Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Masks of Shandar: Chapter 1, Section 3

The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1, Section3

    The days passed slowly aboard the Stormwind, at least for Jheghende. While the crew moved about the ship with purpose, Jheghende found himself without anything to hand to do.  He didn’t dare try to practice with his blades on the ship, very clearly not yet having what the Jenar sailors referred to as his ‘sea legs.’ He spent the first day and night sleeping off the exhaustion of the previous day and night.
    He spent many hours sitting in his hammock and staring at the messenger bag.  He wrestled with what to do.  He couldn’t decide if he needed to open it and read what was inside, or if the knowledge that had gotten his parents killed was too dangerous for him to know.  He stared at the closed bag, and he saw, over and over again, the deaths of the family he had known.  He couldn’t shake the guilt that ate at his heart.  Could he have done something?  Did he know enough with his blade that, if he had jumped in, could he and Vaughn have stopped them? If he had learned magic earlier, would that have made a difference? He chased the trains of thought in circles in his mind for hours, feeling bitterness rise up in his throat and tears stream from his eyes.  

    He reached up, pushing his mask away from his eyes. He angrily wiped away at his eyes and realized that the mask he’d been wearing was starting to come apart in his hands. It had been made out of velvet and stiffened paper. After everything that had happened, all the sweat, all the tears, them drying out, his mask was falling apart. With a shuddering breath, he slipped his dagger from its sheath and carefully cut a strip of fabric from the hammock he had been lying in. He held it to his face, spit on his hand and rubbed two moist spots over his eyes.  He quickly cut a pair of holes into the cloth and tied it on. It wasn’t quite even, and the holes weren’t cut quite right, but he felt properly masked again.

    He stood up. He needed to get out of the hammock, to move a little bit. His legs felt weak and stiff, but he made his way up on deck regardless. The sea air blew gently across the deck, whipping the tails of his freshly made mask. Jheghende looked out, squinting against the bright sun overhead. He looked around for a moment, hoping no one commented on his appearance for a bit. He made his way over to the railing and stopped, leaning against it.

    “Aye, now there’s the lad,” came a voice.  Knuckles was making his way over to the rail. He leaned against it as well, turning his face to the wind. “I wondered when you’d make your back up.”

    “I haven’t felt well,” Jheghende said. “Needed to sleep it off, I guess.”

    “I suppose you did at that,” Knuckles said.  “Listen, lad, I needed to ask.”

    “Is it about who I am or what I’m running from?”

    Knuckles cast him an amused glance. “Not really either.  Cap’n figures you’re probably a young noble that got in over his head. Took off one step ahead of trouble. As for the trouble, I don’t rightly imagine that concerns the cap’n overmuch, unless it concerns his one question of you.”

    Jheghende looked over his shoulder to the rear deck where the captain stood.  He cut an imposing figure, but in the bright light of day, the incredible blond curls under his hat contrasting to his darker skin tones seemed almost absurd, had it not been overtop of such intense eyes.  Jheghende turned his head away before he was caught looking. “What concern is that?”

    “If this trouble you’re a step ahead of is going to be following us. Did taking you on lead to a heap of trouble for his ship?”

    Jheghende looked down at the waters for a moment. Had he? Was he being pursued by whoever had orchestrated the attack on his family? Were the men sent fooled by his little misdirection with the canal, or had it simply bought him enough time to get away and left little enough evidence of where he’d gone? “I… don’t think so,” Jheghende replied. “As fast as this ship is, I doubt there’s a Shandral vessel that could catch up.”

    “That’s a fine bit of compliment to offset some uncertainty,” said Knuckles. “But it only barely answers the question.”

    “I don’t think so,” Jheghende said again. “I got away from some people that attacked my home. I made them think I had jumped in one of the canals. By the time we’d set sail, I’d say it was only an hour or so after it all happened. I don’t think they’d know where I’d gone. There’s too many choices. For all they know, I could be traveling overland.”

    “Hmm,” Knuckles said, rubbing his chin. “I reckon that’s a fair enough answer, lad. But, there’s one other thing.” He chuckled at Jheghene’s worried look. “Easy, easy. We just don’t know what to call you. It ain’t been an issue since you’ve been squirreled away, but now, we need at least something to call you.”

    “Oh,” said Jheghende quietly. The idea of an assumed name had never even occurred to him. He pondered for a bit, turning things over in his head. “I, um, I don’t know...”

    Knuckles clapped a big, meaty hand on his back. “Then we do it the Jenar way! We’ll find a name for ye!” Knuckles laughed and returned back to work on the deck.

    “Oh,” Jheghende said quietly. “Uh-oh.” Jenar gave out nicknames, and if he understood correctly, they were often given on the basis of an event that the person would like to forget.

    “Since you came aboard in the middle of the night, looking like you were hiding, some of the men wanted to call you something like Mouse or Bug.” Knuckles said. “Not the cap’n, though. He’s a fan of Skulk.”

    “I…” Jheghende wanted to say something, but realized it at least gave him a pseudonym that he could use. “Who am I to argue with the captain?”

    “Hah-HAH!” laughed Knuckles. “Right sharp lad! Skulk it is, then. Listen, since you’re up and about, eat with the crew tonight. They’re still a little nervous about how you came to join our trip.”

    “That reminds me,” said Jheghende, “what is the first port you’re going to?”

    “Hub of the Rune Sea,” said Knuckles.  “Eumoyn.”

    Jheghende nodded and made his way back below deck.  His mind was churning as he settled back into his hammock. First of all, they were headed to Eumoyn.  He tried to recount what he knew of the city. Eumoyn was the largest of the free cities in the Rune Sea. Where Shandar, Andol, Cyndar, and Jenar were all cities with cultures old as memory and traditions stronger than law, the other cities in the Rune Sea styled themselves as the free cities, where they claimed all kinds of people were free to mingle without interference. Free cities were younger and usually smaller than the four old cities. People that lived in the older cities sometimes called them the four Great Cities of the Rune Sea. People that lived elsewhere tended to call them the Old Cities.

    Eumoyn was a little different. It was established on the north peninsula of the most southern landmass of the Rune Sea. It was one of the most central cities in the sea, so a great deal of trade passed through its ports. Eumoyn was indeed young, only a century and a half or so old, and so the land near the city hadn’t been mined or harvested as thoroughly or as long as other cities. What made Eumoyn different was its size. Eumoyn was one of the biggest cities in the Rune Sea, with some claiming it was actually the biggest. Attempts to verify this were always murky at best, because of the transient nature of the population. Sailors, traders, merchants, craftsmen all moved through the city regularly. And, again unique in the Rune Sea, was the frequent passage of soldiers through the city.

    When Eumoyn had been established, the records showed the desire to have the city a bit further south, but when the first crews landed in the area with the intent on setting up a more permanent settlement, they had encountered a new threat: the goblins. Goblins populated the southern land and rebuffed the first settlement attempts with horrific, savage force. Their attack had been sudden and brutal, with the survivors being the people that had been on the ships at the time of the attack. Every city-state had hoped to have a stake in the new city, in its trade and the prospective wealth, but through the Treaty of Kings, no city-state would go to war with another or try to usurp their land, on the pain of retaliation from the combined weight of the other cities. What the Treaty did allow was what came to be known as the Bastion Agreement; each city-state provided troops to protect the Rune Sea from outside threats. The rulers of each city-state came together and agreed that the goblins would constitute such a threat under the Treaty, and so, now every city-state kept a sizeable force, all of which rotated through the duty to stand against the goblin empire.

    So, Jheghende reasoned, he’d be going to a large city, bustling with a population that changed constantly. He thought he could lose himself in the city for a time, and try to figure out what he was going to do. He chewed that thought a moment. What WAS he going to do? He looked down, at the old mask in his hand. It was falling apart, a perfect metaphor for what had happened to his old life. He couldn’t go on as himself, not really. People would surely be looking for him, if he used his real name, but he didn’t want to abandon it entirely.

    He took up the messenger bag that had the catalyst for changing his life so dramatically, and considered. Did he want to know what had caused everything yet? Could it be dangerous to know, or more dangerous than things already were for him? And, could he really continue on as himself? He sighed, leaned his head back and thought. The rocking of the ship put him into a light sleep, drifting in and out and still wrestling with the same thoughts again and again.

    Finally, he took a deep breath and sat up. He felt like he had one way to continue on. He may not have wanted to continue this way, but then again, what he had wanted hadn’t been priority much in the last day or so. He tucked his old mask into the bag and fastened it shut. He took a couple more strips of cloth and wrapped them around the engraved pommels of his blades. And, finally, he got up, wrapped the bag in his hammock and with that, Jheghende stayed behind and Skulk went up to have dinner with the crew.


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