Disclaimer: I own nothing to do with Rurouni Kenshin. Not that I don't wish I did.
"Hey!" A sharp elbow jabbed my ribs, dragged me clawing from exhausted slumber, and had me attempting to scramble away. My arms were pulled up short, my legs tangled and I went back down in a thrashing panic. There was no way out. "Hey, hey!" I heard the same male voice again, just as close, I hadn't managed to put any distance between us at all. My memory refused to cooperate with me, and provide the details I craved. Where was I? What was going on?
A small whimper from not far away froze my muscles and the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I slumped slowly into the large hands that had been trying to still my frantic motions. Memory slipped in, bringing welcome clarity. Chains gripped my wrists and tangled around my legs. Sweat, filth and tears had gummed my eyes closed, causing my temporary blindness. The whimper was from my little friend Aya. She and her sister 'Zume had huddled against me in the night for warmth. They would be near, but would have been smart enough to know to get out of the way of my flying limbs.
That knowledge firmly reinstated in my brain, I submitted to the rather disgusting process of someone else unglueing my eyes for me. I hated it, but with my hands coiled in metal from my thrashing, I had no choice but to submit quietly.
When the hands left my face I glared at their owner through my lashes. I wasn't pleased. It was considered very rude, even in a slave pen to wake someone like that. The boy, wild black hair standing almost completely on end, not tamed at all by weeks worth of grease, brown eyes dancing with suppressed amusement at my plight, sat back on his heels and waited only long for me to work my way free enough of the tangle of chains around my upper body to sit up, then he said "You with us?"
My first reaction was puzzlement, my second anger and it took no more than at moment to pass from the first one to the second. Drawing 'Zume into my lap, I snarled at him to go away. He looked startled. Then indignant.
"Here I am, willing to let you in on a secret and you go, acting like I spit on your ol' Gran-mama." He snapped back.
A guard noticing him sitting so tall, bulled his way over to us, and sneered down, caressing the whip that was fastened to his waist. "Problem?" He was eager for there to be one.
"No sir!" I quickly answered, widening my eyes to vacant stupidity. "There was a sting bug and he..." I waved at my not-friend, but the guard was already walking away snarling about moronic babies, bored by such a silly fuss. My eyes swung back to the large boy who had now slouched down next to me. I knew what he was talking about, now that I was calmed down and mostly awake. There had been so many whispers of it running throughout the pens that it was a wonder the guards didn't know about it too. They had a conspiracy, and it was bent on escape. The problem was that when the conspirators were aged anywhere from two years old to twenty-four it's pretty hard to keep a secret.
See the thing is, there are always kids bent on escaping, but when there isn't anywhere we can be safe, anywhere to run to, there is no point in running. The rumor that sparked this conspiracy was ludicrous, they where saying that here, in one of our slave pens, was a boy who had come from the Orphan City. Now don't get me wrong, it's nice to dream, but that city is only a legend. A myth to keep the children from loosing all hope.
You need to understand some things, for this all to make a bit more sense, before I get back into the story. The first is that in our land, the law says that you are a child until you turn twenty-five, and then you are an adult. Until you are an adult, you have no rights, you sure can't hold property of any kind, and if someone snatches you and holds you for two weeks without anyone finding and freeing you, then you are the snatchers lawful property and your parents or whoever have no claim on you anymore, unless they snatch you and hold you for two weeks.
The second thing you need to know is about the Orphan City. Like I said it's just a myth, but supposedly kids aren't slaves there. They are raised by parents without having to fear getting kidnapped everytime they walk out the door. Supposedly, in that place, it's isn't lawful to snatch children. Weird thought. In that land, supposedly you learn while you're young to work at a trade, to grow food, to be able to support yourself when you grow up and have children or our own. You don't even have to worry that your master will kill you the week before you turn twenty-five, which is all most of us have to look forward to. It's laughable to think that there is such a place. I know Aya told me that her Grampa, who looked after her and 'Zume, didn't think it was right for children live in such fear, but that didn't stop the bandits who stole these adorable little ones, now did it? Nor does his wishing help anyone, and the only ones that have any power are the masters, and they make sure to hunt down and punish any child who escapes. They seem almost to take an escape as a personal insult. I've never heard of anyone who managed to stay free for the two weeks the law gives the masters to try and get the escapee back.
Now I've fallen in with a bunch of Crazys who think that we, a huge herd of kids can over power the guards, and stampede away in one big group. As if every master in the land wouldn't band together to wipe us off the face of the earth. Not only that, but they wanted to try to travel to a city that only one kid thinks he remembers how to get to. So, of course my answer to the black haired boy was no. Of course I wasn't with them. I wasn't joining their wild-crazy plans, and no, I was definitely not dragging these two little girls into it to. The guards wouldn't mind killing them off just because they wanted to, for an example. I shuddered, even as I gathered the older of the girls against my side, keeping all three of us together.
I expected the boy to leave then in a huff, but he didn't, he just grinned at me, "I guess we got off on the wrong foot. Shall we try again." I glanced suspiciously at him before turning my attention back to 'Zume's hair. As I played with the fine strands, I shrugged, I didn't mind being friendly, it wasn't like I was going anywhere soon. Not until the transport ships docked anyway.
"I'm Sano." I blinked at the hand thrust under my nose. Aya giggled at the cross eyed look I must have had on my face and I slowly extended a hand to be gripped in his and released.
"'Shin." I informed him against my better judgment, being friendly was one thing, getting to know a Crazy was another, the only thing that came with getting to know Crazys was pain when the guards killed them, or the hunters caught and killed them. I didn't want to be rude, though, so I pointed to the little girl in my lap, "'Zume." and to the girl curled up against me on the far side from him, "Aya." He very gravely extended his large hand to each in turn who in they're turn clasped his first two fingers, giggling again. The laughter was a good sign, and I didn't begrudge them any happiness they could find in this cesspool.
"Look, we have a good plan, and we'd like you to help." This Sano just didn't give up! But I knew his name now, I couldn't just ignore him.
"Why me?" I asked quietly.
"'Cause you're the only one that the guards think is dangerous enough to chain up, even in the pens, and you have two little girls that trust you enough to use you as a heater." That was blunt enough, but I was glad he wasn't dodging the issues. He was playing all his cards in one final bid to get me to buy in. Not that I was any great prize, being small for my age, and as skinny as anyone here. Never the less, I had some muscle and it showed up in my bare arms and chest. Also I was eighteen, didn't look it really, but I was. Okay, this Sano looked to be in his twenties, but I was healthy, whole, and willing to care for someone besides myself. All pluses. And the fact that I was chained hinted at something more.
"Fine then, what's the plan?" I couldn't believe it, I lose myself in thought for one second and my mouth runs away with me. I could have screamed, but of course I didn't.
Sano grinned, reminding me vaguely of a wolf, "We wait until dark, steal the guards weapons, kill all of them, and hoof it out of here."
I stared at him. That was it? That was the grand plan? The largest slave revolt in our history that I had ever heard of, the largest, grandest escape to be dreamed of in my life time, and that was it? It was pure suicide. The trade ships with their escorting war galleys would be arriving any day. An army of children on the run would never make it far enough to evade the mass slaughter that would follow the landing of the men on those boats. Ships. Whatever, I was still surrounded by morons!
All three were watching me closely, and from farther away I could feel the hidden attention of quite a few more boys and girls. With a sigh, I asked, "Who else has agreed to do it? What about the guards' pets?"
He shrugged slightly, playing with the tattered end of his calf length pants, "Everybody over fourteen has agreed to try, even the girls. You're the last. As for the pets, they know that no guard will be able to give them anymore favors when we board those ships. So even they're in on it, and willing to fight for their lives." I was stunned. Frankly, broadsided. I had lived my entire life in these situations, from the time my parents died when I was barely older then 'Zume. This level of cooperation was impossible. That's what kept us all slaves.
"How old is the one who's been to the city?" My mind was racing, with this kind of power, this kind of unity, we might really have a chance, might really escape, but we needed a better plan. "And who's to be in charge?" We had to have a strong leader.
"The kid is twenty one, he was fifteen when he was at the city, so he remembers it pretty good. His name's 'Shi." I nodded, the best way to gain trust is to be willing to give out your name. Not that they were our real names, no slave is allowed a name longer than one or two syllables, or sometimes three if you're really extremely valuable, but none of us here rated that. "As for who's in charge, that's a toss up, there's one guy who's 24, and some think he's the best choice, but he looks as friendly as an eel and as kind as a wolf." If I wasn't mistaken, Sano was bristling, obviously this guy rubbed my new friend the wrong way. That was a bad trait in a leader.
"I won't go along with the plan you have. Is there anyway I could talk to 'Shi? And see if there's something else we can work out?" Sano brightened. He nodded and slowly worked his way off through the crowd. I was impressed despite of myself. I could do stuff like that, slinking to avoid notice, but I was at least 50 pounds lighter than him and almost a foot shorter.
It was almost time for the midday slop when a lean boy worked his way over to me. He had black hair, like Sano, but it was straight and two sets of bangs framed his eyes. To say he was a slave, in a slave pen, he looked fairly well groomed. He was also at least as tall as, if not taller than Sano, and a bit more filled out, not looking quite so much like the starved weasel that most of us older boys did. His eyes were the color of the blue winter sky, and had just as much warmth in them. He wore battered black pants that came to his ankles and the tattered remains of a coat that reached his calves. Moving in concert with him was a slip of a girl about my age, just as skinny as me, and wearing a chest band and shorts similar to my own. Her most striking feature however was her long, long black braid. It had to reach her knees when she was standing. They took positions close to me, and looked about with the practiced indifferance of old hands at deception.
Other then a glace, I kept focused on 'Zume's hair, twirling it in my fingers, and showing no outward interest in the newcomers.
The girl spoke first, "Miss, fourteen. We were told you're 'Shin?" She then turned to a couple girls near her, and struck up a converstation with them. I'm not sure how girls find so much to talk about, but these sure did. I wasn't fooled though, Miss was paying as much attention to me as I was to her and the silent boy, who I guessed to be 'Shi, twenty one.
"Ya. I'm eighteen." It was always right to respond with the same amount of information as they had given you. That way no one had the upper hand. 'Shi nodded at the information, and while Miss seemed to ignore us completely, I could tell she was surprised, I really don't look my age, but I wasn't gonna lie about it. Aya was asleep again, her head on my knee, and her sister was completely relaxed, just enjoying being cuddled.
"You don't like the plan."
It was phrased like a statement, but it was meant as a question. I nodded.
"Have a better one?"
That was only right. If you're going to complain about someone else's plan, you had better have an alternative. I let my shoulders rise and then drop slightly. "Need some information first."
"How long a trip. Where?" I was asking how far it was to The City, of course, and in what direction it lay. I was glad that this 'Shi was a boy of few words, because I found I didn't have to elaberate any.
"Very far. Beyond the Mine Cities." The mines was where we were all headed. To our deaths. All of us little ones, ones small enough to go down the shafts, we'd work in the tunnels, the larger ones would work as smelters, blacksmiths and in the end we'd all die of crippled bodies, ruptured hearts, or faltering lungs. No one would survive longer than five years, most would last far less. I would last the shortest. I knew what the masters had planned for my kind. That's why I was so dragged out and muzzy headed, and why ideas seemed to keep slipping out of my grasp.
Then there almost seemed to me to be an autible click, and an plan florished to full bloom in moments in the depths of my head. "You know 'Ko? He's nine, maybe ten now." I was pretty sure he was still around.
'Shi looked thoughtful and then nodded. "Thief? Knifer?" I nodded, 'Ko was both of those things.
"Here's an idea." I told him. "Wait until we're on the ships. First dark we slip out and take care of the masters and shipmen."
"The war galleys?" He wasn't dismissing my idea totally yet, that was good.
"We use the tradeship's weapons against them, that's why we have to do our work silently."
He twirled his fingers in the dirt by his sandled feet, his were the first pair I'd seen in a long while. "Everyone over fourteen is chained on shipboard." He countered quietly.
"That's what 'Ko's for." I told him, "Get him to pick the best thieves he knows, and have at least one on each ship. First dark, they open our chains, and until we have better weapons we can use the chians themselves for our work." 'Shi slowly raised his eyes to mine, and I saw deep in their depths a respect starting. He nodded and cautiously began working himself back the way he had come. Miss nodded at me silently, and moved away too, following a safe distance behind 'Shi.
It was almost dark again, and I was drowzing in exhaution when 'Ko wriggled up to me. I glanced at him, and knew from the grin that it was done. My plan was in motion.