The room seemed to be spinning.
Jayger squeezed his eyes closed, then opened them again, struggling to focus his sleep-blurred vision. This was not the room he had been sleeping in.
Sitting up, the 19-year-old brushed his blond hair out of his eyes and tried to figure out where he was. There were no windows. In the dim light of a hanging lantern, he saw pieces of leather, bits of metal, and bolts of thick cloth scattered around the room, overflowing from boxes, spilling off of tables, and piled on the floor.
His eyes landed on a single familiar object: his leather drawstring sack.
Jayger got up from the pile of cloth he had been sleeping on, took a few careful steps across the cluttered floor, and picked it up. The broken cross-body strap had been mended.
The creak of a door opening and a shaft of light made him look up. When he saw who had opened it, the memories of the previous night rushed over him.
“Oh, good, you are awake,” the girl said, picking up a large, gore-stained wooden bucket. “Feeding time.”
She tossed the bucket at Jayger, and he caught it reflexively. “Merith—”
“Not now, Jayger. We have work to do.” She picked up a bucket of her own and left the room.
Grumbling, Jayger unhooked the lantern from its ceiling chain and followed her.
“Why did you not keep this room organized?” he demanded, blowing out the lantern and hanging it on a wall hook as the girl pulled the door shut. “That room is a mess!”
“I have not had time to keep your system going. You can fix it after we finish with this.” She looked up at Jayger trying to shake his long hair out of his eyes. “And after we cut your hair.”
Jayger stopped for a moment, eyes playing over his familiar surroundings.
Out here, in the main part of the warehouse, the metal roof soared. Close under the eaves, wooden shutters were slid aside to let air and light through the barred openings serving as windows.
Merith had already set her bucket down beside a metal feed bin. He moved to join her.
Heaving the heavy top open, she asked, “Do you remember how to do this?”
“Of course I do!” Jayger dropped his bucket on the floor, reached into the bin, and pulled out slabs of slightly-bloody meat. He worked quickly, hoping to fill both buckets before Merith got impatient. Then he remembered that Merith was not the one who got impatient with him.
Once the buckets were full, they hefted them and set off for their first stop at the front of the warehouse. The enclosure at the front contained a faserdu Jayger had never seen before. It growled as they approached, saliva dripping from its maw.
“Be careful with this one,” Merith said, light and shadow playing over her pink-dyed hair. “He snaps when food is involved.”
“Good to know.” Jayger tossed meat pieces through the horizontal metal bars. The faserdu’s jaw guard chains jangled as it fed, picking up the food with its front teeth, and flicking it to the back of its throat to be swallowed.
As they made the rounds, Merith pointed out new animals to Jayger, and told him about any negative behaviors to be trained out. He half-listened, at the same time going over his rationale in his head, waiting for an opportunity to voice it.
Merith would listen to him. She had to.
Finished with the feeding, they plunged their hands into a bucket of water and wiped them dry on a cloth. Jayger marveled at the lack of blood stains; the man he had been working for seemed unable, or did not bother, to keep things as clean as Merith did.
Merith picked up the bucket of dirty water, carried it outside, and emptied it on the stone street. Coming back in, the 21-year-old closed the door and set the bucket upside-down on the floor. “Come sit down and I’ll cut your hair.”
Jayger seated himself. Merith disappeared into the room he had slept in, and came back with a pair of scissors. As she combed through his hair with her fingers, he went over his argument one last time and said, “Merith, I need to talk to you.”
“Your illegal activities.”
She snipped at his hair and quietly replied, “They are not just mine. You used to help. And Mother and Father taught us.”
“And look what happened to them! The same thing could happen to you! I left so it would not happen to me!”
Strands of Jayger’s bright blond hair littered the floor around them. “You lack fear, and you need it. If you continue aiding the insurgents and escaped slaves, someone will notice. Someone will turn you in.”
“Jayger, have you forgotten that our parents were slaves? If nobody had helped them, where would we be?”
“Wherever we would have been, we are here right now, and we need to keep our heads down, unless you want to disappear like they did!”
Merith paused and took a deep breath, then continued cutting her brother’s hair. In her mind’s eye, she saw her mother cutting Jayger's hair when he was younger, and life seemed simple. “They wanted us to keep helping people. If they had thought the risk outweighed the good, they would not have taught us what to do.”
“We do not have to do what they did! They may not have understood the danger, but we do. Most people look out for themselves. We need to do the same.”
Merith stopped cutting Jayger’s hair and walked around in front of him. Laying the scissors down on top of a feed bin and turning to him she said, “Jayger, you never used to say these things. Who changed your mind?”
He looked down at his hands, clenched in his lap. “I changed it myself. I got older, and I saw the way the world is. You are still living in the fantasy you were taught.”
“What fantasy is that?”
“That one small deed can change things.” Jayger spat out the words bitterly.
Merith looked at her brother with compassion, and gently said, "I do small deeds with great love. Love does change things. Mother and Father taught us that."
“No!" Jayger retorted. "Things, bad things, will keep happening, regardless of what small deeds you do. Other peoples' problems are not worth endangering your own life.”
Merith pressed her lips together lightly. With her brow slightly furrowed, she said, “I believe small deeds do something. Most people do not feel the need to get involved unless something directly affects them. The system we are raised in produces an apathetic and uncompassionate people. But I choose to love, however insignificant that seems.”
Jayger stood up and glared at his older sister. “You are wrong. It has nothing to do with love. Nobody cares about love. Look at the slave markets. Look at the faserdus trained to fight to the death. Look at the captured insurgents! Giving them or the escaped slaves any aid will seal the same fate for you! If you do not stop,” he said, and steeled himself, “I will report you.”
His threat was out.
She stood in stony silence, but inside, turmoil raged. Her little brother was only bluffing—or was he? They were both gripped by grief and fear, but did he really believe that what their parents had done, and what others had done for their parents, was useless? Did he really see the world as a place where only the selfish survived, when at the same time he seemed concerned for her welfare? If he ran off again and she was caught, authorities would have no way to link him to her illegal acts, so self-preservation seemed an unlikely motive. Did he really care about her? Or would he really betray her?
A pounding on the wooden door leading to the back street made both of them jump.
Merith felt truly worried. Perhaps Jayger had already turned her in, and had been stalling, waiting for her captors to come.
Jayger wondered frantically if someone had already reported Merith. If the authorities had come to take her, escape would be impossible.
Merith walked to the door with a measured, deliberate step, and opened it a crack. Jayger, his heart clenched with dread, hastily followed Merith, and peered around her.
A young girl looked up at Merith, wide-eyed, her straight black hair stuck to her face with sweat. “Please,” she gasped in Sibbolese, “help me.” Her limbs shook.
Jayger saw the metal collar around her neck, and realized she was a slave, probably from Kesh. Slaves did not ask for help. Unless . . .
“They said you would hide me!” The girl was looking at Merith, ignoring Jayger, or else she had not yet seen him.
“This place—” Merith glanced fearfully at Jayger, then back at the girl. “Not here. Run!” The girl looked terrified.
Jayger pulled the door all the way open. Now he could hear crisp commands being shouted, and heavy bootfalls approaching.
The girl's sheer terror flooded Jayger with a wave of compassion that swept away any ambivalence.
He reached out and pulled the girl inside.
Merith deftly closed the door and barred it.
He still remembered the hideout. Would he ever forget?
With Merith and the girl close on his heels, he picked up a metal bar and hurried to the floor grate in the midst of the faserdu enclosures. Prying, he lifted it free. Merith dropped a knotted rope ladder in, the end secured to a bar wider than the hole.
Jayger clambered down, the girl following him. He boosted her into a large alcove, hidden from above by the overhang. “You have to be quiet,” he said, and she nodded.
Back up on the warehouse floor, the brother and sister jammed the grate back into place and hid the ladder in a mess of other dirty ropes. Already someone was beating on the door as if to knock it down.
This time, Jayger opened the door. “What do you want?” he barked. Momentarily the men outside drew back, surprised by Jayger's ferocity.
One of the soldiers angrily struck Jayger for his insolence, and the rest quickly pushed past him through the door.
After a fruitless ransacking of the building, the soldiers left to search the rest of the street's habitations.
Once the door was closed, Merith threw her arms around Jayger. He stiffened for a moment, but then responded in kind, and rested his chin on her pink hair.
"Thank you," she mumbled into his chest.
His heart full, he hugged her closer.