Professor of Astronomy and Astral Magics
Professor Ardasi looked up to the vast desert sky, waiting for the stars to appear. In his hands, he turned over his ancient star-taker while the first cool breeze of evening floated across the shadowy dunes. The star-taker was an ornate orb made from empyrean copper, glass, and magic, and housing an intricate mechanism. It was a tool for measuring the position of the stars in the sky -- among other things. The weight of it calmed Ardasi, helping him keep his fury in check.
The sun had set and in an hour or so the sky would darken completely to velvety indigo. A river of pinprick lights would curve across the firmament. Ardasi had never come this far into the desert. He’d spent his life in the vast metropolis of Izmatra studying the stars -- and never seen them like this. He would need to return to the desert -- perhaps with a telescope -- and see the stars again, when his mind was not so preoccupied.
Ardasi sat beside a small, sad campfire with two others. An old woman, named Hama, and a young man -- almost too young to be called a man -- called Javid. They’d been strangers a few days before, and weren’t much better now. Each of them was in the desert to ransom someone back from the Desert Eagle Bandits. It didn’t make for a convivial atmosphere.
Hama groaned as she settled down to sit with her back against a rock.
“Not so long now,” she said, following Ardasi’s gaze towards the night sky. “A guide should be along close to midnight. We’ll all be headed home tomorrow.”
Javid fidgeted -- looking from Hama to Ardasi to the horizon, then to the sky and back to his hands. He sat down as far from the older two as he could get -- one hand resting on his pack. He carried that with him everywhere and slept on it too. Ardasi knew he should be nervous, but he didn’t have room for the emotion. As an astronomer, as a mathematician, and as a man of the Shara’zar, he appreciated the complex order of the world. The steady dance of the stars, the order of numbers -- even the busy streets of Izmatra had their logic, their reason and their order. There was a way things ought to be. Being out here with these strangers to pay ransom to thieves was not part of any right order.
“You’ve done this before?” Ardasi asked Hama to pull his mind from aggrieved thoughts. Despite his anger, he kept his voice pleasant and his face impassive. It was not his companions he held at fault, and he would not burden them with his feelings.
The old woman nodded. “Indeed. I serve in the house of Badin -- all that family are traders and merchants. Someone gets kidnapped every few years, and someone has to go get them back.”
“Why you?” asked Ardasi.
Hama laughed. “Because I’m not important enough to be worth ransoming. And I’ve got a pretty smile.” She grinned, showing her blunt crooked teeth to emphasize the point.
“Who was it this time?” asked Ardasi.
“A son of the House,” said Hama. “He’s been through this before too -- I’ll bet he’s eating and drinking with the bandit captain tonight.”
The boy, Javid, flinched.
“Worried?” asked Hama - not unkindly.
Javid shook his head with all the indignant pride of youth, but didn’t say anything.
“What about you, old man,” said Hama. “Here for a son or daughter?”
“I have neither,” Ardasi said, to raised eyebrows from both of them. He was well past the age when he should have been wed and the head of a family. His clothing and demeanor said he had some respectable occupation -- even if both had laughed at his unfamiliarity with camping in the desert. “I’m here for a friend.”
“Oh ho - what sort of friend?” asked Hama with a wink.
“Huh,” said Javid, dismissive. “He’s too old to have that sort of friend.”
“You’d be surprised, m’boy,” said Hama, working all her wrinkles into a knowing smile. Javid shut his mouth.
“Alas,” said Ardasi, eyes on the stars. “Not that sort of friend.”
Though, maybe… after this. His friend, Durra, had always teased Ardasi for not traveling more. She’d offered to take him with her -- across the great desert on her many journeys from Izmatra to Tej -- more times than he could count. He’d always had work to do, stars to watch, students to care for. Ardasi sighed.
“It’s like that, eh?” said Hama, leaning back. “Well, ransoming her won’t hurt your suit. Is she pretty? Younger than you?”
“Very pretty,” said Ardasi. “And about my age.” The professor spread his hands wide. “But, regrettably, I don’t have the money for the ransom,” he said.
Hama’s jaw dropped. The boy’s anxious eyes darted to his pack.
“What about that thing?” asked Hama, pointing to the star-taker. “That’s made of star copper, isn’t it?” ‘Star copper’ was a common name for empyrean copper. Ardasi shook his head.
“This, I will not part with.”
“Fool!” said Hama. “What are you doing out here, then? No one is going free because you ask nicely! These bandits want coin or or treasure, else they aren’t going to bother with keeping you or her alive. What possessed you to come without a ransom?”
Ardasi turned his star-taker over in his hands again. He was careful, now, not to let his anger get the better of him. He didn’t need the money. And he would not perpetuate this so-called order the bandits had created. It was wrong. Kidnap and ransom, bandits and thieves. It was not how things should be done. It wasn’t Hama’s fault though -- paying the ransom had worked so far for her and the family she served. He understood why she took it all in stride.
“I’ll convince them,” he said.
“You’re mad,” said Hama.
“Surely, you’ve said as much already,” said Ardasi. “I’m in love.”
It was true, too. Ardasi had not intended to fall in love with Durra. He’d thought, like Javid, that he was too old for such nonsense. He was content with his life. He had a great many friends among his colleagues, a great many joys in his work, and his instruments, and his life.
Hama shook her head. “No fool like an old fool,” she said, eyes turned towards the heavens. Ardasi smiled a tight smile, and they returned to the business of waiting.
Ardasi focused on the turn of the sky overhead, breathing in the movement of the stars. It was a little before midnight when the bandit guide appeared out of the desert. No light, and hardly any sound to warn them. The man wore ragged grey clothing, but the dagger and the scimitar at his hips had jewels in their hilts. Javid leapt to his feet, startled, and Hama smiled her crooked smile.
“Time to go,” she said, and picked herself up with a groan. She seemed calm, but she did not look at Ardasi.
They formed a line and followed the bandit into the desert, with Ardasi at the back. He struggled across the sand, trying to keep up. He was used to level streets made of stone; he cursed in his head every time his foot sank into the grit or his robes dragged in the dirt. Here, he could take out some of his feelings.
They climbed up a slope towards a rocky ledge -- and then the bandit disappeared among the stones.
Hama followed without hesitation, but Javid paused. The boy looked at Ardasi, and for a second he seemed afraid. Then he registered Ardasi’s labored breathing and the sheen of sweat on the professor’s forehead -- and contempt for his elder overcame his fear of what was within the rocks. He straightened and marched in after Hama.
Ardasi took a moment, trying and failing to steady his breathing. Durra, no doubt, would find his discomfort in the desert entertaining in different circumstances. He straightened himself up, pretending he was walking into a lecture and could hear the unruly class already.
Ardasi followed the others into the rocks.
There was a twisting passage ahead -- a path that turned between two stony walls -- and led finally to an open oasis below the stars.
A few small fires were lit and the high, natural rock walls would keep the camp from being seen across the desert.
On a thick and dusty carpet sat one of the bandits - their chief - waiting to judge the “gifts” he’d been brought as ransom.
Ardasi looked around, but he did not see Durra.
He went to stand next to Javid, his brows drawn together in a scowl and his posture imposing and disapproving. He tried to look like one of the magi, like a wizard out of an old story.
The bandit chief did not look like a pleasant person. He was young and he had a dangerous eye -- similar to some students Ardasi had seen. Those never lasted long in their academic careers. The chief sat insolently on his carpet and did not ask the others to join him. Silly, perhaps, but Ardasi was further annoyed. He’d expected somewhat better manners -- even from criminals.
“So,” said the bandit. “What have you brought for me?”
Hama bowed respectfully, and took a purse off of her neck. She opened it, and revealed a jewel the size of a large egg. With both hands, she offered it for the bandit’s inspection. The bandit tried to look disinterested, but Ardasi saw clearly the glitter of greed there.
“It will do,” he said. He waved a hand -- “Which are you here for?”
Out of another passage, several bandits pulled the prisoners. Several young people and Durra.
Ardasi missed what Hama said next because he was staring at Durra. She didn’t notice him right away. She looked grim, but unharmed. As he always was, Ardasi was surprised by the sudden glow in his chest -- seeing her. He had to resist smiling, to keep his face foreboding and grim. Silly, for such an old man to feel this way.
Durra looked around and found Ardasi, the way a lodestone finds north. Her mouth opened in a little ‘oh’. She stumbled as the bandits pulled her forward, but neither looked away. Ardasi’s heart shuddered as he saw her treated roughly, all his suppressed anger surging.
“And what about you?” the bandit captain asked Javid. Javid did not bow, but he opened his bag and pulled out two strong sacks. They clinked when he set them down in front of the bandit.
“For my sister,” the boy said.
The bandit sneered, but he gestured for one of his band to open the sacks, and seemed satisfied by the amount of gold and silver contained therein.
The bandit chief turned his eyes to Ardasi next, while his minions swept up the sacks of coin.
“And you?” he said to Ardasi, arrogant and contemptuous. “What did you bring, old man?”
Regretfully, Ardasi stopped staring at Durra. He turned his eyes to the bandit slowly, ominously. He stood rigidly straight and tall. Far above, the stars watched. He could feel the impossible power in them -- so far away. And things nearer to this world and this earth. The timing was nearly perfect.
“I am here for her.”
“And what have you to offer for her?”
“Your lives,” said Ardasi, coldly. “You have offended one of the magi, bandit. And you will be lucky if I do not bring the sky down on you.”
The professor swirled his coat and pointed to the night sky with one hand. With the other he raised his star-taker. He awoke the magic in the device, causing it to glow. As he did so -- the first meteors lit up. They flashed and faded so fast that some of the bandits didn’t see the first ones. But they saw the next ten -- and then the dozens that followed.
Ardasi kept his face carefully impassive -- but it was stunning. He’d seen meteor showers before, of course, had known this one was coming. Still -- even with the fires near his feet, the sky was impossibly beautiful, streaked with falling stars.
Hundreds flashed across the black and vanished as quickly as they appeared. It was like a storm of light, a glittering downpour more lovely than diamonds.
When the meteors were all done, silence remained in the camp. Many of the bandits were looking nervously at Ardasi, afraid of him. Hama seemed impressed and Javid’s mouth was slack, open in shock. Durra was smiling at him.
The bandit captain however, watched Ardasi with narrowed eyes -- like he was making a calculation. Ardasi met and held his gaze, impassive and imposing, trying to look like a magi out of a story, as he claimed to be. He kept the star-taker burning bright and hoped he didn’t have to use it.
The bandit captain made his decision. He stood up and spread his arms, saying “That was pretty, but my hands are empty, old man. And you’ve no hold on my life. Is that the best you can do?”
Ardasi looked at the scum before him and made himself smile. “Do you know what the greatest swords in Shara’zar are made from?” he asked.
The bandit snorted. “From star copper, of course,” he said.
“Do you know how it is harvested?”
The bandit looked uncertain. He shook his head.
“Let me show you,” said Ardasi.
The bandit chief sneered, “Fine.” He folded his arms, “But you’re going to regret this show, old man. You’ll pay more now.”
Ardasi looked this evil creature in his face. The professor could destroy the bandit, kill the arrogant young man where he stood. But that wasn’t right either - to kill in anger, when he had other means to his end.
So Ardasi finally looked away, turning his gaze once more to the stars. He focused on the star-taker, looking for the right stone, the right debris.
“Come on,” said the captain. “I’m waiting.”
Ardasi ignored him.
The captain laughed. “See -- he thinks he can trick us! He’s no wizard, just a rumpled scholar too far from the library.”
Ardasi raised both hands over his head. A look of trepidation crossed the bandit’s face, followed by vindictive confidence.
“Since it looks like there won’t be a ransom, I’ll make you a deal. You can stay instead of her, if you wish. Maybe she’ll have better luck finding the money than you did.”
A light flashed in the sky. It grew larger by the second.
The bandits looked up, some cupping their ears to hear the high-pitched whistle the flaming ball of ice and stone hurtling towards them made. Others scattered -- pushing themselves to the furthest curves of the stony enclosure of their camp. Yet more fled out into the desert.
Ardasi brought his free hand down and took one step back from the bandit chief. The ensuing bright blast of the meteor’s landing blinded almost everyone in camp.
Ardasi waited for the glare to clear, watching the bandit captain struggle. He’d been tossed to the ground by the impact, sent sprawling by Ardasi’s fallen star. Ardasi stepped around the steaming stone to stand over the bandit chief.
Looking down at him, Ardasi said, “Will that do for ransom? Or shall I call some more?”
Years later, when Ardasi was even older -- when he was the most respected and consulted professor at the university and he’d come to be called Ardasi the Star-Taker -- Durra asked him: “Were you afraid? All those nights ago, when you traded a meteor for me?”
“No,” said Ardasi -- it hadn’t occurred to him to be afraid, nor that this in itself was strange. Angry, yes but not afraid.
“Why not?” asked Durra, smoothing his white beard.
Ardasi thought about it, and then answered: “For years we were friends: tea and conversation, chatting about your adventures and my academic gossip. But I did not dare to be in love with you. And once you were kidnapped, I had no choice except to dare. To know that I was in love, and that no one was going to take you from me. That I would fight anyone who tried, be they bandit or sultan or wild desert wolf. I was full entirely of love and anger -- and they left no room for fear.”
“I meant,” said Durra, smiling playfully, “Were you afraid because you were bluffing?” Pulling down meteors was difficult work, and aiming them correctly took both luck and concentration. The odds of Ardasi successfully raining more than one star down on the bandits were slim.
“Mmm…” said Ardasi, “Not at all. It wasn’t a bluff, my dear. I am certain that, for you, I could tear down the whole night sky.”