The Malika and the Individual
Posted By Ibn on 04-Nov-2004
by Dave "Crowley" Javier
Talal ibn Qamuz of Nishadina, the most prosperous book-seller in the greatest city of Gharu'n, approached the Old City gate, leading his servants alongside a great wooden wagon that creaked loudly under its load of crates. His old friend Jamid, duty captain for the morning shift of gate guards, came forward to meet him. As they embraced, Talal slipped a pouch of coins into Jamid's hand with practiced ease.
"My old friend. How is your wife?" Talal asked.
"She is well, and sends her greetings." Jamid responded, quickly dropping the pouch into his tunic. "And how does your family fare?"
Talal smiled broadly. "My wife carries another child, and Salaya is apprenticing to a swordsmith next fall."
"Congratulations, my friend!" Jamid slapped Talal on the back. Then, seeming to remember that he was on official duty, he straightened up and took an officious tone, looking at the overloaded wagon. "What are you bringing out today?"
"One thousand copies of a text on the alchemical applications of quicksilver, by the Roulean sage Solaphon." Talal handed over his bill of lading, signed by the chief of the guild of bookbinders.
Jamid whistled. "One thousand copies. Many, many copies. Now I see why the bookbinders' guild has hired so many novices."
Talal nodded. "The Malika has decreed that the Houses of Learning must expand their alchemical instruction to include the writings of the Rouleans."
"The young Malika, it seems to me, spends too much time ransacking the libraries of the Rouleans and not enough time absorbing the wisdom of the Poet. I still cannot believe how many men and beasts it took to cart all of those books out of Tirethas before its fall." Jamid shook his head regretfully. "A pure heart, a clear eye, a strong arm and a steady hand that is what will win our war, not dusty books of a dead empire."
"The Poet extolled the virtues of learning, my friend," Talal pointed out, "and told us never to disregard any source of wisdom. Was it not to protect those very libraries that he struck down his lord? The translators tell me they have been tasked with finding texts that would help in any way against the Viamontian hordes. So the libraries may hold the key to the survival of Gharu'n."
Jamid held his hands out in a placating gesture. "I meant no criticism. I speak mostly out of jealousy, because my old head has taken too many blows to be able to hold much learning."
Both men laughed. "It has been too long since we shared bread," said Talal. "Will you and your wife come to my home for the evening meal?"
"Nothing would give me greater " Jamid broke off as he saw a woman in brightly enameled Amuli armor, bearing the ceremonial mace of an officer in service to the Malika herself, walking towards them. She was followed by four very large guards. None of them were familiar to Jamid, who had been in the Old City detail for twenty years.
"I am Maulana Qazea bint Diyas," the newcomer announced. "I am a Captain of the Malika's Hands, and the new commander of the guards of the Old City quarter here in Nishadina. Who is the duty sergeant here?"
Jamid held up a hand. "I am the duty sergeant, Your Worship," he said, respectful of the noble's title. "How may I help you?"
Qazea glanced at Talal's wagon full of crates. Gesturing towards it with the mace, she asked, "Has this wagon been searched yet?"
Talal stiffened in nervousness. Quickly glancing between his friend and this new authority figure, Jamid nodded. "I inspected it, Your Worship. One thousand copies of a Roulean book of alchemy, for the Malika's Houses of Learning." He handed her the bill of lading.
Qazea looked plainly skeptical. "This wagon left the Bookbinders' Guild only twenty minutes ago. How could you have searched all these crates? My men will search it again."
With that, the four burly guards started hauling crates off the wagon, as Talal and Jamid watched helplessly. Despite their imperious demeanor, the guards took care not to jostle or drop the crates. They methodically set each container on the ground, pried it open with a thick-bladed knife, and investigated its contents. Without fail, each crate held fifty neatly packed copies of the Solaphon alchemical text. Finally, all the boxes but one were off the wagon and neatly stacked by the gate. The one remaining crate on the wagon had been the most deeply buried under the pile, and the guards reached out to unload it.
Resigned to his fate, Talal let out a soft sigh. He began to bid a mental farewell to his family. He also looked regretfully towards Jamid, who would no doubt die under the Malika's law as well, for lying to an officer of the Hand on his behalf. Jamid merely blinked once, very slowly, and tightened his mouth.
The lid came off of the final crate, and Qazea lifted out a book. It was not a freshly bound copy of the Solaphon text. It was an old book, bound in leather, well preserved in the dry desert climate. The writing embossed in gold on its cover was Old Roulean. Qazea nodded in satisfaction and gestured to the guards. The four guards grabbed the arms of Talal and Jamid, and forced them to kneel on the road before their leader.
Brandishing the book in one hand, clutching her mace in the other, Qazea stood in front of the two men. "For the crime of smuggling, you are both sentenced to hang in madness cages until such time as the Malika grants you mercy." Jamid snorted. Everyone knew the Malika's pardon usually came long after the occupant of a madness cage had withered to bones.
Creaking and howling. That was all he had heard for days. The creak of the cage as it hung on its chain, and the howl of the nigh constant desert winds through the high, isolated canyon. A little while ago, he thought he'd heard a human scream, a wail of despair that may have been the voice of Jamid. Then again, it might have been nothing at all. Talal had been imprisoned in the madness cage for three days, though it would have surprised him to learn that. He had not bothered to keep track of the days or hours. He had not even bothered to count how many of the small water gourds he had drunk, nor was he aware of the fact that he had been given one per day. Talal had resigned himself to death the moment they shut the cage on him. No man emerged from a madness cage. Not in any form that one might still consider human.
The sun was about to reach its hottest point. His skin was already blistering and peeling. There was shade for only half the day in the canyon. Looking at the small gourd that was his current water ration, he licked his lips and sighed, then pushed it between the metal bars of the cage. He heard it crack and splash as it hit the rocks on the canyon floor below. If death were on its way, let it come swiftly. A sudden wind kicked up, as if in response, and drove hot desert sand into his eyes.
The wind died down after a few minutes. It was then, with his eyes throbbing and his skin scraped freshly raw by the blown-about grit, that he heard the muted thump of hoofbeats on sand. He closed his eyes, convinced this was some aural mirage. He imagined the sound of multiple horses, and the comforting whine of wagon wheels turning on their axles.
The hoofbeats and axle-creaking came close and stopped. Then Talal heard and felt the door to his cage creak open. Not daring to hope, he kept his eyes closed. He whimpered and murmured as rough hands grabbed hold of his perforated skin, pulled him out of the cage, and carried his unresisting body to what felt like the back of a wagon.
A few minutes into the ride, Talal ventured to open his eyes. The wagon and a group of escort riders were on a road through the desert that was more like a less rocky and less scrubby path than any real attempt at road-building. Up ahead, barely visible, was an oasis he didn't recognize and a very large, but unmarked, tent. All around the oasis were soldiers, horses, pack animals, and a heaping stack of... more crates. All of the soldiers wore the enameled armor of the Malika's Hands.
Talal decided to close his eyes and just hope for the best. He played near-dead for the benefit of his captors, as well as to recover his own strength. The wagon came to a jarring halt. Hands reached out and lifted him once again. But this time the hands were clothed in metal mail, and they carried him slowly out of the wagon. After a moment, the heat on his face became less intense, and less light struck at his closed eyelids, leading him to conclude that he'd been carried into the large tent. He was laid down on a bed of cushions, and he soon felt soft, delicate hands spreading cool ointments over his burned and nearly flayed skin.
A vessel was held to his lips, and he sipped cool water. He drank hesitantly at first, and then in gulps that spilled down his neck, chin, and chest. He opened his eyes and saw a beautiful young girl holding a bowl to his mouth. Refusing to look in his eyes, she set the bowl down, wet a cloth, and gently cleaned the caked-on grit from his face. The touch of even a soft cloth made him weep with pain, but the simple care and attention after so much time in the madness cage nearly broke his heart with joy.
Talal was just beginning to feel normal again, and just beginning to wonder just what fate had planned for him, when a bell sounded from outside the tent. The girl stopped washing his face, bowed quickly and left, leaving the cloth and the bowl of water by his side.
A figure appeared at the opening of the tent, at first just a shadow that sparkled with gems. The figure moved closer, and Talal finally made out a face: a grim-faced young woman, with sharp nose, thin lips, and proud chin. The high and arrogant posture of a noble, born to command... A royal circlet about her brow... Two soldiers with the distinctive helmets of royal bodyguards appeared behind the figure.
With more energy than he knew he had, Talal scrambled from his prone position to kneel before the Malika of Gharu'n.
"Majesty," he croaked, "I tremble in your presence and thank you for your mercy to a wretched criminal."
There was a long pause. Talal didn't dare sit up, even when he felt the blood from his wounded back trickle forward over his neck.
Finally, the Malika spoke softly. "I bid you, sit comfortably, Talal ibn Qamuz. You may look upon me directly."
Hesitating, Talal rearranged himself to sit cross-legged before the ruler of Gharu'n. The Malika herself sat an arm's length away, crossing her legs under her heavy, brocaded robes and placing her hands coolly on her knees. The ludicrousness of his position, parched and burned and in audience with the cross-legged Malika, did not escape Talal. He almost laughed in nervous wonder, ready to dismiss the entire episode as a febrile death dream.
"By my own laws, Talal, you should be dead. You and all your family."
That brought him out of his dazed bemusement. Talal nodded silently.
"You were caught smuggling ancient books out of the archive of the Old City. Books that were ordained by my father's fathers as royal property. Books that were carried, at great risk and expense, out of the great archives of Tirethas. Hundreds of the sons and daughters of Gharu'n died, merely to delay those bull-worshipping savages long enough to cover the flight of our wagons. You have stolen, from me and from the nation. This is no simple thievery, Talal. This... is treason."
Talal abased himself again. "My crime is inexcusable, Majesty."
"Tell me, Talal. For whom were your books intended?"
"They were for sale to nobles of Viamont, Majesty."
"So you have stolen the books of the City of Lore from my library, to sell to the very invader lords who threaten the Gharu'n nation. You would defile the blood of our war dead to sell the books back to the very jackals who sought to plunder them."
Talal quivered, barely able to speak. "Yes, Majesty."
"This has been going on for some time, I gather. Since even before the Viamontians took Tirethas."
"S-several years, Majesty. B-before they attacked Gharu'n."
"And yet, after they invaded, you kept your hand in their purses. You must have felt like you would never be caught." With no comment from Talal, the Malika went on. "You would not have been caught, either, except that someone told the Zharalim about your activities. They were told of the methods you use to smuggle the books out of the archives, and given the name of your friend, the foolish old guard. You were compromised by Hamzir ibn Hamzir."
Talal was unable to keep his head down, shocked by this news. He looked up at the Malika in pure surprise, before bowing his head again.
"This was unexpected, yes? In your secret and lucrative profession, even rivals do not violate the smugglers' code. Do not betray each other to the Malika's justice. Is this true?"
Talal nodded miserably. Through his despair over his crime and his fate, he felt anger swelling within him. Hamzir ibn Hamzir had once been his assistant! He had trained Hamzir, and let him start his own book-smuggling business without retaliation!
"Hamzir attempted to keep his hand hidden. He sent intermediaries of intermediaries to deliver an anonymous accusation."
Talal let out a low moan of rage and frustration. The Malika chuckled, then seemed to catch herself. "I do not mock your pain, Talal ibn Qamuz. I merely laugh at Hamzir's conceit. To believe that he could cloak himself from the Shagar Zharala... The assassins are not the force they once were, it is true, but their investigative techniques are still potent enough to penetrate the smokescreens of a stupid young book smuggler!"
The Malika snapped a finger at one of her guards, who bowed and left the tent. The ruler then turned her attention back to Talal. "Tell me the names of your clients... these crude, blue-skinned predators who batter our gates and steal away the treasures of our libraries."
"Uh... Well, Countess Lotila... Count Renari... Duke Bellenesse..." The Malika listened as Talal listed every Viamontian noble he had done business with since he began smuggling books to Viamont.
"Bellenesse... The one who slew the Emperor himself..." The Malika paused, lost in her own thoughts. Talal hunkered down respectfully, unsure whether or not the mention of the Duke's name had caused him to fatally offend the Malika. Finally, she smiled and looked back at him. "That will do nicely. You have dealt with these nobles for many years. They trust you to bring them remarkable and noteworthy books?"
"Yes, Majesty. I have learned what interests them... and their followers."
"I have something that will interest them greatly."
Surprised again by another incongruity, Talal lifted his head. He saw the guard who had departed come back to the Malika's side, holding a thin book, bound in rich red leather. The guard handed it to the Malika, who dropped it in the dirt in front of Talal.
"Go ahead, pick it up." The Malika gestured impatiently.
Talal picked up the book and inspected its cover. Muttering the Old Roulean words to himself, he translated the title into his own language. "The... Treatise of the... Individual... by Lokios of Tirethas." His breath left him. He looked up at the Malika for but a moment, then quickly dropped his eyes once again to the treasure which she had so casually tossed into the desert sand. "The Treatise of the Individual," he muttered to himself, and wiped away the tears from his eyes.
"Yes. That book... rumored to exist, but never found, correct?"
Talal nodded, unable to speak. This single book, sold to the right buyer, would be worth as much as an entire crate of lesser texts.
"No one has ever read it, but to an expert on Roulean texts... This is the crown jewel, yes? All the ancient sages wrote of this great work and the revolutionary ideas of the Philosopher, Lokios. And how, after writing it, Lokios left Tirethas to wander the world, and was never heard from again. You... of course, know why it was believed to be lost..."
Talal nodded his head. The Malika had hit upon a subject on which he prided himself an expert. "The Roulean emperors suppressed it and had all known copies burned to ash, Majesty."
The Malika nodded. "I have read that book. Several times, actually. It contains some dangerous ideas. Or at least, ideas dangerous to the kind of thoughtless, brutal, morally bankrupt regime that the Emperors maintained. So you may be curious how it survived their decree of destruction."
Talal nodded again. "Yes, very curious, Majesty."
The Malika laughed. "The Emperors of Roulea were not complete savages, after all. A few copies survived in their personal vaults. They retained enough respect for knowledge in their debased minds to keep them from permanently destroying any work of human thought, even one so dangerous as this. So when my father's fathers took Tirethas so many years ago, these books came to light. The Poet himself came upon them, and it was at his urging that the books were placed in the royal archives. They even survived the Age of Smoke and Shadow, when our royal line dispersed and the Viamontians placed their puppets on our throne." She spat on the ground to commemorate the time of the Viamontian interregnum.
Talal ran his hands over the binding, still afraid to even open the book.
"You might notice, Talal, that the book is new. I would not have brought one of the originals to you."
A sudden realization came to Talal as he remembered the crates of books outside. Slowly, he looked at the Malika, fear growing in his wind-burnt eyes. The Malika merely smiled at him, clearly enjoying the his reaction. "Yes, Talal. My scribes have made many copies of this book. One thousand of them. They are right outside this tent, as a matter of fact."
The Malika leaned close. "I have come to offer you more than you could have hoped for, Talal ibn Qamuz. I have come to offer you mercy, revenge, and a job."
Talal abased himself again. "I will do whatever you command me, Great Malika."
"Then listen carefully, for I will give you these instructions only once. After that, I wish never to see you again. Nor will I acknowledge ever meeting you."
Talal nodded emphatically, groveling. The Malika watched him for a long moment, then continued.
"First, I will give you your revenge. Hamzir ibn Hamzir will be punished for his own smuggling, as well as his duplicity. He and all his line will be extinguished, because I find his betrayal of his benefactor, even within the murk of your illicit trade, to be shameful and unworthy of a son of Gharu'n."
Talal clenched his fists in bitter triumph. "Your Majesty shows great wisdom in her judgment, and generosity to this criminal, who is worthy only of your loathing."
The Malika smiled faintly. "And you, Talal ibn Qamuz, will be banished forever from Gharu'n. Your life will be spared, and you will be sent across the Ironsea to sell these thousand books. Go to Viamont, Talal, and peddle the forbidden text to their nobles and merchant lords. In return, I will show leniency to your friend the guard and I will provide for the welfare of your family. It is many lives I spare, Talal, because I want you to be very eager to sell these books."
Blubbering with gratitude, Talal crawled forward and kissed the Malika's foot. She paused to allow him his gesture of submission, then went on.
"But should you cross me, Talal ibn Qamuz... Be aware that the reach of the Shagar Zharala extends all the way into Viamont, to the city of Corcosa itself. I will know if you fail to live up to the spirit of our agreement. And if you displease me, I will kill your wife, your children, your brothers and sisters and cousins. I will kill their children, and their children's children... To the third generation." The Malika paused to allow time for Talal's stricken mind to absorb her words. When she saw the tears in his eyes, she knew that he understood.
"Sell every last book. Play the merchant's game. Haggle with them, get a good price for each... If you sell them too cheaply, they will doubt your sincerity, or the book's legitimacy. But each book must find its way into blue-skinned hands."
The Malika stood with one swift, graceful motion and regarded Talal coldly. "Thus ends our interview, Talal. There are people waiting outside to take you to Corcosa. Enjoy this last journey to the coast, because you will never again see the lands of Gharu'n." With that, she left the tent. The flap closed behind her, leaving Talal weeping softly in the cool darkness.