Red Brand: Red Bound

 
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RED BRAND


Red Bound


ONE


White moonshine and amber torchlight glinted and danced and played treacherously along the length of the seven embellished, silvered and bejeweled spear tips. Seven spears, waveringly active, as alert as those who bore them. Amazuz stood shadow silent, not twelve paces away, and studied the masked unit of warriors. Kleotian slave guard, he assessed, noting their broad and bulky frames, even though he could not see their midnight skin for all their frippery. Impressive, he mused.


He’d seen such men before. Expert. Keenly trained. But Amazuz hadn’t survived as long as he had by merely relying merely on his knowledge, and the reputation of such men as these slave guard. There was no rush for this night’s work. Plenty of time to look them over, size them up, and set his expert eye upon this task. No surprises. Not on his life.


The spearmen were wholly covered, save for slits through which blazing dark eyes burned beneath the unadorned, white masks that covered crown to nose. The men were audaciously bedecked in the red and white of Ghalib Pasha, the mightiest of the slave merchants in all of Otium City. Ghalib, known as the Red Handed for his cruelty and harsh treatment of his slaves, paraded his wealth far beyond even the luxuriant mores of civility. Atop their heads, these men of his wore peacock plumed, puffed turban head-dresses, soft red and white paneled linen bulging like temple domes. The rich red woolen sirkaftans of their uniforms had overly voluminous sleeves and a fullness in the skirting. An elaborate gold trimming, patterned with little red diamond shapes, ran the length of the garment’s seams, as well as along the hems of the sleeves and bottom.


Amazuz’s gaze lingered then on the ornately hilted scimitars each man wore, girded to waists by wide sashes of the same red and gold linen. Dangerous weapons in the right hands, and these seemed right, well enough. Tight, night-black sleeved arms protruded from under the outer garments, ending in sleek-fitting black leather gloves. Gloves that covered strong hands. Hands which grasped the poised and ready spears. Even the Kleotian guard’s faces were wrapped in black silk under those masks.


To an untrained person, Amazuz considered, they looked like costumed buccas. He’d had run-ins with those fanciful youths, men of means who prided themselves on appearances, adopting the current, ever-changing fashions. But these slaves were no rich men, although the master slaver who owned them, Amazuz had heard, was reputed as one of the wealthiest free men in the Empire, second only to Sultan Bashaarat Al Waheed himself. No, these Kleotians were slaves, warriors trained to serve their master relentlessly and with iron obedience. No pampered and soft courtiers were they, but fierce and dangerous men. Men, yes. Slaves just like Amazuz, and just as dutiful to their master as Amazuz was to his own.  Amazuz was also certain, that beneath the frippery of those costumed uniforms, these men wore armor. Yes, their bearing suggested the weight of helmets, steel if Amazuz was correct, covered by the turbans. And likely they wore plates of polished bronze and iron mail beneath those rich sirkaftans. Armor that protected their vitality against the bite of scimitar and sword. Such effective, if not pretty, impedimenta they wore.


Amazuz, however, was confident they would pose no obstacle to him. He inwardly chuckled. Despite the nature of Kleotians such as these, to possess the darkest skin in all the nations of the southern continent, he mused because he knew even if stripped naked on a moonless night, they were not nearly as dark as himself, should he will it. Barbas born or no, he could blend with shadow stuff itself.


Amazuz withdrew into a stinky alley, common to this part of the city. The Slave Quarter had once been new and grand, but the years had been cruel. It was now old and dilapidated. He ignored the stench. Focussing his will, Amazuz pulled the shadows upon him once again. Were he to accomplish his master’s mission, and he was determined to do so, he must overcome these men. To overcome them, he’d need every advantage.


The fact that the boy’s cell was guarded by these masked warriors surprised him not. The boy was prized indeed, to be guarded this heavily. Old Ghalib protected his investments, and the presence of his guard before the iron door entrance to the slave pens, at least confirmed the master’s suspicion as well as the truth in the reports. This South Islander half-breed was a talent - no ordinary, untrained slave. Amazuz smiled, pride warming him against the fog that crawled up from the docks like a slow billowing swarm of galley rats. His master, the Grand Vizier, had organized the most magnificent spy network in the known world.


It galled Amazuz that Ghalib’s agents had beaten his master to the acquisition, and likely purchased the half-breed right off the pirate’s ship. In doing so, they breached the Sultan’s Trade Accord, a clear violation.  But Barbas pirates, criminal profiteers that they were, cared little for the Sultan’s Imperial laws.


No, Ghalib may have succeeded in secretly purchasing the slave, but the master’s spy network had ferreted out the existence of this special boy, this half-breed talent.  The Grand Vizier’s orders, given not a turn of the glass ago, came fresh to Amazuz’s memory.


“Confirm the boy’s existence,” his Master had said, voice full of confidence, full of pride. “Confirm where he is being held, and acquire him if possible.”


The Grand Vizier had every confidence in him, Amazuz knew, and there was not even a thread-thin chance that he’d break his master’s trust. Even if he was unable to acquire the slave at the present time, he’d report back on his discoveries this night.


Grand Vizier Mubarak would pay for the purchase of this boy, if it came to it. He’d smile as he handed over the fee, but he’d not like it. If Grand Vizier Mubarak could outwit his old rival Ghalib and steal the boy, so much the better. Perhaps along the way, Amazuz mused, he’d even discover a way to incriminate Ghalib as well, and expose the man’s illegal trade practices. If the tides of kismet indeed turned on Ghalib in this fashion, the Red Handed merchant would find himself slave instead of slaver. Former slavers rarely survived long amongst the ranks of slaves.


Amazuz focussed himself and steadied his breathing. He reached out with his will and drew the midnight light into himself in much the same fashion as a blotter absorbs ink. Despite the waxing full moon and blazing ensconced torches positioned on either side of the entrance to the heavy cell door, Amazuz now cast no shadow. He had willed himself to become deeper than shadows, darker than the darkest night. A darkness which no normal eye could pierce. Ghalib’s guards would see only the thickly cobbled street layered with is muck and scum, the drifting sea mist clinging to the cobbles. They’d see the shadow-lined buildings with their once richly-patterned windows and fancifully-arched doors, and the spired, towered, and minareted moon-limned contour of the skyline. They’d see that, but they would not see Amazuz.


The talent had served Amazuz well in the past. It had allowed him to rise quickly among the ranks of the Grand Vizier’s elite spies, and it would likewise serve him this night. Grand Vizier Mubarak made a point to gather the truly talented, like Amazuz himself, into his ranks, buying up slaves that showed promise, no matter the nature of their magical gift. He collected talented slaves as a prince might collect fine horses. Amazuz smiled as he drew his scimitar from its plain black leather scabbard. He, Amazuz ag Mejdan, born a Barbas slave, found great honor being counted amongst those ranks, happy to be in his master’s “stable.” Tonight he’d prove his value.


Although outnumbered seven to one, Amazuz was confident in his training and sure that his skill and talent would combine flawlessly to prove these men no true threat. Tonight, their pretty costumes would become soiled with their blood, unless of course, they were smart… and fled. Even if they did run away like cowards, by the time they’d summoned reinforcements, Amazuz was confident he would have the half-breed slave boy well on his way to the Grand Vizier’s appointed holdout.


Amazuz silently stepped forward. The only sign of his passage as he approached was a slight swirling of the dew-laden mist. He was to others, as they’d described it to him, as if he were a mere shimmering shadow, as unseen as to be nearly invisible in darkness, and appeared only as an uncanny ambulatory shadow even in the fullness of the mid-day sun. Unless his adversaries knew what signs to look for, Amazuz would approach them safely unseen. His attack on them would be swift and deadly.


Looking at his outstretched hand, Amazuz confirmed his power was active. His hand was covered in that dull black, gossamer shroud, visible only to his eyes. Only after her was satisfied did he carefully move forward.


Above the quiet murmur of the sleeping city, a nightingale began warbling. Its sweet song brightened the dingy neighborhood, echoing down the narrow street as Amazuz approached the guard. This was a very good omen, he thought. Such creatures were keen to sense danger. If they were not alarmed by Amazuz’s presence, then these simple guardsmen would never suspect the imminent attack. Indeed, as expected, the guardsmen showed no sign, took no note of his approach. They would lie dead on the cobbles before they knew there was a killer amongst them.


The songbird’s chir-kee chir-kee, chirk chirk chir-kee was suddenly cut short by another, high pitched avian sound. It was the kuerk kuerk of what sounded like a raven, booming from above. The rasp grew louder as the bird swiftly approached. Two turban-clad heads canted at the sound of the raven, but the rest remained attentive to their duty. Amazuz wished the guardsmen had been undisciplined enough to allow themselves a moment of distraction by the bird, for it would have provided an excellent opportunity to catch at least a few more of them off guard.


Amazuz’s scimitar drew back into a deadly arc as he began his killing dance. But before he was able to strike at his first opponent, a blow that would have cleanly removed the man’s masked head from his brightly uniformed body, Amazuz heard a guttural shriek, saw a swift flash of dark feathers. Nest, fire shot through his upraised arm. A raven, a huge accursed raven, had sunk its claws into the flesh of his arm. It raked him hard enough to send his scimitar clattering to the cobbles at his feet.


How, by the Prophet, …? thought Amazuz as he instinctively dove under a spear thrust. Could these men see him? The bird had. No, the thrust had been wildly aimed. It was a reaction to the noise and not directed against him. The slave guard were now yelling exclamations to each other in Kleotian, their low and croaky native language.


They’re on to me now!  Amazuz grimaced.


He next dodged past another wild spear thrust and grabbed up his scimitar, on the ground where he’d dropped it, with the hand on his uninjured arm. Rolling away to safety, he turned and focused on their leader. He was slightly taller than the rest, and he had been the one closest to the arched doorway. He was well illuminated by those two torches, set into sconces on the arched doorway, and flanking the iron door in the recessed portal. Presently the leader was grunting orders, and four of the guard fanned out, sweeping their spears in a low arc while the leader blocked the doorway. The other two guardsmen backed against the wall under the torches, spears now doubling as shields as they drew out their scimitars. The blades of those deadly weapons were as fancifully etched and engraved as their long sharp decorated spear heads, and no less deadly.


Amazuz had identified the leader by the very large ruby set into the pommel of the his scimitar, as well as the long tassel dangling from its grip. It was surprising, that these slaves, even elite slaves, wore such riches - a prince’s ransom -  on their persons. Amazuz bit back the shrieking pain in his forearm as he marveled at the extravagance displayed on this obviously elite guard. Somewhere directly above his head, the raven was cackling. Its annoying karr karr karr seemed to be directed at him, and it sounded to Amazuz as if the accursed creature was mocking him, laughing at him.


Then, Amazuz noticed the blood. So did one of the guardsmen. A small trail of blood led straight to him, like an arrow pointing the way from the warriors position, right to him. His black sleeve was rent, and glistened darkly with blood. There were deep slashes in his sleeve, and long, bleeding gashes in his flesh. They were thin, but deep, and ran diagonally around the back of his right arm, from wrist nearly to elbow. It seemed as if the act of examining the wounds alerted him to their severity, and the pain increased threefold. By the Prophet and the Apostles, that raven must have been massive to leave such a wound.


He thrust the thought of the foul raven from his head, however. The guard who’d noticed the blood was pointing to it with his spear, muttering to his fellows in Kleotian. He next thrust the weapon in the direction the blood trail, its shimmeringly detailed head pointing straight at Amazuz. Amazuz didn’t need to be fluent in Kleotian to understand what the man was saying. “This unseen enemy is bleeding, my fellow slaves,” he was saying, “and if we follow the trail, we shall discover what sort of demon is skulking around!”


Amazuz did not wish to become a punctured pig by these guard’s spears, so he quickly set his mind upon the options at hand. He flexed his weapon hand. Searing pain ran the length of his arm, well into his shoulder. He’d not be wielding his scimitar with that hand for some time. The Grand Vizier’s tedavi would see to his wound when he returned, but that did him little good now, in this situation. For now he pulled off his keffiyeh and used the head wrap to bind his arm.  With the flow of blood stopped, plus his shadow talent, he hoped his adversaries wouldn’t be able to locate him.


Once the wound was bound, Amazuz adjusted his position.  As he did, the bird’s clamor seemed to increase. The thing was still somewhere above him, shrieking and cackling, hidden by the dark of night. Amazuz silently uttered a native Barbas curse at the bird, one he’d learned in a northern coastal village when he’d still been a galley slave.  With vehemence, he violently poked the air toward the cawing noise. The jabbed out with two fingers, those of the devil goddess, Iblii. Be gone foul thing! Blow away as a fallen hazel leaf in monsoon season!


Four of the guards had followed the blood trail, and were presently thrusting spears through the space where Amazuz had so recently been crouching. Amazuz frowned, focusing on his situation, also trying to drive the noise of the raven from his mind. Fighting seven alert men was not an option, he’d lost most of the advantage he’d had over them due to that accursed bird. His victory over them had been assured, if he’d caught them unawares. Now, alert and on their guard, and with his weapon arm as good as useless, he stood little chance. In truth, he stood NO chance. No, he’d simply have to quit for the safe house. Amazuz did not relish returning to his master a failure, but he saw little other option. Additionally, his shadow cloak would soon wear off. How long had it been? A quarter turn of the glass, or longer? Whenever he used his talent, he had only a handful of minutes, a half turn of the glass at most, before his talent petered out and he was forced to wait some time before using it again. It was a limitation he hated, but one of which he was keenly aware. Amazuz wanted to be well away from this place before his talent failed him and he would no longer be shrouded by shadow. Amazuz cringed as he sheathed his scimitar, fire searing up the rents in his arm. The weapon would do him no use now.


Just as he began rising to depart, Amazuz spied a movement down a dark alley. The alley led away from the torch lit street, and directly away from the guardsmen. The movement was low to the ground, and along the same wall of the slave pen’s building. It looked to Amazuz, in the shadowy gloom, as if there were two pale hands and a face poking out, peering out of a dark hole, or gap, at the base of the wall where it met the wet, cobbled alley.


Silent as a whisper, Amazuz carefully sidled in the direction of the movement, down the muck and filth-strewn alley. He narrowed his eyes, focussing on what had attracted his attention. Indeed, it seemed like a face, peering through the bars of a low, slave pen grill. He was still several paces away, and it was too dark to fully make out any features.


Amazuz glanced back toward the guardsmen who were examining the area near the pooled blood where he had until recently been hiding. A guardsman had pulled down one of the torches from its sconce and the amber light flickered over the area. Amazuz saw the shiny sheen of his blood and grimaced. It was a thin black puddle, and a line of dancing amber reflected dully off his life’s liquid. His gut grew tight. How he wished for his bow. He’d show that wicked bird.


The guard with the torch grunted in Kleotian, raising it high. The costumed guards all cast about the area, continuing their search. Let them scour and hunt for me, Amazuz thought, they’ll find me not. Their torchlight will serve me, and betray them.


Hastily, Amazuz turned once more toward where the face had been, assuming it belonged to a slave who was standing in a subterranean cell of some sort. He shuddered, remembering his own time in comparable imprisonment, with a similar grate unable to fully fulfill its purpose of aerating his stifling cell. He pushed the disquieting memory from his mind. No doubt the person below him was frightened and sick of imprisonment. Amazuz could use the slave’s own hope of freedom to get information about the half-breed.


He was about to whisper to the person, to ask him if he was, or if he knew of, the South Islander boy being held within these pens. But before he could put words to lips, the raven launched into another swooping attack. The thing was now clawing about Amazuz’s face and making an obscene racket. The black, winged terror was coming at him in an even more furious assault than it had done before the entrance to the slave pens.


What have I done to offend you, thought Amazuz, to deserve such wrath?


The raven furiously fluttered, hovering above him and beating its wings against him, raking at his flesh with its talons and beak. And all the while, it continued that incessant cawing. It was the largest raven Amazuz had ever seen, and despite all his martial training, he felt inept at defending himself against the assault.


Amazuz clumsily scuffled about the muck-permeated alley. With a plash, his foot landed in a depression full of a nasty sludge. It slide sidelong, causing him to nearly lose his balance. What a fool I’d appear, if there was anyone that could see me! He flailed his arms about, with little effect, unable to drive off the bird or cease its onslaught. His lacerated arm screamed with the effort, and he worried that he’d soon begin bleeding again, and give Ghalib’s another beacon with which to find him.


The guards, of course, were alerted now. Amazuz heard more Kleotian jabbering, followed by the clomping of approaching, booted feet. He sensed the prevailing darkness around him being chased away by oncoming torchlight. Rage filled Amazuz’s heart, outrage at this supernatural winged creature. How had it not been foiled by my talent? He’d never seen the likes of this. His talent had never been overcome by anyone short of the harika, Hajjaj Habib. And Hajjaj was one of Grand Vizier Mubarak’s finest personal wizards, no less.


This bird must be supernatural. The Grand Vizier needs be informed of this as well. Whether this uncanny raven was sent here to foil his efforts, or if it were under the control of Ghalib’s men - perhaps a hakira’s pet - Amazuz had no idea. But he knew his master would be keen for the knowledge. Perhaps he could earn a modicum of redemption, despite his failure, if he could inform his master of this potential threat. Whether a threat to his master or not, at the moment, it certainly felt very threatening!


Amazuz batted at the raven, his arm wailing in pain. Smaller scratches and cuts now annoyed his face, shoulders and hands. Thankfully, the bird was not raking him as viciously as it had when he’d been caught off guard, but it was still furiously assailing him. Amazuz looked to the cramped end of the alley, scanning for an egress in order to flee. He hoped the bird would not pursue. It was a thin hope, he new.


Even as he pushed the raven away with renewed effort, the light of a torch borne by one of the guardsman, who was now threateningly close, flooded across the alley. The flickering glow illuminated the low window to the cell in the slave pen, and Amazuz was, for a brief moment, able to clearly see the grate. Yes, a once delicately yet functional and sturdy grate. It was a framed series of once fanciful bars, set low to the ground, now covered with rust, grime, and filth.  A runnel of brackish fluid, liquid that stagnantly flowed the length of the alley and bore the smell of the sea and sewage, seeped between the bars and trickled down into the cell.


Then, a pair of pale, filthy hands grasped two of the bars. Rising into the glow of the light was a youth with wild reddish-colored, tangled and matted hair. Amazuz had never seen such a hue on any male. In the fiery torchlight, it shone the color of pomegranate. He was young, likely so young as to not yet have had his manhood confirmation ceremony - were he a believer. But those of his outlander race were rarely believers. He’d be converted, once the Grand Vizier inducted him into service, as it had been with Amazuz. Such was the fate of all slaves that came to serve the royal court.


The boy pressed his face as far as he could through the bars. His wide eyes were anxiously sweeping the gloom. Amazuz noticed a smattering of dark spots painting the boy’s nose, small blotches spread across his cheeks. To Amazuz, it looked as if his face was spattered with dirt or mud. The slave had a look of despair in his eyes, a look Amazuz knew well. Those eyes were frantically searching the shadowy alley, and when the youth espied the guard with the torch, he yelled out, “Help my self, oh please… set me free!”


Surprisingly, the youth cried out in a voice that was much deeper than his apparent age implied. He spoke the trade tongue of the Western World, the speech of mariners and tradesmen, but with a thick, Islander accent. Amazuz knew this tongue well, for it was considered universally necessary for any of those who traveled, specifically upon ships. The boy was calling for help… He must not realize these guards are his captors, not potential rescuers. Pity the boy, but pity him briefly. Once in possession of the Grand Vizier, his master to be, the youth’s lot would improve a thousand fold, as it had for Amazuz himself.


The scene before him, the grating to the subterranean cell, the frightened face of the half-breed red-haired youth, his call to anyone who might free him, all this Amazuz gathered in one brief moment. He took it all in, despite the distraction of the raven’s attacks, the pain flushing down his arm, and the danger of the approaching slave guard. Amazuz was trained to observe, and report; the spy’s primary function.


The heat of his anger was replaced by eager satisfaction. It warmed him. Even though the raven’s continuing attack had spoiled the mission, and despite his inability to acquire the boy, he was pleased. For he, Amazuz ag Mejdan, spy for - and slave to - the Grand Vizier to the Sultan himself, had accomplished at least part of his objective. He would confirm the half-breed boy indeed exists, and that for the present time, is being held in this slave pen of Ghalib the Red Handed, on the Street of Moiling. 


Bolting down the rear of the alleyway, Amazuz continued to wave off the raven, who pursued him briefly as he fled. Three streets later, Amazuz rested his back to a wall, panting, and thankful the uncanny bird had relented the attack. As it winged away, it called out what seemed to be a mocking laugh, bolting over the spire-speared skyline and into the cold, moon-drenched darkness.


 

Red Brand is another project on the back burner for now. It was originally intended for 2010’s NaNo as a series of three episodic short stories following the adventures of Jeth, a half-breed from the Islands of the Southern Seas, banished from his home by bigoted village elders who could not accept that his father was one of the white "demons" of the north, a shipwrecked sailor who fell in love with his mother.

As I have been writing it, it has taken on the life of a novel. Originally, Jeth's adventures were to include an episode from his dark time spent upon the The Wicked Whimsy, a renowned pirate vessel, his enslavement in the Otium Empire's Sultan's palace in Red Bound, and the account of Jeth's terrible discovery of The Black Heart of Maltar, buried in a long lost tomb protected by unspeakable horrors.
Red Bound is now at 117,226 words and is is winding the home stretch. I have spent more time polishing this story than my others, even though it is not finished. My 2012 NaNo project, I am hopeful to finish the piece, and prepare it for publication in 2013.

The character of Jeth, also known as Brand, first appeared in Return to Turtle Cove, the NaNoWriMo winning premier novel, written in November, 2005. This exciting and colorful character, who had a significant, but fairly minor role in RTC, is now found pursuing some of his many thrilling escapades.

Red Brand: Red Bound