The Crimson Spark (Preview)
The ship rocked back and forth in the churning sea, carried up one wave and hurled down upon another, creating a sickening rhythm even in the bowels of the great wooden beast. A beam of rich evening sunlight shone down through the solitary porthole, barely illuminating the ship’s hold and the crumpled forms within.
There were at least three hundred of them inside. Children, shackled and packed together in neat rows like so much livestock. The ship took on more and more at every port, gorging itself on this horrible cargo. They had been at sea for over two weeks, headed north to the Kengean Archipelago and their new life in chains.
Leo had been flitting between the strange moments where one is neither awake nor asleep. Though his entire body hurt, he dared not close his eyes. He didn’t trust himself to wake up. His stomach gave a small groan, but he ignored it along with the chill that filled the hold.
Huge shadows clung around Leo’s dark eyes and his olive skin had turned a sickly pale. His bandaged right arm hung from the tatters of his shirt in a sling he’d made himself. With every jolt of the ship a fresh wave of pain shot through it. Crippled as he was, the slavers had only shackled his ankles. The metal had worn down his flesh, leaving his feet caked in dried blood. He shivered like a frightened animal and when he stood, his shoulders forever hunched in submission. Leo was broken. They all were.
Throughout the hold, the children lay, discarded playthings, defeated. Their stories were all the same. The slaving companies, the grassers, they would find you. Any lost child wandering the southern isles was easy prey for them, so long as you were small enough and poor enough that nobody would miss you. And though at first you might resist them, no matter how brave you were, how strong you were, the grassers would drain your spirit until you were an obedient little husk. Did he think it would be different for him?
In the months since he’d run away, Leo felt his personality being broken down by the grassers piece by piece. The only thing keeping him sane were his memories of Nico. Dreams of the endless exploring they used to do together through the abbey. Chasing each other through the church and library, whispering after lights out, getting scolded by the nuns. That had been their whole word.
The sound of raised voices caught his ear. A boy was hurled down the stairs and into the hold. A few of the children opened their eyes to see what was going on, watching him crash to the floor. He scrambled to his feet, trying to run. But there was nowhere to go. A pair of grassers descended behind him, seized him by the arms, and dragged him down the line of slaves. The boy kicked, screamed, bit, and swore. Fighting to get away but he had no chance. They slammed him down across from Leo, shackling his legs tight and giving him few kicks in the gut for good measure.
“Amount of bloody trouble you caused us!” growled one man. “I ought to break your fingers.”
The boy spat at the mans feet, still thrashing to get free.
They laughed, one grasser rattling the chains with his billy club. Leo flinched and crawled away as far as he could.
“Next time we have to chase you down, we might not be so nice!” He said as the two disappeared up the stairs.
The jeers stayed even after they had gone, hanging in the air like a foul odor. Muttering a few more choice threats, the boy brushed himself off and glared at their retreating backs. Leo didn’t recognize him, he must’ve been one of the more recent arrivals, still working above deck.
He was taller than Leo, and in the dim light seemed a couple years older. Fourteen or fifteen at most. His filthy tunic hung loose on his thin shoulders and the boy’s brown hair was short and jagged, as if he’d cut it himself with a rusty knife. Lines of experience crossed his young face. Still, his bright brown eyes burned with defiance. Those eyes, there was something familiar behind them.
They flashed to Leo. “What you staring at?” His voice was raspy, and he spoke with a strange accent.
Leo looked away, recoiling as if someone had struck him.
“Whoa, it’s all right.” Said the boy, his words losing their harsh edge. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Grassers got my blood boiling you know?” And he smiled. It was small, but it warmed Leo down to his core, as if reminding him his heart was still beating.
The boy drew a small water skin from a pocket of his ragged pants eyeing it like a prize. He took a swig of its contents and Leo became acutely aware of just how dry his mouth was.
“Thirsty?” The boy asked, as if reading his mind. Leo said nothing; nobody had spoken to him like this in ages. The boy tossed him the skin. “It’s okay, take it.”
Leo reached out his good hand, grasping the skin. He drained it, the cold water falling on his throat like rain upon a desert. It was so perfect, the beginnings of tears started forming as gratitude threatened to overwhelm him.
He wanted to say something; all he could manage was, “How?”
“I stole it off one of those grassers when they brought me in,” the boy whispered rather proud. “Christ knows, you look like you needed it more than me.” He looked Leo up and down, squinting through the dark. “You Infernian?”
“Half,” Leo hadn’t known his parents, but the nuns had told him that since his skin was darker, his mother or father must have come from the eastern most nation of the Kengean Archipelago. The endless desert of Inferno.
The boy’s eyes honed in on his mane of crimson hair. “I figured. That’s not red is it?”
“Yes, it’s red. Leo shrugged; it had always earned him a share of strange looks.
“Wild, I bet they don’t have that in Inferno.” Said the boy. “What’s your name?”
“Leo.” The word sounded alien. He hadn’t heard it in months.
Leo didn’t know what else to say, it had been so long since he’d talked to anyone, finally he decided on, “Did you . . . Did you try to escape?”
The boy nodded, grinning. “Yeah, again. Grassers had me working top side, and I made to scarper, you know how it is.”
“Sorry they caught you.”
“Don’t be, happens all the time. Haven’t you ever tried?”
Leo shook his head.
“Not even once?” Nea pressed him.
Leo glanced at his sling, Nea followed his gaze, eyes fixing on the long scars that ran up his arm. “Did they do that to you?” He asked, some of his fire returning.
“No it’s been like this for a while, it was bad when they caught me, got worse along the way.”
“Sick bastards like to throw us around don’t they?” Nea scowled. “When did they get you?”
“Two months, maybe three.” Leo glanced out the porthole. “I can’t really keep track of time anymore.”
“Yeah, I had that problem at first,” Nea shrugged. “Got you headed to the mine in Fortuna?”
The words sent a chill down Leo’s spine. Fortuna, the second nation in the Archipelago. The final destination for all the vagrant children snatched by the grassers. It was there that the great opal mines were found. A hoard of wealth and prosperity locked away so tight in the earth that only the smallest could reach. It was because of this that child slaves were the among most sought after products in the nation.
“I don’t know. I heard them talking, they said I might not be able to. What happens then?”
Nea’s face darkened, and he changed the subject. “Where are you from, anyway?”
“Not surprised, I hear that place crawls with them bastards?” Nea shot a sidelong glance at Leo. “Any family?”
“No . . . no, I . . .”
Nea's smile slipped. He reached forward, Leo winced and made to draw back but the boy just ruffled his hair, like Nico used to. The contact was familiar and gentle; he hadn’t felt that in so long. Leo let himself smile, he’d no idea the last time he’d managed one.
“I lived in a . . .” He paused, looking for the right words.
“Home for strays?” Nea offered.
“Something like that.”
They sat for a moment, in a kind of happy silence. Then Nea leaned in and whispered. “How’d you like to get the hell outta here?”
Leo stared at him. “I-what? We can’t-”
“Yes we can.” Nea reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring of keys, his smile widening with wicked glee. “I stole it from the grassers while they were tossing me around.”
He looked down at the chains that bound his bloody feet. Was it possible? “Then what?”
“I heard those drunken idiots talking, they say we’ll reach Fortuna in less than a week. If we pick the right moment, we can creep up on deck, snatch a lifeboat. Most of the grassers’ll be asleep. We paddle to shore and nobody’s the wiser.”
“You sound as though you’ve been planning this for a long time.”
Nea’s eyes darkened. “Very long. What do you say?”
“T . . .together? Where would we go?”
Nea beamed at him. “Conoscenzia.”
Conoscenzia the third nation in the Archipelago. Stories of its technology and civilization had reached even the abbey on Meridus. It was said that there was no slavery in Conoscenzia. Could they be free there? Free, what a strange idea. He had so many questions and it seemed impossible. But when he saw the confidence in Nea’s eyes, Leo felt as though he would believe anything the boy told him.
“Nothing will go wrong,” Nea insisted. “You don’t have to be afraid Leo. That’s what they want.”
And despite months without hope, without contact, without joy, Leo nodded.
Nea beamed. “All right then, here’s what we’re gonna do.”
Pre-order The Crimson Spark here http://amazon.com/dp/B07VG2Y8CF/
On October 11th, The Adventure Begins!