“Shab bekheir... Farsi balad nistam.” he confessed, though he despaired at expending the extent of his fluency to no avail. "Edward Lamb kojast? Inja? I am Gideon Auberjonois... I come to speak with Kala'amātya.” he added. The girl to the west lifted her head in a short gesture of demand and spoke proud but broken French to him, responding to his accent.
“You say, to me... I take, to him.” she insisted.
“I think no. This I will say only to him.” He waited patiently while the two girls conferred, the horse blowing hard against the hillside.
“No, we don’t say for you, and you go.” the foremost instructed.
“Ladies...” Gideon sighed. “Today, I have ride from near Bushehr, an lamed my two best horses.” He smiled. “But, ah, not this one.” Bringing his crop down, he spurred his mount into a sudden burst of impetus that carried them between the dromedaries, leaving the girls in a cloud of salty dust. His horse laboured over the tall slope and faltered before a rain-scoured cut, giving one of the guards far more opportunity than she needed; the shot from her musket sent them head-first onto the ground while her companion nocked an arrow and aimed at the rider’s shoulder, catching him instead in the stout flesh of his arm. The girls were surprised, but not astonished, to see their second victim slide from the trembling body of their first and continue onward as though they had missed him entirely, urging their own mounts after him.
Edward’s black tents stood beneath the humbled ruins of a Sassanian redoubt, pitched low like hands shading a narrow stare and commanding a raptor’s view of the garmsirat plains laid out in banded, studded gold and smoking purple by the sun as it communed with the horizon. Grooms in striped chapans and lambswool hats tended a long string of steppe and Arab horses, sloshing water into a trough from bulging skins while camels carped and brayed, waiting their turn. Beside the hearth stones slave girls from the Thar and Taklimankan, wrapped in thunder blue and ashen black, puffed at embers with their bellows and rolled fragrant dough from their soffrai, glancing up at the stranger as he ducked beneath the largest tent, grasping the wound on his arm.
Its owner sat alone amid the shadows in the sombre homespun of his custom, against a wall of torba bags and mafrash, stacked parterres of deep woad and earthen red grounds, lamb-white stars and amulet details. On the rug beneath them both sat a brass bowl full of half-blown roses floating in spring water.
“Kala'amātya, you are well?” Gideon enquired. Edward dismissed with a glance the two sentry girls who glowered at the edge of the tent behind the intruder, and they withdrew.
“Shiraz puts flesh on your bones.” he replied laconically.
“The fesenjan, avec le canard... I am a slave to it. But ah, I come here with news... your chienne noir, she has been found.” Gideon watched all suggestion of movement desert Edward’s flesh. In the darkness of the tent his gaze was less welcome than ever, as bitterly acute as its bright acid hue. With a low word he brought his grooms to the edge of the enclosure.
“Fetch Si’athle.” he told them, looking back to his guest. “Ou? Allez.” he demanded impatiently. Gideon continued his tale, shrugging one shoulder as his blood began to ooze around the shaft of the arrow into the sleeve of his coat.
“Some Amalaeh an some Lurs have said so... the women come to the sea, away from the fighting, but they complain to the fishermen... at their well, there is a jinniyah who kills children when they come for water... an that this jinniyah, on her breast she has the black mark of the shaytan.” Edward was on his feet before Gideon had finished speaking, and the latter was forced to follow him back beneath the eaves into the evening where three grooms struggled with a huge spotted mare, dashing away from the haunches that swung toward them with evil intent, the whites of its round eyes glowing. It squealed and threw back its dark head as Edward pulled the saddle from its back and dumped it onto the dirt, swinging up without it.
“Where?” he demanded, glaring down at Gideon and wrapping a dark scarf about his head.
“Ride to the sea, turn to the east an cross the river... there is an old caravanserai, with a camp to the north.”
Edward summoned a Baluch woman, turning her tattooed face to his informant.
“Feed him.” he instructed. The horse lurched in a flaring circle, striking stones from the fire and sending sparks streaming across the camp; at his behest the animal flew into a gallop, clattering away down the barren hillside and out onto the darkening plain.
Horse and rider were confronted by the width of a tidal river halfway through the second night of their expedition; at its far bank the tireless mare made a spring that carried them both from the water, her dark tail whipping her legs as she leapt up the rise and cantered on toward the low shape of a karvansara. Its colonnade of mud-brick portals stood like parched, cracked mouths in its lonely disuse, deprived of caravans and baggage trains by war and fickle trade. In its desolation it was home only to swallows and jackals, and the scabrous little vipers that had crawled in to overwinter in its stones. Edward slid down from the horse and left it to crop the tufts of summer-blasted grass.
A dying medlar had keeled over at the corner of the colonnade; he broke a limb from its silver frame and took it with him, around to the north of the shelter. In the darkness of the distance he could see the dull, flickering points of ochre that were the hearths of the nomad complainants and hear the bells of their black goats. On the ground before him a spring spilt from a broken ring of stones toward the footings of the shelter; a creature glared at him from its far side and lapped at it with her hands in the mud while her filthy skirts were soaked to a darker shade. She lifted her head as if it had snapped free from a tether, water trickling from her chin and from the black thatch of her hair.
“You cannot see me.” she muttered, rising from her knees.
“I have always seen you. Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh.”
“I will not. I will not go. Say it in a thousand tongues, one thousand times. I cannot hear you.” He followed the edge of the little pool toward her. Rana scrambled backward and climbed up over the tall step of the karvansara into one of the arches, out of reach.
“Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh.” he told her again.
“I cannot h...”
“When you first spoke against Helaine, what did I tell you?” he demanded. She retreated further beneath the overhanging arch.
“I cannot hear you.”
“I told you plainly... if harm should come to her through you, there would be nowhere for you to hide from me. This is that place. Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh, Rana. Your sisters await you.”
Rana stalked between the pillars bounding the courtyard with her arms wrapped about her head to keep his voice from it. The ruined, shattered copper silk of her wide skirts fell away against her legs, shed in a trail of wind-blown fragments in the dust. Edward stepped down from the stone and tracked her across the enclosure, the distance between them dissolving until he might have stepped on the back of her dress.
“Go into the sea.” he said again. She turned and struck him with a fist. In return he lifted the dead branch in his hand and brought it down across her back, driving her toward the ground where she stayed her fall with both hands. He bent and caught her arm and dragged her to her feet, away from the ruin toward the edge of the plain, where the wind scudding in from the desert faltered and stumbled over tumbled stone and pouring tongues of sand.
A three quarter moon was drawing free of the placental darkness of the ocean like a newborn god, laying burning stripes of silver over the black water as though it were the fundamental act of some new creation. Rana felt the cold sand flee and ooze up beneath her feet and clutched at her skirts, resisting her tormentor, who drew her on toward the white-trimmed breakers, head-high as they collapsed onto the beach. To the east and west the giant, fleshless frames of vanquished whales lay heaped by storms in formless ruin, bleached salt white. Glowing diatoms rolled inside the waves, answering the waxing moon.
“Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh.” His voice was soft and low, his hatred dimmed by the sight of the ocean, a thing from which he had always turned as others turned from the blind eye of the sun. While sheets of water swept in around her feet, Rana stared in silence at his invitation, at its extinguishing symmetry. “You will not get by me.” he promised. She let go of her ragged skirts and they were washed around her legs toward the patient sea while she spoke over the sound of the waves.
“When I am gone, Kala'amātya, you will be left with nothing but your hateful self. To think I spare you that by standing here.”
William waited on the porch for his brother to return from the mailbox.
“Rana's living in the plantation.” he told him. “I just saw her.” He watched Edward kick the pile of disused boots away from the front door, meeting his gamboge stare with the greatest reluctance when it was turned on him.
“Let me know how you deal with it.” the latter replied, stepping inside.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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