Chapter IV

Worrisome News

Khimi, Rashid, and Ennui walk through the streets of Betset, visiting the various merchant stalls. They work together, bartering and trading to fill the hull. Within hours, hundreds of pounds of rare spice, bolts of silk, rare Dolman woods, and precious gems are loaded onto the vessel after negotiations. A small contingent of armed mercenaries are assigned to guard the ship for the evening. Though Khimi has his concerns, neither Rashid nor Ennui seem to worry about the safety of the vessel’s wares. The mercenaries they hire are based out of Sidi and their captain had once been a paladin of the Sanctum of Balance, a true and honorable man in Rashid’s eyes.

The sun begins to set while they make their way back past the golden fields of wheat and back into Betset. Rashid watches Khimi look fondly out into the vast fields. He wonders what Khimi is thinking, but he can not bring himself to question the young lord. Once they pass back through the wooden gates, Ennui takes the bridles, offering to catch up with the two of them once she has the horses stabled. Rashid and Khimi begin their ascent into the city. The familiar trek passes in silence for the two of them and as they reach the apex of the city, Khimi pauses at the small lake, water rippling across its top from the natural springs.

Rashid fidgets with the leather strap on his bracers and takes a deep breath, standing next to Khimi before the lake. The earthy scent of the wheat fills his nostrils, and loose florets pass with the breeze. “I know we hadn’t discussed it. Ya told me we’d discuss it later. It’s later,” Rashid says, exhaling sharply.

“I am surprised…but if you thought I wouldn’t feel betrayed. You’re wrong, Rashid,” Khimi replies. “I knew Aleyna would keep track of me, but I am surprised that it was you doing her bidding,” he says, turning to Rashid.

Rashid stares into the water, keeping his gaze on the blossoming ripples. “Aleyna has always been a friend. Ya should know she cares more about ya than anything in the wor–”

“I do not doubt my mother’s love!” Khimi exclaims, his voice breaking with tension. “But,” he begins, gripping the pommel of his dagger. “If my mother…wanted to speak to me, by all means I am present. She could have written…instead she uses you as her spy? Your loyalty…is to me, Rashid. You swore an oath to protect me!”

Rashid continues to fidget with the leather strap, buckling and unbuckling the brass loop holding it in place. “Ya really don’t understand how much she has sacrificed for ya,” Rashid mutters, he turns to Khimi, his cheeks red with anger. “I don’t often like to tell ya how to live y’re life, or what to do. But in this, ya need to listen.”

Khimi sighs, “I am fine with you taking your leave of my service, Rashid,” he says flatly, sitting beside the water, tucking his hands beneath his knees. “If Aleyna has yet to respond to your correspondence, then something must be amiss…from the sound of it, you’ve kept this friendship going for…how many years?” He asks, looking up to Rashid.

Rashid sits himself, squatting beside Khimi. “The whole time,” he whispers. He picks up a small pebble from the lakeside. “Aleyna was scared of starting a dialogue with you…she thought it’d only make you hate them mo–”

“No, it only made me resent her,” Khimi interrupts. “I had thought…she had become like him, just wanting to use me to run the Cerulean Sta—”

“Nothing of the sort!” Rashid denies, “Aleyna does plenty for the estate, in fact I reckon that she does more than y’reself,” he adds with a light-hearted chuckle.

Khimi groans, pressing his face between his knees. “Why is everything so complex?” He pleads.

“Y’re mother is a complex woman,” Rashid whispers, tossing the pebble across the rippling water. It skids several times along the surface before sinking with a loud thunk. “Y’re father on the other hand… Hells, I reckon all that coin just went to his head.”

Khimi sits in silence, picking at the golden threads of his kaftan. “He’s something,” he mutters.

“What’s that?” Rashid asks, searching for a pebble among the stones before him.

Khimi sighs, “I never got to know the honorable Ziad. I’ve only ever got to know Emir Ziad,” he grumbles as he presses his palm to his cheek, feeling the raised skin of his scar.

“I’ll never forget that one,” Rashid whispers, “Among the others…but that one. Some things just stick with ya forever. He was really off that day. He was so excited, then angry. Fortunately, that was the last time we saw Ziad in the Desert Cities,” he says, offering Khimi a smile.

Khimi looks up at the setting sun, “Rashid, I wished every single day for years after that. I wished that some sellsword or assassin would strike him down. Some scorned merchant would hire someone to have him killed. I always knew in my gut that it wouldn’t be that easy,” he murmurs, then stretches his legs over the sparse grass.

“I admit, even I had thought that perhaps…the Zeybeks would be better off without Emir Ziad. I thought…Khimi and Aleyna can make it work. Never expected ya to run off and become a mercenary though,” Rashid chuckles, hurling the second stone across the sparkling water. “Then when I finally come across ya after all those years. Ya looked like you’d be set upon by a dervish, all the new scars ya bore. Then there was the whole rui–”

“Do you think he’s back?” Khimi interrupts softly, turning to Rashid with a blank expression.

Rashid looks pensive and turns to the sky, the palms fronds shake in the light breeze. The scent of cooking meat comes from a nearby tavern. “Eh, who knows,” he shrugs. “Aleyna could just be late to write to me, but this would be a first. And that is why I have concerns. I waited an extra day in Porat to see if correspondence would arrive.”

“Ziad built a kingdom in the Golden Isles…why would he come back to Sidi?” Khimi asks.

Rashid shrugs. “I don’t think he would, Khimi. Though I don’t want you to think that…you’ll ever be outside his gaze.”

“Ziad is spying on me?” Khimi says, more of a statement than a question. “I have always had my suspicions.”

Rashid mumbles under his breath, sitting beside Khimi. He sighs, “Just assume that Ziad has always kept eyes on Aleyna and y’reself. I think that’d be the best way to handle it,” he says, gauging Khimi’s expression. “Perhaps when we get back to Rhaz we evaluate our staff?”

Khimi leans back, straightening his legs through the grass. A low cloud passes overhead, casting a dark shadow over them. Khimi broods in silence. I hope I didn’t break the lad…he seems lost. Rashid places his hand on Khimi’s shoulder while Khimi digs into the grass and soil beneath him.

“Then he knew,” Khimi says suddenly, looking up to the rolling clouds.

Rashid follows his gaze, turning his eyes to the heavens, “He knows everything,” he mutters.

Khimi clicks his tongue, “How much do you think he hates me now?” He asks, his eyes hidden beneath in the shadow of his brow.

“I am sure he’s a little upset, ya know…that y’re not gonna continue the family line and all,” Rashid whispers, squeezing Khimi’s shoulder. “It was always who ya were, though, can’t help that. Can’t change the person ya are, Khimi.”

Khimi smirks and turns to Rashid. “If I recall, it was you who encouraged me to pursue Lumi to begin with!” He asserts with a smile.

“Right ya are,” Rashid replies, grabbing another pebble. “How about….I travel with ya to the Isles, and if Ziad is there….then I’ll be there when ya see him. How’s that?” He asks, skipping the pebble. It strikes across the surface, skipping nearly to the center.

Khimi smiles, “I’d like that, but I am worried about Aleyna,” he whispers in response. “Anyway, can you reach out to her? Saint Nina was able to contact me through some type of magick.”

Rashid shakes his head, “The clerics, the ones who traveled with us, could send messages across entire continents. It was a convenient thing,” he says, stretching his legs before him to match Khimi.

“There has to be a cleric somewhere in Betset,” Khimi grumbles under his breath.

Rashid tosses the top of his cloth skirt aside, massaging the top of his legs. “Not all clerics keep to the robes of the temples, ya know. Only the pompous ones, them Lorians. They always wear their robes,” he says, looking around the water at the passersby.

“Wait, you mean the Sun Temple?” Khimi asks as he peers at Rashid from the corner of his eye.

Rashid glances at a merchant’s stall across the water. A small spit pig rotates above a fire, a plume of black smoke rising in the air. “That’d be the ones. Pompous fellas,” he says, lifting his nose to the air.

“Their robes do look fetching,” Khimi replies, watching Rashid sniff at the air. “If you’re starved, we can grab a bite.”

“Ya’d probably best be getting back to y’re kitten by now,” Rashid says, sighing loudly as he turns to Khimi.

Khimi pushes himself to his feet, “He’ll be alright. I left him some coin. He’s probably full and drunk by now,” he snorts.

Rashid nods, “That roast pig smells like the heavens,” he laughs, pushing himself to his feet after Khimi.

“Just tell me something, Rashid,” Khimi says, grabbing Rashid’s upper arm. “Would Ziad harm him?”

Rashid, is unable to meet Khimi’s gaze and tries to hide his expression, “Ziad would harm anything that stood in his way,” he says, placing his hand on Khimi’s. “But ya already know how far he is willing to go…”

Khimi releases his grip, “If I find out it was Ziad who sent those mercenaries…” he utters, his hand instinctively gripping his pommel.

The truth had been revealed to Rashid after he followed the mercenaries into the Desert. It had not been but a day outside Rhaz that he and the other members of the Cerulean Star managed to catch up to the Dolmans. When put to the question and made to reveal their benefactor, none of the Dolmans were willing to share the information. But when their number had begun to dwindle down, many chose to loosen their lips. Rashid had decided it was in Khimi’s best interest to keep Ziad’s involvement in the assault hidden.

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Rashid lies, turning away from Khimi, “How about we get us something to eat and head to the arena?”

Khimi tries not to smile and turns to Rashid, “You’re growing a belly, old friend,” he mutters, pushing Rashid playfully towards a nearby merchant’s stall.

The Arena

Khimi and Rashid journey about the small lake. They stop at stall after stall, filling their bellies with the vast assortment of foods native to the Desert Cities and more local sweets: Honeyed pastries, buttered cookies with pistachios, sesame cakes. Before long, the sun begins to set and the merchants quickly pack their wares. Large crowds appear through the market, making their way to a large central structure. They follow the clamor of the crowd, people pushing and shoving their way into lines. Guards stand in attendance collecting coins while people file into the building in neat lines. Rashid pays the five silver for entry, juggling a small handful of baked treats all the while. The crowd marches down several red stone stairs, descending into the dull, dim hallway. The sound of cheers and excitement rings out down the hallway, echoing towards them.

The lengthy hallway opens into a grand display, a half circle arena situated beneath the bustling city. Massive hanging braziers light up the space, dozens of columns run up to the ceiling, supporting the unique structure. Rashid had only been here once before, he recalled not being fond of the sights he saw or the rumors he heard. Violence. Death. Sorrow. Three things that often accompany this sort of place. Khimi had assured him that a small body of chirurgeons would stand on site in the instance someone is grievously injured during the event. Khimi had told Rashid of how Betset grew to be famed for its undercity combat and the gamblers it drew from across the Desert Cities. Pushing through the stairs, down to the front, Rashid spots a familiar face. Ennui sits, her arm around the honey-haired youth from the inn. Khimi calls out to her. She turns, her eyes narrowing to slits once she spots them, a flicker of annoyance crosses her face.

Ennui fingers the tips of her horns, whispering softly into the young girl’s ear. She turns back to them, “This row is full!” She calls out to Rashid and Khimi.

“Like hells it is!” Rashid shouts, pushing past several individuals before he plops down beside Ennui.

“I didn’t get your name before,” Khimi says, looking past Rashid at the youthful girl.

She pushes her hair behind her ear, offering Khimi a smile. “Iris,” she replies softly, extending her hand over Ennui and Rashid.

“That isn’t necessary,” Ennui insists, pulling Iris’ hand back. “You don’t want to know where his hand has been. Besides, Iris already knows your names. Isn’t that right?”

Iris nods, “Khimi,” she begins, nodding to Khimi. “Rashid, right?” She asks, looking to Ennui for approval.

Ennui gives her a small nod, “Yeah, the old fart is Rashid,” she whispers to Iris.

“And the beastkin…you said his name was Lumi?” Iris ponders, looking over the small group. “Lumi is such a curious name.”

“Have you seen him today?” Khimi probes, peering past Ennui to Iris.

Iris thinks for a moment and itches the bridge of her nose, “He came out of his room an hour or so after you left the inn. He went into the city with Cleo. I didn’t ask where he was headed, but it looked like he was going to the merchant quarter,” she says with confidence.

“Surprised we didn’t see him then,” Rashid says, looking at Khimi with a shrug, trying to hide his worry.

Who else did you send, Ziad? Rashid wonders. Though he hides his expression, he scours the stands, hopeful to spot the mess of blond hair amongst the crowd.

Khimi sits back, steepling his fingers. “I probably should have gone to check on him,” he whispers to himself.

“Oh, he’ll be fine,” Rashid assures him, patting him on the back.

Ennui, glances over at Khimi. “Listen to the old man, let the little lion have fun…explore the city,” she laughs, tucking her arm around Iris.

“For some reason, your words make me feel even more unsettled,” Khimi replies, while Ennui gives him a toothy grin.

A man in a bright-colored cloak walks to the center of the sandy arena. He turns swiftly, spinning the motley colored cape with him. He calls out over the crowd, announcing a short time remaining until the start of the night’s games. Rashid glances at Khimi, noticing his feet tapping aggressively against the stone ground. He should calm down once things get started. Rashid nibbles on the sesame cake, still hopefully searching about the crowded arena. The whole city must be here. He finishes the cake, licking his fingers clean of crumbs while Khimi stands nervously, only to be pulled back into his seat by Ennui.

The announcer appears moments later in his bright tunic and cloak. Several men in drab linen attire follow beside him. “We’ve got a change in tonight’s events!!” He calls out excitedly, his voice ringing out through the arena.

The crowd’s cheers boom in response, people banging their hands and feet over the sandstone. The stadium rumbles with their excitement.

“We know you all wanted to see a REAL lion in tonight’s challenge, but we’ve got something even BETTER!” He shouts, clapping his hands. The guards look about, the arena becomes silent.

“Did he just sa–”

Lion?” Khimi interrupts, pondering to himself, his eyes suddenly growing wide. He turns to Ennui, “Did he say bloody lion?”

Rashid snorts, “Hells…

Iris glances between the three of them, “Is something wrong?”

Khimi massages his brow, “Ennui, you explain it,” he demands of the devilkin.

Ennui scoffs, “It’s a thing,” she begins, chewing on her thumbnail. “Beastkin can…sometimes speak to their animal counterparts. Lapine to rabbits, minos to bulls, the list goes on.”

“Oh, your friend…he’s like a lion, right?” Iris asks, standing from her seat.

“He thinks he can talk to cats too…but he said he’s always been able to carry a conversation with lions,” Khimi whispers, forcing himself up from his seat and shoves past the other three.

Rashid grabs his arm, “Just sit down, we don’t know what’s going on yet,” Rashid offers, tugging roughly on Khimi’s sleeve.

“Rashid,” Khimi grumbles angrily, placing his hand over Rashid’s, “I’ve had this feeling for the last few hours. Something’s wrong.”

“Fine.” Rashid stands from his seat, “I’ll go with you,” he announces, pushing past Khimi.

    The announcer works the crowd while they head to the stairs leading to the arena floor. A small band of guards bars the path, placing their spears before them. Rashid looks past them. The wooden portcullis opens on either side of the arena. From the shadows of the dark hall, Lumi appears, walking to the center of the ring. Hells…you stupid lion. He shakes Khimi’s shoulder, pointing past the guards.

“Twenty gold pieces to let me pass!” Khimi shouts at the guards, his voice breaking with desperation.

One removes his helmet, “I’m sorry, sir. We can’t let you pass, it’d be our heads,” the guard says, glancing back over his shoulder to the fighters entering the ring.

“Fuck it!” Khimi shouts, “Fifty gold pieces!”

The other guard scoffs frantically, “We’d lose our jobs if we let you through.”

“Someone very important is down there!” Rashid shouts, looking past the two guards.

Khimi moves back along the lower tier of the stadium seats, forcing his way past the seated viewers. “Lumi! LUMI!” He calls across the stadium.

Rashid notes the people rising, turning to them at the disturbance, guards walking down the stairs to apprehend. “Khimi, what’re ya doin’?” He shouts, failing to keep up with the pain shooting through his leg.

“Saving Lumi!” He shouts, pushing past another set of viewers gathered near the stairs, pummeling his way down to the sandy floor.

Guards shout at Khimi while he descends the stairs onto the arena floor. Rashid hurries behind. The announcer rushes to them, his hand placed on the hilt of his sheathed saber. Lumi looks at Khimi, giving him an apologetic shake of his head while he trots behind the announcer. Rashid glares at Lumi. Still wearing that damn loincloth. The announcer approaches them with a furious expression and Lumi catches up just in time.

The short announcer grabs Khimi’s kaftan, “What’s the meaning of this?” he spits, beginning to unsheathe his blade.

Rashid pushes the announcer’s hand down, forcing the saber back into its sheath. “Calm y’reself,” he growls.

“What’re you going on about? You’re causing panic with all the screaming!” The announcer yells.

“There must be some mistake,” Khimi begins, fixing his gaze past the announcer to Lumi. “Why is he fighting in the arena?” He demands, motioning to Lumi. “He’s not a criminal.”

“I offered to take the lion’s place,” Lumi states plainly, walking towards them with a shortened staff. “Ebo’s sick and was captured in the wheat fields chasing a gazelle…”

Khimi sighs, “Lumi…” The pained expression is clear on Khimi’s face, “he’ll just end up in the arena tomorrow.”

Rashid looks at Lumi, “Are ya thick in the head, boy?” He asks, pushing past the announcer. “No need to put y’reself in danger.”

Lumi’s cheeks fill with color, “You don–”

Khimi grabs Lumi’s upper arm, “You’re going back to the inn!” He shouts angrily, “NOW!”

“He ain’t goin’ nowhere!” The announcer bellows, pushing Rashid away. “We’ve got an arena full of people, thousands of gold in coins in bets on the lin–”

How much?!” Khimi demands, glaring at the announcer. “How much to get him out of this?”

“Let me go, Khimi!” Lumi shouts, squirming against Khimi’s vice-like grip.

“Sorry mate, ya ever seen one of these things go down without a fight? The crowds riot…and I ain’t bout that,” the announcer insists.

Ennui makes an appearance, placing a hand on Rashid’s shoulder, “Oh, Khimi. It’ll be just like the good ole days. How bout you take the little lion’s spot? Or I can if you want it to be over faster.”

No!” Lumi shouts, freeing himself of Khimi’s grasp. “It’s my fault…”

Rashid gasps, Ennui crosses the distance between the stairs and Lumi in the blink of an eye. She grabs Lumi’s neck, her lips nearly touching his ears. Her lips move to words Rashid cannot hear. Everyone stares at the curious sight while Lumi nods slowly to whatever words the devilkin says. Ennui releases her grip, ripping a handful of Lumi’s hair. He yelps, but curiously, his tail wags behind him with an excited wiggle.

“What was all that about?” The announcer asks Ennui, “Listen here!” He calls out to her.

Lumi mumbles then grabs Khimi’s sleeve, “Fight with me, Khimi!” he says excitedly.

“Wh-What?” Khimi asks, confused at Lumi’s sudden request.

Rashid pushes through the guard and announcer, “What’s all this about? What did the she-devil say?” he demands.

Ennui turns back and hurries down the stairs while laughing, “Come on, old man,” she chortles, waving him towards her. “The boys can take care of themselves, this was Lumi’s doing after all.”

Rashid grumbles, turning away from Lumi and Khimi. The guards escort him back up the stairs, leaving them alone with the announcer. The crowd rages on, men and women shout furious insults at the group. The announcer looks at Lumi, his darkened cheeks growing more crimson with each passing second.

“We don’t stop these events for just anyone…what’s your bloody plan?” He inquires. A pebble flies from into the arena from the crowd, nearly striking the announcer. “Quickly!”

Lumi holds onto Khimi’s arm, “We’ll fight…whoever else you have for the evening,” he says and raises his voice as the crowd becomes more unruly.

“We will?” Khimi asks before he closes his eyes, sighing loudly. “Lumi, you can’t use magick in the arena, we’ll be disqualified,” he says, drawing Lumi closer to him.

“What?!” Lumi questions, his eyes lighting up in horror.

Khimi grabs his arm, pulling Lumi’s ears near his lips, “This is a horrific idea, kitten.”

The announcer watches them closely, “Whatever, I’ll tell the crowd…better make this bloody good!” He yells. Tossing his hands into the air, he makes expressive gestures while he makes his way to the center of the arena.

Rashid backpedals to catch up to Ennui and shouts back while the other’s conversation becomes unclear, “Be safe!”