As always, Kellem didn’t once break eye contact with Hoskins as he received his daily lashes. To my master’s credit, Kellem thought, gritting his teeth as the whip dug into his skin, he never breaks eye contact with me, either.
Locked in this agonizing stare down more times than he could count—and he couldn’t count—Kellem had come to know every facet of Hoskins’s eyes as intimately as he’d come to know the fields he planted. They were gray—not the gray nebula of storm clouds, nor the gray sheen of new steel. More like… the gray of a wolf’s coat after the dirt, grime, and blood of life had been washed away by snow or rain. Too beautiful for a man so steeped in cruelty.
Another crack of the whip. More blood.
Even Hoskins’s pupils were beautiful, somehow, like the wolves in the irises were howling at the dark side of the moon. Kellem had always loved the moon, but as a child, he wondered why it had to “go away” sometimes. That only makes it more beautiful when it comes back, doesn’t it? his mother had told him, mere weeks before illness took her. Now, when he looked up at night, no matter what phase the moon was in, he thought of her.
It gave him strength when he saw the moons in Hoskins’s eyes.
Kellem must have smiled at the thought, because just as Hoskins was laying down the whip for the night, he flicked his wrist, cutting Kellem’s lip. It wasn’t a mistake. If his master’s lashings were known for one thing, it was their accuracy. Were he so inclined, he could probably carve letters with the scars he left.
“Count yourself lucky,” he said, wrapping up the whip for good this time—eye contact still unbroken. “It was that or no food for a week.”
Kellem bit his tongue to staunch the flow of retorts rushing in; he knew better than to push his master any further than he already had. For today, at least.
“Now get out of here,” Hoskins said, just loudly enough to be heard. He wasn’t softspoken, per se, but he never used more volume than he needed to. “I’ve better things to do than discipline a slave who refuses to stay on task.”
Kellem stood, swept his knees clean of the manure he’d been forced to kneel in, and left the barn, keeping his back straight and shoulders high until he was sure Hoskins couldn’t see. He slumped then, but only so much. He wouldn’t let his friends regard him as they might an abused pup.
The walk from the barn to the barracks wasn’t more than ten minutes, but Kellem took his sweet time, relishing the crisp night air. Days on the plantation were hot and hard, enough to make even the taskmasters—who carried canteens of water with them—collapse on occasion. Nights, however, were straight out of a fairy tale: big, bright stars; fireflies lighting up pockets of darkness at random; crickets chirping and frogs croaking from their hidey-holes in the reeds.
And of course, there was the moon.
“Why do you insist on these little meetings of ours, hm?” Hoskins hissed the next night, the whip hissing right along with him. Not only was his master good with it: he could use it in a variety of ways. This time, he favored snappy, pinpoint pricks that marred Kellem’s body with small welts. “I don’t bring any other slave in here as much as you.”
Maybe I just like you, Kellem barely kept himself from spitting. Or maybe it’s your beautiful eyes.
As much as Kellem hated to admit it, Hoskins carried himself well. He’d never caught his master drunk—which red or shifty eyes would have made obvious. He’d never seen him clothed in anything less than the highest finery—which complimented his eyes spectacularly. He’d never even seen Hoskins show signs of fatigue—which bags under his eyes would have been a clear sign of.
What was it about the man’s eyes? Their gray-toned beauty aside, they somehow managed to reveal everything and nothing about him all at once. Kellem wondered if he was that hard to read himself, but the way Hoskins whipped him a second later said otherwise. His master’s technique with the black and bloodied coil was the only other thing about him that stood out.
Hoskins shook his head as he retracted the whip. “It’s almost a shame, really. Your willpower is nearly as admirable as your mouth is loose.”
Kellem hardened his stare, and, to his surprise, Hoskins’s own eyes softened. He even smiled.
“Speak freely, slave. I pose the same question as earlier: why do you end up here so often when it’s so easy not to?”
Now Kellem was the one smiling; he half expected Hoskins to leave a matching cut on the other side of his lip, but his master was still as a frozen pond. “That’s the thing: for me, it’s not easy. If I don’t put on a good face—”
“The others will break,” Hoskins filled in. “Interesting.”
A moment of silence passed between them, his master’s eyes unblinking and unrelenting, yet… different. In that moment, hope flared in Kellem’s chest like a furnace come to life—hope that he’d gotten through to Hoskins, even if he hadn’t intended to. Had a sort of understanding formed between them? Was his master about to tell Kellem that he held a sort of begrudging respect for him?
Out of the very corner of his eye, Kellem saw the light of the moon—
The whip, like lightning—
A slice to Kellem’s shoulder—
A tear in his arm—
A rip across his chest—
Kellem woke up to the rattle of chains. He’d been chained up before, but never in the barracks, where he and the others simply claimed spots on the ground. Where was he?
A crow cawed nearby, though Kellem was so dazed he couldn’t tell from where. Something sounded like a drum, the cacophonous patter uneven and without end.
Rain. But he was mostly dry, so where…?
“Awake, are we?”
Kellem pressed at his temples, hoping to gain some level of focus. It took time, but the voice waited until he did.
The eyes, however…
“You must be wondering what sort of predicament you’re in,” Hoskins said, just a smidge louder than the rain. “It’s one of your own making—though that surely doesn’t come as a surprise.”
His master was standing far enough away that Kellem couldn’t read his expression, even by the light of the lantern he held beneath his umbrella. Kellem knew it probably wasn’t much different than usual, yet even from this distance, something was different about those eyes—the same something he’d noticed before blacking out.
“Had I let you continue on, the other slaves might have finished kindling the spark of rebellion you planted in them. So, I came to a crossroads: kill you, or send you away.” Hoskins gestured to Kellem’s cage, which by now he’d realized was a cart; a horse whinnied close by, quashing any doubts. “You can see what I chose.”
Part of Kellem wondered why that was, but he could think on that later. He scraped himself forward as much as he could without completely cutting off circulation in his limbs, the chains clinking with each inch he gained. “Let me see your eyes,” he half choked, half coughed. The time for subtlety was long, long over.
“What?” Hoskins stepped closer. “Speak clearly, slave.”
But Kellem had what he wanted. Less than a foot separated the two of them now, and neither the night nor the tempest could hide what he saw in Hoskins’s eyes: fear. Crisp, clear, unbridled.
It was the most beautiful thing Kellem had ever seen.
He smiled, crawling on hands and knees back to the center of the cart. I did my job. The others… He took one last peek at Hoskins, who quickly averted his gaze and marched up the hill to his manor. His wife and daughter stood just inside, shielding candles from the storm. The others will be okay.
“Yah!” the coachman cried, snapping the reins. As the cart rolled into motion, a hole appeared in the clouds.
And there, as always, was the moon.