Desert Sapphire

Seven

After aimlessly wandering the daunting maze of streets and buildings known as Ni-Yana until the sun had reached its highest point in the sky, Raqif finally discovered an inn where he might be able to spend the night. He had taken off his desert cloak before he had crossed the river and stuffed it into his near-empty food cloth.

“Hello?” he asked anxiously, knocking on the opened door of the inn. The bar bench was unmanned and the place looked quite deserted. “Is anyone here?”

Eventually, a man a good head or two shorter than Raqif appeared at a door by the bar, frantically wiping his hands with a dishcloth.

“Would you happen to have a room free for the night?” Raqif asked timidly. The man may have been considerably shorter than he was, but his dark eyes were curt and intimidating.

“A room?” he spluttered, “For tonight? Where have you been living this past week, boy! The inn has been booked out since the day word spread!”

Raqif blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Queen Laynura bore a daughter last week and she is to be presented to the city tomorrow evening!” The innkeeper frowned and looked Raqif up and down, finally taking in his sunburnt skin and garments stained red by the desert dust, but most of all the tired, worn look on his face. “Where have you been living?”

“I have come across the desert from Ni-Mytaa and have not yet heard this news.”

The burly man’s eyes widened and he stared at the highlander in disbelief. “You crossed that desert? Why, are you mad?”

“Quite possibly,” Raqif answered. “My assumption was that the desert would be the faster route.” He shrugged helplessly, unwilling to tell his story in full. “Unfortunately my assumptions were wrong.” He coughed a few times; his throat had not yet fully healed.

The innkeeper tossed his towel on the bar bench, frowning as though in deep thought. Finally, he spoke. “I can not turn away my guests who are already staying here, but I can feed you in exchange for your stories.”

Raqif smiled warmly and pressed his hands together in thanks then took a seat at one of the tables.

The meal was exceptional, far and away the best he had eaten since he’d left Ni-Mytaa. It was so good in fact it took constant reminders to stop and speak and not eat it all immediately. He was here to tell his tale, and as it was payment for this delicious food, that tale had to be told.

The innkeeper in turn told Raqif what he knew of the queen’s daughter, Princess Alurié. The festival would be held outside the gates of the palace, and word was that the king and queen themselves would be attending, though at this stage it was only a rumour. Nobody would truly know until tomorrow evening.

Raqif had never been particularly interested in the royals of Raykin. Ni-Horia was too far away for them to have much effect on the village. It took many moons for news to permeate from Ni-Yana all the way to the Hills, and by then it had usually petered out anyway. They were in fact closer to Kazin’s capital than their own.

By the time he had come to the end of his story, his voice had quite left him. “Thank you, Sir,” he croaked, “I only wish you would allow me to pay you!”

The innkeeper stood up and slung his dishcloth over his shoulder, laughing heartily. “No, my boy, that was a tale and a half, that is payment enough. I only hope your journey will come to a favourable end.”

Raqif grinned widely. “I have high hopes.” He thanked the innkeeper again then left to continue wandering the streets for a place to stay.

While they looked at him with a mixture of wonder and pity, the keeper of every inn, bar and tavern turned him away. It appeared that there was not a single room left in Ni-Yana. In the end, Raqif had to resort to asking families if they would grant him a bed to sleep in. Even if he ended up sleeping on the sandstone floor he would not have minded. Anything would have been better than sleeping in the streets. Something told him that by night, the silent streets of the metropolis would be less than friendly.

Late in the afternoon, he knocked wearily on what must have been the hundredth door he had tried, and was greeted by a man with the same sour expression as every previous establishment.

“You’re after a room for the night, I assume?” the man said curtly.

Raqif nodded and swallowed to try and return some moisture to his throat. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

The man frowned at Raqif’s strained voice, then finally nodded his confirmation. “Alright, but you must earn your keep.”

The boy didn’t bother to hide his relief. “I shall do whatever you ask of me. Thank you very much, Sir.”

The man just grunted and stood aside so Raqif could enter the small house. “Are you here to see the queen’s daughter as well?”

Raqif shook his head and swept his eyes over the modest establishment. It was not unlike his own, though since Ni-Yana was much more closely packed than Ni-Horia, the area of the house used for food preparation was on the flat-topped roof rather than in an open area at the back.

“I only learned of her birth when I arrived here this morning.”

“This morning?” his host repeated, “Where have you been the last week, the desert?” He gave an amused snort to show how ridiculous he thought the idea.

“I have, in fact,” Raqif answered, trying his best not to sound rude and offend his host, “And all I shall say for the time is that the journey across it took considerably longer than I had anticipated.”

The man hesitated slightly, obviously unsure of how to respond to Raqif’s statement. “You can sleep in here,” he said finally, “Usually my son sleeps in this room, but he has business on the coast at least until the new moon.”

Raqif laid his palms together in thanks, then placed his small number of possessions by the doorway and collapsed onto the bed, asleep almost before he hit it.

He avoided the presentation of Princess Alurié the next evening, not liking the idea of mingling with the crowd of thousands. Instead, he walked through the near-deserted streets to the far northern edge of the city where he chose a spot by the river to sit and think.

Now that he was finally here, he had no idea what to do next. How did one look for an yrae? Only two people had ever seen them, and both of them were long dead, so he could hardly ask for their advice. King Yan had seen the yrae in broad daylight, while the bird Haela had found flew at night. King Yan had been a tyrant, letting the power he had gained through the yrae’s magic get to his head, but in contrast, Haela avoided most people and had no ambitions of ruling the kingdom.

But the thought that lingered most on Raqif’s mind was how Haela’s magic caused her great pain when she tried to fly; so much so that Elinya had said it had eventually led to her death, though nobody really knew for certain.

Raqif rubbed his arms and cast his gaze up into the darkening sky, against which only a few stars could be seen. The only reason he wanted to find an yrae was so he could fly, just like King Yan, but if it gave him agony even to just spread his wings…

He shuddered slightly and scanned the horizon, half-expecting to see an yrae silhouetted against the faint grey cloth of the evening sky.

Whichever path he chose to take in his search for the yrae, he walked it alone.

Eight