Chapter Two


"You. You, you…" Ratri* trailed off with a huff of frustration, as if he couldnt think of a suitable insult for me. He sighed, running his fingers through his dark hair.

"I'm sorry," I muttered.

"Are you?" he asked.

"I am, truly. I just… couldn't."

"Well, I did and believe me, it wasn't very hard," he snapped at me.

I shook my head. "Well, not for you."

His nose crinkled. "Listen, Amaris, I made your father a promise when he died. I would make sure you were taken care of for the rest of your life and no one knew about you. That's what I told him I would do."

I nodded. "I know, and I am eternally grateful. But what you wanted me to do was something I refused to do."

He rolled his eyes. "Amaris! We are to be married in four months. In order for this to work, you have to work with me."

I sighed. "I will try better."

He nodded. "Oh, I know you will. Starting with that Kesak. You are to keep him."

"What? Ratri! You can't make me do that! It goes against everything I've been taught, everything that's important to me! I can't-"

"Yes you can. And you will. This job I got you also goes against all the things that are important to you, yet you seemed to be able to do it perfectly fine before it came along… I love you, Amaris, but you can't let that rat get in the way of what is best for you."

"Can you stop calling him names? Have you forgotten where I came from?" I demanded, standing up from the chair I was sitting in.

"Him?" he cried hysterically. "Amaris, you aren't one of them anymore!" he cried. "You left that behind a long time ago."

I sighed, dropping myself back into my seat, avoiding his eyes.

"He is below deck waiting for you to go retrieve him," he continued after it became apparent I wasn't going to respond.

I nodded, getting up and leaving the room, slamming the door shut behind me.

I took a deep breath, then made my way below deck to the holding chamber. There were two guards standing outside of the chamber. They nodded to me, then opened the door. I found the boy from earlier, Braeden I believe, sitting on the floor, his hands cuffed, a chain around his neck attaching him to the all behind him. His eyes darted up as the door opened. When he saw me, he stood up.

The same betrayed look came into his eyes. I speechlessly removed his shackles, replacing the cuffs around his wrists with rough rope. I beckoned for him to follow. He got up with a begrudging look on his face.
I started to lead him away, when the guards asked me if I needed escorts.

For a moment, I started to consider it. Finally, I shook my head. "No. He won't hurt me."

They shrugged, doubt obvious on their faces. I continued to lead him away. Thinking of the irony of the situation, I almost laughed. He was at least a good four inches taller than me and probably a year older, yet I was leading him away like a child.

We made our way through our little primitive village, a few people stopping to look at me strangely. I ignored it most of the way until I reached my house. It was a simple house, made of clay and straw sheets for doors. It was round, about thirty feet in radius.

He looked around, as if he hadn't seen many of these before. He probably hadn't before. Where they came from, their houses were more like huts made of straw and mud. Not unlike ours, but smaller and less neatly designed.

Where we came from, I reminded myself.

"So, your name?" I asked.

"Braeden, but…" he said, still glaring at me, radiating intensity and anger, "…you already knew that," he finished.

I opened my mouth to start and say something, but he held his hand up. "No need, Amaris," he said, saying my name as if it were an insult.

"No, to you, I am Mistress," I corrected him.

"And if I refuse?"

"You will be severely punished," I responded, narrowing my eyes.

"You mean just like I was severely punished earlier?" he asked smartly. "Oh, I'm sure you would let that happen."

I raised an eyebrow at him. "What makes you think I wouldn't?" I asked.

He shrugged. "You're… different," he shrugged, a knowing look in his blue-green eyes, the contast between them and his dark skin remarkably refreshing.

"That's what you'd like to think."

He nodded. "Well, then, pardon me… mistress for speaking out of place," he said, squinting his eyes in response to mine.

I frowned, but began cutting at his ties. He was soon free.

"Thank you, your highness," he spat sarcastically.

"And what makes you think you can act so bold?" I demanded, my eyes narrowing further.

"Because I know you wouldn't dream of hurting me. Your pet."

My nose crinkled in annoyance. I shook my head, storming down the hallway towards the empty room of my house. I took a few extra blankets I found lying around my house and bunched them up creating a sort of bed for him to sleep on, a sort of nest. I went back to where he was standing in the entrance of my home.

"Come," I demanded.

His eyes narrowed the slightest bit further, but he obeyed. I showed him into his room.

"This is where you're going to sleep," I told him, holding the straw curtain aside for him. He stepped in, a puzzled look on his face. He began turning in a circle, examining the room around him, but the frown remained on his face.

"What, is it not to your liking?" I asked sarcastically.

"No, I've just never had one before," I admitted softly.

"Had one what?" I asked, confused.

"A room," he answered earnestly, his eyes finding mine. They were softer somehow, the emotions raw and vulnerable. I looked away.

"Sorry," he whispered, turning back to examine the quite empty room. He seemed quite fascinated, despite its hollowness.

I shook my head, disgusted at myself for being so weak, having to have a Casaket apologize to me. I turned to walk away. "Come on, we have to go make lunch."

He nodded. "Right," he said sarcastically, brushing past me down the hallway.

I followed him to find he had successfully found the kitchen.

"So?" he asked when I didn't move from the doorway, an unimpressed demeanor floating about his words.

"Well, I'm not quite sure how I feel about having a shirtless man make my food," I mused sarcastically, studying his muscular build and broad shoulders. Maybe I didn't mind so much…

I shook my head, scattering the thought away.

"Well, unless you have some actual clothes, I'm not quite sure what you're suggesting," he responded, his words heavy with bitterness.

I shrugged, approaching where he stood at the small table I had in my kitchen for preparing food. I took out a few pieces of food I had, consisting of a few fruits and a lambs leg, and started to work with them.

He somehow knew what I was planning to do, starting to work on another part of it. My face turned puzzled. He looked up at me suddenly, as if he knew I was watching him, an eyebrow raised, a mischievous look on his face, as if he knew something I didn't. There was no trace of happiness on his face.

"What?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Nothing, Mistress. Absolutely nothing," he said, spitting out the 'mistress'. But this time it was different. It wasn't as if he was trying to be sarcastic this time or offend me, it sounded as if he was forcing himself to say it. I watched as he returned to his work.

I frowned at him for a moment longer, then shook my head, turning back to my work. A minute later, I sent him out to fetch water from the well at the end of the street.

He looked at me strangely for a few moments, then nodded and left the building. I let out a breath I hadn't noticed I was holding. Taking a deep breath, I looked down at the palm of my right hand, feeling the blemish underneath the pounds of makeup I covered it with. That sensation I kept feeling whenever I touched him… it couldn't be because of…could it?

Suddenly, he was back at the doorway, the bucket of water gripped in his hand. I nodded, gesturing to him to bring it over to the table. He set it down, a puzzled look on his face.

"You haven't made any progress. What were you doing the whole time?"

"I was… uh… timing you. Yes, timing you. You did fairly well," I rambled on. "You know, it's somewhat disappointing. You would've made quite the hefty profit had we sold you. Too bad you had to be given to me as a gift."

He let out a short laugh. "A gift?" he asked quizzically, catching my bluff. "Right. More like they stuck you to me," he continued, starting to cut a fruit he had just dunked in the water. I did the same.

"No, you were actually given to me as a… pre-marital gift," I lied, "by the man who I am currently engaged to. In fact, I believe you met him earlier…" I trailed off, "Seeing as he was the one to give you that scar on your back."

His knife paused for a mere moment, but he quickly returned to using it. "Ah, so you're engaged," he said, a certain tone of amusement and mockery in his voice.

"Yes. It doesn't it bother you, now does it?"

"Well, do I want it to? No, but it might become a problem in the near future. But I was pointing it out merely because I'm not sure who I feel worse for; you or the man who has to be stuck with you," he ended. There was a certain ominous note of irony in his voice, but I ignored it, along with the first half of the sentence.

"Oh, ha-ha, I'm laughing, really I am. I'm just glad I don't have to be stuck with one of you tattooed freaks," I responded, the words jumping out of my mouth before I could stop them.

He brought his knife down hard as the insult sunk in. He didn't lift it again.

"Oh, Sawa**, I'm sorry, I… I didn't mean…" I trailed off.

His eyes stayed trained on the fruit as he continued to stay silent, his knife unmoving still.

"Braeden, I…"

"No," he said, looking up at me, a wall of stiffness hiding his emotions. "Really, it's okay. Didn't bother me a bit," he ended dismissively. He turned back to slicing the fruits, this time more vigorously. I sighed, doing the same.

It was silent for a while.

"What's it like there?" I asked, breaking through the silence but keeping my eyes on the fruit.

"Hm?" he asked, pulling himself out of his thoughts. "Where?"

"In Casaketera. What's it like?"

A soft smile appeared on his face. I could tell he was remembering.

"The houses are similar to the ones here, but they are often shabbier and… much larger. Families are usually twelve to fifteen people there. There are always little children and every night, the village will have a bonfire. That's where the food is cooked and we give offerings to Sawa. No one is ever sick, except after eating bad meat or something. It's never cold, and everyone there is healthy weight, fit. Unlike the overgrown citizens you have here."

"What do you do about food? Is there a lot?"

He nodded. "Lots of trees, lots of vegetation. Everywhere you turn, there's more food. Everything is delicious, not like the factory grown and cleansed fruits you have here. But, that's not the fun part."

"How is there a fun part to food?" I asked, confused.

A sly smile grew on his face. "Hunting," he said, his eyes glinting.

My eyes narrowed.

"From the day you are six months old, you are given a sandir***. The sandir is yours, and you are its. And then-"

He paused when he saw the questioning look on my face. I had no idea what a "sandir" was.

He sighed. "A sandir has the frame of a large cat, a…. how do you say… panther. But it has smooth skin, not furry. Like a snake. It is made of extremely small scales. Usually, they are a mixture of the colors blue, green, purple, and silver. It has an identical birthmark on its chest. Once you hook up your marking, it is permanent. You only get one sandir for life. If the sandir dies, you'll live. But if you die, so does the sandir."

I frowned, looking down. I never had the chance to ride one, and I was now seventeen. I was brought here before I was even a week old.

"Amaris?" he asked, concern on his face.

I shook the thoughts away. "Sorry, continue."

He nodded. "Once you turn thirteen, you have to pass the test of becoming an official adult. You have to mount your sandir. And this task isn't nearly as easy as it sounds. It takes at least that long to build a foundation of trust, but it is quite common for it to take longer than that still. You have to mount it and then match up your birthmarks before it throws you off, because if you don't do it by then, it will run away. And remember, you only ever get one sandir."

I nodded, drinking in the information. "Did you ever get to ride yours?" I asked.

"I did. And then, that is the day you get to go out and hunt with the hunting party," he said.

"Do you do it forever?" I asked wearily.

"Well, the men do. The women stop at about the age of twenty five, because that s about the age they become mothers.

I nodded again. This was fascinating. A moment later, he cocked his head to the side.

"What's fascinating?"

"The fact that the birthmark isn't just a marking, it's… it's a physical connection to… wow. I mean… wow."

He chuckled. "Yeah, no kidding. And riding a sandir is incredible. You can see what it sees, feel what it feels, smell what it smells. It's amazing. I think-"

"But," I interrupted suddenly. "How did you get here?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah… that. Well, as soon as your second child turns the age of fourteen, you are forced to send the oldest two away. We are told it is our duty to our families, it helps support them. That is why my sister, Razi, is also here."

My face fell and my heart stopped in my chest. "Oh my gosh, that's… that's horrible. I mean… why would you do that?"

"Well, whenever someone has tried to resist that rule in the past, the Socers come and take them. By force."

"Oh, wow, I… I'm just not really sure what to say… that's horrible… wait… what's a Socer?"

"Uh… not really important… it's just our term for… your people…" he trailed off looking down.

"What does it mean in Casaketan?" I asked warily.

"Um… well it means… it means 'greedy and self centered" in our language… but that's not the point. It's true anyway…" he trailed off, cutting his fruit slower now, more thoughtfully.

I started to protest, but I stopped. Because… well, it was true.

"But… how could the leader of the village… how could he let that happen?"

"Well, as I said before, when we try and resist, the Socers come and take us by force. At least this way, our people benefit from their losses."

"But… the families… doesn't it hurt them? Aren't they upset?"

He shook his head thoughtfully. "Not too badly. I mean… why else do you think the families are so big?"

Horror grew inside me as I realized what he was saying. "What, you mean they have big families just so they can forget about the ones they've lost? So it won't hurt as bad?" I cried.

He shrugged. "When you don't have a choice, that's pretty much the only option you really have left."

I nodded, turning back to my fruit, attempting to hide the disgust I felt secretly for the race I pretended to be part of. He didn't seem to notice.

And that was the end of our conversation.

*Ratri- Ray-tree

**Sawa- Sah-wah: the diety of the Casakets

***sandir- saan- deer