse all the time. Used to be a place with morals.” He shook his head at me, as if I would be able to share his disdain at nine years old. “I could bring a caravan of slaves and indentures and they’d be able to work off a contract in ten years or receive Verifications of Honor to apply for legal protections. I have contracts for wares to fulfill for this year, but this will probably be my last trip. A trader can only turn an eye away so often before going blind.”
I refocused my starving brain. So it was sometime in October and we were moving west through uneven ground in a freezing wasteland. We had to be in the Xavian Northern Territory, heading to the Northeast Manufacturing district. They wouldn’t transport Kyjan deportees through the Xavi mainland where citizens could see. Someone might question. Someone might pity. “There’s a manufacturing district in the northeast. Factories and hard labor. They’ll take us there. Lydia.” I said her name again, because I needed to say someone one, anyone’s name. I needed someone, anyone, to look me in the eyes.
She nodded to me and clutched my hand harder. She was a year or two older than me, and in a bad way, starting to fill out the shape of a grown woman—and she was pretty. I knew what happened to pretty women no one cared about, and apparently smooth-skinned little boys, too. I was nursing a wicked scar that distorted the left side of my face.
She said to me, “Tell me your name.”
“Seth.” I said bluntly, “My mother is dead.”
“Do you have a father?”
“My family is gone too.”
I shut my eyes, that affirmation of identity sinking into my flesh, into my bones. Bastard orphan. “I’ll protect you now,” I said, because I needed someone to say that to. The words were like a second set of invisible shackles coming off. I’d say and do anything to not be alone. To have a sibling, to build a family in a matter of seconds, no matter how tenuous or small.
She looked in my eyes and nodded. She wasn’t stupid. We’d be separated to different destinations by the Xavians the moment we left the train—factory, brothel.
Nothing I could promise her would be true, and I knew it too, but it was critical to say it anyway. “I’ll come after you. We’ll find a way to run together.”
We just looked at each other, eye to eye. Hour after hour. The two of us, albatrosses.
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, the sockets of my shoulders wrenched. 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, lurched, and fell over on its side. My ears were ringing.