Chapter X


Rashid sits at the dark table, which seems impossibly long. How’d they even get the bloody thing in here? The veritable feast that has been put before them vanishes, servants scurry to clear the table of the remnants of the remaining meal. Rashid sinks deeper into his plush chair, savoring its softness against his skin. His hands rest lightly in his lap as he observes the flurry of activity around him. Servants scurry back and forth, performing their tasks with practiced efficiency, until the room falls into a peaceful stillness. Emir Ziad stands before the hearth, his hands tightly entwined behind his back in a tense knot. Rashid can sense the tension radiating off of him, a clear indication that his friend is deep in thought. Throughout their years of friendship, Rashid has learned to recognize this behavior as a foreboding sign. For all of Ziad’s success as a merchant across the Desert Cities, he is not known for his kindness or compassion. In moments like this, when he falls silent and retreats into his mind, his thoughts become tangled webs, meticulously evaluating every possibility and outcome. Rashid knows better than to interrupt or question him during these times. He simply waits, watching as the fire dances hypnotically in the hearth and the flickering shadows play across Ziad’s face.

The last servant finishes their tasks and exits the room, leaving behind a heavy silence that is only broken by the loud slam of the thick wooden doors closing. Rashid would have been uneasy by the sound of the lock turning from the outside, but he knows that Ziad cherishes his privacy and keeps most doors locked. Ziad’s typically stoic expression looks drained and weary. He seems lost in thought, and it is clear to Rashid that whatever weighs on his mind has taken a toll on him. Sensing that it may be some time before Ziad breaks his silence, Rashid takes the opportunity to roll his shoulders and massage his tense neck muscles while he waits patiently for his friend to speak.

Where should I begin, old friend? Rashid knows he can sit in silence with Ziad until the end of time if neither of them chooses to speak, and so he begins to work up the courage. Aleyna? Khimi? The aslan?

Rashid sighs as he pushes the chair from under himself and stands, “Ziad,” he says as the chair scrapes across the dark tiles.

Ziad nods, his eyes flicker in Rashid’s direction. “Say what you will. I know that look all too well. You wore it enough times as a paladin.”

“Perhaps ya’d best take a seat. It could be a sour subject,” Rashid scoffs as he brushes his hands across his trousers. Crumbs fall from his lap across the floor, and Rashid wonders if his lack of etiquette bothers Ziad. He pulls a chair from beside the table and places his foot casually on top of the seat. Leaning forward, he begins again, “Ya already know what it’s about.”

“Do I?” Ziad counters, still focused on poking at the logs in the fire with an iron rod. “I am not so sure that I do, Rashid.” His words are calm but cutting, almost questioning. “Are you scolding me for encouraging my son to reproduce? After all, it is his duty to continue our line by sticking his cock into a wom–”

“It would have been kind if ya just let him have something to hold onto… The aslan means everything to hi–”

That Demi-human will not be what stands between the Zeybek line ending,” Ziad sneers, his eyes anchored on the flames before him. “No Demi-human will destroy our line.”

Rashid lets out another weary sigh and absentmindedly scratches at his graying beard. “And what if Khimi never ends up with a woman?”

“He only needs to spill his seed a few times into a woman, then he can stick his cock into whatever creature he wants,” Ziad snaps viciously, the iron rod clicking against the tiles as he stands up abruptly. “I mean it…”

“So ya want me to convince Khimi that this is for the best?” Rashid asks with a wry smile. “Because I know for a fact that it will never happen. Khimi is more headstrong than both y’reself and Aleyna combined.”

Ziad chuckles to himself, shaking his head. “Well, well. You’ve grown quite defiant in the years since we last spoke…when did you throw away our years of friendship?”

“My oath is to protect Khimi,” Rashid replies as he turns the chair towards Ziad, “I’ve realized that extends to protecting the boy’s happiness as well…even if it means that I have to go against your will from time to time, Ziad.”

Ziad clicks his tongue, a chilly smile forms across his lips, the corner of his mouth twitching. “I believe it’s best you refer to me as Emir Zeybek then, you speak to me with too much…familiarity,” he pauses as his fingers tap over the metal poker.  “Pulling him back home from his mercenary career really brought him happiness, did it?” Ziad murmurs defiantly, his eyes shut as he continues. “Or was that for Aleyna’s happiness?”

“Emir Zeybek,” Rashid mutters with pursed lips, “Aleyna asked, but he only left because of the responsibilities that ya shoved on him. He was to–”

“Too what? Young? Too ignorant?  I was taught everything he learned at the exact same age. If Aleyna hadn’t coddled him, Khimi would have been so much stronger,” Ziad mutters, his nose pinching in anger. “But I gather this is not what you wished to discuss.”

Rashid contemplates his words carefully as he crosses his legs and leans forward. “Emir Zeybek…why did ya send the Dolmans?” He asks, barely looking up from the floor.

Ziad releases a deep breath and crosses his arms. As if wanting to laugh, he continues, “What can I say? Someone in Rhaz told me that Khimi came back from the temple with an extra guest…of course when I learned what it was. I knew that this must be some short-lived infatuation. Without the temptation, Khimi will return to doing what he should have been years ago.”

“Y’re own people died, Ziad. Servants and guards died. And even Khimi was injured,” Rashid mutters in disbelief. “Ya got to let this go, Ziad. When one of the Dolmans told me that they were paid from someone in the Golden Isles, I knew who it was.”

“You are to refer to me by my title, Rashid. Lest you forget yourself.” Ziad demands as he paces in front of the hearth.

Rashid shakes his head in frustration. “Why do you care so much? Khimi was gone for years, why suddenly take interest in his fate?”

Ziad’s fingers tighten into fists at his sides. “If Khimi had chosen to stay a mercenary, I would have accepted that as his path. But no, YOU and Aleyna insisted on bringing him back and trying to make him into something he is not — a true Zeybek.” He sneers, “But his Demi-human blood will always mark him as tainted, and it becomes more apparent each day how weak he truly is.”

Rashid lets out an exasperated groan. “How can you be so cruel? Aleyna sacrificed everything for your happiness. And Khimi tried so hard to please you, only to be met with punishment for every mistake.”

“And does Khimi recall how you stood idly by while it happened? Or did he scrub that from his memory? The only one to raise a hand to me ever was Aleyna,” Ziad chuckles. He slaps his cheek with an empty laugh, “I can say a lot about the old cow, but she has fight in her. Unlike you, old friend,” he spits, “And it’s best you remember your place.”

Rashid turns away from Ziad, anger filling him. This is going nowhere. “I thought ya knew best for y’re own son. But ya proved me wrong. Sure as hells ya did.”

“I do know what is best for Khimi,” Ziad barks, pushing against his brow. “Do you know HOW MUCH I have given? HOW MUCH I have done to ensure my family was on the right path?”

“And now, Aleyna…what did ya do to Aleyna?” Rashid questions, nearly shouting while he leans forward. “She hasn’t responded to my correspondence…she always responds.”

Ziad clicks his tongue and opens his hands in front of him. “Listen Rashid… Aleyna is fine. I left her with some extra protection. I could see that things were getting a bit out of control down there.”

“O-Out of control?” Rashid mutters with an incredulous look on his face. “Y’re a bloody monster!”

“The estate was crumbling, Aleyna let it all fall to hells. I simply went back after receiving a little threatening letter from her. When I saw the state of it all,” Ziad pauses to let out a whistle. “Well, by the Gods…” He pauses, his words carrying spite, “I just knew I had to do something about it. So I left some of my men, and saw to it that some new staff was hired.”

“Not one inkling of guilt within ya,” Rashid spits. “Ya batter y’re wife, beat y’re son into a shell of the happy boy he once was. Now ya keep Aleyna locked away in a cage and have spies watching Khimi’s every move?”

Ziad closes his eyes, a mirthful smile slips across his lips. “Don’t forget yourself, Rashid. I AM still the one to whom you answer. Even if that oath you took was to Aleyna,” he replies with a snort. “I am…and always will be, Emir Zeybek. You swore an oath to me before you ever made that oath to Aleyna.”

Rashid remains quiet. There is truth to Ziad’s words. Ziad is the one who provided for him over the years. Each comfort that he had known was linked to his old friend. Hells, bloody bastard. Rashid hits his knee, looking up at him in anger. Fuckin’ cocksucker.

“I don’t need whatever it is ya have to offer any longer. I believe I plan to be takin’ my leave of the Cerulean Star soon,” Rashid spits, his hands shaking over his knee. “I can’t be workin’ for ya any longer, Ziad…”

“Well then,” Ziad begins. “Perhaps we should have a drink then…reminisce on old times together…enjoy your final days before retirement?” He asks, motioning to a large cupboard filled with bottles of various vintages. “I can at least offer an old friend a drink, can’t I?”

“If y’re offerin’,” Rashid grumbles. “I just want ya to promise me one thing. Promise me that Aleyna is safe.”

“Oh, she’s well enough,” Ziad whispers, his fingers moving across the dark glass bottles and stopping on a small wooden keg. “Perhaps we should tap a keg for your farewell? Who knows when the next time you’ll ever get to indulge in such finery?”

“A cup of Sidian red is plenty for me,” Rashid replies swiftly.

Ziad begins to open the bottle, peeling away the hemp from the wooden stopper. “And, Khimi. Do you plan to tell him about all of this?”

“At some point, I believe Khimi deserves to know the truth,” Rashid replies, resting his elbow on the table.

Ziad purses his lips, “And which truth would that be?” He asks, forcing a small knife into the wooden stopper with a violent stab. “His heritage? About the mercenaries? How about you tell him about his duty?”

“I can’t help but be proud of him,” Rashid mumbles, his hand resting over his heart. “He’s always been a good kid, fighting against all odds to make something of himself.” Pride swells within him, radiating from his very core.

“If only he could marry someone respectable and have children,” Ziad chuckles without looking up from his work. With a gentle pop, the stopper comes out of the bottle he was working on. He places the knife back on the cupboard with a sense of finality. “And as for the situation with the Dolmans…he’ll understand in time,” he adds, shrugging nonchalantly. “Surely, if he is my son, he’s already figured that part out. And if he hasn’t…then I can only pray for what lies ahead for the Zeybek line.”

Rashid shifts uncomfortably in his chair as he listens to Ziad’s words. “He’ll never forgive you if anything happens to the aslan,” he says as he stands up. “And really, he’s not such a bad creature. The aslan, I mean. Once you get past his rough exterior, he grows on you.”

Ziad laughs and pours two chalices of wine to the brim. “I almost believe you, old friend,” he says wryly. “But we both know the truth. Beastkin are just that…beasts. Untamable and driven by their base instincts. But Khimi will come around eventually…and if he can’t be convinced sooner…well then, we’ll just have to take matters into our own hands.”

The words carry a subtle threat, leaving a bitter taste in Rashid’s mouth. Ziad glides across the room and takes a seat next to Rashid, offering him one of the chalices. Rashid accepts it and brings the wine to his nose, taking in the familiar scent of his homeland, Sidi. The vintage has hints of orange and delicate floral undertones.

“What do you mean?” Rashid asks, his voice low but demanding. “What plans do you have?”

Ziad leans back in his chair, sipping from his chalice before answering. “I’ll convince Khimi to do the right thing,” he says calmly.

“Leave the boy alone,” Rashid pleads, his tone tinged with desperation. “Let him live his own life.”

Ziad takes another sip of wine before responding. “He has big shoes to fill,” he says cryptically, a glint in his eye that makes Rashid uneasy.