Chapter Five

     Na’ilah stared through the barred windows of her cell. Dawn’s light ricocheted off the cliffs surrounding Nazh-rndu’ul’s upper harbour, and from her cliffside perch she caught sight of the great warships still moored in the middle of the port. Most had been moved away from the main jetties – Baelin taking no more risk that another raid could occur.

     Sounds of wood and metal being beaten echoed up the cliffs. The Farasha’i had not stopped day or night, the work to repair the damage her exploding firelights had caused taking its toll. She knew they were exhausted; she could see it in their slumped figures, but fear drove them forward; fear of Sama’ad’s power over Nazh-rndu’ul. Though her raid on the harbour had caused Sama’ad a minor setback, she knew he would not ease their plight until all his ships were complete.

     A scuffle behind her made her turn. Baelin stood waiting for a guard to open her cell door. As it swung open and he stepped inside, she saw his troubled stare. They both waited in silence until the guard left, then Na’ilah stepped close.

     “Any word on Elsa?” she asked.

     “She’s alive. That’s all that counts for now.”

     She examined him; his face thinner than when she was cast inside. “What is it?”

     “We’re to sail for Kjat on tomorrow’s tide,” he said almost apologetically. “Your exile will begin, and Lena….”

     She reached out and placed a comforting hand upon his arm.

     “She’ll be ok. She’s stronger than you know.”

     Baelin stepped further into the cell. He stared out the window.

     “I never got a chance to thank you for what you did against Sama’ad. Whatever you said to him saved our lives. I hope it will not cost your own.”

     “I fear it only postponed the inevitable,” Na’ilah said. “We may still die at his hand.”

     “Yet we are alive. We may still have a chance to reclaim control.”

     Na’ilah stepped forward to block his view of the world outside.

     “You cannot fight Sama’ad. You saw the power he wields.”

     Baelin sighed, as though her words made him realise that he clung to false hope. She reached out to him once more.

     “There’s a side to Lena you haven’t seen. She’s a survivor. She waited all this time to be with you again and, if you ask it of her, she will do it once more. But you must remain true to her. Never abandon her, do you understand me? Whatever the cost, you must find a way to bring her back.”

     He nodded, but she saw the dejection in his face. She wrapped her arms around him and embraced him with all her strength. As she held him, she heard a cough from outside the cell. A guard stood beyond the door, looking awkwardly at them in each other’s arms. Noticing the guard, Baelin gently pushed Na’ilah away.

     “The fleet has returned from Burghat, Lord Baelin. They’ve just been sighted from the north watchtower.”

     The fleet? Na’ilah thought but was interrupted as Baelin turned away.

     “Clear the lower harbour and ready my ship. I will speak with Aelor alone.”

     The guard nodded and left. As Baelin followed, he rested his hand on the cell door and turned to face Na’ilah.

     “Whatever fate lies ahead of you, Daniiya, you will always have my thanks for bringing Lena and my sister back to me.”

     He shut the door and left, the clang of the iron locks echoing throughout the cell.

     “If only he knew,” a voice came from behind her.

     “Loviisa?”

     Na’ilah spun and saw her second in command clinging to the bars outside the cell window.

     “You’re alive.”

     “Just,” Loviisa said as she approached. “Na’ilah, what power holds this island together?”

     “I’m not sure,” Na’ilah replied. “Sama’ad’s strength is beyond anything I’ve encountered, beyond anything even within the memories my ancestors keep.”

     She reached out through the bars to clasp Loviisa’s hands.

     “It’s good to see you.”

     Loviisa nodded.

     “Likewise. I didn’t see what happened in the courtyard. Sama’ad’s palace simply came alive, but in the chaos, I managed to find a way out. Na’ilah, there’s no way to penetrate the inside of Sama’ad’s walls.”

     “I feared as much,” Na’ilah said. “He has power over stone itself, and I fear no one passes through without his knowledge.”

     She looked at Loviisa and tightly clutched her hands.

     “By this time tomorrow I’ll be on my way to Kjat. You must remain here. Sama’ad has decreed that I will become his last messenger, whatever that means. You must be ready for me when I return. Find out what you can. Remain hidden. And tell Mihja to become as close to Tohmal as she can. He’s our only link within Sama’ad’s fortress. You should go. If any see you, you’ll be hunted down.”

     Loviisa reached through the bars, wrapped one hand behind Na’ilah’s head and they embraced as best they could.

     “I’ll be waiting,” Loviisa said, then she disappeared and Na’ilah was alone once more.

 

     Baelin stood at the helm of the Dawn’s Eclipse. It felt good to be onboard, even if he was not yet at sea. This was where he belonged, and he felt he just had to sail from these shores and freedom would be his. The thought of killing Taeol on their passage to Kjat crossed his mind, and perhaps if Elsa had been exiled with Lena, the notion may have grown, but as he watched the great gate separating the lower harbour from the Inner Sea winch open, he was reminded of the power he faced. Sama’ad still had control. As long as the Qhabir was alive, there was no hope of escape.

     The fleet returned in single file. Consisting mostly of raiders, the fleet also escorted several of the larger catapult ships that had sacked A’asaris. They filtered into the harbour, taking their places alongside the scores of war ships already moored there. The last raider through the gates sailed toward them. As it neared, Baelin scanned the returning fleet before hailing the captain of the approaching raider.

     “Where is Aelor’s ship? Where is Captain Graddul?”

     Far below him, Baelin saw the nervousness on the captain’s face.

     “It was destroyed, Lord Baelin. Aelor’s ship exploded on return from Burghat.”

     Baelin gripped the rails on the side of his ship.

     “What? Burghat’s catapults?

     “No, Lord Baelin. Graddul had almost re-joined the fleet, and we were far out to sea. We believe it was an accident.”

     I doubt that, Baelin thought. Kha’atib has sent his message back. Perhaps he is not as naïve as Sama’ad thought. He felt admiration in knowing that another contended Sama’ad’s will.

     “Were there any survivors?”

     “None that we found,” came the captain’s reply. “A firelight must have exploded. The ship had almost melted when we arrived.”

     Baelin nodded, his face grave with concern, but inside he felt hope. So, they can be destroyed. Your ships are still vulnerable, Sama’ad. He turned to Fa’arloen.

     “Continue as planned. Strangle the coast; let no ships leave their ports. Leave Sira’an and Njall untouched for now. Sama’ad needs their trade.”

     “And what of you, Baelin?” Fa’arloen asked. “Do you still travel for Kjat?”

     Baelin nodded. “At dawn.”

     He gripped his most trusted captain’s arm.

     “Though my father lives, you’re in charge of the port while I’m away. If I’m betrayed, seek my father’s help. He understands the extent of Sama’ad’s deceit better than anyone. Now, take us back to the upper harbour. I’m not sure why Aelor set foot in Burghat, but I have to admit, I’ll take pleasure in telling Taeol the news that his loyal puppet is dead.”

 

     In a locked prison room within Johsala, Kha’atib poured a stream of crystal-clear water into a cup from a tall-stemmed silver pot and placed it before one of the Kjatian soldiers. Five more soldiers sat beside him, their feet chained to a heavy wooden table, upon which was spread a meal of bread, dried meat and fruit. They watched with parched lips as Kha’atib filled the cup until the water almost spilled over its edge.

     “Please,” Kha’atib said, offering the soldier the chance to drink. “I fear the treatment of your men has lacked a certain grace within Sama’ad’s keeping. I assure you, it is not our custom to treat visitors to our shores in such a way, no matter the circumstance.”

     The soldier stared at the water, but was unwilling to take a sip, so Kha’atib reached over the soldier’s shoulder and lifted the cup to his lips.

     “It is not poisoned, if that’s what you fear.”

     He took a sip, then placed the cup back in front of the soldier. The soldier glanced at his fellow men, then gulped the water down as the others looked enviously on. Kha’atib filled the cups of the remaining five men, then sat at the head of the table and looked at each soldier in turn. He had watched all twelve upon their return from Burghat. There were an obvious few to whom the others looked for direction. All but one he separated and sent to another room, where Za’im and Simak had prepared another form of interrogation. These men, however, were the ones that followed, the inconsequential few who might be less determined to conceal their original intent, and now they looked to the man he’d first given a drink to for guidance.

     “I fear a misunderstanding has come between us,” Kha’atib said once their thirst had been quenched. The soldiers said nothing, but Kha’atib caught one glancing at the food set before him.

     “Please,” Kha’atib said, gesturing with a wave of his hand. “This feast is yours to consume.”

     The Kjatian soldiers were cautious at first, but soon their ravenous desire overcame them as they tore the meat apart and washed it down with succulent fruits that burst upon their lips. Kha’atib watched them as they devoured the food. They were sinewy, they showed signs of malnutrition, but they were not weak. Kjat was obviously not the barren wasteland he had always thought.

     A soldier at the far end of the table abruptly stood to reach for what remained of a chicken carcass. The sudden movement caused one of the guards lining the room to step forward, his hand gripping the hilt of his sword. With a subtle shake of his head, Kha’atib eased the guard’s tension, and the soldier tore off a leg of chicken and sat back down. Kha’atib waited until their ravenous eating slowed, then addressed them once more.

     “It has been a long time since any of our two nations have set eyes upon each other. Even though you are not men of rank or high station, you are still the first men of Kjat to set foot in Johsala. To a point I will treat you as such.”

     The men continued eating without regard for Kha’atib, but Kha’atib knew his words would be heard.

     “I came to Johsala to unite the lands of the Great Depression and the Flatlands where I am from. Since I have been here, I must confess that Sira’an seems a land of riches compared to what Johsala holds. Now I’ve set eyes upon your souls, and I fear Johsala may seem a similar oasis compared to what you endure beyond the Kha’ari Zhar. Perhaps it is time I opened the gates of Johsala to all who need it.”

     This time there was a slight hesitation from the Kjatian soldier closest to Kha’atib.

     “I do not seek war,” Kha’atib lied, “and there is plenty in our land for all who desire simply to live in peace, for both our people and those of Kjat.”

     The soldier looked up.

     “Peace?”

     The others stopped eating, turning to each other then to Kha’atib.

     “We fight no war amongst ourselves in Kjat,” the soldier continued, his accent heavy. “Peace is not something we seek.”

     Kha’atib leaned forward.

    “Then what is it you’re after? Why scramble in secret at the base of our lands searching for a way in, if not to invade?”

     The soldier put down his food and cast a glance to his comrades. One nodded and was backed by others.

     “Survival,” the soldier said as he turned back to face Kha’atib. “Our land and our people are on the verge of collapse.”

     Kha’atib nodded, trying to portray a deep sense of sympathy for their plight. Like rats fleeing a sinking ship, Kha’atib thought. I have no desire to harbour these vermin.

     “There has been much enmity between our people,” he said despite what he felt. “Perhaps it is time we healed those wounds. Tell me of your leader’s desire, of what is happening in Kjat. There may be a way we can help.”

     The soldiers looked nervously at each other. 

     “Please,” Kha’atib begged. “I can give you all a good life here, safety for your families and children. Just tell me what lies beyond the Kha’ari Zhar so that I might aid in your survival. Our lands can provide. They have been denied to too many for too long. If you help me, we can change that, but not by war. That is not my desire. I am a man of peace; of that you have my word.”

     The soldier Kha’atib took as their leader stared at him then turned to his men. He chuckled – his glance at his men full of mirth, then all erupted with incredulous laughter and tore into the feast once more.

     “You do not have the power to grant us survival, White Watcher,” the soldier scoffed. “When the time comes, you will be the one begging to be saved from death.”

     Kha’atib stared coldly at the soldier, then glanced at the guard standing directly behind him. The guard quickly stepped up, drew his blade and sliced the soldier’s throat. A spurt of warm blood sprayed across the table and food and over the remaining Kjatmi’ir. In shock, the soldiers tried to retreat but their chains restrained them, bolted tightly to the stone floor and they were forced back into their chairs by the rest of Kha’atib’s guards.

Kha’atib stood over the dying soldier, whose eyes stared into darkness. Kha’atib held his head back as blood poured from his exposed throat.

     “You are mistaken,” he calmly said as he watched the life drain from the soldier’s eyes. “I have all the power I need.”

     The soldier’s mocking laughter gurgled from his throat, before his eyes rolled back and the last of his life ebbed away. Kha’atib let the body slump onto the table as he eyed the remaining men who were all staring at their dead colleague.

     “Remove this man’s head,” he commanded the guard. “And take another each day until someone is ready to tell me of Kjat’s intent.”

     He placed his hands on the table and leaned forward as the guard began hacking off the dead man’s head in plain view.

     “You can all survive if you wish to live in peace,” Kha’atib said, arresting the attention of the soldiers, “but I warn you. I have no mercy for those who seek to betray my trust.”

 

     Kha’atib left the room, holding the soldier’s severed head in a bloodied sack and approached another cell door flanked by two of Haran’s Elite Guard. He stepped inside. As the door closed and darkness enveloped him, the smell of seared flesh stung his nostrils. He covered his mouth with his sleeve and stepped forward, guided by a faint light ahead in the main cell.

     Beneath an intense ray of sunlight burrowing through a hole in the roof, he saw another of the Kjatian soldiers strung from chains around his wrists hanging in the centre of the interrogation room. The soldier was unable to stand, his feet barely touching the ground, powerless to support his weight. The five remaining soldiers watched from the outer rim of the cell, their bodies stripped naked, their arms clasped above their heads.

     A fire burned beside the soldier strung up in the centre of the room. Upon it sat a cauldron of boiling water, the steam rising into the intense beam of sunlight that appeared to be burning the skin off the soldier’s back. As Kha’atib neared, he saw the resin lens that focused the sun’s strength, the beam of light burning through the soldier’s flesh, then he saw General Za’im step from the shadows and smash his fist into the soldier’s jaw. Syrupy blood oozed from his mouth after the blow, and Kha’atib stopped before the light fell across his form, not wishing to interfere with Za’im’s more direct administration.

     Careful not to breach the intense ray of light, Za’im edged around the soldier and drew a ladle of hot water from the cauldron. He poured it slowly over the soldier’s exposed back. The soldier’s scream echoed throughout the chamber as the scolding water hissed over his burning flesh, but there was no one to hear him save his five compatriots watching on, knowing that soon they would endure the same pain.

     Kha’atib heard the soldier groan. He seemed barely conscious. Za’im leaned forward to hear what he had to say, but nothing came.

     “None of you will die here,” Za’im said as he turned to the others. “You will all suffer a lifetime before you are returned to Nazh-rndu’ul, where Sama’ad will claim what’s left unless you tell me of your plans to invade.”

A soft footstep to his right caused Kha’atib to turn. Simak approached, looming from the shadows. He motioned toward the bloodied sack hanging from Kha’atib’s hands as if to ask what it was, but they were both distracted as the soldier screamed once more. Kha’atib turned to see Za’im raking a barbed cloth over the flayed flesh of the soldier’s back, then felt Simak take him by the arm.

     “Come, you don’t want to see this,” Simak whispered, but Kha’atib looked at the soldier suffering beneath Za’im’s torment, brushed Simak’s hand aside and stepped into the light beside his general. He stood before the soldier as Za’im stepped back into the shadows.

     The soldier’s eyes were barely open, though Kha’atib knew there was far more strength in him than he was letting on.

     “I know what you seek,” Kha’atib said in a soft and soothing tone. “An escape. A path beyond the fate your master demands.”

     He knelt before the soldier, pulled the severed head from the sack and held it by the hair so the soldier could see. Those chained to the edges of the room remained silent, but the man in front of him groaned at the sight of his butchered colleague.

     “Yes,” Kha’atib whispered. “This man is at peace. He received a death that will not let his soul be cursed by the prophecy of al-Din.”

     The soldier groaned again. Kha’atib lifted his head, forcing the soldier to look into his eyes.

     “Is this what you seek? Escape? Freedom? A chance to die with your soul as your own?”

     As the soldier calmed and his breathing steadied, Kha’atib discerned that perhaps this was what they truly desired; a chance to escape a cursed death. Kha’atib lowered himself so he could look the soldier in the face.

     “I can give you peace. There is no need to suffer anymore. I am not like Sama’ad.”

     The soldier weakly rolled his head toward Kha’atib, his eyes struggling to focus. He studied Kha’atib, then coughed blood as he laughed.

     “And that is why you will die.”

     He collapsed beneath the chains as the effort to speak overwhelmed him. Kha’atib stepped away as blood drooled from the soldier’s mouth and returned to where Simak and Za’im waited in the shadows.

     “Flay them all until you know what lies beyond the Kha’ari Zhar. Simak – come with me.”

 

     Late that afternoon, after being bathed by Hanir in his quarters overlooking the city, Kha’atib met with Ba’ahir in the hall-master’s private chambers. He stood at the edge of the balcony, high above Johsala’s minarets as the great wall cast its long shadow far beyond the Cursed Sea.

     “Did the interrogation reveal anything of Kjat’s attack?” he heard Ba’ahir call from inside the room. Kha’atib stared far to the south until Ba’ahir stepped close beside him.

     “They are men who do not fear death,” Kha’atib mused. “It seems death is the least that awaits them should they fail their master. Yet nor do they desire to live beyond their master’s reach. It will take some time before we break them.”

     Kha’atib turned to Ba’ahir.

     “What else do you have to report?”

     “There is great unrest in al-Qurut,” Ba’ahir said as he reclined upon a lavishly cushioned seat against the balcony rail. “That unrest is spreading our way. Johsala’s guards have already quashed a few clashes between supporters of this Abd ar-Rahman and the Siranese merchants.”

     “What about the local Johsalan merchants?” Kha’atib asked. “Have they been impacted?”

     “Not yet, but they fear it is only a matter of time. We’ve managed to contain the riots within the mines. Ta’alamin and Ma’ar Shaheer are under control. There have been minor incidents but those responsible have been punished as an incentive for the others to behave.”

     Kha’atib stared out over the city.

     “It is a shame that such people rise in this world. The poor seek only enough to lift themselves from poverty, but desperation drives them to incite violence in the name of justice. They target those foreign to the city because they look for someone to blame for the imbalance of riches, yet those who control the city’s wealth do little to ease either’s pain. It is up to us to see that trend diminish, Ba’ahir.”

     “Yet to do so you need the wealth of the city at your disposal.”

     “Yes,” Kha’atib said. “There is a price to pay for peace.”

     “The priest who was killed in the explosion. You think the price he paid was just?”

     Kha’atib turned to examine Ba’ahir.

     “If it opened the eyes of those who thought Abd ar-Rahman was not their enemy then I believe his death has found a just cause. That kind of price is always too high, but at least it has consequence.”

     “It only proved to those who serve in his name that you and your priests are not untouchable. They will grow bolder if you do not act swiftly.”

     “I will not let ar-Rahman’s following become a force we cannot counter,” Kha’atib promised, easing Ba’ahir’s fear that things were getting beyond his control. “But, as we agreed, they shall not be exempt from feeling the sting of al-Din’s uprising. Captain Atlah’s men already build our militia in the desert, but I ordered Simak to leave Johsala this afternoon and make his way to the outer regions. It is only a matter of time before the merchants’ wares are raided. Their profits will soon turn our way in offer of protection, but we cannot risk militant rule within the city. That will only play into ar-Rahman’s hands. We will spread that wealth among the poor. They will clamp down on any insurgence within the city, and this so-called prophet will have nowhere left to hide. Remember Ba’ahir, we must always be a beacon of hope for those beneath us.”

     Kha’atib knew Ba’ahir would see the irony in such a move, that in all of this, they looked to make themselves the richest and most powerful men in the region, but he didn’t care, for Kha’atib knew he needed the entire city’s loyalty if he was to defend Johsala from the threat that came from the east.

 

     Simak rode cautiously toward the great gate leading into al-Qurut. He was mistrustful of this city. Though it remained close to Johsala, it was governed by bureaucrats like Ba’ahir – men who thought only of wealth. They had spies set within the city, harboured within both the outcrop of refugees and the poor clinging to the gates outside and among the merchants bargaining within, yet Simak felt those spies were not on a tight enough leash. Al-Qurut was Johsala’s first line of defence against the east, and Simak questioned, if the need truly came, just how many would fight for Johsala’s cause.

     A young guard rose as he approached, and casually stepped out to block Simak’s access.

     “State your business,” the young guard called out, then blanched when he saw the White Watcher’s seal upon Simak’s ring.

     “Forgive me.” He bowed as he stood aside.

     “I’m looking for Captain Atlah,” Simak said. The young guard looked confused, then turned to his colleague.

     “Is there a problem?” Simak asked, descending from his horse. He gave the rein to the guard. “Well?”

     “He’s… he’s not here,” the young guard stammered.

     Simak looked around him. “He’s not in al-Qurut?”

     “No. I mean, yes. He’s not here. I think he… left, sir.”

     Frustrated by the young guard’s inane babbling, Simak caught the eye of an older guard, idly standing closer to the gate.

     “Who’s in charge here?” he demanded, walking directly toward him. As though caught unaware, the older guard stood abruptly, snapping to attention only when he caught sight of the White Watcher’s ring.

     “Where’s Atlah?” Simak repeated.

     The guard nodded, then opened the gate door and poked his head inside.

     “It’s Johsala, for Atlah,” he said to someone beyond Simak’s sight, then he stood aside as another guard of slightly higher rank stepped out. The second guard shot the first a frustrated look, then reverently approached Simak.

     “Please, come with me,” he said quietly, and all eight guards stood sheepishly aside as Simak was led through the great gate and into al-Qurut’s outer defensive yards.

     “Your men show a lack of conviction,” Simak said as he followed the soldier through the lines of starving and poor mulling before the shabby market stalls. “That needs to change.”

     “New recruits, I’m afraid,” the soldier said, pushing his way through the crowd. “Atlah has acquired the more experienced men.”

     Curious as to what Atlah was up to, he decided to remain silent until they were beyond earshot. He followed the soldier through to the second gate, marking the main entrance into the city itself. They stepped into the small barracks built into the wall, beyond which were the soldiers’ main training grounds. Simak was taken into the upper levels, where a door was opened, and he stepped into a room where Captain Atlah sat, pouring over parchments and maps sprawled out over a desk.

“Forgive the state of our men,” the soldier said, taking his helmet off and placing it on a smaller, wooden table. “We’ve petitioned Johsala for more resources, though little has come. We make do with those men we can find. None of them knew of Atlah’s return.”

     Simak could say little. He’d seen the finery in which Haran and his men paraded through Johsala. Johsala had no shortage of guards, well paid and armed, and he knew al-Qurut’s men looked on with jealous eyes. He acknowledged Atlah, who’d finally turned, his concern etched deeply across his face.

     “A hundred horsemen head east, toward Qaris,” Atlah said, without recognition of Simak’s presence. “We had rumours that a caravan had diverted toward A’anket.”

     Simak’s brow furrowed.

     “A’anket,” he whispered. “The ruins of al-Din’s desert camp?”

     Atlah nodded. “It’s a pilgrimage trail. Many take it each year.”

     “Then why send a hundred men to escort them?”

     Atlah seemed nervous.

     “Because the last caravan to reach the site never returned.”

     Simak was furious that he’d not heard this news.

     “A sandstorm? Has any sight of them been found?”

     Atlah shook his head. “The ruins lie beyond our lands. I think the caravans are leaving to join the Third Ring. Considering the attack on the Temple, we believe they are fleeing Johsala to join the false armies of al-Din.”

     Simak could barely keep his anger in check. “What were your orders?”

     “To prevent the caravan from escaping to the Third Ring, of course.”

     Simak cursed.

     “These men you sent. Do you trust them?”

     Atlah looked surprised.

     “They are the best of the recruits from here to Qaris. I would not trust them with horses otherwise.”

    Simak cursed once more. “Send out a rider,” he commanded. “Tell your men not to engage. Escort the caravan, peacefully, to the ruins. Open whatever channels with Wahid you require, but make sure those people return.”

Atlah faced Simak. “Those who betray Johsala cannot leave.”

     Simak stared hard at Atlah. Kha’atib had seen fit to recruit him in his plan to undermine the name of al-Din by creating raiders of the caravans to the north, but in light of what Atlah had just done, Simak wondered if Atlah’s loyalty toward Johsala was too strong.

     “They are just mouths to feed,” Simak replied. “Better Wahid’s burden than ours. Send your fastest rider, Captain. Stop that raid, then find me an escort heading to Qaris. I want to oversee the men you are recruiting first-hand.”