The words sent shockwaves through Kha’atib’s spine.
“Kjatmi’ir? That’s impossible. Kjat has no port.”
“So we thought,” Aelor replied. “Where it lies remains a mystery to us. Their boat was makeshift, but adrift they were, and scrambling at your cliffs like vermin burrowing to find a new home.”
Kha’atib studied them. They were thin with true fear in their eyes. But not toward him, Kha’atib noted, and it made him wonder what torment they’d endured on Sama’ad’s island before being chained to the black ship.
“Several weeks ago,” Aelor said. “They took some breaking, but none can resist Sama’ad’s will. They were trying to find a way over the cliffs and into your southern borders. Since then, we’ve tightened our grip on the seas until we knew the extent of their reach.”
Kha’atib stared at Aelor. “And?”
“And we’ve discovered no more, but that’s not to say there are no more to be found. I come offering terms of trade – not for goods, but for survival, for if the Kjatmi’ir are building behind their walls, then we are all that is stopping them from reaching you.”
Kha’atib stepped away, turning his back on both Aelor and his prisoners and fired a warning glance toward Simak and Ba’ahir. He gazed around the port, up into its furthest reaches, to the ramparts and catapults protecting the main entrance to Johsala and the desert beyond. Night was falling, the firelights beginning to take hold as the sun sank below the horizon.
“Then it is time we sat down and discussed terms,” he said, ignoring Ba’ahir’s panicked expression as he turned back to face Aelor. “Please, if you will follow me?”
Aelor looked hesitant, but under Kha’atib’s patient stare he nodded and moved forward, the ship’s captain at his side.
“See that the Emissary’s men are well fed,” Kha’atib called to Haran. “The prisoners will remain ashore under your guard.”
Aelor turned at the comment, so Kha’atib stepped close.
“You say Sama’ad has extracted all that he could from these men?”
“Then your men are welcome to stay ashore or on board as they like. Our men will make sure they are safe, but the prisoners are ours to interrogate, no matter what concessions are made this night.”
Aelor stared intently at him, then cast his eye around the ship, no doubt gauging what dangers his men could face. He eventually acquiesced with a slight nod. As Kha’atib turned to lead Aelor and his captain away, he caught Simak’s eye and fired an instructive glance toward the ship. Get on board. Tell me what they’re hiding. Simak’s acknowledgement went unnoticed by the others. Satisfied he could do little more, Kha’atib quickly turned his uncompromised attention to Sama’ad’s Emissary, curious as to what the almost mythical Qhabir would be willing to trade for the lives of twelve worthless men.
Simak slipped away, unobserved amidst the displacement of the Kjatian prisoners and restructuring of Aelor’s guard. He crept into the shadows and made his way to an adjacent jetty, out of sight of Aelor’s ship. He crawled under the jetty’s wooden framework, shed his desert robes and, carrying only a short knife, submerged beneath the water to silently swim toward the ship’s ominous black frame. He was weary of watchful eyes, for although the four guards that escorted the Kjatmi’ir had elected to ease their hunger on land, there would be others remaining on board. Simak was aware that ships this size would need at least a ten-man crew, and soldiers were all Aelor had revealed so far.
On the dark side of the ship, he found footholds enough to scale its rough frame, the coarse, black hardwood abrasive against his skin. He jammed his knife into the latch covering the main rear steering oar and prised it slowly open, enough to see inside. It was dark; frail light drifted in from the stairs leading to the deck above. Seeing no movement, Simak crawled inside.
It felt eerily silent. Rows of oars and seats lay waiting on both sides of the deck. They were spotlessly clean, untarnished by aged stains of vomit or blood like most ships he’d seen. He cautiously made his way through the centre aisle and descended a set of black wooden stairs to the deck below. The ship groaned ever so slightly upon the gentle waves, as though it protested against Simak’s presence.
“Where is everybody?” he whispered into the shadows. The bottom decks were empty of storage, and there were no crew hammocks slung between decks. Fearing a trap, he ascended through the oarsman’s deck to the level below the main deck. As he crept above the floor line, his heart stopped, his eyes adjusting enough to see a single row of thick, black catapults filling the centre of the deck, their deadly power lying hidden in the darkness. Easily twice his height, they filled the upper deck. Simak noted the gates above and the winches designed to lift the catapults into place. Each were positioned on revolving plates, able to repel an enemy from any quarter, or fire their deadly firelights in all directions from within an enclosed harbour. This ship was built for one purpose, to destroy any who dared challenge Sama’ad’s will.
Yet it wasn’t what concerned him most. This ship was spotlessly clean, almost new. The black, polished stone handles of the oars still shone. Nothing was worn from years of calloused hands at the helm. Never had he taken stock of sailors’ tales that Sama’ad’s ships were alive, that their ferocity knew no match as though they had souls of their own, but the sudden thought triggered an unwanted fear as a cold chill breathed down his neck. He spun, expecting to see a soldier upon him with blade in hand, but the deck remained empty. He was utterly alone.
It took one glance above at the main deck to realise the truth in what he’d discovered. There was no one else on board. Aelor had arrived on a great ship of war, escorted by five men, including the captain.
“That’s impossible,” he whispered as he slipped back down to the upper deck. There was only one conclusion he could draw, but he needed more proof of their treachery. Searching the storage surrounding the catapults, he found several chests harbouring the great firelights, no doubt to be hurled against Burghat’s defences, hung in net sheaths so that they remained safe even in the stormiest of seas. Knowing only flame would set them alight, he unclipped a sheath, stole a firelight from the ship, then climbed back through the oar hatch and swam as fast as he could to warn Kha’atib that Aelor’s motives were not what they seemed.
Kha’atib sat opposite Aelor in Ba’ahir’s plush quarters overlooking the great harbour. They’d taken a table outside, one with a view of the black ship. This seemed to go some way toward appeasing the Emissary’s nerves. Beside Aelor sat the captain, who was finally introduced as Graddul. Though he barely spoke, Kha’atib knew Captain Graddul was there on Baelunnd’s behalf to make sure Aelor did not stretch House Sdra’fhol halfway across the Inner Sea by his concessions.
By his own side sat Ba’ahir, who seemed nervous about what trade was on offer, or what vital goods would be restricted through A’asaris to Sira’an. It was too late to placate him, but like Aelor’s attitude toward Graddul, Kha’atib had little intention of letting Ba’ahir speak.
“We’re outgrowing our island,” Aelor said. “Our lands cannot cope with the demand, and we need to look elsewhere for resources. For the protection of your lands and news of this new threat from Kjat, we request trade for meat and building materials.”
Kha’atib was surprised. “We have scarce enough of that for ourselves. Why not trade directly with Sira’an or Njall?”
Aelor squirmed in his chair.
“You know as well as I do why that cannot be. For years Sama’ad has ruled with an unforgiving grip. We have few allies within the Inner Sea. His ruthlessness, it seems, acts against him at last.”
He noted Graddul’s agitation, and Kha’atib was intrigued.
“You don’t approve of Sama’ad’s rule?”
“His rule is without question,” Aelor said quickly, but then he paused. “There is a burden upon our people I wish to alleviate. I am a man of faith, just like you, but people cannot eat faith, nor shelter beneath it.”
Kha’atib nodded, wondering if Aelor was indeed like him. Kha’atib cared little for those he would crush beneath him in order to rise in glory.
“It surprises me Sama’ad would allow outside help beyond the ships and stock he already captures at sea. Is he asking, at last, for what he already assumes he can take?”
Aelor looked at Graddul, whose discomfort was becoming easier to see. Then it dawned on Kha’atib.
“Sama’ad doesn’t know you’re here.”
Graddul banged his fist upon the table. “I warned you this was a bad idea,” he gruffly whispered to Aelor, but the Priest laid a gentle hand on his arm to calm him down.
“No. He does not. And nor will he, but Graddul acts for House Sdra’fhol, and Baelunnd Sdra’fhol commands the armies and the fleet. We have backing from both House Laess of the Merchants’ Guild, and House A’ansari. Baelunnd guarantees safe passage of your ships from Njall and Sira’an in exchange for increased trade with those ports for our benefit and safe patrols of your lands, plus news of the Kjatmi’ir, if we can discover it.”
Kha’atib sat back. It was not what he expected. He turned to Ba’ahir, whose incredulous look revealed his shared state of disbelief.
“You risk much with this offer,” Kha’atib said, turning once more to Aelor. “But not as much as we risk by dealing with subordinates undermining Sama’ad’s rule. What happens when he finds out?”
“Sama’ad has withdrawn of late,” Aelor explained, seemingly concerned. “He cares little for the state of the island, leaving it to the leaders of each House to govern as they see fit. As always, it is a fine balance between the five ruling families, but with Houses Sdra’fhol and Laess behind us, the others will fall into place. You have my word.”
Kha’atib leaned forward. “Not once has an Emissary of Sama’ad offered terms that reach beyond his own greed. What’s in it for you?”
Aelor was about to answer when a robed messenger appeared at the door. Annoyed, Kha’atib turned at the disruption and saw Simak’s piercing gaze beneath the wrapped veil.
“You must excuse me.”
He stood, much to Aelor’s obvious concern.
“I’ll not be long. We have issues of our own that must be dealt with. As you say, I am a man of the people, and such a man must always be on hand to serve the people. Ba’ahir and I will also take a few moments to discuss your proposal.”
He clapped at a servant girl.
“See to their every need.”
Then Kha’atib almost dragged Ba’ahir into the waiting room to hear what Simak had to say.
Kha’atib watched impatiently as Simak carefully uncovered the large firelight he’d so diligently stolen from Aelor’s ship.
“There are scores more, stored below deck next to the great catapults that haunt the tales of Sira’an’s smoking halls,” Simak whispered. “That ship could break Burghat on its own, but no sailors man the ship or the catapults.”
Kha’atib knelt and carefully brushed his fingers across the firelight’s edge. He admired it. Something powerfully destructive was woven within their skin; an art of manipulation beyond any of Sira’an’s artisans. He stood to face Simak.
“What do you mean, no men?”
“I mean, save the four soldiers and that captain in there, Aelor sails unprotected, and that they guided that ship without the hands to do so. Unless –.”
“Unless those extra hands were spies and have already spread into Burghat,” Ba’ahir interrupted. It wasn’t Kha’atib’s conclusion, nor Simak’s it appeared, but Kha’atib was glad Ba’ahir remained blinded by coincidence, and he retreated as Ba’ahir knelt before the firelight.
“This proves Sama’ad is somehow dealing with the Third Ring, either through Burghat or A’asaris. I didn’t believe it, but he must be supplying them with the means to destroy Johsala.”
Kha’atib stopped Simak from offering the more obvious conclusion.
“And if that is the case,” Kha’atib said, “we must find the men these spies have turned. If trade lines through A’asaris and Ta’alamin have begun, Captain Atlah will find them.”
Ba’ahir abruptly stood.
“This gives us cause to strangle the trade routes to the east,” Kha’atib explained. “His men will see that no more of these weapons of death will reach the outer desert.”
He watched Ba’ahir wrestle with his conscience against such a decision, but he cared not. One way or another he would find cause to grip the throats of those who supplied Wahid and his rabble of roaming tribes.
“What do you intend to do with Aelor?” Ba’ahir asked. “If he speaks the truth, if he intends to honour such trade, you will have the backing of Johsala and its people for the riches you bring.”
“I would gladly unite our shores with those of Sama’ad to feed and protect our people,” Kha’atib claimed. “This may be a bright day for all to celebrate, Ba’ahir. Return to Aelor. Simak and I will follow.”
As Ba’ahir slipped through the curtain separating them from the inner chamber, Kha’atib pulled Simak close.
“Those prisoners are not Kjatmi’ir. It was a ruse, to see into our harbour, to place their ships within reach of Burghat’s walls and safely beneath its defences.”
“I agree,” Simak said coldly. “If they had gained our trust, they could sack this port in a day. Once they cut off our supplies, they could scale the cliffs above Johsala and rain those firelights down upon us at will. The city would be defenceless.”
“Then we’d best make sure that doesn’t happen.” Kha’atib took a moment to think. “Choose one of Haran’s men. Arm him with flint and get him on board that ship. Make sure he remains unseen.”
Simak looked into the shadows.
“He’ll need to be far out to sea. He might not be able to return.”
Kha’atib turned to return to Aelor.
“Then find a man who can swim.”
With promises of trade in return for safe passage for all ships along the coast and information regarding Kjat’s impending incursion, Kha’atib returned Aelor and Graddul to the port. The prisoners were escorted into the port’s holding cells; a concession Kha’atib was surprised Aelor allowed. In all of this, these men could discredit Aelor’s words once their true heritage was revealed, yet if they were not Sama’ad’s spies, if they truly were Kjatmi’ir, Kha’atib was still not sure if he was willing to believe in all that Aelor had said. He looked around the port, wondering if Ba’ahir had been right, that there were indeed spies that slipped from Aelor’s ship who were now infiltrating their way through Johsala and toward the Third Ring.
He put that aside as they reached the jetty.
“If ever you come again,” Kha’atib said, “I will make sure our welcome is more befitting of the meeting between our two great nations.”
Aelor bowed. “It is unlikely I will ever leave the island again. It was a danger to do so, but Graddul will act in my stead.”
Aelor paused before turning to his ship.
“There is one more act I must pass. Please, this is not a sign of mistrust. We weren’t certain if you would receive us, so I must signal our fleet that we are safe to return.”
Kha’atib caught himself before he said any more. Aelor signalled toward two soldiers, who sent two fiery arrows simultaneously arcing into the sky in opposite directions. Kha’atib paled as the horizon lit up, a hundred ships unseen sending arrows ablaze in return. Kha’atib struggled to hold his anger in check as Aelor turned to face him once more.
“The Inner Sea is ours, Kha’atib. Honour this arrangement, and we will honour your position here in the desert. Graddul will return should any more of the Kjatmi’ir be found.”
Aelor climbed on board, and with unnatural ease the ship slipped from the harbour, the black sails hoisted and filled despite the lack of manpower and wind. Kha’atib drew his cloak around him, but it did little to dispel the chill he felt from Aelor’s threat.
“It’s not too late to signal the man on board,” he heard Simak whisper from his side. “We weren’t aware there’d be such a fleet waiting for Aelor’s return.”
Kha’atib stared venomously at the ship’s black, menacing frame as it sailed unmolested out of his harbour, then turned and made his way toward the lifts leading out of the port.
“Bring the prisoners to Johsala. Ba’ahir will no doubt spread word that the Kjatmi’ir look to invade. That suits our cause, but I want the truth.”
Kha’atib stopped and pulled Simak close. “Interrogate those men. Re-create those uniforms. If rumour is to be believed, if our people are to rally behind me against the deception of al-Din, then what better way than to discover that the Third Ring have already led the Kjatmi’ir to our door?”
“You’re going to put the prisoners on show?”
Kha’atib turned to see Ba’ahir approaching as they neared the lifts.
“No. It’s time the garrison at Qanuris was put to good use.”
The great winch gate clanged open, and Simak left his side. As Kha’atib stepped onboard the platform, Ba’ahir rushed to join him.
“You play a dangerous game, Kha’atib. If the people discover you have made a deal with Sama’ad, you may find their loyalty divided. Until prosperity returns, it will take some convincing that this is for the good of the people.”
The platform shook as the gate closed and the great winch above began lifting them slowly through the port.
“The people are not to know,” Kha’atib said, staring at the levels of ramshackle warehouses wedged between the prayer houses and towering minarets. “If Aelor is to be trusted, then our ships will be raided, with fair compensation paid. I’ll leave you to choose the captains responsible for making the exchange. What concerns me is this link between al-Din and the supply of Sama’ad’s explosives. Why defend our shores from the Kjatmi’ir yet give the Third Ring the means to destroy us?”
“At least we have proof of the Third Ring’s treachery, and their intent,” Ba’ahir said. “It will be easy to blacken the name of al-Din once word of this spreads.”
Kha’atib nodded, glad Ba’ahir had been fooled. Aelor’s visit had been a happy coincidence, and a chance meeting that Kha’atib vowed he would exploit to the full. He turned his back on the port, just as an almighty boom sent dust crumbling from the cliffs above. Both he and Ba’ahir spun to see a ball of fire rising on the horizon. Wood thrust into the air as a giant shockwave of water rippled from Aelor’s exploding ship. The fire lit up Sama’ad’s fleet, which scrambled as the wave of water slammed into those nearby. Ba’ahir looked on in horror.
“They’ll sink our ships for sure,” Ba’ahir whispered, his mind obviously dwelling on the opportunities falling to the bottom of the sea.
“There was never going to be any trade,” Kha’atib said. “That was just a test. Sama’ad wanted to see how weak I was.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
Kha’atib grinned. “Then we’ve done Sama’ad a favour by cleansing him of an undermining priest. Either way, Sama’ad will know that I do not fear him.”
Kha’atib leaned back, satisfied he’d secured everything he needed to force the people to follow him in his fight against Ohrl.
I will stop this rise of al-Din, he thought as another thunderous ball of flame rose and dissipated into the air. Once the armies of Sira’an and the desert are at my feet, not you, Sama’ad, nor Na’ilah and her kin will have the strength to stop me.