by Omar Zakaria
Black wasn’t happy, the way things were going. The tavern was large and open, for one thing, and no matter how he adjusted his chair, he couldn’t face all the doors at once. And it was probably the one tavern in all of Locirla that didn’t serve iced coffee, didn’t even have coffee, only hot tea—hot tea in this infernal weather!—and spiced drinks.
And another thing: even the breeze from the windows was hot. No such thing as a cool breeze in Locrla. But even a warm breeze was better than no breeze at all. And so the choices were to sit in the middle of the room and the breeze, or in a corner with no prying eyes but no breeze at all. After an hour in the middle of the room, sitting at one of the large round tables and becoming crosseyed trying to watch everyone in the tavern, Black settled for the last lone table over to one side, just barely in a breeze and just barely out of the way. Not close enough to either one for his comfort.
So there he was, sipping the darkest, most bitter tea the tavern had, and waiting on a man who, like the rest of his infernal people, would show up late to his own funeral.
Black made it a point of professional pride never to develop any sort of feelings for any one culture; dispassion and objectivity were, after all, part of his game. But by the stars, he was beginning to hate Cirlarans! Even the name was aggravating.
Black wanted iced coffee. Iced water. Iced anything. Desperately. He’d already taken off his cloak and his outer tunic and his gloves and was considering removing his boots, too, while all the while around him, Cirlarans were drinking, coughing, and hem-hawing, and not one was even sweating, despite being fully clothed, not one! He growled and loosened his vest, swearing he would go no further than that.
Fifteen minutes later, as he was removing his vest altogether, he saw his man come in through the door across from him. He knew the man was his man because he didn’t look like anyone. Yet one more thing that infuriated Black: they were all so damn vain. No two Cirlarans wanted to look the same. Each one had something that distinguished him or her from someone else, a “lar,” be it a gaudy earring, a scarf, gold teeth, or even, once, a faked limp. This was their callsign, their motif, and everyone knew them by it. You could hear the merchants in their stalls yelling, “Buy from Arrar the Limping!” or, “Silk! Silk from Gahn Silvereared and Goldtoothed!” (who, Black discovered, was different from Gahn merely-Silvereared or merely-Goldtoothed. Infuriating). Even Black had to have a lar. He was called “Black the Blackbanded.” Ridiculous.
This man, though, wore nothing special. Black felt that this somehow should have been special by itself, but apparently, the Cirlarans saw otherwise. A man walking around with no identifiable lar was ignored by everyone else. Despite this being a boon to, oh, clandestine meetings between, say, businessmen, it annoyed Black all the same. He finished his tea in one last revolting gulp—catching the eye of the man—and stood up.
The larless man strode over to the table confidently and grasped Black tightly by the shoulders. Black returned the greeting, patting the other man’s shoulders twice and showing him a seat.
“It is good to see you, Mr. Black,” he said, pronouncing the ‘a’ as an ‘ae.’ At least their accents made them sound distinguished.
“Mr. Imeel. It is good to see you too,” Black said, grinning falsely. “Please, have some spiced tea.”
Imeel nodded, and Black waved two fingers at the bartender, who nodded but continued to sit as if nothing had changed. Black swallowed back a sigh. Any emphatic emotion now would wreck this deal, which, frustratingly, could not continue until the drinks arrived. Imeel would insist on making small talk – how is your family, whom I have never met and couldn’t care less about? Yes, the weather was wonderful, if you liked living in an oven. Where did you get that god-awful ring?
Five long minutes and one quick sip later, Black said calmly, “Mr. Imeel, I am glad to say I have found the ruins. I would be happy to lead you to them.” He held up a small stone with engravings on it which Imeel took gently. A second later, Black saw a smile flash across Imeel’s face briefly before it was forced away.
“Most excellent, Mr. Black,” came the response. And then, strangely, a most unusual eye twitch and the beginnings of a frown flashed across the man’s weathered face.
“Is something amiss, Mr. Imeel?”
There was a short pause while Imeel blew on and sipped his tea.
Damn. Something big is bothering him.
“Mr. Black, your reputation is truly remarkable. Yes, truly,” Imeel said, coughing lightly. “However… there is a small matter first, which, while completely unimportant, would, if settled, calm me greatly. Would I upset you if I discussed it?”
Black slapped the man from across the table and yelled, “Out with it,” but only in his head. In reality, he merely sipped his tea and said, “not at all.” Tuntoror strike him down, he wasn’t a Cirlaran! He wasn’t going to explode in anger!
“I heard a story from a wonderful story teller,” Imeel began innocently. Black settled back in his chair, vexed but unwilling to interrupt the man. Imeel continued without seeming to notice.
“It was a fascinating story about a man with a mind like a compass who once helped an exiled prince find something valuable. The teller told it with such wonderful charm that I could not help but believe it to be true. Strange, I know, a man of my years believing in fairy tales, but I found it interesting. Do you?”
Black’s mental image switched from slapping to outright fisticuffs. Only a Cirlaran could make an accusation about political alliances sound like a fairy tale. He’d had a response prepared, though.
“An interesting story. It reminds me of a one I once heard myself. It was perhaps not as well told,” now I’m beginning to sound like them! “as your story was, but it was enlightening all the same. It begins when a man whose mind, as you say, is like a compass finds himself a slave, serving masters of men and money. This slave was sold to an exiled prince and, as slaves have no say in what their masters do, served him as well as any other slave.”
Imeel sipped his tea, stone-faced and inscrutable. The story was true enough, both tellings of it. That was the wonderful thing about stories; there were so many ways one could tell them. Stories were not truth, but tell the right story, and tell it well, and no one would know the difference. Black was a master story teller. Imeel would understand; this pause was merely Imeel exchanging one story for another.
Finally, Imeel asked the question Black expected.
“And how does the story end, Mr. Black?”
“The slave sold the exiled prince into slavery and thus freed himself from both masters!”
“Of course. Of course. A wonderful ending. I am pleased, Mr. Black, to hear that your stories end well. This bodes well for us.”
You mean you’re happy I’m not working for Faris and that I’m not whoring myself to you, you circumspect moron. Just you wait.
“I am to please. We may leave at your earliest convenience,” Black breathed.
“Excellent. Let us leave tomorrow at dawn. Bring horses; we travel lightly and quickly, only a day’s ride.”
And that was that. Each of the men finished their drinks in silence. When Black reached into his coin pocket to pay, though, Imeel held out his hand.
“Mr. Black, are you now working for me?”
Now what could he possibly—oh.
“I am at your service, Mr. Imeel,” he replied thoughtlessly, and then thought for a moment. That wasn’t merely a question.
Dammit, dammit, damn Cirlarans honor. Even if I don’t want to pay, I still have to argue the point, but not too hard or—
“It is good, though, to start a business relationship by setting the guest at ease,” Black said with calm, hoping to end the argument quickly. He didn’t care too much who ended up paying so much as he cared to leave the tavern as soon as possible. Appealing to Imeel’s comfort might—
“Merely knowing that we leave soon has put me at ease,” Imeel parried, “and you must have taxed yourself to be able to do so.”
“It was nothing.” Black countered, “And it is excellent business to keep my customers satisfied,” he finished. That might—
Imeel nodded in agreement. “You are an excellent businessman, Mr. Black. I shall see you at dawn tomorrow.”
—do it. Black nodded, put four coppery coins down on the table, gathered his clothing, and left.
At least this will be easier than the Faris fiasco. Tuntoror, as much as he’s paid me, it’s already going better!
The two towers marking the entrance to the catacombs leaned precariously in two different directions. Hell, every tower in Funar leaned in a different direction, Black noticed; the city had had one too many battles fought through it. And then there had been the earthquake. The door to the tombs, set at a downward angle into the side of a building, sagged at a miserable angle against its frame, evidence of the mighty trembling the earth had done that day.
“I wonder, when was the last time they all stood straight?” Imeel said, following his gaze. Black said nothing. Imeel had been asking questions like this one the whole day and he’d found that, contrary to his expectations, remaining silent was a sage and acceptable response.
All day it had been questions, inane ones. Questions during the ride: weather and flowers, questions up the foothills: distance and height, questions through the passes: direction and location, questions about the passes, and, finally, questions about this place, the answers for which were just as forgotten as this civilization ever was.
“They say that before Kirkur II, a zin’Funari would build a tower on his first pilgrimage here. On his next visits, he would add to his tower, and on and on until he died. It was a form of worship, they say, to extend their god’s reach.”
Black resisted the urge to be drawn into conversation, and couldn’t answer at any rate. A Wiswer could find anything in the earth or on it. Answers, however, were things of the air.
“We’d better get going,” he said instead, hoisting a traveling pack onto his back. Another lay at Imeel’s feet, along with two unlit torches, where the Cirlaran had dropped it before marveling at the wreckage.
Imeel tried one more time. “I wonder why they stopped? And where the most of them went, anyways?”
They probably got sick of your people invading them.
But Black’s defenses had caved. He sent a prayer for patience to Tuntoror, then shrugged, and answered as diplomatically as he could.
“Most were killed or converted. And then, after the earthquake… you can understand why none came back.”
Imeel nodded, satisfied with the response, and then hoisted his pack up as well.
“You say you’ve been here before?”
“I explored some of the catacombs earlier, yes. Are you ready? The room with the tablets is deep below, and we will have to climb to get them.”
Imeel nodded and looked as though he would be blessedly silent for a moment, but then decided to continue the tradition of silly questions. Black had convinced himself that it must be a tradition; nothing else could explain the resilience with which this man asked inane questions.
Damn Cirlaran traditions, too.
“Do you think the earth will quake while we’re down there?”
“No,” was all Black said.
Just this one job, just this one payment. Oh Tuntoror, please, let this be the last one…
He lit a torch, opened the door, and marched inside, then motioned Imeel through and shut the door behind him.
“Why close the door, Mr. Black? Surely no one knows we’re here?”
Sneaky devil. He’s trying to see if I’ve told anyone else about this place.
“Professional caution, Mr. Imeel. One never knows who else might find this place. If I can find it, then others can.”
Surely this man isn’t as dense as…
“Other Wiswers, Mr. Imeel. If you seek these tablets, then others may also. We Wiswer are rare, yes, but I doubt I am the only one in Cirlar.”
To Black’s confusion, Imeel grunted. Cirlarans were, by any definition, a polite people. None of them grunted their responses, and so for the first time since meeting Faris, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
Over the course of the time he’d spending finding places for people, Black had developed what he considered a sixth—well, seventh—sense for trouble, for knowing when things were out of place. He felt it was only appropriate; having spent so much time finding—Placing, it was called—things, he could now tell when something wasn’t where it was supposed to be. He called it his misPlacing sense, and that grunt had set it off. Black continued to be unhappy.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Black?”
Yes, you duplicitous bastard. You’re not who you say you are.
“No, no, nothing. Merely Placing myself and your tablets. Just another moment. You should let your eyes adjust.”
He was filled with half-truths, today. Placing took no time, but why let Imeel know that? He needed to think.
Imeel was not what he appeared to be. Who did he appear to be? A wealthy Cirlaran with a desire to find these Funari tablets for his collection. A morbid collector—why else pick the bones of a civilization his people had massacred and enslaved? The very thought disgusted him, but the hairs on the back of his neck refused to settle. Which part of that was false?
This is ridiculous. What does it matter who he says he is? I’m not who I say I am either. Damn this man.
In a fit of pique, Black shook his head. Of all the times to lapse into thought, this was the worst. Tuntoror strike this man down for all doubt he was causing! This was just business, now, dammit all, and like blazes was he going to wreck this chance. Business. Just business.
But despite the mantra, the feeling refused to change. And there was no more delaying.
“Let’s be about our business,” Black intoned.
“Are you certain you can find it like this in the dark?” Imeel asked.
“Yes,” Black replied, too preoccupied now for anger. He’d already Placed the tablets—even remembered the Placement from the last time he was here. Finding it would be no problem. He stepped forward, torch held high, and as he beckoned Imeel forward with his free hand, he described what was coming.
“There is a flight of stairs at the end of the room. When we reach the bottom, we will walk forward for thirty paces on stone, then another flight of stairs. From there on, we walk on dirt and loose rock. The earthquakes were not kind to these catacombs; take utmost care with your step. There are several gulfs we will have to cross. When I was here last, I placed some ropes to help us, but the path is still treacherous. At the last gulf, we will have to climb down the final rope. Then turn north and walk ten paces through an arch, and there will be your room. Our torches will last for two hours, so we have that much time to get down, examine the room, retrieve your—” no… not his. Funari. “—tablets, and be off. Stay close. I can find my way out even without a torch.”
Tuntoror take this Cirlaran language, too! For neither the first nor the last time in his life, Black realized how much he missed Wiswer and the Bay of Stars and the open sea and…. And it was all within his reach now, if he could just keep himself from killing this aggravating, gregarious man.
Miraculously, Imeel made it to the second flight of stairs before clearing his throat. Black flinched, waiting for another inane question wrapped in distinguished vowels to assault him.
“You Wiswer are truly amazing. Truly, an amazing people. This Placing of yours… fantastic.”
Well. That was unexpected. There was some breach of decorum violated there, certainly, but so what? And yet…. Black descended the stairs slowly, his misPlacing feeling growing with each step.
“It must come from a life of the seafarer, do you suppose?” Imeel continued, his voice now taking on an alien, hollow sound as it echoed around them. Still, Black ignored him.
“Is that where you will go after this? The sea?”
Black stopped. For some reason, his heart, traitor that it was, fluttered in his chest and tried to beat its way out. In the firmest tone he could manage, he replied, “Mr. Imeel. I hardly think that is appropriate to ask.”
He moved the torch far away from his hands so as not to show how they shook, and reached for the rope he knew would be tied to a stone nearby. They were crossing around the lip of one of several long pits—holes in the floor where the stonework and masonry had collapsed in one earthquake or another. It had taken Black a full day to climb down and up each one attaching guide ropes to each end of the pits. At the time, it seemed worth it. Now, though…
“Hardly, Mr. Black, but I ask all the same. You see, I know your culture’s attraction to the sea and I am not a one to come between it and you. If, however, you have no plans…”
“Let us finish our business first, Mr. Imeel. Present first, then future,” Black said in the void left by Imeel’s words.
“Past first, then future,” Imeel corrected, cryptically.
The past, eh? Alright Mr. Imeel, I’ll trade you your past for my future. A hundred more steps and a few more hours.
But Black couldn’t stop thinking about the question, and it made him unhappy. It wasn’t like a Cirlaran to ask such a thing. It was too forward, for one, and Tuntoror forbid a Cirlaran ever be too forward! And something else… it was also too indirect. The very thought almost had Black gibbering; both too forward and too indirect! It was like his very own hell. But try as he might, he couldn’t discover what Imeel had been trying to get at, and there was no way, by thunder, he would ask himself!
I will not kill a client. Two more pits. I will not kill a client. Fifty steps. I will not kill a client. Forty steps. Thirty.
Tuntoror take this man!
“I… believe I need to rest,” Imeel said, his voice pinched.
“No place here. After the pits,” Black said, curtly.
“A good idea,” Imeel wheezed.
And so, not twenty feet from their final destination, Black and Imeel sat down to rest. Black expected at least one last question before they stood, and sure enough, as he heard Imeel’s breathing slow, there it came.
“I feel well enough, now. Shall we continue? I am pleased to be so close!”
It took Black a second to recover from his surprise. He’d expected the fat man to have to rest for much longer, but the Cirlaran looked healthy and hale as he stood over Black. He was even smiling.
“Ah. Yes, yes. Let us continue,” Black stammered as he stood, and then suppressed a shiver as his misPlacing sense tickled his neck again. Something more than just collecting drove Imeel; the man was too eager to see these tablets.
Ten minutes later, they were in the tablet room. Black placed his torch in a sconce and stood to one side while Imeel circled the tall pedestal, upon which two small stone tablets lay, in the center of the room.
“Do you know what these are, Mr. Black?” Imeel said after he’d made several orbits around the pedestal. He spoke with his face hovering inches over both tablets, not even bothering to look up. Black sensed a monologue oncoming and steeled himself.
More damned questions. Let’s just get this over with.
“You told me a story yesterday. Let me now tell you one,” Imeel continued.
Blowhard. Got it in one.
“There once lived a tribe of men who lived much like other tribes of men: eating, drinking, marrying, dying… praying. They prayed to a god they could not see, but who lived in the earth and who would bestow on the best of them special favors. Just as their god could raise mountains, the best of these people could raise earth, and when they passed, they were buried as near their god as possible. Holy graves for a holy people.”
Bored, Black grimaced and settled against the dirt wall, let his mind wander. This was a story so old that he himself knew twenty different variations on it. There were a people. They lived, were the first to discover their Rarak, and then they met another people and there was conflict. It was a story that justified every war, bedrocked every culture, and guided every future. Mothers told it to their children at night, men would joke about it during their afternoons, and princes reminded their people of it in the mornings, and now a fat man was babbling about it to Black in some deserted catacombs.
And yet… Black frowned. The story had ended differently than normal. What mattered burial? Black blinked and realized Imeel was still talking. He looked up, suddenly alarmed and confused. This wasn’t how things went! What was the damn fool rambling about now?
Imeel’s voice, which above ground had the drone sound that reminded Black of a hive of tired bees, had now taken on a rougher quality that echoed much more forcefully off the walls. When he spoke, it sounded like the room itself was talking, and now the same hairs on the back of Black’s neck stood on end again. Something was out of place, and he moved closer to Imeel—away from the walls!—to hear the story better.
“… prayed to Gor to defend the holiness of the land and avenge his people. Their prayers were answered, and just as the invaders arrived, the fury of the earth was unleashed upon them, bringing the mighty mountains down upon their heads…”
An… earthquake? Wait…
“The heroes were buried along with the heathens, not dead, but resting with Gor in the heart of Earth for a time when their goodness and strength would be needed once more.”
Imeel pushed back from the dais suddenly and then knelt down on both knees, head bent low. And just like that, Black understood. This man wasn’t just some collector, he was…
“You’re a zin’Funari?” Black asked, dumbly. It was now his turn to ask the inane questions.
Imeel looked up, torchlight reflecting fire in his eyes, and from his collar unfastened a small jewel Black had not noticed earlier. He held it up to the torchlight for Black to see. It was a small aquamarine stone cut into an unusual starburst-and-teardrop pattern, and Black recognized it for what it was immediately. A moment later, Imeel threw his lar away with a careless flick, bowed his head again, and cried upwards at the two tablets which now crowned the pedestal.
Altar. That’s no pedestal… that’s an altar! Which means Imeel is…
“Torook aga Gor! I have come, Gor! I have come to free our people! I have come to avenge our heroes!”
The room shook and trembled, and Black could only stare with horror as Imeel cackled gleefully. He’s waking Gor! He’s bringing the Earthquake!
“He’s coming! He’s coming! We will free our people and avenge ourselves upon all those who enslaved us!”
Out of the rumbling of the earth, Black suddenly heard tens of voices chanting in time with Imeel’s prayers, in time with the quaking of the room itself. Every moment that passed brought the voices—and the Earthquake!—closer and closer. And now, alarmingly, the walls started to shake. By the dim torchlight, Black stared in terror, dumbstruck, as out of the dead wall itself, living beings started to appear. Arms and legs and faces reached out blindly from the stonework, reaching further with each rumble, and each crying out, “Brother! Brother!” before melding back into the masonry. And now, he could tell that some arms and faces were directed at him… but most were reaching for Imeel. He tore his eyes from the terror of the writhing walls and steadied them on the changed man kneeling before the altar.
Black knew he ought to run. He knew it. But something kept him there, transfixed and staring at the man who, not minutes ago, was steadily sane and even boring. Yesterday, this man was everything he hated but could not escape, a wealthy, boring Cirlaran who bought and sold cultures and people like livestock. Today, this man was everything he admired but could not approach, a man come to reclaim his heritage and restore his people to their place. Black thought of all the Wiswer, still enslaved in Cirlar, Dask, the West…. For the briefest of moments, Black felt an incredible kinship with this kneeling madman, let himself rise and dream. He would find the Throne of Sails, reassemble the Armada, and retake the Bay of Stars…
And then, as the earth trembled again, the moment passed. Black would never be that strong or that good. What was he compared to this man and his power? Just some lone stranger of a scattered people, far away from home…
“Mr. Imeel, you lied to me. You told me you were here to examine the room and retrieve the tablets,” Black yelled bitterly over the chorus. Where once there was kinship, there was now only an overwhelming sense of betrayal.
Imeel stood up suddenly and stared Black in the eye.
“And you lied to me, too, Mr. Black. You said you had freed yourself of both masters, but here you are, still a slave to both! Have you never dreamed of anything higher than this, you selling yourself, your Rarak, for wealth? I pity you, slave. You must do as I do! Take your freedom by cutting the hands that hold it! You must—”
Imeel choked, gurgled, and fell back, clutching at his chest and the thin, sharp knife whose handle protruded from it. As the man fell, Black felt the quake diminish, and by the time Imeel had settled on the ground in a heap, the quake and the voices had ceased. A breath later, Black relaxed, but his hands still shook with anger and shame.
For a moment, nothing moved. Silence reigned in the grave. Black still trembled.
After a time, Black, torch in hand, crouched down and rolled Imeel onto his back. To his surprise, the man’s eyes slitted open. Black maneuvered himself so that Imeel’s head rested on his thighs and the two men could stare at each other, eye to eye, for the last few moments.
“Why did… you…” Imeel started.
“Hush,” Black said gently. “You ask too many questions.”
“How else… to live?,” came the response.
More silence, and then,
“How could we not help…”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Imeel. Truly.”
And it was over.
Black emerged from the catacombs and Placed the closest stream, ambling there steadily and without any rush. At the stream, he stripped and washed himself slowly, head to toe, scrubbing away all the soot and grime and blood. He was a little surprised to find his face filthy, especially in the area immediately below his eyes, but he scrubbed away that dirt too. Finally, he climbed out, grateful for the heat of the day for the first time in recent memory. He put on his clothing, item by item, but when he got to his headband he stopped to stare at it.
It took only a moment to make up his mind. From one of his pockets, he withdrew a middling purse which contained, among the many Cirlaran coins, a sooted starburst-and-teardrop aquamarine. He rolled it in his fingers briefly, slowly, remembering, and then worked it between the layers of silk and cotton that made up the headband. It was an old smuggler’s trick, but he could repurpose it with ease. Finally, but with mysteriously shaking hands, he put the headband on, the purse back, and turned toward Locirla.
Black was not happy, the way things were going. He didn’t bother to list the reasons. But as he stepped towards the city and its port, he let himself hope that maybe, maybe, in the end, he would be.More stories like this by topic: Arab-American authors, Muslim authors