Layth stared down at his brown feet, covered in grime and dirt from hours of labor. Blisters had begun to form on the soles of them, bringing unbearable pain along with him everywhere he walked. His shoes had been lost in the last hopeless expedition to Pawley's Island. Those shoes were his favorite, gifted to him by his mother before he was captured. They had leather laces that he tied in a double knot every time he wore them. If you looked closely at the rubber sole of the shoe, you could see an inscription of some code. Layth had no idea what it meant, it seemed to be in a different language, one that he didn't understand, so he decided that it was his mission to figure it out.
Time greedily passed, so did Layth’s shoes, but his memory was sharp enough to have memorized the strange phrase.
Exigo a me non ut optimus par sim sed ut malis melior.
He repeated it at night when it seemed like he was the only one in the whole universe. Night-time was when Layth was free. It was in those short hours that Captain Frithjof couldn't lay a hand on him, the silence was all that could be heard, along with a few snores from some of the other crew-members. Layth most likely would lay awake and think more than he would sleep, but he knew that he slept for a few hours because the morning light would interrupt a nightmare of some sort, protruding in through the spherical window.
Layth’s nightmares mostly consisted of his first night on the Musaid.
Him and his mother had gone out on the town for his birthday. They both made sure to never step on the cracks in the sidewalk, so they made their footsteps synchronized, giggling if someone tripped up.
His mother had brought her purse on the journey, although Layth didn't recall her ever being able to buy him a gift for his birthday. Necessities were bought before wants. They had never bought a want. He usually only received a bar of chocolate that came for free from the market, but on their enjoyable walk, they stopped at the facade of an orange building. A sign hung in the front and it read; Jhonston's. That was it.
Before he was able to take a step towards the door, Layth’s mother turned to him.
"Stay outside, today is a very special day, so I've had something made especially for you," she said.
"Mother you don't have to buy me anything."
But she insisted with tears in her eyes and entered the building. Layth had no idea what was going on, but he kept his guard up since he was left alone. Word of pirates roaming their small Arabian town had gotten out, they were looking for young affiliates with enough manpower to help out on the boat. Layth liked his quaint life and told himself that he was staying for his mother, but there was a small part of him that longed for the vast expanse of opportunity that the seas offered.
His mother emerged a short time later with an orange box, it had a dark orange ribbon tied over the top.
"Here, open it."
Layth wiped any dirt away from the sidewalk, and then sat down. He started to untie the ribbon, his nimble fingers working through the double knot. He pushed the lid off, only to reveal a layer of thin orange paper. Under that paper were the shoes, Layth’s eyes widened at the sight of them. The handiwork was so meticulously designed that Layth couldn't imagine how much they could've cost. He decided not to ask, though, and to just accept his mother's act of gratitude, and love.
“These shoes are sacred,” his mother said. “Keep them safe, and on your feet at all times.”
That night, Layth slept with his shoes on. He had never had something designed just for him. The only shoes he'd ever had were a pair from a traveling salesman, worth only three riyals.
The intruder had no trouble getting into the unlocked window to Layth’s room, knocking over a lantern in the process. Layth was so disoriented, unable to process the dire situation that he had been caught in. A gunshot echoed through his small house after they dragged him out. His mother.
The man who handled him so carelessly had a mustache that reached to the dark bags under his eyes. His eyebrows reached out to each other just above his pointed nose. His teeth were black and he smelled like death, rotten and old. His skin seemed to have taken on a yellow tint to it, and a glossy layer of grease covered the wrinkles and trimmed facial hair that made up the villain's face.
They arrived at the boat after days of traveling in the back of an old circus truck. The truck smelled of feces and muck in contrast to the boat which had a prominent man stench that you could smell before even entering.
Layth didn't sleep for days, neither did the men who interrogated him. They poked him with sticks that had been sharpened at the end, digging into his tan, delicate skin. When Layth wouldn't answer their questions, they brought the captain in. His face intimidated the weak parts of Layth, so he made sure to answer his questions thoroughly.
"How old are you?"
"What is your name?"
He couldn't give away his real last name, they might know him. Layth had never done anything bad, but he felt as if giving the right information would be dangerous.
"My last name is...Jhonston's, sir."
The captain smiled an evil smile, twirled his mustache with yellow fingernails, and said, "We've got him."
A few years have passed since that night. Layth has no intentions of going back to his old life. There's nothing there for him, and no one would want to adopt a sixteen year old.
He tells himself that he's seen more than he would while living with his mother. He's no longer sheltered from the so-called dangerous world. If he were to listen in to the stories being told by mothers and fathers to their young children around the world, Layth knew he would be the villain in their imagination, in their nightmares.
Ever since he had told the pirates that his last name was Jhonston's, he'd been sent on multiple journeys. All of them having the same hopeful end in mind, but nothing was ever discovered.
Captain Frithjof was looking for a certain treasure, he kept that treasure hidden from Layth, even though he had been sent on every single expedition to find it. The captain said that there was something sacred about Layth, and Layth had become so prideful, that he believed Frithjof.
On this particular morning, the settled nature of the air felt different, it was more tense but relieved at the same time. The crew sat on the deck, eating the scarce amount of food that they had left, mostly consisting of fish and rum. Rum never ran low, though, it was a phenomenon that Layth had no care to investigate.
"Men!" The booming voice of the captain roared over the choppy waves of the ocean. "Men! Take a moment to listen!"
The crew became silent, and a few men busied themselves with plucking meat out of their teeth.
"I must confess, our journey to the uncharted lands have been simply unsuccessful. The treasure that I've been looking for...it's nowhere to be found. But alas! I have discovered a land on my map that is too dangerous to be entered by any of my men. Even you," he said with his finger jabbed at Layth. "So, I have made it my duty to appoint myself...to continue and finally finish! This journey. My men, look! We have arrived."
An island appeared in the distance, it's shore lined with green trees. It was hard to see because of the fog that settled over the coast of the island but there seemed to be no inhabitants of the island. The Captain turned back to look at the reactions of the men, all of whom were pretending to be amazed. To be fair, this island was nothing they hadn't seen before.
"Behold Topsail Island."
The men cheered, probably with hopes of being released after Captain Frithjof found his beloved treasure.
But Layth didn't have that hope, in fact, he had none at all. He had enough common sense to recognize that he would be on this ship, under Captain Frithjof's control, forever. He thought he was his most trusted man, but now that he had seen how easily he was tossed to the side, he became angry.
Before he could walk away, the Captain called Layth over, waving his finger at him.
"I'm afraid that I've lost my boots," he said. Layth saw that his feet were barefoot, dirtier than his hands. "Is there any possible way that I could borrow your-your shoes? Where are your shoes? Have you lost them? Where are they?"
"Sir, I-I lost them at Pawleys Island. They were just shoes, though. I apologize," Layth replied.
"This is unforgivable. It's horrible. Do you know that they were my only chance to find the treasure? I bet you didn't. You ignorant slug of a man, you're worthless! Now the treasure cannot be-it cannot be-ugh!" He shakes his fist in front of Layth’s face, firmly grabbing his throat with his other hand. Frithjof began to speak again, but lowered his voice so only Layth could hear him. “If you want to be forgiven for your despicable actions, you will go into the daunting forests of Topsail, you will fight their native tribes, and you will bring me back the jewel. Do you hear me?”
“I-I don’t understand, what does the jewel look like? What does it do?” Layth gasped through strained breaths.
“Any experienced pirate would know, but since you still remain as deck scum, I will tell you this. You will know it when you see it. Your expedition begins now, son, we have no time to waste.” And through the fog that now circled the boat and the lethal smell of the captain's breath, Layth could see where his grave would be dug.
Burning flesh. Burning flesh was what welcomed Layth to the island. He knew the smell because of his encounter with an unknown tribe in India. They were said to have burned the bodies of intruders as a warning, and stepping onto the island only made the rumor become reality.
Smoke rose above the tree line but only silence was heard. The sand covered beach only reached for a few yards until it morphed into what looked like miles of tangled brush and mangled roots. Stepping over a rotting log that was infested with bugs, Layth entered the forest.
He walked for hours before he came upon any sign of civilization, or anyone that could possibly help him. He started to believe that the captain had sent him out on this formidable island only to discover his death, that he would walk back onto shore and there would be no sign of the Musaid.
But his hope was restored when a child snuck up on him in the forest in the middle of the day. Layth knew he was getting closer to the settlement because the smell of burning flesh had become greater than ever. The child approached him with a sharpened stone in his hand, which was curled around the back of his head, his feet posed as if they were ready to jump into action. The child was small compared to the height of Layth, a few of his teeth missing from his small jagged mouth. He was skinny, his ribs showing clearly through the light skin that covered his body. Layth had seen many children like this one on his other journey’s, starved to near death. He felt compassion, but not for long.
“Papa! Come quick!” The child yelled at the top of his lungs in a foreign language. Layth did not understand, so he stood his ground, ready to pull out his knife at any moment. The child kept his “weapon” behind his ear, just as he had been trained. A few short minutes later, many men came with the same sharpened rocks as the child, but they also grasped sticks that took on the form of the letter “Y” with rubber tied to either of the sides that branched out.
“Please do not shoot! I am here for treasure!” Layth pleaded, but the tribe did not listen. They tried, but the mess of words that came out of his mouth only made them more aggressive. They pulled up their weapons and began firing. Layth held his hands up in surrender while also fighting off the flying rocks. They hit him in his bare chest, his arms, his legs, even his face. Layth became covered in blood and he was ready to give up, one of the men, the leader, recognized this and ceased the firing of the stones. Pulling out a knife, he approached Layth with caution, he stood over him with one foot on either side of Layth’s torso, holding the knife even with the nervous bobbing of his Adam’s apple.
“I mean...no harm,” Layth said through clenched teeth. “No harm.”
“Where do you come from?” The leader asked in bits of Layth’s language.
“The Musaid...I was captured when I was young.”
The man understood and lowered his knife. “You will be tested, come with us.”
Layth was confused on how the man was able to speak his language so fluently, they lived oceans away from each other, yet he was able to speak to Layth and understand him as well. They also seemed to have recognized Layth, were they more minions of Frithjof? Still, Layth followed them and they brought him to a clay building where a tree stood in the middle. Its roots served as a bench for people to sit on, a few more skinny people kneeled in front of the branches. Overhead, the leaves served as a roof, allowing sunlight to enter through small pockets.
“Sit,” the leader says. Layth obeys. A man standing by a doorway in the building looks in amazement at Layth. He asks a question in the foreign language of the tribe and the leader simply nods his head, his long hair shaking along with the movement. “She is coming,” he says when he turns back to Layth.
“The Jewel, silly man! Look,” his hand sweeps Layths vision to the corner of the room where two men escort a fragile figure covered in a long tapestry.
“Castiel, where are his shoes?” The figure asks with concern. Although she is covered from head to toe in meticulously detailed cloth, she seems to be able to see through it, to see through Layth.
“That is the test Lady Calla. If he knows the Truth, then he is the One.” Castiel says. The figure nods, folds her hands in front of her and observes as the fate of Layth plays out in front of her eyes.
“What is your last name?” Castiel asks, walking closer towards Layth.
“My last name is...Jhonston’s.”
“If that is true, finish this phrase; Exigo a me non ut optimus…”
The words tingle at the back of Layth’s mind, ready to jump out, but why? How do they know him? Are they going to capture him? Kill him? Are the words that have become imprinted into his mind a curse? But then he remembers his mother, how she said that those shoes were sacred. He never realized that she was speaking about the code, not the shoes.
“...par sim sed ut malis melior.”
“He is the One!” Castiel yells in happiness. The crowd of people that had formed in the back of the room applauds and some yell with happiness. The princess strides toward Layth with practiced steadiness, removing her cloth and handing it to Layth. A beautiful, young girl stands in front of him, native to the country that Layth came from. He could tell by the way that her eyes slanted in a sort of feline manner, and the way that her tan skin held jewels of gold in them. He knew her. The princess. Calla. The most desired girl who lived in his country when he was younger. His question was; why was she here?
“Congratulations, you are our victor. We’ve been waiting for a long time.”
“Thank you,” Layth says, bowing.
“The wedding will be in two weeks time.”
“Wha-wedding? What could you possibly mean?” Layth asks, but the princess smiles and walks away with a quiet, hypnotizing laugh.
Soon the loud cheers of relief from the crowd are broken with a loud cry “Papa!” the same child yells from the edge of the woods. With him, he carries the limp body of Captain Frithjof.
“My goodness, boy! What have you done?” Castiel says, racing over to the small boy.
“He was the one who captured me!” Layth yells from his position under a wall of overgrown ivy.
Castiel considers for only a few seconds before coming to a decision “Then he will work as the King’s servant, since he wanted to enslave him.” Castiel spits on Frithjof before walking away. He faces Layth with a smile and Layth returns it without question.
“Your majesty, follow me to your new living quarters,” Castiel says.
“What a lame story!” LK says from her side of the room.
“And why do you think that?” Grandpa Jhonston’s asks.
“He was just a king? That’s it? Why couldn’t he become a pirate? Or save the world or something?”
“Who says he didn’t?” Layth says, closing the unfinished story book.