In my non-existent free time, I like to play role-playing games of various sorts.
The memory of Dungeons and Dragons dulls many interests when the subject comes up. That was over 40 years ago. Today there are many new, innovative games that push the boundaries of gaming, going so far as to attempt social change around the world. Many are creator owned, and the cottage industry is a wellspring of diversity, inclusiveness and vibrant creativity.
That said, sometimes, a body just wants the comfort of familiar things, and so I play in my old Dungeons and Dragons group, and there is something like community in the familiar ritual of dice with many faces, character sheets and pencils. I have been gaming for nearly 20 years, and I don’t intent to stop till they put me in a grave.
One of my favorite things about gaming, is the amount of creativity that comes out of it. Often, gaming requires one to come up with backgrounds, for characters, for scenarios, new situations. Some of the more innovative new games go so far as to include all the players into the narrative role, granting them god-like powers to expand the story and fill out the world – a privilege usually reserved only to one person in older games, the one guiding the game.
In our current, recently rebooted game, I’ve recently started playing a new character and wrote up a brief background for him. Often, I find that this kind of writing is very effective in getting me to empathize and connect deeply with a character. Ultimately, my favorite thing about gaming is the deep sense of immersion in character (and story, and world) that lifts one from this reality into another, for a few brief hours. Not because something is lacking in this one, but rather, to search out a new horizon.
Here, then, is what I came up with.
Copper and Gold
I was born and called Hakim. Of my mother and father, I know nothing. The first memories I have are of the garden within the hall.
The great hall was my home, and my siblings were other children of monstrous coupling. We did not know ourselves to be any different from others. There were blue-skinned girls and red-skinned boys, others with horns, and tails, and feathers, and wisps of air for fingers, or the voices of bells. We were each one of us, unique and beautiful, and we knew only the song and dance of children.
The smell of Jasmine and roses still reminds me of home. I call it home, though it was in truth a prison, if well disguised. There were water fountains that kept the flat-stoned gardens cool. Tall walls gave shade except at the height of day, and the mango and fig trees laden with jasmine vines over rose bushes filled the air with a sweet scent that smothered the rancid smells of great Katheer. If there were no windows, we did not notice them for the great open garden in the middle of our hall.
There were older children with us, who instructed us, as they were instructed themselves by the humans who came with food and clothing, smiling men and women with weapons on their belt. There, I learned that if you wish to keep a slave complacent, give him pleasure. It is a better trap than all the tortures heaped upon a soul. Pleasure removes rebellion, it culls the desire for freedom and so I was a model prisoner, along with all my siblings, all twenty of us, obedient, faithful, happy and beautiful.
For ten years we grew up without mother or father, only a train of teachers. There was daily recitation of song and poetry, writing in calligraphy and reading of the works of history and story. Some of us did better than others. From an early age, I cared little for the written word but rather, for running and climbing. Even the dancing had too much order to it, step just so, move just there – a furnace in my stomach drove me to run, and I did, convinced I could scale walls and leap mountains. My instructions then turned from the written word to the physical arts. I was trained to move with weapons, dodge attacks, and scale obstacles, until my body was as lean and hard as an animal. I stood out among my peers, my body rivaled their minds in its training and natural ability. As such, I was something of a loner, deprived of the most obvious commonality.
Among my lovely siblings, there was one who came to my side nevertheless. Zubina’s gold skin, spiraling horns and ridged forehead were as monstrous as mine, but her features were gentle and her heart even more tender. Her dark eyes could frighten at a glance, but she wanted only to smile and I collected flowers for her and suffered my lashings for taking them, because I knew how much she loved them. Even as I shirked my lessons, she sat with me and taught me at least enough to pass my master’s tests. She healed me when I was injured or wounded, there was something divine within her that channeled a healing power but it was her secret as my fire was hers.
I loved her even then, but with the love of a child, innocent and perfect in its understanding of loyalty.
At the age of ten, we were, each of us, assigned a role.
I was happy to finally stop the book learning and began to receive my weapons training. Zubina spent her days with the scholars, in their long white bears and black robes, studying the complexities of language, mathematics, and the working of illusions.
Slowly, the nature of our prison began to take shape.
The older children began to vanish as we replaced them, one by one. Rumors began to circulate among the few that remained. As if crossing an unseen threshold, we were privy to the knowledge of the older prisoners, knowledge they had kept from us as if to spare our happiness a while longer. This was no more than a breeding school for exotic slaves. A place that taught beautiful monsters civility and obedience so that wealthy merchants or nobles could add us to their retinue and impress their peers.
Some part of me bristled at the idea, but a lifetime of servitude suppressed the rage. So long as I remained with Zubina, I would be happy. But what if we were separated? Sold to separate masters? The thought was terrifying.
We met that night beneath the fig trees. Zubina smiled at my rage, my fear and cooled my temper. “Is that what you want, for us to remain together? Is that all?” She laughed, as if the puzzle were already solved.
“How can you be sure we will be sold together?”
She shrugged, “Hakim, you spend all day with that sour guard, training, and you miss the whispers between people. My teacher in illusions is fond of me, and found someone kind to purchase me. So long as you do exactly as I say when the moment comes, we will be together.”
I listened, and began to repeat the words as she spoke them. We were thirteen and I knew then that I loved her as a boy loves a girl.
Osman bin’Eisa came to the gardens a month later, a fat smiling man with perfumed robes and a fawning seneschal at his heels. He met with Zubina with all proper decorum, as an uncle might meet a favorite niece. I heard her voice ringing each couplet clearly, answering his riddles with charming grace and making a small rosebud appear between her fingertips and then making it bloom.
The fat man applauded, bidding her to rise, ready to purchase my love. I wished I could bury a sword through his throat, set him aflame and watch the fire eat his oiled head, I wished I could knock down the walls and escape across the clouds and roofs with her. Instead, I sat in my place and watched quietly, my nails digging into my palm.
Then his eyes turned to me. He gestured with one hand and I bent to one knee before him.
“This creature is grace itself manifest,” he hummed, stroking his beard in long strokes, “But she insists upon your company for security. Tell me child of fire, can you protect her from the world outside?”
“I will drink the assassin’s poison before it reaches her lips, scatter the mob before it lays a hand on her and turn the scourge of the zealot against his own breast, my master.”
It was the oath of a bodyguard to its master.
We moved to his manor two days later. My sword-master gifted me with my scimitar, a lean and plain weapon, with a heavy blade and a round pommel. “You’re not worthy of this yet,” he said, “But carry it with you and maybe in time you will be.”
We exchanged one prison for another. A year passed, and I was my love’s guard.
I stood at her door when she slept, and attended her at court where she charmed the minister’s audience. She was Gold to my Copper, rare to my common, rich to my poverty, but I care nothing for all the japes. We lived together, and loved each other for it. The bars of the prison were thick, but braided with flowers. If the world beyond the windows and walls ever called, I closed my ears to it.
Zubina, however, began to grow restless. She talked about the lands beyond the city, about freedom from the walls, freedom to do as we wished. “We could be our own masters,” she would say at night, gazing into the sky as if she wanted the stars themselves to float us to freedom, and I would hold her close and her wishes died in her throat.
Everything changed when Osman’s son arrived from his journey into the east.
Karim was a young man, full of lust and his desire was Zubina. At first the courting was polite, and cordial. Zubina turned him down, with all the grace and beauty that was possible, even debasing herself and claiming herself to be unworthy of his attention by virtue of her low birth. In the presence of other equals, it was impossible for him to continue the pursuit, and he demurred.
But at night, in the dark, with no one to see, his lust was his master. He came and I turned him away. He fumed and flared, ordered me away and I stood my ground. He threatened and bribed, and I shook my head. It was the beginning of the end.
I knew something was wrong when I saw her the next day after court. “I’m to be taken to the women’s quarters,” she said. A simple, but clever gesture. She was to be moved from the serving rooms to the household. An honor, to be sure. The household, where I could not follow, where I could not stand at her door, where she would be subject to Karim’s lust.
“We leave tonight,” I said, and she nodded.
For all his faults, Osman was a gentle man. His guards were placid, his security lax, and that night we found ourselves on the roof, for the first time seeing the seedy sprawl of the city we had called home all our lives. We had Zubina’s jewelry to sell, and my sword. It was all we needed, other than each other.
We ran and jumped from terrace to terrace, hiding from the simple patrols, until Karim arrived.
“I’m not as big a fool as my father,” he said, and drew his weapon.
“We don’t have time,” Zubina said, “We have to go.”
“Then run,” I said. If it meant my death for her freedom, then so be it. But she did not go, she could not, any more than I could leave her.
Karim fell on me, and it took all my skill to keep him at bay. Zubina harried him with magic, distracting him, pushing him, even as I tried to wound but he was a grown man and skilled warrior. The battle lasted too long, the guards heard and came, we had an audience that did not dare to interfere. Now Karim was fighting for blood, he wanted to make me a lesson, and he began to cut me left and right, across my face, a line of blood in my ribs, a nick across my hand, another up my arm, my clothes in bloody tatters, I stumbled, he threw the sword out of my hand into the street below and towered above me.
Behind him, I saw Zubina lunge, her dagger pierced his back, and he shook, shocked with pain, I reached up with hands that erupted in fire. He screamed, a living torch as he was enveloped, his hair and clothes took light. I stepped aside to let his twitching, flaming body fall onto the street below. We killed our first man together, in dishonor.
I turned to take Zubina’s hand, to outrun the guards, but she stumbled, two arrows found their mark, bloody points piercing through her chest. She smiled, and blood pooled in her mouth, ran down her chin. “I will see you again,” she said, “I swear it. Run.”
More arrows flew and one dug into my arm, spun me around and I was falling. All my training kicked me, and by luck or fortune, I found a rope to hang on to, to scramble down the wall and then into the street, with Zubina’s dying face swimming in my wet eyes. I ran to the docks, and slipped onto a ship, hiding in its hold.
They did not find me for five days, already far out to sea beyond the reach of my master. At first, they wanted to throw me overboard, but I had Zubina’s jewels and to my shame, I traded them for passage. As I made my way to Port Peril, I learned what had happened after my leave. My name and face were quickly made known around the city. A slave that slew his master. A bounty was on my head, and hunters would come to collect.
I changed my name, grew out my flaming hair and tried to become another man. I wish only to be free from all constraints, I found that fire blood within waking up at last. The open sea took a hold at last, the endless horizon promising utter autonomy and I wanted nothing more than that.
But who wants a devil for a sailor? Most men in this forsaken corner of the world are too superstitious to know the difference, there is no devil nor demon blood in me, only the fires of the Efreet. So I stay in this small alcove above the inn, rigging ropes and mending sails for ships in dock, climbing ropes to fly flags and running messages, trying to find work on a ship that will not fear me for my look.
Each night, I lay awake, staring into a strange sky, wondering about Zubina’s last words.
Did she lie, so I could live? Perhaps her injury was not mortal, perhaps she still lived, as a prisoner but alive. Dare I return to rescue her some day? Or did she mean something else? Had she learned some secret, from her own half-demon past or her divine nature, to be reborn elsewhere, or to reappear somehow in another place or time? Did she find her freedom after all? Does she search for me even now? Or does she wait?
So many questions. The sea was an answer to all of them. One day, I will be free, and one day, I will find my love, in whatever prison or hell she might be.