Authors: Aaron Pogue
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2013 Aaron Pogue
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by 47North
PO Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
For Daniel, who saw what I was missing
In the high desert south of Jepta, where the sand and sheiks alike wore blinding white, the man at the edge of the market crowd stood out like a signal fire. He bore the fine, sharp features and the haughty, bored expression of a lord, but even dressed in silk he had the manner of a rogue. He wore only loose black pants and a bright-red sash and the plain thong sandals of a sailor.
On his hip he wore a cutlass, not the heavy scimitars and long, curved knives native to this sun-seared land. And in his hand he held a velvet bag, straining with its weight in thick-edged coins. It was his outlandish dress that drew servants and slaves from all across the camp to gawk, but the bag of gold drew at least as much attention. This was, after all, a place for doing business.
At the very center of the crowd, a dozen hulking guards defined the edges of a circle occupied by nearly naked men in chains. Through all the civilized lands of Hurope, slave trade was forbidden, but no king among the Godlanders could reach this far into the high desert. Today two hundred souls would find new masters, and tomorrow this place would be nothing but dunes.
And of course there were more than a few among the white-robed men who served as agents of the Godlanders. Some few noblemen even came from the gentler lands up north to make their own transactions. But one and all, they came in careful disguise.
Now their precautions only magnified the strangeness of the man at the edge of the crowd. Though no one looked his way, everyone’s curiosity was fixed on him. Fair as a Godlander nobleman, tan as a lowborn dockworker, and entirely out of place among this crowd.
Who was he? He held far more interest to the crowd than the broken slaves upon the block. In whispered rumors he was called the pirate king, and whether here to buy or sell, everyone watched to see what he intended.
He intended nothing more than to start rumors. Ethan Blake was only here as a distraction.
* * *
Far across the camp, a man in even stranger costume stole between the tents, this one dressed in black from head to toe, with a heavy cloak despite the cruel sun. Captain Corin of the black flag
moved like a shadow on the sands, gliding among the low, tan tents until he found the one he wanted. It was the largest in the sprawling market camp. The man in black looked both directions, then lifted the tent’s flap and slipped inside.
Corin blinked against the sudden darkness. The air inside the tent was thick and foul with the stench of cruel captivity and noisy with the moans and misery of those still waiting to be sold. The captain pressed his lips tight and hoped he could find what he needed here.
Before Corin’s eyes could adjust to the gloom, a heavy hand crashed down on his shoulder and spun him in half a circle. He stared wide-eyed into the close, dark face of an armed guard. It was a face stitched with scars and missing more than a handful of teeth from its evil grin. “You are not the first who’s tried to gain an advantage with a little stealth, my friend.”
Corin grunted, abandoning a futile struggle. Instead, he flashed a disarming smile and shrugged. “You can hardly fault me for trying.”
“It is a breach of the Agreement of the Sands.” The voice like gravel showed no hint of understanding.
Corin paled. “And what…what’s the punishment for that?”
“You must leave this place. We will trade with you no more.”
Corin sniffed in cold disdain. “From what I’ve seen, I do not wish to trade with you anyway. I’ll gladly leave—”
The guard’s grip never lessened on his shoulder. “There is more, my friend. I say you will leave this place, and you will leave it three pounds lighter than you arrived. Gold or silver will suffice.”
The gap-toothed grin flashed again. “From time to time, there have been those who could not pay the fines.”
“And did you show them mercy?”
“We found a compromise.” The guard made a slashing chop with the edge of his left hand, stopping just above his own right elbow. “Three pounds.” He made another chopping motion, this time striking just below the right knee. “Three pounds. We compromise.”
Corin stared. After a moment, he smiled weakly. “Silver. I…I can pay in silver.”
“You would be surprised how many can.”
“But all my coin is with my camel.”
“I will come along,” the guard said amiably. “I do not mind the effort.”
Corin moved as if to leave, and at last the guard released his shoulder. But Corin hesitated, one hand on the tent’s flap, then threw a last look back over his shoulder.
His eyes were finally adjusted, and in a glance he saw what he had come for. Iryana. She knelt in a corner, all alone. Even the other slaves would not go near her. Her dark skin still showed the bruises from her mistreatment at the slavers’ hands, and all the filth could not conceal the stain of blood.
But she was undiminished, staring straight at Corin with eyes bright and harsh against the gloom. There was no pleading in them, no forgiveness or accusation, not even hope. There was only an unyielding, unspoken demand.
Corin rolled his eyes, then turned back to the guard. “Listen…may I ask your name?”
“I am called Razeen.”
“Of course you are. Razeen, the agreement
already broken. If I must pay three pounds of silver, will you at least allow me the transgression I am paying for?”
“You have already stayed here far too long.”
“So moments more will barely count at all. I
yet find another pound of silver…”
The guard glared for a long moment, then he grunted. “Two more.”
Corin nodded right away. Razeen nodded back and tapped Corin’s shoulder. “Five pounds, then. One way or another.”
Razeen returned to his place just inside the tent and stood watching his new benefactor. Corin licked his lips and turned away, pretending to survey the whole crowd of waiting slaves. At last he made a show of noticing the girl alone. He cocked his head in curiosity, then drifted her direction. The unfortunates he passed did not cry out to him. They shrank away, trembling, and he was grateful for that. He had no wish to meet their eyes.
He couldn’t have met their eyes. Iryana held his gaze. Her eyes were dark and commanding. Corin stopped, standing over her, and spoke under his breath in the civilized language of his homeland.
“I warned you not to run away.”
She shrugged one shoulder like a queen, despite her chains, and answered in imperfect Ithalian, “I am a prisoner either way.”
Corin looked around. “I kept you better than this.”
“A slave is a slave. At least this way I will earn someone some silver.”
“We would have found far more than silver at Jezeeli.”
“You are a fool for thinking it. Jezeeli is a place of tragic loss. It is not a treasure trove.”
Corin grinned. “Care to prove me wrong?”
“You do not have wealth enough to win me from this place!”
He shrugged. “I know a trick or two.”
“You cannot beat these men with tricks. They only answer to violence and gold.”
Corin turned in place, feigning one last measuring look over the slaves there, but the guard Razeen beckoned impatiently with one hand and made a vicious chop with the other. Corin’s time was spent.
“I’ve paid in gold enough to learn my tricks,” Corin said, almost offhand. “And more than a little violence. I think I can handle a few slavers.”
Iryana laughed in dark contempt, but Corin wasn’t listening. He was counting time, waiting for his cue.
In the distance, someone screamed.
The guard spun, concerned, and Corin acted fast. He knelt by Iryana, hands searching for the locks that bound her. He found them open, dangling from the loose ends of her shackles. Iryana raised her hands, showing off, and said, “You are not the only one with clever tricks.”
He grinned. “That’s why I came for you. Now close your eyes.”
Instead of answering, he swung his heavy cloak around them both, dragging her head beneath it. Then he stabbed his free arm up, scattering a cloud of silvery dust that hung suspended in the air. The powder glowed with a brilliant light, soft and clean and beautiful as it drifted out to fill the wide tent.
Then it exploded with a roar like thunder and a searing burst painful even in the shadow of his cloak. Corin didn’t wait. He caught the woman’s wrist in one hand and drew a dagger in the other.
Two quick slashes carved an exit in the tent’s fabric, and Corin and the girl emerged in sunlight nearly as painful as the silver flare. The shouts and screams that had been Corin’s cue still rang within the camp, but for the moment they were distant, near the auction block.