Chapter 18
The Offer

Umm Qadir, Filastin

"The Church never sanctioned my exploration into other religions, but I found it to be an enlightening experience. You don't have to believe in them to find grains of truth in their philosophies. I am particularly interested in the belief of the Bodhis, who say that life is suffering and that desire is the source of that suffering. I'm not quite convinced of it being a universal truth for all times and all places, but I can't deny that desire is often a cause of suffering."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Among the pirates raiding ports in the Sea of Atlantis, the name of Bloodeye Redbeard was once one of the most feared. Years ago he commanded a fleet of four ships that could hold its own against professional navies, but he had fallen upon hard times. Both the Ardovans and the Porticans had recovered from their losses in the Zealots' War and now they pushed to eliminate the pirate forces once and for all. History had proven that it would be a wasted effort, but that would make little difference to the hundreds of pirates killed in the meantime.
The Filastini were no friends of Ardova or Porticana. They were not friends with much of anyone, but given enough gold, they could tolerate just about anything. Umm Qadir was a safe enough port, for a pirate at least, and though there were no dry docks, the beach was well-suited for careening.
While the rest of the crew was busy with repairs, the pirate Blackscar was dispatched by the Captain to sell a few slaves for bribe money. He was sent not for any skill as a salesman, but as the most vicious member of the crew, he was the least likely to get his throat slit in the city. If anyone was foolish enough to cross him, they were not likely to live long enough to see the error of their ways.
Blackscar had been a member of the crew for many years, but he was not all that old. He was only a boy when he was initiated into the crew. Bloodeye accepted him because he was a remorseless killer then and if anything, the years had made him even more brutal. He got his name from the purplish scar that ran under his glassy, soulless eyes, a reminder that his viciousness would only be allowed so far.
Even if the captive slaves did have their spirits crushed by now, they did not dare do anything to draw Blackscar's attention. He was known to fly into a rage at the slightest provocation, real or imagined, and a quick death was a blessing he rarely granted when he was angered. The slaves were perfectly quiet and obedient because any fate that awaited them was almost certainly better than being at Blackscar's mercy.
On account of his fearsome reputation, it came as quite a surprise when a voice casually addressed him.
"Good day to you, Your Lordship."
Blackscar froze in his tracks. The last thing he expected to hear in Filastin was the tongue of his lost homeland. It had been so long, he had almost forgotten what it sounded like. He turned to the source of the voice, a man in a brown cloak embellished with gaudy brocade. The cloaked man's face was hidden by a hood, except for his unpleasant smile. Even a beast like Blackscar was wary of the ominous air surrounding the strange figure.
"Who are you?" he growled, struggling somewhat to speak in his native tongue again.
"A friend," the cloaked man said. "I'm here to help."
Blackscar replied reflexively, "I don't need any help."
The cloaked man shook his head. "I wouldn't be so sure. It's getting hard for a man of your trade to earn a living. Who knows when a chance encounter with the Armada will bring your career to a tragically short end?"
The pirate could care less. "I'll die when I die, and I won't die alone."
"But you'll miss your chance to become what you were meant to be."
The cloaked man managed to pique Blackscar's interest. For the first time in years, a flicker of light was sparked in his eyes. "What do you mean?" he asked.
The cloaked man drew closer to Blackscar, closer than anyone else would dare. "I know, Lordship, who you really are. What happened all those years ago was a right tragedy. My heart goes out to you, it really does. You were so close to righting that most grievous wrong, and your one best chance was stripped away by a screaming midget."
Blackscar's eyes widened, his head spun. He could not believe what he was hearing. It was impossible.
"How do you know that!? Who are you!?"
The cloaked man held up his hands. "Calm down, Your Lordship, calm down." Disturbingly, there was no change in his voice. No fear, not even a trace of anxiousness. "Like I said, I'm a friend and I'm here to help. I'm going to give you a chance to finish what you started."
Blackscar's heart wanted to leap at the thought, but he knew better.
"You're wasting your time," the pirate said. "That Titian overran Gladius not too long after I was taken. There's no way any of them survived."
"Oh, but you're wrong. The father is dead, that's true, but the son, he lives."
Blackscar was at a loss for words. Could it be true?
The cloaked man nodded, almost as if he could read Blackscar's thoughts. "That's right. He's alive and he's taken his father's place. Even now he moves to reclaim what his House lost, what's rightfully yours."
"And how do you know all these things?"
The cloaked man grinned. "I have my ways." His answer did not inspire confidence.
"Why should I believe you?"
The cloaked man answered his questions with questions of his own. "What are the odds of you finding someone who speaks Everardian here of all places? What are the chances of someone knowing the truth about you? If I know this much, what makes you think the rest of my knowledge is suspect?"
It was tempting, ever so tempting, but even twenty years of savagery did not purge all reason from Blackscar's mind.
"Even if I chose to believe you, how would I get there? There's no way I could convince the Captain to go to Gladius. As far as he's concerned, there's nothing there."
As if nothing was wrong, the cloaked man pulled out a roll of parchment from the folds of his robes and handed it to Blackscar.
"Here. I made this specially for you."
Blackscar unrolled the parchment. It was a notice in Bannish calling for any able-bodied fighters to serve as a mercenary auxiliary for the Marauders of King Randwulf the Conqueror of Gladius. It even had the imprint of what he guessed was the King's seal.
"It certainly looks official enough," the cloaked man said, obviously pleased with his handiwork. He held out a handful of gold coins. "And take these, too. It'll make your Captain more receptive to what you have to say. Tell him he gets ten gold crowns plus five silvers a head for every fighting man he lends to King Randwulf's cause." He gave the pirate a conspiratorial smile. "A better deal than taking your chances on the high seas, don't you think?"
It was too perfect. Even if it was slicker and more elaborate than anything Blackscar had encountered in the past twenty years, a con was a con. Showing not the slightest bit of concern, the cloaked man dropped a few extra gold coins into the pirate's hands.
"Here's a little extra for you, just to show how sincere I am."
Blackscar stared at the gold so freely given to him. Although he was a pirate, he was not much affected by greed. However, given the way his crewmates would fight over everything of even the slightest value, the cloaked figure's behavior was entirely alien to him.
"Why are you doing this?" Blackscar asked.
"We want the same thing," the cloaked man replied. "I'd love to do the job myself, but I'm not in a position to do as I please, not yet at any rate. You, on the other hand, aren't so encumbered. The only reason you follow that raggedy redbeard is because you don't want to be troubled with running the crew yourself. All that's about to change. You'll take your rightful place as a leader of men, standing atop the corpses of your enemies. Naturally, there's one corpse in particular we both look forward to being under your feet."
Blackscar continued to stare at the coins in his hand. "If I agree to this, I'll get my chance to kill him?"
"I'll see to it personally," the cloaked figured assured him. "And once that's taken care of, I'm sure the King would be more than happy to give you the land and title that's been your due. Everything you've ever wanted will soon be yours."
"What's your name?"
"Men like us don't need names. All we need to know is the name of our enemy."
Blackscar could not help grinning. He liked the cloaked man's answer. "I can live with that," he said. His mood quickly shifted as he narrowed his eyes and clutched the hilt of the knife thrust in his belt. "Don't think of double-crossing me, or I'll gut you."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Your Lordship," the cloaked man replied flippantly, not showing the slightest sign of being intimidated by the threat. "Now hurry along and get rid of those filthy slaves. You've got more important things to do than play flesh merchant. Until we meet again."
With that, the cloaked man vanished. The slaves gasped in surprise, but Blackscar figured there was magic about him. No wonder he had so little to fear from a mere pirate, or rather, a mere pirate for now.
Blackscar clenched the coins in his fist. He could care less about the money. The opportunity of a lifetime had just fallen into his lap. The Captain would be easy enough to convince, especially with all the gold his 'friend' had given him. He licked his lips in anticipation. The injustice of five generations would soon be avenged. The failure of twenty years ago would soon be set right. He could hardly wait.