‘The art to diplomacy is to subdue an opponent without direct conflict.’ Asra said.
I lowered my chin to my chest to avoid the sentiment that arose in my face. She gave a dry laugh.
‘Yet most of your stories involve direct conflict. How would you explain that?’
To ask Asra such a question, in light of what I had heard thus far, took a courage that I had not believed myself capable of. Yet she lowered her goblet and brushed a lock of hair back underneath her hijab whilst looking past me.
‘There is the world as we would wish it to be, and the world that is. Sometimes you build bridges between them.’
She folded her hands in her lap and fixed me a frank, challenging look.
‘Sometimes, you burn them so that whatever is on the other side does not cross.’
I refreshed the quill in the inkpot and quoted her words with a flourish.
‘There is another question, perhaps the most obvious?’
She tilted her head, studied me with her lips pressed together. Her face had turned red beneath her olive skin before she took in a deep, slow breath through her nostrils.
‘Obvious to whom?’
I set my quill back into the pot.
‘Forgive me if I have offended you. If I am to write an accurate record of your service, then the reader will ask these questions. Should we not answer them?’
She picked up her goblet and took a sip.
‘Should we have to? My service has its own voice. The Caliphate endured through some tumultuous times due to my actions. At my father’s behest.’
I gave a swift nod in agreement, reluctant to speak for fear of offending her further. She had told me about decapitating two Staggus warriors with one swipe of her scimitar a few minutes before, so there was no doubt that she could dispatch me with any number of objects.
The tray that it sat upon.
That was before I considered her bare hands. I decided that a change of subject proved an act of diplomacy that she might appreciate.
‘You were one of the first of the Caliphate to meet the Under Tribes?’
She set her goblet down and ran her tongue over her lips.
‘Ah, now there’s a story.’
I had freedom after a fashion. My father did not require my presence to command my actions. The established trade routes worked on two levels. There were those that featured on every map available, that took in The Plait and The Southern Islands, the House of The Staggus and The Pagoda Lands. They served as the arteries that kept the heart beating, transporting goods and people where they were needed.
Beneath those were another set of arteries. Set points where I could send and receive messages. Caches of supplies should I need them. If necessary, I could spend months without hearing the call to prayer anywhere outside of my heart.
It was at one of those that I found the letter from him. A simple message, but much like the system, it worked on two levels. The letter spoke of ordinary sentiments, a father expressing pride and concern for his daughter rather than a Caliph instructing one of his agents.
It was an agent that the hidden message referred to. Written in starch, and revealed with a few brushes of hibiscus, the words here were less formal and more aggrieved.
Hajj Dal-Bah had gone missing.
To further the point you made about us being tools, Hajj Dal-Bah was a blunt instrument, a club left bloodied and clotted to show how many skulls it had cracked open. He served as a clear symbol to the friends and enemies of the Caliphate.
Mostly, our enemies, if we are being honest, and for the sake of biography, let us say that I am.
Hajj was the Bastard of The Caliphate. He was sent as a message. A statement. He needed no disguises or excuses. If he came to see you, he was the last thing you saw in this world. His name translated into ‘The Pilgrimage of Ritual Slaughter.’ He was built like a boulder, with long moustaches that swung from his face and bleak, cold eyes that absorbed the light and held it with a rapacious hunger. His body was covered with scars from battle, and his muscles were bulging plates beneath his dark skin. His voice was seldom used, and it carried the low rasp of disuse but he spoke poetry and prayer with the passion of the devout.
The letter read that he had not made contact after being sent to deliver a punishment. A band of brigands had ambushed and murdered a courier, leaving his body hung by its entrails from a tree. One of the brigands was the disgraced son of a nobleman who held a position of influence that allowed the excesses to go relatively unpunished. They would send troops into the forest to flush them out, but returned empty handed.
The courier was a citizen of the Caliphate, his messages related to the accounts of a gold mine earmarked as a gift to a reluctant ally in order to buy his favour. Such an insult could not go unpunished. In the spirit of expediency, Hajj was sent. He travelled into the dense forests of Share Wood and had not returned.
Hajj Dal Bah always returned. It was the will of Allah, and in turn, of the Caliphate.
My mission was to follow his trail and find him, then finish his work or aid him.
A cache had been left for me. Robes and furs, leathers and gauntlets, a long bow and a quiver of arrows as well as pouches of herbs and roots suitable for painful deaths and basic nutrition. I changed and left my travelling clothes wrapped in oilcloth. I spent the night at an inn, ate and drank alone, deflecting the curious stares with polite indifference before riding out until I found myself on the outskirts of Share Wood.
The wheels of wagons had worn the ground smooth, and the stumps of the trees sacrificed to ensure the trade routes were blanched from the exposure to the sunlight filtered through the branches. I retrieved the letter from the saddle which repeated the instructions that would have led him to the last known hide out of the brigands.
I saddled the horse and set off on foot. My trail craft was not as practised but I sought out the broken branches, the leaves that had been pushed aside so often that they surrendered, leaving a visible route to whoever was careful enough to see it.
The whistle of the arrow saved my life.
I rolled forward and came up, holding my breath with my hands on the hilt of my scimitar to keep them from trembling. A glance over my shoulder revealed that the arrow had punched into the trunk of a tree a few feet behind me. It was black, fletched but not with feathers.
It resembled a fungus, a bubble of grey-emerald flesh that pulsed with malign life. I crawled forward, taking great care to avoid revealing my location.
There were voices. A squelching, bubbling litany of sounds, like the lungs of someone afflicted with a summer cold, where each breath was fought for. No human spoke in such a manner, and my ear for languages was as honed as my sword hand.
My movements were slow, deliberate, and I circled around the source of the conversation. I gauged at least two voices, one low and wet, the other drier and sharper. I crept closer, my heart pounding in my ears.
Whatever lay before me, was unknown and no matter how experienced I was, it was wisdom to approach such things with caution and reverence.
I approached nonetheless.
There was no substitute for experience. The finest education might prepare you for any number of things, but the raw nature of witness and contact was the finest and most brutal teacher.
They were no more than four feet tall, with waxy, glistening skin and plates of ebon chitin protecting their chests and thighs. Their faces were hidden beneath swatches of shimmering cloth but they looked about them without any hindrance. One of them wielded a short black blow with an arrow ready to fire whilst the other held a pitted short sword and a buckler shield made of the same material as the armour they wore.
These were men of the Under Tribes. I use the term loosely, for you because they are not men, although they walk upright and communicate.
In my tuition, I was taught that they had a structure akin to the insects they resembled.
A hive. These were warriors, bred and taught all the skills of war, enough sensation to move and fight but able to resist grievous injuries and pain that would cripple a human. The cloth of their faces was woven from a moss that grew deep in their underground caves, able to filter out the riot of sound and sight that would assail their sensitive and highly attuned faculties. Most of the direct experience came from encounters with the warrior caste but there were those brave or insane enough to parlay that into explorations which revealed more of the structure that these beings emerged from.
Ibn Al-Alhazred had been the itinerant son of a sahib, thrown to education and excess to ensure that titles were passed to a more suitable relative. He had found the entrance to a hive and managed to effect entrance without being slaughtered. He wrote about his experiences, and the books formed my curriculum upon them.
They were gardeners and miners, all of which were carried out by drones grown from unfertilized eggs, communicating in a language composed of chemical signatures and high droning songs that were brought into being by membranes in their throats and soft palates. They grew mosses that produced acids to carve out the bedrock into structures of breathtaking scale and beauty, lit by phosphorescent growths and fed on the minerals that littered the air. It took all the poetry within Al-Alhazred’s soul to do it justice and the effort broke his mind, but his verses had an eloquence that drew tears from the hardest heart.
The Under Tribes had exiled themselves after the First Djinn War, having lost many hives in order to send the djinn back to their realm. It was the last combined effort of all the different kingdoms and the attendant lack of respect shown in the division of spoils had caused their retreat.
My sense of wonder and my survival instinct held a conversation before deciding that the diversity of life did not outweigh my desire to live.
The bodies littered around them spoke to the lessons that encounters with the unknown truly taught the unwary.
All the Merry Men were corpses.
It was the sight of Hajj that prompted my decision to fight.
He laid upright against the trunk of an oak, punctured with arrows and an expression of amusement as his burial mask. His twin jewelled scimitars were in his hands, blessed weapons that could cut through plate steel and djinn flame with the same terrible zeal but they were covered in the scarlet blood of the Merry Men rather than the green humours of the under-warriors. It had taken eight arrows to bring him down.
I wiped away a tear and retrieved my spear from its sling on my back.
It rested perfectly in my palm against my thumb. I was close enough that I could not run to add velocity so I had to rely upon my core strength to lend it impetus. My desire to avenge my fellow agent sharpened my focus as I took a deep breath and twisted around.
The element of surprise was enough, but even with that, the warrior with the bow still managed to raise his bow before my spear punched through the veil and it fell backwards, limbs twitching with the insult of the penetration.
The second warrior turned, raising it’s chitin shield and pulling back the sword and bringing it to shoulder height. It skittered towards me, giving a wet cry of anguish. The most pragmatic action would have been to draw my scimitar and engage with it. It was what my training had taught me was the most effective means of resolving the altercation with a higher chance of survival.
A more malicious compulsion overrode my training and instead, I darted past it, running towards Hajj’s swollen corpse.
It was fitting that I would use his weapons to avenge him. I had time to slip them from his fingers. The poison held off the calcifying effects of death enough that it was a matter of picking them up and sliding the handles into the meat of my palms. I pivoted on my heel and crossed them in front of me.
All living things know fear. We are born only with a fear of darkness and heights. The under warriors were borne to the former and inured to the latter, so my instruction, my final terrible lesson was to teach this bipedal maggot the cost of defying the will of Allah.
I struck with the scimitar in my left, which it caught with its shield and used the blade in my right hand to clash against the sword in order to deflect the straight stab it made at my midsection. My personal touch was to bring the ball of my left foot and punch it hard into the centre of the plate that protected its gelid midsection.
It fell backwards, and I turned the blades then crossed them before swinging them around, both arriving to cut into either side of its head with a wet thud. It dropped the blade in its hand and hung loose from where its flesh adhered to the perfect edge of my blades.
I pulled my scimitars apart and wet portions of its skull came with it as it fell to the ground.
Here, I will admit that I continued to slash at it until it was in several pieces. Professional pride can be forgotten at such times. My tears were the concession I made to excuse my actions. When the fever of battle had left me, I surveyed the scene and investigated what might have happened.
The Merry Men had found a cairn in the woods, and in their playful greed, sought to open it in the belief that there might be treasure to plunder. No doubt, some of it might have made its way to the poor but in hindsight, they were better off without it.
It was a forgotten and sealed entrance to a hive. The act of exploration would have triggered a fungal alarm, sending a burst of warning chemicals into the lungs of dormant warriors, left with one terrible purpose.
To ensure that it remained undiscovered and unknown.
They would have made short work of the Merry Men.
The stout monk with his staff.
The stocky man, nearly as tall as Hajj in life, but in death, cut into handy sections.
The noble’s relative, clad in forest green and his goatee beard turned dark with blood.
Hajj had followed and been surprised. It was an ignoble end for a great warrior and once I had the lay of scene, I dug him a grave and said prayers over it.
I took his scimitars and buried mine with him.
The sound of weeping made me turn and from a copse of bushes emerged a pale redhead who dabbed at her eyes with a dirty handkerchief and a tale of enforced confinement that was aimed to negotiate desire between the noble’s relative and her.
I took her back to her castle and spent several nights there. She proved her gratitude with as much fervour as her inexperience and her need for secrecy allowed. I sent word back to the Caliph and burnt the robes. I rode back to the Caliphate in order to tell Hajj’s family of how he had fought and died in the service of Allah.
I had no words and my forearm ached from the need to transcribe her words with as much accuracy as I could. She lapsed into a contemplative silence until I returned the quill to the pot.
‘Men and women die much the same way. For all of Haj’s skill and strength, he was taken by surprise. It is the work of the imam’s to discuss whether such a thing was the will of Allah or Shaitan, but I know this. What matters is that I was there to avenge him and to ensure that his mission was completed.’
She leaned forward and rested her chin in her cupped hand.
‘Now tell me where my sex features in that?’
I had no answer for her.