At Last a Proper Brute to Redeem House Hadan
Two figures emerged on the top of a large sand dune. They were covered tight from head to toe. One mounted a robust camel, behind the ochre veils were the eyes of a girl. Beside her strode a lengthier figure, similarly dressed. Undulating sandy hills surrounded the two, and further right was a plateau ruffled with cliffs.
Rooftops appeared far in the distance, glistening in the sunlight like a mirage. It was the small town of Qara. The girl and her companion continued, gently prodding the camel forward down the slope. Her name was Baya, and she was determined to explore a rumor she had heard about this town out in the eastern desert.
When they arrived at an old hostel near the outskirts, Baya sent her companion to gather intelligence.
“What about the camel?” he asked, hesitating.
“I’ll take care of it!” Baya said, “go!”
She booked their rooms there. The hostel was carved entirely out of slick pink rock. A swath of deep green foliage climbed up a trellis that encircled its entrance and continued into the low lobby. Inside, the hostel served breakfast and wine and had cats running all over. The steps leading down to the lobby, as well as those leading to the chilly basement room Baya had selected for herself, were sharp and speckled in reed-shaped notches.
After bathing, she waited for Kotem in her chilly chamber, sitting on a small fountain that protruded out of the wall. In her hands she held a cup of mistwine. She wore a deep purple gown with an embroidery of a large yellow sun on her chest. Baya stretched her neck and thick locks of hair fell from her scarf. The exhaustion of travel was still on her, but she looked as much a princess as she ever had.
The fountain barely gurgled. Etched along its sides were symbols of old families — an eye, a sunbeam, a moon, three curved lines indicated a house so ancient it only lived in tales, and the sun of Hadan House, which she presently wore. Her mother’s family emblem, the moonbeam, was there too.
I will make you happy, mother, she thought, I will show them what happens when you mess with the daughters of Duyin.
A gentle knock sounded at the door, and in stepped a dusty young man. He wore deep purple silwar and boiled leather breastplate with a large sun etched into it, just like Baya’s, only less decorative. He wore sandals, and had a long horsey face with earnest eyes. It was Kotem, still beat from the journey.
“Lady Baya,” he bowed slightly, “I’ve heard about the mage-killer from two sources close to the council. They say that the city council has scheduled a public trial for him tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow!” Baya cried, “We came just in time! What’s he accused of?”
“Many things. Mainly, they’re holding him for treason. He is rumored to be a military leader with House Lemia. It was during his tenure with them that he claims he killed a mage single-handedly.”
“If he’s telling the truth then he is the perfect champion for my quest. Any chance the council will free him?”
“None of my informants knew the sway of the council. They assume that the council would punish this criminal as a form of public catharsis.”
“That’s horrible.” Baya sighed heavily. It was not the first time she’d heard of such an event in Adab and Turab. She asked, “How did a small town council like Qara get their hands on a military leader with House Lemia?”
Kotem nodded, “He was first captured by the Boiling Men.”
“That doesn’t make him sound very strong. Even you and I were able to evade the Bloody Boilers.”
“Good point,” Kotem said, “The Boiling Men claim that they captured him far out in the desert. Slaying his men and overpowering him. No one believes that though.”
“They must have found him alone,” Baya cocked an eyebrow curiously. Something still didn’t make sense, “why would a Lemia military leader be out alone in the Adabi desert… and if he was alone why would he admit to serving the Lemias?”
“I don’t know,” Kotem said, “But we can learn more at his trial. You should also know that there are people claiming the council of elders has grown corrupt — so much so that they fear unrest. mostly because of the annual mists.”
The last annual mist harvest in the Turabi palace had been a difficult experience for her and her mother. She scowled and breathed deep, “How are they using it here?”
“The healing mist comes around the 6th month for Qara, and some of the townsfolk store it in their homes to stave off the heat. However, for the past few years, east side elites have been hording the mist with cursed mounds of camel blood. About half a dozen homes on the west side have run out of mist and burned. Leaving their owners homeless.”
“Well,” Baya said, “crammed into the homes of their friends and family.”
“I hate it.” Baya said, “Especially that they’re using that cursed mixture. But if I try to bring it up with the council here, all it will do is make them hate me.” While also making me look like an idiot in front of them and their spies, she thought, The purpose of this trip is to redeem the honor of Duyin, not make us look stupid. Baya had always been powerless to help such matters in the palace and she doubted that she could influence the leadership of Qara to do anything either. “I should stick to my original purpose and let the townsfolk handle their own problems,” she said.
“Yes, Lady Baya,” Kotem said, “But these things are related. Tomorrow the city center will be full of curious onlookers hoping for an execution. They would like to see some justice. Even if his crimes have nothing to do with Qara.”
“And you had enough silver for everyone?” Baya asked.
The next day Baya and Kotem stepped out of the hostel to find a man with a large cage of midnight moonchickens on his back and a rope of sungoats in his hand. He wore a deep blue silwar with a pattern of mist and wind on its edges. They follow him through a nexus of narrow alleyways all the way to the market center. Kotem gave the man a silver and Baya acknowledged him with a curt nod.
As soon as they entered, the man began to shout, “Sungoats! Moonchickens! Goats with the power of the sun in their eyes!”
The center was bustling with activity. It was wide enough for about two hundred people. The surrounding apartments were each two or three stories high, decorated with hand-painted patterns representing the major houses of the area — sun, sand, mist, moonmist, sunbeam, water, and wind among others. They were painted with broad white paint strokes, sporting the raspy texture of hand-made horse hair brushes. The Duyin moonbeam was there too. It was a little faded, and partly covered by a hanging plant. The bottom levels had shops. Someone from out of town was selling pungent fish, another was weaving a warm-colored rug in a stall with several others rolled behind, and the corner behind Baya was full of fruits and vegetables. She could smell barrels of dry mistpeas and sunlentils. The moonchicken man was busy in earnest, hollering about his animals. Several more voices announced the sale of succulent cucumbers, suncabbage, tomatoes, and raw beef.
Baya hadn’t noticed immediately, but her mother’s faded moonbeam emblem was positioned just above a butcher shop. It brought back memories of her family’s home above the serving kitchen in the second castle plaza. Proximity to such labor was just one of the many humiliations her mother had to endure after their father’s body arrived on the steps of the great hall all those years ago.
We will go back, Baya thought, I will be the one to bring us back.
In one corner of the market, there was a broad stage made of hard yellow mud, carved and painted with broad strokes. A few reed mats lie on the side of this stage. Three men and two women, whispering among themselves, climbed up the stage and took seat on the reed mats. Each wrinkled visage held a heavy brow above kohl-lined eyes. They were dressed in pale blue, deep blue, grey, and ochre, their garments patterned with beaded embroideries of the leading Qara houses. Each wore sun-patterned sashes that showed their loyalty to House Hadan. They looked like small-town royalty to Baya.
“Silence!” a woman bellowed powerfully from the center of the stage. She was louder than any of the other men and women in the market. Around the stage, folk with dark hair and accoutrements complementing the elders’ began to cluster. The salespeople quieted down. Baya found herself and Kotem standing beside a couple of topless, rough-looking laborers redolent with the moisture of fresh work. In front of them, was what appeared to be a merchant’s family.
The loud woman stood in the center of the stage and declared an array of platitudes and local announcements. Her skin was smooth and her large bushy hair protruded from the back and front of her scarf. Her robes were secured with two sun-shaped broaches and a sash, and slim Adabi stockings could be seen above her sandals. Soon after, a man stood wearing a robe that reminded Baya of the ones the lawmen in Turab would wear that represented Adabi justice.
Then the cases started, and Baya was right about the qadi. Two men quarreled over a piece of fertile land. A man accused another of theft. A woman declared that her husband abused her. Another demanded swifter action on his inheritance rights from his uncle. Each case was announced by the crier, and the Qadi would listen quietly, consult with the other council members for a minute, and then stand and give a brief decree. A few more such cases followed, and then, Baya noticed a commotion between the colorful throng opposite herself.
She gasped when she first saw him. A large man was stumbling through the crowd, his head covered in a black sack. He was at least two hand-spans taller than those around him. He walked in an awkward, gangly manner, being both dragged by a rope and prodded aggressively by two guards from behind. In an effort that took all three of the guards together, the large man was violently shoved up onto the side of the stage opposite the reed mats.
The elders looked at him. Beneath the scraggly twine tying the sack about his neck was a broad chest splashed with pale battle scars, his hands bound behind his back. And he knelt before them weakly. On his shoulder, burned into his skin, was a crude emblem of a hawk. The city center had gone quiet. The windows and balconies of the apartments above were suddenly full of eyes. A swarthy hand wrenched the bag off of his head. The crier announced, “Bear son of Bear son of the Great Wolf son of Bear from the tribe of Khuzai. Defected military leader of the Lemia army in the East. Stands accused of innumerable crimes by his own hand and orders.”
Bear’s eyes were uneven and fierce, and he was balding on only one side of his head. All of his facial features appeared twisted, leaving his chin and nose in opposition and full lips in a grimace. The sharp twist in his face made Baya uncomfortable. He was certainly one of them, an Adabi man, and she believed immediately that he belonged to the tribe of Khuzai. They were known for their size. But he was still the ugliest and angriest-looking man she had ever seen in her life.
Baya had heard of the Great Wolf. The name emerged whenever her grandfather discussed the Adabi tribal wars that plagued his childhood. But she had never heard of him having any offspring.
As for Khuzai tribesmen in general, Baya was personally familiar. The leading kingdoms of Adab and Turab had always struggled to keep their best warriors, who always belonged to tribe of Khuzai. She had grown up hearing about their lack of loyalty, and had seen several of the tribesmen in the castle come and go, but never any that were as large and ugly as this Bear son of Bear. It was nothing unique, she knew, for a man of Khuzai to switch sides for gold or other temptations. But she had never heard of a high ranking official fleeing service.
The qadi — while he had seemed quite neutral throughout the rest of the cases — appeared to experience a wave of revulsion as he stood before Bear son of Bear. He paced, arms akimbo, his person draped in an ochre and deep blue garment. He looked out at the crowd and back at the elders, sneering arrogantly at them as though he believed they automatically felt the same way he did. He began probing Bear for information. His tone was nasty.
“You are from the tribe of Khuzai?”
“You served Lemia House?”
“A traitor twice over.” The qadi sneered, “First he turns against his homeland and then he abandons Lemia House.” He looked out at the crowd for effect. Baya also looked about and saw the merchant’s family and laborers near her were watching the trial with the coldness of stone. He continued, “And why did you decide to serve the Lemia House to begin with, son of Bear?”
“They paid well,” he said in a reasonable tone, perhaps not realizing how incriminating it would sound to this audience.
“You heard that they paid well!” The qadi cried and looked about the crowd with his eye brows raised, “How delightful for you! Giddy with your hands deep in the Lemia House coffers! Riches full of Adabi blood and tears. Piling away your own stash for the past ten years –”
“No, not giddy with my hands deep–” Bear looked alarmed, “That’s impossible — ten years ago I was a small boy!”
“A small boy!” The qadi said sarcastically, “you really shot up there, little guy.” He looked out at the crowd and there was a ripple of laughter. The qadi looked down at Bear, “How many people have you killed?”
Baya and Kotem exchanged surprised looks. It was not the type of trial either was used to. This is quite a show — Kotem’s informants were right about the council using this trial for catharsis! They’re really turning this man into a public enemy!
Bear was quiet for a moment, his head hung. He grumbled, “about a dozen.”
“Seems like a modest number for a man of Khuzai.”
Bear raised his head and answered the qadi, “I was mostly indoors. I was the personal protector of the Queen.”
Throughout the probe, Baya wondered why son of Bear felt that he had to give so much information to a qadi clearly bent on killing him. The only evidence we have is exactly what Bear himself is admitting to, Baya observed. It’s very likely he’s being honest about everything — including killing that mage. It suddenly dawned on Baya that the reason the Khuzai man was telling them all of this is because they had found him drunk! He must have made all his confessions to the Boiling Men who used it to sell him to the city guards.
“Murdering people indoors! And how often were your victims armed? Or did you play a role in the queen’s honey-traps?”
He growled, “I never killed anyone in a honey-trap.”
An elder called out, “How about your involvement in the forced migration of the Multah and the Lykan tribes?”
Another elder spoke up “The raiding of the Ghasetites. The pillaging of Theriyin trading caravans over the past decade?”
Bear was burning red in the face. He turned to the elders, his voice trembling. “A decade ago I was a child! Am I to be blamed for all wrongdoings of the Lemia House for the past hundred years? I left because I hated them! I hated how evil they were!”
“And yet you served their queen,” the qadi retorted just as passionately.
“Kill me now!” Bear suddenly wailed, “The Bloody Boilers wanted to give me a quick bath in the sand — I would’ve died in a minute! It would have been better than this hot gas you call a trial!”
“You deny being involved in all of these crimes?”
“Of course I had nothing to do with them. I was by the Queen and had been planning my escape for years.”
“Liar! That last part can’t be true.” The qadi said, “You must have gone willingly, proven yourself as a warrior, and accepted a position at court. Perhaps you were in court for four years, but you must’ve served them longer as a soldier.”
“No — four years before I was only in training — and I’m not lying!” he insisted. Baya thought he sounded tearful.
The qadi rolled his eyes, observing him for a moment with disdain. He then turned to the councilors and sat cross-legged on the reed mats with them for a few minutes. They whispered back and forth. The qadi then stood.
“You have heard his denials,” the qadi said, lifting his arms broadly and gesturing at the crowd, “The ugliness of a demon and the words of a liar. Bear son of Bear son of the Great Wolf son of Bear has been found guilty of serving our enemies, pillaging our neighbors, forced migration, slaying the unarmed indoors, and shameless lying. The Qara town council sentences Bear son of Bear son of the Great Wolf son of Bear to immediate death by artillery fire. By noontime tomorrow we shall dispose of his remains.” A few soldiers climbed up the stage beside Bear with ropes.
Baya grabbed Kotem by the arm, digging her fingers deep into his flesh. She hissed, “Do you see any of your informants in the crowd?”
Kotem looked at her, startled, “I do.”
She pressed three silver coins firmly into his hand, “find some who can scream loud,” she said, “get two to shout ‘the man must be innocent’ and a third to shout ‘release him!’”
Kotem disappeared into the crowd. Within a minute, the voice of a man rose up from the opposite side, “the man must be innocent!”
A similar cry rose up a few seconds later, from the middle. And a third, a woman’s voice, called out, “Release him!” A fourth and fifth voice joined in, “Let the gods decide!” “The truth!” “Only the gods can know the truth!”
“It’s true,” another woman said beside Baya, “the evidence isn’t strong enough! He says he ran away from our enemies and look at him. He’s here alone.”
The qadi whirled about in surprise. Another woman near the stage suddenly screamed, “what evidence do you have to condemn this young mage-killer — maybe it was an evil mage!”
Similar shouts and cries rose. At first the qadi’s eyes were large, and then his face fell. An elder on the council mat beckoned the qadi to join them. The group spoke in hushed whispers for a minute. And then the qadi stood again, nodding grimly to the throng of onlookers.
He said, “We cannot determine the truth, so we defer to the gods. Because the man is a warrior we shall grant him a trial by combat. His opponent shall be a man of similar skill and build… or any man who volunteers to define the will of the gods.”
Then a man lurched swiftly onto the stage , a burgundy cape fluttering behind him as he planted his feet and straightened up. He wore a small embroidered turban and his left ear was full of silver rings. His person sported a long striped robe and his narrow eyes were ringed in earthy red kohl.
“Lou’ai!” the Qadi cried, “are you volunteering to perform this trial by combat?”
“Absolutely,” Lou’ai said, “I love to expose a liar. And I love to kill them.”
“I’m not lying,” Bear growled.
The town crier bellowed, “The Bear claims that he has killed a mage before, in service of the Lemia House Queen. And so he has drawn to himself such a challenger! Here is a mage — Lou’ai son of Ramaan from the region of Narii — to reveal the truth of the gods!”
Baya’s hands flew to her mouth — she had set up this tribesman to battle a mage to the death! Her breast filled with an overwhelm of conflicting feelings — guilt, excitement, horror, and disgust. She looked at Kotem whose mouth was open in shock. It was as though the gods had dropped the opportunity right into her lap. She could witness now straight and clear whether or not the Khuzai tribesman could kill a mage. I guess this is exactly what I wanted!
Lou’ai had a more delicate stature than Bear, but still large. He took a step towards Bear, who stood, arms bound behind his back.
“Untie me!” Bear said, “I need my sword and shield.”
And then Lou’ai began to encircle Bear, his bizarrely colored face placid. His right hand raised to his chest, a single finger tapping. It was the first mage Baya had ever seen. And judging by the alarm in the crowd, not a common sight for the locals either. She had heard the rumor in the eastern desert a few days ago — that a warrior nearby had killed a mage — but she had not expected to see it happen right before her eyes.
The merchant’s wife beside her stammered, “this can’t be real. He can’t do hearts on him.”
One of the guards then approached Bear from behind, untying him, and severing the rope binding his arms. “I need my sword!” Bear grabbed the man, “where’s my stuff?”
The mage continued to encircle Bear, “Liar,” he said, “One tribesman alone cannot kill a mage.”
“Take mine!” a man from the crowd threw a sword and shield onto the stage. The front of the shield had a large sun painted on it. The sword was long and curved with an asymmetric pointed tip and a dark blue pommel. It was styled based on a leading house. Bear eyed them for a split second and then took only the sword. He threw a vicious cut towards the mage.
Lou’ai jumped — certainly more than necessary to avoid the blow. He flew over the entire crowd and was gone. A loud gasp filled the city center. The man of Khuzai ducked and looked about in bewilderment. He switched the sword between his two hands, while also twisting and turning about the see where the mage had gone. It appeared he was trying to study both the stranger’s sword and his high-flying opponent. The mage jumped back in effortlessly, his right hand still tapping his chest.
The mage’s fingers were long and thin, his limbs peeking out of his robes as he moved, clad in foreign garments slim and dark. By comparison, Bear was thick and round, topless, and shining with moisture. Snug about his waist was a rust-colored sash upholding the light and loose trousers of Adabi silwar. His flashing blade and wiry beard making him look every part the Adabi man.
Baya counted at least two circles the mage had completed around Bear while his hands were bound. Lou’ai tapped his feet on the opposite side of the stage, kicking up small amounts of dust.
“Idiot! You think you’ll dance me to death!” Bear cried. He lunged at Lou’ai, with powerful broad cuts. And Lou’ai dodged again with the swiftness of a dancer, twirling onto his hands before landing on the other side of the stage near the elders. When his feet hit the ground, Bear screamed in shock.
His hands and feet had been sucked down into the earth of the stage. He looked about helplessly, and howls also erupted in the audience. The borrowed blue sword was lodged into an entanglement of thick roots in the center of the stage that hadn’t been there moments before. Baya could read Bear’s face with invasive clarity. He looked scared. The mage, on the other hand, remained stolidly unaffected. The two faced each other for a moment. And then Lou’ai started moving again.
The entire crowd gasped. Lou’ai was almost levitating. His toes rolled circles into the dusty surface where thin ribbons of sand began to emerge. The ribbons thickened and spiraled towards Bear.
Baya could see that one of Bear’s arms was loose. He was grabbing something — the shield he had neglected earlier. While the sandy spirals grew in size, Bear struggled to wrench the shield from the sand.
He finally did and threw it with a nasty grunt at the dancing mage. It caught a blow on the side of Lou’ai’s head causing him to drop from the air and stumble clumsily. The mud brick about Bear’s body softened to a dry dust and he leapt up, throwing himself at Lou’ai.
The mage jumped, but he didn’t get his bearings fast enough. Bear wrapped his glistening arms about Lou’ai’s upper body, and flew up with him. The two were airborne, falling and landing on the stage again with a painful thud. Bear’s arms were still wrapped around the mage, compressing his arms against his body. The mage struggled to throw the large tribesman off of himself, but he simply did not have the brute strength to do it. Lou’ai was a broken mess. He stopped moving completely and the light left his eyes.
Bear won. He released the mage’s body onto the ground. Its color slowly drained. The tribesman stood quietly for several moments, his chest heaving. Baya could see the sweat shining off the muscles of his back.
“I need water,” he wailed. He looked about the crowd and Baya caught a glimpse of his face — red, wet, and twisted. He repeated himself, sounding almost tearful. The crowd parted as he lumbered at them and disappeared through the sea of people.
“A nasty awful brute of a man,” a woman said within earshot. She sounded disgusted. “A Bear son of a Bear son of the Great Wolf son of another Bear? How many more of these hideous beasts must the world endure.”
Sometimes a hideous beast is exactly what you need, Baya thought bitterly.
When the entire meeting had ended the elders continued to discuss among themselves on the mats. The crowd dispersed and only a few conversational stragglers remained by the stage while most returned to the market. The voices of salesmen once again rose above the clamor. Someone was offering sunsalad sandwiches for a fair price and the smell of grinding coffee beans quickly reached Baya’s nose, but she paid no heed to any of it. She stood a few moments with Kotem near the elders. Her finger traced over an inch of the delicate mud rock ridge that encircled the stage. It was so smooth it was barely noticeable.
“Damn the gods!” Baya overheard a councilwoman say, “Now we have a real pest on our hands.” She wore an ochre gown with a four-part quatrefoil pattern between her shoulders — a new symbol. The family must have only recently come into power.
“What talents has he other than killing, lying, and stealing?” another councilman said. The man had a hooked nose, thick grey brows, and a knobby chin. He wore a green turban and two decorative blades at the sides of his robe.
Baya approached the councilors and they recognized her father’s face in hers.
“Daughter of Hadan!” one said, “You could have joined us on the stage.”
But then I would not have been able to sway the crowd against your ruling, she thought.
She hoped that they knew more about the man from Khuzai. As she inquired, the council showed that they hadn’t done much prying into Bear’s current circumstances. Their interest in him ended at the description of his past crimes, which stretched over the past fifty years even though he couldn’t have been more than a babe at his mother’s breast two decades ago.
Baya asked, “And was the mage — Lou’ai son of Ramaan — a powerful man?”
“The most powerful. I thought he would destroy the Khuzai man in a few minutes. He was using limbs.”
Baya nodded. Clearly Lou’ai was a mage of limbs. Although Lou’ai was nothing like the one that had killed her father, defeating him still proved Bear to be a mage-killer.
“And where did you find Bear?” she asked.
“I will direct you to another source for your inquiries about Bear,” the councilman said, “but first we must invite you to the next council meeting. A private one tomorrow. Honor us.”
Baya agreed, and the councilman directed her to a man in a boiled leather breast-plate, painted grey, from which white silwar puffed out about his shoulders. He had toasted skin and narrow, clever eyes under sharp eyebrows. His turban was ochre and he wore leather shoes stamped with symbols of wind. He supposedly knew more about Bear.
He smiled affectionately down at Baya — she was still mostly a child — and related his observations to her, “The servants of my master’s house, House Ghazai, were looking for suncapers and mistshrooms along the western desert as they do every month. I never go on those expeditions, but when they got back, they told me that a dispatch from the Boiling Men approached them from the western caves with a ransom offer. They claimed it was a valuable prisoner. A defected military leader of the Lemia family. One with Adabi origin.
“My master wanted to pay the ransom. So I called the city guards and we set out with two parties to find the Boiling Men again. They showed us Bear — and then all the crazy claims started. They said that they found him not in the eastern desert but in the western desert. And that they were very close to boiling him alive themselves — as they tend to do when they don’t like someone.
“This shot his ransom price up. Even though they must’ve been lying. So they grilled him in front of our parties and he was an open book. He wasn’t drunk, but must’ve been when they first caught him. Bear was very angry, almost in tears,” the guard chuckled, “just like today. But I think that he really didn’t want to die as a liar.”
“Instead it’s gotta be the Boiling Men who were lying. As if they could handle a troop of Lemian men in the western desert! I think that Bear defected successfully, but didn’t get that far. The Boiling Men must have captured him at the eastern caves, between here and Lemia lands. Lots of Bloody Boilers over there nowadays, too. So he must have been hiding out there, stealing wine and dates from our neighbors. Then, I assume the Bloody Boilers found him blacked out in the shade of one of the resting caves.”
Baya thanked him and Kotem offered him a gold piece. His tale answered all the important questions. The two started back to the hostel, weaving through lilting voices of peddlers, colorful flapping canvases, and the aroma of speckled bananas, lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, and peppers. At the end of the row was a busy basket weaver, and a few children surrounding her to watch.
As they pushed through a crowded stone archway towards the neighborhood, Baya shared her thoughts with Kotem, “That Khuzai tribesman is the man who will take my family’s revenge,” she said to him, “He needs me. He will be running out of money and has no social standing. Serving me can give him both of those. I’ve basically already got him.”
“But he’s practically a foreigner,” Kotem said, “Are you sure he’d appreciate it?”
“He hates Lemia house passionately” she said, “You heard him. He said no one could ever hate them more than himself. And my family is the exact opposite of the Lemias! Serving us is exactly what he needs!” She was ecstatic. In her mind, she was already constructing a job offer for Bear.
Sharing smiles with Kotem, Baya continued excitedly. The two were turning about the side of a busy water fountain — it was hardly gurgling — when a shout stopped them. It was the head scout of House Ghazai.
He moved through the narrow alley, past a cluster of children playing ball and an old couple preparing sunrolls. He reached Baya and leaned close. He said quietly, “The city guards didn’t pay the ransom. They shot down the Boiling Men and took Bear son of Bear by force.” He looked at her earnestly with his sharp black eyes, “We brought the city guards for security. They were supposed to fortify Ghazai House as we cut a deal with the Boiling Men. Things don’t work like that anymore. Every part of this city has grown corrupt.”
Baya didn’t know what to say. The whispered revelation broke her out of her celebratory mental state.
“Have you heard –“ the head scout hissed, “that Qara is diverting the healing mist which is burning homes on the west side of the city?”
“Yes, I heard of that,” she stammered. She had already agreed to meet with the council later that week, but only as an honorary guest. Her value to the council was nothing more than as a representative of her powerful family. There was little she could do in a practical sense. She opened and closed her mouth, wanting to explain this to the head scout, but the words didn’t come. He simply nodded his head and left.
People outside the castle never understood her status within its walls. All they saw was a high born girl with diplomatic skills beyond her years. With commoners she held sway, but not her family.
“Because Hadan’s killer is still haunting Imani Rock,” her mother had said, “the family thinks that they can do whatever they want with us.” Her father’s headless body had been brought to the temple at the entrance of the first plaza by a throng of horsemen, and taken in for washing and burial. His funeral was honored as well as any other, but as soon as the mourning period was over, Baya’s family was moved out of the third plaza and into the first, just above the kitchens, alongside the administrators and head servants.
Once again, here in Qara common folk were overestimating her influence.
Once in the hostel, Baya ran down the stairs to her room with Kotem. She flung open her bags and dug into them in a flurry, uncovering a stubbornly curved papyrus scroll, a vial of walnut ink, and a bent turkey feather. She then signed the top of the papyrus with the highest status she could claim —
Turab House Princess Baya bilHadan biHadan —
And dictated the invitation for the job to Kotem so quickly he could barely keep up.
“Good!” Baya cried when she looked over his writing, “Now go get him!”
“I don’t know where he is!”
Kotem chuckled at her exuberance and ran out of the room. Baya was in high spirits that night as she waited for Kotem’s return in the hostel lobby with dates and a special wine from back home. It was late when Kotem came back, his horsey face long. Baya’s visage formed a large frown when she saw it. She abandoned her happy little meal and the two walked down to her basement room in silence.
“He said no.” Kotem said somberly, once inside.
“No?” Baya shook her head, her jaw clenched, “Did you tell him that I pay well? And that I’m royalty? Did you read my message out loud to him?”
“Yes and yes. I did.” Kotem said, “He said he’s done with nobility.”
“Done with nobles — that’s insane! What other opportunities would there be for someone like him?” Baya cried. She was exasperated and her face was starting to get red. Only a few minutes before she had started to feel like her quest was over.
“He says he’s waiting for a job in construction.”
“Ridiculous!” Baya was almost yelling, “He’s a killer! There’s nothing else he can do — why would he think that mud brick is so simple? He thinks that anyone can just start in construction whenever they feel like it?!”
“I asked and the tribesman has no training in construction,” Kotem nodded, “He still seemed to think that waiting was best.”
“And where did you find him?”
“He was dozing along the west side of the neighborhoods near the market.” Kotem said, “I was certain he’d accept the job when I saw him like that. Instead he gave me an attitude.”
“Fool! He’d rather lie in the streets than work for me!” Baya cried, the story was becoming more outrageous, “The councilors were right! He is a pest! I’m more than a noble, anyway!”
“To him that’s even worse. Bear didn’t like that you referred to yourself as a princess in the invitation. He was pretty rude about it.”
Baya’s face turned red and she trembled. For a moment she was just fumed, breathing through her chest. Even this man — arguably a traitor! — wants to strip me my title. She was so angry that her eyes grew misty. Finally she said, “it sounds like he knows about my father.” Kotem gave no response to that. Baya debated within herself, son of Bear doesn’t respect my status or my father’s reputation. But he has already killed a mage right in front of my eyes. Would I be a fool to approach him myself? Would he just take it as an opportunity to insult me to my face?
“Where could I discuss the job with son of Bear?” she asked.
“I spoke to him in the coffee grinder’s place. It has been recommended by many informants.”
“Then I will meet him there tomorrow. But we’re not paying for his attention this time.” And they dispersed for the night. Baya laid to rest on the reed mats in the corner of the cool cave.
I’m doing this for my mother, she reminded herself again, slaying that mage will bring back our honor. And I will continue to fight for it no matter what. I won’t be afraid. I won’t let the son of Bear scare me.
When Baya and Kotem arrived at the bustling market, the next morning, the spotted a bizarre figure bobbing a full head above others. It was Bear for sure. Baya stood by the coffee shop and a snake charmer’s stand while Kotem disappeared into the crowd. Baya could see the top of Bear’s head turn and stoop. Behind her the charmer had only one snake, a dull brown color, the type that could easily hide in the cracked earth just outside the city. The charmer winked at Baya and asked her for a song. She turned away.
When she saw the balding head approaching, she went inside the coffee shop, slipped behind the grinder’s counter, and pushed through an old zebra hide to the back room. The whole place smelled fantastic.
The backroom was windowless and dark save for a dozen flickering candles of various size and stages of use. Baya sat on a flat cushion by a low table comprised of a trendy slab of wood, carved with a triangle pattern and glazed to smoothness with a camel-fat finish. Lights and shadows danced eagerly across the wall opposite her — she could see patterns of various family emblems on wares that filled the shelves. Ghazai, Khuzai, Hadan, and others. Decorative grinding stones with their pestles lined both sides of the room, stacked on top of each other. At the end there was a desk with a bunch of scrolls, a set of candles, and a rack of long-handled coffee boilers and cups. Clearly this was a shop for the wealthy in Qara only. A place of secrecy.
Kotem’s familiar hand appeared by the zebra hide, and he entered followed by Bear. Bear appeared, topless again, and sat cross-legged across from her at the low table.
Kotem sat beside her on his knees, eyes cast down, “Bear son of Bear son of a Great Wolf son of Bear” he started, “is interested in learning more about the offer.”
“First I want him to explain why he refused my invitation yesterday.” Baya looked at him. His face was not red and wet like it had been the first time she saw him.
“I assumed yesterday that Kotem was inviting me to a mercenary job. It’s the sort of attention I have always attracted from nobles. And I have been trying to get away from that,” Bear said, “for the past four years.”
“So you’ve gotten away. Now what are you hoping for?”
“Now I’m hoping to stay in Qara. I can work in construction until I die. I’ve already redeemed myself here.”
“Ok,” Baya said, “so you’ve redeemed yourself here, but have you gotten any work in construction?”
Baya and Kotem looked at each other in shock. The man had only been free for a day and a half. After a moment Baya collected herself, “That might work,” she said, “but you can benefit a lot more from serving a powerful family like mine. Wouldn’t you like to be redeemed all across Adab and Turab? You could be brought into high society, lead troops, and bear a title.”
“You just want me to kill someone,” Bear growled, “Your buddy Kotem already told me about the titles, riches, troops. And high society! There’s nothing high about it except for pervasive substance abuse. But all those things come with an alliance to a bloodthirsty noble. I’m done with nasty political games.”
“Not all nobles are bloodthirsty or nasty,” Baya said, “You think all nobles are evil like the Lemia House? Is that why you’re done with mercenary work?”
“I know that all nobles are evil like Lemia House.”
“Great.” Baya smiled and looked up, nodding lightly as though thanking someone, “then we can talk about that. Kotem, tell him about the job. Then we can go into details.”
“Noblelady Baya bilHadan biHadan offers you a quest to avenge her father’s death.” Kotem said, “six years ago, he was murdered in the resting city of Imani Rock. A mage had offered to help him and his tribesmen, but within a few hours — this is according to the men that survived the attack — the mage turned foul. He tore off her father’s head, ate it, and left the body.”
“Yes I’ve heard the story and I’ve been to Imani Rock.” Bear said, “Hadan biHadan was a popular man.”
Baya appreciated the comment. “Exactly. And I don’t want to send another man to lose his head at Imani Rock. I want a man that I’m confident can kill a mage.”
Kotem continued, “I can guide you. I can help keep you safe, fed, and on track until we arrive. Then I will wait for you outside. Baya wants to bring his head and body in separate pieces to drag through the streets of Turab –”
“Separate pieces?” Bear said, “sounds like Lady Baya wants to intimidate and terrorize the people of Turab.” He rubbed his face and looked about the dark room. Baya could hear him sigh heavily, “All of you nobles are the same. Gilded camel dung. That’s all.”
“My family is not gilded camel dung!” Baya fought hard internally to collect herself. She breathed deeply, and straightened up, “You defected from Lemia because you hated them. I understand that. Many of us do — half of the people of Adab are refugees from Lemia rule. The elders used to say that the only reason people started to live in the Adabi desert is that they were escaping the persecution of the Lemias. But House Hadan is not like House Lemia. We don’t practice forced migration. And common people don’t fear us.”
Bear was staring at her with his ugly face, quiet and attentive. Baya couldn’t read his expression since she hadn’t seen him expressing anything other than fear, alarm, and disgust. Perhaps it was an opportunity? She continued.
“My father, especially, is known to have been a good man. Hadan son of Hadan built excellent relationships with several of the tribes and cities in Adab. They remember his family and his daughters, including me. These relationships are built on dignity and mutual benefits. We’re not like the Lemias at all. I’m even meeting with the Qara council this week.” she paused, searching his face. “I am truly noble,” she concluded, “and if you serve me you can redeem yourself across all of Adab and Turab.”
Bear scowled deeper and uglier than Baya thought possible, “Oh you’re noble?” he said, “How is it noble for a woman to lie about her status?”
“The daughter of a dead man can’t be a princess.”
“Oh. Technically I am –”
Bear raised his voice over hers, “How could a princess be wandering about the desert, town to town and tribe to tribe, with only one man to protect her? That was the first thing that tipped me off to your lies.” He leaned closer to her with his snarling twisted face, “I don’t like nobles. I don’t like you. I don’t like your kind. I don’t like the way your people dress, how you talk, your obsession with social hierarchy and your audacity to proclaim yourselves virtuous. All Adabi nobles are fatayat? What virtues do the nobles have that make them fatayat?”
Baya fumed silently. He is a brute she said to herself. How much of my patience is this awful man worth? But to redeem her family such a man might be needed.
“I bet those donkeys on the Qara council love you a lot.” He pronounced “Qara council” with hatred and the twists in his face tightened. “House Hadan is the worst. You say your father was a good man, but he was only an agent of his own father. The entire extended family call themselves noble but they live in great palaces while extorting the common folk around them.”
“Hadan does not extort its people!” She said, fighting to control herself again. “I don’t know where you heard that -”
“Your head is full of date paste,” the brute growled “And here you are, lying about your status within that family,” he said, “If they considered you a princess, they wouldn’t let you out on your own like this. So far from home. You want me to kill a mage who eats a man’s head and leaves the body,” he paused and threw his head back. Then squeezed his face. He stood, “I could do it. But you lie and you call yourself a fataat.”
“Forget the fatayat!” Baya snapped, “but you’re right, the family doesn’t consider me a princess but I actually am. The truth is that I am royalty on both sides of my family.” The tribesman stood by the door of the small backroom. He was about to leave, but then he turned to face her and Kotem.
“Ok, tell me,” the brute sat before them again on the mats.
“My grandmother was the queen of the Steppes in the east as Turabi peasants were beginning to flee Lemia rule to the desert. At the time there were two kings vying for kingship of the Steppes — Hadan and Duyin — and also for her hand. My grandmother fell in love with Duyin and he held the steppes for a week before he was overthrown by Hadan.”
“She chose Duyin over Hadan for his virtue. Duyin was a real fataat. He defended the peasants as they fled Lemia rule. He was a hero. And she loved him for that. Both noble. Both fatayat for sure. But Hadan would have married my grandmother if she would’ve had him –“
“And how inbred you’d be if that happened!” The brute cried in amusement, “And both of them found an early grave. Excellent story. Clearly your grandmother picked the wrong king.”
“She picked the man she did because he was noble in his heart. A righteous man. A real fataat.”
“That explains it,” the brute looked like an idea just struck him, “You are the daughter of a traitor. And you can’t avenge your mother’s side of the family because it’s your own family — your king grandfather — who had them killed,” he laughed cruelly, “that’s why you’re so driven to avenge your father. It’s one crime that you ought to be able to rectify. It also explains why you have to do it yourself.” The ugly man steepled his fingers thoughtfully, “Hadan’s youngest son married a traitor’s daughter — a castle hostage, basically — and the king’s court couldn’t care less about his assassination. I see. So you are popular out here, but hated within your own family. Interesting.” He examined her with his uneven eyes.
“If you serve me, you will still benefit greatly — in terms of salary and connections.” Baya nudged Kotem beside her, “you are well-paid, Kotem? And popular?”
He agreed. They both looked at Bear expectantly.
“But I don’t want connections to a bunch of trashy royals. Hadan is trash. Duyin is trash. Lemia is trash. You are trash. Your head is full of trash — especially if you think your family is better than the others. Go find another champion to get after that precious head-eating mage of yours.”
“You are low” Baya trembled and her face got hot.
“Even the way you look at me!” The brute snapped, “with eyes so cruel and hard. A princess for sure! Pompous, proud! But just brimming with love for your headless daddy!”
“I came here to make you an offer,” Her voice was louder than usual and she stood suddenly without realizing it, “that could bring you back to society and make you very comfortable. Yet you call me trash! You belittle my family!”
“I don’t like you and I don’t like your kind.” Bear sounded like he was enjoying himself, “I already told you that.”
“Shut up!” Baya screamed, still standing. Her face red and eyes flashing. She grabbed Kotem tightly by the arm and wrenched him up, ramming through the zebra-skin door. They could hear Bear chuckling behind them. It was a ugly sound.
Out of the coffee shop Baya grabbed a basket from a neighboring shop, her jaw clenched and mannerisms violent. Kotem paid the basket-weaver and followed behind Baya as she tore through the market snatching items into her basket. By the time they were done, it was more than full, and she dropped several items in her haste. Kotem grabbed them as they fell and struggled to keep up with Baya as she ran back to the hostel.
The council meeting that night was held in the second floor of the main governing office in the city square. Baya learned from her informants (more than one) that it was made to appear private, but was surrounded by spies. The meeting began with tea and dates. Baya gave the usual greetings and received a small gift — a miniature idol of the local god, Toton. The council chatted casually about foreign affairs and local politics, “It’s impossible to rule these tribes,” a councilwoman said, “Turab. Lemia. Hadan. Can’t even control their own backyard. These are difficult lands and impossible to master at scale. The Bear must have realized this and decided he had had enough of the insanity.”
“Maybe he’s a coward.” Baya offered. And then the tea was finished, and a servant brought wine. The men and women of the council addressed immediate issues of honor, rations, and resources. Baya had been thinking about the water issue the entire morning. Her failure the night before lead her to feel that she may as well do some advocacy for the west side of Qara. She doubted that any resistance from the council could be worse than her encounter with son of Bear.
They finally reached the subject of the annual mist. Before the council moved on to another topic, Baya interjected, “I’ve heard that the diversion of annual healing mist toward the east has hurt the peasants on the west side. They tell me that ten homes have already become unlivable due to the baking sun.”
A councilwoman screamed loudly. Baya paused and looked at her. She wore the baby blue color common in Qara. Her chin was tattooed. Baya estimated she was as old as her mother. There was a silence about the council. She began again.
“camel blood mounds have been cursed for a reason–“ And another shout interrupted her. She continued anyway.
“It’s not too late to reverse the water diversion project. Many common folk have informed me –“ and then the councilors became furious. Eyes widened, brows furrowed, chins tilted upwards. Two sets of men began separate conversations that drowned her out. The elders were almost howling.
Baya quieted for a minute, her face was burning in shame and rage. The hollering slowly quieted. What had started as a noble meeting of local governance, ideas, dates, and tea had transformed into what looked like a bunch of savages in fancy robes. She stood up off the reed mats, too angry to think of anything but a term she had learned earlier that day — gilded camel dung!
“You haven’t been dismissed.” The tattooed councilwoman said.
Baya took the idol of Toton out of her pocket and snapped it in half. She threw the pieces on the ground. She departed, followed by Kotem. “It is time,” she told him loudly, within earshot of the meeting, “to leave this wretched town.”
The following day, Baya stayed in her hostel room, and Kotem brought her meals. The hostel had been beautiful when she first arrived. But after the events of the past few days, Baya found it to be unsightly. Her mind associated it all with frustration. She had trouble sleeping and was eager to go. Perhaps I have been foolish all along. Mother never even asked me to do this.
Kotem asked her, “where else do you want to go?”
“Anywhere but here,” Baya said. She wasn’t able to find herself a champion and she wasn’t able to influence the greed of the Qara city council. Looking back, she realized the only thing she had accomplished since being in Qara was gathering new insults against her family.
In the morning, she was throwing her things together in haste and bought another camel for Kotem. The two packed dates, nuts, wine, and bananas, applied their kohl thickly, and strapped all of Baya’s new purchases onto the saddlebags. The two were about to bring their camels for one last drink before the trip, when an angry voice snapped–
“You found your champion.”
It was the large odious man from the tribe of Khuzai. He certainly looked out of place standing on the side of the lovely hostel steps, a spiky myrrh bush with its purple flowers blossoming behind him.
“What are you doing here?” Baya asked.
“Accepting my job.” The brute snapped.
“Kotem, can you please talk to him.” Baya handed her reins over to him, “I’ve had enough trash this week.”
He took them.
“You’re both mounted now? But aren’t you her servant?” Bear asked.
“Her ladyship generously bought it for me” Kotem said, “so I can have a mount, too. My last camel died in the desert.”
Baya returned to the hostel without looking back.
The men spent a minute outside before coming in. With a full tankard of watered beer in front of her, Baya was almost ready to engage again with the brute. Bear appeared with Kotem again. The large man knelt evenly in front her, straight, with his hands resting on both his thighs. It was a posture of deference. He opened his mouth —
“Kotem,” Baya said, “What does he want?”
Bear closed his mouth, staring at her with his uneven eyes. As Kotem explained the situation, she examined the potential champion. He had accepted to work for her. And he had accepted her price, too.
“Why did you change your mind?”
“It was about your contribution to the council last night,” Bear said, maintaining his deference.
“And?” Baya’s eyes flicked impatiently. She had a sinking feeling that she really was going to hire this brute. After their altercation, Baya began to hope that she could find a warrior who had killed a mage before and had good manners.
He said, “I heard of the informants at the council. It’s full of spies you know.”
“I know that.”
“And I like what you said. It’s not easy to speak the truth to people like that. It was brave and truly noble.”
Truly noble? Baya still wasn’t convinced. It was quite a change from the last time she’d seen him. She tried to read his face. “But my family is still trash?”
“You aren’t.” the brute said, “You are a fataat. I don’t know your family… but you are a noble I’d be willing to serve. And besides, you got Kotem his own camel. You are a kind master.”
Baya looked at him with new eyes. His civility surprised her. Bear’s face began to look less twisted to her. He had a heavy brow, and a nose that appeared smashed to the side. She figured that the scowl must be part of his facial structure, posing no personal offense to herself. He looked genuine.
“We have a deal. I will pay half now and half after you bring me the body of that mage.”
“Ok. I’ve heard,” Bear growled, “that a mage of limbs replenishes their power by devouring the body part corresponding to their magic. That was a mage of feet that I battled in the city center. It could also have just been an act of cruelty, but most likely your father’s murderer is a minds mage. I can still kill him, but I would need far more familiarity with your father’s mind.”
Baya hadn’t thought of that. But it seemed like Bear did understand more about mages than the average person.
“Are you saying that I have to come with you?”