Kha’atib woke to the sound of an explosion echoing across Johsala. He bolted upright, causing the thin sheet to slip from the naked servant girl, curled up next to him in his bed.
“It’s too early,” Hanir whispered. She tiredly draped an arm around his waist, but Kha’atib pushed her aside. He rose, naked, and stood at the open door leading to the balcony and looked out over the city. She was right. Dawn’s blood was yet to rise; its faint warmth barely forged on the horizon, but the towering cloud of dust rising from a crumbling minaret attached to the main Temple of al-Din was plain for all to see.
“Is this your doing?”
Kha’atib spun to find Simak striding into his personal chambers. Hanir, now wide awake, screamed and pulled the sheet close.
“Get out,” Simak ordered, standing over her cowering, naked form. She blanched and looked to Kha’atib for solace but Kha’atib felt nothing for this girl. He nodded for her to leave, and as she scrambled to find her clothes, he turned to stare once more out over the city.
“At least put some clothes on,” Simak begged, tossing him a robe. Kha’atib drew it around his shoulders as Simak stood close, then both stared at the dissipating plume of dust.
“Recognise what was destroyed?”
Kha’atib didn’t have to look. He knew exactly which minaret lay in crumbled ruins just below the walls of al-Din’s temple.
“How did they gain access?”
“There’s no other way in save through the Temple,” Simak replied, “and you allow too many to trek through its walls.”
Kha’atib turned to find Simak gesturing to the ruffled bed sheets.
“She played no part in this.”
“Yet she’s become too familiar with guarded paths,” Simak replied. “She could have let others in.”
Kha’atib stared at the empty space left within the bed, allowing Simak to believe that he at least considered her treachery, but he knew Ba’ahir’s spy had nothing to do with the attack.
“Send our men,” Kha’atib said quietly. “See if any have been hurt.”
Simak looked to the horizon. “Dawn’s blood is still an hour away. Few would have been preparing for the call.”
“Very few, but I know of one in particular.”
Simak spun toward him.
“The new priest? You think the attack was against him?”
“Or a failed attempt to kill me,” Kha’atib calmly replied. “Either way, those who rise against us are trying to undermine our place here, and it appears that destroying their own temple is not beyond their cowardice.”
Kha’atib thought of the young man he had promoted to the rank of Temple Priest. He was Johsalan born, a righteous believer in the Scrolls of Hateeb and a shining example of how the people of Johsala and Sira’an could co-exist in this increasingly crowded city. They would mourn his death, but once they found the marks of al-Din near the ruined minaret, the young priest would become a martyr, a symbol against this rising scourge of Husam al-Din. Kha’atib had to be patient. No one could know he, alone, had orchestrated this attack.
The dawn prayer that morning was full of vengeance and anger. As Kha’atib had planned, a black-clad soldier of the Third Ring was discovered in an abandoned room nearby, the mark of al-Din smeared across the wall in blood above his inert body. After destroying the temple minaret, Kha’atib made it known that the warrior had taken his own life. They found a single firelight hidden in a nearby room but, not realising it wasn’t a common light, the man charged with taking it away dropped and smashed it before igniting a torch to find his way. The resulting explosion melted what remained of the soldier and the mark of al-Din, and any other evidence the authorities had to uncover who was behind the attack. Rumours spread, whispered by old sailors of the weapons used by Sama’ad at sea. Johsala feared it was being pinched between the desert and the sea, and all eyes turned to Kha’atib for deliverance.
Kha’atib publicly condemned what had happened. He led the morning call to prayer; a task which was to be the young priest’s first. As his lone voice resonated throughout the city, Kha’atib reached out to those of the Third Ring. Though he did not believe all were to blame, he reminded the people that there were still those with waning ties to the Scrolls of Hateeb who sought Johsala’s destruction. Anger simmered throughout the city, fuelled by their fear of the Third Ring’s intent.
“The people will desire action,” Kha’atib said to Simak as they watched men lift the priest’s battered body from the crumbling ruins. It had taken all morning to find him, and those who looked on wept as he was wrapped in white silks and carried through the streets; his body raised high by many hands above the tumultuous crowd.
“What they need is control,” Simak said as they turned and made for Ba’ahir’s quarters, “but you must not be the one who administers it.”
Kha’atib looked questioningly at him.
“I’ve said it before, Kha’atib. You must not dirty your hands in the blood of those you serve. The white you wear is pure; though you taint it with the girls you pleasure yourself with at night.”
Kha’atib ignored the jibe. “If this call of al-Din grows louder, then the day we need to meet it head on will come sooner than we think. I would rather have the city behind me and those who nip at our feet cast out and begging in the streets than let them run rife.”
“Then that is a job for your Master at Arms and the so-called Leader of the Merchants.”
Simak stopped as they neared Ba’ahir’s Hall. Both admired the opulent façade. Scores of merchants already gathered before the walls. Simak stepped ahead, then turned and blocked Kha’atib’s view.
“Ba’ahir has proven his worth in collecting the wealth of the city, but he refrains from instigating what first brought you together: a desire for you to become the spearhead of Johsala and its people. There are those who call your name, while others cry for Husam al-Din. Just remember, that name does not represent a man. It’s merely a title. Sword of the Faith. That’s what they want. A fearless soul they can look up to and rally behind. They want a leader, so give it to them.”
Simak gripped him by the front of his robe.
“Become what they desire, Kha’atib. Become Husam al-Din.”
“No, my friend,” Kha’atib said, resting a hand on Simak’s shoulder. “The name of al-Din is a relic of the past, a memory lost in the dust. I call it for what it is – a fear of progression; a fear to forge new light into a dawn that has no sun. These people are afraid. They look to a dark past for a flame that has long since burned out, but I will be the light that guides them. I will give them so much more. One way or another, I will bring those within this city to their knees, and when they look up, they will unite in bowing before me.”
They found Ba’ahir pacing his private quarters that overlooked the city. They were quiet; sheltered from the chaos occurring within his halls and outside as merchants desperately fought for concessions with General Za’im and Haran’s Elite Guard. Yet Kha’atib could see the turmoil writ upon Ba’ahir’s face, so he hid his wry smile, glad to know he could unsettle Ba’ahir when he needed to.
“How did that attack happen?” Ba’ahir cried as Kha’atib and Simak entered. “I’ve not seen such destruction.”
“The spheres of Sama’ad are rare,” Kha’atib said as he passed Ba’ahir’s side to look out over the city.
“Sama’ad?” Ba’ahir blanched. “You really think Nazh-rndu’ul is behind this? What about the man found beneath the symbol of al-Din?”
Kha’atib shifted his gaze to the distant southern horizon.
“I’ve never seen the spheres in use with my own eyes, but there are ramparts in the old gates protecting Sira’an’s harbour that are testament to what they can do. There are tales told in our halls of fiery battles on land and sea. We kept the raiders of Nazh-rndu’ul at bay centuries ago, but if Sama’ad has found a way to supply the Third Ring, then we have a dangerous foe at our gates.”
“Or within them,” Ba’ahir whispered. “They must be coming through A’asaris and the mines of Ta’alamin.”
Kha’atib raised an eyebrow, glad Ba’ahir had fallen to such a conclusion.
“You rule out Burghat? Yet it is the closest and busiest port.”
“And it is run by men loyal to Johsala, not the Qha’ali Hasiir.”
“You forget,” Kha’atib said with a low growl. “To support Johsala does not necessarily mean supporting me. You may need to take a tighter grip on those within your command.”
“I stand by my men,” Ba’ahir warned, but his voice faltered as doubt laced around his words. Kha’atib simply nodded, content to let Ba’ahir’s insecurities simmer, yet he couldn’t stomach Ba’ahir’s silence for too long.
“This will only add to the merchants’ fears of an attack on their supplies, Ba’ahir. The threat of war will mean more risk for the caravans, especially those travelling east. We’ll need more soldiers to protect the lines between Qaris and Ma’ar Shaheer. And more soldiers will mean more taxes.”
“And more taxes will mean more chaos and more uprisings against you,” Ba’ahir warned. “The people will not stand for it for long.”
“And we know who to blame – the destroyer of peace in our land. Abd ar-Rahman, the so-called Prophet of al-Din.”
Kha’atib scrutinised Ba’ahir as the head of the merchant hall gathered his thoughts. He was cornering his financier, leading him into an affront on Johsala’s people to unite them and stave off war. This was the cost of preventing insurgency, yet before Ba’ahir could respond, a messenger burst into Ba’ahir’s quarters.
“Forgive the intrusion, but an Emissary from Qhabir Sama’ad is moored beyond the walls of Burghat,” the messenger said. “He is asking to speak to the Governor of Johsala. He wishes an audience with Kha’atib.”
Kha’atib, Ba’ahir and Simak all stared at each other.
“This is unheard of,” Ba’ahir finally stammered. “Never has any agent of Nazh-rndu’ul sought an audience with Johsala. Not within my lifetime. Or my father’s.”
Kha’atib desperately tried to hide his surprise. He’d planted the rumour of Sama’ad’s deceit to spread fear, for he knew no one would ever have the chance to prove otherwise. That was about to change.
“It can’t be a coincidence,” Simak offered. “The timing of the attack, and now this?”
Kha’atib turned to the messenger.
“What else was said?”
“Nothing, my Lord. He arrived on a single ship within the gloom of dawn, a black shadow breaking the sea mist. I rode hard to bring you this message, for he has not set foot within the harbour. He is waiting until you arrive before he does.”
Simak came close. “It could be a trap. I would advise sending another to meet him in your stead. They don’t know your face. Delay whatever action they intend until you’re sure it’s safe.”
“What possible harm could one man do in our own harbour?” Ba’ahir asked, but Simak’s warning was not about the damage that could be done from land.
“You said a morning sea mist?” Kha’atib asked the messenger. “Was it mist? Or a deep-sea fog?”
The messenger shook his head. “I’ve seen the fog. Years ago, when we dared encroach too close to Nazh-rndu’ul, that foul wind that harbours Sama’ad’s raiders. This mist cleared as the ship arrived. The Emissary travels alone.”
“I doubt that very much,” Kha’atib said, turning to face Simak and Ba’ahir. Both were staring at him, waiting, expecting. He realised that word of this meeting would quickly spread but was unsure of the right path, for if he left the city at the Emissary’s call there would always be those who said he abandoned Johsala at a time of dire need, yet if he rejected facing the Emissary he presented himself as a weak leader to Nazh-rndu’ul, and that was a mistake he could ill afford to make in front of the people of Johsala.
“Find Haran,” he commanded of Ba’ahir. “Form a guard of a dozen men and meet me on the bridge gates upon the hour.”
Ba’ahir stiffened. “Only a dozen? Considering what happened this morning, the road to Burghat could still be treacherous. I advise more men.”
“No,” Kha’atib imperiously replied. “I’ll not show fear of this man, not to him nor to the people of Johsala. I wish to hear what Sama’ad has to say. Call it a curiosity, nothing more.”
Haran met them at the large, stone city gate, flanked by twelve riders wrapped in battle veils and armour, each with two long swords strapped to their horses’ flanks and a bow lashed to each of their backs. Through the gate’s arches lay the causeway leading into the cliff towering behind the city, the entrance to the chasm road leading to Burghat. Kha’atib couldn’t help but be impressed, but he also felt nervous. This was the first time he’d made the journey, and he knew that Burghat, like any other port, was a law unto its own.
“We have a palanquin waiting for you,” Ba’ahir said as he approached, but Kha’atib pushed him aside.
“Fetch me a horse. And give me one of the soldiers’ wraps. I have no desire to stand out as a marked target.”
He saw a flicker of respect in Haran’s eyes. When it arrived, Kha’atib mounted the horse and rode to Haran’s side.
“If there are those who do Sama’ad’s bidding within the chasm, they may use this as a chance to take aim at me. I expect your men to prevent that with their lives.”
“I’ve already sent twenty men ahead to sweep the upper reaches of the chasm for any archers, and another twenty to patrol the path below. You’re as safe as I can make you.”
Kha’atib nodded, gestured toward the causeway and bid Haran take the lead. As the leader of Johsala’s Elite Guard took point, he saw Simak draw beside him, then all riders slipped their veils over their faces, allowing Kha’atib to fall into anonymity.
They travelled through the afternoon buried deep within chasm’s shadow. Though they made haste, it was a long climb from the desert to rise once more above sea level. Kha’atib felt Burghat long before he saw it. The air, cool within the chasm, was redolent of the sea. It was a sensation he savoured, for the taste brought memories of Sira’an to his lips, but sight of the colossal port city and the stretch of the blue sea beyond carried the realisation of just how different his life within the desert had become.
He shivered against a chill breeze, then glimpsed the ominous, black ship, moored alone and well within range of Burghat’s cliff-top defences. It was larger than a raider, much larger. Sama’ad’s Emissary had arrived in a machine of war.
“Send word that I’ve arrived,” Kha’atib said to Haran as they surveyed the port. “We’ll meet at once.”
“Shall I bring him to Ba’ahir’s private quarters above the city?”
Kha’atib stared at the black ship sitting so solemnly beyond the port. All other ships gave it a wide berth.
“No. Keep him waiting at the jetty. I want to gauge who I’m dealing with before affording him any hospitality.”
Haran stared at him for just a moment, no doubt trying to find reason behind Kha’atib’s request, then rode quickly down the pathway to complete the command. Kha’atib watched him leave, then turned to the men Haran had left behind, wondering how loyal they would be now that their commander had left him alone.
Unlike the wide sprawl of Sira’an’s harbour, Burghat tumbled from the cliffs much like the port city of Njall. Warehouses, wedged within impenetrable walls of stone, were surrounded by the chaotic scramble of makeshift houses and stairwells carved impossibly into the surface of the stone. Yet, where Njall looked like a scar rotting on the side the land, the bulbous domes and towering minarets adorning Burghat caught gloriously the waning afternoon sun, the two discs of Sira’an’s might glistening from each of the minarets’ peaks like beacons to those cast across the sea. It was magnificent; a sight Kha’atib did not expect to savour.
“Sattah’s influence reaches far,” Simak mused beside him. Kha’atib scoffed as he looked at a pair of discs pierced by a minaret high above the port.
“Sattah has no care for this place. Ha’amturah was the last great believer in a coalition of the people. I could understand Sama’ad’s Emissary if Ha’amturah himself was here, but I’m far from confident that Johsala will benefit from anything we’ll hear this day.”
Concerned with what the evening would bring, Kha’atib led Haran’s men down into the port. They secured space on the great winches and were lowered to the sea level as the sun began to set. The ship had moored by the time they reached the jetty. In the distance he saw Haran waiting with two men, one of them dressed in white.
“Kha’atib, leader of the White Watchers,” Haran announced as Kha’atib approached, “Protector of the Scrolls of Hateeb, and Emissary of Qhabir Sattah in Johsala, may I present Aelor, High Priest of the Pale Order and Emissary of Qhabir Sama’ad of Nazh-rndu’ul.”
Kha’atib nodded to the man standing before him, though he stopped far short of a deferential bow. Aelor, his skin pale, with unblinking eyes piercingly blue, instantly reminded Kha’atib of Veikko and the Brotherhood, and at once his caution increased. For a few moments Aelor did nothing but stare before a thin smile spread across his lips, and he finally lowered his head to acknowledge Kha’atib.
“Forgive my ignorance,” Kha’atib began. “I was not aware Sama’ad was a spiritual man. The position of Priest is not one I thought I would face as an Emissary from Nazh-rndu’ul.”
Aelor nodded in acknowledgement. “And had the spiritual guide to the desert not come from Sira’an to Johsala’s aid, then it would be another who stood in my place, if indeed any would have come at all. There is precedence being set in our meeting. Yet, I’m afraid its cause may not be one of peace.”
Kha’atib fought the urge to shift uncomfortably at Aelor’s words. He stood his ground, an act which sparked appreciation in the Emissary’s eyes.
“I come offering terms of trade with Nazh-rndu’ul,” Aelor continued. “The seas surrounding your coastline have become dangerous, and although our states have never been allied in peace, we do not want war lapping at our shores.”
Kha’atib was confused. “Forgive my ignorance, I am new to Johsala’s throne, but the pains our merchants suffer in the seas surrounding Burghat are the same suffered by A’asaris, Sira’an and Njall, perhaps more so. The only danger comes from your raiders attacking our trade fleet. Whatever act of war you seek to defend us from would best be served by withdrawing your ships from so close to our shores.”
For a moment Aelor hesitated. There was no denying Kha’atib’s words, but Kha’atib felt he was being scrupulously measured.
“A new enemy has come,” Aelor said at last. “One that brought you from your palace high on the cliffs of Sira’an to the vastness of the desert; an enemy you may have no hope to contain.”
Kha’atib blanched. It drew another thin smile across Aelor’s lips. Though he fought hard to remain calm, Kha’atib was fast beginning to despise this man.
“We are not without our ways of discovering what happens upon the mainland,” Aelor said with poorly disguised pleasure. “Rumours, no matter how quietly they are whispered, can carry far out to sea. Yet I fear you misjudge our intent. Our stranglehold over the seas beyond your lands is not for our own gain. We care nothing for the deserts, and though we raid your ships that drift too close to our borders, there is a new threat, one that we have no wish to see rise again.”
Aelor turned to the soldier behind him, and for the first time Kha’atib took notice of the man at Aelor’s side.
“You’re a Captain of House Sdra’fhol?”
The Captain raised an eyebrow.
“You’re familiar with our name?”
Kha’atib nodded. “I’m aware of your ruling families and their insignia.” He acknowledged the three silver masts beneath three stars etched in deep blue, emblazoned upon the man’s breast.
“My regards to Baelunnd. Though we have never met, I fear we have stood on opposing shores regarding the same seas more than once.”
The Captain hesitated at Baelunnd’s name, but bowed his acknowledgement, then glanced at Aelor, who nodded, and the Captain turned for his ship.
“I understand your grievances against our fleet,” Aelor said, turning once more to Kha’atib. “Yet I am not here to present false claims. We discovered something which, as men of peace, you and I must discuss for the sake of both our lands.”
Confused, Kha’atib caught sight of the captain returning, followed by sixteen men. Four he recognised as armed soldiers, but as they drew close, he saw the remaining twelve were bound in chains.
“We caught them adrift in the Inner Sea,” Aelor said, following Kha’atib’s gaze. “They were floundering near the cliffs on your southern flanks. They are soldiers, not sailors, and we fear they were trying to find a way across without being discovered.”
Kha’atib stepped closer to the men. They looked afraid, though they tried not to show it. They were dark skinned, like those of the desert. Yet even if they were of the Third Ring, Kha’atib knew of no reason why Sama’ad would see fit not to just kill such men trespassing on his seas. He then noticed their armour.
“Where are these men from?” he asked Aelor. “I know the insignia of your five ruling families. These resemble none of them.”
Aelor scanned Haran’s men, and Kha’atib sensed his nervousness.
“Speak plainly, Aelor. You came this far. I am a man of peace, as you say. You are in no danger here.”
Aelor bowed once more, a little deeper this time.
“They are ordinary soldiers,” he said, staring hard at the men in chains. “They are the Kjatmi’ir.”