The crystal-blue face of the sky beheld the desert, the eye of the sun leaving no stone, no beetle, no lonely traveler the privacy of shade.
But the traveler knew this would be the case, and made certain to do things
that would please the sky to see. On the back of his camel fluttered a limp flag declaring obeisance to the desert sky, and in response, the sky sent a breeze. It was not a cool breeze, but it would do on this day when the traveler needed to cross the desert under the strong right eye of the sun.
A turban of indigo covered his face to protect it from the sun’s glare and disguised him from its gaze, for had the sky recognized him, it might have refused him passage. The desert sky is a terrible enemy to make.
He wore a loose linen robe with a single, neck-width indigo stripe down the back, but he had removed the broad leather belt that held his quaint and long-sheathed bronze sword, and hung it from the forked horn of his saddle. His billowing robe allowed the hot, dry air to flow over his blue-black skin, darkened from its childhood chestnut with sun and theblue that rubbed into its creases from his clothing. The breeze, welcome and necessary as it was, cost him in sweat, and he drank flat-tasting water from a near-empty ktesh skin, still bearing the ragged quills of the worn feathers that had once kept its contents cool. He sat on a threadbare woven saddle between the camel’s humps, its batting long crushed by previous owners, its once richly-patterned scarlet velvet now a coarse, pink canvas that promised to be little better than riding without.
Behind the traveler on the camel’s rear hump lay a pair of flaccid saddle bags, designed to carry far more than they held now — far more than they’d carried since the traveler had traded for them a year ago. Once, they had been covered in tassels and hung with tiny brass bells. Now, only a few remained, looking like hanged mice and shriveled currants.
The camel saw the sun setting behind the City over the horizon before the traveler did, alerting its desiccated rider with a grunt. It began to pick up its pace to a jarring trot and the traveler did not stop it. The Great City held within it not just water, not just many wells, but the reason for their visit: Shuat, the Deepest Well. He knew the camel could judge its own thirst better than he, and he momentarily nodded off from the rhythm, imagining the shade, wine, and bath that he would purchase upon arrival. A sharp bounce of the saddle jarred him back to consciousness and poverty with a flash of the disinterested sun through the Nine Towers of the city. The flare hit him in his right eye — the one with a splash of grey in its black iris. He hoped the sky had not seen and recognized this distinguishing scar, and indeed it seemed to have been distracted by its business of setting, because they crossed the desert through the remains of the day unmolested by vulture or great lizard from the stark blue.
The camel and its rider smelled the city long before seeing any inhabitants. The Great Road passed along the coast, from the southern city of Hhush and the northern port city of Emnuattenem. Only fools, desertmen, and errant namedealers took the desert passage from the eastern city of Kemetu rather than the northern route through the circuit of caravansarai and the verdant lands of the hill villages. The traveler had worried that he might be a fool, because no desertman would have fled through the sand tide as ill-prepared as he had been, and he now doubted his skills as a namedealer.
He had seen a camp of desertmen two nights ago on a mission from their woman- council that they would not reveal. They had shared their coffee with him, but when he described his plan, they had laughed and told him that they had wasted good coffee on a man who would not live through the next day. “The sky,” they had warned him, “is looking for someone, and when the sky searches for a man, it takes all it can find.”
The west wind, which would usually have brought moisture, salt air, and the powerful smell of the last passing tide, now brought the stench of human excrement and rot. Instead of repelling him, the reek gave him an assurance: soon he would be in the realm of the city’s sky, and he had good relations with that sky. He hoped its people would match it. But he had a duty to fulfill first, before he could trade what little he had or treat with a name.
Soon, as he approached the city, he saw a caravan coming from the south, along the Great Road, its column of dust a luminous scar on the pink sunset. It would be carrying coffee, ch’mo leaves, and spicy peppers from the Lesser Sea traders. Maybe the caravan would have books that would tell him what he needed to learn in order to escape to the south, to see kinder eyes when he looked up. But that would cost money, and of that, he had none. One of the two saddlebags held a modest block of ch’mo paste, wrapped in a now-dry leaf, that made feeble promises of silver. With it, his faith rested uneasily. The other bag held only obligation.
He hoped, secretly and silently, that he would have to do no namedealing while in the city or, if he did, he would find a name that would need something he could give. It made him anxious to consider the meager sum of his fortune, and so he turned his mind from the pitiful inventory of his wares to his skills which, for better or worse, had never failed him. It was always just a matter of the deal. It was never good to bargain with a name by saying first what you needed. It was much better to come to it knowing what it needed from you, then bank on its greed and hope, ready to walk away at any time.
He would have to make it to the city before he slept. He did not know if he would be able to fool the desert sky for another morning.
He arrived at the gates of the City just as the guards were questioning the last of the caravan, and the strong right eye of the Desert Sky setting over the Great Sea to the west. Two proud riders guarded the wagon, one mounted on a horse and the other on a haughty akum, holding its plumed, bright- eyed head high. The akum deigned to sneer down at him toothily and ruffled its feathers while it waited. Its rider looked back down the akum’s tail at him and he saw she was a northern woman, her face striped like the tiger he had seen in the River Garden of Kemetu. She wore bronze and linen armor over her legs and a nasal helm with a tall crest of feathers that made her eyes sparkle from within the deep shadow cast by the helm’s angry brow. In her gauntleted right hand she carried a great lance, and beside her left thigh, in its case, stood a short, grim bow and enough arrows to end any trouble that thought to approach.
The traveler touched his forehead in respect to the rider and she returned her gaze forward without responding. As he waited to talk with the guard, he wondered: what would bring a proud warrior like this northern woman here to work in a caravan, so far from her home?
The town guard ushered the wagon and its accompanying riders into the town walls and looked around the camel’s flank to see if anyone else stood in line behind him. The traveler was the last of the day.
“What is your name?” asked the guard for the thousandth time that day.
“Akumat,” he lied. His voice croaked. He hadn’t spoken since sharing coffee with the desertmen. He cleared his throat.
“You are a desertman?”
“No, though I travel from Kemetu across the desert.”
There was a pause.
“Really?” the guard asked, eyebrows high, unsure of whether to be impressed or skeptical.
The traveler sighed. “Yes. Really.”
“Well, I don’t like fools in my city,” he said, and the traveler bit back an answer. “What business do you have in the City?”
“I have a promise to keep to one who was born here.”
“Who is this son of the Great City?”
The camel bellowed with impatience. It could smell the wells within.
The traveler must have shown some concern or hesitation, because the guard leaned in close, squinting with suspicion. The traveler could see a scar across his nose — a sword or knife wound — and
was about to speak when the traveler leaned in, almost touching noses and said conspiratorially, “Please tell no one. My promise is to King Ashev.” He hoped he remembered the name right. He had last been here years ago and the king had been old then. The desertmen had told him this new king’s name. Maybe it was Ashau? Many desertmen would have pronounced the two the same.
The guard stood a step back and looked at this ragged traveler, from the camel to the now-slack banner on its back, to the saddle bags and the old bronze sword hanging from the front hump. He cocked his head to one side and squinted again at the traveler. “Very well, Mr. Akumat,” he said with a smirk, “What do you have that the Great King Ashev could possibly want?”
Well, at least he’d gotten the name right.
Without waiting for an answer, the guard walked alongside the camel’s flank, a sardonic expression on his face, looking at the camel and its dingy appointment.
“I,” began the traveler hesitantly, “I am a namedealer and he—” his voice caught as the guard drew out of one saddlebag the necklace. It was this necklace to which the traveler had made the promise that compelled him to be here now. “Please don’t take it out!”
The guard was silent, standing with his spear in one hand, the necklace in the other. Before his eyes dangled more gold than he had ever seen in his life. Each bead was the size of an apricot, a dozen held together by finely woven black silk cord. He held it out in front of his scarred nose, unable to take his eyes off it.
The traveler looked around nervously. “Please,” he said, nearly whispering, nearly whimpering, “Please put it back. It’s not for you.”
The guard tore his eyes from the necklace with some difficulty and looked at the traveler, who looked back, waiting for an answer. “Oh, uh, Yes! Yes, please go into the city and deliver this — this —! I’m sorry to have kept you!”
The guard reluctantly returned the necklace to the saddlebag, not removing his eyes from it until it had vanished within. The traveler prodded the camel gently with his heel. It didn’t have to be told twice.
Behind them, the guard watched them go, like a boy watching a new lover leave. Ahead of them lay the City, full of people and treasure. The traveler hoped to have little of the former and less of the latter. They were both trouble.
As the camel plodded into the deep tunnel that passed through the outer wall of the Great City, shade fell across the traveler’s eyes. He felt them cool down, as though washed by a mountain stream.
Ahead of them, thirty camel’s paces away, lay the City. At first, it was invisible to the traveler, though he could feel a breeze coming from the space before him: moisture and the smells of humanity. Urine. Baking bread. Burning meat. Perfumed whores. Wine. Sweat. Frying oil. Several steps in, his eyes adjusted just enough to see the opening, still well ahead, a spark in a sea of blackness. And a motion to his right, out of the corner of his eye. His head snapped to the side to follow it, but facing the dark, he only saw blackness. Blaming it on his exhaustion, the traveler turned his eyes forward again as the camel jerked its increasingly enthusiastic steps forward. But again, he saw movement in the dark, again out of the corner of his right eye.
He pulled on the reins to stop the camel, but it protested. It could smell one of the many wells within the city and leaned forward again in response, stomping forward defiantly. But now the traveler was certain and grabbed for the belt that held his scabbard. He pulled the reins across his chest one more time to turn the camel and face whatever it was that acted freely in such dark. But the camel refused adamantly and bellowed its absolute displeasure, shaking back and forth like a wet dog. He jumped from the saddle to keep from being thrown, dragging the belt and scabbard with him in his left hand. He landed on the ground clumsily as the camel capered toward the City and the scent of water, now free to pursue its greatest desire.
The traveller muttered, “Ikiatu, scar of my eye, what is it you wish to see?”
His eye answered readily. “I wish to see beauty. I wish to see forbidden flesh and symmetrical delights.”
“I will show you these things if you show me all that is in this tunnel.”
“Agreed!” answered his scarred eye with alacrity, surprised to have gotten its desire so readily. Immediately, the tunnel became apparent to him, though it was flat and strange, seen out of only one eye. Pressing their backs against the wall were two human forms, wrapped in black cloth and their faces, hands, and bare feet painted with soot. One carried a small but heavy purse while the closer one looked at the traveler intensely, then looked at its partner, who looked back, incredulous. They moved in absolute silence, watching the traveler closely, inching across the floor toward a rope that hung from a hole above them in the wall of the tunnel. The traveler then saw what he feared: the closer of the two held the gold necklace that was his reason for leaving the beautiful city of Kemetu to cross the desert alone, the reason for entering this city with a lie.
“Return my possessions,” he commanded the shape, though his voice shook. From within the scabbard on the belt came a sound like a muffled voice, and the traveler raised it as though to draw, though he hesitated before touching its hilt.
The eyes of the two figures opened into white circles with fear. The further of the two slung the purse over its shoulder, leapt to the rope and began climbing with no more sound than a mouse burrowing through cotton.
A sound came from the outside entrance to the tunnel, a grinding thunder: the closing of the gates.
“Run,” the traveler said to the dark figure without confidence, “and I’ll gut you before you lay hand on your rope.”
Above, the first of the two thieves squirmed through a hole the traveler could never have fit his legs into, and was gone. A flicker of light rippled along the tunnel: the guard was coming toward them, carrying a torch. “What?” he shouted, his question echoing along the tunnel walls. The traveler saw his opportunity.
“Thief!” he shouted. “Thief in the tunnel! He’s stolen my — my things!”
With this, the thief leapt backward, twisting in the air, and grabbed the rope, silently climbing hand-over-hand. The traveler jumped after the bandit and grabbed for his legs, but found it like wrestling eels.
He held tight despite the kick he received to his nose. In a moment, the guard was there with the torch, though, and could see all. “Hey! You! Come down!” he bellowed, the tunnel amplifying his voice. The thief stared at the guard in terror, then opened his mouth, letting the necklace fall to the ground with a sound like bells. The guard’s eyes and the traveler’s shaking hands went to the necklace and, at that instant, the thief shimmied up the rope and poured his lithe frame into the hole, disappearing from sight and followed by the rope.
When the guard looked back down, the traveler was kneeling, clutching the necklace to his chest. Blood flowed down his face onto his robe from his nose, but he had a look of satisfaction on his face. He even smiled while his blood ran between his teeth.
The guard held his torch out and looked down at him. “Listen, friend, I’m sorry about that.” The traveler was about to answer that all was well when the guard offered, “Please, let me escort you to the palace.”
The smile drained from the traveler’s lips. The palace. Where he would be surrounded by the king’s soldiers. How far was this from the Deepest Well? He couldn’t remember. And what would happen to him when he was caught throwing the “king’s gift” into it?
The guard walked beside the traveler to the tunnel’s egress. He was agitated and talked rapidly. “So, thieves inside the gate, eh?” he asked, but before the traveler could answer, he continued. “By Shuat’s depth! I’d certainly never have suspected! Ha ha!” His laugh rang hollow and nervous. He detailed his excuses. There was usually another guard. They had recently executed a thief, but some people never learn. Other guards had more than two thieves to deal with, so this was evidence that he was, in fact, a very good guard.
The traveler cast his eyes to the man as he detailed his excuses. In the last step within the tunnel, he saw plainly that the guard was lying with each word. That he knew all about the thieves. That they colluded. He could see it in the guard’s shifting, worried eyes. But he hadn’t expected a gift for the king to travel through his gate, and certainly hadn’t expected this grubby stranger to see the silent thieves who conspired — and then they emerged from the gate into the rising moonlight. The cool grey light of the city sky’s rising left eye revealed none of the guard’s intentions.
He again looked stolid and overbearing, his white linen armor emblazoned with his family icon. The scar on his nose told the traveler that he was no man to trifle with. But the scar of his eye had told him what he’d needed while they were within the tunnel, as it had promised.
“Guard,” began the traveler when the babbling man took a breath, “please tell me your name so I may pass my thanks at your city’s temples and before the king.”
“Oh!” he exclaimed, taken aback by this turn of good fortune. “My name is Teshet. Teshet, son of Eku! That is a great kindness!” The guard sighed and even relaxed.
Inwardly, the traveler smiled. It was good to know the name of the guard of the gates of the Great City.
The two walked through the tangled skein of the City’s streets as the markets closed and nighttime activities began. Lanterns were lit by whores in front of their sacred establishments, their iridescent blue a seal of approval by Geshuu an Hamash, the Eternal Coupling. The traveler had once heard that a panderer, as enterprising as he had been unwise, had decided to set up his trade in the City and falsely hung such a blue lantern years ago. The story claimed the subsequent curse had rotted away the pimp’s genitals before he’d had time to take the lantern down in the morning. The traveler assumed that it was a tale told by the whores as a warning to all pimps, but he couldn’t tell precisely where the tale had grown in the telling.
They passed the market, now filled with roasting meats — the spitted sheep, goats, and ktesh just starting to sizzle, now that the sun had set and a fire was no longer redundant. The traveler’s stomach rumbled as his senses filled with that which would quench his greatest desire. The last he’d eaten was the day before, a desert-thing, given him by the desertmen. It looked like a stone, but he had chewed it anyway. He’d found it more satisfying than he’d expected. But it was no roast meat and fried bread. Merchants, pilgrims, and rowdy gangs of youths began lining up at the booths to purchase the delights that so tickled the traveler’s nostrils and he wished he could join them.
To his relief, they soon passed through this neighborhood, climbing the steep steps that led up the hill. But no sooner had they left behind the smells of frying bread and roasting meat did they come across the scents of garlic and lentils. Even the poor of the Great City ate well.
Two more laborious flights of stairs, and the yellow stones of the wall and lower city were replaced by imported marble. With the new stones came the sharp, earthy smell of ch’mo leaves, pepper, hearty olive oil, and lamb. Still, they climbed, and it struck the traveler, as Teshet’s breathing became more ragged, that he did not know the whereabouts of his camel.
Then, before them in the center of an open square appeared the base of the First Tower, built around Shuat, the Deepest Well. He looked at it longingly, fingering the necklace he’d hidden in a fold of his robe. He was considering running for it just as Teshet put his arm around him in cheerful commiseration. “Friend! We’re almost there!” he said through his hard breathing, and pointed to the Royal Way.
Two somber guards stood on either side of a tall gate of stout cedar and bound in great straps of brass. Their bronzearmor glinted in the rising moon, and the marble walls around them glowed in the gloaming like the left eye itself. The crests of their helmets were high, bold chevrons of horsehair. Their faces boasted a handsome, symmetrical perfection, one of them adorned with an elaborately plaited beard, hung with glass and silver. “Eh. Good enough. I like the one on the right.” came a voice from inside the traveler’s skull.
“What’s that?” asked Teshet, looking over his shoulder at the traveler.
“Is this the gate to the court?” asked the traveler.
“Surely!” replied Teshet. “I will introduce you.”
Teshet did not notice that the traveler looked longingly back over his shoulder at the First Tower as they approached the gate, and spoke to the two guards. “This traveler is Akumat,” he said, his voice firm, “He brings news to King Ashev. He has been beset by thieves, as you can see, and I vouch for his presence here.”
The guards looked at the traveler. Blood had dried on his face and cracked in his stubble. His eyes were sunken and shallow with thirst and exhaustion. His linen bore a splatter of blood from his nose, and his turban — uncorrected since his fight with the thieves — had begun to unravel. The traveler looked over his shoulder furtively as though he wanted to be somewhere else.
When the palace guards looked at each other, the traveler thought with relief that he might be refused entrance. But one
of them shrugged to the other, who said, “Very well, Teshet, if you say so. Traveler, come with me.” The guard turned to the gate and said, “Gate! Open for your protector.”
As the gate opened slowly, pulled by forces the traveler couldn’t see, Teshet smiled proudly, pleased that he had shown his influence to this man who knew the King Ashev. He kept smiling as he walked with the palace guard and the traveler, on, into the palace itself, into the forest of columns inside.
As the guard led the two through the columns, the traveler realized for the first time that his feet fell on carpet, the first time in recent memory that he had felt anything other than hard rock or shifting sand. Each column bore many oil lamps and more hung from the distant ceiling. Walking between them in the deep darkness, with only the lush carpet beneath his feet illuminated, gave the traveler the impression that he was walking among stars. Coming from between the columns were distant sounds of merriment: clinking cups and plates. Bawdy laughter. Then the smells arose. Ch’mo. Sizzling fat. Yeasty bread. Wine. Sage and rosemary. The traveler’s stomach complained now more vigorously than it had before, and he felt faint in the dim and twinkling light.
At the end of the forest of columns, the guard put his hand on a heavy, gold brocade curtain and asked, “What is your name again?”
The traveler answered, “Akuat,” as the guard pulled aside the curtain.
Golden light splashed out across the carpet and onto the traveler and the two guards.
Inside, a hundred men and women, draped with silver and gold and wrapped in silk and cotton of all colors lounged while they ate. Their hair was braided or oiled, held with gold combs and gemstones. Lounging on a long, embroidered pillow on the floor, her now-polished, plumed helm by her side, lay the northern woman he had seen earlier, eating from a bowl of berries and inhaling the smoke of a ch’mo brazier. For a moment, their eyes met and the woman cocked her head to the side, her mouth twisted into a wry smile as though intrigued by the presence of this scruffy traveler here in this palace.
At the far end of the room sat the King Ashev and his Queen, behind each a stern and grim bodyguard that shared their gender. And it was in this moment that the traveler realized his mistake. For while the Queen held herself with the pride of a lion on her throne of rich wood and gold, the King could project no such confidence from his. Where the Queen’s khol-lined eyes gazed with knowing and projected
a powerful reckoning, the King was a boy of no more than eight years. His pride was uncertain and he gave petulant orders to his servants to bring him sweets and wine, which they did with forebearance. This king could do him no favors. But without the wisdom of years, he could do great harm.
The palace guard introduced the traveler in a bold voice. “Great King Ashev, Subduer of the Seaborne Horde, and your Queen the Lioness Etushet, I bring you this guest Akuat, who has borne for you a gift across the desert.”
With this, the boy king lit up. “A gift?” he demanded. The queen looked up from her distraction, her eyes alert rather than merely curious.
The traveler swallowed. With some hesitation, he revealed the necklace and held it out, wincing as he did so. All eyes were drawn to it and the murmurs and laughter of the room slid to a stop. The boy looked at it and disappointment crossed his face. “Oh, gold,” he said, and returned to his sweets. But the queen could not take her dark eyes from it, flashing bright through the kohl that circumscribed them. Her breast heaved once with a gasp. The traveler looked into the depths of her eyes and saw a powerful desire. A breath passed before he realized with some confusion that it was projected toward him. The queen leaned forward, her reddened lips parting slightly with a conspiratorial smile. A voice echoed in his eye socket. “Our deal is concluded!”
Before the traveler could respond, the necklace spoke for the first time since they had fled Kemetu. “Her,” it said with surety. “I want her.”
The traveler’s mind, dulled with hunger, could not yet realize the opportunity. “You want what? Who?”
“All I desire is to lie on the perfect breast of this queen. My love at the heart of the earth is nothing compared to this human of might and grace. If you give me this, I will forgive your debt to me.”
The traveler had the right to refuse. They had dealt and agreed. But this queen was here and would surely accept his gift. And Shuat now seemed so far.
The queen spoke with measured grace, “We thank you for this treasure, traveler. We invite you to refresh yourself and stay the night in the palace. I wish to receive this gift with its story. But you must be tired.” Beside him, the guard Teshet beamed, as though he’d already been mentioned. Etushet the Lioness gestured with her slender fingers, and two young men approached him, each of excellent proportions, scarcely clad that their perfection could be seen by all in the court. Both wore only the slightest of loincloths. One was fine-featured and delicate with skin the color of olive wood like the queen, his hair cut short but for a henna curl at the front of his skull. The other was thicker with muscles like a leopard and skin the color of cedar. His body was completely shorn but for his eyebrows.
They led the traveler from the court to a chamber along a hall of apartments. Teshet remained outside the door, winking at the traveler as he entered, saying “Don’t forget my part of the story!”
The traveler paused, then turned to him and said, “Teshet, son of Eku, guard of this city’s gates, If you protect my life with your life this night, I will tell your story to the queen to impress her with your prowess.”
Teshet, his face serious, said, “Agreed.” Then he blinked and the smile returned as before. The traveler turned to face the room into which he had been led and entered the door, closing it behind him while Teshet positioned himself to stand guard over the room.
Inside, as the two perfect whores lit the oil lamps in the room, he found a soft bed, a wooden chest for possessions he did not have, a brazier heating rocks, a clay tub for bathing, and, most valuably, an open window that showed him the treetops of a small orchard through which he was already plotting his escape.
But at the moment, he had no such opportunity. The slighter of the handsome pair said, “Our Queen the Lioness wishes that we make you presentable. I am Utem.”
The other introduced himself as well. “I am Heshu.”
While the two had been speaking, the traveler’s eyes had drifted back to the window. He drew his eyes back to the pair with some effort. “She wants me to return to the court, then?”
The pair looked at each other and smiled knowingly. Heshu said, “I will bring the water,” and left the room. The other kept his eyes on the traveler, as though sensing his ambivalence. “We shall see how long it takes to make you ready for her. Let me help you out of these dusty traveleing clothes.” The traveler complied without enthusiasm, and stood naked before Utem.
Any intentions Utem might have had vanished, replaced by concern as he saw the sorry state of the traveler’s body. Every crease in his skin was filled with fine desert dust. His hair, unwashed and unbraided for months, grasped at his head in knots as though afraid it would fall off. His back showed three diagonal streaks that Utem assumed were the lashes of a whip but were, in fact, far worse. In his left hand, he clutched the necklace, on which Utem’s eyes now dwelled.
The traveler momentarily lapsed from consciouness, his eyelids dipping and his balance faltering. Utem tore his eyes from the necklace and caught him before he fell. “Akuat, it is my vow to bring you joy,” said Utem, “but I think we must first bring you care.”
Heshu returned to the room with a jar of wine in his hand, followed by a line of servants, ten boys and girls of no more than twelve. He whistled while he put the hot rocks in the tub with tongs, busy and not yet looking at Utem and the traveler. When he had placed the rocks, he motioned for the servants to fill the tub and they did, the water hissing and gurgling as it covered the heated stones. Heshu turned with a smile that turned to sympathy when he saw Utem effortlessly pick up the exhausted traveler like a child and place him in the tub, the necklace still grasped in his hand.
The water washed over him and he felt his skin drink it in. As in a dream, he felt them wash his body gently. He greedily sucked down all of the watered wine they held to his lips. He barely opened his eyes as they fed him fresh meat, bread, greens, and apricots from the kitchen. They washed and brushed his hair. Twice, they changed the water, turned brown with dust and purple with the indigo from his skin.
When he awoke, the room was empty. His body felt new, like a child’s. The necklace lay around his neck, its beads arrayed across his chest. His hair was in braids, clean and shiny. His skin felt smooth and smelled of cardamom. A loose cotton sheet edged with purple lay over him. It gently touched his naked skin when it ruffled in the breeze from the window. His robe and turban were clean and hung on a rack, drying in the cool evening air next to his belt and sword. Next to the rack, the brazier had been loaded with ch’mo leaves, and its scent filled the room and his mind. The moon peered through his window and he touched his forehead in friendly greeting. A small cloud crossed the city sky’s left eye in response.
The ch’mo made him feel relaxed and content. He considered getting up, grabbing his clothes, and climbing out the window, but in his mind, the ch’mo said, “Later. You can leave later.”
He didn’t know if he dozed off again, but he was awoken by the door opening gently. Silhouetted in the lamplight stood the unmistakable profile of the queen. Her mane of black curls was hung with gold that flashed in the waning moon.
She wore a translucent gown that caught the moonlight, but let the gold light from behind outline her broad hips. The traveler sat up in the bed, pushing himself to his elbows, unsure of the words to use. The queen entered, and with her came her fearsome bodyguard, a stoic look on her thick features. She remained in the hallway and closed the door behind the queen, giving the traveler the briefest glimpse of her colleague Teshet’s grin in the lamp-lit hallway.
The queen closed the distance to the bed with two confident steps until the traveler could see her face in the dim light. Her eyes, still outlined in kohl, looked on him with an expression he couldn’t quite recognize. But in a breath, he did: love.
She stepped up onto the foot of the bed, her every movement an expression of power. He could smell her scents already, the perfumes of her station mingled with those of her sex and, as soon as he could feel the heat from her body, blood rushed in his ears and made his body pulse. He struggled for a word, an honorific, anything that might be proper that would allow him to tell the queen of her brave and faithful guard Teshet, to fulfill his part of the bargain, but she pushed him back into his pillow with her hot lips on his, pressing the necklace between their chests. She pulled the sheet up to his waist and enveloped him. She closed her eyes while his rolled into his skull. They gasped together, a liquid, rushing sound.
Later, in a moment of quiet, the traveler’s consciousness struggled through the utter pleasure and the ch’mo smoke and made him wonder: why is this happening? This queen, this terrible being of beauty and might, must have every lover she wants. I never even spoke. I was exhausted nearly to death. What did I have that —
The queen still straddled him, but she, too, was spent, a look of satiation on her face, her head held at a gentle angle. The traveler’s throat was sore from his cries of pleasure. The city’s moon had politely moved on, but the light of the dim brazier was enough to see her smile through her now-tangled curls. She reached down
to his neck and lifted the weight of the necklace from him. Reluctantly, he lifted his head, and she took it, gazing at it lovingly. With the same look she had cast toward him since the time she had entered the room. She placed it around her neck with obvious joy and said, in a whisper, “Our deal is concluded.” Or perhaps it was the voice of the necklace.
The traveler began to struggle out from under the queen, gasping slightly as he slid free. She looked down at him then, and he saw the look of love change to confusion. Then she looked toward herself and her new treasure, and when her eyes returned to him, they held a growing anger.
The traveler, trying to compose an explanation, stammered for a moment before Etushet the Lioness, Queen of the Great City interupted him. “What is this sorcery?” she said in her clear voice, like a chord of flutes growing with her emotion. She stood on the bed, towering over him and stepping backward and to the floor with one smooth movement.
“Katmek!” she called, and the door opened a crack. Through it peered the formidable bodyguard who had entered with the queen. “Yes, Lioness?”
“This…” and she seemed to listen for a moment, then change her mind. “Akuat, you will leave this city and never return. If you think to enter its gates again, I will have your guts as a banner to warn all namedealers who might come to this city.”
The traveler stammered. “I didn’t…” but the queen had regained her composure and he was again speechless in the face of her might, like a great wave. More terrible than beautiful.
A sound rose in the hall. Sandaled feet running with purpose. A child’s voice. The king Ashev.
He appeared in the door, a tiny boy, wearing his nightgown, his small brown face red with anger. He looked past the queen and into the room.
“You!” he shouted, pointing at the traveler, “I knew it! You’re trying to steal my queen!”
He turned to his guards and said with more petulance than command, “Kill him!”
They rushed into the room and the traveler threw himself from the bed, rolling to one side as grave iron swords pierced the rich sheets, falling to the floor with a grunt. The soldiers ran to the side where he lay, but he’d already squeezed under the low bed. Eight feet stomped around, and then he saw knees hit the floor as then knelt to look under the bed. “Teshet,” he muttered beneath his breath, “fulfill your vow.”
He heard the door slam open, then a shout of confusion as Teshet burst into the room. The traveler struggled face down across the floor and out from under the bed, finally regaining his feet near the rack that held his clothes. He grabbed them and turned in time to see Teshet fall to the floor with a gout of blood erupting from the armpit of his armor. He collapsed on the two soldiers he had slain, one with his throat split, the other mortally wounded in his leg. The king and queen, along with her bodyguard could not be seen. The two soldiers knelt to their fallen comrades, surprised at their sudden deaths. One whispered a name as he lay his hand on his dead friend, a pool of blood spreading around him on the white marble and blending with the rich, crimson rug. “Pannu.”
The traveler said, weakly, “I’m sorry,” but this proved a mistake, for the two stood, blocking his way to both door and window.
“Please, please let me go. I’m very sorry. Please.” In his left hand, his scabbard twitched, as though alive.
The two guards, their faces red with fury and grief charged at him like bulls. The traveler stumbled back and pulled the sword from its scabbard. It came free with the sound of a child’s shout of joy and the traveler turned his face away as though afraid of being struck. It barely rested on the traveler’s fingertips as it spun, and he opened his eyes to see one soldier already falling, a fountain of blood spraying from his neck, a look of confusion on his face as he grasped at the wound, trying to hold in his failing life. The other’s iron was but inches from the traveler’s chest when his ancient bronze flicked across his palm and effortlessly passed through the wrist of the soldier with a splash. The soldier’s iron sword weakly bit the traveler’s chest over his heart, mingling a trickle of his own blood with that of the two soldiers that beaded now on his oiled, scented skin. The soldier’s weapon and the hand that still held it clattered to the floor. The soldier grasped his gushing wrist with his remaining hand and his face turned to terror.
The traveler’s eyes turned aside in shame. His red-splashed lips said again, “I’m sorry.” The soldier turned to run and the bronze, flashing like the sun in the light of the brazier, sought its way to his brain through the back of his neck. The guard fell toward the door, as though still trying to escape.
Sounds of shouting echoed down the hall. A boy’s voice could be heard among them. The traveler pushed the sword back into its scabbard. “No more!” he hissed. “No one else is here! Now you sleep!”
The sword reluctantly stayed in its scabbard as the traveler leapt from the window, hoping absently to fall to his sudden and painless death. Instead, he crashed through an apricot tree barely as tall as a man. It scratched his bare skin, but dropped him to the ground with an ignoble thud and grunt. Instead of a painless death, his ankle howled him alive and he limped from the tiny orchard, climbing a ladder left by the gardners to the top of the fine marble wall. He lay there, looking from this great height for an avenue of escape, but before him, he saw only the tangled maze of the sleeping city.
This wall, he found, connected to another wall, and that wall to another. The moon dropped its last drop of light beneath the horizon, and suddenly the night was completely dark. He heard shouting from the lit window behind him, and when he turned, he saw the outline of fearsome helmets in the window through which he had made his hasty retreat. But they could see nothing in the darkness of the night. Only this window shone any light brighter than the stars, but it dimly lit the wall before him. Carefully, but with as much speed as he dared, he traveled along the walls from one to the next, pulling on his robe and fastening his belt as he moved. The sounds of shouting and the lights of torches fell quieter and quieter as he walked, crawled, and climbed from the crest of one wall to the next.
Then, before him in the grey light of earliest dawn, he saw the First Tower, built in the earliest days of the City around Shuat, the Deepest Well. He lowered himself by his arms, but still found himself an uncomfortable distance from the ground. He dropped himself anyway, his face grimacing in anticipation, and his ankle screamed pain at him. He hopped to the well, hoping for a drink before he limped on, but when he entered the tower, he saw his great fortune. Asleep there, its face fat and content with water, was his camel.
His saddle still clung between its humps, though the saddlebags and their ch’mo paste were gone. The ktesh skin, ugly and worthless to any thief, still hung from the horn of the saddle.
The traveler hopped to the well and drew water with its bucket, drinking his fill. He said to the camel, “Friend, I fear we may have to leave with some haste.” The camel opened one eye and looked at him, sniffed his odd scent, and gave a skeptical look.
The traveler filled the ktesh skin, then hopped to the camel’s saddle and painfully climbed up. Reluctantly, the camel stood, and began to walk down the many steps of the City’s streets toward the gate. The traveler twisted his turban onto his head, draping it onto his face as they strode forward.
The market was just opening and the sacred whorehouses were just closing. Fruits, spices, and grains were carefully put on display and blue lights were brought inside. Soon, when the sun rose they would be shouting out their wares, attracting newcomers to delicacies foreign delights and locals to their needs. Other stands, occupied by whistling cooks, built small fires under copper pots New smells arose: cheeses and eggs, spiced goat sausages and grilled chick peas.
Twice, in the near-light, the traveler saw soldiers and tensed, but as he approached, they turned away as though called back into a shadow. Did this mean they hadn’t seen him? Or were they reporting back to someone else? In the grey light, even straining his eyes, he could see nothing where they vanished into the shadows.
As he approached the wall, he realized that others must be heading for the gate, as they began to form a motley parade.
Ahead of him, riding an empty cart pulled by an ox, rode two farmers who had stayed in the brothels and were leaving for their lands again. Behind him rode a man no taller than the traveler’s hip, who rode a large ktesh, outfitted as though it were an akum. The two seemed prepared for battle. He entered the deep tunnel of the wall. At the end, in the rising light, he could see the tiny outlines of two guards in their crested helmets as they questioned each traveler exiting.
As he approached the exit, unafraid of bandits because now he truly had no possessions, he prepared a lie.
When he arrived at the gate, the taller of the two guards spoke first. The traveler was horrified to recognize his plaited beard, hung with glass and silver.
He scrambled in his mind to find a reason not to reveal himself, when he heard a voice behind, from the darkness of the tunnel, say, “No, I have already passed him. He is free to go.”
The guard shrugged and said, “Very well, Teshet.” He waved the traveler on, and this time, the traveler kept on the south road, keeping his face covered to shade it from the gaze of the desert sky. All was well until evening.