The entourage that had accompanied the Egyptian merchant to Susa spread itself throughout the taverns and accommodations of the city. The many drinking spots were filled to capacity, and the alcohol ran freely for the travellers deprived during the difficult trek across the desert.
Amurdad’s Bounty lay at the South Gate of Susa, and was the most popular tavern for those with refined tastes. The street had a slow trickle of people through it. A trio of cloaked figures stood against a wall facing at the front door of the tavern, which was guarded by large stonework griffins to each side and a Faravahar above. The outer figures had their hoods half-way back, showing their faces. The one in the centre hid their face, the hood turning to look between the carved animals and nodding at the impeccable skill of their creators.
The central figure stepped forward, and then turned to face the other two. The soft yet commanding voice that came forth was rough, yet unmistakably feminine.
“So, Heydar and Kadir. You both have your orders. Tell me what they are.”
The man to her left spoke first. “Yes, Lady Sayeh…”
“Do not use that name, Heydar! The name is known, and we will not escape should it be heard.” Sayeh cleared her throat, and the voice that came forth was masculine. “I am Sayyid, one of the apprentices in your more recent deliveries.”
Heydar shook his head with a bemused look. “I have always wondered how you learned to change your voice so convincingly. The only other complete change of voice I know of is Kadir’s after too many fine wines.”
The other man’s right arm lashed out, punching Heydar in the shoulder. “And yet I still beat you within an inch of your worthless life every time you make that joke. Do not think the change of location will excuse you.”
Before he could register the movement, Sayeh was directly in front of Kadir with a dagger placed across his throat. “If your idiocy costs us dearly, the tortures I will exact upon you will make you wish your father never had dirty thoughts involving your mother. You will do as you have been ordered. Am I clear?”
Kadir’s wide eyes looked under the hood of the cloak, trying to see the expression on her face. The deepness of the cloak’s hood ensured it could not be seen. He nodded quickly, as much as the blade allowed him. A quick flick of her wrist shaved some skin from the spot, enough to make it red and tender but not bleed.
The blade disappeared up her sleeve. “Now, what are your orders?”
Heydar spoke. “We are to keep our wits about us, and our ears open. There are three men here who are part of Babafemi’s most trusted guard, under the watch of the team’s senior members.
The hood of Sayeh’s cloak nodded, and turned to regard the other man. “And what else, Kadir?”
The sullen man scratched at the grazed area of his throat. “We are to endear ourselves to them as much as possible, and try to join the caravan on its ride back to Alexandria.”
Their leader nodded again. “I will spend some time in the next few days seeking some worthwhile goods to convince them of our story. You will mention the errands you will have me running to collect your wares, so suspicion will be lessened. They may drop some hints on good suppliers if they are drunk enough.”
The two men laughed as they looked to each other, though they glared slightly at each other. The pair sparred often, both verbally and physically, with a level of animosity that bordered on unhealthy. Sayeh had always been able to keep them in check, using her own ability to humble them in combat.
Kadir considered his leader. “I doubt you will be able to keep your hood up while you are in here, Sayyid.”
“You are right.” Sayeh reached inside her cloak, pulling out a thin wooden mask. Delicately carved symbols ran around its edges. She placed it under her hood, and softly spoke some words not audible to the two men. After several seconds, she removed her empty hand from under the hood.
Heydar looked to the other man, shaking his head. “You know of our lady’s magic mask, Kadir. You are not that forgetful.”
Sayeh reached up to throw back the hood. As it fell, the two men looked upon the face of an unremarkable man. Her hair had been braided up into a shorter ponytail, in order to not look feminine enough to attract suspicious looks.
Kadir’s eyes boggled again. “You have a truly amazing artifact. They would be very useful.”
She reached inside her cloak again, and showed the top edges of two more. “You will not need yours yet. Until you do, I shall keep them safe.”
The two men looked disappointed at not being able to receive their own masks, but shrugged it off quickly. They threw back their own hoods completely. The pair looked less like a bunch of ruffians, having cleaned up their hair and beards earlier in the day to ensure they would be presentable at an upstanding establishment.
The non-descript man looked to Heydar and Kadir. “Well, boys. Let’s go and talk our way into a caravan to Alexandria.”
Kadir nodded. “Yes, my lady.”
Sayeh rolled her eyes at the slip of his tongue, and cuffed the side of his head. They composed themselves, and then pushed open the doors of the tavern.
– X –
One of the closed doors off the entryway had a sign naming it as Azu’s office. The host opened the door, and gestured for Barney to enter.
Barney assessed the room. The wall paint and flooring was in no better condition than in the main area of the house, and a high, narrow rectangular window let in some light. A white grain wood table sat in the centre of the space, adorned with a fluorescent light, a notepad and a pen. A pair of slightly rusted filing drawers in the back corner, with a set of decrepit jewel analysis tools sitting atop them.
It looked like a barely functional office, let alone for someone in the precious jewels trade.
Barney looked to Azu with a raised eyebrow. “You do know presentation is important when it comes to people wanting your business, right?”
The man gave him a beaming smile. “My efforts are channelled into the presentation of the raw material brought to me. I may not do as much business as those down the road, but the quality trumps the quantity. Basic economics then determines the price of my work.”
“True enough. The less of a valuable good raises the price. But it wouldn’t let you have a more presentable house?”
“I only tell you this because I trust you. Claudio does not send just anyone to see me, so I shall do the same. It’s all for show. The people at DMC are extremely devious, and try to destroy their competition. Many other companies from other countries tried to establish a base here, but usually pulled out under unexplained circumstances. Because the house and office are very modest, they do not see me as competition.”
“Even with the quality of your work?”
“They go for quality and quantity. I don’t let greed cloud my work, or unsustainable supply practices. My work volume is not enough to threaten them.”
Azu went to the drawers, opened the top drawer of the left set. He flicked through the file dividers, finding a spot and reaching in. He quickly removed his arm and shut the drawer. The top half of the drawers separated slightly, just enough for a set of fingers to reach in between. Azu did so, and then braced himself as he pulled. The top half quietly slid along the wall, revealing a lighted panel hiding within the lower drawers of the set closest to the room’s corner.
“It’s a one person elevator. Watch your step, as it starts descending the moment weight is placed on it.”
Azu stepped over and onto the panel, a low hum starting immediately. He lowered slowly, disappearing into pitch black. Barney heard a click, and saw the glow of white light just before the panel returned to his level. As he descended, he was astounded at the difference between this underground room and those above as light flooded the room.
This room was the embodiment of the precious jewels maker. Fluorescent tube lights shone down from the ceiling, bathing every surface in a sanitising white light. A central bench had a jewellery lathe and a polishing wheel at its centre, and all the other machinery required for diamond cutting and polishing. The walls were covered in picture frames, some showing pictures of cut diamonds and others certificates or awards. Glass cases sat below them, with some unsightly cut diamonds within them, with dates and a number. The crudest looking item had number one.
Barney looked to Azu with shocked surprise. “I have to apologise.”
The African smiled that broad smile. “No need at all. That you reacted that way shows the effect I am attempting works well.”
“And those DMC people wouldn’t suspect this portion of the house exists?”
“They may, but they don’t know how to get in here. The old, decrepit tools I have above are what I show when I’m asked what I use. Though they are very old, they actually work. The only issue is the time it takes me to complete the process. I do use them every now and then.” After the pair sat opposite each other at the bench, Azu held out a hand. “May I have Claudio’s gift?”
Barney nodded, and handed over the container with the materials inside. “I must warn you though. Best you wear gloves, just in case.”
The man shrugged, and pulled out a pair of latex gloves from underneath the bench. Once he put them on, he removed the lid of the container. His expression did not give much away as he held the material, turning it in his hand to look at it from various angles.
He frowned as he looked back up to Barney. “And Claudio says this is Carbonado? I have never seen a raw diamond that looks like a clump of melted wax.”
Barney nodded. “He scanned it multiple times. It came up with same answer.”
Azu shrugged again. “He has the best assessment gear, so I’ll trust his word. They don’t give you unreliable work gear when they send you to another planet.”
He reached over and picked up a small hand-held diamond saw, and carefully sliced a small portion off the side of the clump of material. It was like a butcher cutting into a ham, saying that the saw was extremely sharp. He sliced again, removing the very thin portion with two flat edges. Placing it on the dark panel, he pushed a button that made the panel light up brighter than the lights above. He reached into a drawer under the panel, pulling out a little black eyepiece, through which he looked at the sliver of Carbonado. He sat back suddenly, speaking a word Barney did not know.
Barney looked at him concernedly. “What is it?”
Azu looked at him, shock on his face. “It is definitely Carbonado, but I’ve never seen something moving within a black diamond before.”
– X –
The Karawa Great Hall was filled to overflowing.
A large contingent of servants moved about the room, dodging between tables and moving guests. The walls were covered in the finest drapery and art that Behnam and Shadi owned; an uncommon sight to those who knew the man’s modest tastes. Bathed in the orange light provided by the many wall-mounted torches, the servants carried ceramic jugs of wine and platters of food for placement at the centre of the long wood tables. The noise made it almost impossible to hear, highlighted by people speaking into each other’s ears with barely a fingernail’s space between them.
The raised table was occupied by the Lady Zia and Yafeu, who spoke together amiably. Shadi and Behnam sat either side of them respectively, speaking with guests who had made their way to the dais to offer their congratulations and well-wishes. After shaking hands with the man he had been speaking to, Behman motioned for a servant to come and refill the glasses on the table. Once done, he spoke in their ear and gestured to the other servants moving throughout the room.
As the servant moved off to complete his orders, Behnam rose to his feet. His robe was a deep burgundy, and adorned only with a solid gold belt. He raised his glass in his left hand, and held up the palm of his right hand. The people below gradually turned to see his gesture, shushing others until a hush had fallen over the hall.
“On behalf of Shadi and I, we would like to thank you all for making the time and travel to attend this gathering.” His voice carried easily throughout the hall, commanding the attention of the audience. “As you will have heard, a dear friend of our family for many years has asked for our daughter’s hand in marriage.” He turned to Zia and Yafeu, with a look of fatherly pride on his face. “Zia has happily accepted the offer.”
Zia, blushing brightly, lowered her face as the crowd cheered. After several moments, Behnam raised his hands again to quiet them. Once the room was quiet again, he continued.
“My wife and I have known Yafeu and his family for many years, through the threads of fate that have been benevolently woven throughout my life. Yafeu’s father, Hormazd rest his soul, returned my beloved wife to me when she became lost in the Arabian Desert. Those days were torment for me, especially knowing how Shadi was late into her pregnancy at the time.”
He lowered his head for a moment, the rush of the memory bringing tears to his eyes and a crack to his voice. “News of the unprecedented sandstorm that had swept the Desert had left me certain of my beloved’s death, and also of the treasured child she and I had prayed so many years for.”
He turned to look at his wife and daughter, who eyes were also rimmed with tears. “In the depths of my despair, a messenger came to me one day to tell me that a merchant I must meet with had come to Susa. I met the merchant in this very Hall, who named himself Eoeri Babafemi. He stood at those doors, and gestured a cloaked figure to enter before him. The figure removed their hood, revealing my beloved wife, returned to me from the tainted grasps of Ahriman. As I ran to embrace her, something moved under her cloak. Moving the cloak aside, I saw Zia for the first time.”
He looked to Yafeu, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “The joy I felt at seeing the two most important people in my life safely returned to me, I thought it impossible that it could ever be equalled. However, when Yafeu sent me word of his intention to ask for Zia’s hand, the joy I felt was the closest I have ever come to that day.”
He gave his future stepson a beaming smile. “Our families have been tightly bound by fate through the years, and that Hormazd has seen fit to strengthen our bond further is the greatest gift I could receive.” Turning back to the crowd, he raised his glass. “Let us raise our glasses to Zia and Yafeu, and the many happy years they have ahead of them.”
A sea of glasses rose into the air, which rolled as they clinked with those around them. Yafeu rose to his feet, grasping forearms with Behnam before giving him a brief embrace. As Behnam seated himself, the Egyptian man awaited the calming of the crowd, his icy eyes taking in the view of the seated guests. His dress was much more opulent than his prospective father-in-law. His sleeveless robe kept the same alternating blue and yellow pattern of the silk vest worn earlier in the day, and his forearms were encircled by solid gold snakes whose heads ended at the back of his hands.
As he spoke, his voice commanded the attention of the crowd. “As Behnam has already said, I would also like to express my gratitude for your attendance tonight. It has proven my trek from Alexandria is indeed a fruitful one.” He turned to look upon Zia, who saw that unsettling gleam in the kohl-circled eyes. “The history between our families is a blessed one, with Hormazd favouring the Karawas and Bes protecting the Babafemis. With such gods watching over us in favour, our union cannot be anything but blessed.”
He returned his gaze to the crowd, and raised his own glass. “To the Karawa family, and the families of all our honoured guests. May the gods of both Persia and Egypt protect you, and bestow prosperity upon you all.”
The crowd cheered, and the clinking of glasses again filled the room. Yafeu sat down and turned to Zia, taking her hand in his. She gave the warmest smile she could, still feeling unsettled by that look in his eye. He returned the smile, holding her hand in a way that felt like he never wanted to let go.
“I look forward to our days travelling to Pasargadae. To be in your presence is like bathing in the light of the Gods.”
Zia cringed inwardly at his fawning ways and his insatiable eyes, but was comforted by the fact that his overwhelming attention was better than the alternative.
– X –
For a diamond and precious jewels supplier, Azubuike did not live it up.
The inside of the house was surprisingly close to poverty. The white paint flaked from every wall, and the roof had stains indicating water leakage. The floors were wood panelling, but worn down and lacking polish. There was a slight intrusion of the red dust, though it was confined to the floor and the lower portion of the walls. The light along the passage to the front door indicated that several doors leading off into rooms were closed.
Azu continued his queries as he walked around the kitchen. Collecting a cutting board and fishing knife from a cupboard and drawer respectively, he began to prepare the fish on the island.
“I cannot imagine living and working in such conditions. Life is hard enough here, let alone requiring a reinforced body suit to even step outside.”
Barney shrugged his shoulders. “You do what you need to do.”
He looked around the rooms near the kitchen. An old cathode ray television, with a set top box sitting on its top, was placed within a sealed glass case against a side wall. A pair of three-seat couches sat beside each other, showing the prominent shade of red that seemed to infiltrate everything.
“Tell me, Azu. Do you make much money?”
The man’s face broke into a wide grin. “I do well enough.” He gestured with the knife towards the front door, with small drops of fish blood falling onto the kitchen bench. “Unlike our corporate friends through there, I do not make a point of flaunting my wealth with fancy items.”
“What do you spend your money on, then?”
“I work with agriculturalists in trying to grow a greater variety of sustainable crops on the outskirts of Bangui. The majority of the population rely on the food they produce for themselves, hardy foods such as grain and tubers. We look to get new crops covering all the requirements of a diet, and can easily be grown by all people.”
“Is it working out?”
Azu chuckled to himself. “The land is what it is, and will grow what it can. Some things work out better than others, but we focus on supporting hardier strains of various food types and making them sustainable.”
Completing the filleting of the fish he had caught, he placed four pieces in a small oven placed on the bench. As he closed the door of the oven, a squeaking metal sound came from the front of the house. Barney turned to the source of the sound, as a lady walked down the corridor with some shopping bags hanging from her forearm.
She was a slender lady, her full-length body wrap showing a narrow build with understated curves, who shared the same skin colour as Azu. Her hair was short and tightly ringed, which helped highlight her wide brown eyes and her large pink and brown lips. She looked at the unexpected guest, giving a small smile before conversing with Azu in a language Barney could not understand. The pair spoke animatedly for a minute or two, until she nodded and turned back to Barney.
“Hello. My name is Shasa.” Her accent was heavy, and her English spoken with the hesitancy of one not used to using it.
“I am Barnaby. Pleased to meet you.” The pair shook hands formally, with the lady giving a small tilt of her head before turning to the kitchen cupboards and beginning to put away the items she had brought from the shops.
Barney looked to Azu. “Your English is very good. Do many people here in Bangui speak it well?”
“No. We have many dialects, French being the most common. The most common native language is called Sangho. Shasa speaks Sangho and French, but I learned English during my studies overseas.”
Barney nodded. “Where did you study?”
“At ETH in Zurich. I could say the full name of the university, but it is quite the mouthful. It was there that I met Claudio, and we studied together. Our thesis was based on the comparatives of black diamond to the other forms of diamond, and how it seems the two types were created in different ways. We concluded that no possible method of black diamond creation existed on Earth, whereas high-pressure volcanic activity allows white diamonds and other different shades.”
A small bell sounded, and Azu turned back to the small oven. He quickly turned the fish, pressing on it slightly with the tongs to see how much moisture remained. Nodding to himself, he closed the door again.
Shasa completed her packing away, and closed the door to the pantry. As she turned, her eyes narrowed. She looked around the room, seemingly focussed on something. She said something to Azu in Sangho, which made him do a similar analysis of the room. After a moment, he shrugged his shoulders and spoke to her. She said something to Azu in a harsh tone, before beginning to move around the kitchen.
Barney looked to Azu. “What was that? Have I made her uncomfortable?”
Azu shook his head, waving a hand side to side for further emphasis. “Not at all. She is sensitive to spirits and other supernatural things. She said she felt a presence in the room, but I told her she was incorrect. Like most ladies, she doesn’t like men saying they are wrong.”
As he laughed, the bell of the oven sounded again. “I’ll get a lemon and some pepper while Shasa makes the side dishes. It will be basic fare, but the fish from the Ubangi River are very good. Once we finish lunch, we can head downstairs.”
Barney nodded, before looking to the floor in confusion. It was a single storey house.
– X –
‘The Gathering Storm’ by Brandon Sanderson (Book 12 of the ‘Wheel of Time’ series)
The one thing that was regularly levelled at the series was how it seemed to get too involved in the micro-management of the characters. Yes, the evil is seeping is back into the world, we understand that is affecting everyone. The cast of central characters is large, without even looking at the first- and second-level supporting characters.
It is still there, but Brandon is doing a wonderful job in balancing the scale. There are still the first- and second-level characters, but putting them into scenes together instead of giving them their own sections does not make it seem so much like padding.
Enjoying it so far, but there is still over three quarters of the book to go (200 of 824). Brandon is proving that his choice to complete the WoT series was a very good one =)
– X –
I admit that, due to other tasks having been set, my ‘Big Project’ has been sorely neglected. Efforts to find a readable and study-worthy copy of Avicenna or Galen’s medical manuals have been fruitless, and caused the complete stall of Chapter 4.
The purpose of my short stories was to give a break from a stalled project, and hopefully connect the neurons through another outlet. ‘Mune and Mura’ helped to a degree, as ti got me through ‘Big Project’ Chapter 3 and up into Chapter 4. OVCC#9 got started, and was going great guns until ‘Sayeh and Zia’ popped into my head once Chapter 2 was completed.
And now that OVCC#9 and S&Z are being juggled, the brain has (somewhat) unconsciously returned my focus to the ‘Big Project’. The weather data tracking is now up to Book 6, and the brain is doing everything it can to keep me focused on getting all the locale weather data up to date RIGHT NOW!
This was a slightly long-winded way of apologising again for my Muse trying to throw many balls at me to juggle. The data tracking will be completed tonight, in time for the Easter long weekend. Four whole days! My solemn vow is that there will be a scene from both OVCC#9 and S&Z posted by the end of this long weekend, and I will do my utmost to get some scenes ahead so my stalled brain does not cause lacking posts.
– X –
Post 146. Five more to go…
The Karawa family compound buzzed with activity and excitement.
Guests and family members had been arriving for much of the day. The gardens were filled with people. There were distant family members catching up on the events of each other’s lives, and guests using the event to increase their network of contacts in promising new markets. The host family’s servants were busily moving around the garden, ensuring that the guests’ needs were being well covered.
In the kitchen, Shadi and Zia were keeping a close eye on the comings and goings of the serving staff. The platters being served that were being consumed quicker than others were given higher priority than the slower-moving foods, with the cooks allocated accordingly to a section of the kitchen. The variety of drinks was maintained, with juices and water regularly delivered alongside the fine Shirazi wine from the renowned viticultural southern city. The ladies knew that the wines were always popular, yet wanted to avoid guests making too much of a scene in an alcohol-induced stupor.
The ladies stepped out of the kitchen’s back door, into a small walled terrace. An elaborate sun clock stood in its middle, surrounded by a variety of short flowers. Shadi walked over to assess the time of day.
Zia watched her mother with amusement. “Father and Yafeu will arrive soon enough. To leave the presence of the Susashah before time does not keep one in his favour for long.”
Her mother sighed as she turned to her daughter, the lines of worry evident. “It is not every day that a day of entertainment revolves around the giving away of one’s daughter.”
The amusement quickly faded from Zia’s deep brown eyes, as did the curls at the side of her lips. Her mother saw this, and walked over to provide a comforting embrace.
“Do not worry, my dear. All ladies are worried when the time comes to be married. Our own hearts are a lesser consideration, but our welfare is not completely ignored.”
Zia lowered her eyes. “I understand that, Mother. I knew the time for marriage would come eventually, but I fear that a streak of independence will not bode well with Yafeu. He has always seemed to be controlling.”
“It is an unfortunate effect of being in the merchant trade. There is no end to the number of people willing to take advantage of you. Those in the city will steal your goods, and whether they kill you or not to do so means little to them. Those in desert locations are little better, and sometimes are worse due to the harsh climate they live in. Yafeu has to deal with both, as has your father.”
A sad smile crossed Zia’s face. “A son-in-law who has so much in common with him. It is no wonder that Father was eager for the marriage.”
“That was an unexpected benefit, my dear. All your father wants is to ensure the family name continues past his own lifetime. The years of devotion he has poured into his work to see the Karawa name recognised as the foremost merchant family of Susa is renowned. For the family’s business reputation to dying with him is his greatest fear.”
Her daughter nodded. “And he sees Yafeu Babafemi as the most likely chance to ensure that does not happen?”
“Exactly. We’ve all known Yafeu’s family for many years, and they are a merchant family also. Did I ever tell you how our families met?”
Zia rolled her eyes. “Yes, many times. I am sure it will be an interesting story to tell, should you be called to say something tonight.”
A clearing of the throat drew the pair’s attention to the kitchen door. A messenger was standing there, the sweat on his forehead and his chest’s fast movements showing the effort of his travels.
“I apologise for the interruption, my ladies. Behnam and Yafeu have just left the Susashah’s palace, and they will be arriving here within the hour.”
Shadi looked back to the sun clock. “That gives us two or so hours to make sure everything is prepared.” She looked back to the messenger. “Thank you for letting me know. Please take some food for yourself on your way out.”
The messenger bowed. “You are most gracious.” He turned to Zia. “I hope everything goes well for you, my lady.”
Zia gave a slight bow. “Thank you. I hope so too.” The messenger turned and headed back into the busy kitchen.
“Father has done well by me, Mother. Yafeu and I are to have plenty of time to get to know each other once more, as we travel to the other well-known merchant cities of Persia. Seeing how he deals with his customers and suppliers in Pasargadae and Istakhr will let me witness first-hand how he has grown as a person. The rumours may not all be true.”
Shadi gave her daughter a sly look. “Istakhr? I see you do not fall into your father’s habit of giving the city its old name.”
Zia smiled. “Knowing it was previously Persepolis is Father’s favourite piece of historical knowledge. I allow him the enjoyment he gets of using the old name.”
“How gracious of you,” Shadi said sarcastically as she gave her daughter another hug. “Come. We better make sure everything is ready for when the pair arrive. I hope they did not take full advantage of the Susashah’s hospitality, as it could leave no room for the feast tonight.”
“Father fears your temper, so I am sure he warned Yafeu that they needed to behave.”
The pair laughed as they moved back into the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. The staff moved with extra enthusiasm at the news of the long-awaited guest’s impending arrival.
– X –