Van was abruptly woken by the crash of burning brushwood collapsing.
How long was I asleep for?
The sky, visible through the smoke release hole close to the ceiling, was still dark. The situation wasn’t one that really allowed for time to sleep, but likely because he had gorged himself on food, he had been immediately assailed by an overwhelming drowsiness when he had sat down for a moment to rest after finishing what needed to be done.
He had decided to spend the night in the slaves’ kitchen where he found the baby since he had broken down the door to the kitchen in the building next door. Here, he would be able to hide the child in the stove again should the beasts return.
Leaving the crying baby in the stove for the time being, he had gone to scout the vicinity while the sun was still up, but he hadn’t found anywhere that would be more suitable to spend the night than this building. It was solid, and also had a fire. Besides, the backdoor was fairly close to the tunnels of the salt mine.
Even though they only get one bowl of porridge each, carrying the meals of several dozens of slaves is heavy labor. The kitchen was likely built here to make distribution easier. At this distance, I can take refuge in the salt mine if worst comes to worst. If I take advantage of the labyrinth that is the tunnel system, it should raise the chances of me getting away, at least marginally.
Salt is white gold. If the news of what happened here gets out, it’ll be akin to poking a beehive since the Akafah Salt Mine is a valuable source of funds. I must get away from here before officials and soldiers flood this place.
However, he had no intention of going into the mountains, where those beasts might roam under the cover of the night.
The salt refined here was transported elsewhere once enough had accumulated. He didn’t know how many days he had until the next pick-up, but given the number of salt bags piled in the storehouse, he probably still had tomorrow at least.
Having said that, I have no idea what kind of schedule this mine runs on and I don’t know who might visit for one reason or another. It’s quite possible that merchants might come to supplement the food stock, and officials probably visit regularly to monitor the work progress.
Taking all that into consideration, I ought to depart at dawn tomorrow, even if tonight is out of the question.
Van had searched the houses of the slave overseers for the keys to his shackles, removing them. When the weight of the shackles, which had fallen in two halves around his ankles with the click of the lock, vanished, he had felt indescribably euphoria. He completely understood the feelings of a dog, wanting to shake his entire body now that he had been released.
He gathered the remains of the shackles and chains, tossing them down the mineshaft. Then he returned to the overseers’ houses once more, stealing enough money to survive for some time. He took only what he needed. Even if a runaway slave were to be caught, they would be punished with whiplashes, but not death penalty. After all the kingdom wasn’t so stupid as to kill livestock that could still work.
However, robbers and any slaves that killed slave overseers, would be torn from limb to limb as an example. Just becoming a slave was humiliating enough, but just the thought of being treated like he was on the same level as those guys made him sick. Considering what the slave overseers had done to the slaves here, he wouldn’t feel even a shred of guilt if he took all the money, but he didn’t want to give them an excuse to pin any crimes that he didn’t commit on him.
That’s why he paid attention to steal only a little from each place, so that the theft would be less noticeable, but still made sure to get enough money and clothes to hide his status as a slave as well as a tinderbox, a small knife, and a sword before the sun set completely.
The sword had a slight curve to it, as preferred by the Ziolians, rather than the straight edge he was used to, but he couldn’t afford to be picky.
Above all, he was thrilled to have found a bow and arrows. The bow, which had been attentively maintained, fit nicely into his hands.
When he returned to the kitchen with his haul, the baby was still sucking on its finger inside the stove. Looking into its cute, round, black eyes as it stared back up at him, Van was at a bit of a loss, but bent down towards it.
Escaping with a baby was an act of sheer madness. Yet, he didn’t feel like leaving it all alone here either.
It was a child with mysterious features. Its mother had tan skin as was often seen around the Yukata Plains south of Akafah, but this child’s skin was much lighter than its mother’s. The shape of its eyes reminded Van of a Ziolian, too. Van had no way of knowing who or where the father was, but his stomach turned at thought of the scenario that likely led to this child being born.
If he were to leave the baby behind, even if it managed to survive, all that awaited it was the same fate as its mother or worse. Slaves were equal to cattle. They would be killed if they were deemed too much time and effort. Even when letting them live would turn a profit, they weren’t treated as humans.
The child blinked when he called out to it. When he extended his hand, it just looked at it for a while, then stretched out its own tiny hand to meet his. Apparently, it had no fear of strangers. He gently picked it up and lifted it out of the stove and onto the floor, where it managed to stand all on its own. It swayed a little unevenly, but didn’t fall over.
Van propped up the child, which had extended its hand towards the prone corpse of its mother, so that it could place its face on its mother’s chest.
The baby cried for a while.
It was likely sad about its mother not waking and embracing it. It threw a tantrum, bawling and trying to pull away from Van before straightening and hitting him with its tiny fists. Van simply boiled some water with his other hand, then peeled off the child’s dirty clothes and wiped its body clean with the boiled water.
For some reason he didn’t feel irritated by the child’s crying. As if observing himself from afar, Van silently took care of the child in a strangely detached mood.
The baby was a girl.
As he wiped down her body, which was completely covered in grime, Van noticed a long and narrow scar just below her left ankle, as if she had been scratched.
It kind of looks like she was grazed by a fang.
A scab had already formed. Van glanced at the crusted wound on his own arm.
…That means you survived as well, huh?
Just two people survived in a salt mine where dozens of people had once lived?
──The thought of it reminded him of the abnormality of the situation, and a sinking feeling settled heavily in his heart.
Once he had her swaddled in his arms with a soft cloth he had happened upon, and likely in addition to finally being clean and dry, the little girl fell asleep with her thumb in her mouth.
Curling up with the girl, still warm and little moist from her bath, in his arms, his heart settled down. It was as if the light had descended only on this spot in a room littered with corpses.
The form of the baby’s mother had already begun to disappear into the shadows, despite being quite close by, becoming no more than an indistinct lump of gray. Within the twilight, the living, the dead, the floor, and the stoves all melted together into shadows of gray. Only the warmth of the child in his arm told him that there was life in this place.
The baby fluttered its eyes open and started to cry a bit, as if his thoughts had reminded her, but quickly fell asleep again once he placed her in a makeshift crib that he had made out of scraps of cloth he had scavenged.
Once the sun went down, the cold reigned supreme. It was much better here than in the mine, which had been completely devoid of any warmth, but it was still quite cold.
…Yesterday night was rather chilly as well, wasn’t it?
I did well to have survived in this cold.
As he warmed himself by the fire in the stove, Van absentmindedly observed the baby sleeping next to him. As he watched her, he was suddenly overwhelmed with drowsiness.
Small birds chirped in the far distance. Dawn was approaching.
Van shivered, getting up to revive the dying fire in the stove. The firewood crackled as he stoked the fire. He poured water into an empty pot, and placed it on the stove. Once the water was boiling, he brought over a washbasin, which had been propped up against the wall to dry, and filled it with hot water.
Next he took off the blanket that he had spent the night in as well as the rags he called his clothes, soaking the clothes in the hot water, and meticulously wiped down his own body.
The grime had been encrusted on his skin for a long time, and the water turned black almost immediately. Nonetheless, he continued to silently change the water and keep washing himself.
Finally, he dressed his freshly washed body in a set of his newly obtained clothes, discarding the rags and dirty water in the dump outside.
When the morning sun began to shine, he made a warm porridge, and ate it. Then he woke up the baby, and fed it cooled porridge with small spoonfuls.
Still half asleep, she wetly spat out the porridge at first even as he tried to feed her, but once she woke up, she seemed to realize that she was hungry and ate heartily, even grabbing at the spoon by herself.
Watching the baby suck on his fingers as she grabbed at the spoon in her impatience, the laugh rose up involuntarily in Van’s throat.
“…Hey, my fingers aren’t yummy. They will upset your stomach.” Hearing his words, the baby looked up to him, obviously startled.
“Manma, onyage?” She asked.
Van didn’t understand what she was saying at all, but her mood had apparently improved significantly at the prospect of filling her belly, and she smiled happily. He handed her the spoon, and she began to scoop up the porridge quite skillfully, resuming her meal.
The morning light gently shone down on the baby, who was eating ecstatically and messily splashing the porridge on her cheeks. And Van simply gazed absentmindedly at the peach fuzz illuminated by the light.