The ships came, sailing over a sea of tanned yellow sand that glittered as if sprinkled with powdered glass. Their azure and sapphire sails billowed in the warm winds of the Cineeba. The city of Meraboul welcomed the arrival with a festival of food and ale, frolic and music.
This Day of Trade, which came once every season, was a statutory holiday. Children flocked to the harbor hours before the ships arrived to port. The sandships gave them a rare glimpse of a world outside their isolated city. The passengers and crew were of particular interest. Though they spoke the same language—Siltakian in common parlance, or Meraboulian to the Meraboulians—their accents were peculiar and varied; some pronounced Meraboul as “Merbool” and others as “Meerabul.” They wore exotic clothes, fabrics made of turquoise silk and thicker in heft, therefore warmer, and had gold rings in their ears and tiny gems affixed to one nostril. They weren’t particularly loquacious, not until they had a few drinks and some time to relax. The locals were more than happy to offer them plenty of each, in gratis. The money they lost in liquor was inconsequential compared to the profit they reaped from the trading of goods and services, and of course the stories. Stories related long after, in taverns and inns and domestic hearths, over and over again for months to come. Stories of nomadic tribes, the living monstrosities of the sandseas, the zealots of Holy Cities like Labethnor, and unfathomably distant lands of the Empires.
The festivities cut well into the customary siesta, but for this extravagant day nobody minded.
And though many yearned to travel abroad and experience what lay beyond the vast sandy sea, the citizens of Meraboul were generally meek and fearful of change. And they passed this rigid conservatism to their children, who then passed it on to their children. By each successive generation the city dug its roots so far into the soil that it was virtually unheard of for a Meraboulian to uproot and find him or herself in other climes.
Sati knew this, and used it to his benefit.
Without any real security guarding the ships, and with all the merrymaking, no one thought to keep their eyes peeled for a stowaway. Indeed, a Meraboulian stowaway was so absurd a notion that not a soul cared to entertain it. Which was fine by Sati. He discovered a roomy crate in the cargo hold and hid.
A scattering of hay and the smell of something goatish lingered, but there were no droppings or bits of chewed up food lying around. Sati gathered the sparse hay into a clump, pushed it into the darkest corner, sat and waited.
Several hours passed before the crew climbed back on board and loaded up the new and unsold shipment. This took close to an hour to accomplish. The Day of Trade had come to a completion, which meant that Hel’yos had already descended with the luminescence of day, trailing twilight. Sati felt his stomach lurch with the ship as it raised anchor and moved forward and away. Away from Meraboul, his home, his mother, and Doghu. A sense of sadness washed over him, pervaded his thoughts, and he kept the trembling at bay by focusing on the present, not what he was leaving behind nor what lay ahead. The future was a stark void of possibility, exhilarating and terrifying, but also a dark country that invited even darker thoughts if one dwelled on it too much.
One dark thought that sprang unbidden to mind was that of the Goondalim. No Meraboulian child was immune to the hackles raised by the mention of that name. It was almost a prerequisite of growing up in Meraboul to know the tales of the Goondalim, the hellish bogeyman that was rumored to be on board every sandship. The tales served to frighten the wits out of any child who dared to dream of running away onto a sandship—precisely what Sati had done. The Goondalim was a vile, ravenous creature that, according to legend, kept the sailors in line should they endeavor to break the laws of the ship or its captain.
Children, of course, were especially favored by the beast for consumption, because they were tender and bite-size. But the Goondalim was not picky, and it liked to snack on older victims too, eating them piecemeal. Or so the grim legend went.
Some sadistic parents even went so far as to reprimand their disobedient child—no matter how trivial the misdemeanor or peccadillo—with threats involving the beast; an all-purpose scare tactic that diminished in effect through repetition and absurdity of invention. If you don’t eat all your sprouts, the Goondalim will bite your nose clean off. If you lie, the Goondalim will find you in your bed at night and tear out every one of your toenails. If you don’t behave, I’ll dip you in honey and put you in a cell with the Goondalim and make sure it hasn’t been fed a scrap of food in three days!
It goes without saying that Sati’s mother had been one such parent, and that last remark was a particular favorite of hers.
Yet, absurd or not, childhood terrors have a way of clinging to the psyche long after the willful abandonment of childish things.
Sati willed such foolish nonsense out of his head. For a time he succeeded in thinking about nothing.
The gentle motion of the sandship would normally have put Sati to sleep were it not for the anxiety in his veins and the noise of the bustle above and around the crate. He listened as best he could, but the conversations he discerned were not in Siltakian, or indeed of any dialect known in Meraboul. Exotic words filled his head with vibrant images of foreign people and lands of plenty. His fancy painted a scene he’d only read of in books taken out from the impoverished Meraboulian library, and it was emotionally overwhelming.
His heart filled, and drained, and sadness drew in its miserable cloak. Sati cried soundlessly, realizing that whatever lay ahead, good or bad, he was to experience all of it alone, without his best friend.
His tears dried as he recalled the first time he had met Doghu, and reliving the fortunate incident brought him comfort. Memory, that fickle magic lantern, recalled the past in fractured frames, like a spliced film reel:
—Sati accidentally dropping his plate, carrying his dinner of radishes, carrots and a small yet tough piece of meat from the sink to the table
—His mother yelling at him: he was to go hungry that night and bear the sting of her hand
—Sati sleeping lightly and sparingly, guts aching, counting stars to forget
—Running off just before dawn into the Cineeba, careless of his duties but knowing all the while that neglecting them for long would mean greater repercussions
—Coming soon upon the Titan stone, and while exploring a sudden invisible shift in the sand, a tenacious hiss sparring him the bite of a gopher snake
—Stumbling back, and a brownish-yellow form leaping over his head, then reeling in fright at the sight of a coyote springing on its meal
—Keeping still as the predator maneuvered around the coiled, hissing serpent, boldly but warily swiping it with its paw, a missed lunge by the prey, and a forcible tear of the jaws that relieved the reptile of its head
—Watching the coyote watch him in turn while devouring its dead serpent repast
—And after a time sitting down less than a yard from the feasting coyote and bringing out a pimn and cracking it open
—Then offering some to the coyote, a gesture of peace and gratitude
—Being offered a small remaining morsel of serpent meat by the coyote in return
—Eating together, Sati tasting the gopher snake and finding the raw flesh chewy but good—
“Strange night this is turning out to be.”
Sati turned, startled, the privacy of his thoughts bursting like a soap bubble. His hand darted instinctively to his hips. Tucked in his belt under the folds of his shirt was a small serrated blade he’d stolen from his mother’s kitchen. As he drew the blade the stranger said, “Steady! Don't pull a weapon unless you mean to use it.”
Peering closer, the boy added, “Even if it is to peel a carrot.”
Sati turned and lowered the blade. “It's meant to be menacing.”
“To root vegetables, perhaps.” He smiled a contagious smile. “Roomy crate. Smells somewhat...earthy.”
Sati, having learned prudence around strangers, thanks to the endless parade of them at home, nevertheless felt strangely at ease. He sensed no malice in the other. Mischief, yes, but nothing malevolent. Still, a matter of decorum had to be addressed here. The stranger had displayed some nerve sneaking so crassly into the secret crate Sati had commandeered.From what Sati had observed on the Day of Trade, these visitors to Meraboul had a tendency to be overly friendly and familiar with strangers, but that did not excuse their dismissal of Meraboulian customs and unspoken rules of etiquette. One simply did not invade an individual’s personal space without invitation. The fact that he was a stowaway or that they were no longer in Meraboul didn't cross his mind. Sati made a show of trying to scrunch back. Failing to acquire any more room, he sighed.
The other boy’s genial smile slipped and he backed off, then beckoned Sati to leave the enclosed space also. A dim illumination, now unblocked, streamed into the crate, causing Sati to squint. Warily, he moved to the lip of his hiding place and listened like a frightened hare suspecting an ambush lurking in the shadows.
No sound, except the shuffling of the other boy’s feet.
The stilted silence outside the crate perturbed him.
“It’s all right,” the boy said. “No one tailed me here. Besides, the majority of them are asleep now. Gibbous Or’rin is in the heavens. The night crew are topside, playing cards and sharing a bottle of spirits. Desert banshees are keening with the wind.”
He shrugged. “The light down here can't be seen topside. But if it’ll reassure you, I’ll extinguish it.”
He had to turn his back to Sati for a second to perform this task. Sati popped out of hiding, keeping a discreet distance.
Porthole shafts of moonlight filled the cargo hold. Cobwebbed shadows draped over them, adding an undercoat of mystique without totally obscuring everything. The moon Or’rin was waxing full. Thanks to its odd shape, Or’rin provided greater illumination than any single moon was capable of. It was likened to a cell frozen in the final stages of mitosis, or the mathematical symbol of infinity; a single moon with a conjoined twin. Taken from mythology, Or’rin was the Goddess of Artisans, and perpetually attached to her was the ghost of her twin, who had died at birth. Such was the reason for the phases of the moon that revealed and concealed a different part of her image every night. One was never sure which half was Or’rin and which was her phantom other.
“I helped pack the crates,” the boy said. Stretching out behind them were a series of cubic shadows of a dozen or more crates identical to the one Sati had smuggled into. They were arranged three across, tightly fit, so that each row had to be cleared before the next in line became accessible. Escape in that direction was impossible. The only exit lay ahead, leading further into the hull of the ship.
“I saw you sneak in earlier,” the boy continued. “I was the last to leave the sandship, and the first back on.”
“You speak Meraboulian,” Sati said. He didn't mention the slight accent.
“Actually, strictly speaking it’s Siltakian, the most common language in the Cineeba, but you cloistered Meraboulians speak it a little more archaically, probably due to your refusal to let outside progress touch you, except tangentially. Sorry, that sounded more diplomatic and a lot less pedantic in my head.”
“I know it’s Siltakian,” Sati said, slightly rankled by the patronizing remark. “We cloistered Meraboulians all know that, but we call it Meraboulian anyway.”
“Oh. Well, sorry, no offense meant.”
Sati nodded. An awkward silence followed where they each sized the other one up.
The pair were around the same age, but whereas Sati had black hair reaching down to the plinth of his neck, the other boy’s was shorter and tawny. Where Sati’s dark eyes angled down to sharp cheekbones, a long nose and thin but expressive lips, the boy’s light-blue eyes and slightly thinner and paler skin spoke of years spent in lands far from the tanning glare of the desert sun. Or perhaps he had been in confinement. Prison even.
He dressed in what Sati imagined was fashionable attire for pirates. He wore loose trousers and a sleeveless shirt decorated with torn strips of colorful linen looped and pinned to his breast. An understated silver earring and an assortment of neckline and finger jewelry glinted in the moonlight. At his belt hung an empty dagger sheath, and over his shoulder a dingy satchel. It was a wonder he had sneaked up on Sati at all; he should have jangled something fierce with every step and turn. But he didn’t. He moved furtively, with a sort of awareness that reminded Sati of Doghu. That natural alertness inherent to the animal kingdom but lacking in most humans.
“Why didn’t you give me away?” Sati asked, feeling somewhat emboldened at the sight of the empty sheath. It seemed he had the only weapon between them.
The boy shrugged, one corner of his mouth drawing upwards in amusement. “I’ve never met an anomaly before.”
“I'll clarify: a Meraboulian stowaway.”
“I’m not a stowaway.”
“Really? I don't recall seeing your name on the passenger list.”
“You’ve seen the passenger list?”
“Even if I had...”
“You don’t know my name.”
“There’s that. What is your name? I’m Ylu.”
Sati hesitated. “I suppose there’s no harm,” he said, partially to himself. “My name is Sati.”
“Pleased to meet you. Don’t be shy.” He held out his hand. After a moment Sati grasped it, smiling at how formal and grown up the gesture was. Ylu had a surprisingly strong grip and shook his hand firmly.
“We meet in strange times,” Ylu said.
“I still don't know who you are.”
“Same goes here, but I confess to a gnawing curiosity...”
The sudden sound of scuffling from the landing above cut him off. Voices were raised and the morass of general confusion and bad tempers was evident in their tones. The hubbub made Sati’s blood run cold. It sounded like a preliminary discussion leading to a general alarm being raised. The whole ship would be roused, and a ship on alert was not the best scenario for a stowaway. One crew member stumbling upon him might be reasoned with, bribed, or talked into leniency. An angry mob was another story.
Sati looked at Ylu and was startled to catch a reflection of his own widening fear in the other’s expression. His finger-to-lip warning to be quiet was superfluous. What could Ylu have to fear? Weren’t these his crew mates? If they caught him with Sati, surely he’d feign ignorance. Smuggling a person aboard a sandship was a serious offense. They might not implicate Ylu in a crime he had no part in. Of course, Sati could easily lie and finger him as an accomplice, but fortunately Sati didn’t think himself capable of such a despicable act.
"Quickly," Ylu said.
"Don’t dawdle," he said, shoving and hurrying him back into the crate. Sati tripped but caught himself before falling.
“And stay quiet!”
“Don’t fidget, don’t cough, don’t even breathe,” Ylu said in a hot whisper. “If they find you they’ll have your guts for garters.”
Sati grunted an affirmative. As if he was stupid enough to do anything to jeopardize his secret voyage.
Ylu swiftly and quietly shut him in and stepped away, then stood with his back against the wooden cube. Sati could see him through slits in the wooden frame, gaps large enough to provide a full view of what happened next yet narrow enough to keep his presence there undetectable.
The voices grew louder and louder. Sati never realized how loud sailors were. Perhaps it was all that shouting over squalls and typhoons that did it. Footsteps descended outside the hold, and just as the voices were becoming more discernible the door was thrown open.
The figure ahead of the procession was hulking in the moonlit doorway. He was built like a giant but insubstantial as an effrit, and for a brief second Sati imagined it was Death himself, bleached skull and bony phalanges gripping a scythe sharp enough to carve out your soul without branding the flesh.
© Shervin Kiani, 2016. All Rights Reserved.
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