The year 309, the fifth month. (The year 1864 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
The best place they could find to hide was in a glade within the patch of woods next to the crossroads. Here, Folly Quarter farm's road met the National Turnpike that led all the way west to Frederick, the largest town in Mip. Here, screened by the trees, they could watch the wagons and buggies travelling east to Ellicott's Mills, the nearest village.
Sometimes there were soldiers too; they always held their breaths when the soldiers passed by, but so far no battles had been held anywhere near Doughoregan Manor or any of its quarters. And sometimes a posse set out with the hounds, to hunt down the quarry. But whenever that happened, Sling seemed to be the only one who noticed.
"Pay attention," ordered Earle as Sling raised his head at the sound of the hunting horn. The two of them were lying stomach-down on the ground, side by side, close enough to touch, though Earle never did so, much to Sling's relief. Earle was turning the pages of the primer. "In the Old Calendar, a year is actually three years – 'sun-cycles,' they're called. So 1864 Barley, 1864 Clover, and 1864 Fallow will pass before there's a full year. We're in 1864 Fallow right now. But in the New Calendar, only one sun-cycle makes up a year. So this year is 309, and last year was 308, and the year before was 307. Do you understand?"
Sling thought about this a while as spring birds warbled nearby. Distantly he could hear the shouts from the overseer, directing the slaves in the nearest quarter. Finally he said, "So when I'm sixty, I'll only be twenty years old?"
Earle hooted, rolling over to expose his brown belly to the dappled sun-and-shadow pattern from the leaves of the great oak above them. "If you live that long," he said.
Then he stopped laughing abruptly and rolled back onto his stomach, gazing carefully at the book. Sling had begun to smile; he changed his mind. An awkward silence followed. What Earle had said would have been an acceptable joke between young masters. For a young master to say that to his father's young slave was cruel.
Unlike his father, Earle was never cruel, except by accident. He tugged down his shirt – fine linen, smothered with dirt – and turned the pages rapidly in search of something elusive. Eventually, he said, "A whole lot of Master Dorsey's slaves demanded wages. When Master Dorsey refused, half of them ran away. I heard they joined the Yclau army."
Sling nodded. It was happening all over the territory of Mip. Slaves, as well as some Yclau masters, sensing the prospect of freedom from their Vovimian overlords, were flocking to join the army that would free them. Victor's two older brothers had already become soldiers, though against the will of their father, who didn't hold with beating men into submission, even Vovimian overlords. Probably because of the father's disinterest in beatings, none of his slaves had fled either.
All of the slaves at Dougoregan Manor were still here. So far.
"Will you go?" With his eyes squinted against the afternoon sun, Earle continued to pretend he was reading the book.
Sling thought a while, not because he intended to give an honest answer, but because the question had been puzzling him for some time. If his mama and her husband, who were field-hands at Doughoregan, came to him and urged him to flee with them, he wasn't sure what he would say. He had barely seen his mama since he was picked out, at age three, as a suitable playmate for Earle. Perhaps the choice had been at random; perhaps not. Earle certainly didn't consider Sling interchangeable with the other slaves. That was why they were here, hidden from Earle's father.
But Sling and Earle were eight years old. In three years' time, Earle would go away to boarding school. During Earle's years at school, Sling would learn to be a valet, serving Earle when the young master finally left school. In theory, nothing need change between them. But in actuality – Sling knew from the tales of older slaves – everything would change then. His years of being a playmate, confidant, and pupil would be over.
He looked down at the primer again as he rubbed at the tattooed slave-mark on his wrist. Three years. Three sun-cycles. One year, by the Old Calendar, and his schooling would be over forever.
Feeling restless, he rose to his feet and walked over to the edge of the trees, where the creek beside the glade began to dip under the road. Beyond the screen of the bushes and trees, the National Turnpike was still, except for a breeze that raised dust from it. A group of flies hovered around horse droppings. On a telegraph pole at the crossroads, a sign flapped in the breeze.
One Hundred Dollars Reward
Ran away from the advertiser's plantation, a light-skinned boy named Phill, 16 or 17 years old, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, talks sharp and is very artful. I understand he has changed his name, and passes in Frederick Town as free; he calls his name Tom. Whoever will take up said slave, and bring him me, near Ellicott's Mills, shall receive the above award.
The sound of horses pulled Sling's attention away from the advertisement. He automatically ducked down behind the bushes, but it was only the posse, returning from its chase. Master Dorsey was at the head of it, triumphantly leading Phill's younger brother Mannie on a leash that was looped around a collar on his neck. Mannie, whose arms were tied, stumbled under the quick pace of the horses. He nearly fell and strangled himself in the collar; Master Dorsey reacted by yanking the leash tighter, forcing Mannie into a run.
"What is it?" whispered Earle.
Looking behind him, Sling saw that Earle was crouched down too, hiding the book with his body. "Master Dorsey's posse," he whispered back. "They found Mannie."
"Oh." Reassured, Earle began to sit up; then he froze, hearing the bushes rustle from the other direction.
Sling froze too. Earle had chosen this spot because it was far away from the manor and from the various quarters where the field-hands worked. They both hoped it would be far away from Earle's father too.
Master Murphy hadn't minded at first, when they began their school. Earle and Sling had only been four years old at the time; Earle didn't have any book-learning at that age. It was only play.
But when Earle began teaching Sling how to read and count, out of the books he brought home from his grammar school in Ellicott's Mills, that was another matter entirely. In the past winter alone, Master Murphy had caught them twice. Each time, he had given Sling over to the overseer for a beating; each time, he had deprived Earle of his supper.
Earle never seemed to care about the missed meals. But Master Murphy had warned them that, if he found Earle teaching his playmate again, he'd sell Sling to another master.
"Do you want to continue?" Earle had asked after that threat, which had surprised Sling. He hadn't thought his own wishes had anything to do with it. Earle enjoyed sharing his lessons with Sling, and he enjoyed secrets. That was the reason for their lessons – lessons which, both boys had gradually come to realize, were quite unlawful in the Kingdom of Vovim, including its territory of Mip.
But Earle had seemed genuinely concerned by the risk to Sling, and so Sling had given the matter thought. And had decided to continue. Not because of Earle's pleasure, but because the thought of giving up book-reading made something gnaw at Sling's innards.
He must be thoroughly corrupted by now, he supposed. No wonder Master Murphy wanted to sell him.
He looked over at Earle. The other boy's eyes were wide. Earle gestured to Sling, obviously urging him to hide himself. But there was nowhere to go. They were backed into the northwest-most corner of the manor grounds; behind them lay only the crossroads, where the posse was continuing to pass.
Then a figure emerged from the trees in front of them. Earle emitted a massive sigh. "You beast," he said. "You should have called out your name to us."
Victor leaned against a tree, playing with the stem of his pipe. He was already eleven years old and had been trying to decide for weeks whether to follow his older brothers' lead; the Yclau army took boys his age as drummers. The pipe had arrived in his hand around the time he began to talk about becoming a soldier. He hadn't yet reached the point of putting tobacco in the pipe.
Now he said, "Well, you didn't tell me where you were meeting, did you? I've been searching the entire woods for you. I'd begun to think you were helping Sling to escape."
He gestured without looking at Sling. Victor had given Sling his name – Sling could no longer remember his original name – by announcing contemptuously that Earle's new playmate couldn't sling a ball worth anything. Sling had spent a terrible couple of years figuring out the delicate balance between being good enough at games to satisfy Earle and being bad enough at games to satisfy Earle's closest friend. Then he had discovered that Victor cared not the least about book-learning. With relief, Sling had turned all his energy toward learning to read. Earle had given up throwing balls that Sling would invariably, carefully drop.
Now Victor pocketed the empty pipe, plopped down on the ground, and said, "You're hard to find. Give me water."
He gestured with his hand, not looking at Sling. Earle got to the hunters' flask before Sling could, handing it to Victor. Victor drained the flask and wiped his lips with his sleeve before saying, "You're always so protective of him. Why?"
Earle's gaze drifted down to the book. "He's family."
Victor shrugged. "That's how Papa talks about our slaves too. As though we're all one happy family. Frankly, I think—"
"He's family." Earle pushed the word hard.
Victor turned his eyes from his brown-skinned friend to the brown-skinned slave next to him. Slaves came in all colors, but in this part of Mip, most slaves had the cream-colored skin of the Yclau. Not Sling, though.
Victor said, "So you think of him as your brother?"
"He is my brother," Earle said sharply.
Victor stared at him. So did Sling. He had suspected that this might be part of the reason for the secret lessons, but never before had Earle spoken about this. Sling hadn't even been entirely sure Earle knew, though certainly the rest of the manor did. Sling's resemblance to Earle was too strong, and it was well known that Master Murphy, a widower, had an eye for a good-looking slave, whether male or female.
That was the custom, here in the borderland territory of Mip, though Sling had heard that no other Vovimian masters or Yclau masters would think of sullying themselves by bedding slaves or free-servants. In Mip, the ranks mixed rather more than in other parts of the Midcoast nations. Sometimes the slaves here benefitted from that; sometimes not.
"Half brother," Victor said finally, as though that distinction proved something.
Earle sighed. "Victor, what's wrong? You're white as a clam. A dead clam."
Victor reached down to give him a token punch. Their difference in skin color was a long-standing joke between them. Earle was pure-blooded Vovimian; Victor was pure-blooded Yclau. Victor's family was one of the Yclau aristocracy who had refused to leave Mip after Vovim conquered the territory a century ago. Earle's family was one of the Vovimian aristocracy who had refused to leave Mip after Yclau conquered the territory two centuries ago. Sling couldn't remember how many times Mip had changed hands between the two nations; their territory had been disputed since ancient times, not long after the New World was settled by various nations of the Old World.
"What's happened?" prodded Earle.
"Victory." Victor swallowed the rest of the water, tipping his head to get the final drops.
The sound of the posse – horse hooves, cheerful shouts among the masters, and sobs from Mannie – disappeared into the distance. In the trees, the birds tweeted in the setting sun. A possum waddled by, her babies peeking sleepily from her pouch.
"So you've won," said Earle quietly.
Victor shrugged. He seemed unconcerned by the news, though his family had been awaiting this moment for a century. Yclau's latest attempt to regain Mip had torn the territory apart, although most of the damage had occurred in the west. Here in the east, the fields continued to be plowed, while the telegraphs and trains and roads remained intact.
And now peace had come, and with it victory. Sling stared at Earle, trying to take in what had happened.
"That's not all," said Victor.
Sling's attention snapped over to him. To Sling's surprise, Victor was looking at him.
Sling jumped as something touched his back; but it was only Earle, placing his arm around his father's slave. Earle said fiercely, "If it affects Sling, tell me now. Tell me."
Victor shrugged, turning his gaze back to Earle. "You'd both hear soon enough. The news is all over the manors. Yclau has issued a proclamation of emancipation."
For a moment, Sling's vision darkened. He was vaguely aware that he was about to faint. Then he regained control over himself. He realized that Earle's arm had slid away. Sling turned his eyes.
Earle was staring at the book again. He said, without looking up, "Maybe you'll be able to go to a proper school now."
Victor snorted. "Not likely. Educating servants is illegal in Yclau too. Just because Sling is no longer a slave doesn't mean that he gets to act like a master. It just means he gets to choose who to work for."
Now Sling was staring at the book. Could he get a job with another master? Victor's father had a reputation as a good master to work for. Perhaps he would train Sling to be a house-servant, since Sling had been destined for indoor work.
Sling looked at Earle, who was biting his lip, waiting. Sling asked him, "Will your father pay me wages now?"
"He'd have to," said Victor before Earle could reply. "He'd be breaking the law if he didn't."
"Good." Sling picked up the book. "You've taught me about the calendar, Master Earle. I'd like to learn the multiplication table, if you don't mind."
Earle let out a great sigh. Victor snorted and left without a word. Earle took the book from Sling and said, "All right. We still have a little light left. . . ."