Desert Sapphire

Three

Late in the afternoon the rabble from the bar beneath him made Raqif rise to his feet and plod sleepily down the stairs.

In that one room there must have been enough people to fill every house in Ni-Horia. It was a considerable change to the gentle murmur of voices heard in his hometown; he didn’t like.

Raqif pushed his way through the crowd to the front door before finally breaking through to the open air. It was still warm outside from the heat of the day, though the sun was not far from the horizon. He meandered down the unfamiliar streets filled with bustling people, all with some inherent purpose, before he reached the water’s edge.

The ship was still docked at the small jetty, its wide sails drawn and deck empty but for two sailors obviously left by the captain to guard the vessel, only the men seemed more intent on their game of cards than the wellbeing of their boat.

Raqif followed the river downstream until he reached the western-most point of the city. From there, the Ra-Lin turned south to begin the U-shape between Ni-Mytaa and Ni-Yana.

The boy sighed and stared down the river for a few minutes, then sat down on its bank to watch the sun set over in the desert to the west. He wanted to get to Raykin’s capital as soon as he could. It was what he knew he would find in Ni-Yana that interested him.

“Hello, my boy.” Raqif jumped at the cracked old voice, turning to see a man resting up against the wall of a nearby house with an equally cracked face. “Forgive me for asking, but you have been sitting there since a good hour before the sun set; most would be in bed by now. Are there troubles on your mind?”

Raqif shrugged. “You might say that.”

“Oh?” The man walked awkwardly over, scratching one foot in the dust with each step.

“I have urgent business in Ni-Yana, but I’m told the journey across the desert is less than safe.”

The old man scoffed. “Listen to me, boy, anything told to you by a man who has seen less than forty winters is not worth heeding. So long as you travel with a guide, a weapon and your wits, no harm will come of you.”

“A guide?”

“Yes indeed.” The old man grinned. “And I have the perfect guide for you. Come see me tomorrow and I shall show you.”

“Thank you very much, Sir,” Raqif answered warmly, though he was still uncertain about the trek.

“Oh, Yulni, please. I shall meet you here tomorrow not long after sunrise.”

Raqif smiled and stood up to shake Yulni’s hand, then after waving goodbye to the old man, he began the walk back to the inn.

The weak rays of dawn sunlight spilled onto Raqif’s sleeping face, causing him to squint and rub his eyes. He had to admit; it had been a while since he had seen sunlight stronger than dawn and dusk. He thumped down the stairs and had a modest breakfast in the tavern, then paid Arin for the time he had spent in his inn and left for the river bank once more.

The dock was bustling with merchants when Raqif approached, all wanting the best pick of whatever goods the ship was carrying.

The boy from the hills held back, away from the overly noisy crowd, but still looked on in wonder. He still hadn’t grown used to the huge crowds of the city.

Yulni was already waiting for Raqif on the far western shores of Ni-Mytaa, and stood up to greet him with a welcoming smile.

“Welcome back, my young friend!” he greeted, laying his hands palm to palm horizontally over his chest in traditional Raykinian greeting.

Raqif smiled and returned the gesture. “I understand you have a guide for me?”

“Yes indeed, that I do, come!”

The old man led Raqif along the river a bit further, then back through the winding streets of Ni-Mytaa to a large, single-storeyed building. Even before he entered, Raqif could catch the musty smell of animals in his nostrils. The warm smell was even stronger when Yulni took him inside.

Lined along each wall of the building were wooden walled pens, each holding two animals. To Raqif’s left were horses, to his right the pens held camels.

The boy looked around him in amazement at the animals. He’d seen wild camels before, even a few horses as they carried their carts to Ni-Horia to trade from downstream or across the border, but never so many in the one place.

“Fear not,” Yulni laughed, “they will not bite!”

Raqif shook his head. “Sorry, I am just amazed at how many steeds you have here.”

Yulni grinned and patted the muzzle of one of the nearby camels. “They have served me well, and will in years to come, I am sure.” He unlatched the hook on one of the pens and led one of the camels out. “This is Alu, the oldest and wisest of my camels. She has made the journey to Ni-Yana too many times to count, and knows it well. When you arrive there, she will be able to easily make her way back here with no troubles. She will take good care of you on your trek.” He gave the camel another affectionate pat on her neck, then handed her reigns to Raqif.

“Thank you very much,” Raqif said, pressing his hands together again, “How much do I owe you?”

“No more than two silvers,” the stockman answered casually.

Raqif’s shoulders dropped and his eyes lowered to the ground. “I only carry coppers,” he mumbled.

Yulni laughed again. “Do not worry, six coppers will be just fine!”

Raqif smiled with relief and fumbled with his pouch of coins. Already he’d halved his savings, and he hadn’t even reached Ni-Yana yet. Nevertheless, he handed over the coppers and bid farewell once more to the old man.

Holding Alu by the reigns, he guided the animal through the streets and along the riverbank to the bridge where he was able to safely mount her without fear of her running rampant through Ni-Mytaa.

After several attempts, he finally managed to climb onto the camel’s back, and almost fell off again when she stood up.

“Careful, Alu, I’ve never ridden a camel before.”

Alu only grunted in reply.

Late in the morning, when the intense heat of the sun blaring down on him was becoming too much, Raqif squeezed his heels against the camel’s flanks to get her to stop. The beast snorted and looked behind at her rider in what Raqif guessed was confusion.

“I know you can fare quite fine in the desert,” Raqif told her, rubbing her muzzle, “But I’m not like you. I need to rest until later on in the day, when the sun’s rays aren’t quite so harsh.” He tapped the back of Alu’s neck and his steed obediently knelt down on all fours to let him off, only the inexperienced rider had fallen off as soon as her knees had hit the sand.

“I’ll master the art of camel riding eventually!” he said with a grin.

Ni-Mytaa was still easily visible, and Raqif thought he must look quite odd to anyone looking out towards the desert. Another man with a wish for death, they would be thinking. Raqif shrugged and lay down beside the camel, face to the wide blue sky.

“It shouldn’t be too much longer now,” he whispered. “I’ll have wings and magic just like King Yan, only I won’t let the power go to my head.” He’d never thought about what he would do with the yrae magic. He’d only ever imagined soaring through the blue, his wings cutting through the sky with ease. “Just like King Yan.”

After replaying the history of Yan’s magic in his mind for what must have been the millionth time, Raqif let the sun edge him towards sleep.

Four