Monday, October 16, 2017

The Masks of Shandar: Chapter 1, Section 1

The Masks of Shandar

Chapter 1, Section 1

“Vaughn,” said Roderick said, turning from his writing desk.  “Welcome back.  How did Jheghende’s lesson go today?”  Roderick set his pen down and dropped the papers he’d been working on into a carved wooden box that sat the corner of the desk, then slid it into a messenger bag.  He untied the strips of cloth that bound his billowy sleeves to keep them out of fresh ink and wiped his hands on a rag tucked into the side of the desk.  

“He was doing well, milord,” answered Vaughn.  “He’s learning very quickly.”  Vaughn and Roderick were a contrast to each other.  Vaughn was a lean man of a hard life, usually wearing a leather dueling vest, long knives at his belt and clean shaven with white scars standing out against his darker complexion.  “He’s finally got the style of sword and dagger, and he’s learning to land the strikes with precision.  No true swordsman yet, but coming along well.  Master Fane is quite pleased, not that he’d ever show it.”  Vaughn was from one of the free cities, and so, he didn’t hold to the tradition of Shandral masks.

Seeing Vaughn without a mask sometimes made Roderick itch.  He covered this by slightly adjusting his own mask, a strip of purple cloth fitted to his head.  “Master Fane is not the most pleasant man in the city, but that’s not why we pay him for his instruction.”

“Aye,” said Vaughn, taking his ease by leaning against one of the room’s arched doorways.  “You don’t get to be an old duelist by being a fumble fingered dolt, which probably contributes to his attitude.”

“Which also means he doesn’t charge an extravagant training fee,” said Roderick.  “Come, Vaughn, dinner will be ready momentarily,” he said, passing through the doorway and gesturing for Vaughn to walk with him.

“That’s why we got home when we did,” said the old footman with a grin.  “Your son is famished.  I may or may not be of a similar mind.”

Roderick chuckled and made his way down the hall into the kitchen.  A low chandelier dotted with both candles and alchemist lights filled the room with a low, rich light.  The dining table was a slab of gray marble, rubbed smooth and covered with a thin alchemical layer that made the reflections of the lights dance merrily without letting them glare.  Nissa stood at the table, carefully setting out plates for the meal.  She looked up and met Roderick’s eyes with a grin, her eyes glittering above a veil that covered her face beneath her eyes.

She and Roderick looked like they belonged together.  Both were soft spoken and thoughtful, trained scholars, and wore similar clothing.  Where Roderick had remained rather thin in his advancing years, Nissa had accumulated some comfortable weight of age.  She also insisted on doing things like setting the table, even though they could have one of the staff do so.  She insisted that it was a duty she’d rather take on herself, and to give the staff a reprieve.

“There you are, husband,” she said warmly.  “Our dinner will be out momentarily.”  She set the last glass down gently.  “Did you make any further progress?”  Her question was innocent, but they both knew what she was referring to.  

“I did,” he said simply.  The documents he’d finished were sworn documents verifying the journal that they had found.  They were both paranoid enough not to speak out loud of the contents in front of anyone but each other.  The signatures of a sworn justicar were all that had been needed to finalize the process, and now, with that in hand, there would be no question of their truth.  Justicars of the Crown did not make decisions lightly or quickly, instead taking time to be absolutely certain before they lent their authority to documents.  Once signed, they were not overturned or unauthorized.  “Now,” he said, looking around, “where is Jheghende?  I understand he’s famished.”

Down the hall, back near the study, Jheghende sat in his bedroom.  He was seated at the desk by his window, examining his blades in the lamplight.  The old duelist had drilled him not only in handling the blades, but taking care of them as well.  After instruction with the bundled wood swords, he’d allowed Jhegende the opportunity to practice with his own blades.  They were well-made; balanced very well, but unremarkable, made in saber style with bell guards on their hilts and blades that were sharp up one end and then partially down the back.  Jheghende had gotten to attack the practice targets of leather and wood, and then actually crossed blades with the older man.

But, what the old man had told him still rang in his mind.  “Take care of your blades, boy,” he’s said in his gravelly tone.  “After using them, you want to inspect those edges for nicks and burrs.  They may not seem like much, but they can add up, and ruin you in the worst moment.”  So Jheghende was looking down his blades, looking for any knicks he might have missed before.  In fact, he’d been so absorbed in his inspection, he hadn’t even changed out of his practice clothing.  The linen shirt, leather vest and sturdy pants and boots he wore were rougher than his typical attire, but his focus had been such that the thought of changing out of them had never even occurred to him.  His gaze lingered on the pommels, where their rounded discs that ended the hilts were etched with their personal family crest, an owl on a branch before a full moon.

“Jheghende!” came a voice up the hallway, “Jheghende!  It’s time for dinner!”

The young man set his blades down with their scabbard, a leather piece that kept the two blades hanging side by side on his left hip, and began to walk down the hallway.  His mind was drifting from the swords to what his parents had been working on.  He’d caught little bits and pieces, even as careful as they were not to talk about it.  There were secrets afoot, and he’d been able to tell that they had something to do with another noble family.  Something in the documents they’d found had strong implications, something hidden away in the journal he’d seen his father tuck away in moments when he’d been interrupted in his work.

His thoughts ended when he heard his mother scream.

He ran down the hallway to the kitchen and saw a group of men boiling out of the kitchen, blades in their hands.  There were many of them, seven, all dressed in common laborers’ clothes that wouldn’t be out of place on the streets of Shandar.  Two were trying to handle Vaughn.  The old footman’s blades were already wet and one of the invaders lay bleeding on the floor.  He turned, moving fluidly, lashing out with quick cuts and crowding the other two men to keep them from being able to flank him.

He watched, his eyes wide with horror as he saw two men grab his father and sink blades into his belly repeatedly.  Blood poured from the wounds in his father’s abdomen and the flow increased as he was stabbed again and again and again.  His eyes turned to his mother, where one man had taken her arms and the other stepped up jammed his knife into her throat.  Her screams died immediately, but the man worked his blade back and forth across her neck.  They threw her on the ground and turned to meet Vaughn, whose prowess was enough to hold even the two other men.  

He had taken cuts himself, but as strategic trades where he could take the cuts as opposed to taking killing thrusts.  The two facing him were faring worse, one with a useless arm and the other with a gash across his chest just under his throat.  The two men that had killed his mother stepped up behind Vaughn, sinking their already bloody knives into his back.  He went rigid, tried to gasp and spat blood from his mouth as he fell to the floor.

Jheghende stood in the hallway, his breath coming in ragged gasps.  His heartbeat seemed to pound in his ears.  He’d heard stories about political assassinations, especially in Shandar, but he’d never expected to see it.  His quiet life, his scholar parents, nothing like this had ever even occurred to him as a possibility.  That’s when the realization hit him.  

He turned and ran back down the hallway.  He turned into his father’s study and grabbed the messenger bag that his father typically carried.  Its worn leather whispered along the desk as he slung it up and over his shoulder, and he could hear voices down the hallway.

“Find the boy!  Gather up the servants!”  Find the boy.  They were going to kill him as well.  He had to… he had to run.  Far away.  He flipped up the lid on his father’s desk and frantically sorted through it.  He grabbed up a little leather pouch and felt the metallic edges inside, so he jammed it into his pocket.  He leaned his head just barely out the doorway and saw that no one was yet in the hallway.  He stepped across the hall into his room and moved hurriedly.  He picked up his sword belt and then opened his desk.  He pulled out the leather pouch that was also a gift with the blades and scabbard, mean to go on the other hip.  He slid it onto the sword belt and strapped it on with shaking hands.  He grabbed the money pouch of what he had saved and shoved that into his hip pouch as well.  He grabbed a few other items: his signet ring, a small book, a pen, and the small painted miniature of his family from a few years earlier.  He shoved all these things into his belt pouch, slung the messenger bag back over his shoulder and took quick stock of his options.

He couldn’t leave the house by the front door, which was beyond the dining room.  The servants’ entrance was in the pantry next to the kitchen.  He looked around and realized he had really only one option.  He’d have to break one of the windows and go out that way.  They were heavy glass set in iron casings, which meant it would be loud, and they would certainly hear his exit.  After the rigors of the sword training earlier in the day, he realized, he wasn’t sure that he could outrun these men if it came to that.  He’d need another step in the plan. He looked out the window and the idea came to him.

He grabbed the chair from his desk and set it aside.  Then, he drew his dagger and smashed the glass open.  He looked over his shoulder quickly, then sheathed his dagger, tightened the strap on the messenger bag and tossed the chair out the window ahead of him.  He could hear the shouts coming down the hallway, hearing the glass shatter, but in his panic and with his breath thundering in his ears, he couldn’t make out what they were saying.  He took a last look at his home and leapt through the window.  

He landed on the cobbled street outside awkwardly, landing on his feet and hands, but tumbling to his side.  In his panic, he almost couldn’t make it to his feet, but he stumbled up and grabbed his chair.  Trying to swallow the bitterness rising in his throat, he ran up the street.  He could hear men shouting behind him.  So far, his plan was working, such as it was.  Jheghende turned a corner and ran to the edge of one of the city’s many canals.  With a heave, he threw his chair into the canal, where it landed with a tremendously loud splash.  He scrambled back, away from the canal edge, into one of the alleys that dotted the street.  

He didn’t have to wait long.  Three of the men had come running up the street, steel reflecting dimly in the soft light spilling from windows.  They stopped at the canal edge and pointed.  

“I heard him go in!”  one shouted.

“Why would he do that?  It ain’t faster than running!”

“Dumb kid doing dumb things.  We’ll get a canal boat and check.”

While they stood there, pointing, arguing, and making plans, Jheghende crept back into the alley.  He did his best to sneak his way along while he head spun.  His blood was still up and he had a hard time thinking clearly.

Everything he had known was gone.  In the space of moments, his life was destroyed.  He wasn’t sure how thorough they’d be.  They’d ransack the house, looking for whatever it is that the journal contained.  They’d tear all the books off the shelves, they’d rip the furniture apart, they’d tear through closets and wardrobes.  They might even burn the house down to try and ensure that the journal was gone if they couldn’t find it.  His parents were gone.  Vaughn, the footman that watched over them and kept them safe, had died bravely, but was still dead.

And he was left.  He was trying to sneak through the dark alleys of Shandar, having fled from what had been the minor branch of a noble house.  He had nothing to his name except the clothes he had on, his two blades that he barely knew how to use, and the very thing that had gotten his family killed.

The only idea he could think of was that he had to get away from Shandar.  He had to leave, and he had to do so immediately.  His thoughts swirled with what would happen to him if he waited to try and leave: men at the docks and the city gates with his descriptions.  Men that might just kill him on the off-chance of who he was.  Being captured and shoved into a deep, dark hole until they were certain about what he did or did not know, or until someone forgot he was there and he wasted away in the darkness.  He had to get away.  

Carefully, he began to pick his way through the city towards the docks.  Ships came in and departed from Shandar at all hours.  The city had a harbor different from most.  The city was placed at the end of a large bay, where long peninsulas seemed to reach out like spindly arms, trying to hold its water in.  Kings of years past had fortified these narrow stretches of land, but the harbor and its approach from the sea had no treacherous hazards.  Unlike the harbor of Andol, which was filled with dangerous reefs that had to have an Andolman navigating to pass through safely.  It was unlike the Hundred Harbors of Jenar, where the clever seafarers had created artificial barriers that could be raised or lowered, with spikes and ridges to rake open the hulls of unwelcome vessels.  Ships that were cleared with entry and departure orders could come and go at any time, day or night.  With this in mind, Jheghende set out, looking for a ship.

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