The Red Wall

“You don’t have to do this, you know, Linza. We can find another way.”

“He killed my father as well as your brother, Rashid. Six bodies all in a row … There is no other way. The Emir dies tonight.”

“Then let somebody else go. You are young – you have your whole life ahead of you!”

“No. I am the skinniest, the sneakiest and the best shot with a bow. I can do this.”

Rashid looked down fondly on the girl. Only nineteen years old, she was already braver than half of the full grown men he knew. Like everyone else in the slums, she had a perpetual second skin of filth, and yet a light shone through the grime. There was a stubbornness to her, a set to her jutting chin and cocked head that said that she would not take no for an answer, would never take no for an answer. Only a few loose tendrils of tar-black hair marred her square-jawed, pockmarked face; a practical girl, she had tied the rest back in a tight bun that seemed to tug her dark-skinned face taut.

“Besides,” added Linza in her husky, abrupt tones, “I’m getting used to taking this potion now. I took it once before, you know, to test it. I stole some food.”

“Very well then,” Rashid acceded grudgingly, his creased, dark-skinned face not easing in the slightest. “You remember the plan?”

“We just went over it a moment ago, Rashid. It’s not witchcraft. I think I can remember to find and kill the wizards first so as to let the rest of you in. I’m not senile.”

A chuckle rippled through the gathering clustered in the bazaar. People stopped and stared at the score of rag-clad men and women huddled together incongruously among the kettles and urns in the teashop. It did not matter, thought Rashid; there were no proper guards down here in the slums, only a meagre militia formed by concerned citizens. There was no one to stop or arrest them. He looked around at the faces of those gathered, some striped in penumbrae by the pink latticework overhead, some under the shadow of the stall’s awning; one and all, faces he trusted with his life. Rebels, the city guard would call them. He termed them heroes. If tonight went as planned, he hoped the whole of the city of Hashmam would hail them as such by morning.

“Very well,” Rashid said again, inclining his head to Linza in acknowledgement, his voice mellifluous, euphonic to her ears. “I wanted only to be sure. Are you ready then?”

“She is now,” came another voice, high and strained with age. “The potion is ready, Linzi.” A warty woman who looked as old as the sun in the sky shuffled into the room, hunched as if she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. Brocaded blankets swaddled her, and she jangled with brass bijouterie as she moved. A smoking pipe hung out of her mouth, and the sweet smell of baui smoke pervaded the stall. “Be careful with it. And remember – the charm will only last an hour or so.” She handed a small, stoppered glass vial to the girl, the dark skin of her hand looking washed out next to the rich mahogany of the younger woman’s. “I’m sorry I cannot do more to help, but the Gods have seen fit to put limits on my knowledge. Cretins.”

Linza allowed a smile to contort her face for a brief moment. She held up the vial before tucking it away in a pocket of her short breeches. “This is all I need, Sangoma, thank you. And don’t speak so about the Gods – we may need their blessing before the night is through.”

“Thank you, Sangoma Saraya,” Rashid repeated, and a reverent murmur ran through the rest of the group as they too added their thanks in low voices. “Well then,” concluded Rashid, sweeping the faces with his gaze, “let us go and make history. Perhaps we will be the spark that sets the revolutionary fire that frees the entirety of the Babese Sultanate. Perhaps tomorrow will dawn a brighter day! Come now, my friends, to the wall!”

Rashid could tell his comrades would have cheered if they weren’t trying to be discreet. The sun waned.

*

Linzamin Kwamfuta padded softly along the street, Rashid and the rest of the rebels at her heels. Sangoma Saraya they had left at the teashop. The sun was a half-closed eye now, drooping behind the horizon slow as treacle, rendering Hashmam awash in crimson and gold. In the slums where they walked, the terraced buildings rose high on either side of every street, blocking out the light in squared uniformity. Ahead of them, though, they could see the slim minarets, elegant domes and soaring spires of the inner city, all glittering like rubies in the light of the perishing sun, all hidden behind the red wall.

The red wall was the bane of the slum folk’s existence, the focus for their hatred, the symbol of their oppression. Behind the red wall hid Emir Majumba Jash Ibm Khoruumfo and the elite, the rich and influential, in the lap of luxury. Outside the red wall, the common people were left to their own devices, left to war with one another and starve to death amidst crime and disease. Like everybody in the slums, Linza hated the red wall. 

Made of red bricks, it was not the physical wall itself that so stymied those in the slums; it was the ethereal, the invisible, that stumped them, for the red wall was imbued with potent arcane energies. These enchantments, invisible to the naked eye though they were, were powerful enough to ward off any who sought unsolicited entrance to the inner city, powerful enough to resist any and every attempt made to breach them. Hundreds of men and women had tried to climb over or break through or tunnel under the wall since its erection, but none had succeeded, all thrown back by the bizarre barrier. As if a wall of impenetrable glass continued above the red wall, nothing could pierce the shield; thrown stones and other projectiles bounced off thin air like they had hit iron.

Tonight, however, they were not trying to go over or break through or tunnel under the magical barrier. They had a new stratagem in mind.

They halted a street away from the one and only gate leading into the inner city, the one spot where the eldritch shield did not hold sway. The city of Hashmam was a horseshoe that cupped the inner city, which was itself set against a craggy escarpment at its back. The gate leading inside was set at the horseshoe’s apex and was perhaps the most heavily guarded point in the entire city, for it was not just a gate but a barbican. Twin domed towers rose like stone sentinels on either side of the entryway, which funnelled those making ingress through a narrow stone corridor where murder holes to either side would allow defenders to attack with spear and arrow and grates overhead would allow boiling oil to be dumped on any invading force. Heavily armoured men buzzed around the checkpoint like bees in a hive, one stationed at every other step. 

Linza’s upper lip curled into an involuntary snarl as she eyed them; the Emir’s personal force, they had been responsible for hanging her father and the rest of his militia squad. Six bodies all in a row on the gallows … They had announced that the squad had been mutinous, that one of them had been discovered to harbour designs on the Emir’s life, and that all of them had summarily been sentenced to death. Linza had known her father well; he had been no rebel. He had died meaninglessly for another man’s crime – or potential crime, she amended. The executioners had never supplied any evidence; she suspected it had been mere paranoia on the Emir’s part that had caused the squad’s deaths.

Whether her father had planned to or not, it was certain now that Linzamin Kwamfuta fully intended to kill the Emir.

“Here, I honed it for you like you asked.” Rashid proffered Linza a small rusty knife – her rusty knife.

“Thank you, Rashid.” She took the weapon, gazing into his unusual light blue eyes with her own dark pair. “I … Take care. I will see you soon.”

He smiled nervously. “I should be telling you to take care. You are the one walking naked into the Dragon’s maw.”

She nodded, gritting her teeth to stop them from chattering, though it was not cold. It was a warm night in Hashmam, as usual.

They waited and watched the barbican until the sun had set, its last crimson fingers had faded and the stars began to glow in the indigo firmament.

Then, Rashid said, “It is time. Are you ready, Linza?”

She nodded and managed to spit out, “Ready.”

Rashid nodded. “Then, we will go and rally our forces. We will meet you at the arranged location in two hours.”

She jerked a nod again, feeling her guts churn like a troubled sea. “See you there,” she managed, hugging him briefly.

Rashid and the other rebels melted away into the night, and Linza was left alone with the mad beating of her heart.

 Muttering to herself over and over, she undressed until she was nude. “Six bodies all in a row, six bodies all in a row …”

Then, taking the vial from the pocket in her breeches, she necked the violet liquid inside, coughing and wheezing on the strong taste of lavender. Afterwards, her eyes watered and she felt like she was breathing pure lavender vapours. She looked down at her arms then and frowned. She could still see herself. Had she been able to see herself the last time she had taken the potion? she wondered. In her excitement, she had forgotten. Perhaps the potion was a dud, she thought.

“Prophet, watch over me,” she murmured.

There was nothing else for it now; she had no mirror, so she would have to trust to Sangoma Saraya’s skills. If the potion had failed, she was sure she would be notified soon enough when the men at the gate started pointing and shouting about the naked woman wandering the streets. She tucked the small knife under her armpit, where Saraya had assured her it would remain unseen thanks to the effects of the potion, and made her way nervously toward the heavily guarded barbican.

Nobody pointed or shouted out as she approached. In fact, when she brazenly forced herself to step from the shadow of the street into the moonlight in front of the checkpoint, the guards looking her way seemed to stare straight through her like she did not exist. She breathed a sigh of relief then and felt her gut unclench, realising the potion must have worked after all.

She was far from out of the woods yet, though, she knew. She still had to slip past all the guards in the narrow barbican, and the slightest noise would doubtless catch their attention. The slightest bump would bring about her doom.

Feeling her heart flutter like a parakeet’s wings, she forced herself to sip in quiet, shallow breaths. She gave the outlying guards a wide berth and so easily avoided arousing their suspicions, but then she reached the barbican itself. The twin towers rose up on either side of her forebodingly, like watchmen who could not be fooled by illusions. She half-expected them to boom out in powerful voices that she could not pass and reach down to seize her with arms of stone and mortar. They did not. Still, as she passed under the threshold – perhaps the first person to do so without permission in a century – she felt her skin crawl. As Rashid had said, she was in the Dragon’s maw now.

Her stomach was flooded with butterflies as she carefully sidled between the two men on either side of the entryway, who were fortunately spaced far enough apart for her to walk through the middle. After that, she was in the Dragon’s gullet, looking at a row of soldiers on either side of her, extending down a stone corridor which now seemed inordinately long. Each of the warriors had a scimitar belted at his waist and wore red leather lamellar armour that covered the torso and thighs with cuts at front and back for movement. Their full-faced helmets bore mockeries of human visages, red and distorted like laughing Demons. Linza felt sweat spring out on her brow at the sight. A Dragon’s maw or a Demons’ den; the imagery conjured by the barbican was far from reassuring.

Laying each foot down as slowly and softly as possible, making only the slightest scuffing and the slightest wheezing, Linza crept forwards, expecting at any moment for a soldier to wrench out his sword and cleave her in half, or at least to sound the alarm. Her heart sounded like thunder in her ears as she moved slower than she had ever moved before, trying to think mouse-like thoughts to channel some of that creature’s stealth. She passed two guards, and then four, and her muscles – which she now realised had been tensed to the point of cramping – relaxed a little.

She realised as she passed the eighth guard, however, that the corridor through the barbican tapered as it went along so that the exit toward which she crept was narrower than the entrance. Any invaders coming through would be bunched together helplessly when the burning oil cascaded down on them, she thought, feeling a shiver stroke her spine.

Feeling like a ghost, she padded on, twisting sideways here and there where the guards were stood closer together, talking. She tried to go around them if she could, but occasionally she was forced to slip through the middle of a pair in conversation, her eyes wide and her heart in her throat. She dared not breathe at all when she had to perform such a feat, but this left her slightly breathless when she was past them. Her lungs ached with the desire to suck in a decent lungful of breath, but she consciously strangled the urge, forcing herself to continue with her shallow sips of air. She began to quicken her pace unconsciously as the need to escape began to sear into her brain, but she recognised the danger of such a course and slowed down again.

The stone was cool under her bare feet – she could only imagine the clop she would have made if she’d worn shoes – but the night was warm and the stress had her sweating buckets. She could feel the salty liquid trickling down her face, and when she brushed at it with an arm, it made a soft squelching sound, making one of the guards turn around and peer searchingly in her direction. She stood stock-still with her heart hammering as the bearded man stared straight through her for a minute, then he frowned and turned away, pacing up and down to stretch his legs.

Linza scowled at his back, then at his front as he turned and came back, then at his back again. He was making her mission needlessly difficult, she thought. It was looking as though she’d have to wait until he stopped pacing or else pass him three or four times – which appeared far from easy, given that the man opposite was a broad fellow facing the entryway, stoutly blocking his half of the corridor. Linza snarled at them both silently for a moment longer, and then she acted.

Deciding she could not wait for the man to stop pacing – lest he did not stop for an hour and her potion wore off while she was still in the barbican – Linza stole closer to the guard on the right, the one standing still. Then, when the pacing man on the left passed her, heading toward the entrance, she slipped into his wake and made her way as quietly as she could around the stationary guard. In her hurry to get around him before the other turned and came back, however, she failed to notice a few pebbles strewn on the ground.

She winced and scrunched her eyes shut in fear when the pebbles crunched under her feet and made her hiss in a breath in pain. Realising a split second later that staying still was a mistake, that if the man heard something and reached out he would touch her, she took a couple of large steps further forward, ignoring the little stones as the dug into her sole. The large steps were some of the loudest she had yet taken, and they made her tremble all over with terror. She dared a look behind her once she was out of arm’s reach of the statuesque guard and saw that he was peering around with his brows lowered, clearly searching for the source of the sound. Linza held perfectly still – or tried to, but shook violently.

Eventually, the man shook his head and grumbled, “Gods-damned rats.”

Linza almost let loose a sigh of relief, but managed to keep it bottled up. She was past the pacing man and his accomplice; the walker was on his way back towards her now, but as long as she kept to the right and he to the left, she would not bump him or otherwise endanger herself. So, pushing him to the back of her mind, she focused her attention on the remaining guards in front of her. She had passed the halfway point now; she tried not to think about how that meant that escaping back to the slums would be more difficult than ever if something went wrong.

Sidling between two chatting men in demonic masks, Linza silently prayed to the All Mother that her heart did not sound as loud to the two men as it did to her. She had just made it past them when one of them said something that made her heart stop for a second.

“D’you smell lavender, Osham, or is it just me?”

The other guard, Osham, sniffed and said, “Yes, I do. Weird. Maybe one of the men is dipping into his wife’s perfume.”

The first guard chuckled. “This lot? You’ve got to be having a laugh. Drohuun picked this lot, because they’re vicious, brutal. They’re not going to let anyone past the gate. They’d sooner kick in their wives’ teeth than wear their perfume!”

Linza gulped and hastened on. Heart pounding, stomach knotted, palms clammy, she made it the rest of the way through the barbican without incident until she reached the exit. At the far end of the narrow, tapering corridor, two burly guards stood shoulder to shoulder blocking the way. There was not space to sneak around them or between them.

Linza wanted to spit on them in fury. Then, before she had fully thought it through, she did. Moving closer to the guard on the left, she spat a big glob of phlegm on the cheek of the man on the right. The guard on the right turned his head with terrible stillness as drool dripped off it, and the guard on the left looked around too, having heard the spit.

“Did you just spit on my face?”

“What? No! I would n-”

“Are you really so fucking bored that you just spat on my face to help pass the time?”

“Dross, I would never d-”

“You lying whoreson! Who else could it have been, eh? Was it the fucking ghost, you idiot, or was it you? The only person in range!”

“Whoah, take it easy, Dross, seriously man, I didn-”

“What did you think was going to happen, Armam? Did you think I would shrug it off and we’d have a fucking joke about it?”

“No, Dross, I –”

Linza winced as Dross broke Armam’s jaw with a hefty fist. Armam hit the floor and Dross closed in on him for further vituperations, but Linza did not wait to see it. As soon as Dross cleared the way, she darted past him and out into the moonlight once more, breathing fresh air and feeling the wind cool her as the sweat that drenched her skin started to evaporate. Behind her, she could hear shouting and the sound of meaty smacks. Feeling a touch guilty, she hurried away from the barbican, staring around in shock at the streets of the inner city.

Where the houses in the slums were dilapidated ruins from the day they were built thanks to a lack of workmanship, the houses here in the inner city were sturdily made of neatly fitted stones with tiled roofs. Where the avenues in the slums were clogged with detritus of all kinds – from trash to dead animals to human waste – here in the inner city, the boulevards were immaculate. Obviously swept clean regularly, the cobbles were grey rather than the shit-stained colour she had come to expect, and there was not a piece of rubbish in sight. Her upper lip curled in disgust as she thought of those that live here; pristine in their own lives, but content to let others live in filth. They were all as bad as the Emir.

She prowled through the streets of the inner city like an invisible panther, her shoulders rolling with her gait, her outrage growing at every fresh sight. The sight of beautiful, untarnished gardens almost sent her into a rage; in the slums, almost nothing would grow in the sandy soil. It was a dead place full of dead people, who wandered around little realising their fate. She knew which way to go; it was obvious. The Emir’s palace rose above the rest of the grand buildings in the inner city like an eagle over a mouse, its domes and spires fully twice as tall as any other tower in Hashmam. Linza recalled her father telling her about the palace, telling her about all the slaves the Emir had used to build it, about all the slaves that had died during its construction.

It was easy to avoid detection in the streets thanks to the general hullaballoo of city life – the city never slept – but Linza could not help but notice that the ways were far less crowded here than in the slums and far less cluttered with criminals. She slipped through the sparse crowd easily, weaving this way and that to avoid collisions with wagons and people, moving with purpose. When she spotted a small yard off the street strung with laden clothes lines, she ducked into it and grabbed a cream shirt and a pair of short breeches. Dressed once more, she felt far less vulnerable. She tucked the small knife she bore into her breeches’ waistband and covered it with the shirt. Then, she sat and waited for a while until she was sure the potion must have worn off; though she was aching with the need to move on, she did not want people to see a shirt and a pair of breeches floating down the street as if worn by a ghost. By the time she moved back into the flow of foot traffic on the thoroughfare, it was clear her grandmother’s potion had indeed worn off. Nobody commented on a spectre in the starlit street.

So, walking like she belonged, Linza headed for the palace. Fortunately, she happened to pass a pair of patrolling guards clad in red armour and Demon masks on the way.

Running to them and grabbing the arm of one, Linza cried out in mock distress, “Please, help me, help me! You have to help me! My old mother has fallen down and can’t get back up! Please help me!” Her mother had been dead for years in truth, taken by one of the many plagues that had swept the slums in her youth.

“Lead on,” said one of the guards. “We’ll help you, young lady.”

“No!” Linza said quickly. “Please, I only need one of you to help me get her up off the floor! Would the other be so kind as to bring a healer to her? You will find us just down this street, in a yard filled with clothes lines.”

One of the guards bowed his head. “Of course, young lady. I will fetch help while my comrade here attends to your mother. I will be back shortly.”

So saying, the first guard took off at a steady lope up the boulevard toward the palace. The second, the man to whom she clung, turned to Linza and spoke kindly, “Please, show me to your mother.”

Linza dragged the man by the hand back to the yard strung with clothes lines where she had stolen her garments, praying that it would still be empty. It was. She tugged the guard away from the avenue to the far side of the yard, so that all of the laden clothes lines were between them and the people moving on the thoroughfare, so that they were out of sight. The shirts and sheets on the lines billowed like wraiths, the whites shining like silver in the moonlight.

As soon as he passed the final line and saw no one on the far side, however, the guard frowned and started to pull his hand away, saying, “What is going on here?”

He only got as far as “What -?”

As soon as he passed the final clothes line, Linza turned on him. Yanking the little knife from her waistband, she used her grip on his hand to wrench him closer and then she plunged the blade into the small gap between his full-faced helmet and cuirass, into his jugular. He gurgled and she pulled out the weapon and stepped away from him in shock, only now fully realising what she had done. She had murdered a man in cold blood – which had been the plan all along, but not this man. His hot blood fountained out and she moved away again, barely avoiding the splatter as he toppled to the ground. Only her knife-wielding arm was reddened. She had not expected so much blood; it was quickly forming such a pool that she feared it would leak out of the yard and into the street before too long.

Shaking with the rush and shock of what she had done, with the fear of discovery, Linza tottered over to the water barrel close by and washed her arm and knife clean, her mind numb and empty as she stared at the moon and her own reflection in the red-tinted water. This was not her first kill; she had killed a guard on behalf of the rebels once before, but that had been at a distance with her bow. It had been different when she had been looking into the man’s eyes as he had died. When she vomited, she managed to avoid doing so in the water barrel and instead spattered the cobbles with bile. The mythos of everlasting peace in Citta Pacia was hard to reconcile with the reality of pain, fear and bloodshed. She forced herself not to think about what she had just done; it was a little bad for the greater good, she told herself. She had a mission, and she had to see it through. People were relying on her – her people were relying on her, and the man had been inner city scum.

Once she finished heaving and regained cognition, she crouched by the guard’s corpse, careful to avoid stepping in his blood. Then, she slipped the bow and quiver off his back; she was forced to clean them too, and herself again, before she could sling them over her shoulders. Her plan had worked surprisingly well, she considered; she had chosen the guard with the bow because she had wanted a bow, and she had chosen the yard because it was well-hidden and she had spotted the water source earlier. All that was left to do was escape before the second guard returned with a healer.

So, equipped with a bow and arrows now, Linza rejoined the flow of folk trickling down the boulevard. Feeling it foolish to stay on the same thoroughfare where she had encountered the guards, however, she quickly ducked into a side alley and then onto a parallel street, heading for the palace. Topped by spires and stone domes and built of the same red brick as the perimeter wall and a lot of the inner city houses, the red palace towered over her, an unholy black silhouette that blotted out half the night. The sight made her bladder weaken, and she scowled up at the structure in response. When she spotted the palace’s front gate at a distance, set between two towers to form a mini-barbican and swarming with guards, she elected to find another entrance.

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