Oberon's Dreams - By Aaron Pogue


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 Diavahl 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.”

“Three pounds of silver?”

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.”