Arash waited until the fruit vendor was distracted by a couple of street urchins fighting next to her stall, then slyly let his fingers roll over some plump plums and nudge them off the table and into his other cupped hand. He slid them into the left pocket of his billowy black pants before “accidentally” bumping the table and catching a pear before it hit the floor. “Here you are, my good madam,” he told the vendor, handing her back the pear. “My apologies for bumping the table and almost causing this sweet treat to be bruised and dirty.”
The vendor, an older woman wearing a light blue rousari along with a teal cotton pirahan and daaman, turned from shouting at the kids to stop fighting with her mouth already opened to berate him for his clumsiness. She quickly shut it when she got a good look at Arash, which was a reaction he was used to. Long wavy black hair hung down to his shoulders, which were covered today as he was wearing a white lace up shirt (instead of his traditional vest) that was undone enough that the hair on his chest peeked out of the top, skin only lightly tanned from the sun. A small mustache framed his upper lip, which was curved into a smile. And eyes that resembled the color of a starless night gazed at the vendor as he gave her a cheeky wink. “No trouble, good sir,” she stammered out. “Thank you for rescuing it.”
“You’re quite welcome. Here, since I’ve touched it, let me buy it from you.” He pulled out of his right pocket a gleaming qiran and handed the now-blushing vendor the silver coin. “Will this do?” The vendor tried to argue that it was too much, but he took her by the other hand and wrapped it around the coin, almost lingering longer than was proper. “Please, I insist.” Saluting her with the juicy fruit, he took a bite out of it while maintaining eye contact before winking once more and turning away. Probably more action than she’s seen in years, he mused.
When he got to the corner, he was met by the two urchins. Reaching into his left pocket, he pulled out two plums each and handed them to the young boys. “Thanks for your help back there, here’s your cut,” he told them as they fell upon the fruit greedily.
“Hey, Arash!” one of the urchins spoke up through a mouthful of food. “If you have coin, why do you bother to steal then?” The other was too busy stuffing his mouth to care.
Feeling generous, he leaned down close to them and whispered, “Because it’s more fun that way. Besides, stolen fruit just tastes better, wouldn’t you agree?” They both nodded in agreement, which earned them a smile from him. With that, he stood back up and continued on his way, leaving the young boys to devour their ill-gotten breakfast.
As he made his way through the marketplace, he thought of how annoyed his sister would be at his actions. Even though she was far away at the Gundishapur University, studying calculus of all things, he could still hear Fairuza’s voice as if she was standing right next to him. “Your actions reflect so poorly on our mother’s family, Arash!” she would say, hands on her hips and right foot tapping in annoyance. “Why can’t you be more like me? Father’s family couldn’t be more proud of my education, and look at you! Pissing your life away just drinking, stealing, and sleeping with women of loose morals, completely wasting all your schooling!”
While he couldn’t argue with the conjured vision of his sister nagging him, Arash was forced to concede that he could be doing better with his life. Of course, then he wouldn’t be having so much fun, so there was that counter-argument. Besides, it wasn’t all about being a hedonist. He did take something seriously in his life, he thought as he reached down with his right hand and rubbed the hilt of his shamshir while well aware of the weight of his pistol on his left hip. Could he help it that he was meant to be a duelist, and a damn good one?
E’laa’hi, the Divine, gave every living and thinking being something unique to them that they were inherently good at, and for Arash, it was dueling. He only carried a few scars from duels that he had won over the years, and none from any that he lost. Not to say he had never lost a duel, but he could count the number of them on one hand and have fingers left over to spare. In the ring he had dueled fellow Arya, foreigners from across the Meditaar Sea, even a Kutuleh and a Sandstrider once, which was no small feat!
Speaking of the tall and long-limbed race, he barely avoided colliding with one as it backed away from a stall it had been conducting business at, since they considered it impolite to turn one’s back on an associate. Seeing what had almost happened, the being offered an apology in the trade tongue, their native language giving the words a rough and guttural sound. Since it was wrapped head to ankle, as their species was wont to do when they went out in the day, Arash had no way of knowing whether it was male or female. Unlike a lot of his fellows, he had no problem dueling either sex; in fact, the women tended to hold grudges longer than the men which made for some interesting encounters. Not wanting to cause a scene, the young duelist made a quick hand gesture that meant, “No offense” and both of them went their separate ways.
The bazaar was very busy today, as it should be. New goods had come down the Ghezel Ozan river from Gameroon just last night, and so every vendor was doing their best to empty their stalls and weigh down their purses, all hawking their wares to the various people milling about the marketplace. Brightly colored awnings lined the streets already, but the most successful vendors had awnings of their own, and some even had hired people to wave massive fronds so the buyers would feel a cool breeze while they shopped. It was a loud and chaotic mess, and Arash felt more at home here than he did back in his parents’ mansion miles out from Amol, close to the shore of the Meditaar Sea, even though it was much cooler there.
Time seemed to pass, and the young man lost himself in the rhythm of the bazaar. Stopping to check out a stall where the vendor had set out various types of cloth in a wide variety of colors, Arash saw out of the corner of his eye a burly man dressed in a black robe that covered him from his neck to his studded leather boots. The man was carrying a massive falchion on his back that Arash would have been lucky to wield with two hands, and was talking to the woman vendor from earlier today that he had charmed and stolen from, not in that order. As luck would have it (not his luck, it seemed), the crowd seemed to part at that exact second and the vendor spotted him and pointed him out to the burly man. “By the Elemental Princes,” Arash cursed. “Just what I need, a magi looking for me.”
There were two reactions he could have: he could continue shopping, trying to slip away into the crowds, or he could turn and bolt like a rabbit from a hawk. Arash chose the latter, and spinning around ran as fast as he could through the throngs of shoppers. “A hundred pardons,” and “My apologies,” were just some of the phrases he uttered as the young duelist did his best to avoid hurting anyone while he fled from the magi. The last thing he needed right now was for someone to feel insulted and to challenge him to a duel, since there was no way he could maintain his standing in the guild and refuse. This time, luck was on his side and nobody did so.
He didn’t know why one of the infamous warriors was looking for him, and frankly he didn’t much care. All Arash knew was that it couldn’t be for anything good, since the magi were called many things but “helpful” wasn’t one of them. Grabbing onto the corner as he ran by an alley, he sharply turned into it and maintained his full speed, hoping that the magi would not have noticed his quick thinking. Laughing softly to himself, he was almost at the end when a large shadow stepped into the alley, blocking off his exit. Cursing once more, he ran at one of the walls and used his momentum to flip so he was facing back the way he came, only to spot the magi that had been following him enter the alleyway. Only slightly out of breath, the young duelist came to a halt, hands up so as not to appear threatening.
“Gentlemen! What can I do for you this fine day?” Arash asked the one that had been looking for him, while still keeping an eye on the newcomer as best he could. While he watched, another two magi entered from either end of the alley, and it was all he could do not to start swearing out loud. On days like this, he could really hear Fairuza saying, “I told you so,” like she used to when they were children and he would be caught doing some kind of mischief. His backside pulsed in remembrance of many a time being switched in punishment for something he did, and it was all he could do not to rub it. He had the feeling that if these men were sent to punish him for something he had done, it wouldn’t involve a simple swat on the rear.
So far, none of the men had spoken. It was so odd to see them outfitted in black on a warm summer day, wearing their black wool karakul on their heads, but then again the magi weren’t what one would call normal. Supposedly at a young age they were called to serve a sheikh, or one who was touched by E’laa’hi and could perform miracles. Personally, Arash had seen more sheikhs that were greedy and self-serving than ones that were giving and good, but no one could dispute that they could indeed do things that seemed the province of the Divine. As part of their service, the magi were blessed in unusual ways, one of them being they didn’t seem to be bothered by the heat or the cold anymore.
The men finally stopped about ten feet from him, far enough out of reach of his shamshir that he would have to lunge to strike any of them but within short range of their massive falchions. Arash assumed a stance called Cat’s Grace, where he kept both feet lightly on the ground but left his limbs loose ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. Just when the silence had stretched on to the point of it being unnerving, the one who had tracked him finally spoke up. “The Sheikh Bahram would like to have a word with you, Duelist Arash, about the qiran that you owe him from your last duel.”
Stifling a groan of dismay, Arash cocked his head to the side and pretended to try and remember the greasy looking man that these magi worked for. “Doesn’t ring a bell, gentlemen, sorry. And, as a rule of thumb, I don’t wager with sheikhs; not wise to anger the Divine, as it were.” He gave a forced chuckle, but none of the other men joined in. Unfortunately, he did remember that bastard, sitting in the private booths and wagering loudly that E’laa’hi had informed him that Arash would lose in the duel, even going so far as to wager 50 qiran on his defeat.
Of course, that had just driven Arash harder to win, even risking his life by performing a potentially fatal move called Sheathing the Blade, where you allowed your opponent to skewer you with their sword just so you could get in close enough to kill them. It had worked, and although it had hurt badly, the 40 qiran purse he had earned for his victory made the pain worthwhile. Granted, he had spent half of that getting a shaman to patch up his wounds, but still…knowing he had rubbed the nose of one of those “holy men” into the dirt over his prediction had just made it all the sweeter.
Speaking up once more, the only magi that had uttered a word held out his hand. “Your weapons please, duelist. Just remember, there are four of us and only one of you.” They were so certain that not only would he surrender, but that if he did fight them they would win, that none of them had even drawn their swords. Normally Arash wouldn’t attack an unarmed man, but this wasn’t a duel, and so there were no rules in a street fight, especially with no witnesses.
All of this ran through his head as the young duelist drew his pistol with his left hand and, gripping it upside down and only having his pinky finger to reach the trigger, shot the speaking magi right between the eyes. Apparently the Divine –and the sheikhs by association- didn’t protect against head shots, for the man fell down quite dead, with such a startled look etched permanently on his face that Arash almost burst out laughing. However, the element of surprise was now over, and the other three magi drew their falchions and tried their best to skewer him or to cut off his limbs.
But he was doing what he did best, and Arash gave in and barked out a small laugh as he nimbly dodged wild swings and strokes, sheathing his pistol and drawing his own shamshir. All of the magi were rather large and muscular men, and while he was no slouch in that department, his frame was more wiry than burly. Apparently they had never practiced fighting side-by-side in a small alley, for they got in each other’s way more than they assisted one another, and it was easy to stay out of the path of their swords.
Arash had no such difficulty, and after he had drawn his shamshir he reversed his grip and stabbed backwards, impaling the magi that had been charging him from behind right through the stomach. Pulling out the blade, he barely got it up in time to parry the swing from the one in front of him. His arms went slightly numb from the strength behind that blow, and the young duelist quickly resolved to not draw out this conflict longer than he had to. Switching his grip to a normal one by flipping his weapon forward, he went after the one he had just dueled, much to the magi’s surprise. The man may have been strong, but he was no duelist, relying on his muscles to end a fight quickly. Within seconds, Arash had pierced the magi’s throat, and flicked the blood off of his weapon as he withdrew it.
During his duel he had forgotten about the magi behind him, and was reminded when the last standing opponent brought the pommel of his falchion down upon Arash’s hand, causing him to drop his weapon. Shahin, his Guild trainer, would be so disgusted with him losing sight of an opponent, the young duelist berated himself. Using the point of his blade, the magi placed it under Arash’s chin and backed him up against the wall, making sure to place his boot on the young man’s hilt. “After Bahram gets done with you, you shall pay for what you’ve done to my brothers,” he hissed vehemently, panting only slightly from the exertion.
Watching Arash’s eyes flicker down quickly to his sheathed pistol, the magi scoffed. “You’ve already used your one shot, fool. What do you think you’re going to do with that, throw it at me?” He gave a short mocking guffaw, and the young duelist smiled grimly before jerking his head to the side, letting the tip of the falchion slightly slice his neck as the magi pressed forward on instinct. Drawing his pistol with his right hand, Arash didn’t have time to aim but just squeezed the trigger and shot the magi in the shoulder. As luck would have it, it was the same shoulder that was used to hold the falchion, and as the weapon dropped, Arash spun and mule-kicked the magi in the side of his knee. The shatter as the kneecap broke echoed loudly in the alleyway.
Naturally, the magi fell down, crying out in agony and trying to both hold his knee in place and to put pressure on his bullet wound. Calmly, Arash reached down and picked up his shamshir, blowing the dirt off of it before sheathing it. Mother would be furious if I got Grandmother’s sword filthy, the young duelist chuckled inwardly. He kicked the falchion away before striding up to the wounded man and standing over him. “How?” the magi grunted incredulously through the pain. “I saw you shoot with it, and you had no time to reload!”
“Do you like it?” Arash asked the magi. “It’s something new; a member of the Guild of Intrinsic Craftspeople made it for me after I helped him take care of some thugs who were harassing his mother. One of a kind so far, but I’m sure more will turn up eventually. It has a cylinder that can hold 6 bullets. Quite a remarkable feat.” All pretense at civility aside, Arash knelt down and placed the barrel against the magi’s forehead. “And don’t worry about disappointing your precious sheikh; Bahram will be joining you and your brothers in death very shortly.” And with that, he pulled the trigger once more, turning his head to the side so he wouldn’t get blood or other viscera in his eyes.
After he stood up, wincing slightly from the wound on his neck, Arash cut off a piece of cloth from one of the dead magi’s robes and used it to wipe off his face and to polish his shamshir. Not above making a little money off the dead, he quickly took their purses and waterskins before rolling their bodies to the side of the alley, where hopefully nobody would notice them for a few hours. Humming softly to himself, he reached down to his belt to take out his purse and to add his acquired coins to his own. He stopped humming when he realized it wasn’t there.
As he stood there, patting his pockets in vain and trying to remember where he could have lost it, it suddenly occurred to him. The Sandstrider, “accidentally” bumping into him stepping away from a vendor’s table… “That light-fingered ass pickpocketed me!” Arash said softly in disgust. “Great, as if this day couldn’t get any worse.” A loud clap of thunder startled him, and as he felt the first drops of rain hit him from the sudden summer storm that had sprang up, he chastised himself about daring the Universe for more bad luck. Gritting his teeth, the young drenched duelist strode down the alley back the way he came, determined to find the Sandstrider who had stolen from him and to make him pay, one way or another.