From atop the mountains near the sea, the desert seemed to stretch inland for eternity. But Azza knew this not to be true. Her folk, born to the hawk, the Imala, by the grace of Amon, had been to every edge of the Erg desert in search of trade, war, or water.
Today, though, they had no cause to search for any of these. Below her on the arid mesa sprawled the Bazaar, a brief gathering of all Umayuud’s desert tribes, a representation of all of the Erg’s People. Each had set aside whatever grievances they might foster, had brought their water and sat down at each others’ tents.
While trade was the main exchange, many had come to reacquaint with relatives long not seen, others to build new relations. Nearly all of the tribes had at least some representation there; the Imala, the Alfahl, the Scarab, the Ratel. Even the base and feared Hadru’us stood among the many tribes. Only the Bronze Men from the most northern steppes were absent.
Azza heard the morning call, sung in a high and carrying note by a blind woman of the Ghazal tribe. Knowing that the divisions between the tents would soon be filled with merchants, children and colorful entertainers, she began her descent to the Bazaar.
The Bazaar, with its location chosen over the course of many seasons, was on solid ground and not on the shifting sands that chewed and ate their way across much of the Erg. Even so, walking down from the ridge, Azza was careful as clumps of the reddish dirt gave way under her feet. The familiar smell of offal and dung wafted up from the livestock kennels. Heading towards the Imala khiyam she was pleased to see Hadaad out before the cooking fire, smiling to her and seemingly unsurprised by her early morning constitutional.
She returned his smile. Looking upon him it was easy; he was the only one of the Bronze Men to be at this gathering. He had the strength and beauty of all of his race but had left his brothers to walk among the Imala in search of a wife. Since his arrival Azza had been the envy of many girls.
As she approached, he stood up from the fire and his smile broadened in a display of affection of which her father would never approve. His golden eyes lingered on her, seeming to stop at the dotted diamond tattoo on her forehead. Unlike her, not born of the Imala, Hadaad had none of the tribal scars or tattoos; she had many. Her frame was marked with one for every rite of passage that had taken her through adolescence. Of the seven tattoos that marked ascendancy into adulthood, hers were six, each of these upon her left cheek, marking different phases of an ascendant Moon that rose along the curve of her eye.
In many lands outside of Umayuud, men would have looked upon her with desire, but perhaps not called her a woman. Lithe, with smooth olive skin and black hair that was radiant in the Son when not covered, she sometimes appeared younger than she was. Regardless, among the Imala and all the Ergian tribes, accession to adulthood was often a matter of necessity, not age.
“You were out early.” The warmth of the desert echoed in Hadaad’s voice. The temperature never appeared to bother him; between the heat of the fire and the cold of the dawn he was shirtless, easier to stay clean during the morning chores. Not for the first time Azza noted the Bronze Men were well-named. Hadaad’s skin was a dusky gold color, almost a dark verdigris at his joints, stretched over muscles that never seemed to tire or age and features that sometimes appeared overly sharp in their angles. He wore his hair long to protect his face and neck from the rays of the Son when not wearing a shemagh or robe.
“Only before the morning call,” Azza responded, looking away as to not stare immodestly. “Aleta wanted to feed.”
“You spoil her. I have yet to feed the other hawks.” He turned from her and bent back to his preparations. It would be ready soon and her duties would commence: She would take the food he had readied to feed the rest of the cast and he would tend the other livestock. “Where is she?”
“She found a hare hiding in the scrub. She’ll return when she is done with it.” In a land that was often sparse and demanding, the hunting hawks of the Imala were eagerly sought. By custom trained to down prey for their master, Azza had let her favorite have its fill this morning. While camped at the Bazaar, no tribe would lack for food or drink.
Hadaad turned his head and grinned at her over his shoulder, a glint of mischievousness in his eyes. “Well, better to be sure. You had best go fetch her.”
Azza continued smiling, understanding the kindness he offered. Normally, for the rest of the morning she would be confined to the khiyam, tethered to her morning duties. Hadaad provided Azza an excuse to go out into the Bazaar.
Azza leaned forward, feeling something for Hadaad she couldn’t quite define, but it made her feel warm deep in her chest. Was she blushing?
As if sensing her indecision, Hadaad playfully swatted at her with a stick from the fire, as a child with wooden sword might. Laughing, she danced away from him and towards the Bazaar.
The Bazaar was centered on the collection of common tents and fires, with tribal khiyams and the family tents that composed them ringing the outside. As Azza moved from the Imala khiyam into the communal area the smells in the air changed, from the emanations of the livestock to the aromas of kaffa, produce, and spices. The noises changed as well, the grunting of the animals and the whistle of the wind replaced by the play of children, the singing of women, the dancing of their men, and the call of traders. Azza was content to wander, enjoying all of the sights and sounds.
It was not long before she found herself lost among the colorful canopies. Having grown amongst the open desert and sea-side mountains, the times were rare that she could not see a horizon. Now, surrounded on all sides by peaked tents, she found the enclosed space to be disorienting. Rather than finding this disconcerting, though, Azza let herself be infected with the glee of a child lost in a mock labyrinth. She moved from tent to trading booth to tent, touching silks, sampling dates, and gazing at finely worked jewelry or iron work.
Among all these things that were rare or new to Azza, one did surface that she recognized: The arguing of men. Following a familiar voice, she came to a crowd standing around two men at a fire, paying witness to their pious speech. To Azza’s dismay her younger brother, Dalal, sat across the fire from the disputants.
The two belligerents sat, arms cloaked within voluminous robes. Their exchange was so ardent that Azza would have suspected them of hiding blades in their sleeves had they not been at the Bazaar. She glared at her brother, who hid a smirk behind his hand, watching the two debate with obvious delight.
“By Amon and his dwelling place, the horse, the animal of the Alfahl tribe, is the most beautiful creature of Umayuud,” spoke the man to Dalal’s right. This was Basit, one who had caused much trouble in the past by praising his tribe at the cost of others. “It has a grace that moves to speed, unlike any creature. To carry a man into battle, no other mount is its peer.”
The other man quickly withdrew his hand from his sleeve, pointing at the sky to emphasize his point. Azza breathed a sigh of relief that his hand held nothing. His name was Radi and he was renowned of the Bakr tribe, famous for his skill with the long knife and his willingness to use it against any who ridiculed his beardless face. “But the camel, the animal of the Bakr tribe, is more easily fed and carries greater burdens. What tribe of the Erg could be without?”
“What tribe could hold onto their camel without their horses?” replied the other man hotly. “Its speed is married with a keen alertness that makes its rider victor against any foe upon a camel.”
The hand that was pointed skyward became a gesture of supplication as Radi spoke. “Ah, but the camel can travel further into the day than either horse or mule, which cannot match its endurance. Tell me friend, before those gathered here, if you were to ride to Serendib, would you chose to ride upon your horse or upon one of my camels?”
A silence fell over the two men and the crowd. Surely, a more barbed question had not been asked that day. To say that one would ride a horse far across the Erg to Umayuud’s second most southern city, Serendib, would only make the answerer look foolish. To admit that the camel was a superior animal, though, would cause a loss of respect. Tension among the men and crowd built as the man of Alfahl formulated his answer.
“Brothers,” Dalal spoke at last, causing Azza’s anxiety to jump up her spine and her brown eyes to widen. “Why argue such things when the trek across the Erg is so dangerous? And the comforts of the Bazaar so grand?”
He stood and addressed the crowd as well as the debaters. “Put this aside and allow me to tell you a story of desert scorpions and how a brother of the Imala tribe made the journey safer for us all.” The crowd hushed at the mention of the Hadru’us tribe’s animal, each man and woman reflexively looked over their shoulder. After taking a moment to assure themselves no Hadru’us overheard, the two men exchanged glances, acknowledged the other’s curiosity, and nodded to the younger man.
“A man of the Imala tribe visited Serendib, drawn by the tales of its high towers and beautiful views of the sea. Surely the city was as wondrous as he was told.
But he was drawn more to the alleys and hovels at the base of the towers, desirous to know what lay in those shadows. Among the places he entered was a merchant’s, filled with strange goods from far off lands. To his astonishment, high on one shelf, stood a golden statue of a rat, unmistakable with its four legs, dirty snout and hairless tail.”
“Noticing the Imala’s gaze, the merchant said to him, ‘Beautiful, is it not? Surely worth more than a hundred of its desert brethren.’” The crowd, assured by Dalal’s brashness, chuckled quietly at this minor insult to the Ratel tribe.
“’Truly,’ my cousin replied, ‘what is the cost of such a thing?’” Dalal smiled as he rotated in his speech to the crowd and Azza knew that grin. He was enjoying himself and the laughter he brought from all before him. She felt herself involuntarily smiling as well, distracted by his showmanship.
“’Nothing,’ said the merchant, ‘but if you take the golden rat from this place you may never bring it back.’ This perplexed my cousin greatly, for surely the worth of the statue was several horses.” Dalal turned and spoke directly to Radi, drawing more laughter from the crowd as he said, “Or several camels, of course.”
“’But why?’ my cousin inquired, to which the merchant said nothing, only demanding that if he take the golden rat, he should leave the trader’s duka immediately. Thinking the merchant mad, my cousin snatched the treasure from the shelf and ran before the man could change his mind. Riding out into the desert he only stopped once near an oasis to let his horse catch its breath.”
As he began the next portion of his tale, Dalal widened his eyes in mock fear and gestured widely with his arms. “But as my cousin sat, he spotted a dozen rats following him from the city. Horrified at the sight of the city’s filth pursuing him he mounted his horse and raced towards the oasis. But the rats followed; first a dozen, then more, then surely a hundred, each intent on the golden statue he carried. Terrified, he threw the statue into the oasis and, to his disbelief, the many rats followed the statue, certainly drowning in the deep water.”
The crowd about Dalal shifted and muttered, confused at this turn of the story. Assuming a visage of relief at the new found safety of his imaginary cousin, Dalal smiled and continued.
“Seeing a grand opportunity before him, my cousin rode back to the city and entered again the merchant’s shop. The merchant, confused as you who stand before me now, said to my cousin, ‘You have returned. And without the statue.’”
“’Yes,’ my cousin replied, ‘Rats followed the accursed statue as you knew they would, but I threw it into the oasis and they followed it to their watery doom.’ The merchant, fearful of my cousin’s wrath, asked him if there was more he could do to aid him.”
“To which my cousin replied, ‘Yes. I was wondering – do you have any golden statues of Hadru’us?’”
The crowd laughed loudly and as one, the image of the Hadru’us tribe jumping into an oasis after a golden idol playing in their minds. Azza, even habituated to such showmanship from her brother, could not help but laugh. Smiling, she walked away from Dalal and the concerns about him, wandering the Bazaar as the Son continued to make his way across the sky.
When Azza looked up at the Son again she realized too many hours had passed, so hurried back to her family’s tents. Entering the Imala khiyam, Azza saw her father long before she heard him. The mottled robe, colored with the browns, deep reds and whites of the hawk, would have made him difficult to notice in the open desert. But on the khiyam his wildly gesticulating arms made him stand out, and his anger obvious. She sighed and moved forward, bracing for his infuriated verbal assault.
“Where have you been?” Mahesh yelled at her, his arms still waving. “I come to speak to you of the perch houses and I find Hadaad tending to your morning duties?”
Azza felt her face pinch as she tried not to retreat from him as she did when a little girl. “Father, Hadaad is more than capable –”
Mahesh cut her off with another angry gesture. “You think I don’t know this? That I would trust a man near my daughter who could not even tend a fire?”
“Then why -- ?”
“Because they are your duties!” He roared at the sky, surely loud enough for all in the khiyam to hear and perhaps Amon himself. Azza felt her cheeks burn as he went on. “If I had meant for you to pawn them off on the nearest tribesfolk, I would have given them to your lazy brother to do.”
Bowing her head, not least of which to avoid the gaze of friends and relatives that had begun to stare, Azza spoke quietly. “Yes, father. I’ll see to it right away.”
“Do that. And when you are done, come to my tent. Unexpected guests have been announced and you will prepare the kaffa ceremony.”
Her cheeks burning that much brighter, her head involuntarily rose in protest, “The kaffa ceremony? That is the duty of children!”
“Then perhaps when you learn not to avoid the duties of a woman, you’ll no longer be subjected to it.” Her father leaned in close enough to let Azza know the matter was not one of debate and she dropped her gaze again. To argue with him now would only be to add to her own embarrassment. Certain that Azza would speak no more on the matter Mahesh turned and left without another word.
At the preparation fire, Azza was disappointed to see that Hadaad was not there. A bit of sympathy would have been welcome, but she suspected that when her father found him tending her duties, he received much the same treatment as she. Most likely he had been sent off to deal with some other, most likely less pleasant, chore.
But a distant screech brought a smile to Azza’s face as she looked up to see Aleta circling. The young hawk loved Azza so that she swooped down, making to touch ground where there was no prey. Before Aleta did so, though, Azza pulled on one of a pair of heavy leather gauntlets she carried with her at all times, lifting her arm so Aleta could settle there. She smiled at Aleta as the warm and intelligent eyes blinked at her from the black feathers of her hawk’s hood, as if to ask when the two would go hunt again. Azza ruffled the red and white plumage along Aleta’s breast, then sighed, making the release gesture, sending her back into the sky. To go hunting now would only make her tardy and anger her father further. So first, to the perch houses.
The perch houses were the bounty and gold of the Imala tribe, a series of moveable nests, for the tribe’s best breeding and hunting stock, Aleta being one of the most prized. Tending to the young was this season’s most important duty, but also the less pleasant task of cleaning up carrion from the last meals as well as burying any droppings. Azza was relived to find that Hadaad had finished many of the tasks.
Once all of the work was completed, Azza hurried off to her own tent, cleaned herself as best she could and dressed in the robes for the kaffa ceremony. The robes were of fine blended fabrics to symbolize the peaceful joining of different tribes that the ceremony was meant to be. Special attention was given that nothing loose dangled off the sleeves, to avoid the fire and the anger of boiling waters that were at the ceremony’s heart.
Normally she would have assistance in this. Elders of the tribe would have helped her select appropriate colors, made sure her hair was free of any alien objects. Her eyes would be painted so it might appear she were staring down while allowing her to observe the outsiders in her father’s tent.
The elders that would have done this would have also discussed with her what they knew about the participants, what specific tribal conventions to observe or grudges to avoid mentioning. But given the surprise nature of this particular ceremony she tended to these things herself as best she could and wondered about the guests as she did.
Only one other appeared in all of this, and she only at the end. This was a surprise as well for it was Litsa, the sister of Azza’s mother. Litsa had never appeared to approved of Azza or her mother’s choices, including the husband the latter had chosen. This had brought a certain animosity to her duties as matriarch of the Imala. So her hand in Azza’s upbringing had been stern, if not devoid of affection. But the younger woman had learned that while Litsa’s lessons were not easy and her delivery of them never gentle, they held real wisdom. Wise enough that Azza’s mother had herself listened to all of them while still alive, if not heeded them.
In this instance, though, the lesson was quick. Litsa seemed to appear from nowhere, standing in front of Azza as she pushed the flap of her tent aside to leave it. Forcing something hard and cold into Azza’s hand, Litsa locked eyes with her niece as she did, only saying to her, “Take this with you.” And before Azza could ask anything the older woman was gone.
Looking down into her hand Azza saw the dagger her aunt had handed her. Leather thongs hung from its sheath, long enough to tether it to the inside of her wrist. Jewels were mounted at either end so it might appear as an ornament if glimpsed under her her sleeve by a stranger. In her rush Azza hadn’t considered if such a thing might be needed and now watched her aunt go, a perplexed and cautious expression on her face.
Being an elder among the Imala, and the leader, it was only natural that Mahesh’s tent was the largest and most well appointed. It stood like a small brown hill in the center of the khiyam, the wide blue sky above it belying any possible danger Litsa was concerned about. Pushing aside the heavy flap of horsehide that covered its entrance Azza found that the inside had retained much of the morning’s chill even with the coals of the fire still glowing.
As was the custom she, the preparer, entered on bare feet. She set about organizing the ceremony’s components around the fire; a long-handled brass kettle and the accompanying filigreed cups. This done she sat in her appointed spot and began to work the mortar and pestle, grinding the beans of kaffa into a coarse and sticky powder. She added in several other spices at stages of the process, as well as a few whole beans at the end.
This work was nearly done when her father hurriedly entered. While his face betrayed an uncertainty that Azza was not accustomed to seeing, his beard was combed, his fingered bejeweled with rings, and the mottled robe exchanged for another, less worn, one of its type. The ivory-handled talon, the symbol of his office, was displayed in his belt. He appeared in readiness.
His bearing, though, carried the same taut anxiousness that her aunt had. So Azza brought her hands out, and gestured to all of the ceremony’s accoutrements, displaying all else, like her father, was ready.
He inspected everything briefly, his eyes darting from one item to the next, until they settled on her. He nodded to Azza, making a satisfied noise. He then turned and held the horsehide open that he had just entered through.
Azza kept her eyes cast down, but concentrated to take in as many details as she could through her peripheral vision. Two men came in. She could tell by their goatskin sandals and the manner in which they bent body to enter that both were tall. But it was the fact that there were two of them that made her briefly break etiquette and raise her head. Two men meant a grievance; one as a speaker, the other as a witness. Both men had hard, black eyes on her father, so neither paid her mind.
The elder of the two men wore a beard that appeared as if it were made of steel wool, his one good eye fixed on Mahesh. His other orb floated like a clouded marble, dead in its socket, a wound proudly received many years ago, long before Azza’s time. No doubt on one of the Hadru’us raids against the Five Cities or on a desert crossing caravan. His skin was very dark, which would have been handsome on his rough features if not for the restrained anger that was there. Azza assumed this anger was associated with the pair’s visit but it, in fact, had etched itself onto the man’s features permanently. This was Odon and he was known by every member of every tribe of Umayuud and across its desert, the Erg. Entering into the tent he carried no sword, scimitar or yataghan, but a barbed whip, emblematic of his status amongst his folk, was at his waist.
The younger man was lighter of skin but clearly of the same lineage. Not much older than Azza, he was still not capable of growing a complete beard and so shaved clean to hide this. Combined with the absence of scars like his father’s, his hairless face made him almost seem to gleam in the firelight by comparison.
Azza stared at his fair skin with something like fascination until he took his eyes from her father to return her gaze. Azza felt the arrogance there and it made her blood rise. It was a slight infraction of custom for her to have looked up, but his glare held such haughtiness it seemed he might like to kill her for it. She wished to dare him to try, but remembered the honor of her tribe and held her place, and dropped her eyes.
Her father inclined his head to Odon saying, “Welcome. Amon greets you through the Imala in me.”
Odon returned the slight bow, a perfect reflection of the other’s depth, replying, “And Amon returns your favor though the Hadru’us in me.”
Her father turned to nod at Odon’s son, “Odissan.” He said the name like the bad omen it was. After a moment he added, as if to clarify his tone, “Two means a grievance.”
“Indeed,” Odon spoke, his voice asperated with wear and age, its depth brought even lower by the seriousness in it. “An egregious one.”
Mahesh gestured to the mats around the fire, small but thick carpets that offered something better than the ground to sit upon. “Then let us sit and discuss.”
Azza filled the long-handled kettle with the appropriate amount of water for the four. She set it upon the fire as the others assumed their places.
“Your son,” Odon began, gesturing broadly as if capturing all of the Imala khiyam with no small amount of disdain, “has insulted my tribe.” He paused. “Not me, not one of my sons, but all of the Hadru’us.” Watching the water come to a boil, Azza felt herself go cold.
“Judai,” Mahesh swore softly, signifying his disapproval. “How did this happen?” A carefully worded question, neither accepting nor rejecting blame of any kind, nor calling into question the veracity of the speaker’s tale. As Odon relayed the account of Dalal’s amusing anecdote Azza added the kaffa mixture to the water, watching it froth as it came to a boil, then removed it from the fire, as the ceremony dictated. She let the concoction calm, watching the waters come to a rest.
As she placed the kettle onto the fire a second time her father, having let Odon finish, politely asked, “You heard this yourself?” Mahesh lightly seasoned the question with disbelief, implying that even a fool like Dalal would never say such a thing to the face of Odon.
“No.” From Odon the word was cold iron.
“Such hearsay is to be expected.” Azza listened to her father bend without breaking, offering Odon a reasonable explanation that he could take with his pride and go. He was a different man than the one who had been yelling earlier in the day. Azza would always wonder why her father saved his anger for those he cared about the most.
“I heard this myself.” Odissan’s lie nearly caused Azza to raise her head with the shock of it. Azza had seen the crowd at Dalal’s folly and Odissan had not been among it. Even if she had somehow missed him the crowd itself had been wary for any Hadru’us, driven by the fear the scorpion tribe inspired. Someone would have surely noticed Odissan, thirteenth son of Odon.
As Mahesh pursed his lips in cool deliberation, Azza hurriedly considered contradicting the testimony. She thought better of it, though, deciding there was no way to prove his absence. Most likely some fool equal to her brother repeated the story later and was overheard by a member of the insulted tribe. A more merciful part of her nature wondered briefly about the fate of that tribesman and hoped for a bloodless resolution to that unknown part of this tale.
But why would Odissan tell the lie at all? Deep in contemplation of this question Azza kept herself in the moment by watching the stirring waters of the kaffa.
“So you say,” Mahesh gave his attention to Odissan, letting suspicion into his tone for the first time. “Where was this?”
“In the Bazaar – amongst everyone,” Odissan replied, increasing the weight of the offense by the size of its audience.
“So my son,” Mahesh didn’t hide his skepticism as he spoke, “stood in front of all and told this insulting story with you, son of Odon, standing there?”
“He did not know I was present.” Odissan’s tone held a smugness that suggested he would have been too clever for one such as Dalal. As angry as she was with her brother at that moment, she had to restrain herself from throwing the hot kaffa onto Odissan’s robes. Instead she watched it begin to simmer.
More cool than his daughter, Mahesh replied, “Perhaps if you had made your presence known you could have saved us all a great deal of trouble.”
“But Odissan did not,” Odon interjected, “and Dalal insulted the Hadru’us. At the Bazaar no less.” Odon’s intonation became nearly sanctimonious, something Azza was sure her father did not miss.
The pause before Mahesh’s response suggested to Azza she was right in this. Particularly since he used it to take a heavy sigh and make a show of concern for the honor of the Hadru’us, something that many across the Erg suspected did not exist. “How do you wish to be compensated for this stain?”
“We wish a Gaff,” was Odon’s immediate reply. A long pause filled the tent at these words. The effort it required for Azza to keep her eyes on the pot nearly distracted her from the boiling of the kaffa. She removed the kettle from the fire just before the water would have risen over the edge and embarrassed everyone, most of all her.
“A war?” Mahesh replied cooly. “You wish to come at each other as enemies, to steal livestock from one another – for the sake of a jest?”
“It is a ceremony.” Azza could almost hear the insult Odissan left unsaid in his sentence. “Little more than a child’s game, with no blood meant to be shed.”
Mahesh leveled a gaze at Odissan that caused the young man to go quiet and made it clear who was the elder in this group. “Blood is almost always shed in a Gaff, Odissan, son of Odon. Whether it is meant to be or not.” He returned to Odon. “Which can cause more bad blood than the original insult.” Mahesh gestured to the whip at Odon’s belt, “Are you certain this is what the Hadru’us ask of you?”
As custom and good kaffa demanded, Azza left the kettle off the fire for only a few moments before setting it down for the third heating. As it quickly rose to a boil again she added the most precious item, the sugars, causing a strongly aromatic froth to come out of the liquid.
In the short interval of this Odon spoke, his anger seeming a bit forced to Azza, if still frightening. “What would you do if your tribe had been insulted in such a manner?”
Lifting the foaming kettle from the fire Azza nearly dropped it at the humor in her father’s reply. “I probably would have laughed, if it were a good joke.”
Trying to cover her smile and stifle a giggle, Azza quickly began pouring the kaffa into the filigreed cups, each balanced on its own saucer. Whatever plan Odon and his son had entered with appeared stifled by her father’s response as she filled the cups in silence. Giving his guests a moment to think, Mahesh picked his up and blew gingerly on it. With still no reply from the pair forthcoming her father said, “Surely your folk have some humor about other tribes.” He sipped carefully from the cup. “Tell me one.”
“What?” Odon spoke but both him and his son appeared completely genuine now in their anger.
“Rather than a Gaff,” gestured roundly with his cup as he spoke, inviting his guests and Azza to drink, “let us act as equals in a different way. Tell me a joke that your tribe has of the Imala.”
Both men bristled as if Mahesh were insulting them now rather than discussing an insult from his son that happened earlier in the day. Ignoring this to such an extent that it appeared he was completely oblivious to it, Mahesh continued, “If it is a good joke, I will go out into the Bazaar and tell it to everyone I meet.”
Flummoxed, both men glared at Mahesh until Odisson said, “Our humor on the Imala is of your honor.”
Mahesh paused, cup between saucer and lips, then said, “That does not sound very humorous.”
He examined the surface of his cup’s dark liquid and gently continued, “Also, this is not a joke amongst equals. Dalal’s humor only spoke of the Hadru’us chasing a cursed idol, compelled by powers greater than men, perhaps as old as the Elben and Dweorgh. It never called into question the character of your tribe.”
Azza, cup to mouth, hid her surprise in a few quick blinks. As far as she knew no one, and certainly no one here, had told her father the jest in that detail.
Mahesh set down his cup and placed his hands on his knees, opening his stance, as a trader willingly listening to a counter-offer might do. “But tell me anyway. My son did not seek your permission before telling his humorous anecdote, so a greater slight may be due you.”
The silence in the tent grew long, drawing away Azza’s ability to keep her eyes cast down with it. When it seemed the muscles in her neck might snap from the tension she commanded of them her father said, the slightest sadness in his voice, “The Hadru’us don’t have one joke?”
Azza raised her head then as Odon stood, revealing a speed that belied his age. Even his son’s anger was tinted with surprise at his father’s spryness. While her father’s face remained calm, Azza noted his hand drop over the talon, leaving it in the belt but slipping its hilt between ring and forefinger.
Odon did not reach for his belt, but pointed an angry finger at Mahesh. “We are not children! Our honor cannot be salved with words.”
With his hand on the talon Mahesh’s eyes and voice were still calm and calming. “Then why do you allow it to be besmirched by them?”
Azza saw Odon’s eyes dilate with new anger, seeking some kind of release. When he found no violent course he could take and still retain his honor in the tent of his enemy, he raised his finger again to point at Mahesh and said, “A Gaff. At dawn. In four days time.”
With that he turned so quickly the mat he had just been sitting on half-spun on the floor. Odissan quickly followed with what Azza would have sworn was a poorly concealed self-satisfied smile on his face.
“Will you not drink?” Mahesh called after them, a slight smile in his voice that only his daughter could detect, kept as it was from his face. “To leave without doing do is to insult the honor of my tribe.”
Mahesh let that follow the dark pair out, then settled back on his mat, collecting his thoughts as if he were tabulating a debt that was soon to come due. Azza watched him, as always never quite sure what to make of her father. Sitting there, with the events that just unfolded and their hidden depths, he appeared more sad than angry, even knowing he had been lied to by a pair of men who seemed determined to be his enemy.
After a few moments of this he picked up his cup and again sipped from it. “The kaffa is very good,” he told his daughter, his eyes on the horsehide that the Hadru’us had just departed through.
Not sure what to say, Azza showed the wisdom of her mother and said nothing, only nodded recognition of the praise. Mahesh continued to think and stare long enough that Azza moved to leave. Normally, she would clean the remains of the ceremony, but it was, strictly speaking, not her duty and her father had the presence of a man who wanted to be alone.
As she rose Mahesh noticed that Odon, in his hasty exit, had knocked over his cup, spilling its kaffa into the saucer. “The grounds remain,” he said, indicated the particles of the beans that floated in the dish. “Tell our fortune?”
Azza, never having been particularly gifted or renowned for her abilities as a seer, nodded anyway, kneeling next to the saucer to lift it up. As she did the liquid swirled in the dish, moving the grinds around, turning what had been a staid environment into swirling discord. Some of the liquid and beans spilled. She tried to steady her hand, to let the grinds lie again into a pattern or shape she could read from, to discern something from the randomness of the future. Despite her best efforts the liquid seemed to move with its own volition, never letting the grounds settle out of the chaos that moved them.
Azza set the saucer down, saddened and disappointed she could not give her father what he asked. “I don’t see anything.”