There had been a long fasting holiday. As slave trade was forbidden during it, all the slaves had been mostly lounging in the warehouse, bored out of their wits. The slaver and his underlings had been easily irritated as they had been forced to stop practicing their business. A beating had been easier to come across than usually, so all the slaves had tried stay out of their way the best they could.
Yunho had grown stronger under Jaejoong’s care; the older boy took extreme pride in the way Yunho had started babbling and even eating by himself. At first, Jaejoong had bitten all his food to small pieces before he gave any to Yunho, concerned about his weak swallowing reflex. After a few weeks, he could just break his hard bread into two pieces of equal size, one of which he would give to Yunho who would messily nibble on all the corners with his newly emerged milk teeth, reducing the slice into a circle, slippery with saliva. Jaejoong would just smile and wipe the corners of his mouth and his chin with the sleeve of his own tunic. The family rug stayed away at meals though—Jaejoong would have never hurt Yunho, but when he once accidentally drooled on it, it was only so much Jaejoong could take and not pull his hair.
Yunho even started playing. At night, when they were both safely tucked under the care and protection of all Jaejoong’s forefathers, Yunho would take each of Jaejoong’s fingers in his grabby baby hands and tell Jaejoong long nonsensical stories about each one in his gurgling baby talk. Jaejoong watched, beyond fascinated, as Yunho’s small face lit up, his little lips moving in a haste to provide Jaejoong with crucial information about the adventures his thumb and pinkie had together.
Yunho had learnt to smile.
It was another market day, the first one since Jaejoong had taken Yunho under his wing. The day always started with everyone being gathered together as the slavers organised them in lines according to their sex, age and skin-colour. Everyone was stripped of their clothes before they were walked to the market place in a long queue, chained together like a pack of edible dogs.
The fat slaver was in exceptionally high spirits, beaming with enthusiasm as he got to do business for the first time in a long while. He kept walking around, randomly checking the slaves’ teeth, brushing his fingers over the branded slave marks on their shoulders and messing with their hair to make them look more presentable. As he reached Jaejoong, he stopped to give the boy a disapproving leer. As per normal, Jaejoong was carrying Yunho on his back in the family rug that was fastened tightly across his chest.
“And what to do with this thing,” the slaver sighed, shaking his head, “of such good quality but impossible to sell. Such a waste! I reckon I can only hope that little dog you are so insistent on dragging around will slow you down…”
The slaver reached his hand around Jaejoong, towards Yunho’s head that was resting against the older boy’s bony shoulder blade. Jaejoong released a warning hiss, startling Yunho awake and making the slaver jerk back and retract his hand in haste. The toddler peeked from behind Jaejoong’s neck, watching wide-eyed as the slaver desperately tried to regain his dignity after having been ridiculed by a mere slave child. The girls standing next to Jaejoong could hardly contain their giggles, and Jaejoong felt like smiling as well. The girls had visibly warmed up to him since Yunho had entered their little circle of attached-by-the-hair acquaintances. Jaejoong was not surprised in the least; who could possibly resist the adorable sputtering of the little boy?
The slaver felt humiliated. Unable to let the boy that was constantly giving him headaches get away this time, he grabbed Jaejoong’s black hair, tilting his head painfully backwards.
“You will be sold today, and you will be sold at a high price,” the slaver hissed, his sweaty face red with fury, “or your dear baby doggie will pay for you!”
He then released Jaejoong’s head abruptly, making him collide against the girls. Yunho let out a stifled sob, and in a matter of seconds, he had three pairs of bony hands tending to him, and three high-pitched child voices cooing at him.
“Honorary Sire, what would please you today?” the slaver purred, trying to curry favour with the mighty-looking mister who was inspecting his goods with appropriate seriousness.
“Well, hmmm, I would like a young man to assist my sons as they are reaching the age to start attending school,” the man mused, shuffling around in his long, embroidered gown.
“A young one! This way Sir, this way, here are all the young ones, all young muscle and potential,” the slaver started hurrying the mister towards Jaejoong and the other kids surrounding him.
“What colour would please you Honorary Sire, would you like black as coffee? Or a lighter hue of mahogany, hazel, or maybe olive? We’ve got it all Sir, we’ve got it all!”
“No! I want a white one. My wife is sensitive. She would faint every time if she saw a brown kid, thinking that some guttersnipe has broken into our house.”
“Well then! What a coincidence,” the fat slaver clapped his hands together. “I’ve got just the right one for you!” He casted a pointed look at Jaejoong; an evil gleam, a promise made earlier, dancing in his eyes. He opened his mouth, determined to get rid of the boy once and for all.
“A northerner, as white as the salt desert! And aren’t you in luck today, Sir, as this one is a package deal!” Jerking Jaejoong around, he revealed the child tied against his back to the customer. “Hmm, this one is a little darker though, but your wife has plenty of time to get used to him… This one is on the house! I will give him to you for almost free, Sir, think about it, two young, perfectly healthy males for the price of one! And let me assure you, Sir, that you won’t even notice the smaller one until he’s old enough to work—not one shriek to disturb your wife’s beauty sleep! Just leave it to this white one, he is—”
“Spare me from your sales pitch, merchant. I will take him,” the customer interrupted.
The slaver regarded Jaejoong with such mirth it made the boy shiver.
“Aides!” he called out, clapping his hands together a few times as if summoning a dog. “Bring the scissors, let’s get this Honorary Sire’s purchase ready for loading!” He grabbed the knot at the ends of Jaejoong’s hair.
“No! Do not cut the hair,” the customer banned, his gaze lingering on the boy’s defiant face. “I want him with long hair.”
“But the knot is very difficult to open, Honorary Sire,” the slaver tried, pulling at Jaejoong’s hair for good measure, making the girl next to him release a familiar groan of pain.
“I want him with long hair,” the man repeated. The slaver sighed inaudibly but the repulsively wide smile was soon back on his lips.
“Of course Sir! Whatever you want, we shall deliver!” he buttered up, guiding the customer to his tent to serve him some tea as soon as he had instructed his aides to unravel the knot without cutting Jaejoong’s hair. He warned them to be careful with him, as he was as slippery as an eel.
As the slaver’s underlings started messing with his hair with their graceless, bulky fingers, Jaejoong felt nervousness flutter in his stomach, spreading through his limbs to the ends of his toes and to his hands, making his fingertips tingle in anticipation. This was it. This was the moment, and Jaejoong was sure he wouldn’t get another chance. He could escape now; or he would either be sold to that rich-looking man or, if he failed, he would remain unsold once again and Yunho would be taken from him, if not worse. Jaejoong felt more nervous than he had ever felt during his short life. He was so nervous that the adrenaline flowing throughout him made him tremble violently, like a leaf trapped in stormy winds.
“Stop wiggling!” one of the slaver’s aides slapped the back of his head. “I am never getting this damned knot open if you don’t stay still.” With a knowing smile, he added, “And that’s not what you want, is it.”
Jaejoong didn’t hear him; all he heard was the blood rushing in his veins and the frantic beating of his own heart. He started counting seconds, his mind making up plans, abandoning them and inventing new ones in such a speed he could hardly keep up with himself. Yunho squirmed and mumbled something against his back, sensing the discomfort of his carrier.
And then, the moment was there. It was all a blur to Jaejoong: he saw the slaver’s underling finally work the knot open, holding the ends of Jaejoong’s black, long hair in his other hand and the ends of the girl’s hair in his other. In a haze, Jaejoong jerked around, bumping into the surprised man and kicking him between his legs—this was no time to play fair. The groaning man released Jaejoong’s hair to place his palms on his injured family jewels, and Jaejoong took it as a cue to leap forward, speeding up, taking strides as long as his short legs would allow. He didn’t hear anything, he didn’t feel anything; and all he could see was a narrow stripe of clarity directly ahead of him, the spot towards which he knew he should run. Everything around and behind him was a muffled mixture of sounds and smells of the market place, filled with people and animals and foodstuffs and fabrics and every possible other vendible item.
Jaejoong didn’t even know if he was being chased, but to assume he wasn’t would be a stupid and most dangerous thing to do; so he kept running, momentarily forgetting even the flustered child on his back. His feet barely touched the ground as he reached the corner of the market place from where the narrow alleyways expanded throughout the whole city. If he could just slip into the bustling crowd, he might be able to hide among the people.
When the initial high finally started to cool down, he could hear yells coming from the slave trade allotment of the market place. It must have been quite a ruckus he had left behind. Jaejoong could see the furious face of the fat slaver inside his mind, and that made him run even faster if possible. A helpless question raised its head: what now? He couldn’t just keep running forever. Yunho, as fortunate as it was, wasn’t as weightless as before, and even though his legs could feel no fatigue at the moment, Jaejoong himself was but a scrawny, malnourished slave kid.
Suddenly he was sure that he could never make it. The slaver seemed like the type to hold an eternal grudge, and even though Yunho was safe because he had been too young for it, Jaejoong had a slave mark the nomad men had branded his shoulder with the very first night after his abduction. If the slaver so decided, he could be found easily. There weren’t many free northerners living this far in the south, so anyone with the right description would be able to identify him off the street, especially if he kept Yunho with him—and parting from the child was out of the question. Jaejoong had to get out of the city. Even without an unforgiving slaver breathing down his neck, surviving would have been hard. Jaejoong had to run further away.
As he weaved his way through the people filling the streets up, Jaejoong could feel their stares on him. Apparently a half naked white boy running relentlessly with a child on his back was quite eye-catching after all, and by the tumultuous sounds of yelling he could tell his pursuers were getting closer. He needed to come up with something—a plan—right now, or he would be as good as dead.
In a matter of seconds Jaejoong’s troubles were solved for him. With his knees slightly shaking already, he stumbled forwards, knocking over a few baskets of fruits that started rolling around the street, the hawker cursing him and standing up to run after his escaping goods. Jaejoong had no time to stop and apologise, but he would have been unable to anyway: before he knew it, he had tripped over a stray orange and was off his feet, flying forward, only waiting for the impending collision with ground.
Struggling to keep Yunho on his backside to spare him from the crash, Jaejoong landed straight on his face. His emotions were a mess: first, a desperation caused by his certainty that he would be caught, replaced almost immediately with glee as he spotted something that could very well be their rescue.
As Jaejoong raised his head from the ground, he noticed he had fallen down right next to a wide gutter, water flowing a few metres below them. He saw the gutter disappearing into the side of a house, probably connected with the town’s sewerage situated underground in most parts of the city—what could possibly be a better place to hide? Not hesitating for one moment, he grabbed an empty basket he had knocked over earlier and heaved it over to the gutter, jumping down after it.
After making sure the basket would float, he clambered inside, hastily opening the knot over his chest to release Yunho from his swaddle. Yunho coughed violently, latching his small hands onto Jaejoong’s tunic that had been stored in the family rug with him, ready to be put on after a successful purchase.
“Don’t worry,” Jaejoong whispered into his ear, smoothing the child’s hair out of his fearful face and giving him a tight hug. “I will get us safe! Now, where can I…” he trailed off, searching around for something to paddle with. The gutter was stuffed with filth: scraps of rotten food, broken baskets from the market place, and other random items. Jaejoong was suddenly aware of the horrendous smell emitting from the polluted water. Reaching over the rim of the basket and seizing a pole from the water, he tucked Yunho under his arm and started paddling.
The time they had spent floating around aimlessly felt like an eternity to Jaejoong. Time was hard to tell under the ground. They could occasionally see a few rays of light filtering through the sewer holes over their heads, but most of the time they were surrounded by a wavering gloom and a stench that had gotten even stronger once they weren’t out in open air anymore.
The time Yunho had spent crying was almost as long as the time they had been inside the sewers. Jaejoong had tried offering him a spare fruit he had found on the bottom of the basket, guessing he was crying from hunger, but after taking a tentative bite, the child had just spitted it out, dropping the fruit into the bottomless pond of filth. Jaejoong had been getting desperate; he was quite sure Yunho’s cries could be heard at the street level, and that was the last thing he wanted. Unable to come up with anything else, he had settled for singing. To his utmost astonishment, it had actually worked. However, the second he stopped his quiet humming, Yunho would turn his accusing eyes that were threatening to fill with tears to Jaejoong, making him continue quickly.
Jaejoong tried focusing his eyes in the darkness. They would have to find a way out soon, Yunho couldn’t continue crying forever, and they had to eat too. He was also sure that if they stayed too long the polluted water would make them ill. He had nurtured Yunho once, bringing him back from the brink of death, and as long as he had any say on the matter, he was never going to see the boy as feeble again as he once used to be.
While he was wrapped up in his thoughts, their little makeshift vessel bumped into something, ceasing its movement. Yunho let out a surprised shriek, hurrying to grip the rim of the basket in order to peek over the edge. Jaejoong opened his eyes; he hadn’t even noticed he had closed them while pondering on their future. Their basket had run aground, stuck in the roots of an enormous tree that grew right up from the dirty water. Raising his eyes, he tried to spot any light coming through that could have told them how deep down they were, but he could see none; only the tree’s twisted trunk continuing upwards.
“I think we are getting off here,” he smiled, crouching down to grab Yunho’s wrist. Assisting the child to climb onto his back, he wrapped the family rug around them both, cocooning Yunho in a familiar nest. Resolutely, he clambered out of the basket, reaching for anything to put his feet and hands on that could support both of their weights.
The climb seemed endless, but Jaejoong was determined, and Yunho wasn’t crying. His feet kept slipping off the slimy bark but just as suddenly as the tree had appeared before them, it ended. He was brushing some branches and dead leaves out of his way, when he felt it—a brush of fresh air. He felt alleviated, his speed doubling as he hauled himself up, gripping the edges of pavement tightly.
The tree grew through a circular hole in the street. As Jaejoong recuperated from the long climb, sitting with his legs dangling down from the hole they had just climbed out from, he confirmed it was dark. To his great relief, there weren’t many people moving around in the dead of night. He assumed they had sailed far from the market place, but as he had never had the chance to walk around let alone explore the city, he was as good as lost. However, he had long reached the conclusion that they had to leave the city, so the only real option they had was to walk, straight forward until they would reach the city borders.
So, he started walking, a little tired and awfully hungry, with a quiet and displeased child on his back. As soon as he found something to eat from the street, a forgotten piece of bread lying under a booth, he lowered Yunho down from his back and sat him down on the edge of the pavement. They could halt their travel only for a short while, as they needed to get outside the city before sunrise. As soon as Yunho had swallowed the last bit of his share, Jaejoong stood up, intending to continue with their trek. Before he could lift Yunho up, he noticed his thighs were quivering and his arms felt sluggish. Jaejoong frowned.
“Yunho, I don’t think I can carry you right now,” he stooped down to murmur into the small boy’s ear. “Do you think you can walk a little by yourself?”
The child raised his eyes from a piece of trash he had been playing with on his lap, looking into Jaejoong’s wide ones. Jaejoong wasn’t sure whether he saw a flicker of understanding there, but the child nodded seriously and stood up on his wobbly feet, offering his small hand for Jaejoong to take. Jaejoong smiled, grabbing the chubby fingers and proceeding to lead the toddler along a narrow alleyway.
Since they had no knowledge about the city or their own whereabouts, Jaejoong had been prepared to walk for a long time. They had been wandering through a less densely built part of the town for a while already, but he was still surprised when suddenly, after passing a few buildings that were on the brink of collapse, a familiar sight unfolded before him. Before them he saw grey sand scattered with sparse grass here and there. A vision that now seemed like a distant dream flashed through Jaejoong’s mind: his life in the steppe. Even though they were now south enough that the steppe was almost rather a desert, it still looked quite like home to him.
They didn’t have to search the outskirts of the city for long until they found a small market place, designed mostly for departing caravans to load their horses and carts. Jaejoong knew setting out to the steppe by foot would be a doomed idea, so the only option was to tag along with a nomad caravan. The problem was they had neither money nor anything to sell, so getting one to take two useless children with them would be difficult.
As they watched the marketplace wake up under the first rays of the cold morning sun, hiding safely behind some abandoned booths, Jaejoong made a decision. They could only try to hide in a load of goods and travel unnoticed. If they were found out outside the city, the nomads would still keep them at least until the next village, and if they had any luck, they could escape before the caravan reached any settlement.
He heaved Yunho up on his back again; they had been resting for a while, and Jaejoong felt much stronger than before. He shushed Yunho the best he could, telling the boy to keep his mouth shut no matter what happened, and started sneaking towards a caravan that looked almost ready to leave. The horses were stomping their hooves and moving around, slightly fidgety, waiting to be organised in a long line that would slowly start proceeding to the steppe. Wary of the merchants and nomad men walking around busily, arguing about their deals and fastening goods to their carts with wide leather ties, he spotted a perfect hiding place: a cart filled with thick tent canvases Jaejoong’s own family had used too, ready to be shipped to the northern plains. Turning his head around to see whether anyone was paying attention to the two children, then deeming the moment safe enough, he quickly dashed forwards and slipped under the canvases.
It took some moments for the caravan to start moving, but the steady movement of the cart, the hollers of the nomad men, and the occasional neighing of the horses made Jaejoong feel oddly relaxed. Hugging Yunho close to his body, he soon fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.