Tihn pressed himself against the rocky wall, instinctively adjusting the tattered cloak around himself despite the lack of a breeze. This far under the mountainous Al’carai, there never was, but the cloak gave him comfort anyway. There wasn’t much left that could do that anymore. Carefully stepping through the darkness, the path remained eerily familiar and the gravelly cavern floor proved to be as uncomfortable on his feet as he remembered. How long had it been since he and Jada had stopped sneaking in here? Did Yaka children even still play in the caverns?
‘Who’s back there?’ The rough voice echoed through the tunnels toward him Tihn caught his breath and clutched at the leather strap over his shoulder, acutely aware of the weight of the book it contained.
It’s only a book, he told himself, his shaking hands quietly removing the burden off his shoulder. Only a book, that if found would mean your execution. He fumbled for the flask of oil on his belt, knowing he had to burn the book before the Jitto arrived.
Before he shared his sister’s fate.
‘My fate? To die free, how terrible.’
‘Shut up,’ he muttered, mentally berating himself for making noise. This voice, this Jada, wasn’t real. She couldn’t be. He’d watched his sister leave with the rest of his clan, and he’d seen her body dragged back with them too.
‘And yet here I am.’
Clenching his jaw, he ignored the phantom. It was an apparition, a ghost, all part of his grief. It would go away in time. Tihn took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. She was dead, he was not. If he wanted to keep it that way, he had to get rid of the book.
‘I said who’s in there?’ A shiver ran through him.
Calm down. He’s close, but he’s not here yet. Tihn looked up as a faint glow appeared in one of the tunnels.
Dammit, too late to burn it.
Careful not to make any noise, Tihn reached into the pouch and pulled out the book. He ran his finger along the soft, leather spine, reading the note scrawled over the cover. An oily residue remained on his fingertip, the pungent odour burning his nostrils. It was the same oil the guards used, judging by the smell. The same readily flammable oil with which he had planned to burn book. He wondered briefly where Jada had acquired so much of it.
‘Stole it from the armoury, not bad, hey?’
Ignore it, he told himself, slamming a fist into the rocky floor. Though ghost-Jada was right – it must have been a dangerous feat. In their childhood, he would have been impressed at the feat.
Back then you might have stolen it for her. A mix of pain and guilt rose in him. She had looked to him as her hero, once.
‘That was a different you. The old Tihn wasn’t afraid of the Treaty, of the Jitto.’
The old Tihn would have stood by Jada when she was killed. She never said the words, yet Tihn understood them as clearly as if they’d been yelled.
It, he reminded himself, not her. it’s not real. His callouses scratched at his cheeks as he wiped away a tear.
‘Rough hands like that are for the old,’ ghost-Jada told him.
Maybe I just want to live long enough to get old.
‘Ha! You died a long time ago, Tihn, don’t let the fact you’re still breathin’ fool ya.’
At that Tihn let out an audible sob. She sounded just like the real Jada.
If I had just destroyed it when we first took it, would she still be here now? The thought hit him like the sharp end of a lash. Would she have attempted to leave? Had he been responsible for her death by letting her keep it all those years ago?
‘Nah, you know me,’ the voice replied, ‘I’d have found some way to start a fight. It’s not in me serve the Treaty.’ Tihn finally looked up at the hallucination, or whatever it was. The dark, knotted hair, the thin, ragged limbs -it could have been any of the Yaka, save for the fierce pride in her expression. The pride that had driven them to steal the book in the first place, and the same pride that had driven her to lead her rebellion.
You can’t stop the inevitable, he told himself.
The soft glow in the opening of the tunnels was getting brighter. The Jitto must be close, he realised, staring at the book.
‘Come on, I specifically left in a spot only you could find! I even defiled the cover for you!’ Tihn ignored her pleas. He couldn’t afford to be found with the book, but neither could he burn it. Putting the book back in the satchel, he hurled all of them as far into the darkness as possible. His last physical memory of his family, of his clan, disappeared in the blackness.
Yet also, he rationalised, the very item that had caused Jada to run headlong to her death. All because of some imaginary, fantastical stories.
‘It was never what it said, it was what it meant, about the Yaka,’ grumbled ghost-Jada.
What it means is a quick execution if they find me with it, now get out of my head!
Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself again. The Jitto had arrived.
‘I am called Tihn of the Yaka-Pushne. I am sorry Jitto, I got lost in the dark.’ Tihn prayed the guard believed him, desperately hoping he would just be flogged.
‘Or you could fight.’
He almost laughed at the ghost-Jada’s suggestion. Fight a Jitto? A scrawny Yaka like him would have no chance. The guard approached, and any delusional thoughts of fighting fled along with his hope. The twisting filigree silver draping itself over his shoulder straps told him this was not any guard lost in the tunnels. This was a captain.
‘Likely kill you where you stand.’ Ghost-Jada yawned as she spoke. ‘You know he’s allowed. It’s in the Treaty, after all. You know, that Treaty you serve as though you don’t have a choice?’
‘Shut up,’ he muttered back.
‘What was that, Yaka?’ Tihn swallowed down the bile rising in his throat. How could he explain to the captain that he was speaking to the imagined ghost of the dead sister?
‘Nothing, Jitto.’ The captain stood close to Tihn, doing nothing for his nausea. The same foul-smelling oil Jada had used in the book and satchel had clearly been used to overpolish the captain’s leather uniform. A brief moment of panic was quickly subdued when he realised the smell of the Jitto’s armour would mask any on the book or residue on him.
How does he not light himself up with the lantern? Tihn wondered. It was a cruel irony that Jada’s pride had gotten her killed trying to free her clan, but this Jitto, putting himself at risk just for his uniform to look good, should survive.
‘Why do they even use that oil? Horrible stuff.’
‘Shut up, you’re not her, you’re not Jada.’
‘What was that, Yaka?’ The guard peered at him in dark, as Tihn mentally cursed himself as ghost-Jada continued.
‘Why is he even here anyway? We never saw a Jitto this far in, especially not a captain. Doesn’t he have a squad to torture?’
‘You are of the Pushne?’ The captain’s voice almost gave Tihn relief, just to hear a real voice.
He can kill you on a whim, remember. Tihn took a deep breath before he responded.
‘Yes, Jitto, the Pushne.’ Despite the coolness of the caverns, sweat started to slide down his cheek. A few years ago, he might have run, braved the deeper, unfamiliar tunnels, or charge the Jitto, hope he wasn’t recognised, and make a run back to the camp. Or maybe even further, and try to escape like Jada. And end up like her? Where would you go? His whole life had been limited to the fields, the camp, and the track between the two. The caverns under Al’carai were the extent of their adventures. He didn’t even know if there was anything beyond that.
But that was not him anymore. He was Tihn, apprenticed to Farut, the Lorereader for the camp. Not for the first time since he had learned of his sister’s plans, he heard the calming words of his mentor.
Calm yourself, Tihn. Stay submissive and subordinate, not like your sister, and you will survive. It is for the good of our people. Over and over, he chanted the words in his mind. Not like your sister. How true that had become.
Tihn yelped as a hand grabbed his matted hair and dragged him to his feet. The pale, grizzled face of the Jitto appeared next to the lantern inspecting Tihn, the captain locking his piercing green eyes on the three lines tattooed down the Yaka’s face.
‘You really are traitor-clan. Didn’t realise there were any left.’ The captain released him. The traitor-clan. Is that what the Jitto knew his clan as now? What about the other Yaka?
Not they, just me. Just the one too scared to go with them. Yet he survived. That was something, wasn’t it?
Not if he kills you for simply being of the Pushne. Or if he finds the damn book. Tihn almost wished for darkness again. In the dark, his death would come instantly, a surprise.
‘You have my condolences, Yaka.’
Tihn froze. Condolences?
‘We lost many slaves today, I’ll not lose another to grief. You’re young and strong still, Tihn of the traitor-clan. You may yet serve the Treaty, and bring some semblance of pride back to your clan.’
The captain released him, pushing him in the direction of the camp, where the other Yaka would be resting. He exhaled, the relief washing over him.
He thought you were coming here to die. The irony of a presumed death wish saving him was almost comical. Even if it was by accident, Farut would be proud of him for surviving.
Ha! Proud! While the Treaty remained, all he needed to be was useful. Pride got Yaka killed. Just ask Jada and the rest of the Pushne.
He stood up, his back and legs already aching. He laughed at the absurdity of pride again. He couldn’t even stand properly, let alone run. Pride was neither desired nor available. He bowed to the Jitto and made his towards the tunnel.
The orange glow did not move.
‘Jitto?’ When the captain did not reply, Tihn risked looking up in his direction. The man was staring at the ground a few feet from where they had been standing, staring at a small, square shadow.
‘What is this, Yaka?’ he asked. Tihn gulped. The captain took a few steps and knelt down.
‘I don’t know, Jitto, I can’t see from here.’
‘I ask again, what is this?’ The captain held it up this time.
‘A book, Jitto?’ He doesn’t know it is mine.
‘No Jitto,’ he replied.
‘Don’t lie to me, Yaka. Your clan is all dead with exception of you. If you do not wish to join them, tell me the truth.’
‘What happened to not wanting to waste another slave?’
‘Shut up, Jada!’
The words were out before Tihn could stop them
‘Say again, Yaka?’.
He tried to apologise, but his voice seemed to have left him.
‘Talk, you little shit.’ The captain picked up the book and threw it at Tihn’s feet.
‘I swear, Jitto, I have never seen this book in my life.’
The captain glared at him, drawing a long knife from his belt.
‘Pick it up,’ he ordered. Trembling, Tihn obeyed, staring at the cover as he did so. Three thick, black lines dominated the cover, Jada’s short note scrawled across the top. He could feel the pride emanating from ghost-Jada before he heard her.
‘Go on, read it, tell him who we are!’
Please, Jada, not now! He could feel her amusement that he had finally used her name like it was some kind of acknowledgement.
‘Read it,’ the captain growled.
‘But Jitto, I can’t–
‘Give it here.’ The captain grabbed the book with his knife hand, knocking Tihn back as he did so. Placing the lantern on the ground, he brought the book closer to the light, switching his knife to his other hand and pointing it at Tihn. He felt light-headed as he saw the captain’s eyes tracked over the text. Tihn didn’t need to see it. He knew the words, and they hurt all the more every time he thought of them.
Tihn. Remember me. We will come back for you, and all the Yaka.
No, you won’t, he thought bitterly. Being dead made it a tad difficult. Damn her though! Even after she had passed she had managed to incriminate him.
‘I knew it! You’re part of it, you traitorous shit! Tell me, the other conspirators – which clans are they in? Who are they?’ demanded the captain.
Tihn looked at the Jitto with wide eyes, his mouth working but no words coming out.
There are other rebels?
Tihn’s mind raced for an answer. He was dead without them.
Give any names, it doesn’t matter if they’re real. Just survive, he thought briefly.
Haven’t you disappointed Jada enough?
He gulped at the thought, tears now flowing freely.
‘Tell me boy, or I start cutting.’ The captain lunged at him, and Tihn instinctively cringed, waiting to be slammed against a wall, or a knife to enter his belly. Instead, he heard the shattering of glass and a piercing scream. He opened his eyes to see a broken lantern, and flames dancing their way up the guard’s leg.
‘Don’t just stand there,’ the guard screamed at him. Quickly taking off his cloak, he went to wrap the guard’s leg up, to smother the flame.
‘What the hells are you doing? He was about the kill you!’
I know, he tried to tell himself, one less Jitto, that has to be a good thing, right? But years of subordinate instinct took over. Suddenly, and intense heat pressed against his waist. The small flask on his belt. The one he had planned to burn the book with. Panicking, he quickly detached it, before it bounced out of his hand, landing at the foot of the captain. The already horrified eyes of the burning Jitto glared at him. It must have only been a moment, Tihn reasoned, but it felt like a lifetime. Then the flask burst and an explosion of repulsive, black smoke preceded the flames engulfing the Jitto.
As foul odour filled Tihn’s nostrils an almost inhuman scream echoed off the walls. A dark cloud of smoke rapidly filled the cavern, as Tihn saw a small figure in the background, just a shadow, disappearing back up one of the tunnels.
Did someone see? Was there someone else here the whole time?
‘Not much of a concern now, is it?’ The disgust in ghost-Jada’s voice left Tihn in tears.
‘Be seeing you soon, brother.’
Tihn barely noticed the farewell. The horror of watching the Jitto’s blistering and burning skin entranced him, and the rancid smell of burning hair rivalled that of the gulas. The flames quickly spread to the oiled parts of his armour. Thick smoke filled the cavern, filling Tihn’s lungs and making him finally throw up as a dizziness came over him. Delirious laughter threatened to burst from him as he fell to the ground and the irony of the situation crossed his mind. Killing a Jitto, even by accident, should make Jada proud. The real Jada would have understood, surely. But even as he lost consciousness, certain his death awaited him, a satisfaction welled up in him. Maybe this is what Jada meant. Maybe this death was better than life as a slave. Maybe his own death was as deserved as that of the Jitto.
As his eyes closed, a single thought remained with him.
This is what you get, you arrogant bastard. Killed by the lowest of all.
This is justice.