Kha’atib stood high upon the cliffs beyond Ashqa’at, overlooking the tribes of the eastern desert’s retreat. His white robes flowed effortlessly around him, shifting upon a gentle breeze as the desert wind rose to meet him. He marvelled at the sight of so many men, yet his eyes burned upon one lone soul, swathed in black at the head of the distant caravan.
“I fear that man,” Kha’atib said beneath his breath.
“And so you should,” Za’im suggested, stepping beside the leader of the White Watchers. He followed Kha’atib’s gaze to the figure perched proudly atop his camel, flanked by a dozen of the desert tribes’ lesser leaders. “Wahid is not only revered among his own men, but within the people of Ashqa’at and Johsala as well. He is a relic of the old ways, a dying breed, but in their hearts, he represents what the men of the desert once were.”
“And shall be once again,” Kha’atib swore, but fear still held sway over his heart. “It was a mistake to allow Ohrl to infiltrate that caravan. We should not have let him escape. If Ohrl forges a bond with Wahid, he may renew the strength of the desert in ways we cannot counter. Simak, how well do you trust this man Josham we sent to monitor Ohrl?”
“He is loyal,” Simak said from behind Kha’atib’s shoulder, “and not through money or greed like the boat captain. Josham will find a way to report back to us, and kill the boy when the time comes.”
Kha’atib tore his gaze from Wahid, scanning the plains and casting his eye over the thousands of men and camels laden with heaving skins of water. Dust kicked from the stone, concealing the features of those who followed Wahid into the outer reaches of the desert. I must leave them to their fate for now, Kha’atib thought before turning to face Simak.
“One day that army will return, and in greater numbers. We have work to do. Have they prepared celebrations for our departure?”
Simak nodded. “A final feast will be held tonight, then we leave for Johsala before dawn’s blood of the second day.”
Dawn’s blood. Kha’atib thought of the phrase used so commonly among the tribes of the Great Depression. The rimming of blood red light that spread across the shimmering desert heat of a new dawn by the rising sun. Yet as Kha’atib stared one last time toward the eastern horizon, he knew dawn’s blood would one day herald a rampaging army intent on claiming his head.
Dancers, glistening with fine oil, writhed to the melodic rhythm of drums. Fires burned, searing the crackling skin of birds and beasts, their dripping fat sending mouth-watering smells high into the night air. Thousands of hungry mouths gathered in the shadows surrounding the courtyard, with those who could not fit clamouring upon the rooftops, watching with fascination the enclave of the city’s elite lounging on carpets and cushions enjoying the feast. They carried no resentment for their lack of food, for it was their honour to host the great leader of the White Watchers, a man heralded among the common folk as the saviour of the Great Depression.
Slaves brought gifts to lay before Kha’atib’s table, which he accepted with a touch of his hand to his heart. Bound parchments of fealty were the most common, rolled and sealed by the leader of each village, accompanied by a smaller offering of silks or gems. Some even came with seals of ownership, as slaves were offered freely to Kha’atib to make his journey to Johsala and his life within its walls a touch more pleasant. Some were strong men, others freshly plucked girls brimming with the promise of womanhood, but Kha’atib perceived all were simply unwanted mouths to feed. Despite his unwillingness, he accepted them with honour, glancing at each in turn, detecting a mixture of pride and fear.
The men around Kha’atib laughed, revelling in their support for Sira’an’s expression of hope, but Kha’atib knew that when it came, the sight of his departure would be welcomed beyond compare. Behind closed doors in the Smoking Hall of Ra’ihan, these men had procured power and wealth in the days leading up to his arrival, and Kha’atib knew that once he was gone, corruption would again be rife throughout the city. As if to test his theory, he beckoned Ra’ihan close.
The owner of the great smoking hall of Ashqa’at shuffled toward him with slender grace. Unlike Allesh, whose fat bulk was best kept hidden beneath the catacombs of the city, Ra’ihan was lean and shrewd. His movements were measured, right down to the way he placed his near empty glass of tea, positioning it slightly forward from the edge of the table, then twisting as though making it available for the pourer. As soon as Ra’ihan was comfortable, a young slave girl refilled his glass.
“I hope you do not see my presence in the desert as an intrusion into Ashqa’at’s politics,” Kha’atib politely said. “My role here is simply to rekindle a connection between our two great cities.”
“Your presence has been a most welcome distraction,” Ra’ihan replied, “one that will invigorate the heart of our people. Look beyond those who gorge upon your feast, see the eyes filled with hope that surround this courtyard. It will be upon the shoulders of the frail souls hidden in the shadows that your message will be carried. The men who gather at your feast may not care so much once you are gone.”
Kha’atib raised an eyebrow, surprised at Ra’ihan’s bluntness, at which Ra’ihan smiled.
“I am not the worm that burrows through the halls in Sira’an like Allesh. He and his ancestors have been controlled for generations by the Qhabirs, and I presume doubly so now that Sattah has assumed control.”
Kha’atib stiffened at the affront but Ra’ihan gently raised his hand in reassurance.
“We mourn Ha’amturah’s death. He was a warrior, as well as a humble servant of his people. The men of the desert identified with his ideals, though none had ever met him. Sattah is an unknown, he will have to make his mark upon the world. He will have to prove his worth.”
Ra’ihan leant in closer.
“You, on the other hand, have our respect. It is not a light thing to venture into the desert, especially for one not accustomed to all its charms, or its dangers.”
Kha’atib eyed Ra’ihan warily. “You compliment me, but I have no delusions of this transition being anything but cruel. Our lives within Sira’an have separated from those within the desert. It is my station in life to begin bridging that gap, and to unite our people once more.”
“Come now,” Ra’ihan scoffed. “You don’t seriously think our people can become one glorified and united force, do you? I accept you offer aid and soldiers to accompany the water that Sira’an has so generously provided, but do not hope to presume our nations will become one. Most Sira’anese would revolt before being forced to live within the desert, and it’s an ambition that none of our people would ever ignite. The heart of the desert men will always lie within the soft sands, no matter how much they rely on Sira’an’s water or Ashqa’at’s impregnable walls. What ever your aspirations are for the seat of Johsala, Kha’atib, remember it is the people of the desert who will secure your claim.”
Kha’atib shifted in his seat, the hard cushion becoming uncomfortable as the rough camel wool carpet scratched through his soft silks.
“If the Kjatmi’ir gather beyond the borders to the south as our spies suggest, I simply offer the union and support of our soldiers,” he countered. “I’ll make no claim upon Johsala’s throne.”
“Of course you won’t,” Ra’ihan said as he bowed his head, then questioned ever so softly, “but why else would you be here?”
Kha’atib was incensed. To save your wretched bones from oblivion, he wanted to shout, but he forced his soul to remain patient. This was not the time to reveal the danger of Ohrl’s escape during the slave market of Ashqa’at. All those present had felt the wave of power, and although the tale had spread from those who bore witness, none could explain its cause. Breathing life into a whispered rumour was not something Kha’atib would risk. Not yet. He must wait.
“I am here because I need your help,” he humbly replied.
Ra’ihan met the remark with an impassive mask, but his silence was enough to know his interest was piqued.
"I am but a humble servant of the men who gather at your feast,” Ra’ihan acknowledged, lowering his head in subservience, but Kha’atib was not fooled.
“You are right in saying that Ashqa’at is not like Sira’an,” Kha’atib said, “nor is the House of Ra’ihan so manipulated as the wretched Hall of Allesh. The men who gather before me may hold power within this city, but it is given to them by those beneath them, and it is at your discretion as to how that balance of power is given, or taken from those who assume too much.”
Ra’ihan’s silence once again confirmed Kha’atib’s suspicion. He let the silence hang, smothered by the laughter and music of the feast surrounding them, of which both he and Ra’ihan took little notice. You know change is coming, Kha’atib thought, yet even though he agreed with Ra’ihan’s claim of superiority over Allesh, Kha’atib treated both with disdain.
“What would you have me do?” Ra’ihan asked in hushed tones, prompting Kha’atib to simply lean back.
“Nothing you are not already doing. Keep a strong hold upon this city. I will assume my place within Johsala, and begin rebuilding its ties with Ashqa’at. I expect to meet resistance when I arrive from those in power, so I need to know that Ashqa’at remains stable and strong. You are unique within this city, Ra’ihan. I have no intention of interference. I would simply have you as an ally.”
Kha’atib acknowledged Ra’ihan’s acceptance, then dismissed him before being questioned any further. Kha’atib knew he must rely heavily on this man for help should the time come, and although Ra’ihan showed vigorous support in Johsala’s favour, Kha’atib would never trust him. Although his manner spoke otherwise, Ra’ihan was as much a slave to his position as was Allesh. He was the head of a Great Smoking Hall, and no matter who ruled the city, Ra’ihan would maintain self preservation of his house and family at all cost. He would do everything in his power to find out why the bulk of Sira’an’s army was about to march upon Johsala’s gate. To counter this, Kha’atib knew he must be subtle in his deliverance of Sattah’s plan if he was to assume total control of the desert.
A warm and gentle breeze floated across Ashqa’at’s broken stone rooftops toward an open balcony higher within the city, rising to meet Faerl’s mournful stare. He could hear the celebrations in the distance, the wild calls and laughter rising as the city honoured Kha’atib, yet his heart felt little cause for cheer.
“I should not have abandoned him,” he whispered to Baeta, finding some solace in her warmth. She shifted closer, her arm slipping around his shoulders.
“You did what you felt you must.”
Faerl sighed. “He’ll blame me for leaving him, and he’ll blame the priests. If he’s left alone too long, Ohrl will succumb to Husam’s hatred, and I will lose his trust.”
He turned from the city and wrapped his arms around Baeta. She still wore her hood over her face, even when they were alone. Faerl wondered how long it would take before she’d truly feel comfortable with him once again. After a comforting embrace, he felt her pull away.
“There are more important things ahead, Faerl. You didn’t abandon Ohrl without reason. You said the priests had hidden the source of their strength within the nature of harmonics. You must remember. If you are to save Ohrl, you must uncover this power.”
Faerl looked up at the stars shining brightly overhead. It reminded him so clearly of the Brotherhood library and the underlying source of power he knew lay buried there. He returned his gaze to Baeta’s cool blue eyes, soft and pleading, and his fears fell away, washed into a receding tide.
“Help me find the strength to do this, Baeta. It’s beyond hope that you are alive and in my arms, and now I know I need you beside me more than ever.”
His heart ached at her effort to smile, so for a few moments he simply pulled her close, wishing to say no more. Yet there were questions burning within, and although the words stuck in his throat, he could contain them no more.
“How is it that you are alive?”
He felt her body become tense, and at once he regretted asking.
“I’m not sure,” she said. She left his embrace, and Faerl watched her rest her tortured hands upon the stone parapet as she looked out over the city lights.
“For a long time I felt I was in a dream, a nightmare, but when I woke, Veikko was there to help me. He apologised, not only for what he had done, but for allowing you to leave without knowing who I was.”
Faerl was confused. “There were so many occasions when you stood before me, watching me struggle with the Khalada Stone or commit my oaths within the Contract Stone. All those times within the Guardian Council you knew I was there, yet you said nothing. Why?”
“I was not myself then, Faerl. I remember none of that. For some time, Veikko’s skill in bringing me back from the dead was not complete. I fear he desired to use me to broker a connection with the one you face as your enemy. Somehow, if he kept me between the waking world and that beyond, he would have a link to a power far greater than his own. Only after you took the Khalada Stone did he see fit to restore me as much as he could.”
Faerl struggled to believe it. “Veikko has no such strength over the dead, Baeta. I fear his collusion with my enemy goes far deeper than this. He could not have breathed life into your soul on his own.”
A cold chill ran down his spine. He stared at Baeta, frail beneath her grey cloak, wondering at her predicament since the Brotherhood claimed her. She was being used just as much as he was, forced to serve the Brotherhood for the betterment of their kind, even though Veikko was blind to his own manipulation by their enemy.
“I saw you offer Veikko advice, Baeta. He looked to you before making decisions, an act he would never allow. An outsider, guiding his path.”
“I did not offer him advice,” Baeta yelled, and it caused Faerl to step away, shocked at her sudden surge of anger. “It was not me. I….”
Faerl stepped forward, slipping the hood from her head. He saw fury in her eyes, but there was genuine fear hidden beneath those blue shoals. “What is it, Baeta?”
He felt her shoulders tremble. She tried to run but he held her firm. “Tell me what happened to you within the halls of the Brotherhood?”
“He saved me,” she replied, finally daring to look him square in the eye. “He saved me from a nightmare from which I could not wake. I was trapped between life and death. I know he did not bring me back to life, but he gave me the strength to fight for myself, to remember who I was. Something else had hold of me, Faerl. Something dark and cold. Veikko even admits that he thought to keep the connection between him and this unknown presence, but after you left he feared those breaching his walls. It was only then he decided to sever the connection to your enemy. In doing so, my mind and all that I am was released. I only remember from that day forward and nothing before.”
Faerl was stunned into silence, having no strength to stop her from moving away from his hold. He remained outside as Baeta swept through the balcony doors and into the room beyond.
Veikko finally sees what faces him, he thought to himself, then strode forward to comfort Baeta. “My love, I’m sorry you’ve suffered through this. If Veikko can sever my enemy’s connection, then I have no doubt I can prevent them from reaching you ever again. Do you fear they still have some hold over you?”
Baeta shook her head, and he pulled her close. “I will not let them harm you.”
She raised her head and met his gaze. “I believe you, Faerl.”
He wanted to kiss her. He felt his desires return, but she was still so fragile, and he was unsure if she could ever be intimate with him again.
“Stay with me tonight,” he implored. “There are guards outside. We are leaving in the morning, and I doubt we will have privacy such as this for many nights to come. I can protect you, Baeta. I’ll find a way with Kyosti’s help, and Veikko’s as well if he has no ill intent. As long as you’re by my side, I’ll find the strength to unravel all that opposes us.”
“I’m sorry, Faerl,” her voice trembled. “I cannot sleep beside you. Not yet. I want to, trust me, I want to.”
“Then put aside your fears, Baeta. I can’t sleep knowing you are alive but not in my arms. I will keep you safe. I promise, I will keep you safe.”
Faerl held her tight, not daring to let go, until he felt her body soften in his embrace. He took her to his bed, turning away as she undressed. As she slid beneath the sheets, he extinguished the firelights, so that only the light from the city and the stars glowed through, alongside the rhythmic beat of the drums as Ashqa’at continued to farewell Kha’atib and the soldiers of Sira’an. Faerl knew there would be desperate days ahead, but for now he was content. Baeta was in his arms, and he took all the strength he could muster as he closed his eyes and prepared to face another night of visions laid in his mind by the priests.