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After five years of slavery, young Gedov will do anything to escape.
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Free Sample (first 3 chapters)
Chapter 1 – Jump Day
After tonight’s jump, Gedov would be a slave no longer.
He’d rather throw himself in the ocean than end up on another gorizen plantation. Gorizen. Now there was a corrupted fruit! One slip of the hand and its poison barbs could kill a man. Or make him so sick he wanted to die. A fact he learned last autumn.
The waters of the South Defsian would show him more mercy than these crewmen and their eager scourges. Gedov ought to scuttle the ship before he jumped, but there were other slaves aboard, shackled to the deck in berthing. He’d gamble with his own life, but not with theirs.
They couldn’t see him up here in the crow’s nest, where he enjoyed cool breezes and witnessed colorful sunsets like this one. A good thing, too. They’d only resent him more.
Gedov pointed his telescope at a set of nearby islands and smiled. Those would make the perfect hiding spot.
Though he didn’t truly know any of the slaves but his cousin, he still hated abandoning them. But what could he do? Steal a key, unlock their shackles, and sneak them overboard? They’d never make it to the rail. He already felt guilty that he, still young, could walk freely about the ship. That would change on the voyage back when he turned sixteen. Then he’d be locked up with the adults.
Better escape now.
Gedov flexed his writing hand. The First Mate said it was too valuable to be chained to a deck, but that made no sense. His hands were in danger each harvest… unless the captain meant to spare him from picking gorizen this time. If that happened, the other slaves would learn of it and hate him even more. Perhaps enough to arrange an accident for him. Only his cousin Tomiasel cared about him—the one friend Gedov had left. Leaving him behind would strain his conscience to the limit, but Tomiasel had made him swear to jump overboard and swim to freedom.
Now Gedov had to live with that promise or be drowned by it.
Their wooden prison would anchor at Oximic Coast sometime tomorrow. He didn’t dare wait until then because patrolmen always caught runaways on shore. Plus, these strange isles seldom ventured close to land. Only here on the Sea of Rafts did islands seem to float atop the waves. Most passed it off as a trick of the light. Gedov wasn’t so sure.
He peered through the eyepiece at the nearest island, hoping for a hint of life. Lookout duty was the one task he enjoyed. This high perch put him far from his masters and magnified the peaceful rocking of the ship. Best of all, it allowed him to sit. Among the young slaves, only the most obedient were chosen as lookouts, and Gedov made a great show of outward obedience.
That would end when dusk ripened into night and clouds blotted out the stars.
These weren’t storm clouds, but if they were, what of it? He’d likely die out there, no matter the weather. At least the darkness would cover his escape.
Tonight’s duty roster had him swabbing the fantail. He’d have a taskmaster not ten paces away. But it was bound to be Urus, who played Groks with the other deckhands. At the end of a long round, when the pot was fattest—that would be the moment to act.
Gedov looked down at his scratchy garment they called a smanarin. Stained black with grime, it would blend right in with the inky waters. He’d been extra careful to avoid getting lashed this week because blood attracted iatuen. Sharks, not known to hunt people actively, would be a bit better. City Beyond protect him if either should find him.
A jacket made of bubblebark, concealed in his scrub bucket, would have to do in the absence of a smallboat. He’d pilfered the cork-like material from aft storage and stitched it together at night while hiding in the ballast space. He couldn’t test the jacket, but he’d seen another like it several ports ago. With any luck, it would keep him afloat until he drifted to one of these islands.
Questions swirled in his head. How did landmasses drift about? Were they home to deadly beasts? Did they have edible plants and drinkable water?
His was a reckless plan, but he had no time to form a better one. Autumn drew near. The masters would march him and his ilk onto the gorizen plantations, where those who hadn’t succumbed to disease during the three-month voyage might die from the poisonous sap. He ground his teeth. No more twenty-hour days in grolnod-infested fields. He would jump.
And the time had come.
Gedov scurried down to the weather deck and headed aft, where slavers slouched around a makeshift table. He knelt, cushioning his knees on a coiled line.
Taskmaster Urus glared over his cards. “Deck and anchor detail starts now.”
Gedov scrambled to his feet. “Aye, master.”
“Such an eager wretch you are,” Urus said.
You have no idea.
Chapter 2 – Jump Time
The sun had dipped below the horizon an hour ago, taking with it a roseate light show that may prove to be Gedov’s last. Now the sky was blessedly dark, all of heaven’s spotlights snuffed out by clouds. Their vast spread meant the darkness would remain throughout the night. And, as predicted, Urus slouched at the card table, shouting about how the helmsman had invoked some obscure rule most Groks handbooks never mentioned.
Gedov squatted beside the stern rail, idly scrubbing at algae, working up his nerve. The opportunity would soon slip away.
He pulled the bubblebark vest from the scrub bucket. No way he’d wear it during a jump from this height. The force of water shooting up around him might launch the vest over his shoulders and break the stitching. No, better to toss it in first and jump in after it. Gedov tied one end of a long rope to the vest and the other end to his wrist. Without this tether, he’d lose the vest in the dark. He had Tomiasel to thank for the idea.
Gedov climbed over the railing and tossed in the vest, watching the rope pay out as it went, trying not to think about the cousin he was abandoning. Then he clutched the rail behind him, holding himself billowed out as a human sail, arms swept back, his whole body leaning over the edge.
Highest One. Look kindly on me. Let the islands come to me in all haste.
Then he jumped.
The fall was only thirty feet, but seemed to last forever. The shock of the cool water jolted him, and he sank into perfect black. All those dead slaves in the berthing—perhaps this is what they saw. Helpless as he was, he may soon join them.
After a long and frantic swim, he broke to the surface with a gasp. He tugged at the rope, but felt little resistance. Saps! The vest must have torn free from the other end.
Gedov swam along the rope’s length and found a patch of the vest. He groped blindly in all directions, hoping to find the vest by pure happenstance. Even with a tear, it should still float.
He spiraled out from the rope to avoid retreading the same areas. It paid off, because he found the vest on the second lap. The hole was bigger than expected, but when he put it on, it still worked.
Bobbing in the waves, he gazed up at the ship, sighing relief. He watched as The Gentle Fist shrank into a black blob in the distance, sails luffing in the wind.
Wait, luffing? Oh no. If that was intentional, then the ship was slowing down or about to turn. He listened for a shout of discovery, but it never came. Neither did The Gentle Fist change bearing. Besides, the captain wouldn’t turn back to look for one lost slave, would he? Not on the day before pulling into port for a harvest. Then the sails trimmed, and the luffing stopped, speeding the ship along.
Thank the City Beyond.
Gedov let the waves carry him where they wanted. It was too dark to spot an island, but that didn’t matter. He’d see one at sunup. If he could stay awake until then.
The hours crawled by, and Gedov’s stomach growled. Sunlight stained the underbellies of clouds magenta like findleberry sauce. The lapping of waves and cawing of corialtis would have been relaxing were it not for his hunger and fear of iatuen. Gedov strained his eyes across the choppy water. There, low in the mist, bobbed one of the floating islands. It might’ve been a hundred yards away.
He swam hard, lest the island float off without him. But it appeared to be heading straight for him, looming larger every second with a speed greater than his feeble strokes would account for. The palm trees were backlit with the glow of dawn, as if the place had floated down from the City Beyond and residual glory still covered it. A monumental bloom of joy propelled him on. The Highest One must have heard his prayer and sent him this life raft.
Chapter 3 – Furry Sailor
Up close, Gedov could see that countless bobblenut shells bore up the entire island! They’d been lashed together and topped with soil and dense vegetation.
With strength born of excitement, he gripped the edge of the land and hauled himself up onto a small beach. He shivered in his sopping-wet clothes, now caked in mud and speckled with seashells. The wind made his teeth chatter, so he headed for the tree line. The ground felt firm underfoot. When he walked, the island didn’t wobble.
In fact, from up here, he wouldn’t have known that all of this was held up by bobblenuts. A true engineering marvel! One to rival the Bridge of Aklos and the Gradia Dam. Who had devised such a clever structure as this? The beach stretched out perhaps half a mile before it curved. Inlets cut the coastline into jagged edges, as if this were a real island. Tomiasel would love this. So would all the slaves he’d left behind.
If only he could row this giant raft back home to Pashe. But that was two thousand miles west, on the Anhasan mainland. And he’d have to row back to the time before his family’s ruin. Father had asked Gedov to apprentice under him as a carpenter at the shipyard. But Gedov didn’t want to build ships. He wanted to sail them and go off on adventures.
The irony couldn’t be crueler.
If he’d agreed to the apprenticeship, things might’ve turned out differently. He could’ve staved off financial ruin and avoided the last five years of bitter toil. But, here on this enormous raft, adventure might finally be possible.
At this point, he’d settle for survival.
Now to see if this place offered food and fresh water. A vast tangle of bobblenut trees clogged the land, making it hard to gauge its size. He hurried into the leafy underbrush, muttering thanks to the Highest for hiding him from the eyes of slavers. As long as he didn’t light any fires, they’d never spot him from the decks of their corrupted ships.
He wended his way through the forest, noting a nest atop a palm, surrounded by a clutch of red corialtis. Never had he gotten such a close view of their bright plumage and bulging throat pouches, and there were so many of them.
The island might support more life than he thought. Could it feed more than just him? Might it also feed Tomiasel? Gedov pinched the bridge of his nose. Even if the island had a lake and mountains of food, he’d never manage to break his cousin out of that ship. It might be docking in the harbor now, and all the slaves who actually survived the voyage would be marched out to the nearest gorizen field, where guards kept watch for escapees. No, this freedom would be his alone. In fact, he might never lay eyes on another human again.
Unless this island was inhabited.
Gedov ran his fingers across the ridged bark of a tree trunk and let his eyes rove up to a cluster of unripe bobblenuts. Their green outer skin meant they’d have little meat and plenty of water. Maybe some had already fallen. He squatted beside a bush of beach cabbage and spread out their broad, waxy leaves. Aha. He pulled out a bobblenut and gave it a slosh.
Water. Drinkable water!
Gedov kissed its smooth exterior. “Thank you, Highest One, for these life-giving nuts!” He cocked his head. “Don’t suppose You left any life-giving nutcrackers, too?” He could crack them open with a rock, but the water might spill out. Better look for a knife, if indeed any man-made objects could be found here.
And just how many nuts were there? First, a count of paces across the island would give an estimate of land area. Maybe he’d happen across some sharp objects as he explored. He backed up to the start of the forest and began to pace. The idea proved impractical, though, given the winding route he found himself taking.
He stopped counting but continued farther in to explore, keeping to the clearest path he could find. Without warning, dirt flew up from the ground and rained down on his head. Gedov shook it off and gaped at the source. Poking up from a hole were two webbed paws that flopped out sideways.
It shimmied out of the hole and gazed at Gedov with an unreadable expression. With short brown fur, a long snout, and gray whiskers that never stopped twitching, it looked harmless and rather cute. It resembled a mole, but its eyes were large and round. The little guy drew closer, sat up on its haunches, and said, “You are the oddest fish I’ve ever seen.”
Gedov froze, staring in breathless awe. He glanced around. Was this place a product of his mind? Maybe he’d died at sea and this was the afterlife.
“I know you can talk,” it said. “I heard you earlier.”
The voice was high-pitched with a slightly scratchy timbre, but it spoke perfect Anhasan. The accent was ancient, but easy to understand.
“W-w-what are you?” Gedov asked. “And how are you able to speak?”
The creature licked a paw and rubbed the top of its head, flattening the fur. “All gondola moles can speak. Didn’t you know?”
Gedov’s brows rose. “I’ve heard all manner of sounds from animals, but never speech. I don’t believe anyone has.”
“Phhaw! My friends say I speak too much.”
Gedov scratched his head, not sure what he’d expected. Certainly not this.
“What are you?” it said. “Not really a fish. Not a bird, either.”
“I’m a human.”
The animal stepped back. “Human? Never heard of it. Am I going to like you?”
“What do you eat, and what eats you?”
Of course. The mole feared he might be a predator. Gedov gave a sudden and hearty laugh, which appeared to startle the poor creature.
“Sorry, don’t go,” Gedov said. “I won’t eat you.” Though if he ran out of bobblenuts…
It threw him a sideways glance. “What is your name?”
“Gedov. What’s yours?” Surprising that the mole understood the concept of names, even if it could talk.
“I am Weeb. An unmated female. And you? I can’t tell your gender because your unusual fur covers up your baby-making parts. Or where I think they are.”
“Um, I’m an unmated male. And this is not fur, but clothing.” Gedov tugged at his smanarin. “And I must admit, I’ve never introduced myself in this way.” He felt his cheeks warming.
“What do you mean?”
Gedov coughed with embarrassment. “I’m not used to calling myself unmated.”
Weeb made a chitter that might have been a laugh. “We are of different kinds. But if a female of your kind happens along, and she is unmated, I’ll recommend her to you.”
Gedov suppressed a laugh. “I appreciate that, Weeb. I would be delighted to meet anyone of my kind out here, male or female, mated or unmated, so long as they’re alone and friendly.”
“Are there unfriendly humans? Do they invade your territory, steal your gatherings, or eat your young?”
Gedov smiled. “Some stole me, but I have escaped them. That’s why I’m here.”
“Steal you? Not your gatherings or your gondola or your mate or your chicks, but you?” Weeb scratched her cheek with a hind paw. “What for? Mating?” She sighed. “Clore would scold me for not reading those books of hers. I’d know things like this if I’d just read, she says.”
Hmm. Gedov swatted away a fly. How to explain this to an animal? “Sometimes humans steal other humans to make them gather food. A stolen human is called a slave. The one who stole him is called a master. And the slave must do whatever the master says or get beaten.”
Weeb’s eyes widened. “Sounds awful. Why do you do this to each other?”
Gedov shrugged. “All humans have a measure of corruption swirling inside them. Some just have more than others.”
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