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Red as Coals, Black as Night Chapter 3
Jose spent about three weeks of leisure at the castle, freshening up his fighting skills with Lenrafas, joking with Kar, and waiting for the summons he knew would come any day. Neither he nor Kar talked about what had transpired his first night back. Though they would both never forget it, there was no reason to talk about it.
One day, after a particularly successful fencing bout with Lenrafas, he retired to his chambers. When he reached them, he found a sealed note. It was sealed with the king’s coat of arms, a black and red snake with bears’ paws and horses’ legs, rearing on a red-brown field. Red-brown like dried blood.
When Jose opened the note, it turned out to be a missive directly from Shalamar. It said to meet him in his chambers the next morning at four hours past dawn. Plenty of time for Jose to wake up and get ready. The missive said there was something important that needed to be discussed.
This made Jose uneasy. “Something important” had an ominous sound to it when it came from Shalamar’s lips. He spent the remaining hour wondering what Shalamar wanted to discuss. Then he went to bed, but it was hours before he could go to sleep. When he finally did, it wasn’t an easy one.
He had a very odd dream. He was sitting in the middle of a large, dusty, red-brown plain. In front of him was a viper, but it was standing. Standing on horses' legs with bears’ paws.
The mutated viper turned when it heard his soft footsteps. You it hissed furiously. Why did you have to come back? You were meant to die! You weren’t supposed to survive!
Jose replied that it hadn’t been his fault. He hadn’t known he should die. In real life he might have been alarmed, but in dreams everything made a sort of sense.
The viper glared at him. Then it gave an expression that would have been pursing lips if it had any. Never mind it growled. You’ll be dead and gone soon enough.
Then he was suddenly in an empty, dusty corner of a large town. He was staring at a Shanese that was quickly advancing upon him. The Shanese was tall, even for one of them. Suddenly, a silver dagger flashed, and his neck was on fire. Then everything went red.
Jose woke in his soft bed, sweating. He threw off the blankets, then went to the window to see what time it was. Judging by the position of the sun, he would say it was about two and a half hours after dawn. He still had some time.
Going to the washbasin, Jose cleaned his face, wiping off the sweat. It was as if he also wiped off his fear with that gesture. Then he observed his reflection in the small mirror above the basin.
If not for his height and color, Jose would have been handsome. He had a broad forehead and calm, level eyes. His cheekbones were high, his eyebrows arched, his nose straight, and his lips full and wide. His skin was smooth and his limbs were well proportioned and well muscled. His looks were bafflement to the Shanese. Though they were a very proud race, they did not fool themselves that they were beautiful. While they looked for the strongest and most inhuman of the women, they did not look for attractiveness. To choose a girl merely because she was pretty would be foolish. Jose combed back his inky hair, pondering.
When he was finished washing up, he went to a chest in the corner and drew out a clean set of robes. They always wore robes, to protect them from the sun. Though the richer Shanese often adorned the robes with silver lace around the cuffs, or red cuffs and collars, the robes were always black. Though it was often terribly warm, it was more convenient. The black color threw the skin into shadow, hiding the fact that their skin was entirely black. Black also did not stand out against black skin like other colors did. The only difference between the robes they wore around the castle and those they wore when they went out to human villages was that those worn around the castle had no cowls. They did not need to conceal their faces here.
Jose put on his robes, then checked his appearance in the mirror. Everything was in place except his stupid hair. It wasn’t curly or straight, but wavy, and constantly getting out of place. Jose wet it crossly, cursing it for the time it was making him lose.
When it was finally under control, he checked out the window again. Three and a half hours past dawn. It was time to go. Though Shalamar’s Reception Room was close to Jose’s chambers, and he still had some time left, Shalamar liked people to be early, and the castle was large.
He arrived at the room ten minutes early. As Jose walked through the large double doors, he saw Shalamar just dismissing two warriors who, from what Jose had heard, had come to complain about the recent quality of weapons.
Shalamar turned around to face him as Jose approached. “Josalin!” he called. His voice was curiously high on certain letters, with the faintest hint of a lisp. It made some of his words almost sound like hissing. “Nice of you to come early. How about we retire to my private chambers?”
Jose smiled faintly. “Fine by me,” Jose replied. Shalamar’s lips twisted just the slightest bit down. Jose could see that Shalamar didn’t like comparing his own high voice to Jose’s deep baritone.
They walked out of the spacious room, into the dark hallways, Jose following Shalamar at a respectful distance. As he did so, he inspected his master’s face to see if it had changed at all.
Shalamar had a very odd face. His black hair was pin straight and, unlike Jose, who wore his hair cropped just below his earlobes, it came down to his shoulders. There were several silver strands running through his dark hair, for he was one hundred thirty five years old. No Shanese’s hair turned white. It was too pure.
His forehead was very tall, but very narrow; and creased with lines. His eyebrows were bushy and perfectly straight. The nose was very large and hooked. His lips were in odd contrast, the upper one being so thin as to be invisible, the bottom one almost as full as Jose’s. His slightly sucked-in cheeks were topped by very sharp cheekbones.
His chin was sharp but fleshy. Jose often thought that one could cut with a chin as sharp as that. Shalamar was tall, but not quite as tall as Jose. If this annoyed him, his face didn’t show it.
Yet, despite these impressive features, the queerest thing about Shalamar was his eyes. They were red, like any Shanese’s, but they were…dull. Lifeless. Or, more accurately, emotionless. His face did not display a single feeling, whether it was hate, rage, surprise, or contentment. His voice was the same. No matter what it was saying, it was always toneless, uncaring. While all the Shanese were heartless, cruel things, they had companions. They found friends amongst themselves, like Jose and Kar had. But Shalamar didn’t. Shalamar was a true stranger to emotion. Jose often wondered whether he even knew what the word “friend” meant. He usually thought of Shanese’s hearts as minuscule, dried up things, which would explain why it was so easy for them to kill without regret. Shalamar wasn’t like that. Jose was fairly certain he didn’t have a heart.
Finally they reached the door to Shalamar’s private chambers. A silver plaque was nailed to the door. On it Shalamar’s name rested, surrounded by his emblem. Jose stared at the name in envy. Others who did not like him had often made fun of his feminine-sounding name. No one would ever say the name Shalamar was feminine. It was the perfect name for a Shanese, especially the ruler of them all. While it may not be as openly hostile and cruel-sounding as, say, Rasashion(Rah-sah-shyone), who was around Jose’s age, it had a bitter undertone, a sense of wrongness and evil that was more subtle, but seemed so obvious once you realized it. Very much like the snake that symbolized him. Approaching quietly, then striking you from behind instead of facing you head-on. Jose had heard from a few elderly Shanese that Shalamar had originally wanted a lion that only had a serpent’s tail as his emblem, but the elders had reminded him that the male lion was lazy, sitting around doing nothing while the lionesses hunted. Shalamar had not wanted to be represented by a female creature. So he had chosen the snake.
The slight creaking of the door aroused Jose, tearing him from his far-away thoughts. Shalamar stared at the door, then remarked, “I had better get the servants to oil the door. Clearly they haven’t yet done so.” Then he continued on into the room.
Shalamar, being the king, had very, very large chambers. What he led Jose into was only one small part, resembling an office. This was where he took those he wanted to discuss private matters with.
He sat at a large, upholstered chair behind a desk made of pale and dark wood. He gestured at Jose to sit at the chair across from him which, though it was not as fancy as the other, was still a very nice, expensive chair. Jose accepted the seat with a polite nod. He noted that the other chair’s superior height made Shalamar on a level with Jose.
Shalamar studied him with those expressionless, unreadable eyes. It was very quiet. Finally he said, “How many have you killed now, Jose?”
Jose started. That wasn’t what he’d been expecting. “Thirty, Majesty,” he replied evenly. “Counting the one I killed three weeks ago.”
“Thirty.” Shalamar mused. “In only eighteen years. This is a record unheard of before, Jose.” Jose nodded, keeping his face blank. Where was this going?
“You are probably wondering why I have called you here,” he continued. As if he had read Jose’s mind! Or his face. Sometimes Jose could wipe the emotion clean from his face, and sometimes it was as clear on his face as if someone had written it there.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he replied. Why had Shalamar called him here? Jose supposed he was about to find out.
Shalamar sat back in his chair with a sigh. “You are an excellent warrior, Jose.” He said softly. “And you are calm, level-headed, and intelligent, a rare combination among us. As you have shown, that combination can prove deadly.”
“There have been reports from the middle-eastern region of Linua (Lee-nwah). Very strange reports. Tales of a woman who is tall, though no one knows quite how tall since she always walks as hunched as possible, as if to mask her true height, and who wears a black cloak and cowl, very similar to ours, whenever she is in public. Such tales may seem ridiculous to others, but I remember that oftentimes the Gifted Ones look slightly different than other people, perhaps a bit prettier, maybe with stronger features. This one probably didn’t want people to see her face. But that’s your job.”
The right side of Shalamar’s lips turned down in a frown. The expression looked odd on his face, as if his lips had moved without his brain telling them to. “Strange tales…” he murmured, looking into the distance. Then he refocused on Jose. “Though this one is too careful to let anyone see her power, I am sure she is a Gifted One. No one has seen her power, but one of the things our informers say is that wherever she goes, plants flourish.” Informers were humans the Shanese paid to search for rumors of Gifted Ones. If they did well, they went home with a full purse. If they didn’t…they didn’t come home at all. Oblivious to Jose’s train of thought, Shalamar went on. “If controlling plants is her power, then you must indeed be careful. Not a Shanese alive today is immune to it. It is a very rare power.”
“How rare?” Jose inquired curiously. Some powers were often seen, some not as much.
Shalamar raised an eyebrow. This, too, looked odd. Then he said in that high, lisping voice, “To give you an idea, this is the third time it has been encountered in four thousand years.”
Jose whistled softly. “Wow,” he remarked. Three times in four thousand years. That was less than once a millennia. “And you want me to kill her.” He stated. It wasn’t a question.
Shalamar nodded. “We certainly cannot let even a rumor of such a powerful Gifted One go unchecked. She was last seen in the town of Curov (Kyer-ove), and she seems to be traveling north. If you went for Curov, by the time you got there she would probably already be far ahead of you. So aim for one of the cities farther north, maybe Saleen or Bazlo. Remember this is near the border of our land, Linua, and Torcom (Tore-cumm). This added to my belief in her abilities, for what sane girl would travel all alone along the border of two so uneasy countries without the assurance of special powers?”
This time Jose nodded. “No sane girl,” he agreed. “When do I set out?” He guessed that Shalamar would want him to set out quickly, for he did not like his subjects to dally.
He was right. “At noon, three days from now,” Shalamar replied. “That should give you plenty of time to pack for your journey. I assure you, it will be a long one. Though not nearly as big as her brother Torcom, Linua is quite large, and we are near the middle of it. The girl is at the end. My guess is that it will take you at least four weeks to reach her. If not more.”
Jose knew Shalamar’s guess was fairly accurate. He just wished he were traveling the other direction, west, toward Linua’s smaller, western neighbor, Jaswid (Jos-wid). Right now Torcom and Linua were not at all friendly. Linua’s human king, Ryant (Rie-int), was slightly mad, thin as a beanpole because he barely ever ate, and determined to make his subjects harvest crops that belonged to Torcom, to fill the royal stores which, with a king who ate so little, were barely ever used. As a result, Torcom was very upset with Linua, which meant trouble. Linua wasn’t half as large or as powerful as Torcom. And they couldn’t count on any help from Jaswid, because the Jaswidian monarchs knew that Torcom had reason to be angry. Vun(Voon) and Pilale(Pih-lah-lay) were too small to offer real assistance, and even if they did, Torcom would trample them with ease. Jose guessed that unless, as it was hoped, the Linuan king died, there would be war. And Linua would lose. So yes, this did make it far more likely that the girl had a gift. No one without special means of protection would be traveling along the border.
Shalamar clearly saw what he was thinking about. “Good thing you’re a Shanese, Jose. Any non-special human there is in trouble. But it’s the girl you should worry about. Without immunity to her power, she could be very difficult to kill.”
Jose frowned. “Your Majesty, with all due respect, why did you pick me for this?” he wondered. “I’m honored, but why didn’t you pick one of the more experienced warriors? In human terms, I’m barely eighteen.”
Shalamar’s expression was smooth as glass, like always. “The way you get experience is by doing things, Jose,” he said. “And despite your age, you are a fierce warrior. You are better at blending in, as best you can, than others. It will make it easier for you to determine the girl’s ability and kill her.” These words, so plain and uncaring, left Jose feeling slightly cold inside. ”Lastly, you are very close to the throne. Should I be killed, you would rule. You need to show others you can take on such a difficult task. Is that enough reason for you?”
Jose realized he had been dismissed. He bowed, said, “Yes, Your Majesty,” and made to leave. As he turned, he thought he saw something like eagerness glint in Shalamar’s blank eyes. And, though he may have imagined it, as he left Shalamar’s rooms by the door with the silver plaque it looked like the snake was laughing at him.