Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
After another simple night’s work, Bloodwriter Lee slid across her roof and landed on the balcony, red-covered book in hand. The life and Times of Augustus Jules was its title. The crisp night air burned in her lungs, and she felt so alive that she couldn’t quite go inside yet. She flicked the volume open to the back and read the final paragraph:
And so after seventy-one years of miserly misery, Augustus was ended, his body reclining upon the one lounge seat he said was too nice to ever sit on. The wound was small, but placed such that it would draw a scream from any weak-stomached person that found him: a deep stab in his Adam’s apple. So expertly had he been slain that not a single drop of blood could be seen. The assassin had been quieter than the swing of a feather, even as she leapt from his window. The party downstairs, only ever nominally in his honor, continued uninterrupted.
“An assassin now, am I?” Lee mused as she clapped the book shut. More and more it seemed like she deserved the tool that had come to define her. Each time a story was produced, the language used was a touch kinder to her. On her first kill she was an ‘illiterate barbarian’. On her fifth she was ‘cunning but cruel’. Now, after three years of the clean and bloody work, it thought of her as an expert assassin.
She went inside and found a spot on one of the many bookshelves for Augustus. Each and every one had a red spine. They were all for sale, but more often they were simply evidence of her success rate. Her book store, signed simply as Lee’s, had only sold fifteen books in the last year. Most people found them too morbid.
They were closed for the night, but someone knocked on the door regardless, forcing her to descend the stairs, not even giving her a chance to remove her crimson cloak or the sheath from her belt. It really was rude that late, so she waited to see if their knocking became any stronger. Eventually it did, and was paired with an aggressive wet cough like a moose trying to regurgitate an entire bed of moss.
“Please, let me in,” a voice wheezed, one that Lee recognized despite the phlegm. She pulled it open and the man nearly collapsed onto her chest. He stumbled to the nearest chair, his glittering green cape dragging across the floor, dusting it. “I need to see the Bloodwriter. I’m in need… ach… of her services.” He didn’t even look at her as he caught his breath, for if he had he would not have mistaken her for anyone else. Aside from him, she was the most well known person in town, and her reputation surpassed his beyond the borders of the port city of Fernghalen.
“You’re speaking with her,” Lee said flatly, “if you can call what you’re doing speaking. Try not to get your words all over the rug.” He finally looked at her, taking in the sharp cat-like eyes, the crimson robe, and, most importantly, the dagger at her side. The gold etching and rubies in its handle seemed to mesmerize him. That was it. That was the red pen of the Bloodwriter. He would’ve appealed to it directly if he could.
“I have a target for you,” the man said. “I’m willing to pay handsomely, but it must be done tonight. Within the hour if possible.”
“I can’t find anyone in less than an hour,” she scoffed. “I’m not a bloodhound.” He was surely used to prompt service, given his status. This man was Turner Baronfed; he owned nearly every dock in the city and nearly a third of the ships sailing around its borders. If he had ever consumed a meal on anything other than a silver platter, it was from his mother’s breast. His word was practically law, so she couldn’t imagine why he would need a hired killer. Anyone that offended him could be banished or floating away in a barrel by the end of the week.
“Locating him won’t be a problem; he’s right here.”
“You? You want me to kill you? And then what, just take the money out of your pocket, promising only to take the proper amount so the ferryman can have his two cents?”
“My estate will take care of your payment, and yes, I want you to kill me. Right here would do fine. I’m dying anyway. It’s the fisherman’s cough. Took both my brothers, one of them hacked his way right over the side of his boat. Achack… ack! I can feel it. My time is tonight.”
“Then go to your brothers. If it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for you. There’s the door.” She turned, eyes heavy now that she was out of the crisp wind. Lee took the first stair, but then Turner took a knee.
“I beg you!” he shouted. “You’re the only one who can give me what I want. Everybody knows the power of that magical dagger of yours. It wasn’t always in your hand, but people say your penmanship is the finest it has ever seen. One stab, and it will take all of my blood. You will be compelled to write my life story, in that red ink, just as you have with all these others.” He gestured to the towering red bookshelves all around. “It’s magic, so it cannot lie. If you write my book, everyone will know exactly how good I was, and they will never doubt.”
“I kill the unkind, not the obscenely wealthy,” she told him, taking the second step, but slower. “I’m not interested in helping you prove anything to your gold-toothed friends.” She was about to take the third, but there was another knock on the door, somehow more belligerent than that of a dying man.
“I know you’re in there!” somebody shouted. It was a singular voice, but Lee detected the shuffling of three pairs of feet. “Don’t involve her in this! It’s undignified!”
“Please,” Turner pleaded, shuffling over to the stairs and placing his chin on one like a sad dog. “They’re here to kill me! You must do it, or my story will never be written!”
“The disease and those people both want you dead, and yet you insist on my hand doing it. Aren’t you the belle of death’s ball.” Ridiculous as the man’s situation seemed, he wasn’t wrong. The point of a sword drove through her door and sent splinters sliding. They were inviting themselves in. “Not even giving me time to think,” she moaned, grabbing Turner by the collar and pulling him up the stairs.
They were barely on the second floor when the entire door came crashing in. A fight there was no good; the books would surely be damaged. It would be worse desecration than toppling the monuments of a graveyard. The only place to take the conflict just so happened to be her favorite: the frost-slick and uneven black rooves of Fernghalen. She snagged one more thing from a table before flitting out onto the balcony with the hacking Turner: another red journal. It was empty, for all the splattering possibilities of a violent and confusing night.
“I can’t climb,” Turner wheezed. “Kill me now!” She ignored him, rolling him over the railing and letting him do the work of sticking his feet into the gutter. He had barely stood before she was poking him in the back with her dagger, but not the end he sought.
The red pen of the Bloodwriter was thought to be the possession of the world’s first historian: the woman or man who had to tally the survivors of the wars that picked the languages of the land. Its words were pure and true, always expressed in the certainty of spilled blood. Even the shape of its blade was like the nib of a fine fountain pen, droplet-shaped and split at the end.
The end of the roof was right where it always was, but that didn’t stop her from feeling trapped with the anchor of Turner around. Usually it was just a simple leap to the top of the bakery next door. The banging of the owner’s broomstick on the ceiling, a pathetic attempt to get her to stop climbing the city, would’ve been a welcome sound.
Instead she head glass shatter as the three pursuers made it onto the balcony, swords in hand. Lee sharpened her eyes and examined them. The leader stuck out, his face somewhat familiar as well. By the time she placed him he was already balancing on the gutter.
“Stranger and stranger,” she mumbled before pulling Turner’s ear close. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that your son Martin?”
“Yes, it’s me!” he shouted, having overheard. “The geezer’s fallen out of his rocker and hit his head. Don’t listen to anything he says! We’re just trying to take him home.”
“Those are some very burly nurses you brought with you,” she quipped, gesturing toward the other two men with the red pen. They leaned out of the way as if they thought she could strike them down from the other end of the roof.
“I won’t let you kill my father,” Martin said menacingly. He had a mean face, like dried salt pork too tough for a sailor to choke down. The man had his own reputation, as a pirate. He had famously rejected the wealth of his family, and declared his criminal independence by sinking a ship carrying no less than ten of his blood relatives. Thickwater Martin is what they called him.
“The truth will set us both free, my son,” Turner shouted. Martin winced as if every syllable out of his mouth was a cannon firing next to his ear.
“Shut up old man! Hand him over Bloodwriter!”
“As you both wish,” Lee said. She kicked the backs of Turner’s knees, dropping him. Then with one quick stab, too quick for pain to even be born, the red pen moved in and out of the side of his throat. His color didn’t so much drain as flash to a deathly white. Turner collapsed into the gutter and then rolled off the roof.
Bloodwriter Lee leapt away, onto the bakery. She didn’t have second thoughts for poor old Turner. Long had she had the ability to read a person’s intent and their resolve. Perhaps it was what gave her such noteworthy penmanship with the red pen. Turner had truly wanted her to author his death, and she couldn’t very well escape Martin while dragging around a coughing corpse.
Tiles cracked and fell to the ground to shatter as the three men gave chase. Martin didn’t even seem to slow down for one mournful luck at his father’s body, meaning he didn’t care for it at all. Whatever he wanted, it was now stored safely within the red pen. A truth he didn’t want known. Something embarrassing for a buccaneer of the high seas perhaps.
There was only one way to find out; Lee whipped out the empty journal and put the tip of the dagger to the page. The words came as they always did, lurching through her arm and somehow becoming precise flicks with her wrist.
Turner Baronfed was born on the decks of a ship called Ashley to the woman it was named after. He was surrounded by women and men of the sea, their cheers drowning out his cries…
Lee barely had to look up as she leapt from roof to roof, occasionally descending to a balcony in order to sit on its ledge and force out another swift page before Martin or the other two got close. The pirate was relentless, trying to start an argument every time he caught sight of her. After the fifth time he took to throwing shingle shards at her, one of them successfully striking her temple and drawing blood.
The author stumbled and rolled, landing on a sea cliff just below the rooves of the empty festival stands. The ocean was right there, a black and gray mass alive with frothy waves. It looked ready to swallow her up , though it would surely spit the red pen back out. Better to contain its damage to a single shore.
Martin landed on his feet next to her. His cohorts had searched in different directions, so it was just the two of them now. The pirate thought he had his prey, as the Bloodwriter looked frightened and disoriented. She scrambled around in the sand and dune grass, struggling to get her feet under her. She was afraid, but not of Martin.
It was careless to get hit, and it pained her even more to admit that she found Turner’s life interesting. She never would have guessed that he had once thrown himself overboard just to retrieve a little girl’s toy, and come back with a series of pin pricks along his side from a small but irritated shark. She had misjudged him; he was a man who would do anything for his family, and anyone he saw as kind was part of that family.
That was on page thirty-seven. She guessed there were only thirteen or so more to go; people rarely warranted more than sixty unless they were plotting politicians that required pages and pages of boring context. Whatever it was Martin didn’t want the world to know, she hadn’t written it yet. She could write anything while she was dripping blood, hence her scrambling. It had to be stopped up. If the red pen tasted even one drop, her life was over.
Writing took one hand, stopping the blood flow took the other, leaving her with nothing to fight his wild sword swings. The Bloodwriter was pushed along the cliff, sand kicking up in all directions before the wind ripped it off the face of the cliff. The journal was tied to one of her belt loops, but the dagger was busy clashing with Martin’s blade. The story went unfinished.
“There’s something you don’t realize,” Lee told the man between puffing breaths.
“This weapon has been steeped in gory battle since its forging. The blood forms the words when it lands. I am simply the new facilitator!” She struck back, stabbing with confidence of someone with a much longer arm. Martin blocked it, but she pushed forward. That wasn’t all; each time the red pen came back from an attempt on his blade, she dragged it across the open page of the journal. To him it just looked like a wild slash, but sentences were added each time. History did the writing, she just had to let her hand be loose when the dagger touched paper.
Back and forth they battled, until warmth crept into the horizon. It took hours, neither giving more than ten feet in any direction, but eventually there was enough light out on the cliff for her to read by. When they were both out of breath, she caught sight of the crucial paragraph.
Turner thought of it as his most difficult act of kindness, though others would’ve seen it as raw madness. He set the prized ship adrift, but never let them aboard. Instead he sent them away, where Martin’s selfishness couldn’t grab at the gifts Turner had tried to distribute among them evenly.
“Stop reading!” the pirate screamed, but it was too late. The book clapped shut.
“So, that’s it. How easily bruised your pride must be,” Lee said. “Thickwater Martin, who sank his own family. It was all just a show. The boat was empty. You sank it to look tough, and your daddy even put it out into the water for you. All so you could have the life you wanted. And you won’t let people know his devotion…”
“I never asked for it,” he barked, “just like I’m not asking for that book. Give it over. Or die.”
“Fine by me,” she retorted. She held the book out to him, but the red pen was placed on its cover.
“I don’t want that,” he said, recoiling. “Take that thing off. Just give me the book.”
“You want to contain your father’s truth don’t you? It’s not just in the book. It will always be in the pen. Whoever has it, can write Turner Baronfed’s story again. Your shame doesn’t disappear just because you sweep it under the rug. So if you want it, take them both. Be the Bloodwriter. See how disappointing people really are. Lose your own life to everyone else’s.”
Martin hesitated, so she held the book out further, even walking it toward him. He stumbled back, more violently than he had at any point during their blade-crossing battle. There was no more cliff for him, just the festival grounds. People already filled them up, preparing their stands for the morning rush.
“Or just leave,” Lee offered, “and hope that nobody buys this particular book. Literacy is down lately you know.” He looked at her, clearly hoping it was a real option. “History is always there for people to find; I don’t push them toward it,” she insisted. Martin rubbed his mouth with one hand, feeling a beard that had formed entirely during their bout. The tired moment, the prickle in his flesh, and the convening crowds were enough to convince him. It was best if Bloodwriter Lee, understanding but not generous, kept a hold of those things for now. He jumped away
Lee looked at the title of his father’s book. She wondered how she went from ‘assassin’ to ‘weary warrior’.
Turner Baronfed and those who Sink in the Red Sea
killed and chronicled by