The Red Shadow: Book III: Interlude 4

RibbonDance

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One of the side stories I am more dedicated to making happen (some day) takes place up north in Osyrae.  Split between the streets and royalty.  It happens in parallel to events in Book I & II.  Giving glimpses and perspective into the mysteries of those foreign affairs.

This section will partly illuminate a few secrets of a character we we are about meet in Book III.  This content is harsher than much of where we have been, but on par with where we are going.  There will be more violence, socially dubious situations, and more morally ambiguous characters.


A redheaded girl in ratty clothes moved through the streets, shifting with practiced grace between people who did not seem to notice her.  Her amber eyes glimmered, and her hand flicked a razor sharp knife across a coin purse which dumped its contents into her open palm. A few gold and silver barely made a clatter as she turned, and slipped off the street.  She counted her gains, and caught a young boy’s eyes looking up at her. He was dirtier than her, and blinking, clearly struggling to focus on her, but seemed to know she was there.

She knelt down before him and stared him in the eyes, but his glance slipped off toward the street she had just left.  She sighed, and set a silver coin in front of him with a clack. She got up and walked down the narrow alley only to stop and turn at a sharp whistle.  She glared at the boy, whose fingers were between his lips. She saw people heading towards the alley from the street behind, and bolted down the narrow passage to get away.

She burst onto busy thoroughfare, and stumbled as she tried not to get run over by a car.  Nearly lost her balance, and narrowly avoided toppling a woman carrying a large jug of water.  Something fast slipped along the edge of her vision, but she couldn’t catch what it was. She wove through the  dense traffic, and sped up as she heard clamoring footsteps behind. She couldn’t understand how they were following her.

She tried to stop as a hooded figure loomed over her, suddenly blocking her way.  She fell and rolled with the inertia, and turned back to see the figure’s hood turning to follow her.  She ducked into another alley, but again was blocked by a hooded figure. She turned back, and found a man in a midnight black coat with faint enchantments entering behind her.

He seemed to see her, the way he looked right at her, though his blue eyes did sometimes flit away before reforcing.  The girl drew her sword, and brandished both it, and her knife menacingly at the man who drew a much longer rapier, and considered her, tilting his head.  “Goodness, you are a lovely little enigma. Red hair, and a guard’s sword. A strong gift, and urchin clothes. Oh and this slippery little trick. Oh, it almost works.  It usually doesn’t on me. I know the important things are the ones easily missed.”

He lunged at her a bit casually, and she barely deflected it.

“That sword’s not the cheap kind either.  The kind they get when they retire,” he mused, and struck several more times testing her defense.  Each she blocked even as his strikes grew more precise.

“I could write off the hair, but not so many other things,” he said and jabbed suddenly.  She felt a sting on her cheek, but cleared the blow, and rolled away from the blade. “Someone’s bastard clearly, but who’s?  A ladies? Unlikely. Try as they might they have such a hard time losing you. A lords? With your gift, doubtful as well.” The two circled each other.  Every path of escape blocked, though those guarding them looked confused. “Even if you would be more easily misplaced. A bit pale perhaps. A southerner’s child?  Hard to be sure, Osyraen blood is strong. Our proud skin does not fade so easy.”

She struck that time, seeing no point in being stuck on the defensive.  He gave an illusion of effortless defense, but slowly fell back under her assault.  Seeing an opening he lunged, but his blade was brushed aside with her sword. The dagger barely nicked his enchanted garment, that still mostly did it’s job.

“Oh, I didn’t notice that little thing,” he growled.  “Left handed. Clever. Stolen from one of my own cutpurses no doubt.  Enchanted to get through even the most stubborn coin purses. Always misdirection.  This gift. The unexpected dexterity with the lesser blade. Always the least important thing to watch for.”

She twisted out of their lacked stance, and tried to make a break for it, but found the way again blocked.  She turned, and faced the only person who had drawn a blade on her.

“Sloppy, but quick,” he chided.  “Did no one teach you to do this?  I can read your attacks plain as day, and still almost miss them.  You aren’t good, not at all. Though perhaps for a child.” He took a heavy breath.  “I’d still not wager my life to try for the kill again. Will you wager yours to press me?” he asked.

“No,” the girl said, though she did not lower her guard.  “You are the one who attacked me.”

“Put away the weapons, and I will not hurt you.  We can talk, come to some kind of arrangement. You have my word.”

“I don’t trust you,” she said fiercely.

“You shouldn’t,” he said with a smile as intimidating as coy.  “I am not trustworthy, not at all. I do, however, generally keep my word.  Besides, I think you are more use to me alive.”

The girl lowered her stance, slightly.  “Your word?” she pressed.

“Yes,” the man nodded.

She put her sword away slowly, but kept the dagger in hand.  The man looked annoyed, but slipped his into a scabbard.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“No one,” the girl said, and relented to put the dagger into her belt.

“Well, No-one,” the man said.  “You, may call me Lord Camaren.”

She just gave him a spiteful look.

“Good.  Good. Seize her,” he said sharply.  She grabbed for her sword, but felt the scabbard and all ripped away.  She stumbled and fell under the force of it, reached for her dagger and found it missing too.  A hand was quickly on her shoulder before she could get up, though it seemed gloved or something out of the corner of her eye.

She tensed, but did not struggle, and the man got down on one knee.  He grabbed her chin, and brushed back his own curly black hair. “Now, then,” he said measuredly.  “Give me your name, and I promise you will get it back.”

She sneered up at him.  “You didn’t keep your word before,” she protested.

“Are you harmed?” he asked.  “Are we not talking? Am I not making you offers?”  He smiled broadly. “Can we not come to an arrangement?”

“Etore,” the girl said with reluctance.

“Family?”

“None worth mentioning,” she answered with a sneer.

“Lane it is,” he said with a shrug, and stood back up.  “Now, Miss Lane,” he said staring down at her. “Someone’s been feeding my little watchers.  Asking nothing in return. This, I could forgive. Altruism, not the most heinous of crimes. Oh but the stealing, and not paying my tax… No, no. That will not do.”

“What do you want?” Etore demanded.

“Every corner of the world has its princes.  Some sit on thrones, others carriages, but a great many live in the shadows.  We all have our taxes. We all keep things…comfortable, for those who can pay the right price.”

“So you want a tax?” Etore asked.  She mostly knew what the word meant, and it had always sounded a bit like stealing.  Seemed to fit with the position she was being put in.

“No,” he said.  “We are past taxes.  You have something I want.  Skills, or potential. Stop trying to be invisible, and follow.  If you do, you may walk freely. For now.”

Etore glared at him.  There were men tightly packed around them.  Tightly enough that even if they couldn’t see her, she would have a terrible fight getting through.  She had almost forgotten the hand holding her shoulder. One clearly could. What choice did she have?  She tried to relax, to let them see. Several of the men looked down bewilderedly, a couple of these nudged their fellows and pointed.

“Come along,” the man said, turned, and walked down the alley.

Etore got up, brushed herself off, and looked around at the men staring down at her.  She reluctantly walked after the man.

“Who are you?” she asked.  It seemed a fair enough question.

“I’m a bastard. Like you, my little shadow.  I’ve made do. My father and I have an agreement.  He doesn’t claim me, and I don’t claim him. Might not sound like the best deal, I admit, but trust me, he’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

“You his little errand boy?” she tried.  It didn’t feel smart, but she was used to mocking those who thought they were above her.

He huffed more in amusement than insult.  “Oh, we occasionally try to make some use of the other.  To get what we want, but mostly, we have an agreement of ignorance being bliss.”  He finished on a low growl.

They exited the alley, and he glance up and down the lane, then turned left.  Etore considered making a break for it, but felt a hand again on her shoulder.  She winced, and followed. He stopped before a door, through which could be heard rowdy music, and the occasional holler or cheer.  The Red Raven was carved in a sign above. A woman lounged along the titular bird’s back. The Clamor grew louder as Camaren opened the door.  She stared him down a moment, but relented to walk in ahead of him.

A bare chested lady was playing a lute on a stage.  Another swirled scarfs through the air, and danced naked, and provocatively amidst the spellbound cloth.  A scarf licked along the player’s cheek, and she leaned into it, which got a chuckle out of the crowd watching the show.  Though some were distracted by women on their laps, or grabbing the occasional rear of a waitress as she tried to serve their drinks.

Etore looked at the scene in bewilderment.

“Move along,” the man said.

A large bare chested man by the door suddenly stood up, displacing the woman in his lap.  He bowed to Camaren, having noticed who had entered. The man regarded the guard coldly, then turned back to Etore again.

“Move along,” he repeated, and Etore did as she was bid.  Her eyes fell to the floor.

“You like what you see?”  The man asked behind her. “You’ll be pretty enough I think.  Clean up quite nicely, when you are old enough. Or at least, when no one asks if you are old enough.”

She turned and gave him a hateful sneer.

“No, no.  Too much fight in you,” he laughed.  “Guess some might like that, but I prefer repeat customers, over dead ones.  Maybe you’d like to kill a few of them. Ones that deserve it of course?”

She shrunk back slightly on her heels.

He just smirked.  “I’ve always found it funny, teach a child to kill, so few bat an eye.  Teach one a gentler way to make a living, and everyone calls you a monster.  Well, who am I to break tradition?” He shrugged. “Follow,” he said his vener of joviality dropping, and walked past her into the back of the establishment.

She followed more timidly.  Trying to let herself blend in amidst the noise, and bluster of the place.  Fade into the background. She wasn’t sure how it worked, just, felt like a way to tense, then relax, and vanish.  To not matter, and if she did not matter, she could do as she pleased. Again, a hand on her shoulder. She stopped, and let the power go.  Though her eyes tried to make sense of of the hand before it slipped away again. She wanted to turn, and see who it was. Who always knew what she was about to do, but thought it wasn’t important, and continued to follow Camaren.

He pushed open a door, and stared a moment through it.  A woman half dressed, and a man scurried out rather frantically.  He shook his head and walked in. Etore hesitated, afraid what she was being lead to.  What kind of establishment the place was giving her no peace.

Etore felt a nudge at her shoulder, and walked forward into a room with a desk, some book shelves, and a cadey of spirits.  The man plucked up a bottle, checked a glass, and poured himself a drink. “So. What will it be? Assassin? Seems fitting to your gifts.  I could send you to a finishing school for courtesans in waiting. Or are you hung up on this thief thing? The pay isn’t good. Well, unless you are very good.”  He took a drink. “Maybe all of the above, if you are good enough.”

Etore grimaced.  She liked none of the options.  She was through being under some man’s thumb.  She had won her freedom, and taken the man’s sword as a prize, and now that had been taken from her.

“You promised my sword back,” Etore challenged him.

“I did.  Though when is an open question.”  He swirled and sipped his drink. “Choose.  I mean there is another option, but I don’t think either us would like that.  Do you?”

“I’m not a killer,” Etore said.  “Just a thief, stealing from the likes of you.”

He sighed, and shook his head.  “There are better targets than me, child.  Certainly wiser ones.” He stood, and straightened himself before finishing his drink.  “Still. Thief, it seems it is. Though I won’t be wasting those skill. Take her to a cell.”

A hand grabbed her shoulder, and pulled her back into the hall.  She was marched down, and then up to an open door. She stared into the dark room, and broke free of the grip holding her.  Something brushed her arm, and when she turned to see what the man behind shoved her through the door. Etore got quickly back to her feet, as her scabbard and sword was thrown in after her.  The door slammed behind it. Etore scrambled to the blade, and clutched it to her chest, wondering what sense there could be in giving it to her. She didn’t feel like the man’s word was worth all that much.

She heard a sound behind her, and rolled to the side through some straw.  She drew her blade, and dropped the scabbard, striking her body low to the ground on instinct.

“You move like a Unka,” a man in the shadows said with a rumble, and he could almost slip from her vision.  “Yet you have no control,” her eyes slipped, and he was behind her, something pointy pressed into her back, a hand holding her shoulder.  The same seemingly gloved hand, though her head struggled with the impression.

“How?” Etore said trembling.

“You see what you think I did.  Where you think I was,” he whispered in her ear with a literal growl.  “Where I would have been, if I kept talking. If I kept lecturing without example.”  He pushed her, and in her position she could not stay upright.

Etore took the force, fell forward, and rolled to face him.  The hooded figure held a wooden short sword pointed at her. He flipped it in his hand, caught the dull blade, and tossed it to her.  She caught it effortlessly.

“Sloppy,” he growled, and she noticed a slight glimmer beneath the hood.  “Three tries.”

“What?” Etore demanded.  She’d caught it, perfectly.

“You don’t even know you are doing it,” the man pulled back his hood as though in shock.  This revealed a head more like an alley cat than a man. Gray with black stripes, and shining amber eyes that glinted in the dim light.  Like a skeletal caricature of a drawing in a book her mother had once brought home.

“Te’myn,” she said in disbelief.

He tilted his head.  “So you know the legends.  So few do these days. Do you know the meaning?”

“True skin,” Etore said with some doubt.

“Such a sense of humors my father’s people,” the man laughed without much humor.  “Calling the smallest number of their kind true skin. I am Tumyn, though most call me Old Tom.  Even when I was a child.” He started to pace around her. “Gray hair, and all that. I’m almost living up to it now.”  He picked at his sharp teeth with a claw.

“Do I take it you intend to train me?” Etore asked.

“Such are my commands.  I get what freedom I have, by obeying.”  He ran his finger along a collar that was clearly enchanted in some way.  “You will do the same, or you will find you have far less pleasant opportunities.”

“Just with this?” Etore asked.

“No, you’ve given master trouble with a single worthwhile blade.  Almost got him with that little enchanted knife, if I hadn’t pulled him out of the way.  I struggle to push him any more. He is a very good student. Use both.” He finished almost dismissively.

Etore switched hands, giving reach to the right, and the lighter more nimble wooden blade to the left.

“Master is right.  Always misdirection.  A true Unka at heart. Perhaps you were one of us, in some other life.  The Ki does not belong to one people, it is the world. We are all her children.”

He took up a sword leaned against the wall, and vanished.  Etore barely blocked the blow as she felt a sting in her shoulder.

“Two tries, sloppy,” he hissed, and swung in rapid succession. Etore blocked, but with each swing she felt a sting.  “Two. Three. Four. Two. Three. Two.” He stopped, and gave what might have been a toothy smile. “One. Good.”

She had caught his blade with her wooden sword.  Both enchanted, and she noticed the glint of steel hidden beneath the wood of his.

“What?” Etore said, and stared at the false training sword’s cutting edge.

“A beating taught you, I think.  I can sense it on you. I know it well.  A cut, teaches far better.” He pulled back, and drew a claw along the sharp blade edge making a slight ring.  “If you fail to even make the move, I pull back. Only had to do that twice. It took master a month to be that good.”

Etore stood cautiously, not sure she understood what he was saying.

“My father was Osmak, life-taker, assassin is your imperial word.  Though a true Unka would never dull their senses with an herb. He was a master of death.  Before he failed to kill a woman he was commanded. Till they fled Sylvan land’s, and were made slaves of Osyraen lords.  Their foolish love torn apart. Bread as the masters pleased. I am his commanded progeny. Sired upon some servant girl the Lady liked to play games with.  Oh the Lady loved her games. To live is to obey. To obey, sometimes, is to kill. Sometimes to make life, or the like.”

“I’m not a killer,” Etore growled.  “Nor a whore.”

“A fool then.” Tumyn struck with fury.

Etore’s skin began to burn with the stings, but she blocked every blow.  Then he vanished, and a sharp pain struck her side.

“I will kill you,” he growled.  “As many times as I have to.”

She dropped the wooden blade in shock, and clutched her side, her hand coming back bloody.  She took the longer real blade in her left hand, and when he struck again each parry brought slashes of pain across her face, her neck, her side.  He would vanish and she would block from the side only to feel a sharp jab into her. She dropped rolled, brought up the training sword again in her right, and caught his swings that grew much more terrifying.  Sweeps skipping, coming from opposing directions, she screamed in fury and frustration, even as she saw six ways to strike. She tried each at once.

Her wooden sword was torn from her hand, and the real sword caught beneath a boot.

“Good,” the cat man huffed.  “Very good,” he said more intently.  He took a measured breath. “I felt that one.”  He smiled, and offered her a hand, even as his sharp blade was still pointed at her face.

She took the hand, and he put his blade away.  “I have been looking for a true apprentice for decades.  Since my father died in the master’s war, and my Lady with him.  Our master will be pleased. When I lie to him. Tell him you have only so much potential as he.  You might even surpass me. Stick to your first hand for now, we will come back to the other instinct.”

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