Cuff II: Chapter 3

Cuff II: Chapter 3

VIN CULLUR

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Someone shook Vin awake violently. He gasped and opened his eyes immediately, interrupting a pleasant dream. It was still dark out. An unlit figure stood above him, gripping his shoulders.

“Let’s go!”

It was Javisin, of course. No one else could be so enthusiastic before sunrise.

Groggily, Vin rolled over and stood up, brushing the dirt off of himself. The fire beside him had smoldered into dull embers.

“Wear your best clothes,” Javisin advised.

Vin looked down at the muddy, bloody, torn-up fabrics covering his body. One was a poor excuse for pants, and the other, not even recognizable as a shirt anymore. A thick layer of ashes and dust were caked onto his pants, his shirt was ripped so much that his skin shone through, and grease stains plastered both. He looked back up at Javisin.

“Done,” he replied.

Unfazed, Javisin aimed his sights at Theo instead.

“Get up, you bum!”

Theo, still curled up comfortably in his wooden crate, shot Javisin a glare so vicious that Vin was surprised nothing spontaneously caught fire nearby. Vin could relate to such iron-willed sleepiness.

Javisin marched over to aggressively shake energy into the older, curly-haired boy. Theo’s death-glare did not cease at any point during this whole ordeal.

After a little over a quarter hour, they left for the docks, stacking the crates in the alleyway inconspicuously so as to hide the few belongings they owned. They exited The Courtyard and started down the street, slowly feeling revitalized by the warm weather and the movement of their own bodies.

Rundown buildings loomed high above on either side, adding dull grey silhouettes to the already dark scene. Vin recounted his many memories from the area. The rubble on the street corner used to be a fully-functional home, until it collapsed in upon itself a few years ago. Vin remembered exploring this rubble once, out of sheer curiosity, only to find that it had become a haven for drunks and addicts. They stretched out under the collapsed roof, drinking hard liquor, smoking, and eating strange plants. None of them had any grasp on reality.

Many times, Vin wondered how such a life would feel. Surely, the constant stream of substances would dull after a while– even the most powerful plants and bitterest drinks would become grass and water. Besides, sitting in the same place for so long sounded irredeemably boring to Vin. He sought adventure. In his mind, no amount of feel-good substances could replace the time spent not experiencing the world. Perhaps he would feel differently if he tried them.

The boys passed the rubble-corner, and walked in silence to the edge of The Rancids. They turned on a road toward the Kailin Marketplace, from which they could walk to the docks. The Kailin Castle was visible in the distance, standing majestically right next to the market area and overlooking the entire city.

“I always wanted to go to the banquet,” Javisin said, staring at the castle. “You know, the Riverlight banquet.”

Theo shrugged. “It can’t be all that great. Just a buncha rich folks eating till they throw up.”

“Yeah, exactly!” Javisin raised his voice. “And you know they ain’t eating rat.”

“The rat wasn’t so bad,” Theo said dismissively.

Javisin mimed gagging. Theo, perhaps for the better, did not notice.

“We could never get in anyway, Jav,” Theo said. “The banquet is for lords and ladies and highlords and highladies and the royal family. That’s it.”

“Nuh-uh,” Javisin answered, “I heard they let some regular people in. Tessie Green went last year.”

Vin’s face reddened, but he said nothing.

“If Tessie Green ain’t the liar, you are,” Theo said.

“No! Honest.” Javisin paused in dramatically deep thought, wrinkling his nose and shutting his eyes for a moment. “Yeah, I remember! It was Tessie Green! Her dad knows some lord in the Southern Lands.”

“Lord Wolfe?” Theo asked.

“The Wolfes died, stupid. Ever heard of the Abbot Massacre? Huh?”

“Vin,” Theo nudged his more politically-inclined friend, “Who’s that other lord in the Southern Lands? The Highlord? From Greywood?”

“Mikhail Raston,” Vin answered, with vinegar. “The guy with the beard bigger than his brain.”

“Wow, tell us how you really feel,” muttered Theo.

“Sure. If you ask me,” Vin said, ignoring Theo’s sarcasm, “The Abbot Massacre should’ve been the Greywood Massacre instead. Highlord Raston turned his back on the Wolfes soon as he got scared.”

“Sounds like he just didn’t wanna get massacred, too.”

“Richard Wolfe was a hero,” Vin mused. “His so-called friend Mikhail Raston– a coward.”

“Yeah, yeah, we know. You wanna suck Richard Wolfe’s dick and give him a twenty-minute foot rub afterwards,” Theo said bitingly. Javisin giggled.

“I admire the guy,” Vin continued. “He stood up to the corruption of the Empire, even when Emperor Godsrich threatened him. He stood up for what he believed in till it got him killed.”

“Maybe he’s just dumb. Maybe Mikhail Raston was the smarter of the two. He’s still alive, after all.”

Vin raised an eyebrow at Theo. “‘Break their feasting tables,’ my ass,” he said, recalling their discussion from last night. “You can’t change anything without pissing people off. So if you’re scared of pissing people off, you’re never gonna change anything.”

Theo was always a stubborn boy, but something was different now. Maybe Vin’s passion inspired him. Maybe he thought continuing the discussion would escalate it poorly. Or maybe he actually recognized that he was wrong.

“Yeah. You right, Vin.”

Silence fell as the three boys reached the edge of The Rancids. This area still looked remarkably unpleasant, but at least they were getting closer to civilization.

Suddenly, Javisin, who had been silent during the Wolfe-Raston debate, piped up.

“I, uh, I just remembered. It wasn’t Richard Wolfe or Mikhail Raston. It was the one lord from Parch Hill. Yeah, Parch Hill. Tessie Green knows him.”

“Huh,” Theo replied lazily. Maybe Javisin was telling the truth, or maybe he wasn’t. Either way, arguing about it hardly seemed worth the effort.

“Honest,” Javisin concluded whiningly, even though nobody had challenged him.

With no more conversation, the three boys exited The Rancids and continued down the road. They watched the rubble and dirt turn into full homes and manicured grass. Kailin Castle grew ever larger in the distance, and the Q’Mo Sea drew closer.

The sound of flapping tents and wind bells signalled their entrance of the marketplace. Some shopkeepers were setting up their tents, but, for the most part, it was deserted.

“Here’s Kraz’s tent,” Vin said, pointing at a small area covered in a dull red fabric. Dried animal blood outlined it on the ground.

“It smells bad from the outside,” Theo noted, stepping over a runaway leg of dried blood.

“Hey! Ikazu’s is right up here,” Javisin said excitedly.

“Yeah,” Theo rolled his inky eyes with continued skepticism. “Please. Show us how the best businessman in Kailin City hired you.”

“Well he might not be here,” Javisin said, trying to ignore Theo’s aggression. “He ain’t working today, remember?”

“I guess he can afford to take off of work on holidays,” Vin said as he looked back at Kraz’s tent, somewhat bitterly. He didn’t want to miss the Riverlight Festival at all, but missing it to be yelled at by a smelly, sad man surrounded by a slew of lard was especially frustrating.

Javisin charged up to an ocean-colored tent at the very edge of the marketplace, near the waterfront. It stood out from the tents around it with its impressive size– it was more than four times larger than Kraz’s minimal-area butchery.

With no hesitation, Javisin lifted the front of the tent and walked in.

Jav!” Vin whispered aggressively. “You can’t just… go in!”

“And you said you believed him,” Theo muttered dismissively. “I’ll be waiting out here.”

Vin rushed ahead of Theo, toward the fisherman’s tent. Cautiously, he lifted the front flap. Vin did not want to be caught breaking into someone’s tent. He had seen firsthand that the marketplace guards did not take kindly to perceived thieves.

The first thing he noticed was a distinct lack of odor. This testament to Ikazu’s cleanliness was especially impressive considering the line of work.

“Jav, you–”

Vin suddenly stopped talking and looked up to see a balding, bespectacled man with a remarkably spherical head. He stood only slightly taller than Vin, and had the look of well-disciplined egg.

“Uh, Master Ikazu, sir, I am sorry,” Vin began.

“This is Vin?” Ikazu turned to Javisin. “Your… friend?”

“That’s him,” the small boy confirmed.

“Hello Vin.” Ikazu outstretched his hand.

Vin stood there in shock. “You work for Ikazu?!” He turned to look at Javisin briefly, then returned his attention to Ikazu.

“I said so! Didn’t I say so?” Javisin replied indignantly.

Vin did not mean to be a skeptical jerk like Theo, but, in the back of his head, he never truly extinguished his doubts. Somehow, his young, immature friend had been hired for what was arguably the best job in the Kailin marketplace.

“He start tomorrow,” Ikazu continued in an extremely thick mainland accent of some kind, and slightly broken language. “A very hard-working boy, Javisin. No nonsense.”

Stunned, Vin turned and looked back at his freckled friend. That description sounded explicitly unlike Javisin.

“My arm does grow sore,” Ikazu complained.

“I– oh, sorry.” Vin shook the fisherman’s outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you. Sorry.”

“Vinnie here works for Kraz, the butcher,” Javisin added.

“Ah,” Ikazu murmured. “He and I… do not get along. But I respect his–”

Just then, Theo burst into the tent, ducking under the front flap. Ikazu never finished his thought.

Man–” the dark-skinned boy started, “You two–” Suddenly, just like Vin, Theo froze upon seeing the befamed businessman.

“It was an accident, sir,” he explained panickedly, stepping back toward the entrance of the tent. “We ain’t thieves. Just some kids, heh. Come on, let’s go,” he looked around at the two ratty boys before him.

Ikazu looked down at Javisin, worry in his eyes.

“These friends of yours,” he whispered audibly, “What is wrong with them?”

“They’re… delinquents,” Javisin replied in an even more obvious whisper.

Theo and Vin stood there, flabbergasted by his answer.

“Delinquents, oh?” Ikazu scrutinized the two older boys. “From Rancids, like you?”

“Yes.” Javisin leaned in toward his master. “Last night, they had rat for dinner.”

“Oh my.” The older man, renowned for his experienced palette, looked as though the thought of eating rat was the worst fate that could befall a person.

“So did you!” Theo exclaimed, visibly annoyed.

“No,” Javisin corrected, “Last night I didn’t eat dinner.”

“Don’t pretend you ain’t poor, too!” Theo began stepping toward Javisin intimidatingly. “You little fuckin’–”

“Boys.”

Everyone looked back at the balding man.

“We shall be civilized.” Ikazu spoke quietly, but assertively. It would have felt wrong to disobey him. “We not in Rancids.”

The fisherman moved in closer toward Javisin with concern in his eyes.

“Young Javisin,” he said. “I do not have room enough for three boys in my house. But if you must escape The Rancids, I would be happy to house you.” He had seriousness in his eyes. “You could be clean… comfortable.”

Javisin looked flattered, but also utterly embarrassed. Blushing, he turned to his friends, then back to his master.

“I, uh, thank you, Master Ikazu. I’m very honored. I don’t wanna leave my friends though. They need me.”

Ikazu nodded once. “Understood. Do let me know if you change your mind.”

From behind Javisin emanated an aggressive whisper. It was, unmistakably, Theo. “They need me. Pah.

“Oh!” Without warning, Ikazu swiftly turned around and began rummaging through a container in the rear area of his tent, as though he had just thought of something. While his back was turned to the boys, Theo gave Javisin dirty glares, but no more words were exchanged between the two of them.

Ikazu promptly emerged with his hands dripping wet, each holding a portly dead fish. Both of the catches were identical– about twice the size of Ikazu’s head– with silver underbellies, rose-colored backs, and voluminous, amber eyes.

“Happy Riverlight Festival,” he said. “No more rat for you.”

“Are those… pinkies?” Javisin could not contain the excitement in his voice. All of the hostilities seemed to instantly evaporate when food was brought into the equation. Three stomachs rumbled in unison, like the syncopated rhythm to a joyous song.

“High-quality pinkies,” Ikazu added, handing the two fish to Javisin, who could barely hold both of them in his skinny, freckled arms and small hands.

“Thank you,” Vin said in disbelief.

“Yeah… thank you,” Theo added.

“Eat them today,” Ikazu instructed. “They go bad very soon.”

The boys did not really need to hear that. They were certainly not planning on saving it for later. This was real food– a full meal, and an abundance of it. Pinkies were not small fish.

“I love this holy day,” Ikazu said, perfectly voicing what the boys were thinking. “You know, for the next few days, I raise prices. A lot.”

“Right.” The boys seemed distracted by their windfall.

“Just lovely. Well, anyway. Riverlight begins any minute,” Ikazu said. “You boys should go. I leave soon, anyway. Just had to clean my inventory this morning.” The skinny man picked up another, thinner fish for himself and proceeded to lock up the containers in the back of his tent.

“Thank you, sir,” Vin replied, gratefully.

“Yeah, thanks,” Theo added, already ducking under the tent entrance.

“See you tomorrow,” Javisin chimed in, following behind his two friends.

“Enjoy.”

The three boys jaunted away from the Kailin Marketplace and toward the shore of the Q’Mo Sea, which was very close by. The sun had risen fully by now, and was a brilliant tangerine in color, low in the sky. Vin and Theo each held a raw fish, and all three of them were salivating like dogs. This had been an incredibly good start to the day.

A vast, semi-rocky beach spread before them, creating the iconic Kailin shore seascape. To their left, a multitude of long, anthropogenic wooden structures covered most of the shore.

“Docks or beach?” Vin asked as they approached closer to the body of water.

“Docks,” Theo answered decisively. “We ain’t afraid of no Riverlight.”

They oriented themselves toward the north, where the brown structures rested against the shore and felt the salty waves of the Q’Mo lap against them. Normally, hundreds of boats– typically, trade ships from the mainland– were tied to these docks with thick ropes. Today, however, not a single watercraft could be seen. Yet, there were hundreds of people spread out around the area, all facing the water.

“Come on!” Javisin suddenly yelled, sprinting toward the docks with a boyish excitement.

“Wait!” Vin and Theo dashed after him, their dead fish comically flopping in their arms. Normally they were much faster than Javisin and his short legs, but today, perhaps by some combination of the pinkies slowing them down and Javisin’s excitement, Vin and Theo failed to keep up with the younger boy’s eager pace.

Before long, the wooden platform of the docks appeared beneath their feet, making their chase even louder.

Javisin did not slow down until he reached the very end of the dock, where he froze just inches away from the edge, nearly falling in. Vin and Theo jogged up to him a moment later, huffing and puffing from the run.

“Good timing!” Javisin exclaimed. “Boutta start. Come on!” He plopped himself down on the dock, his legs swinging over the edge, several feet up from the water.

“Perfect. Maybe we can have cooked fish,” Theo joked between heavy breaths. He, too sat down at the edge of the dock. Vin followed after, being careful to keep the pinkie on his lap and not drop it off the side.

“Pass me your knife,” Vin uttered to Theo.

“No, I got it,” Javisin interjected. “Here, gimme the pinkie.”

Carefully, and not without his doubts, Vin passed the dead fish to his red-headed friend. Javisin placed the fish on the wood next to where he sat, and snatched the pocket knife out of Theo’s hand. Before Theo could react, Javisin plunged the knife into the pinkie, spurting a few drops of fish juice on himself. He confidently slid the knife along the fish’s spine, and dug his fingers into its raw flesh with unexpected grace.

Vin raised an eyebrow. Maybe Ikazu had hired him for a reason. He was certainly cleaning this fish more effectively and quickly than Vin had ever deboned any animal at Kraz’s butchery.

“Aaaand, there you go, Theodore,” Javisin said, pulling a long slice of raw fish out from his knife cuts. It was light pink with red tinges, and looked delicious. Ikazu did not work with mediocre fish.

“Here you go, Vinnie.” Vin reached his hands out and accepted a slippery fish slice of his own. Though it was a large piece, all of Javisin’s cuts had barely put a dent in the meaty fish. Plus, they had a second one on hand. Vin smiled. They would be able to eat well for at least a week with this generous gift.

“Saria salut,” Javisin said, tapping his own pinkie slice against Theo’s.

Vin laughed and touched his fish to Javisin’s as well, as though they were both holding golden wine goblets and not raw fish meat.

“Saria salut.”

They all took a bite. They all took a second bite, too. In a matter of seconds, in fact, all three of them had finished and Javisin was back to cutting more meat out of the pinkie.

Vin savored the taste. It was delicate in flavor, firm in texture, and not too fishy. Most importantly, though, it was real food. Vin felt reenergized.

“Here, have some more!” Javisin started tossing bits of fish to his two friends nearly as fast as they could gobble them up. The three of them looked like wild animals with fresh prey, feasting for the first time in weeks.

Suddenly, the sound of people cheering grew in the distance. Vin paused and looked up, half a slice of raw pinkie meat hanging out of his mouth.

“Look!” Javisin exclaimed.

The high-pitched sound of cheering grew louder, and closer. A bright light became visible in the distance, north of the dock that the three boys sat upon.

The phenomenon spread quickly, getting closer and closer to the boys. In less than a minute, Vin could clearly see it: a blazing, multicolored fire raging on top of the sea. Tongues of red, purple, green, yellow, blue, and white all danced in chaotic harmony. The flames intermingled beautifully in the sky, many feet above the sea where they originated. Dozens of black masses floated atop the water, beneath the searing, celebratory fire. These were most likely burned fish, or other unsuspecting sea life.

Vin instantly realized why Ikazu could raise his prices so much for Riverlight season.

The fire, fuelled by colorful, floating oil, charged quickly toward the boys, who did not flinch. It got about twenty feet away from them, but spread no closer. This was not because of any preexisting safety precaution– dozens of people died every year by falling into the fiery sea or sitting on a wooden dock as it smoldered. The boys did not fear it, though. The fire was not scary; it was exciting, fun, and celebratory.

“Woo!” All three boys cheered, adding their voices to the many others along the docks.

Vin smiled. He especially liked when parts of the fire turned cyan in color and looked briefly invisible against the sky, before rapidly transforming into all other colors of the rainbow.

The massive amount of rising heat morphed the horizon behind it into a curvy, melting line. The sky was a surreal oil painting; the clouds were elegant dancers hiding delicately behind the wild, prismatic tongues in front of them. The air grew full of smoke and oil scents, equal parts perfume and pyre.

Its beauty captivated the boys for approximately half an hour more before the three of them stood up, dropped a devoured pinkie carcass into the smoldering sea from which it came, and headed back to the beach. The multi-colored fires had shrunk and become consumed by the waves. There would not be much to see until the noon flames, and then, finally, the evening flames.

As the three of them walked back, still energized from the festive pyrotechnics, they passed a number of food stands, all selling different kinds of overpriced vegetables, meats, and pastries to the festival-goers. Today would be a fruitful day for many businesses. Vin fleetingly wondered if Kraz’s butchery could finally make some profit.

The crowd thickened significantly as they got nearer to the Kailin City Marketplace. Although many tents closed for the holy day, those that stayed open tended to do well. Regardless, hundreds and hundreds of people still flooded through the marketplace, weaving between tents nimbly.

Vin, Theo, and Javisin passed by Ikazu’s closed blue tent as they entered the area. Vin was carrying the half-eaten pinkie, dripping its blood behind him, while Theo carried the uncut one. Vin passed his half-fish to Javisin.

“I have to get to work,” Vin said as they approached the red tent of the butchery. “Wish me luck,” he added, sarcastically.

“Hope Kraz don’t literally beat your ass today,” Theo said.

“Me too,” Vin replied.

“Good luck Vinnie!” Javisin added, animatedly.

“Thanks, Jav. See you later.”

Vin separated from his friends and entered the tent, where Kraz was setting up shop. It had all the familiar stenches and sights as ever. Chunks of spoiled meat, hanging from wooden rods and metal hooks, disguised itself as an edible food product. Flies buzzed around as though they were overwhelmed by the feast laid before them. It was all very typical.

“You’re late, boy,” the fiery man greeted Vin as though they were already midway through an argument.

“Sorry, sir, I–” Vin looked outside. It was still so early. “Actually,” he pivoted, “I don’t think I’m late. It’s not even aftmorn. You told me to be here at aftmorn.”

The butcher just grunted in response. The silence that followed was just as tense as ever. Vin passively pondered whether Kraz’s bad attitude would take a toll on his own psyche. Just a moment ago, he was laughing and eating with his friends. Now, he was rolling up his sleeves to prepare a product that nobody wanted to buy for a seller who did not want to sell it. His brain and his nose both revolted against the idea, yet his arms got to work as though controlled by somebody else entirely. He began pulling animal parts out of wooden containers in the back of the tent.

“The morning flames were very beautiful,” Vin mused, trying to clear the rotten air.

“Hmph. I know someone who burned alive in those,” Kraz replied, as cheerful as ever.

Vin rolled his eyes. Being so negative must be exhausting.

Wordlessly, he helped Kraz set up the table, hang the remaining meats, and clean the butchery equipment.

No customers entered. It was, however, too early to tell whether the entire day would be the same old financial failure as always. As time passed, prospects of profitability only grew bleaker.

While Vin’s hands chopped and spliced, his mind drifted off into other worlds, real and fictional. Anywhere was better than here.

“Trash this one, it’s bad.” With little warning, Kraz tossed some large crimson mass at a daydreaming Vin, who threw up his hands at the last second and caught it. He winced as he felt the squirming of maggots against his forearms. They dug into him, as though trying to burrow their slimy bodies into his skin. Suppressing all emotions, he obediently took the infected meat outside and threw it in the bin behind the butchery tent. He shook his arms disgustedly.

Why was he doing this? Vin looked around at all of the other tents in Kailin Marketplace. Admittedly, a dirty boy from The Rancids did not have a lot of employment potential, but surely he could work somewhere better than this. Vin looked down into the bin and stared decomposition in the face. It was accompanied by thousands of hidden wiggling things. They could not have all been maggots, but Vin did not care to investigate them further.

He suppressed a gag from the fetid stench and shuffled back to the butchery entrance, trying to erase the bin from his memory entirely.

“Took you long enough,” the butcher mumbled as Vin returned to the shop. Deep down, beneath the insults and maggots, Kraz probably appreciated Vin. At least, that was what Vin told himself until things like this happened.

The boy mindlessly deboned animals for two or three hours. He motivated himself with thoughts of seeing Theo and Javisin again tonight, but even that felt incredibly distant.

Finally, somebody entered the store. Vin looked up excitedly to see a large, burly man with a full beard. However, Vin’s excitement immediately turned into confusion when he noticed his clothing. This man was not a customer. He wore the light blue robes of a marketplace guard.

No sales would be made here.

Kraz, noticing this as well, crossed his arms and raised one orange eyebrow. “Can I help you?” He asked gruffly.

The guard nodded. “Yes. Are you Kormin Kraz?”

“What’s it matter?” The butcher replied aggressively.

“It is nothing serious,” the guard reassured him. “We just need to speak.”

The butcher narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Alright. Then I’m Kormin Kraz. What is it?”

“Please step outside.”

Kraz turned to Vin. “Wait here, boy.”

Vin did not reply, but the whole situation made him feel uneasy. His master followed the guard, leaving a trail of his huge footprints in the animal blood running out into the marketplace pathway.

The boy’s stomach dropped as he saw three other robed guards standing directly outside of the red tent. As Kraz exited the butchery, they surrounded him like a circle of vultures.

Vin stopped chopping meat and peered outside.

The bearded guard and Kraz were conversing with each other, but Vin had no idea of the topic. As usual, his master just looked annoyed.

Suddenly, the bearded guard pointed in at the tent. Vin froze. The man was pointing at him.

Kraz shook his head vigorously as if to say no. From there, the conversation heated up. Kraz pointed at himself multiple times. With each gesture, his rage seemed to compound.

Both men grew aggressive in their body language. They spoke animatedly in the middle of the path, making a scene as market-goers flowed around them. However, the exact words of their intense conversation remained masked by the babble of the crowd.

Vin grew increasingly nervous. The bearded guard and Kraz, making fierce eye contact with each other, were now dangerously passionate in their anger. The three additional guards, behind and on either side of Kraz, watched stoically. They all had the hoods of their blue robes pulled down, revealing their heads.

The guard behind Kraz, a short-haired woman, moved her hand slowly to her waist. Vin’s eyes widened as she drew a long knife.

Kraz did not seem to notice. Vin’s limbs froze up and a lump formed in his throat. What was going on?

The two guards on either side of Kraz moved their hands toward their waists as well. They were stealthy and deliberate about their actions, and Kraz, still yelling at the guard in front of him, remained oblivious to the weapons being drawn on all sides of him.

The lump in Vin’s throat jumped out.

“Sir!” He exclaimed loudly, and unintentionally.

Kraz, who seemed to hear Vin’s voice, turned and made eye contact with his apprentice. Before the burly man could comprehend anything, however, all four guards moved on him, pulling his massive arms behind his back.

The woman reached up and held the knife to Kraz’s throat.

Vin watched in shock as his master’s face twisted into one of pure wrath. His veins enlarged and his skin became almost the same color as his hair. In an impressive feat of strength, he broke free of their grips and swung his huge arms around, throwing all four guards away from him and pummeling the bearded guard into the ground. The guard with the knife no longer held her weapon to Kraz’s throat, but she was nowhere to be seen. The fearsome butcher released a visceral battlecry, so deep and aggressive that it sounded as though adrenaline itself had grown vocal chords and a temper. The crowd around the area screamed in response.

Vin could not watch on idly any longer. He jumped over the meat-covered table before him, cleave in hand, and sprinted outside. As he got closer to the action, however, he saw the female guard emerge from the crowd to Kraz’s left side. She did not seem to notice the cleave-wielding boy to her left; her eyes were zeroed in only on the fiery butcher before her. Vin, still moving forward, raised his cleave, not sure what he was about to do exactly.

He never figured out what to do.

The woman leapt toward Kraz far too quickly for Vin to react, and, helplessly, Vin watched her plunge her knife between Kraz’s ribs, spurting blood onto the ground, where it mixed with the crimson juices of pigs and cows and other dead animals. Kraz grunted and keeled over.

“No! Sir!” Vin, only a few feet away now, began sprinting forward and prepared to tackle the guard to the ground, but instead felt an unexpected pressure in his stomach knock the wind out of him. The cleave clattered out of his hand onto the wet ground.

“Ooph.”

The boy’s body was raised high in the air and hoisted over someone’s cloaked shoulder before he could even comprehend the situation. The last he saw of Kraz was a bloodied mess being surrounded, once again, by the four robed market guards.

Struggling to regain his breath, Vin noticed that he was travelling in the opposite direction, away from the butchery altogether. A strong arm held Vin so tightly that he knew he would not be able to move even if he tried.

Panic distorted his thoughts. What was going on? Who was carrying him away? Why was Kraz attacked?

Suddenly, the sunlight was blocked out by shade of some sort, and Vin was placed on the ground firmly, but not violently. He was surprised to have not been thrown against the stone wall behind him.

“Stay put for a moment,” a deep, smooth voice said, as though it could read his mind. “I know you’re scared. But stay put.”

Vin had no intention of obeying this voice. Somehow, though, he felt as though running right now would not get him anywhere. Kraz was stabbed. The butchery was patrolled. There was nowhere to go.

Defensively, his fingernails clawed along the ground. When his hand snagged a hard object, he clutched it with white knuckles and applied as much pressure as he felt anxiety.

Vin looked up. The man before him was both tall and wide, with skin like a ghost and various strange markings across his hairless face, as though somebody had cut him in very specific geometric patterns. He did not seem to notice the rock in Vin’s hand.

“Who are you?” Vin asked. “What’s going on?”

“I work for the emperor,” the man said simply, with a slight accent. “Your master is being punished for treason.” The man made fierce eye contact with Vin. “And, now, assault on royal workers.”

Vin felt himself shaking.

“Treason?”

“The past several days, we have received reports of treasonous and poisonous talk at Kormin Kraz’s butchery. Yesterday, the complaints were overwhelming. They say he destroyed his own property threateningly, yelling about the ‘evil emperor’ all the while.”

Vin’s heart sank.

“No.”

“When the guards spoke with him, he was uncooperative. He had to be dealt with.”

“He didn’t do anything.”

The odd-looking man knelt down. Vin could see that his eyes were completely white and black, with no color other than their thin red veins. His glare was fierce and urgent.

“Treasonous talk is a serious crime, child.”

Guilt bloomed inside of Vin, freezing up his arms and making him feel microscopic in the world around him. The rock dug into his palm, puncturing his paper skin and producing warm, runny drops of liquid.

Vin wrestled the tension in his neck and looked up. The familiar stone overhangs of the castle were providing them shade. The surface behind him was the castle wall, to the side of the large stone staircase that connected the marketplace and the home of the Emperor. He wondered why he had been brought to such an isolated part of the marketplace.

“He isn’t dead,” the pale man added, as though he was once again trying to read Vin’s thoughts. “Probably.”

“I did it,” Vin said softly.

“Excuse me?”

“I said those things about the Emperor. Kraz kept trying to put me in my place. I didn’t listen.”

The pale man cocked his head thoughtfully.

“And why would you say those things?”

Vin’s lips quivered. This was a trap.

“I… don’t know,” he lied, trying to stay in control of his emotions.

“Yes you do.”

“I don’t know,” he repeated, more assertively.

The kneeling man squinted his eyes, making the decorative scars on his face squirm in place.

“You don’t have to take the blame for your master’s crimes. It’s noble of you, but… it’s rather stupid, too. Don’t be stupid.”

“I hate Emperor Godsrich,” Vin replied. He did not know why he was doing this. Perhaps the panic and confusion had muddled his common sense. Perhaps seeing his master get assaulted changed his perspective. Perhaps yelling at this strange man could magically save Kraz.

“What did I just tell you?” The pale man asked mockingly.

“I hate Emperor Godsrich. I wish he were dead.” Vin felt tears roll down his cheek. His jaw clenched angrily.

The edges of the pale man’s mouth tightened, as though he did not want to reply to that comment.

“I hate Kailin Empire. I hate the guards. Kraz was innocent and you just attacked him.”

“Stop.” There was a seriousness to the pale man’s voice now that had not been there before. Maybe Vin had struck a nerve.

“Does it make you feel big?” Vin asked. “To hurt innocent people just because you can get away with it? Does it?”

“Stop.”

“Kraz didn’t even say anything bad about the Emperor. I did. And I still will. But you had to go and… and… put a fucking knife in him!”

Stop.” The man seemed irritated, too. “I brought you here so you wouldn’t get hurt. I saw you with that butcher’s weapon. You were going to hurt somebody, and then you were going to spend the rest of your life in a dungeon. I saved you.”

Saved me? You’re a fool. You’re a–”

“And you’re Vin Cullur.” The pale man said, with white fire in his eyes. “You live in the eastern part of The Rancids. Your father was an armorer. I know where he lives. I know all about you, Vin. And if you threaten the peace and order of this Empire anymore, I will personally have everybody you love killed.”

Vin, shocked, did not answer.

“It is my job to keep the peace. I love this Empire, and I’ve dealt with enough extremists like you to know how you all look and act. I saved you today. You can repay me by getting out of my sight right now and not saying another treasonous syllable in your short, miserable life.” The pale man stood from his kneeling position. His height and width were formidable, and nearly as monstrously large as Kraz. “Consider this a very, very serious warning. Now get out of here.”

A million thoughts sped through Vin’s mind. He was indignant, and confused, and furious, and scared. He hated this man in front of him, but he also knew that he had been saved from a prison cell. He felt simultaneously guilty and vengeful over Kraz’s fate. He wanted peace and order, but he also wanted to burn down Kailin Castle.

Nothing made sense anymore.

Vin looked up at the pale man. “Thank you for your help, sir.”

“Of course.” Despite his stoicism, the man seemed receptive to the gratitude. “Please, leave. And don’t make this mistake again.”

“Sure.” Vin smiled and began walking past the man, toward the sunlight of the marketplace. As he reached the edge of the shade, however, he could not help but turn around for a final word with the strange man. It was as though he was not in control of his actions.

“And when I raze this castle, maybe I’ll let you off with a very serious warning, too.”

This was not the correct thing to say.

The pale man approached menacingly. Quickly, Vin spun around and headed toward the bustling crowd, but felt a tug on his arm draw him back into the shade.

“I tried my best,” the pale man crooned, with simultaneous frustration and disappointment. He pulled Vin closer with his monstrous, cloaked arms. “I’ve changed my mind now, Vin Cullur. You’re coming with–”

Crack.

The rock that smashed into the pale man’s skull gave him a new scar.

Blood dribbled downward.

His grip on Vin’s arm loosened, and Vin took advantage of the situation, slipping out of the area before he could even see the pale man’s reaction. The rock clattered against the ground.

Fear and disbelief welled up within Vin’s chest, leaving little room for his lungs to hold any air. His breath grew shallow.

Vin sped through the marketplace, crashing into dozens of people and spilling goods across the ground. The voices yelling around him all blended together, like an ethereal temper gliding disorientingly in all directions. Vin tried to ignore it.

He had to get to The Courtyard.

He had to find Theo and Javisin.