A Short Walk to a Long Pier

The three — Bashri, Galil, and The Gulabadam — were draped in deep crimson cloth and tiny silver disks that glittered in the sun. Bashri and Galil each rode a camel, but The Gulabadam would have brought even the stoutest of Chumesh’s herd to its knees. He led a similarly festooned camel by a rope that ran through the camel’s nostrils and draped over his elbow. In his other hand, he held the jawbone-topped staff that, in peaceful times such as these, served as a humble walking stick.

Each of the three was decorated upon their hands, feet, and faces with indigo patterns that accented their features. The bridge of Galil’s nose. Bashri’s large eyes. The expansive, square forehead of the Gulabadam that had sent the attendants back for more indigo paste to finish the job.

The walk was brief. They rested one day as the sun became hot, eating shreds of the previous day’s goat meat on the day old flatbreads of which The Gulabadam’s camel carried dozens. They drank abundant water in decorated goat skins and, when they first smelled the approaching city they felt scarcely more tired than if they’d but crossed a camp of travelers.

They walked through the next night into the morning, knowing they were close from the smell of bright vinegar and rotten fish; of fruit and of man-shit; of living water and of the rot of swamp. And when they saw the first barley fields as the sun rose, they appeared new; laborers dug irrigation ditches off a canal only now, working together to move dry earth so water could flow across it for the first time since the Waters of the Underworld had last receded generations ago.

Small quffahs of bound reeds skimmed the surface of the canal, each propelled by a lone polebearer, carrying baskets of supplies to the workers. Naked but for a loincloth and broad hat of barley straw, one such polebearer saw the three as their feet, sped by the road that now joined the canal, made their way toward the city wall that they could now see straddling a fork in the river.

“Ohyo!” cried the polebearer, “Welcome, travelers, to Hatash!”

Bashri straightened her back upon the saddle of her camel, assuming the dignity of her station. The Gulabadam glanced toward her, then blushed at his position next to one of such bearing. He tried to stand in an appropriate way. “Polebearer,” ordered Bashri, “bring us to your King Nebek Nuul, the Sunrise King.” The Gulabadam decided that a different way to stand would be better, and adjusted his stance to seem more worthy of standing next to such a personage.

The polebearer, now close enough for Galil to see beneath the broad hat, also saw them clearly now and recognized their magnificence. They bowed, their brown back glistening in the sun. “Yes, of course, my lords!” they said, raising their sun-cragged face animated by pride at their errand of import.

The polebearer lashed their quffah to a yoke that protruded into the canal for this purpose, then disembarked with the grace of practice. “Please, my lords, follow me! I am called Zureg.”

Bashri sat still and gazed toward the wall that rose at the end of the road on which they now stood. Galil’s gaze followed Bashri’s gaze toward the wall, its polished glaze tiles the color of the sky. Each tile, held by white mortar to the bricks behind, was unique, displaying fabulous animals. Its toothed crest rose above them to the height of twelve soldiers. And they could see the gate. Atop it sat, alert but in repose, a bearded lamassu, its body like a lion, its beard thick, its eyes half-lidded in contemplation, its four wings folded on its back. It was hewn of stone with delicate and confident hand, its every taught muscle and supple hair given life by hard stone chisel.

Zureg said, “If I may?”and took the reins of Bashri’s camel, leading the trio toward the wall. “Nebek Nuul has brought us such good fortune!” the polebearer beamed. “Those who would besiege us, cower at the height of our wall! She brings us grain to plant and sheep to herd and beautiful bulls for festivals! She fills our streets with the most beautiful and fabulous people from the far edges of the world!”

The Gulabadam glanced at Bashri to discover that she was looking back at him. They both looked forward again. The Gulabadam again adjusted his stance, attempting to carry himself like Bashri did.

When they arrived at the sky-hued gate, Galil stood before the other three and spoke toward the lamassu from deep in her guts , her practiced bellow emerging from her small frame. “Hear, O Wall-Guardian! I stand before your gates with the Desert Princess Bashri to bring honor to your king, Nebek Nuul!”

The lamassu’s fine-graven eye swiveled down from the horizon to peer down at her from atop his perch.

“Little Earthen-Being, if you bring no harm to my walls, we have no business. I have all I need and desire.” Its voice was like silk on the surface of deep water.

Its eyes again turned toward the distant horizon over the barley fields that every day became bread, the river that brought fish and water, to the desert that all knew was held in check by the lamassu, alone.

Indeed, she had nothing to offer — at least nothing that would not be foolish. She changed the direction of her address to a tall soldier who only now appeared atop the wall, whose plumed helmet fluttered in the breeze with his the red and silver wings of his embroidered cape. In his hand, he held a staff of office and in one hand while the other rested on his belt. “We welcome you to our city!” he called. At a gesture, six soldiers emerged ad arrayed themselves on either side of the three. They wore stiff kilts of linen with no shirts and each carried a spear. Their faces were a show of dignity. Their eyes lined with kohl, their lips marked with henna. Their beards shone on those who grew them and those who didn’t marked their faces with tattoos that cartooned them.

In this city, none wore sandals; the streets were of baked tile, swept clean and lined on either side with trading stalls, houses of hospitality, shrines dedicated to each of the rivers, small knots of dignitaries in conversation momentarily interested in this newcomer, and hundreds of the people of this city, from children through the elderly, on their busy errands. Upon the wall grew houses like mushrooms in the cedar forests of the west, with stairs and ladders reaching to them, so piled upon each other were they. Never had Galil seen a city such as this. It pulsed and thrived. From rooftops tumbled green plants, and small fruit trees stood atop the dwellings like crowns of pomegranate and apricot, pear and citron. Music met her ears from first one window, then another; first a harp, then a flute.

The Gulabadam bent over to her ear. “I don’t like this place.”

She reached up behind her head and patted his jaw in sympathy, but retained her air of dignity.

I wonder what the traditions of hospitality in The Fifth World are. How do you feed someone you haven’t seen in a long time? Is it different when you want to ask them a favor?

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