The Red Forbidden City

Here's another quick extract from my upcoming story, concerning a previously established character:

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The setting sun bathed the entire city of Qang Chu in red, or rather, more red than it already was. The light hit the red flags hanging from the red temples, and the red market stalls with the small red lanterns. It was, it appeared, the colour of choice of the people of Qang Chu, or even the entire county of Chu.

   Which was why Po-Zhen was wearing green. Red was an imperial colour – you couldn’t forget that. If he had worn red, he would have been spotted immediately and taken to the prime minister and, with all probability, killed.

   No, no one actually wore red, not unless they worked for the royalty. If you wanted to blend in, you wore yellows, greens and blues. And blending in was exactly what Zhen wanted. It was bad enough that he didn’t particularly resemble anyone else in the country, but he tried his best with some makeshift makeup which would have made for great entertainment back home. He had changed his hair colour to black, after realizing he was the only with red hair in the country. That and it was probably illegal to have hair the imperial colour.

   He called himself Zhen as his full given name had meant Flame Beard, which probably wasn’t the right way to go if he wanted to avoid attention. Zhen by itself didn’t mean ‘flame’ and in fact could mean anything from ‘stone’ to ‘boysenberry’.

   A lot of words had more than one meaning here. That was something he had to learn quickly.

   He looked around the rapidly-emptying marketplace. The sun was quickly setting, and people weren’t too bothered about staying around market square at night where there was no light and nothing in particular to do.

   He ducked in a back alley which he found to contain old wooden boxes filled with old food scraps and animal remains, and stayed until the square was silent.

   It was almost completely night when everyone had left. There was a curfew on, soon, as well, he knew. Shouldn’t be too many guards around, he thought, but if they spot me they’ll drag me up, and they’ll figure out who I am and all this will have been for nothing.

   Great.

   He figured there would only be two hours before curfew hit, so he didn’t have long before guards would start strolling around. He could hide, and carry on when they weren’t there and might just have to.

   Trust me to find it in the middle of the most occupied area of the city, he thought. Well, at least it’s not in the palace. That would have been a laugh.

   “Time to get to work,” he said.

   First step, I need to get some measurements.

   He worked for a few hours, but gave up. In the darkness, it took much time and his eyes were starting to hurt. He had been up for way too long.

   He decided to quit and made his way back through the more derelict parts of town, occasionally ducking out of sight of guards which had begun to roam the streets. They always started in the poor parts of town. They liked to think that’s where all the trouble was. And for all he knew it probably was.

   He arrived back at the shed behind a run-down café he was letting from someone who in all likeliness didn’t even own the property. It was small – barely enough to fit a bed and a table and looked like it was going to fall over at the slightest breeze. It wasn’t much but it was home.

   Ack. No.

   He didn’t like thinking of it like that.

   It wasn’t home. It was a base of operations. He hated to admit it, but he probably didn’t have a home anymore. He didn’t like the thought of that at all, but for the moment that’s how it was. Maybe once everything was finished with he could settle down here.

   He needed sleep now. He had to be awake at the crack of dawn tomorrow, for Mr Pang, who didn’t know who he was or really cared for all it mattered. Mr Pang paid him money to deliver things, and Zhen did so.

   The research can wait, for the moment, he thought.

   He took off his clothes and put everything that was in the pockets on the table, which rocked on its bad leg.

   He lay down on the bed, which resembled a psychiatrist’s chair more than anything else, pulled the blanket over himself and fell asleep.