Can you murder someone who’s already dead?
Is taking the life of a woman whose life has already been taken enough to send a man to the gallows?
I have no answer to that question. It might be better for me to die, better than the alternative. I can’t live every day hating myself for what I’ve done, and knowing I will never pay for it. I see her empty blue eyes staring back at me from under a veil of white strands, eyes that once held a sparkle, and I wonder if anything was left in their depths.
Can you murder someone who’s already dead?
I don’t know.
You tell me.
10 years earlier
“Can you pass me that wrench over there?” I heard my father say. The sounds actually coming from his mouth were something along the lines of “’Han ew af me vvvt ‘hench oher ‘her?”, but I had grown so used to him talking with a huge nail in his mouth it was like being fluent in another language. I reached up on my tiptoes and pressed the blue tool into his brown hand. “And the red one,” he added once I retracted myself. I bounded over to the toolbox with youthful energy, plucking my favorite tool from under the others and passing it directly to my father. No one would ever see the use of having a two-foot wrench, and it was perhaps for that reason I liked it the most. A bell rang in the distance, and I moaned in disappointment. My father climbed down like a monkey and patted me on the head. “Next time,” he promised through the nail before unloading all the tools strapped around him back into the box. Together we went back over the bridge and across the field, turning into the structure where a huge ship’s bell hung. I always asked why we had a ship’s bell to call us for dinner, and I was always answered, for some reason I always forgot. I knew it had something to do with one of my grandfathers, one who wasn’t around any more, but that was the extent of my memory. We entered the dining room side by side, pushing through the commotion to get to the other end of the room where the food bar was. With so many people my mothers never felt it necessary to serve the meals, and instead it was first come gets the best peace of meat, and all the rest poke around the platter until the person next in line yells at them to hurry up because they’re starving and they would never take so long. Father had the advantage of being taller than the rest of the family, however, and always cheated by reaching over people before they served themselves. No one complained, because he often grabbed an extra serving for the person next to him, which wasn’t always me. That evening we were having pork and yams, luckily for us slowpokes; there was always plenty of those. Most of the people around didn’t eat pork, so we always bought it cheap. Yams we just got naturally; it seemed they fell out of the sky, and I never wondered why we always had them. We loved my mothers’ yams. It was all an accident, when the two of them were still young and still fought over just about anything. It didn’t take long for both of them to settle their differences and become best friends, because that’s the kind of women my father married, but at the time they were often very loud. One of them (I think mine) wanted to boil the yams, the other wanted to fry them, so they compromised by cooking them in the oven. One wanted to use butter and brown sugar, the other cinnamon, and they couldn’t find a balance so they used it all. There was a lot of screaming when they left it in too long and the dish burst all over the oven, but it was near dinner and us kids were hungry so we pounced upon it anyway and started licking it off the burning sides of the oven. The results were much injured tongues and fingers, but a dish we all loved. This time I was especially famished, and scooped two large servings on top of my pork before shoving through the rest of my family to get to the table. “That’s too much for an 8-year-old to eat,” my brother Shan declared, stealing a bite of my yams as I lifted my fork. He reached in for another steal, but I blocked with my weapon. He parried it away and thrust, but I countered and he nearly lost his life. Admitting defeat he withdrew, and I in triumph dug in to my spoils.
After dinner we all scurried around cleaning the house, dishes, and ourselves, and when we were done we gathered around the huge fire to watch Father do shadow puppets. He told us a tale of how he built a great dragon that carried him over the ocean, dropped him in, and flew to the moon. “You can still see it, up there in the sky,” he told us, pointing up through the glass ceiling. “They’re all just a bunch of dots,” one of my sisters sighed. “No, see there,” he pointed, “it’s his tail, there’s the wings, and there’s an ears.” “Dragons don’t have ears,” a brother objected. “Leastwise, they don’t’ve an ears,” a sister giggled, the shrieked as Father lunged at her with his shadow-puppet stick. He chased her around the room, the rest of us cheering them on, until our mothers came to call us to bed. We scrambled away obediently, each of us wandering to our own part of the castle to the rooms we had chosen ourselves. The castle was huge, enough to fit Father, my two mothers, five aunts and three uncles (and consequently five more uncles and 2 more aunts), all my cousins, a couple grandfathers and three grandmothers, as well as myself and my 14 siblings. I think only six of them are fully my siblings and the other seven belong to my other mother, but I never was told and really don’t know, because my mothers are both native to Kisanumi, and both from tribes from the island of Spir. Both had come to Dragon Isle looking for a better life, and they’d both found Father. Father was a rarity here on Dragon Isle, as his birthplace was a land far in the South, Jarismel. There are a lot of warriors there, just like here in Kisanumi, but Father wanted to build things instead of tearing them down. Since he has dark skin and mothers have light skin, all us kids are various mixes and can’t tell a full sibling from a half one. Father was the one who found the castle. It had been deserted a long time, probably because it’s right next to supposedly haunted ruins and far from any Star Tower. We had our own star room, though, and with all the cotton that grew around the castle we had enough blankets too. As siblings and cousins do, we spread as far away from each other as we could, consequently we hardly ever had to encounter our relatives, and as a bonus no-one knew where anyone else’s room was. I’m not sure how it was that mothers’ families came to live with us, but as far as I could tell they just drifted in without anyone noticing until it was too late. My own room was high up, overlooking the ruins less than a mile away, and was one of the few that had a real bed. Because of all the sky lights, and how close we were to the stars, only mothers had candles. The rest of us just knew the way around and didn’t have any books to read anyway. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure many of us could read.
Despite his promise, I never did get to see the red wrench used again, because it was the next day that they came. We were all just awake, but had not yet eaten, all in the castle. I saw them first, coming around the ruins, but as I let a cry out I heard the bell ring. I guess my mothers gathered as many as they could to run from the pirates, but I was not one of those. I stared out the window at the ocean in the distance, wondering why the pirates would bother with the long walk, until I realized that I’d already screamed and wasn’t doing anything about it. I fled, along with all my relatives, but I don’t know what happened to them. All I remember is falling down the stairs for the millionth time that month, and blacking out like I had done many times before. When I woke, the castle was burning, all valuables taken by the pirates, and the stench of burning flesh was in the air. I started crying, but quickly shushed when a pirate glared at me. In the chaos and dark that followed I did not know how many other of my family had been captured to be sold as slaves, but I remember the tears and the angry thoughts my little mind conjured up. Pirates, river rats, and bandits were usual occurrence in Kisanumi, but slaves were rarely tolerated. Those who liked the idea were the ones who didn’t fit in to normal Kisanumian culture. Kisanumi is, like Jarismel, a warrior land, and whoever had the time to bother with slaves, whoever wanted something done for them rather than doing it with their own hands, were either people who weren’t around long or the large-profit landowners who used slaves and free men alike to farm. Because of our warrior nature, Kisanumians don’t much like to farm. Consequently there isn’t a lot of farming, so people generally leave the landowners alone. That’s never stopped people from picking fights with them, though, or demanding someone back who’s been taking for a slave. Most slaves are acquired legally, much of the time even by the slave’s own will, but it seemed that in those times slaves were needed more than ever. No, that wasn’t it at all, I found out later, it was that those who could capture slaves were more abundant. I watched my home burn, I cursed the pirates and whoever had employed them with words children in Tioryr wouldn’t even know, and I cried.
Seven years later
“I might even miss the farms,” I said solemnly as I watched my fellows get cut down.
“I’m happy to be out of there,” my companion said softly, “but I know what you mean. I’m not meant to use a sword.”
“Women always fight,” I murmured.
She stuck her tongue out at me, lifting her sword with her left hand to parry an attack. Her right hand hung by her side, immobile and useless since a fall at the farms. We’d both been slaves for many years now, and knew each other well.
“About that Kisanumian drive to fight?” I wondered, killing my nth man. “I think the genes cancelled each other out,” she agreed, speaking of Father and mothers’ people. “Behind you, Cam,” I gestured, and with a swing of her sword the enemy was defeated. I didn’t hold any grudges against them, admittedly I didn’t even know what the hell we were fighting for, yams will be yams. Erm, what I mean is that we had been sold from farm slaves to fighting slaves, people who take the front lines and help ensure victory. Like mercenaries, only we couldn’t say no and weren’t paid much. “It’s a victory, Ran!” Hide cheered, sheathing his sword. Hide had been a fighter much longer than the two of us, but was just as new to this platoon. I gathered he’d been on the other side before, but without any loyalties it’s hard to really care. “Camoni,” our friend nodded to her, helping her slip a dead man’s purse into her belt. I grinned too; a victory meant the likelihood of us dying was much less, and that was always a happy thought. “Randi, Hide, give me that,” a gruff voice barked as Hide attempted to slip a pretty dagger with the marking of a horse on it under my hood. Hide reluctantly handed it over to our commander, who directly represented our owner (whoever that was). He wasn’t much different from our overseer at the farm, except that he didn’t have a whip and was less annoying. While Jin stamped away, us three started after the dagger wistfully. “I guess we’ll just be dining on this purse, then,” Camoni lamented, jingling the heavy purse with the hilt of her sword. “We’ll never survive,” Hide agreed, imagining how many houses that purse would buy. What fool takes a fortune onto the battlefield? Camoni put away her sword. “But if I keep it all to myself, it would go far as the islands.” Hide mimed a punch at her head, and she laughed and ducked. She came up only to have her head squeezed by me until she relented. We walked back with my arm over her shoulder, Hide guessing all the food we would buy. We were both growing boys, still not 16, and as long as we kept growing out of our armor we were never satisfied with the stuff we had.
That night, as Camoni snuggled close to me, murmuring in her sleep, I played with her hair, watching the white strands play around my fingers. Her hair had turned white when she had been captured, a fact that garnished many curious stares. She covered it with her hood as often as she could, but at night she always let it down. I would stay awake playing with her hair another half hour, until her nightmares hit. After hugging her close and telling her it was all right, she would fall into a peaceful sleep where I would soon follow. It had been like this the last seven years, since we both found each other at the farms, both of us big-eyed with sorrow. Seven years. What a long time it seemed to my young self, and it was about to get longer.
“Tomorrow we anchor again,” our commander barked at us the next morning. We all moaned and complained, but he ignored us and went on. “This time we strike quickly, bring back as much as we can and leave. We don’t raise any alarms for the blue-haired bastards to catch us; don’t be slow and you won’t be left behind. Got it?” “Yeah,” we all muttered, and went back to bed.
When we anchored we all clambered into the rowboats to get to shore as quickly as possible. None of us wanted to be around if an alarm was raised — just because we were slaves didn’t mean the blue-heads wouldn’t kill us just as soon. I wonder how many of the pirates who attacked my home were slaves.
Camoni and I found Hide, and the three of us moved away from the main body. Because we were all stamped with the sign of Valen they had no worries of us getting ‘lost’, and we wouldn’t do it for fear of our lives. Though we didn’t know who our direct owner was, he sailed under Valen and that was enough for us.
While our fellow pirates all rushed en masse to our target, some wealthy town near the sea, us three took a side route. We circled the town, coming around to sneak in the back where we started a few fires and took advantage of the confusion to run around gathering spoils. As soon as we were full we left, leaving the rest to clean up. As fast as we were, we weren’t fast enough. We heard the alarms being sounded behind us, but they weren’t the village’s alarms, they were our own. “Istoti ships!” I heard a fellow pirate scream. “The Istotian reinforcements!” someone else yelled. The three of us were standing so close to the sea it lapped at our toes, close enough to see the commander leap off the ship to a waiting rowboat. “Damn them!” he swore as his ship was covered in flaming arrows. “You told me they were four days away, Deiga!” I could imagine the rare cringe Deiga wore when he made a serious mistake. As the three of us backed away from the shore, they rowed as fast as they could for land. The Istotians were faster. “I think this party’s been crashed,” Hide observed, and we turned heel and ran.
“Great. Now we’re wandering around Effisterneia with stolen goods and this stupid brand,” Camoni swore, swinging her sword at a tree. While she vent her anger on the unfortunate sapling, Hide and I built a fire. We’d ran for several hours, until we guessed we were far away enough to take a break. “At least we have the stolen goods,” Hide pointed out, pulling out a loaf of bread. I had to agree, taking a bite into an apple. “Gimme some,” Camoni demanded, swiping the apple from me. We fought over it, taking alternate bites, until Hide threw another apple a few feet away and Camoni pounced on it. “You get the dirty one,” I jeered, taking another bite of my apple. She grinned. “But it’s whole!” “Not soon it won’t be,” I threatened, and she gave me a bite anyway. When the fire was ready we warmed up some cheese and meat, then looked through the rest of our loot. “Pretty good,” Camoni observed. “If Jin’d gotten at it, imagine how much of it we wouldn’t of seen.” Silence fell while we thought about our unfortunate companions. “We’re free,” I observed. Hide and Camoni both theatrically scratched their shoulders. “We could hide the brands,” I defended. “We could try,” Hide corrected. “Why were the Istotian ships early, I wonder.” “Who cares?” Camoni asked. “I didn’t even know Istoti was their ally. Hellas, I forgot there even was an Istoti.” “Watch your mouth,” I said automatically, then drew back in apology as she glared at me. I’d promised before to stop treating her like a baby, but habit sometimes got to me. “Have we been to Effisterneia before?” Hide asked, changing the subject. “Of course,” I laughed, “don’t tell me you haven’t noticed all the people with green and blue hair.” “Oh, is that why?” they both echoed, and I realized they were teasing me. “Why do only some of them have matching hair-eye colors?” Camoni wondered, biting into another apple. “Dunno,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to go to Istoti,” Hide said. We laughed, knowing that while going to Istoti while wearing the brand of Valen wasn’t any less likely than us making it through the month, the likelihood of us surviving that long was close to zero.