Desert Sapphire

Two

After a week of relatively uneventful travel through the sheltered valleys of northern Raykin, the Ra-Lin broke out into the harsh, sunbaked landscape characteristic of most of the kingdom.

Raqif couldn’t help but take a sharp intake of breath when he saw the orange horizon explode ahead of him. There were still a few clumps of grass and other desert plants growing near the hills and river, but beyond that it was a stark, barren environment. With all but the tiniest villages of Raykin being situated downstream of where he stood, it was plain to see where most of the kingdom preferred to make their home, but for the life of him, Raqif couldn’t see how.

He finally started off again, getting himself acquainted with the view that would remain unchanged for the next three weeks. Maybe he would meet a town or two along the way, but for the most part, he would walk in solitude.

Not long into his first day in the real desert of Raykin, Raqif decided it would be considerably more comfortable to travel by night, and so lay down on the Ra-Lin’s bank to doze off under the scorching midday sun, waiting for the chill of the moon’s silver light to wake him up.

The barren landscape was completely different by night. Under the vibrant blue sky of day, the bright reddish orange of the sand reflected the intense heat laid upon it by the white-hot light of the sun. As a stark contrast, the desert of the night was set in cool, dark navy and black with a smattering of silver in the velvety sky overhead, reflected in the twinkling, diamond-studded snake of the Ra-Lin. The sand that made Raqif thankful for his sandals by day was pleasantly cool as his feet sank into it.

The desert sounded different too. The gentle flow of the Ra-Lin tinkled louder in his ears, as though it had to make its presence known by sound since the stars and tiny sliver of a waning moon did little to light its coils.

For nearly thirty nights, Raqif wandered along Raykin’s meandering life source, the scenery never changing. The dark silhouettes of the hills had long since melded with the same flat, featureless horizon that surrounded him, but now, in the milky lilac of dawn, he could see a jagged form silhouetted against the lightening sky.

At first he thought it was just another tiny village, smaller than Ni-Horia, nestled along the Ra-Lin, but as he drew closer, it was apparent that the habitation was a great deal larger than any he had come across before.

A grin of something between relief and delight spread across Raqif’s face, and it was all he could do to force himself to sleep through the heat of the day rather than stupidly forge on; there was no way he would make it there before he fainted of heat exhaustion. Dehydration aside, it would still take him from dawn to dusk to reach the city. The endless red horizon was deceptively close, but Raqif wouldn’t let it tease him.

The city’s black silhouette had been encroaching on him all night. He wondered how much bigger the city would have to get before he finally reached it. It wasn’t until the pale light of dawn crept back into the sky that Raqif finally arrived in Ni-Mytaa.

He stood on the riverbank opposite Ni-Mytaa, staring in silent awe at the mud brick buildings lining the shore. A small ship, though enormous by Raqif’s standards, was docked at the harbour, rising and falling with the undulating river water. Sailors from its deck were already tossing ropes to the men standing on the shore, and a few merchants hovered eagerly around them, awaiting the arrival of the captain.

Raqif dragged himself from his dreams and pulled his feet over the bridge linking the residential part of Ni-Mytaa with the farms on the other side of the river. Below him, the Ra-Lin was flowing steadily, a considerably grander river than the waist-deep stream that ran past Ni-Horia.

Walking through the early morning streets of the city made Raqif suddenly feel homesick. He’d been feeling slight twinges of longing for his village throughout the month-long journey, but only now did it really hit him. Hundreds of people wandered the streets, all with some purpose, none of them paying the slightest regard to the small town boy, so much so that he eventually gave up saying ‘good morning’ to everyone he passed. Most responded with little more than a grunt, sometimes not even that much. In Ni-Horia, it was impossible to walk from one building to the next without being caught up in conversation.

The twenty-year-old sighed wistfully and stared up at the two- to three-storeyed buildings lining the street he was on. It would be so easy to lose himself in this city, and this was only Ni-Mytaa; he hadn’t even reached the capital yet.

It wasn’t long before he found an inn where he would be able to stay the night. As it was still early in the morning, the bar at the front of the inn hadn’t yet seen many customers. There was only one sitting at the bench, and from the way he was talking to the barman, they seemed to be close friends.

“Well, hello there my good man,” the barman said jauntily, upon noticing Raqif standing unsurely in the doorway. “In a bit early for a watering, wouldn’t you say?”

Raqif shook his head, taking in the pungent smells of the tavern and the rich, pine-wooded furniture. That must be imported, he thought silently. “I was just wondering if I might be able to stay the night here, if that’s okay with you.”

The barman laughed. It was a deep, throaty sound that didn’t sit too well with Raqif’s ears, as they had been used to the near-silence of night for the past month. “Of course you may, young sir! May I enquire as to your name? I can’t say I recognise your face.”

“You wouldn’t. I’ve come from upstream, in Ni-Horia. I’m Raqif.”

“Good to meet you, Raqif. I’m Arin, and this is my dearest customer Eroli. You’re all the way from Ni-Horia, you say?” The barman seemed quite surprised; it wasn’t often that anyone came into Ni-Mytaa from upstream, let alone so far as Raqif had walked. “What brings you here?”

Raqif took a stool at the bar, realising how sore his legs had become. “I’m just passing through, really. I have business in Ni-Yana. If I leave tomorrow, I should think I can make it there by next week.”

“Next week?” Eroli spoke up for the first time, his voice one of grim concern. “I should hope you don’t plan on taking a ‘short cut’ across the desert.”

“Yes,” Raqif answered, slightly unsure of himself. Both men took in a long breath through their teeth. “Why? Should I not?”

The barman and his customer exchanged glances, as if silently debating who should answer the boy’s question. Arin eventually sighed and crossed his arms over the bar bench in front of him.

“Folk who make their attempt at crossing that desert rarely, if ever, emerge from the other side. To my memory, only three people have made the journey from Ni-Yana to this fine city. Two of them arrived here on the verge of death—blisters all over their skin and face from heat exhaustion.”

Eroli interrupted. “The third was covered in scratches and scars from the desert people.”

Raqif frowned in puzzlement. “I thought the desert people were harmless. Why would they do that to him?”

The balding customer shrugged. “Nobody really knows, but we shall just say that the desert people between here and Ni-Yana more than live up to their other reputation.”

Arin slapped the younger boy on the shoulder with a strong hand. “Fear not, my boy. Follow Ra-Lin’s coils and you will be perfectly safe. A large number of ships pass between here and Ni-Yana—it’s rather a quiet day in the harbour this morning, as a matter of fact—so your journey ahead will be considerably less lonely than your journey passed!”

Raqif gave a forced laugh, not feeling any less uncomfortable for it. The fatigue that had been lingering over the past thirty nights of walking crept up on him, forcing a yawn from between his lips.

“Come on, lad, I’ll show you to your room. I can see you’ve been craving a nice soft bed for quite some time, am I right?”

“Very much so,” Raqif replied through another yawn.

Arin led him through a door to the left of the bar that Raqif hadn’t noticed when he’d first come in and into a corridor. Four doors led off from the passageway, but Arin instead led him upstairs to the second storey and another, longer corridor. He pushed open one of the doors to Raqif’s right and ushered him inside.

“Sorry, it’s right above the bar, but it’s usually quiet down there until about mid-afternoon. You should be well-rested by then.”

Raqif smiled gratefully, words suddenly beyond him, and collapsed onto his blanketed pine bed, a contented smile on his face.

Three