After spending a week on the mainland, we take the transporter across the Kentara Ocean to the Dunabresar Island Nation. We stop on the smallest island, a tropical paradise near the equator. The water surrounding the island looks like turquoise-tinted glass and is home to a variety of colorful marine life. Life is simpler here, as Bres Island lacks the technological advancements, large population, and extensive development found on the continent of Mersavi. You enjoy walking along the sandy beaches, wading in the warm water, and observing the locals as you consume fruity alcoholic beverages and sweet desserts. We sleep under the stars, enjoying the salty sea breeze and warm night.
The next day, we hop to the next island, which is slightly bigger, but otherwise very similar. After spending the day exploring the rainforest, rivers, beaches, and ocean, you gather around a driftwood fire to listen to my latest story.
* * * * *
Jimajé didn’t understand why she and Viella were so unlucky. Five years ago their mother was on the train from Dibalo to Frezel, the one that derailed, killing all the passengers. Last week their father was kicked in the chest by one of the kawi he was herding. The healer said the blow stopped his heart. Now it was just Jimajé and Viella. No mother. No father.
The two sisters stayed with their grandparents while their family figured out what to do with them. It was clear from the constant arguments that no one wanted them. Grandma and Grandpa travelled frequently for their jobs, and their house wasn’t big enough for children. Viella and Jimajé were currently sleeping on the parlor furniture because there was only one bedroom. Their aunts and uncles had their own children to take care of and couldn’t afford one extra mouth, let alone two.
All the shouting scared Viella, and she cried a lot. Jimajé wrapped an arm around her and shushed her.
“It’s okay, V,” Jimajé said. “I’ll take care of you.”
Viella curled up against Jimajé and fell asleep. Jimajé felt protective over her little sister. Viella was only five and didn’t fully understand what was happening. Jimajé was eight and therefore was head of their family now.
It took their family a week to finally make a decision. Grandma helped them pack their meager belongings and handed them their train tickets.
“Now you go to the train station and show them your tickets,” she said. “When you get to Heleva, you walk straight to the orphanage. No detours. Understood?”
Jimajé took the tickets and nodded. Viella cried and clung to Grandma’s pants. Jimajé took her hand and shushed her, leading her away from their grandparents’ house. That was the last time either of them saw their family.
Jimajé and Viella boarded their train and found seats in one of the passenger cars. Jimajé didn’t want to get on the train. They were going to Dibalo, taking the same route their mom did when she died. But Jimajé had to be brave for Viella. She told her stories to keep her entertained during the long ride through the mountains. Their grandmother had packed a few snacks for them, which they ate when they were hungry.
Finally, they reached Dibalo and boarded another train that would take them to Prewum. This ride was much shorter, as they were travelling through flat, straight desert. Then from Prewum, they went to Heleva.
By now, they had been travelling for so long that the sun was setting, turning the sky bright oranges and pinks. Viella pointed at the sky, talking excitedly.
“Look, Ji, look!”
“The sky’s pretty, isn’t it?” Jimajé said. “I think it’s welcoming us to our new home. Isn’t that a nice welcome?”
Viella nodded and clutched Jimajé’s hand as they walked down the street, trying to avoid wagons and carts and draft animals. Grandma said they had to follow the main road to the far side of town, and they would find the orphanage near the foothills of the mountains. Jimajé kept a tight grip on Viella’s hand.
“I’m tired,” Viella said. “I don’t want to walk anymore.”
“I know, V. We’re almost there.” Jimajé hoped she was right, but the orphanage was still nowhere in sight.
The world around them dimmed as the sun set, and Viella walked closer to Jimajé. That’s when Jimajé finally saw a large stone building at the end of the road with a metal gate in front of it. That must be the orphanage. It drew steadily nearer until she could finally make out a sign confirming her assumption. She led Viella to the door and knocked.
A friendly musalo—someone who had a male body but otherwise dressed and behaved like a female—opened the door. She crouched down to Jimajé and Viella’s level. “Hello there, sweethearts. What are your names?”
Viella shyly hid behind Jimajé.
“I’m Jimajé, and this is my sister, Viella.”
The musalo nodded. “You must be tired and hungry after the long journey from Frezel. I’m Dieza. Come inside.”
Dieza stood up and led Jimajé and Viella into the building. They walked down several hallways, and Jimajé thought it would be very easy to get lost in here. They stopped in a large kitchen with a small table in the corner. Dieza set out bread, cheese, fruit, and juice for them. Viella happily ate and drank.
“What’s going to happen to us now that we’re here?” Jimajé asked Dieza.
“What do you mean, sweetheart?” Dieza asked.
“Do we go somewhere else in a week?”
“No, of course not. This is your home now. You and your sister can live here until you each turn twenty-four. Most children only leave before then if they’re adopted because they go live with new parents instead.”
“Some kids get new parents?”
“They do. You’re going to be taken care of either way. You’re never going to have to worry about having a place to sleep, getting enough food, or having clothes to wear. We’ll take care of all of that. You and your sister will get a good education and have plenty of other children to play with.”
Jimajé watched Viella guzzle her juice. She hoped the orphanage would be a good place for the two of them, especially Viella. She deserved a nice place to grow up. Now that she was full, Viella was having a hard time keeping her eyes open.
“Come on,” Dieza said as she picked her up. “Let’s get you ready for bed.”
Dieza gave them a room with a big bed for them to share. She told them they would get their permanent room assignment tomorrow.
“Sleep well,” Dieza said before closing the door.
Viella was already asleep, but Jimajé stared up at the ceiling wishing their parents were still alive.
* * * * *
Jimajé and Viella settled into their new lives at the orphanage. They played with the other children and went to the local school. They always had a warm bed, plenty of food, and clothes that fit. In many ways, this was a step up from their past life of borderline poverty. Viella was particularly happy when Dieza gave her a stuffed toy in the shape of a darvik, a medium-sized mammal known for its round shape and rotund build. She carried it everywhere with her.
Jimajé and Viella were happy with their new lives for about six months. Then things changed for Jimajé.
Jimajé sat in a chair in an office. The headmistress, Imeris, sat behind the desk, and Dieza stood beside her. Jimajé had heard stories of children going to this office, and it was always because they were in trouble or because they were getting adopted. Jimajé knew they wouldn’t separate her and Viella, so she wondered what she did wrong.
“Dieza tells me you’re an active young lady,” Imeris said. “You like to play outside and climb trees.”
Jimajé nodded. Was climbing trees against the rules? She didn’t think so.
“Your teacher’s reports regarding your schooling are exemplary. You’re one of his top students.”
Jimajé nodded again. Being a good student definitely wasn’t against the rules. Why was she here?
“This orphanage is partnered with the Mersavi Institute for Spies and Assassins,” Imeris said. “I’ve spoken with them, and they would like you to train with them.” Imeris paused. “This is a special offer. If you accept it, you will have luxuries your playmates could never imagine having. You will be trained to be one of the greatest spies or assassins in the nation. This is a huge honor.”
Jimajé tried to wrap her head around what Imeris was saying. She had heard stories about the Mersavi Institute for Spies and Assassins. They thought she would make a good spy? As cool as that sounded, Jimajé had one major concern. “What about Viella?”
“Viella is too young to receive such an offer.”
“Would she stay here if I left?”
“Yes. You know we’ll continue to take good care of her.”
“I’m not leaving Viella.”
Imeris looked at Dieza. “Are you sure you want to turn down the Institute’s offer? Jimajé, this is a huge honor. Maybe you should take a few days to think about it.”
“No. I won’t leave Viella.”
Imeris sighed and gave Jimajé permission to leave. Jimajé immediately sought out Viella and played with her for the rest of the day. As cool as being a spy would be, she couldn’t imagine abandoning her sister. Jimajé didn’t hear anything more about the Institute for three years.
* * * * *
The next time Jimajé was summoned to Imeris’s office, Viella was asked to accompany her. This time Jimajé wondered if someone wanted to adopt them. Dieza was there again too.
“Is someone adopting us?” Viella asked.
Imeris shook her head. “No. But you have the opportunity to do something important with your lives.” Now Imeris looked at Jimajé. “The Mersavi Institute for Spies and Assassins would like both of you to train with them. You’ve both demonstrated great potential, and they would be honored to train you in their craft.”
Viella couldn’t contain her excitement. “Ji, do you hear that? We’re gonna be spies!”
“If you accept,” Imeris said, “you’ll live at the Institute from now on. You won’t come back here, which means you won’t see your friends again.”
Viella looked from Imeris to Dieza to Jimajé as if she were hoping one of them would tell her what to pick.
“Being a spy is a huge honor,” Imeris said.
“Your friends would be jealous,” Dieza added.
“I wanna be a spy,” Viella said.
Jimajé could tell Imeris and Dieza wanted them to go, regardless of what was actually best for Viella and her. She didn’t know why the Institute wanted them so badly, and it concerned her somewhat, but she had to admit it did sound fun. “We’ll go.”
Dieza left with Viella to help her pack her things, but Imeris had Jimajé stay back.
“I can tell you’re hesitant to go,” Imeris said. “I want to assure you that you’ve made the right decision. The Institute is a good place, and I’m sure you’ll do well there. I wish you luck in your training.”
As Jimajé packed her own bag, she thought about how much her life was about to change. Spy training would certainly be hard, but at least she would have Viella with her. She hoped they would make their parents proud.