Trader and Reluctant Adventurer
The day was gentle, the bright sun kindly warming the stone buildings of Izmatra. Inside a grand old tea house near the Weaver’s Bazaar, two traders -- Durra and Yasamin -- sat together at a table that was unofficially reserved for them. They were well-known, successful merchants and old friends. They sat in the cool, shadowed room, sipped tea from glass cups, and partially reclined on thick carpets and heavily embroidered pillows while they spoke.
Durra was the elder of the two -- face creased with delicate, thin wrinkles, and her tattoos fading. She still occasionally made a trip across the Great Desert -- but her days of roaming that road every season were done. Yasamin was still young. She had a bright eye, and a quick, shrewd way of looking around her -- like she could see, assess, and remember everything.
“I’m glad to hear Ardasi is doing so well,” Yasamin was saying. “Even if he does not thrive on the attention.”
Durra smiled -- the private smile of seeing your loved one in your mind, even when they are not in the room -- and said, “The commissions for star copper get him out of the observatory. He grumbles, but I think he would miss the work, if he were to stay stuck in his office all the time.”
“Hmmm…” said Yasamin. An avowed loner herself, she sympathized with the professor.
“But how was your latest trip?” said Durra.
“Ah,” said Yasamin with a smile, eyes lighting up as she thought of the riches she’d returned with. “It has proved most satisfactory. I’ve nearly tripled my expected income from the expedition.”
“How did you manage that?” asked Durra.
“Mmm,” said Yasamin, shying away from the answer. “I had some of my usual luck on the road.”
“Adventures you mean?”
“That’s your word. It was mostly nothing, as usual. The days are hot. The nights are cold. The sand is endless. You know it as well as I do.”
Durra raised an eyebrow, waiting.
“Well…” Yasamin settled a little more comfortably before admitting. “There were the lions.”
“Lions. Two of them,” She held up two fingers to emphasize the point.
“Do tell,” said Durra. “Did Sisi chase them off?” she asked, referring to Yasamin’s loyal pack lizard.
In a very unladylike way, Yasamin blew out her cheeks. “Sisi slept through the whole thing!” she said. “We were camping in a cave -- a spot I’d used a hundred times to rest! A thousand! I’ve never run into lions there.”
“They’d moved into the cave?” asked Durra.
“No, no,” siad Yasamin. “If I’m going to tell you, let me do it properly. I was on my way back from Nara Cove. The ‘merchants’ there nearly robbed me blind. The prices they charged for simple cocoa! My friend, they are no better than thieves! Of course, I got a good deal in the end -- but it’s always a struggle! Regardless… Where was I? Ah. The lions. I was four days out from Nara, alone in the desert with dear faithful Sisi. I had trouble resting, because the moon was so big and full and I’m sure I barely fell asleep before the lions woke me up. There were two of them -- one male, one female and both as shining silver as the moon. They cast a shadow across me and I woke up at once -- you know what a light sleeper I am. And calm as you like, they asked me to speak my final words so that they could eat me as a midnight snack!” Yasamin paused, sighing at what the world was coming to.
Durra smiled behind her tea glass and said, “Ah, well. Speaking lions are sometimes better than the ordinary kind, no? They can be reasoned with.”
“Sometimes,” agreed Yasamin. “These were certainly not ordinary: Too big for a start and their coats were shimmering like fine strands of silver. And thankfully, they could be reasoned with.”
“What luck,” said Durra. “Carry on.”
“So, so, I was annoyed -- but I didn’t want to wake Sisi, who might be startled by magic lions at midnight. Therefore, I said: ‘I’m sure that I would make a terrible midnight snack -- since I am made entirely of bone, gristle, and a peevish humor. And it would be especially foolish to eat me, since I have a variety of delicious and exotic meats in my pack. I’m sure you’ve tried human before -- but have you ever sampled giant squid?’”
“Excellent last words!” said Durra, rocking back and laughing, “I can just see you putting on your merchant’s voice to speak to the lions.”
“My ‘merchant’s voice’?”
“Yes,” said Durra. “The voice you use for customers or when you are trying to get something from me. Now, why on earth did you have squid with you?”
“It was a good deal on travel rations in Nara,” said Yasamin with a shrug.
“Ah,” said Durra. “Clever.” It only took one or two giant squids to flood the market, but most people would not think to use it as travel rations.
“Which was lucky,” continued Yasamin, “because the moon lions had never heard about squid -- and they were very curious to try it. I had to explain about the ocean and then fish and sea monsters. So many questions! But it passed the night. By the time dawn was drawing on, they’d eaten their fill, given me strands from the male’s mane as payment for the meal, and directions to an undisturbed ruin nearby for nothing!
“My stars,” said Durra. “You got close enough to trim the lion’s mane?”
“I did,” Yasamin mimed using scissors and said, “Strange though. They didn’t smell like animals. They had a dry and dusty scent -- like they were part of the desert and not really alive at all.”
“I met a talking desert fox once, who smelled like that,” said Durra.
Yasamin raised her glass, “Then you know what I mean.”
“Entirely,” said Durra. “What will you do with the mane?”
“I already traded it, yesterday. Some mystic was thrilled to take it. Made more on that than I would have with ten times the squid those lions ate. That’s for sure.”
“Of course, you did. Now, tell me about this ruin. You went, yes? And followed their directions?”
Yasamin snorted. “It’s you who can’t resist these things, Durra. I was expected in Izmatra. I meant only to see it from a distance.”
“How did that work for you?” asked Durra with a raised eyebrow.
“Very well,” admitted Yasamin, “I could not resist it either. The lions may have mentioned a rather fine palace in these untouched ruins, and I thought perhaps I’d get lucky.” Durra sipped her tea expressively. “But… no sooner had I crossed what I took to be the threshold, but I was confronted by a naked man made of smoke and sand. Naturally, I thought I’d forgotten to drink enough water as I rode and was hallucinating. I reached immediately for my water skin, and then the man dropped to his knees and started praising me as queen of something-something -- at which point I thought that I’d died without noticing and wandered into the True Desert of legends and was a ghost talking to another deranged ghost. I almost gave myself up for lost, I tell you.”
Playfully, Durra reached over and pinched Yasamin’s arm -- and the other trader yelped indignantly.
“Still alive, I see,” said Durra. “Was he handsome? Your fellow in the desert?”
“Humph,” said Yasamin. “You joke, but I promise it was all quite distressing at the time. I gathered my wits somewhat and told him that, unfortunately I was already a queen in a distant city and could not be kept from my people. I asked him for directions back to Izmatra. He flew into a rage -- and I do mean flew. He grew to a towering size,” Durra giggled in an unladylike way, which Yasamin ignored. “And became rather more like smoke and dust, and he boomed out that he would raze my city and save me so that I could properly be queen of the ruin. I told him that wouldn’t do at all and after some persuasion, he calmed down. I suggested that perhaps a donation to my kingdom would be a better way for him to convince my city to release me from my obligations.”
“Oh Yasamin,” said the other woman. “You did not…”
“I mean, why not? He was quite generous with his ‘donation’. Ancient gems, mostly -- but a few set pieces: necklaces and earrings and a pendant or two. I know exactly where I shall sell them.”
“Should we be worried about gentlemen made of smoke and sand showing up to destroy Izmatra?”
“I shouldn’t think so. He had no idea what direction I wanted -- and I rather think he was trapped by the boundary of the ruins. Besides which, I made it very clear that the donation was purely speculative and that he should expect no precise returns from it.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Durra. “You could have been kinder about it. He sounds like a trapped spirit.”
Yasamin snorted. “Spirit or no, he was being exceptionally presumptuous about what I should do with my life. Very free with his ‘musts’, that one. Not a word about what I’d like to do.”
“So you escaped the ruins. What happened next? Did you run into a whirlwind assassin? Or get swept off your feet by a desert prince?”
Yasamin rolled her eyes. “You have a wild imagination, my friend. No. Next I took a nap. I’d not slept well the night before and I was confident Sisi knew the way home. I didn’t think there would be more trouble.”
“In the open desert between Nara and Izmatra?” laughed Durra. “No trouble? You know that’s where I was kidnapped, yes?”
Yasamin made an apologetic gesture. “You were with a caravan. Makes you much easier to spot and far more tempting. This is why I travel alone.”
“Because you don’t like people…”
“No!” said Yasamin. “Well. Yes. But that’s not the only reason why.”
“Because you hate to pay for the guards?”
“They are foolishly expensive!” complained Yasamin. “And why should they get a share when I’ve done the hard work and half the time they run from trouble or switch sides to join up with the bloody bandits. You had guards when you were kidnapped, no?”
“I did,” admitted Durra.
“So, so,” said Yasamin. “What’s the point of guards? Anyway. I may have napped somewhat riding Sisi. I still think she is a better choice for companion than forty guards. But when I woke up… well. I found myself surrounded by bandits.”
“Oh dear,” said Durra. “What happened with them?”
“Well, they stopped me and demanded to know where I was coming from and what I was carrying. In a way, it was pleasant to see them -- since I knew they would be near the more popular trade routes and it confirmed I was close to home.”
“And in another way unpleasant?” asked Durra. “Since they were determined to rob you?”
“Yes,” said Yasamin. “They threatened me with renewed vigor when I said I was coming from a ruin, assuming I’d found some treasure.”
“Correctly,” pointed out Durra.
“That is neither here nor there,” said Yasamin. “I’m afraid I had little patience with them. It was only four lads with no imagination, those bandits. I gave two a good lashing, and then the others surrendered. Well, they tried to run. But they didn’t realize how agile Sisi is. I do detest violence, Durra, but sometimes it’s the only choice. You know how it is.”
Durra nodded, pouring them each another fresh serving of tea. “So then, did you leave them in the desert or bring them home to the magistrate?”
“I let them ransom themselves,” said Yasamin. “They’d clearly come from another bit of thieving and were well laden with brightly colored silks -- which I took in exchange for their freedom.”
“Stolen goods?” asked Durra, somewhat more serious than she had been.
Yasamin waved a hand. “Don’t worry -- I’ve already found the owners. They were most grateful -- and happily gifted me a percentage of the recovered goods’ value in gratitude.”
Durra laughed, leaning back on her pillow while Yasamin rolled her eyes and primly sipped her tea before saying: “As I said, it was not an especially eventful journey. Though satisfyingly profitable. Have you time for dinner? I’m feeling moderately extravagant and should enjoy the company.”