The Man in the Red Robes

“We represent a group of people who are very interested in finding you. We have no interest in harming you. In fact, quite the opposite.” The man in the red robes was speaking while he paced back and forth. “We believe that who you are – what you are – is very special, and we have some ideas that will help you get on.”

Melek had given up struggling against his restraints, it was no use. His mind was racing, replaying imagined scenarios where some sort of harm would befall his Nazli before he could get to her again. In his mind, he had become her protector, but his feelings were selfish. She had no idea how obsessed he was, how deeply he admired her and coveted her beauty.

“I don’t care what you do with me, but you must let me speak again with Nazli and at least explain to her why I disappeared. She will think some great harm has come to me and I don’t want her to fret.” It was a feeble attempt to convince the men to let him go, and he knew it. Words were failing him with the threat of revealing his true motives. It was a secret he even seemed to keep from himself, too selfish to bear, it pained him to even think of himself that way. He glanced down at the dog turned to stone at his feet and winced.

“We have collected your girl, she is in another room, next to this one. Excellent care is being taken of her, she will receive all that she needs.” The toothless man pours himself another glass of wine, splashing over the edge of the goblet, small drops of dark burgundy spot the table next to where he sits. “We have also delivered the news to your caravan that you will no longer be traveling with them. Other arrangements, so to speak, for your continued travel have been made.” Melek pulled again at his restraints, which bit into his forearms above the wrist. He clenched his fists, grasping at the wooden arms of the chair and pulling himself up, straightening his back.

“I don’t understand what it is you think you want from me, or how you profess to know what it is you think you know about me. I am just a man, traveling to escape the constant raids and inevitable bloodshed raining down upon us in Gyumri. We have traveled far and must travel much further to return to our home in Pazarkoy. There we will be safe from the merciless violence visited upon our eastern Anatolian village. It is as simple as that, there is no more to it.” Melek searched the eyes of the men, whose eyes seemed to smile as he spoke, so he continued.

“Gyumri was all but destroyed in recent times, many people of our village were taken as slaves, never seen again. Nazli is without her father, taken from her in the night by a bloodthirsty bandit who entered her house intent on having his way with her. She narrowly escaped with her life to the monastery at Marmashen, where they sheltered her and gave her work to do. It was a life, but hardly a life worth living. She deserves better, and my intention was to give it to her. Give her the life she had always deserved, a life where she feels adored. A life where her beauty is eternal and love never-ending.”

At this, the men chuckled.

“A bloodthirsty bandit, huh? Love never-ending?” They turned their heads looking at each other as they laughed.

“Tell us – what do you remember of this bandit? What of his life do you remember?” The taller man with the red robe leaned in, getting his face uncomfortably close to Melek’s, almost whispering. Melek could smell the wine on his breath. “His life was your life, his thoughts were your thoughts, his heart and intention were yours.” With this, the man poked a hard, bony index finger into Melek’s ribs. “Tell us what you remember of this man, this Hrant Darbinian.”

Mind racing and heart pounding, Melek wrestled with how these men could have come to know this about him. Some type of sorcery was surely afoot. How could these men know, when he had never told anybody. How could he? What would he say and how could he expect anyone to believe him? In fact, he had kept his repeating lives a guarded secret for centuries now, a secret which no one could have ever discovered on their own. They even knew the name of his previous host and details of his previous life.

“You say you have my Nazil, I’d like to see evidence of that, and know that she is safe and unharmed.”

“Yes, we have her in a room next door. You can see her if you’d like but you are going to need to open up to us and tell us the things we need to know. Also, we want you to travel with us to Istanbul, where you will meet with our associate, who is quite interested in having many words with you.”

“Yes, yes,” Melek groaned with resignation. “I will travel with you to Istanbul, I will meet with your associate. But what will become of my Nazil? Where will you take her?” He paused for a moment. “And what does she know of me? What of all this does she know? What have you told her?” Melek panicked at the thought they had told her of his secret, that he was the embodiment of the same man who killed her father.

“We have told her nothing yet. Yet, we reserve the right to tell her whatever we wish to ensure your continued cooperation.” The man in the red robe held up the blackish tincture in the small vial. “And we will also be keeping this. It’s quite amazing, the skill you have developed in crafting these potions. Supernatural, really. Our associate will find this quite fascinating as well. But we cannot trust you with it, it is too dangerous to be in the hands of one so impulsive and without fear such as yourself.” He said this while gently patting the stone dog atop its head.

Melek nodded in defeated agreement, eyes turned to the ground. It was a long trip to Istanbul, there would be plenty of opportunities to escape these men once they were on the move. His mind raced through an imagined scene where he was able to overtake the men on a secluded part of the road and escape with his Nazli. Oh, how she would adore him for his heroic action, rescuing her from these knaves and charlatans who no doubt held impure intentions for her. After all, how could they resist being overcome by her startling beauty? Surely, they had already defiled her in their thoughts, if not in reality.

Upon her rescue, she would leap into Melek’s arms and hear his heart beating through his chest, and he would comfort her. Melek felt a bitterness and anger wash over him again, but he struggled to measure it against his growing curiosity regarding his mysterious captors. Part of him was overcome by this curiosity and he could not help but give in. Fearing these men would forever hunt him should he escape, Melek decided he must know who they were and how they knew what they knew before he could make any plans.

The room he was being held in had no windows and was lit by candles set on small tables in each corner. There was a wooden door braced by iron straps in the wall behind him and to his right. He had no way of telling where he was, though he felt somehow that he was underground, in some sort of cellar room. There was a strong smell of dirt and mildew that appeared to corroborate his theory of a cellar but there was no way to know for sure.

He would play along for now, and wait for his opportunity to strike at them and free himself to rescue Nazil and escape. Where they would escape to he wasn’t sure, but he was resourceful and knew a thing or two about hiding. He couldn’t take her to his cave as that would require too much explaining. For now, however, there were too many unknowns in his plan, too many things he could not predict. He would need to stay with the men long enough to learn what he needed to know and find a place to escape to where they could hide. It had to be a place that would seem innocent to Nazil. There were far too many things he could not let her know about him.

“OK, I will tell you whatever I able to tell you. I will travel with you to Istanbul and meet with your associate. I promise you anything. Please don’t let any harm befall my Nazil. Despite what a horrible demon you must think me, I swear to you my intentions toward her have always been pure. I am prone to act impulsively. I don’t know why. In fact, there is not much I do know about how I am what I am, and why I continue to live as I do. I have died a thousand times, and every time I return. This I do know. As to

I have died a thousand times, and every time I return. This I do know. As to why I haven’t the faintest theory. I swear to you it is a curse I wish I could be rid of. You have no idea the burden I shoulder through life. It is as though I can never be rid of it, and with each successive life I am forced to live again, the burden grows heavier. At first, I thought of it as a gift bestowed upon me by my creators. I possessed a unique and powerful gift – eternal life! And who would not want such a gift? While my body may perish, my mind and my soul continue on.

“When I was a young soul, I saw such potential in this gift of mine. I could remember my previous lives in detail, which allowed me to build skills with things other men could only dream of. As time passed, thousands of years – nay! Tens of thousands of years now. As these lives passed before me it all started to blend together into a slurry of memories which my mind can no longer contain.

“It is as though my mind is the hull of a massive ship, the largest of which you can imagine, overloaded far beyond its capacity, spilling out it’s dank and water-logged contents, jetsam bobbing on the waves. And yet the ship remains afloat – drifting aimlessly on this dark sea of eternity. Forever taking on more cargo. I cannot cast it overboard fast enough or in enough quantity to make room for it, so with each life, I simply grow heavier.”

“I can recall memories which are useful to me, but there is so much weight to these memories, I’d just as soon cast off the yoke and lessen my burdens, which I cannot do. Can you imagine being the only person in the world who lives forever? What comes of love and beauty? What good are these things if they are all lost in the end. There is only loneliness for me, I cannot take anything with me on my journey. I have lived only to see others die, I cannot help them. I cannot make them likewise eternal, to share endless life and love with me. There is only this never-ending series of continuing losses and the inescapable pain of existence.

“With Nazli, I was able to get close to her a second time, in a second life. It was as though the universe gave me a chance to fulfill my love. But it is so difficult! She cannot know what I am, if I were to tell her, she would think me ill in the head and have nothing to do with me. She cannot know I was the one who murdered her father. God, the look on her face as she awoke to find me sitting there, blood spattering my face in her room.

I am so close though! And now this. Now the cruelness of fate has once again intervened and taken her from me, in a new way. I find myself again standing upon the deck of that shadowy ship adrift in the sea with no stars to guide me. Surrounded by all my junk, the refuse of my wasted years, choking me until all that is left is loneliness and contempt for the world that has cursed me with its gifts.”

Melek found himself sobbing in his chair, head down in a mixture of grief and shame. Despite his deep sadness, he somehow felt lighter, having shared these thoughts with someone. He had never done so. The gift was a secret he had always kept to himself and telling someone, even a complete stranger felt like opening a valve to drain pressure from his mind. The candle light flickered and danced on the walls as one of the men stood from his chair and placed his hand on the toothless man’s shoulder, whispering quietly.

“Go get the girl,” he said. “Bring her in.”

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