Smoke and Flame

Even now the thought of her sends him god-ecstatic,
dawn of sun-fire glint upon his desert mind commingling;
and he comes to her inside a dance of molecules;
a fiery djinn of the morning’s light reddening to desire.

—Ghazal of Istanii Mir

The summer winds were on them as they traveled across the wind-swept dunes; dervish djinn whirled their plumes of dust across the bleak horizon: a shadowblur of the day turned night. They call this wind andhi, ‘darkener of sky’. Even the squat eyed sun sat there in the horizon’s thin veil like the King of the Djinn, his red pupil sinister and without mercy barely piercing it’s thickening curtain with his fierce intelligence. Movement among the dunes was like traveling among the labyrinths of Jazael, each step leading them deeper into the gloom where the demon herds of Istarii roamed like agents of chaos. Even as the sun closed his deadly eye across that vast swath of silence and dust they knew there would be no rest for them this night.

Nothing was sacred in this ocean of sand. Ruin upon ruin stretched across this infinite sea where dead rulers and their servants once lived amid the riches of Three Kingdoms. Stone pillars half-buried strewn the landscape of ancient Kings, a realm emptied of their proud hearts and cunning minds. No one in this blasted desert world cared for the past anymore,  Zufari deliberated silently: it was a wasteland of stone and ghuls where fathers and sons forgot each other faster than the plumes of sand upon the river of endless thought. No. The sand would take care of the past and its ruins… the djinn would take care of the memories; they always did. He shivered. The night-winds were picking up, and he pulled his cloak tighter as he nestled closer to his dromedary’s hump.

They heard the bone-ghuls guttural hymns and howls off in the distance as Metraya’s crescent broke upon the shores of the far horizon. Zufari hated the idea of traveling through the night, but it couldn’t be helped. The Emperor had summoned the old sorcerer from his desert retreat for whatever reason insane men of power think such magicks can do to assuage or comfort them against unknown fears and anxieties. How many times had this Emperor done so Zufari did not want to remember. At one time he’d almost decided to move to the Emperor’s City but realized the stench of being so close to those court imposters and temple mongers he called his advisers would be too much to bare. No. He was happy living alone in the quietude of his desert retreat with only the ghuls and hyenas as company. At least with them one knew where one stood. With the retinue of a gullible and anxious Emperor one could never be sure.

ok04Somewhere between midnight and sunrise we came upon a great salt sea where we’d heard the fabled Olgoi-Khorkhoi roamed in the deeps below its moon-white slick. Terrible legends surrounded this great death worm whose inordinate jaws held inescapable fangs, and who when provoked would spit a toxic brew that would dissolve a man whole in its dark red acidic juices. It’s myriad eyes were set wide on both sides of its fierce cranial-boned protuberance, which would open into a wide fan jointed mouth. Legends have it that this bestial serpent of the sands could slip up on a camel and rider without a sound, and from the depths below suck them deep into its enormous belly; swallowed whole and without a trace or notice of its coming and going.

Towards morning light they reached the foothills of the Zagruz, the Mountains of the Moon; their silver thin crests still hinting of dying winter. Off to the left of the great salt lick Zufari could see the glint of the white towers that quartered the City of Kings, Særima. The city lay along the great sarian plain, amid the waters of the inland sea of Tigaz. It’s walls were thicker than the cyclopean tombs of the ancient Mirz,  and had withstood more battles than time could reveal. Even in its current dilapidated state it was a majestic city whose life revealed both the power and the wonder of the Three Kingdoms. Nestled within the hooded shade of the great Zagruz mountains its jewel like splendor was the envy of every port city along that great sea.

Særima. Place of beginnings and ruins. The city where I emerged like an orphan from long exile, Zufari reminisced. Sitting between the vast sea of Tigaz and the Empty Quarter – the desert with no end; my home, my city. Caught in the nightmare grip of those who do not belong. Those who came from elsewhere; from the watery abyss, in their black ships. Took what was ours; and drove my people across the void, the silence – to the ruinous wastelands of leprous decay, the rotting jungles of filth and corruption, sold into slavery. Only he, Zufari, remained, by hidden magicks in this ancient land of his forbears. But even here he was bound to the new lords; this Emperor of the Tazeti – Interloper, and renegade thief of his City.  

Maybe we are all orphans; all exiles, in one way or another, he thought, the last remnant of a Lost Kingdom by the sea; our lives and memories lost among broken spires and fallen walls. Yes, even now, as I study this iron black prison of the Interloper, lost among the stone tombs of Ala’mbra, I remember my ancient home: the Palace of Ta’rif; the golden spires of the Mua’da Fir; the glowing cobbles of the Forbidden Temples, where the Drakomir worshiped the Old Gods. Like a fine diamond set on the crown of the Ausländian Empire it was the refuge for all the oppressed and forgotten peoples who’d escaped the floods of the Long Nights. All gone; all in ruins… I will not forget her; my city, ever.

But that was then, and this is now, he sighed. The Interloper had rebuilt the old city into this monstrosity of efficiency, a fortress full of massive walls and towers; and, yet, the remnant of the once beautiful city, the turquoise roofs, the white and gold brick, the fountains and gardens remained. Even the old palace of had been rebuilt in the old style, this Emperor having been a distant cousin of the last. Zufari had lived long enough to realize one regime was no better or worse than any in the long run. Taxes were levied, ships built, wars upon wars fought against enemies that seemed to replace each other in one long stream of endless war against each other. No. He’d seen too much to believe anything would change such things. 

The small caravansary came in to the city through Crescent Moon gate, where on both sides water stalls were already being filled for the morning travelers. He felt the tug of Rashid his apprentice who led the dromedaries and mules to water, while Rufari dismounted and walked forward to the Captain of Guards. 

“Ah, I see the Magus of the South has arrived,” the burly man spoke gruffly. “We’ve been waiting for you. The Emperor is sad today, his son is burdened by the desert sickness.”

Rufari nodded, having already surmised as much. He knew what to expect. He knew the court alchemists, and courtiers, the so called Magi priests, and doctors – is so they could be called – were of little use in such matters. He was tired, dirty, and needed food and a place to rest. He knew such would not be till he’d seen the child Prince. He nodded to the Captain’s scrutiny: “Am I expected now?” 

“No. The boy is stable, and the court physicians have applied everything that man can do. It’s not the physical ailments that they require of you, but the other…” the Captain was hesitant to speak of it. 

Rufari intervened: “I know, you don’t need to mention it. We both know what it is.” 

The Captain’s lips wavered, but remained silent. He motioned to his men to mount up again and ride to the Palace. He whispered to Rufari that he would be quartered in Duwan’s Dusty Nail a Tavern on the east side of the Palace in the Scholar’s Den. A messenger would summon him later after the holy prayers. He should rest, eat, and compose himself for the meeting. 

Rufari remounted, called his apprentice Rashid, who was still lifting a barrel of water to the last dromedary: “Let us go, Rashid.”  


… opening paragraphs of Smoke and Flame.

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