Salt

The Gulabadam’s mournful face, that of a bull with a twisted, bejeweled beard and carefully coiffed hair.

The Gulabadam sat crosslegged on a rug in the shade. His thick tail, freshly brushed, rested demurely in the expanse of his lap and tinkling laughter rode on the sound of lapping oasis water in the air. Over his horns hung a large dyed and embroidered abaya, silver bells hanging from it like glittering berries. With the aid of two tent poles, it hung into a lush lean-to against the open side of the grand, opulent tent before him.

Therein, wirework braziers tinted the air with an incense that smelled of leather and flowers, the thin smoke drifting over the heads of Chief Chumesh and her council. To her left sat slight Galil, her hair freshly cleaned in the waters of the oasis, fresh kohl applied to her eyes and pomegranate to her lips. They all sat upon thin cushions and sumptuous woven rugs that delineated the space of the tent into which the Gulabadam’s prodigious bulk would not have fit. In the center of the tent, a goat was roasting over a spit, tended by a youth of Chumesh’s tribe. The rude scent of its fat mingled with the incense, adding to the scents rosemary and a earthen-smelling spice the Gulabadam did not know. 

He did not enjoy the eating of animals, and had only tried it once. But the flatbreads — perfect discs of dough, rubbed with oil and sprinkled with salt, then thrown dextrously onto the side of hot rocks encircling the fire — most interested him, as did the tanned donkey’s skin at his feet filled with salted, herbed camel yogurt. Politely, he waited to drink until the chief bade them. By himself, he could have consumed more than all the company gathered here combined, but the tribe knew his famed appetite. Their willingness to fulfill it spoke to both the wealth of Chumesh’s salt-trading Desertmen, and to the reputation of the Gulabadam and Galil among them.

Inside the shelter, four youths kneaded and flung balls of dough sizzling onto the rocks in preparation for the meal. The peak of the tent, where smoke waited patiently to exit the smoke hole, barely exceeded the height of the horns of the Gulabadam. Galil’s thin frame leaned toward the chief conspiratorially. Like their hosts, she sat cross-legged on a thin cushion, her one flesh calf folded over the other, an empty bronze greave, famed armor of the fallen hero Kesheb. In her one hand, she held a small cup that was never long empty, refilled by a young servant each time she sipped its floral nectar. Folded neatly behind Galil was her abaya, its indigo pattern lost long ago to wear. Close by her hand was the wooden box that contained her writing implements. Her face, freshly washed in the oasis a few hours ago, shone in a way the Gulabadam had never seen before. Her flesh was plump with water, the tattoos showing clearly against skin that so often was covered with the dust of the road or strained with the sweat and tears of strife. A dot of red turned her lower lip into a gem and the fresh kohl around her eyes made them flash like the moon on the sea, as they had seen together a year ago. Her hair, clean and oiled, bounced its tight curls when she turned her head. Her bronze leg glittered in the light that trickled in the seams of the tent.

One of the youths passed a flatbread, heaped with glistening, steaming goat meat, to the chief, Chumesh. In turn, she passed it to Galil. “Welcome, to wise Galil and to the courageous Gulabadam, to my tent,” she said for all assembled to hear, “I thank the winds of Mother Shama that she has carried you again to meet us, here at the Oasis Elilish underneath the palms.”

The youth passed Galil another laden flatbread then passed the Gulabadam a dozen flatbreads, then distributed goat and flatbreads to the other councilors, slapping more dough on the rocks as each was peeled away. The chief took a bite, then all assembled chewed into their meal, the formality melting away, conversations arising as though picking up where they had left off.

The Gulabadam ate the breads as though they were each a grape, one after another, grinding them with his crushing teeth and cow’s tongue. The camel yogurt was no less salty than the bread, but it had been chilling in the cold water of the oasis, and it refreshed him. His tongue sang a song of salt, but he couldn’t tell how happy the song was.

At his elbow, he sensed a presence. He looked down. A youth held out to him another skin. “Tea,” she said, her voice unsteady.

“Is it salted?” He asked, hope in his voice of distant thunder.

She looked confused. “No,” she answered tentatively, as though it were a trick question.

The Gulabadam breathed a sigh of relief that fluttered the girl’s hair. “Then, please!”

The girl smiled, handing him the skin with both hands. He took it in one, then squeezed it into his mouth, the fresh aroma of mint washing the salt away and bringing him another, new kind of refreshment.

At his elbow, the girl remained, looking in awe. Not knowing what else to say, he said to her, “I am called Gulabadam.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, flustered again.

A moment of silence passed. 

“Are … you…” he wasn’t sure how, or what, to ask. Of the faces he had known this close, few other than Galil — dedicated like a mother — had meant him other than harm.

She started, “Oh, I’m,” then suddenly shy, as though speaking out of turn, said quietly, “I’m Bashri. Sir.”

No one who had meant him other than ill had ever called him “Sir,” either. “I am not ‘sir’,” he said, uncertainty wavering in the distant thunder.

“Ah,” Bashri stammered, “Our Guest.”

“Please call me Gula,” he said after a moment. “It is what Galil calls me.”

Bashri smiled with pride. Her teeth sparkled like her dark eyes.

The Gulabadam struggled to find something to say. “Are you Chumesh’s kin?”

“Yes,” said Bashri, visibly relieved to know what to talk about, “I am her brother-daughter. That is why I have the honor of serving you.”

The Gulabadam was afraid to find that he didn’t know what to say next. His mind flowed back where it always did: “Have you eaten?”

“We will eat after the guests are satisfied,” said Bashri, gesturing at her peers around the tent, youths all, preparing food and drink, serving the chief, her council, Galil, and himself. Except for Bashri, they bustled about their tasks, never making eye contact with the partiers.

Finally, he looked back down at Bashri. “Will you eat with me?” he asked, surprised at himself.

Her eyebrows leapt. She glanced at one of the council — a man, his beard speckled with grey — as if hoping for permission, but the councillor was absorbed in conversation. “I will bring more bread,” she said with a smile, then returned a moment later with another pile of flatbreads, cheese, and dried fruits.

The two ate together, passing few words from time to time.

Galil’s mouth was afire with the spiced goat and sweat beaded her brow. It felt wonderful, relief soaking into her bones as she sat with Chumesh to catch up after the many years since last they saw each other’s faces.

Chumesh, her hair in twists emerging from her thick, woven headband of scarlet threads, was leaning toward Galil, telling her, “Since we last met, the council has put me in the position to worry more about about our food and water and routes to trade salt, and” she spoke in a smirking, conspiratorial tone, “to settle their bickering,” and she continued, “…than when they sent me to handle the Lion Twins with you.”

Galil’s mouth twitched into a smile at the memory, giving Chumesh a moment’s glimpse of pride and regret alike. “I am often asked to tell your story,” she said, “the tricks you played to separate them to reveal their jealousies.”

Chumesh waved away the compliment. “The strategy was yours, Galil. I was victorious because of your cunning.”

Galil laughed. “Ah, but that’s not how the story goes. I must tell you, it is the story that put my name in the ear of Father-King Abzur.”

Chumesh leaned forward again, her embroidered linen robes rustling. “When I heard that a Namedealer had locked the king’s eyes and heart into the drawing of a catacomb before taking flight from his palace, I knew it was you. I was certain I’d next hear of your execution,” beamed Chumesh.

“Well, in all truth, It may yet be. He pursues us and has many allies.”

Chumesh’s smile broadened. “You have fine taste in enemies,” she said, raising her cup toward Galil, who raised her cup in return with a mischievous grin.

Galil’s smile relaxed sardonically. She said, “The price of the sworn vengeance seems like nothing next to the family I have gained.” She gestured to the Gulabadam with her cup, but he was absorbed, speaking to the girl who offered him a steaming basket of breads. She paused for a moment to watch the two converse. Never had Galil seen The Gulabadam speak with a peer. Indeed, he had vanishingly few. But by her count, his four years of growth — from tiny boy-calf to the mass of young man-bull who could raise the gates of a city with his shoulders alone; who fought and defeated Adanu Nagog, the Fire Onager whose stone-hard jaw now topped his staff — was now a young man, as a calf would be now a bull.

But so few had ever offered him companionship.

Chumesh followed Galil’s eyes and hid her smile behind her cup as she drank. “My friend Galil, I have a favor to ask of you.”

Galil’s eyes returned to those of her old friend, and when they met, Chumesh saw a momentary waver, perhaps suspicion that this moment was not the spontaneous joinder of two old friends, but an elaborate proposition.

Chumesh continued as though she had not seen it, “Nebek Nuul, the Golden Sunrise King, makes demands of us when we visit her city of Hatash, our ancient caravansarai. We travel her land to trade our salt as we have for all time, for her city is between the Sunrise Sea and the Great Road. But she demands that we pay her homage.”

“She takes your salt?” Galil’s voice betrayed her skepticism that Chumesh needed her assistance to settle terms of trade.

“No,” she said, an ominous tone in her voice. “She demands my niece.” Her eyes moved to the continuing conversation between The Gulabadam and Bashri. “And each year, when we pass her city, she will again demand our most beautiful whenever we go there.”

Galil’s mouth opened and closed, first disbelief and then horror twisting her face. Then, “And you intend to trade with her?”

Chumesh’s face was deadly serious now. “If we cannot pass that way, our tribe will starve. Only the routes to the north, where the Bone Tree is worshipped, would take us there, and more deaths would follow from the people who there guard that pass.”

“I see. You would that I make an ally of the Bone Tree.”

“No,” Chumesh continued, “The Golden Sunrise King looks at the People of the Bone Tree with covetous eyes. Soon, they will be no different.”

“Then…” Galil composed her thoughts. “What do you desire that I do for you?”

“No route is less perilous than through the city of Hatash. So that is where I would like you to deliver her.”

Galil’s eyes twitched as though weighing grains of sand on a balance. Then, she said, “I will deliver her for you, and your tribe will forever welcome us and come to our aid when we ask.”

“An easy agreement, my friend!” gushed Chumesh, her tattooed hands spread wide. “And if, for some reason, Bashri does not remain with Nebek Nuul, her safe return will further indebt us to you.”

A voice arose from the hollow space in Galil’s greave, ringing in the hollow bronze of the wrought metal of her left calf. It came came on a cold breeze that touched Galil’s ear, but did not refresh. In the ringing and the unnatural breeze came the sounds of the Language of Names, shivering with cold wetness, the cold breath of the dead in her ear “You must raise the head of Nebek Nuul above her own gates. You must claim it as my triumph, lifting my banner high.”

“My plan was rather more quiet, Great Kesheb” she responded to the last remains of the hero whose armor she wore as her left leg. Chumesh was turned away, asking a server for sweets. Conversations continued around her.

“Triumph in my name will call my enemies. And then you will take my head from them, and you will again bind it to my spine. And then I will be able to rest.”

“Very well,” agreed Galil, “all will know that it is your followers who destroyed her.”

The breeze vanished back into the bronze calf. Chumesh turned back to Galil, who held out to her a white ball the size of an olive. “A sweet, from the west, whose people’s dates drip honey, whose cows give milk as rich as a mother’s, and whose salt emboldens the palette.”

Galil took the sweet and their agreement was bound with shared floral, fatty sweetness.

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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