That night, I dream of an angel. She doesn’t have wings. She has golden hair and bright blue eyes, and she’s the princess of the Veran Empire. But she is still an angel.
Screams shake me out of the dream. Instinctively, I tighten my grip on the fragile body in my arms and curl myself protectively around it as rough hands wrench at my fingers. A hand slapping across my face forces me to wakefulness and I realise that it’s Selah I’m clinging to – she must have fallen asleep in my lap again – and her drivers are trying to pull her away. Instantly, I let her go. Holding on will only get her into trouble.
Half-asleep and scared, Selah screams my name as they push her to her feet and shove her towards the door. “Isaiaaaaaah!”
I want to run after her and jerk her away from the careless men who shove her towards the factory, but I know I can’t. “Selah! Be brave. You’ll be fine!”
She gives me a last frightened look, resolve blossoming among terror in her eyes, and then she’s gone, thrust into the backbreaking work along with a group of other tiny children. Bitter hate burns in my throat for whoever was heartless enough to decide that small hands were useful for making chain mail. I force it down; whips are cracking, and it’s time for work. I step after Rogan – known as number 11 to everyone else – and follow him to the coal pits.
As I shove my stiff shoulders under the first carrying pole of the day, my mind is elsewhere; on the whispered conversation between Selah and I last night. She believed me instantly; that’s just her.
“How did you get here, Prince Isaiah?” she asked.
“You don’t have to call me that,” I smiled. “It’s a long story for another time, but I can tell you that it’s all part of the plan to set all of you free.”
“How will you ever set us free?”
I pitched my voice as low as I could, holding her ear to my mouth as she slowly dropped off to sleep, and I breathed the outline of my plan to her. Maybe it was reckless; even the most loyal child might let slip in a careless moment. In that moment, I cared for nothing but reassuring her. I kick myself a little for that. It felt like a good idea at the time, but it won’t be if it causes the plan itself to fail.
Selah is the only person in the entire Empire who knows that slave number 12 is the prince of Kerrapydra. If the Empire knew how I ended up in slavery, they wouldn’t believe me, anyway. I knew that the only way to get into the very heart of the Empire was to let them take me there. Once inside, I found a force of Kerrapydran men larger than what remained of the army – even without the women and children. Broken men, chained and shackled as much in spirit as in body, but I know Kerrapydrans and I know that an unquenchable flame burns deep inside. If they could be freed and armed, it would take just the heft of a sword for them to remember who they really were.
But that was the hard part. Weapons were made and handled only by women; Verans had had enough tastes of Kerrapydran fighting prowess to know that giving a male slave a sword was a stupid idea. Getting to the armoury would be quite simple – inside the Capital, the only locked rooms were the slave sheds (prisons were nonexistent; all crimes were capital) – but getting out of the sheds was nearly impossible. Unless you had a key. And I knew only one way to get to one: Kill a driver. But unarmed, I knew I could only take on one driver at a time, which only happened in dire emergencies. Questioning the other slaves had revealed that the only time when slaves were left with only one driver was if a fire started in the factory. All I could do was wait.
A snatch of conversation floating through the crowd catches my attention as I trudge through the marketplace. “… Princess will be trying another of her stunts again.” The masculine voice drips with menace, and my heart gives a nasty little jump. I slow my steps as much as I dare, listening intently.
“Are you sure?” The second voice has an edge to it that sends ice cubes down my back.
“Positive. It isn’t hard to bribe Slave 66.”
“And you’re sure she told you the route?”
“Yes. Through the marketplace, down the slave alley while it’s quiet, then up the battlements and down the wall.”
“Only she won’t get as far as the battlements… will she?” The question turns up like the end of a curved knife.
“No. Empty slave alley? It’ll be piece of cake. Little princess doesn’t even suspect that she’s about to be shipped to Ferryvale.” The chuckle is an innocent thing to have a playground as dangerous as this rough voice. “They still believe the girl will buy them their freedom. All they’ve done is empty their coffers. And it’s a good enough deal for the Emperor that we’ll be fed fat for the rest of our lives on our little… commission.”
A whip sings through the air; I dodge automatically, but the edge still catches the back of my knee with an agonising sting. “Move along!” bellows the driver, and I double my pace. I’ve heard enough. My angel is in danger, and the thought bellows through my blood until my body pounds with it.
I have to do something.
* * *
To Be Continued…
Inspired by the Daily Prompt.