The trouble with getting into the barracks originally had been, she’d had to figure out what Danan and Tate’s schedule was. But now that they’d agreed to protect her, she’d figured out when they’d be on shift, and those were the nights she’d visit.
However, unlike the guards’ rotation, there was no set schedule for when which one of Ethan’s boys was on watch when she arrived. Usually, that didn’t pose much of a problem. If it was anyone other than Ethan, she would ask to see him, and they’d wake him up.
Because standing there, leaning against the wall, was Terrell. It was the first time that he’d been the one on watch when she came.
Usually, she’d walk right up, knowing she was welcome there. But with him, she wasn’t so sure. Actually, she was fully sure she wasn’t welcome. No matter what she’d done or hadn’t done, nothing seemed to sway the teenager’s opinion of her.
But she took a deep breath, and approached.
He saw her coming. He must have seen her coming. But he didn’t actually acknowledge her.
“Hey, Terrell,” she said, giving a little wave and hoping he would at least meet her eyes.
He did, and stared at her sullenly. But he didn’t speak. If she’d been holding onto any hope that he might be coming around, those thoughts were dispelled as soon as she met his gaze.
“Can I go talk to Ethan?” she asked gently. If she hadn’t won him over by now, she figured there was probably no chance it would ever happen. But she still intended to be as nice to him as possible; giving him any more reason than he already had to not like her wouldn’t serve any purpose, no matter how frustrated she may be with him.
“You don’t belong here,” he said, not answering her question.
“Terrell –” she began, pretending his words didn’t sting a little.
He cut her off. “You don’t. You’re not one of us.”
“But Ethan said –”
“You can dress up, and come down here, and play the part. But don’t think I don’t see. I might not know what your end game is, but don’t think I don’t see right through you. I —”
“Terrell,” called a gentle but firm voice.
Kierah breathed a sigh of relief. It was Ethan.
“She’s allowed,” he said quietly.
Terrell instantly clammed up, and his aggressiveness shut down. But his eyes still burned with anger when he looked at Kierah.
Ethan was standing next to the bunks, and Kierah hurried over to him, giving a generous radius around Terrell.
“Don’t mind him,” Ethan said, turning and walking back toward his bunk. “I’m … I’m sorry he’s like that.”
Kierah thought for a moment that she needed to unclog her ears. “Hold on, I think I misheard you. It sounded like you said ‘sorry.’”
To her surprise, he smiled. “Yeah, you definitely misheard.”
She grinned. It was a strange feeling to grin around him. She liked it.
When they got to the cot in the corner, she unloaded the food she’d brought.
“What can I do?” she asked. “With Terrell, I mean. Do you think there’s any chance he’ll ever, I don’t know, not hate me?”
“Honest answer? Just keep doing what you’re doing, I guess. He’s acting based on … what he’s experienced in the past. It’s made him who he is. And after seven years, it’s not gonna be that easy to break.”
“Do they all stay that long?” She realized she’d never actually considered the length of sentences there. She just assumed they ended, at some point, while the kids were still kids. The idea that these kids would grow up here hadn’t crossed her mind.
“Most don’t. A few years, usually.”
A random thought crossed her her mind, and escaped her lips before she could stop it. “What about you?” she asked, then bit her tongue immediately. She’d asked too much.
“Me?” he replied.
She nodded, afraid to say anything out loud.
He told her. Just like that. No hesitation, no hedging.
But that wasn’t the only thing that surprised her.
“Ten?” she exclaimed. “Why?”
“A debt? For ten years?”
“Apparently it was a very large debt.”
She couldn’t quite believe he’d just told her.
He couldn’t be much older than she was; if he’d been there for ten years, he must have been a teenager when he first came. She blinked, trying to think of what she was doing ten years ago. She was fourteen, had just gotten out of the orphanage, and started working at Sirvan’s tavern. Meanwhile, Ethan was becoming a slave in the mines.
And Terrell — he was even younger.
“Why was Terrell’s so long then?” she asked. “When will he get out?”
“He doesn’t think he will.”
She hated to ask. “Why not?”
“There’s nobody to take him.”
Kierah waited, hoping there was more coming. Ethan took a deep breath, as if weighing whether or not to say more.
“Look, you don’t have to tell me anything else,” Kierah offered, though she didn’t want to say it. She wanted to hear anything else he would tell her, but she didn’t want to make him feel obligated.
“I know I don’t have to,” Ethan paused. “But maybe you should know. I think it’d help you understand why he’s the way he is.”
Kierah swallowed. He really trusted her, she realized. This wasn’t just about him, it was about his best friend. And he was going to tell her.
“His parents died when he was really young,” he began. “The only family he ever knew was his older brother. That’s who raised him until, well, his brother ended up meeting someone. A girl. He began spending a lot of time with her, and she got him involved with a bad crowd. Eventually, they killed his brother.”
Kierah gasped, without realizing it. Ethan heard her, but kept going.
“Terrell was eleven. And that girl that got his brother into that situation – she had racked up a lot of gambling debts, so she decided to get a loan from the treasury to pay it off, using Terrell as the exchange. She sold him here, to get the money to cover her own debts. And he’s been here ever since.”
Kierah stared at the ground, processing what she’d just heard. Glancing up, she looked across to where the teenager was still on guard, watching them every once in a while with a glare.
That had been his life before he came here, why he came here, why he would stay here.
But this answered more than just those questions.
“You’re his brother now, and here I am, barging in. I – I get now why he hates me so much. He must think I’m like her.”
“But you’re not.”
She looked up at him. “How can you know that?” she asked. He had no proof that she wasn’t there to hurt them. What did he know?
He glanced across the area protected by the wall, looking over where the boys all lay asleep in their cots. Watching them as they looked so peaceful, knowing how much stronger they were lately because of the food Kierah had been bringing. But that wasn’t all she’d brought. When she was around them, they all seemed — happier. There was a lightness when she arrived, and almost all the boys responded to it.
How could he know she wasn’t like that other girl?
“Because you wouldn’t be here if you were,” he told her.
That didn’t account for his own personal desire to trust her, but it seemed like the most visible evidence he could offer at the moment.
She smiled, just a little. “You mean that?”
“Terrell will see it too, eventually,” he said. “But yeah, I mean it.”
And the gratitude in the look she gave him just then … He felt his heart flip in his chest. Half of him reprimanded himself – yet again – for feeling that way. But the other half didn’t want the feeling to stop.
_ _ _ _ __________ _ _ _ _
A week passed. Two weeks. Four weeks.
Kierah returned to Kelmar as often as she could during that time, which, with the help of plenty of coffee, she was able to pull off pretty often.
Each visit she got to know the boys a little bit better. Some visits, Ethan would just talk to her. Other times, he’d wake the boys, and they would all eat the food she brought.
And she would get to see firsthand what their life was like. Despite their situation, they were still just boys. They still joked and played and laughed with each other, and Kierah laughed along with them. She wanted to ask Ethan more about why he was there, but could never bring herself to do it.
What she and Ethan didn’t know was, they weren’t the only ones who were learning more about each other. Each week, Garn reported back to Szark, who filtered the information and brought it back to Azor. If anything was interesting enough, Azor notified the prince.
“Excuse me your highness,” Azor stood in the doorway of Terzahn’s writing room.
The prince was hunched over a desk, with schematics spread out before him like scattered autumn leaves. He beckoned for the general to come in, without looking up. “What have you got for me, Azor? Something good I hope?”
“I just thought you might find this interesting,” Azor said, stepping inside. “It’s regarding the Kelmar situation.”
Of all his pet projects, he took particular interest in this one. Perhaps because it was one of his most unnecessary, that he found it so amusing. It played into his grander plan, naturally. But unlike its other more serious aspects, this was the closest to pure recreation for him.
“Yes,” Azor replied, “it has to do with that situation, but not the girl, and Garn didn’t report it. I found this out doing some digging on my own.”
The prince looked intrigued. “Do tell. It’s about Demarc, then?”
Azor allowed himself a grin. “Actually, it’s about the child. Rothan.”
– – — – – –
“At ease, soldier,” Terzhan said calmly. “No need to panic. I just had a question for you.”
Danan stood in front of him, looking not exactly panicked, but clearly nervous. The prince had called him up to the guard tower at Kelmar. The prince himself. This couldn’t be good.
“Relax,” the prince reiterated. “I just wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Why me, sir?” Danan asked, restraining himself from the urge to fidget.
“Oh, you’re a pretty smart guy. I think you are well aware of why,” the prince said condescendingly. “We both know that you’ve been letting the Ender girl into the barracks at night. Even after you found out that she hadn’t been sent by me. It’s been weeks now. And we both know that at best, such behavior could cost you your career, not to mention severe disciplinary action, if I so chose.”
“But like I said,” Terzhan continued, “relax. I didn’t bring you here to berate you. In fact, I brought you here to give you a way out.”
Danan blinked behind his visor.
“I need you to do me a favor,” the prince said. “You carry this order out, and you won’t be held responsible for any charges of misdemeanor. Your record will be clean, and you can continue doing your job. Both you and your partner. Do I make myself clear?”
Danan frowned. “What would you have me do, Your Highness?”
Terzhan smiled. “I believe you’re already familiar with the particular individual it involves.”
Danan frowned again. “Demarc?” he asked.
The prince just smiled.
– – — – – –
Ethan walked out with the boys that morning, like every morning. They followed the crowd sifting through the line of guards, taking them outside the barracks. As usual, he kept his eye out for Garn, or any other suspicious characters. But lately, he and the boys had been left mostly alone. He wasn’t about to complain about it.
Just then, he felt someone following him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Danan walking along the edge of the crowd. He was clearly making his way toward him, and Ethan tried to calm the knot that instantly formed in his stomach.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” he commented when the guard reached him.
Danan didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “I’m looking for your boy.”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” Ethan retorted. Behind the visor, Ethan figured Danan was scanning the crowd around Ethan. And then his face stopped moving.
“Never mind,” Danan grunted. “I found him.”
Brushing past Ethan, Danan roughly made his way through the crowd. Ethan followed.
Boys were everywhere around them, but Danan singled out one of them.
“You, you’re coming with me,” the guard gruffly grabbed Rothan’s arm.
Rothan resisted, but Danan was much bigger than he was. Protests from the other boys rumbled up, but in the commotion of the crowd, Danan was in complete control. Ethan was right behind them.
“What are you doing with him?” Ethan demanded.
“Move,” he growled. “You don’t want to get in my way again, it didn’t go so well for you last time.”
Ethan had half a mind to ignore the blaster and see how far he could get trying to choke the guard, but then his eyes met Rothan’s. The boy was scared, and seeing Ethan agitated wouldn’t help him. He needed to think this through more.
With a silent breath he stepped aside. For now.
Danan pushed past him, Rothan in tow. And as he did — “The girl’s not here to save you this time,” he muttered, low enough so only Ethan could hear.
Ethan gritted his teeth. It had only been a few weeks ago that Danan had agreed to help their plight — or at least, to not harm them anymore. Kierah had said it.
That had lasted long.
Ethan turned to the nearest teenager. “Tell Terrell he’s in charge for now,” he instructed. And he followed Danan and the kid.
They’d reached the edge of the flow of human traffic and were making their way toward a guard tower. Ethan bobbed and floated through that flow, but it was tougher than it looked. He wasn’t surrounded by his boys anymore as he fought the current.
Then suddenly, he found himself next to one of the last people he needed to see at this particular moment.
“Demarc,” Garn chuckled, seeing the urgency on Ethan’s face. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Hey, it’s been a while,” Ethan tried to dodge around him.
And he stepped aside. Ethan hurried past, but the man’s words hung in the air like cobwebs he couldn’t keep himself from getting caught in. They stuck in his ears as he tried to escape the short confrontation. Of course Garn hadn’t forgotten about them. He was biding his time. Ethan had known that.
But now wasn’t the time for it.
The guard tower lay just ahead. Ethan had reached the edge of the crowd. Guards marched alongside, but none seemed to pay him any attention. Danan must have known he would follow him; was this some sort of trap?
He slipped between the rotation of two guards along the edge, and ducked behind a pylon. Keeping an eye on the door Danan had taken Rothan through, he sneaked his way over. The steady marching of the slaves on their way to the tunnels thudded rhythmically behind him, like a slow, methodical river.
No one paid him any attention.
It was definitely a setup; it made no sense otherwise. But why?
Suddenly, a scream shot through the air, clashing like a cymbal above the steady rhythm of the marching. Ethan’s pulse raced. It had come from the guard tower.
Abandoning any remnants of caution, he ran the rest of the way and dove toward the doorway, which was wide open, and peered inside.
There was Danan, on the other side of the room, with a tight grip on Rothan’s arm. That arm was the only thing supporting Rothan, as the boy crumpled to the floor, shaking violently. Tears streamed down his face.
Between them and the doorway where Ethan crouched in the shadows cast by the early morning sun, someone else was in the room. He must have come in when Ethan wasn’t looking, because he stood facing the pair, closer to Ethan but with his back to him. He wasn’t a tall man, slightly bow-legged and a little hunched over, roughly dressed and stocky. His hands hung at his sides, wide and thick at the wrists —
Rothan didn’t see Ethan hiding in the doorway. He was staring at the man in absolute fear, all color drained from his face.
“He’s all yours,” Danan said to the man, releasing his grip on Rothan’s arm.
Rothan’s shoulders shook, falling to the floor as Danan’s support disappeared. “No, please no,” he cried.
Both men ignored him. “That’s what this is about?” the stranger said, his voice rough and as unkempt as the rest of him. “I’m takin’ him back?”
“Yes, you were called here because of the absolving of your debt,” Danan said emotionlessly. Then, realizing the man might not know what that meant, he clarified, “Your debt’s been paid off.”
Rothan sobbed. Ethan swallowed. There was no way that was right. Rothan had just been brought in a few months ago; debts big enough to warrant a Kelmar sentence took years to pay off. This made no sense.
He looked at the poor kid, shaking all over. This was what he’d told Ethan at the very beginning that he was afraid of — not being sent to Kelmar, but being released back to —
Ethan turned toward the man again, the man who must be Rothan’s father. He blinked. Hands that looked very much like that man’s flashed before his eyes. A memory? He shook it away.
“My debt’s been paid?” the man asked, a hint of a slur in his voice. He must have been drinking not all that long ago. “Well fancy that! They move quick ‘round here, don’t they!”
“The process has been … expedited,” Danan replied. He glanced down at the forlorn kid on the floor, but with the visor over his eyes, Ethan had no way of guessing what he was thinking. That didn’t matter. Ethan had no way of sorting through what he himself should be thinking. What was he supposed to do?
For a second, they stared at each other, neither one moving.
Then Danan turned and walked out a door on the opposite side of the room.
He hadn’t said anything. Why hadn’t he said anything?
“Take the boy and leave,” was what came out of his mouth instead, words tossed over his shoulder as he made his exit.
He vanished through the doorway, and Rothan’s sobs crescendoed as the man moved toward him.
Ethan didn’t often have time to think carefully before deciding what to do. He didn’t now, either.
Danan was gone. But he’d seen him. This had to be a setup — but it didn’t matter.
He burst out of the shadows into the room, beelining for Rothan. Flying around the man in the middle of the floor, he landed next to the boy, ready to fight. Rothan hiccuped on his sobs but raised his head enough to see him.
Ethan faced the man and growled, “He isn’t going anywhere.”
That was all he could say. He was glad he didn’t have any other lines planned to deliver, because they wouldn’t have made it out of his mouth.
He was standing face to face with… with…
“What the bloody hell is this?” the man exclaimed, his beetle-eyed face darkening red.
Ethan didn’t answer.
“The hell!” screamed the man. “Get away from that boy!”
He took a few steps toward them, drawing a renewed wave of cries from Rothan. Ethan snapped into defense, blocking the man from getting any closer.
The man yelled. Rothan cried. The man screamed for the guards, but Ethan didn’t hear what he was saying. He knew that Rothan was still kneeling there, sobbing, depending on him — but he didn’t see him. The man was bearing down on him, but he didn’t see that.
Time seemed silent.
He didn’t hear the guards’ pounding footsteps, racing into the room from right outside the door. They couldn’t have been far away, they got there too fast. They’d been waiting for this to happen. But Ethan didn’t process that, not fully.
He didn’t process it when they aimed a stun blaster at him, screaming at him to back away from the kid. He didn’t process it when the aim turned to fire, and he fell to his knees next to Rothan as the stun energy coiled around him.
Rothan’s cries echoed in his ears as the two guards yanked him to his feet. But he couldn’t see Rothan. All he could see were those eyes, the eyes of the man in front of him. The man yelling at him to get away from his son.
Through the other door behind him, Danan reappeared. He didn’t seem phased by any of this. Almost like he’d expected it.
But Ethan couldn’t process that either.
– – — – – –
He sat against the wall, staring at nothing. He’d sent the boys to sleep, because it was easier than trying to explain what was going on in his head. Honestly, he didn’t even know what was going on in his head.
He felt numb.
All he wanted was to be alone, so it worked out that he couldn’t sleep. It let him take the place of the teen on guard for at least part of the shift. He’d almost had half a mind to skip having a guard altogether — but he couldn’t shake Garn’s parting words from — was it only that morning he’d run into him? That Garn had warned that he hadn’t forgotten about him.
So Ethan sat there.
Suddenly he heard a sound through the darkness, and sighed. Normally, it would put him on high alert, get him on edge. But tonight, he couldn’t get himself to care. If Garn came, he came. Ethan would alert the boys, confront the intruder. Go through the motions. He’d do what needed to be done. But his heart wouldn’t be in it.
So he waited. The noise came again. He listened, but didn’t move. He couldn’t muster up the energy to. He felt nothing. He felt numb.
A movement caught his eye, then Kierah materialized out of the black of the barracks.
Kierah. It was only Kierah.
When she saw he was the one on watch, her eyes lit up. Or maybe it was just his imagination.
“Hey,” she chirped, plopping down beside him without waiting for an invitation. “It’s you tonight!”
Then she saw his eyes. He hadn’t been crying, but he guessed he looked miserable.
“Oh Ethan,” Kierah gasped, her perky demeanor vanishing as she saw his face. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
He wasn’t sure how to even begin answering that question.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled sullenly. “I’m not gonna be very good company tonight. You can — you can leave if you want.”
“Leave? No way,” Kierah looked shocked he’d even suggested it. “What happened?”
She was genuinely worried. He still couldn’t figure out how to begin to explain. So he said the first thing that came to his mind.
“Why don’t you ask your friend outside the door,” he muttered bitterly. “Your pal, he let you in tonight, yeah? Ask him. Ask him what happened, and then ask him why.”
Kierah looked like she’d been slapped in the face. “Danan? No, no he said he’d leave you alone —”
“Weeks ago. Promises have an expiration date,” he bit out, then looked away. “You should probably go. Like I said, I’m not really the best company tonight.”
He could imagine the frown on her face, as she deliberated what to say next. But he didn’t expect what she did decide to say. “Do you want me to go?”
She emphasized the “want,” and somehow, it hit him harder than he’d expected. He felt something again, for the second time since that morning. It was as if she’d put a hand on his shoulder, without even touching him.
She’d asked him what he wanted.
He should be used to that by now, he realized. She cared, or at least put on a very good show. He should know that. But it got him every time, particularly now.
He also shouldn’t still be surprised by his gut reaction to her question. If he was honest with himself, no, he didn’t want her to go.
And that made no sense. He hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone all day. When he was escorted back to the tunnels that morning, he’d thrown himself into the work. The familiar rhythm of the picks, the stretching of his limbs with every swing, the jarring of his muscles with every impact, that was all he wanted. He wanted to not think, to not feel anything but the pounding of the wall.
By the time he’d managed to fill Terrell in on what had happened, he’d felt exhausted. He’d given the briefest, most concise summary that he could, and left it at that. That was all the boys needed, and that was all he had the willpower to give them.
But somehow, now, sitting next to Kierah, he needed more. She didn’t need any information, she’d accept whatever he gave her, or didn’t give her, and move on. She was strange like that. Somehow, he knew she’d respect whatever he asked her to do.
Sure, she hadn’t exactly done that in the past, but — again, if he was honest with himself — that had been because she was trying to get past his obstinacy and give him what he really needed, whether he wanted to admit it or not.
Now, he was closer to admitting it.
He’d never felt like that before.
“They took Rothan,” he said simply. “He’s gone now.”
“Took — they — what?” Kierah stammered. “Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
“They said his sentence was up,” he shrugged. “They, um, they let him go. They set him free.”
Free. It sounded so much better when he said it that way, almost like what had happened that morning was a good thing. But he knew that was a lie. And from the look on Kierah’s face, she knew it, too.
“But didn’t he — he hasn’t even been here that long,” she said. “How? Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I’ve tried all day to figure it out. I’ve been here long enough to see boys come and go all the time. Some stay longer, some stay shorter, but it’s never been less than several years. Ever. This — this was only a few months. I don’t understand it,” he repeated.
“And Danan…” Kierah tried returning to the first thing he’d said. “Danan was there? He saw this?”
“He did this. He was the one that took the kid away and — yeah.” He didn’t finish. He couldn’t. He wanted to, but he couldn’t bring himself to mention more. Not yet.
“And did what? Just, set him loose? Kicked him out? What does Rothan even have to go back to, out there?” There were tears in her eyes. She hadn’t expected to come back to this kind of news today.
He hadn’t either.
“He was better off here,” he said quietly.
Kierah didn’t answer. He wondered what she was thinking.
“What’s waiting for him on the other side?” she asked. “I mean, I didn’t know much about him from before, but, when I first met him, he had bruises, scars — he looked like he’d been beat up. But when I saw him here, no matter what happened, he was — he was home here.”
“Yeah,” Ethan didn’t deny it. “He was. I’d promised him he’d be home here for a long time. I’d promised him because I thought he’d stay, that he’d be safe here. I mean, safe, relatively speaking.
He stopped. Kierah waited a moment before asking, “Someone came for him?”
Ethan nodded. “Yeah. His … his father.”
The sound of Rothan’s cries echoed in his memory. “Those bruises you said you saw on him out there? That’s who they were from.”
“And now he’s back out there, all alone, with that monster?” she gasped.
He almost chuckled at her use of the word. “It’s funny, how monsters can look so different. In here, we have Garn, we have the guards, we have the ones that look the part. You’d look at them and figure they were monsters.
“But then there’s this guy. And he just — you wouldn’t know, unless you —”
He stopped himself again. He didn’t want to say it, and yet he did. For the first time he could remember, he wanted to tell somebody.
He wanted to tell Kierah.
She didn’t push him. She just sat there, watching him, those deep brown eyes of hers full of sadness — and something else. Kindness, he guessed it was. It wasn’t something he’d experienced much of in his life, but recognized it when he saw it.
And she had it. She really cared for them, he realized. For Rothan, but not just for Rothan. She cared about all of them.
It was a new concept for him. And it made him want to trust her. He wanted to tell her. Everything.
“He was crying,” Ethan whispered. “Rothan was crying so hard when he saw that man, when he realized what was going on. I tried to stop it, I tried. I followed him up to the guard tower, where your Danan friend was taking him — and ya know, that made no sense either. I shouldn’t have been able to make it that far without getting caught. The guards were right there, it was like they wanted me to see it happen. It made no sense. Nothing this morning made sense.
“Rothan shouldn’t have been released. I shouldn’t have made it so far. And that man shouldn’t — he shouldn’t have been there.” His voice quieted. “He shouldn’t have. It shouldn’t have been him. Of all the monsters in this world, it shouldn’t have been him.”
Something in his voice was wrong. What he was telling her was bad enough, but behind the agony of his words hid something deeper.
“Wait,” Kierah stopped him. “This isn’t just about Rothan, is it? You knew that man,” she realized.
When he didn’t deny it, she hesitantly pressed, “Who? Who was he?”
Ethan seemed a million miles away even though he sat right next to her. He was remembering, falling back — but into what, she didn’t know. And she was almost afraid to follow.
Losing Rothan was a blow she’d never really considered having to face again. The first time, it hadn’t crossed her mind because she’d barely known him. She’d been so focused on herself and her own misfortunes that the kid’s fate hadn’t even come into play. It wasn’t until after she found out what had happened to him had she questioned why.
This time was immeasurably different. He wasn’t just a bruised child in an alleyway; he was practically her little brother, a ray of hope in both of the dismal worlds she’d found herself in — and the key that had led her from one into the other.
He was the reason she’d found her purpose in being chosen for the experiment. That kid singlehandedly deserved most of the credit for her maintaining her sanity for as long as she had.
And that didn’t even come close to touching what he meant to the young man sitting next to her. For her, Rothan had been an ideal. But for Ethan, the kid was part of his family, his everyday existence. They’d worked together, bled together, healed together.
And now, he was gone.
That would have been devastating enough on its own, losing a kid like that, and even moreso knowing the nature of the monster that had taken him.
His eyes were worlds away, and it wasn’t because of Rothan. It was the man who had claimed him. He meant something to Ethan. And the distance in his look suggested it was from a very long time ago.
“His face,” Ethan whispered, pulling her into the nightmarish reverie he was slipping into. “He hasn’t changed. His voice, nothing. It’s all the same.”
“The same as what?” she asked. “When did you know him?”
He glanced at her again, and in his eyes she saw more than distance or mourning. There was pain, but it wasn’t a new pain. It was as if he’d seen a ghost, and hurts long ago buried clawed their way to the surface.
“No,” she said aloud without really meaning to. “That can’t be it.”
She held his gaze for a second before giving in, before he had a chance to turn away again. “That man,” she said tentatively. “Was he — he wasn’t … your father?”
The look in Ethan’s eyes winced at the mention of the word.
“What in Trythia,” she breathed, “Are you kidding me? Rothan’s father is … is …”
“He hasn’t changed,” Ethan repeated. “He hasn’t changed at all since he sold me.”
Kierah felt a knife stab her heart. “Your father is the one who sold you? To pay a debt.”
He barely nodded.
His father had sold him. Just like Rothan.
“And what did he do when he saw you?” she blurted out. “What did he say? What did Rothan say?”
“He didn’t recognize me,” he shrugged.
“Didn’t recognize you?” Kierah exclaimed. “Your own father —”
He pulled up short. The stunned stupor was gone in an instant as he realized he’d just let something slip that he shouldn’t have.
It was too late, though. Kierah had heard. She wasn’t great at math, but she knew when something didn’t add up.
“Wait, twenty-something years?” she asked. “Ethan, you said you’d only been here for ten.”
A reply was slow in coming.
“You said your father sold you here to pay a debt. If you’ve been here for ten then how —”
“I never said that,” he interrupted quietly.
“Yes you did. You said —”
“I said my father sold me to pay a debt, and that I was sold here to pay a debt. They’re not the same thing.” His voice was still gentle, but it was less far away than it had been. He wasn’t lost somewhere else now; he was there, with her. He knew what he was saying.
Kierah tried to do the same. The fine line differentiating the two truths was hard to see, but it was there.
He nodded. And Kierah realized how little she really knew of this young man beside her. She’d known him for months, and all she’d ever seen were the doors he kept barred across the entrance to his life. Most of the time there were enough distractions outside those doors to keep her from thinking too much about what lay behind them.
But now, she was staring directly at the first chink in that defense.
“How?” she asked.
He’d done it. He’d opened the door to the truth, just a crack. It felt like a sudden draft of cold air seeped through that crack, washing over him. He recoiled from it at first, afraid, as if it was a ghost. Mostly because, it was. The ghosts of what had once been his life were on the other side of that door. His heart raced, crashing through the numbness that had paralyzed him all day.
It was a door he’d kept locked for years. Terrell was the only other person he’d ever told about the past hidden behind it. He never dreamed he’d want to look at it again, never mind reveal it to anyone else. Much less a stranger, this girl from a world completely outside his own.
Except she didn’t feel like a stranger, not anymore.
He’d cracked the door to the truth. He was going to face what was on the other side.
“I was — I mean, I used to —” he paused, swallowing awkwardly. “Um, I really don’t — I really don’t know where to start.”
“Well,” she offered, “why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“The beginning. Right. Well … at the beginning, I lived in the Ends.”
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