The city is starving.
In just the walk from the magistrate’s office to the center of the city, Jeongguk’s seen an excess of wealth, on people and in property. Stately houses mark the roads, all white marble and brick and iron-wrought gates. Men and women bustle along the sidewalks, in thick coats and scarves made of soft wool and furs. Wealth is apparent in most places he looks in Ketterdam.
But all Jeongguk can think is, “this city is starving, and it will eat me whole.”
The houses crowd one another like a mouth too full of teeth. The men and women walk with blank eyes, speaking in whispers in a strange language Jeongguk doesn’t understand. The people stare at him, like he is some animal who will go mad at the sight of silver and attempt to rip it off their necks.
The Magistrate had been wealthy too. Jeongguk remembers the ornate rings wrapping his thick fingers, gnarled knuckles rapping on the counter for their attention. It had only been him and five others. Only they had survived the shipwreck. They had all stared at one another with wide-eyed fear as a translator explained to them in broken Shu that they were entitled to compensation after testimony, that they could choose to sue the slavers.
Jeongguk doesn’t think he’s ever heard something so ridiculous. Sue people already outside the law? People who probably perished in the storm already? What would that accomplish? Jimin is probably dead, and money won’t change that. Jeongguk suddenly wishes for the older boy, but he doesn’t have time for heartbreak.
The rest of the former slaves had also shaken their heads. The Magistrate’s brow had furrowed. He had turned to the translator, angrily asking the man to explain to these foreigners that they could get money from suing. One of the Shu had spoken up, asking,
“Please, we just want to go home.” When the man had translated this to the Magistrate, he had banged his gavel once and shaken his head.
“Sorry, we don’t deal with immigration. On your way.” And they had been dumped unceremoniously into the city, with no money, no map, and no knowledge of the language. Jeongguk had quickly split off from the group. They all wanted to stay and continue to ask the Magistrate for help, but he knew it was no use. The man thought them animals, and would give no aide.
Jeongguk wonders what kind of a city made greed their religion, where the first reaction to tragedy would be “how much money can I get from this?” He doesn’t want to live in a place that believes this. He knows, greed will eat you whole. And the city is starving. He wonders what Jimin would have thought of this place.
He has no idea where he’s heading. He’s merely wandering, with no direction to his steps. He ends up in what must be the slums, judging by the jaggedness of the path and the cracked windows of the slouching buildings. The people here are dressed poorly but brightly, in plaid and checkered pants and waistcoats. Some people, women especially, are wearing next to nothing, and Jeongguk averts his eyes, blushing. Women would never dress like that in Shu Han.
The slums seem to come alive as the sun sets, lights flickering on and the crowds spilling out into the streets. Jeongguk is jostled by strange-looking passersby, who are all more concerned with the flash and charm of the next game of chance, the next sensual act, the next, the next, the next. There are shouts heard over the crowd, and Jeongguk wishes desperately that he could understand what was happening. He wants a familiar face. He wants Jimin’s hand on his shoulder.
Jeongguk pushes through to a quieter section, one a little less overwhelming than the throngs of shouting party-goers. He slumps against a wall, feeling the exhaustion in his feet. Hunger growls in the pit of his stomach, but he doesn’t have anything to buy food with. He doesn’t know even enough Kerch to beg.
No one pays much attention to a 15 year-old boy sitting with his knees to his chest. There are too many just like him, the children of the gutters. Jeongguk wants to scream that he doesn’t belong here, that he has a country and a family. He can feel the anger alongside his hunger, a hatred of those slavers. He wants them to drown, like Jimin drowned. He imagines pale lips and blue hands, reaching ghostly beneath the waves.
Why him? Why did he survive, when so many innocent men died? Why had he lived and Jimin not? His hands curl into fists, and he forces away tears. He’s so lost and alone, the noise of the city swelling up around him.
Then a familiar sound cuts through the muddle of Kerch. Jeongguk’s head shoots up, his tired feet forgotten.
“...Have to make do…”
“Of course. Will you…”
It’s someone speaking Shu! Someone who can help him! He jumps to his feet, looking around frantically for the source. He can’t see clearly through the street goers, and fear grips him, that he’s lost his one chance for help.
There! Striding into a back alleyway, two Shu men, one short and one tall. Jeongguk hurries after them, stumbling over his own feet in his haste.
“...Can’t be someone…”
The words sound like, home, like comfort in this strange city full of dead-eyed strangers and Jeongguk breaks into a run. He skids to a halt at the mouth of the alleyway. Where did the two men go? It's like they disappeared into thin air.
All of a sudden, he’s slammed against a wall, a hand at his throat. All the air in his lungs leaves in a rush, and Jeongguk gasps for air.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” says the taller, who has him pinned. He has a bandage over his right eye, and the skin around it is red and inflamed. It must be a fresh wound. Jeongguk struggles for air, too weak to try and fight the man off.
“Let him breathe a little,” says the shorter, and the hand on Jeongguk’s throat lets up, allowing him to suck in oxygen. The taller regards him with caution.
“You’re a little young to be sent to kill us, aren’t you?” he comments. Jeongguk wheezes,
“Ah-’m not here to kill you. I don’t know who you are, I just heard someone speaking Shu and I need help.” The shorter tilts his head, calculating.
“Where are you from?”
“Busan, then I worked at a factory, but then the slavers came-” the hand drops him, and Jeongguk leans over his knees to pant, still winded. The taller crosses his arms.
“Ach, if he’s an indenture there’s nothing we can do.” The shorter nods.
“I’m not! I’m not an indenture, our ship wrecked and Kerch ships fished us out of the sea. But now I’ve got no way home, and I don’t speak Kerch and you’re the first people I saw who spoke Shu.” He looks pleadingly up at the two men. They share a brief look, then the shorter sighs.
“Listen kid,” he says, reaching into his pocket. “I’m not real big on charity. But I wish you the best of luck.” he slaps a few kruge into Jeongguk’s hands. “That should be enough for a room and a meal. There are plenty of ships sailing for Shu Han, take a job as a deckhand and find a way back. Good luck, kid.” The shorter starts to walk away, the taller eying him cautiosly.
“W-wait!” Jeongguk calls, crumpling the kruge in his fist. “I want to come with you!” The shorter snorts.
“No one wants to follow a stranger into hell. Go home, kid.”
“I don’t have a home.” Jeongguk tells them desperately. The taller raises his chin.
“And you think you’ll find it here? The slums of Ketterdam?” he says condescendingly. Jeongguk shrugs. He bends down, so his bandaged eye is level with Jeongguk’s gaze. His remaining eye looks straight into Jeongguk’s soul. The younger boy swallows thickly, but keeps his stare. In the taller one’s eye, their is pain, but there is hope.
“...Yes.” Jeongguk answers. The taller one stares for a second more, then looks back at the shorter, who scoffs and turns back away.
“The kids get dumber every year. Don’t waste my time, go home.” He continues to walk away, but the taller lingers a moment longer. His eyes flash, and Jeongguk is stuck to the bone with a realization. The taller’s eye holds his same anger, the burning, festering pit in his stomach. As the taller turns to follow his friend, Jeongguk blurts,
“You understand. The hatred.” The taller glances behind himself, but keeps walking. Jeongguk takes a step after him. “You understand!” The two men fade into the smog of the alley, and Jeongguk’s left standing with a fistful of kruge and an echo of his own voice.
The anger in him has cooled in the icy gaze of the taller man, and he can feel it sharpen to a point. Now, he has a goal, a location in mind. He will find these men, the ones who speak Shu. He will avenge Jimin, take his payment from the world, until the blood debt is pain for all his grief.
He will burn the city to the ground. Starting with the Magistrate's office.