CHAPTER III

The men sat around the sparking fire in silence, occasionally digging their shoes into the ground or tossing a rock to pass the time. No one knew what was happening, or why their leader had left. The uncertainty hovered in the air as it created a somber atmosphere.

One of the men looked up and asked, "Has he abandoned a sinking ship?"

All of the others ceased their individual activities and the crackle of the fire consumed the air as all other sounds evaporated. The men turned their heads and glanced uneasily between the man who had spoken and Dylan. This question seemed to be in everyone's mind, but they were afraid to ask, partially because the men didn't want to hear an unfavorable answer.

Dylan sighed and rubbed his hands together. "He's just off to see the world."

"So he's leaving us behind?" a young boy of twelve piped in, his face smudged with dirt and grim, his clothes tattered and too big for his tiny body.

Pursing his lips, Dylan responded, "Not exactly. You see, he is off to find a better place for us to live. A place where we won't have to scrounge for food and be treated like dirt."

"He's saving us, then," said the boy, looking out wistfully into the distance. While the others around the fire appreciated the boy's optimism, they did not hold the same hope.

The boy then turned his eyes up to look at Dylan. "Are you our leader now, Dylan?"

Slowly, Dylan nodded his head. "For now, my boy. For now."

The men sitting around the fire all nodded as they acknowledged Dylan and gave their support for his leadership. The men were all aware that Dylan was the second in command after Ian. Now, in their time of need, they did not question Dylan's leadership. He was a well-trained fighter and a highly respected man. With Ian gone, people looked to him as leader, and Dylan accepted the responsibility.

Arman, Ian's father, had been Dylan's dearest friend and ally. Dylan had watched Ian grow up and had looked out for him in the last five years since Arman's death. Although he wasn't sure whether he should have told Ian about the Hinterland, he did not regret it. The Downtown Shafts were no place for Ian to spend his whole life. There were many things to see and learn that simply could not be found here. Here, it was just a pile of decomposing society; it was no place for a boy.

Still, Dylan hoped he had done the right thing. Would Arman have wanted Ian sailing under Xen? Of course not. But would he have wanted his son to leave this place and enjoy life? Dylan thought so, perhaps even at this price.

Sighing, Dylan left the bonfire and wandered inside the headquarters, the place where he had been only hours before with Ian. Now, he didn't know if he would ever see his friend again. Suddenly, his heart ached.

Shaking his head, Dylan forced a wry smile. What was he worrying about? Xen wouldn't let anything bad happen to Ian, and they would surely find the Hinterland… Dylan really worried about Ian doing something foolish. Ian was a smart, well-trained young lad, he did not doubt that, but he still lacked experience. Although he may try to hide it, Ian still didn't know much about the ways of the world and the things found beyond New York. Even if Ian believed himself to be mature and skilled, Dylan knew he was, along with those traits, still headstrong and foolhardy. Dylan just hoped he wouldn't be too surprised when he learned what existed in the expanse of the world, what he had missed during his first sixteen years of existence.

# # #

Xen stretched out on the chair in his cabin, feet propped on the round, wooden table in front of him. He stared at Ian, at the boy's face, which should have looked young and full of life, but instead held lines of worry etched with dirt and a constant crinkle in the boy's thin brow. Ian had high, well-defined cheekbones, a pointed nose, and could have been a good-looking kid if not caked in poverty. Although the boy said he wanted to join the Rajaton Valta, Xen knew better. He couldn't fool anyone. Xen had invited Ian here only because he could be an asset to the crew when they went out to find the Hinterland. There was nothing to fear from the naïve and ignorant boy. Taking Ian along had the added bonus of removing him from his position of leadership in the Downtown Shafts. Without Ian there, the group would be less of a threat.

Xen knew, however, that Dylan would be the one to take over next. Dylan used to also harp alongside Arman during their battles, and Xen remained well aware of the man's prowess as a leader. However, Xen allowed his men to believe that things would be calmer with Ian gone, when he knew it would be quite the opposite. His real reasons for taking Ian, though, could never come to the surface.

A small smile tugged at Xen's lips when he noticed the hard, icy glare he elicited from the boy. He mildly wondered what kind of thoughts were churning in that fanciful mind of his. Xen figured he would never find out, but he had a pretty good feeling they were something along the lines of being underestimated and swearing to win this battle through his superior knowledge of strategy.

"So," began Xen, sitting up straight in his chair, "you want to join the Rajaton Valta."

Ian cleared his throat. "Yes."

"And sail to the Hinterland?"

"Yes."

Xen smiled devilishly. "Then go take a shower and get changed, boy. We're going on an adventure."

Hinach and Remagy, who stood in adjacent corners, exchanged glances.

Xen continued smiling as Ian said, "That's it?"

"Were you expecting twenty questions or something of the sort?" wondered Xen, his smile transforming into his classic smirk.

"Actually, yes. How can you trust me so easily?"

Xen shook his head and his black hair swept across his forehead. "I do not trust anyone who sails underneath me, Ian. The only people I trust are standing in those corners. I am simply giving you what you want because you have ambition and spirit." Xen leaned forward in his seat and clasped his hands underneath his pointed chin. "But don't think for one second that by the end of this journey you will come out unbroken. I will break you."

Not intimidated, Ian's voice grew low when he spoke. "We'll see who gets broken."

Xen leaned back in his seat as he grinned. "And so the game begins." He paused as he looked into Ian's eyes. Neither one looked away. Now Xen held assurance of how fun this little trip would be. "Hinach," he continued, "take Ian to get cleaned up and give him a uniform. Then show him the ropes. Report to me after you've finished. We have things to discuss."

With an incline of his head, Hinach grabbed Ian by the arm and pulled him out of the room. Ian stumbled along behind him, anticipation apparent in his eyes. Xen had no choice but to believe he had made the right decision in bringing him along. Maybe now he could be free of the insufferable debt looming over his head.

# # #

Once they left the cabin, Hinach and Ian went to the deck, where men wandered around cleaning, watching the horizon, and keeping an eye out for other ships—not that many opposing ships existed these days; the Rajaton Valta had cleared out much of their enemies during the great battle. Crossing over the deck, Hinach led Ian into another downstairs chamber, where there were cabinets and other means of storage. Looking around the room, its rancidness caused surprise: brown scum stains adorned nearly every inch of floor, wall, and ceiling, squirts of yellow lingered on the walls, and crusty, white patches sat on the floor and in corners. Ian did not wish to know the origins of any of this. Putrid odors of waste seemed to exist in every particle of air. In reality, though, such conditions were normal to Ian—fine homes had never been in his life—but knowing that this grime belonged to the Rajaton Valta made his insides churn.

Ian turned to face Hinach, who then threw him a uniform that he had grabbed out of one of the cabinets on the wall.

Hinach said, "Get changed and then come on deck. I've got a few things to teach you."

Unfolding the clothes, Ian nodded his head.

As he changed into his new navy blue and white uniform, Ian's mind swam with his plan. He knew Xen didn't trust him—and he certainly didn't trust Xen—but Xen was taking him to the Hinterland. Without the Rajaton Valta, Ian had no way of ever getting out of New York. Buttoning his shirt, Ian tried to think of what the Hinterland was like, but the image floated beyond his reach. In a society as distorted as this, it seemed as though nothing fantastical could exist. Death and coldness had mutilated the world, and now its former pureness could never be accessed.

Pulling on his boots, Ian completed his uniform and looked at himself in the mirror. He pulled it off nicely enough, and at least the clothes were clean. The blue-collared shirt had white buttons and a white emblem on the right breast. The emblem had two daggers coming together at the tips and underneath swept a falcon, gripping its prey. Ian stared at the emblem he hated. Now he was a part of it, and he felt disgusted, even if this was only a scheme.

Turning on his heel, Ian emerged on deck, where he found Hinach standing in front of the other troops that were aboard the mother ship. As Ian approached, Hinach stepped forward.

"And now," he said, "you will learn."

Ian stood at the ready, shoulders squared, and chin up, meticulously following the lead of the men standing behind Hinach.

As Hinach walked toward and around Ian, making deliberate, slow steps, he said, "Xen rules with an iron fist, a hard tongue, and a swift sword. This isn't your everyday peasantry that you're used to, Ian. You're dancing with the big boys now.

"One wrong move and you can kiss your life goodbye. These policies are hands-on: you must act and react, obey orders. Don't chew on your fingers or stare at the floor. On this ship, you are never idle. In your duties, you should always be upholding our principles and views on society. Remember, there are too many people, too much belief."

Hinach turned and faced Ian, leaning in close, but Ian did not falter. "Step one toe out of line and it will be the last thing you ever do. Xen doesn't put up with foolishness or heroics. You do as we tell you, ask no questions, and do your job with no mistakes. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," replied Ian. The weight of his father's memory pressed down on him and he gulped. When his father had ruled the rebels in the Downtown Shafts, he had expected much of the same things as Xen did. Ironic, since their ideals had been so different.

Suddenly, Xen appeared next to Ian, who immediately turned and saluted him.

Xen flashed a toothy grin at the reaction. "Good, boy, you learn quickly. You'll fit right in, I'm sure."

Then he turned to the rest of the crew and declared, "Prepare to set sail! We're off to Amsterdam."

"Amsterdam?" Ian asked bluntly, his lips frowning at all the terrible, repulsive things he heard about that town. "Why are we going there?"

From out of nowhere, a fist flew into Ian's face and knocked him to the ground, blood dripping from his nose. The urge to fight swelled within him, and he jumped to his feet, preparing to return a blow, but stopped when he realized Xen had punched him.

Xen glared sternly at him with fire in his eyes. "Did Hinach not instruct you to never ask questions?"

Now Ian understood and his stance relaxed. "He did, sir."

"Then would you mind explaining what that was?" Xen wondered, arching an eyebrow.

"Curiosity, sir," mumbled Ian.

Pursing his lips, Xen said, "That will soon be wiped from your system. In the meantime, I suggest you keep your curiosity to yourself."

"Yes, sir."

Xen readied to turn and leave, but chose to add, "And we are going to Amsterdam in search of the location of the Hinterland. We cannot begin our journey if we do not know the destination."

Ian nodded in understanding, and then Xen left and went below deck.