Tarbuk returned to the courtyard, his ever present smile upon his face.
“Come with me. I will show you to your rooms.”
“Wait,” said Ohrl. “We haven’t agreed to stay. What is the charge?”
“Do not worry,” Tarbuk cheerfully said. “It has all been taken care of. Come.”
Tarbuk made for a set of stairs before Ohrl could continue the discussion. Following closely behind, Ohrl and Faerl were led along balconies and up stairs that wound around the central courtyard to the fourth and final floor. A slight breeze moved through the vines that hung from the ceilings and balcony frames, and as they climbed higher, the noise of the city ceased.
“Here, take this,” Tarbuk said, handing them a heavy iron key after unlocking the door. “You will have access to this room at all times. My uncle won’t bother you, as long as you pay the rent. How long will you stay?”
“That depends on what price you negotiated for us, Tarbuk.” Ohrl glanced at Faerl with wonder in his eyes. He had never met anyone so evasive, and he still hungered for satisfaction as Tarbuk ushered them inside.
“Come in, come in. I promised I would take care of you. You wanted to be near the temple, and there are no better views than what I have found.” Tarbuk almost ran to the far wall, which stood shuttered from floor to ceiling. Smiling, he turned to his guests and waited for them to approach, before unbolting the shutters and pulling them open.
The heat of the city was immediately sucked inside the room as the shutter doors were opened. It blasted into their faces, followed by a wave of spices, pungent enough to make their mouths water. The smell of cooked meat and smoke filled the air, and as they stepped out onto a small balcony, the sound of the city rose to greet them. Yet it was none of these that stole their attention, and Tarbuk smiled as he stepped forward to join them, his face full of pride as he gauged their reaction.
“Welcome to Sira’an, my friends.”
Unashamedly speechless, Ohrl and Faerl gasped in amazement at the view before them. Beyond the dusty white rooftops below, the magnificence of the white temple rose, the pure white towers spearing the morning sky. It stood not two blocks away, but the sheer size of the domes made them feel as if it was right upon their doorstep. The sun flared off its surface, stinging Ohrl’s eyes, and Faerl’s throat began to dry from the sudden heat. Surrounding the temple was a sea of rooftops, their parapets lifting and rising like the swelling sea, their white tips catching in the morning sun and vanishing in the haze of morning smoke.
“This is the Temple of Origins, but we call it Hab’yad Gasir. Beautiful, is it not?” Tarbuk rested his hands on the balcony beside Faerl and Ohrl, admiring the view.
“We had seen it from a distance, but I can’t get over how big it is,” said Faerl. “The great court of the University of Brúnn could tuck comfortably into one corner.”
“The only better place to view the temple is from the inside,” Tarbuk said proudly. “You were lucky to be here when such fine rooms became available.”
Ohrl smiled at Tarbuk’s subtle boast, for the rooms were available for a still unannounced fee.
“We do not yet have dhirat, and can only pay with kopjes from Hejveld.”
“This is no problem,” Tarbuk said with an enthusiasm that Ohrl noticed hardly ever left him. “Kopjes are widely used in the city, although you must be guarded. People will lie about what they are worth.”
Tarbuk stalled, staring as inconspicuously as he could at Ohrl and Faerl. Ohrl was about to laugh, but something in Tarbuk’s glance made him reconsider.
“It is more or less double the value of our own coin, but you must bargain hard if you are new to the city.” Tarbuk spoke as though he had been born to the streets, raised on the ebb and flow of underground trade in the fight for survival. Ohrl realised that if he closed his eyes and listened, he would never guess that Tarbuk was still a boy.
“If you have trading ties,” Tarbuk continued, “your contacts will give more generously than those who deal rarely with kopjes. They make money by other means and will always have the chance to offload kopjes with travelling merchants. Those who are forced to take kopjes will change the rate up or down to suit, as they will struggle to get rid of it at an advantageous price to themselves.”
“And where do you stand?” Ohrl asked, pleased at last to have come to the point of transaction.
“I am here as a guide and a friend,” Tarbuk replied, bearing a large smile. “And friends give as though they are family. You are under my family’s roof, and so you shall enjoy the same benefits. If it pleases, you can pay in kopjes.”
Tarbuk puffed out his chest, full of bravado and Ohrl knew instantly that Tarbuk was trying his best to impress them. “Should you wish to exchange money, our family will take care of it for you to ensure that you receive our local rates. Without a local to bargain for you, the money lenders will fleece you for all you are worth.”
Ohrl stared long and hard at the young boy, waiting for a final figure. He knew Tarbuk was waiting for them to concede, and accept the rooms and hospitality even before agreeing on a price. Ohrl was almost willing, for he was tired and hungry, and had no desire to return to the streets and begin their search again. Yet there was more to this. Tarbuk was not only bartering for the room, he was offering his services, and that was harder to accept or refuse on an empty stomach. A couple of days would be acceptable, Ohrl thought, no matter the price.
“We will take the room, and a lunch if it can be provided, but we would like to be left alone to rest for the day.”
Tarbuk’s eyes lit up, and he touched his palm to his chest before bowing. “The room is forty dhirat, which for you is twenty kopjes.”
Ohrl nodded. It was far less than anything he had paid on the rough journey to Ásgeirr. He reached for his coin purse.
“Forty dhirat each, of course.”
Tarbuk’s dead set stare met Ohrl’s, before the boy erupted into laughter, and began walking out the door.
“You have nothing to worry about. Forty dhirat for both, and I will see that some lunch is brought to you soon. I will be with my uncle if you need me, and let me know how long you intend to stay.”
Faerl turned to Ohrl as soon as Tarbuk had closed the door.
“Either we got a bargain for the rooms, or there is a fish seller making a killing on the streets of Sira’an.”
Ohrl nodded, and strode over to lock the door. He returned and rested his elbows upon the balcony rail. “We had best quickly learn our way around this city and its people. We obviously aren’t fooling anyone in these robes. I don’t know if you saw, but there weren’t many people wearing them this far inside the main city. Only the workers on the gorge cliffs were clothed as we are. It must mean something. Ljótur gave us what we needed to get in, but our guise has worn thin already.”
“Let’s just stay here for a while to rest,” Faerl agreed. “No doubt Tarbuk will want to show us the sights of the city for a few days, and perhaps that is the best task we could set ourselves. We need a reason for our presence here, one that is believable.”
Ohrl sighed, looking out beyond the roof tops, to the multi-layered domes shimmering in the early morning sun. Amidst the chaos of the city below, there was a sense of peace emanating from the purity of the white stone. He drew a deep breath, urging the weariness to leave his body.
“When I was trying to find you, I told those who needed to know that I was rebuilding our father’s business. We had lost all contacts, and my helplessness was the most honest portrayal of the victim I needed to become. I am not sure if we can continue that story, but I don’t see that creating another will be more beneficial. Perhaps our task is simply to learn and observe, for our inexperience will cover any situation we stumble into.”
He leaned closer toward Faerl, and lowered his voice. “We cannot trust Tarbuk to be the simple guide he claims. I may have been too hasty in accepting his help. The lure of a warm meal and a night’s sleep caused me to overlook his convenient appearance. We should be on our guard.”
“Surely no one knows we are here?” Faerl asked, looking at the door as if curious ears pressed upon the other side. “The only way word could have reached any in Sira’an so soon would be if Jökull had sent a message ahead, but why would he do that?” Faerl’s brow creased. “And to whom?”
Before Ohrl could respond, there was a polite knock on the door. Ohrl ushered Faerl to the corner of the balcony and out of sight, then moved to stand beside the door with his sword half drawn.
“Who is it?”
“Lunch,” came a heavily accented male voice. Ohrl cautiously clicked the lock and opened the door. A heavy set man in a dark charcoal cotton gown stood with two plates of chicken and fresh salads. He nodded at the food.
“Lunch,” the man repeated, and indicated with his eyes that he wished to set it on the table inside. Ohrl opened the door fully and allowed him in, slipping the sword back inside his cloak. The man turned after he had laid the lunch down.
“Me,” he said, pointing to himself, and then pointed with wide circling arms to the room and beyond. He looked hopeful, waiting for Ohrl’s response, but seeing the confused look on Ohrl’s face he started to gesticulate again. Ohrl understood the second time around, and replied with the same gestures.
“This is your house?” he asked, looking around the room as though he was a new guest on a tour. “You are Tarbuk’s uncle?”
The man’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Uncle, Tarbuk.” He nodded and smiled, pointing furiously at himself, then again to the room. He looked down to his right, searching for some more words he knew, glad that he was communicating. Then his eyes squinted, and he looked around.
“You one, two?” He held up his thumb, then straightened a finger and cocked his head in question.
Ohrl smiled, took hold of the man’s arm and led him to the balcony window. “Two,” he said. “Faerl, come and meet Tarbuk’s uncle. It seems he is the owner of the house, and he has brought us lunch.”
The man reached out and shook Faerl’s hand, then shook Ohrl’s, and bowed politely to them. He pointed to himself again. “Sadri.” He looked at the boys, still smiling. “Uncle Sadri.” Then he pointed at Ohrl.
Bowing again, Ohrl pointed to himself. “Ohrl,” then turned sideways to look at his brother.
They all stared at each other, at a loss as to where to go from here. Faerl turned to the great white temple set before them. “Habiyaad Gasseer,” he said slowly, pointing to the temple.
“Hab’yad Gasir,” Sadri said, correcting Faerl’s pronunciation. As Sadri faced the billowing white domes rising high upon each other, Ohrl noticed his eyes lose some of their shine. Faerl and Ohrl joined him in silence for a few seconds, admiring the temple, and then Sadri turned and patted Ohrl on the shoulder. “Lunch.”
Ohrl laughed. “Lunch,” then made a show of resting his head on his hands. “Sleep.” Sadri nodded, making his way to the door and bowing again before leaving.
“Nice man,” said Faerl, sitting down in front of the plate of chicken. “I wonder why he doesn’t speak much?”
“He seemed quite happy that we at least understood what he was talking about. I thought he would adopt you when you called the temple by name, but it stopped him in his tracks. It seems uncle Sadri is not happy with the world outside.”
“At least he makes good food.” Faerl swallowed another piece of chicken and gave a groan of pleasure. “After the swill I was served….” He hesitated, thinking of his captivity with Veikko and the Brotherhood, deep in the cold clutches of the Meil’vohllen. “Well, let’s just say it’s nice to be free and alive.”
Ohrl nodded and ate his meal in silence. Not long after that, both brothers stripped down, closed the shutter doors and lay down on their beds, utterly exhausted from nine days of restless escape.
It was late in the afternoon when they both awoke. The first thing that struck Ohrl was the smell of the sea, wafting through the closed shutters. It disoriented him, and in the dim light he took a few moments to remember where he was. The sharp shrill of sea birds rang in the air, piercing the general din of a busy city.
They made their way downstairs to the main courtyard, where they found Tarbuk and Sadri talking to two men dressed in cream robes. The men eyed the boys inquisitively, then nodded curtly to Sadri and left before Ohrl and Faerl came within earshot.
“Welcome, my friends,” Tarbuk called, leaving his uncle’s side. “You slept well?”
Ohrl nodded. “Enough for now, and hopefully not enough to ruin a good night’s sleep later on.” His body was still stiff and sore from sleeping in icy caves and on rocky plateaus, but his stomach was full, and his mind much calmer than it had been earlier that morning. “We thought we might begin to explore the city a little.”
The fire returned to Tarbuk’s eyes. “Yes, yes. You have time before the sun sets, and there is plenty to see. What do you want? The markets? The food halls? It is too far to go to the lake for now, but I can take you there tomorrow.”
“Actually we are in need of clothing,” Faerl said, looking down at the brown robes they wore. “These are all we have, but they are too hot for our liking, and it seems they are not customarily worn in this part of the city.”
“No,” Tarbuk said. “These mark you as a stranger almost as much as your pale skin. They are the clothes the water collectors wear, thicker to stop the winds that harass the gorge.”
Water collectors? Faerl was about to enquire, sure the great tubes and towers he had observed upon the cliffs as they crossed the bridge the morning before were linked somehow, but Ohrl interrupted before he could ask.
“We see many people wearing different coloured robes, do they signify anything?”
“No,” Tarbuk replied quite merrily. “A colour is just a colour. It is the material that counts. The finer the cloth, the richer the man. You have camel wool, the poorest of the working class. When I first saw you, I knew that was not your station. Your soft hands and light skin gave you away even before I saw your faces. You would do well to buy something more fitting for your class. I will show you to the clothing markets, and you can decide what you can afford.”
A twinkle sparked up in his eye. “You must allow me to bargain for you, it would be my honour. You will be marked as a foreigner, and you will never get a fair price, no matter how hard you try. I think it would be best for you to find the kind of cloth you are interested in, and then I will purchase it for you. But first we must exchange your kopjes for dhirat, for no bargain will be found using Hejveld coin.”
Ohrl frowned but agreed. He didn’t like being led by the hand but, if they were to blend in, there seemed no better opportunity to do it quickly. Already Tarbuk had given them specific information about the local dress customs that they might never have understood. He checked his coin purse, and the steel blade still hidden beneath his cloak, and motioned for them all to leave.
Sheltered within Sadri’s house, they had almost forgotten the throng of people that made up the city, and as they passed through the gates they were met by a wall of noise and chaos. Together with Tarbuk, they pushed their way into the crowded streets, bustling shoulder to shoulder with the people milling around the stalls. Snapped back into reality, Ohrl took note of the route they travelled, back through the narrow lane, turning left between two buildings, right into the little market street filled with local fruit, vegetables and fish, before bursting into the wide avenue that lined the temple.
The sun flared into their faces as it bounced off the walls, and reflected up from the stone below. Ohrl automatically shielded his eyes with his forearm, waiting for his sight to adjust, and to catch his breath.
“Follow me,” he heard Tarbuk call, and he turned to track Tarbuk’s pace north. The open air of the avenue lining the temple was soon lost once again in yet another crowded street. While still wide enough for ten people to walk side by side, it was crammed with hundreds of bargain hunters vying for the same space, travelling in both directions or stopping without warning to haggle for goods. Somehow Tarbuk managed to talk and push his way through, always clearing a path for Faerl and Ohrl as he spoke.
“The area immediately north of the great temple is mainly for the wealthy, you can find anything there if you have enough coin. I shall take you beyond this area, to the traders’ market, where most of Sira’an’s citizens trade with those coming in from the port. On your own you will not find a bargain, you will be caught like most newcomers within the first few streets. I will take you deep into the market. Come, follow me, my friends. I will take care of you.”
Ohrl had no doubt he would take care of them for a share of the profits, but if it meant not being bothered by others then it was a price worth paying. They may still get a better deal on clothing and money with Tarbuk by their side than on their own, even if it was not as good as the locals enjoyed.
It was a straight road they followed, and Ohrl noticed the buildings slowly change from solid stone construction in the richer area where they were staying, to more hastily erected wooden buildings, their overextended upper floors supported by poles wedged into supports in the ground. The space above closed in on them as the extensions grappled for supremacy, and the heat of stale air and sweat soon became oppressive. Ohrl and Faerl soon found themselves following Tarbuk at pace through tunnelled avenues that burrowed between the houses, and it wasn’t long before the sky disappeared altogether, the buildings reaching across the canopy, gripping each other’s eaves and clasping tightly shut.
Hundreds of tiny stalls lined each path, lit dimly inside by white firelights. Ohrl hardly had time to register what was for sale. He caught only glimpses of faces in earnest negotiation or laughter, some drinking tea or watching them as they passed. Each face was stern and calculating, and Ohrl realised these men could be bought for a price. He knew at once that their presence here would not stay secret for long.
The darkness ended abruptly when the avenue opened into a huge circular food court, completely surrounded by three-storey high rickety wooden buildings. Filling the centre were scores of food stalls, the rich spices of meat mixed with the stench of fish and salt assaulting Ohrl’s senses. Hundreds of people milled about, taking seats around the edges or standing, conversing and laughing with fellow traders and shoppers alike. Tarbuk caught Ohrl’s eye and ushered them over to a quiet spot away from any unwanted ears.
“This is the centre of the great market. All of the main avenues lead here, so if ever you become disorientated, you can easily find your way back to this point and start again. Just remember, we entered through Temple Avenue, but it is also known as the White Road, for the firelights that lead back to the temple burn a bright white, and are unique within these streets.”
Ohrl turned to mark the entrance, but he could not discern any difference between where they had just come from and the other gateways that surrounded the court. Tarbuk followed his gaze, and placed a reassuring hand on Ohrl’s arm when he saw the look of panic on his face.
“Don’t worry. At night time it’s easier to spot, the glow from the firelights will show your way. The white firelights that line the White Road are unique, and reveal the path to the temple.” Tarbuk turned and gestured toward the surrounding walls.
“There are ten avenues in all, spread out like the spokes of a cart wheel. Linking them are tiny pathways, bridges, and tunnels on different levels. It is a labyrinth for those new to the city. Even I am unsure what lies on each path. The street markets are open to all, but you must be invited to gain access to the levels above and below ground. That is where the real trade begins, and it may be where you find yourselves in the future, but for now, stay close to me. You will lose yourself too easily without my help.”
“This is incredible,” said Faerl, gazing up to the surrounding buildings. Tarbuk smiled proudly.
“This market has been here since the birth of the city, though it has grown over the years as more people are drawn in from the east.”
“What brings them here?” Faerl asked, his eyes still admiring the structured chaos that bound the market together.
“Work, I guess. Or lack of it. Most are not content to live a nomadic life. Water is scarce, and the riches that Sira’an sits upon feeds the lives of all those beyond in the Flatlands, and even further east into the Great Depression. As more people leave the small villages, life there becomes impossible to maintain. Soon the village dies, its population now immigrants in a city that can barely contain them.”
“Does that not cause friction? Is there enough work to go around?” Ohrl wondered how the city was policed, sure that the poverty would turn to desperation and violence if the right, or wrong, conditions were created.
“As long as we have enough food, a warm place to sleep and can keep our families safe, we have no need for more. Our faith has always provided what we need in our hearts.” Ohrl was about to enquire further, but Tarbuk stepped forward once again.
“Come, first we must change your money. If I am to bargain for you, I cannot do it without dhirat. How much do you want to exchange?”
Faerl and Ohrl looked at each other. They had no idea how long they would stay in the city, or what lay beyond. The only certainty they had was that they would not be returning to Hejveld any time soon.
“We need clothing to help us blend in, accommodation, and food for a week,” said Ohrl, trying to sound confident in their own plans. “We can work on getting more should that run out.”
Tarbuk did a rough calculation in his head. “You can pay us in kopjes if that suits you, so you need only exchange for clothing and any extra food you take outside my uncle’s house. You will need maybe one thousand dhirat for clothes and food, perhaps a little more if you wish to dress well. What kind of business are you here for?”
“We will need working class clothes, plus something a little more upmarket.” Ohrl was more concerned with moving about the city unnoticed, and wished for a range of guises. They already had the poorer brown robes, and these would almost certainly be required should they fall among the less desirable residents of the city.
“Remember one thing,” interjected Tarbuk. “Do not try to create sympathy from the traders by wearing clothes of a station below you, or who you are trying to trade with. A merchant is more willing to bargain with those above him in the hope of securing more business, and also for the status it gives him. If you plead poverty you will simply be ignored. It is sometimes better to over power a merchant with a show of strength, than to create false pity.”
“Surely the clothes I wear can’t prove my status?” asked Faerl. “If that were so, everyone would wear robes of rich silk to hide their true worth.”
Tarbuk nodded. “This is true, but a man can only mask his appearance for so long. The true art is making the merchant believe you are who you say you are. An honest trader is respected more than one who deceives, and repeat trade is welcomed most of all. It is better for you to become familiar with several merchants who will, in time, trust you so that you will always conduct a fair transaction. Right now you don’t have time to make such a deal. This is why you need me.”
Tarbuk puffed his chest out, and Ohrl saw his pride mount. This was a chance for Tarbuk to prove himself, not only to them, but to himself. Ohrl nodded in agreement, and reached for his purse that lay hidden deep in the sleeves of his cloak.
“There are five hundred kopjes in that bag. You say we need one thousand dhirat, but I am sure with your skills you can acquire a little more for us. As you say, repeat trade is valued above all, and there will be more from us should our venture here prove fruitful. We trust you, Tarbuk, to get the best deal you can.”
Ohrl saw the glint in Tarbuk’s eyes as he took the coin purse.
“Wait here, have some food. I will come back.”
Tarbuk handed them a handful of dhirat, then walked slowly through the market to an avenue on the far side, where he was abruptly swallowed in the gloom.
“I hope that wasn’t all of our money,” Faerl remarked, as he watched Tarbuk disappear.
“No, far from it. I split it into small portions in case we are robbed.”
“If he does not return, then we already have been.”
Ohrl gripped his older brother’s shoulder. “Fear not. There is something trustworthy about Tarbuk. I sense in this city that you never cross your friends, and trade is a game to be won and lost with no resentment. I feel I could be most persuasive given the opportunity, but we must discover their social boundaries in order not to breach them. Let Tarbuk take the reins for now, then we’ll see what we can achieve on our own.”