Padeshahi (the Kingdom)

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Firuzeh's Story III

“…and if you combine those two chemicals, even though you’d think they wouldn’t mix, they create a massive gooey explosion. I swear, it took Jābir ibn Hayyān a whole night to get himself free!” Io’s laughter at the end of his story couldn’t compete in volume with Firuzeh’s, who giggled until her sides hurt and she felt like she couldn’t catch her breath. They were supposed to be training –after they had slept and broke their fast, there wasn’t a whole lot else they could do on the locomotive until they arrived in Amol- but the books and pencils had been pushed aside. Instead, the Deva kept sharing stories about someone the alchemist had once revered as close to divine. The two of them were seated around the table that was bolted to the floor in the main room of their carriage, their two companions apparently still asleep.

“I’m sure what you’re saying is true, but it’s just so hard for me to imagine the founding father of alchemy making all of those mistakes!” Firuzeh said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“Yes, well, history has a way of polishing away a person’s rough veneers until all that’s left is someone practically pristine and sterile. He was incredibly intelligent and gifted, this is true, but at the end of the day he was still a mortal man: he had days where he couldn’t get his hair to lay down right, or where he wore awful clashing colors in his clothes, or when his toothbrush broke and he had to give a lecture with horrible smelly breath.” The sheikh smiled as he told Firuzeh all of this, and it struck her that even though she thought of Jābir ibn Hayyān as some mythical figure, Io had personally known him as a real being.

“Couldn’t you find him any mint leaves to chew on?” she asked the Deva.

Grinning impishly, he replied, “I may have told him that I had an ancient remedy that involved garlic and onions.” As Firuzeh looked shocked and gasped, Io went on. “I convinced him that the odor from the two ingredients would cancel out his morning breath and leave his mouth neutral.” He chuckled when he finished.

“And?” the young alchemist prompted him.

“And…the first row of attendees had to be evacuated because they all couldn’t stop retching,” Io finished, and Firuzeh nearly smacked his arm before remembering who and what he was. Instead, all she did was glare at him. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on him as it did on her brother; that is, none at all. He simply smiled at her, and she eventually smiled back.

Thinking of Arash made her melancholy, and her smile slid away from her face. Last she had heard, he was still in Amol, dueling in the Ring. It had been nearly four years since the young Aryan woman had seen her baby brother, and she had mixed feelings if she wanted to or not. “Shahi for your thoughts,” Io said quietly, drawing her back from her musings.

“Just thinking about family. It’s funny, I’ve spent most of the past six years at Gundishapur University, and yet I still think of Amol as home. How long does it take for someplace to replace where you grew up as the place you feel most comfortable?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.

“It depends, I guess. In some of my lives, home was wherever my companions were; in others, it was where I was reborn, and in all my travels I never got over being homesick.” Io said softly. “What is it about Amol that’s filling you with dread?”

Hearing the doors open to Olgun’s and Lahahana’s rooms and watching them emerge, Firuzeh almost kept her mouth shut. She didn’t really have anything against the Efreet Ostaad, but no matter what the young alchemist did the Djinn-touched viewed her scornfully, and so she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be emotionally open in front of the Sha’ir student. But, Firuzeh sat up straight and threw her shoulders back. If she was going to be potentially seeing her brother and father when they were in Amol, she needed to stop caring so much about what others thought and be honest about how she felt.

Taking a deep breath as their two travelling companions took seats in the main room, Firuzeh continued but directed her words to Io. It felt safer that way. “I was 17 when I got the Naameh for acceptance at Gundishapur University, although I didn’t leave for there until I had finished schooling and was 18 of course. When I left, I was sad obviously, but I knew that my brother, my father Barak who is an architect, and my mother Nasrin who was a Psywarrior would be fine without me. And they were…for a while.”

“Wait a minute, you said your mother was a Psywarrior. Did she stop?” Olgun asked, and Firuzeh closed her eyes for a second as a single tear escaped from her clenched lids and ran down her cheek. Of course the Sha’ir had been observant enough to pick up on that slip.

“Yes, the same way everyone stops being what they are,” was all she said, and nobody spoke for a moment. Once she had gotten herself under control, Firuzeh went on. “I was only at the University for two years when I got pulled out of class by one of the Raees’s assistants. She told me they had gotten a message from Amol via the new voice resonance messaging system that had just been installed, and I was needed at home. It must have cost my father quite a lot, along with the ride back there via one of the kashti-e-havaayee.”

Someone handed her a glass of water, and she took it. Smiling up at Ostaad Lahahana in thanks, she drank some before setting it down. “Since the message didn’t say why I was needed at home, I couldn’t really appreciate the airship journey. All I could think of was something bad had happened to somebody in my family. And, when I got there, I found out I was right.”

Taking another drink to calm her nerves, since she hadn’t talked about her mother in quite a while, Firuzeh continued her story. “The coastal city of Gameroon had spotted a Naga scouting party landing further up the shore, closer to one of the smaller villages that dot the edge of the Meditaar Sea. They had called upon volunteers to assist in driving those scaly snake people off, since the bulk of the Shahan-shan’s army was off fighting against the invading army of the Kurdans to the east in one of their numerous forays into our country.”

She smiled for a moment, head cocked to the side. “I truly wish you could have seen what she looked like back then, but I’m no bard and so I’ll try the best I can with my words. My brother gets his height from my mother, who was only 5’6”; however, he also gets his ability with a weapon from her. She was lean, all sinew and muscle as every bit of fat was burned off from her battles, skin deeply tanned from years spent outdoors. Eyes the deepest shade of blue you’d ever seen, and hair that had went silver when she was younger than me always worn in a tail with the sides shaved clean. But no matter what, whenever my father laid eyes on her his eyes shone and she knew that he saw her as beauty personified. Dressing ‘feminine’ had never appealed to her, and so she never wore dresses or skirts. Her training and all of the conflicts she’d been in had left her skin covered in numerous scars. When I had asked her if she was embarrassed by them, she had smiled and said, ‘No, because every one of these scars is a reminder that I’m alive and that someone I was protecting still lives as well. Why should I be ashamed of that?’”

Giving a little sigh, Firuzeh went on. “My mother had a deep hatred of the Naga, since she had lost many fighting companions to their raiding parties. Upon receiving the call to arms, my mother strapped on her shamshir and was all set to head up river to Gameroon. When my father heard the news and saw her doing this, he told her that she was getting too old to be going out fighting other people’s battles, and that she should stay home where she had a family who loved her and would miss her.” Firuzeh stopped and chuckled for a moment, and Io put his hand over hers in sympathy. “I know he was just scared, but the last thing any warrior wants to hear, no matter how good intentioned it is, is that they’re too old to fight. Ignoring him, my mother kissed my father and brother goodbye, and told them she would be home as soon as those bastards were driven back into the ocean.”

Swallowing a few times, the young alchemist went on. “The fighting was fierce, so I was told, and my mother sent many a Naga’s souls back to their Kraken Goddess those days. When they were finally routed and were fleeing back to the water’s edge, one of the Naga spotted a lone Aryan child that had wandered away from safety. Apparently, it pushed the child to the ground and raised its trident high, prepared to skewer the little girl as punishment for their raid being unsuccessful. My mother didn’t even hesitate. She dived in front of the child and took the barbed tines through her stomach. But, before she succumbed to her wounds, she made sure she took that fucker’s head clean off with one swipe of her sword.”

She couldn’t go on. “I know that hers wasn’t the only life lost during that conflict, and no disrespect to E’laa’hi, but it was my mother!” she cried out to Io, tears unabashedly streaming down her face now. “Why, why did it have to be her, when she did so much for so many others, repeatedly laying down her life to ensure that a child would be spared the calamity of being killed or a farmer could avoid being made a Naga slave or a young girl could go home to her family? Why did SHE have to be the one to die?”

Usually, at these times, people would try to comfort the grieving one saying all sorts of inane platitudes that meant nothing and merely reflected that they themselves had no answers. The sheikh was not one of those people. “Life is all about choices. The Divine doesn’t write us a contract stating that if we make good choices our lives will be ones of comfort and luxury. No, if it did that would take away our free will and mean that we were being bribed to be good.” Firuzeh gripped his hand like it was a lifeline as he spoke. “Your mother made a choice, to save that family from losing their child and to save that child from having its life ended before it began. Do you think she regretted her choice, even knowing it would leave your father a widower and her children bereft of her love?”

Olgun handed her a handkerchief and Firuzeh used it to dry her eyes and wipe her cheeks off. “No, I don’t think that she did. I think that she made the only choice she could make in that situation. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been the mother that I knew.”

“Exactly. I didn’t know her, and I’m not going to claim that I did, but from your words you have painted us a picture of someone who loved everyone so much that she was prepared to sacrifice her own life to save someone else’s. That, to me, sounds like what it truly means to be a hero, and I wish I could have met her. She sounds incredible.”

Sniffling, Firuzeh stood up and went over to Io, hugging him tightly while she sobbed and got all of her tears out. It was like draining a wound of poison; once you began, you couldn’t stop if you wanted to truly heal. Soon, her sobs softened and she only hiccupped once or twice before pushing herself back gently from the sheikh. Her tears had soaked through his soft robe covered in that fancy script, but rather than being upset he just caressed her hair and smiled benevolently at her.

When she sat back down, Firuzeh was surprised to see that Olgun and Lahahana were still there. She would have bet that this display would have at least made the Djinn-touched uncomfortable, but they had stayed, silent witnesses to her outpouring of grief. It meant a lot to her, and she smiled at the Sha’ir shaagerd and was hugged tightly by the Efreet Ostaad. “I too know what it’s like to lose someone you love, and I’m sorry for your loss,” he whispered in her ear, like honeybees buzzing around their hive, before releasing her and sitting back down.

“Is that one of the reasons you became an alchemist?” Olgun asked her quietly.

“What do you mean?” Firuzeh said, still trying her best to clean her face off before giving it up as a futile task. She would just have to use the sink in the water closet in just a minute.

Now that everyone was looking at her, the Djinn-touched almost stopped talking, but she seemed to take courage from Firuzeh’s example and pressed on. “I mean, Ostaad Lahahana said that alchemists don’t just mix chemicals together, that they use those funny looking staves with the slings on the end to help defend their allies. Is that why you chose alchemy, since your mom was always defending people?”

The question gave the young Aryan female pause. She had never really given it any thought, but looking back it did make sense. Subconsciously, she must have chosen something that allowed her to use her intellect and to still live up to the example set by her mother while still being something that her father would respect. “I…I guess that it’s true.”

“What about your brother? Did he follow in your mother’s footsteps also?”

Shaking her head no, Firuzeh answered Olgun’s question. “Not at all. While he used to practice his swordsmanship with my mother whenever he was done with his schooling and she was home, it was obvious at even a young age that Arash didn’t know the meaning of the word sacrifice. My mother’s death didn’t change that.” Sighing to herself, the alchemist drifted off in thought. “After her funeral, I went back to my classes and because of her sacrifice they gave me a semester off. The next chance I got to visit my family was two years later, only this time I took a locomotive. When I arrived at home, I was just in time to witness a massive argument and shouting match between my brother and my father. They had never really been close, and with my mother the referee gone and me back at school, there was no buffer anymore between them.”

“What happened then?” Lahahana asked.

“My brother stormed out of the house. I followed him and tried to get him to come back and speak with our father. But,” and here she blushed with shame, “my brother and I have never truly been close either. When I was younger I used to boss him around and get him in trouble, telling my parents all of the things I’d caught him doing. He spent a good portion of his childhood standing up.” The Efreet gave a small laugh of understanding. “So my attempts at reconciliation were met with scorn. I came back home and had a quiet dinner with my father and then went to bed, still no sign of Arash. When I awoke the next morning, he was gone, along with mother’s shamshir and some of her things that I’m sure he sold for some money. Last I had heard, he had found some place near the Ring to live and started dueling, having been trained as one for the last four years or so. And, that was that. I came back to Gundishapur University, and haven’t been back home since.”

“Since my father killed all of my siblings before I was born in his paranoid rage, I don’t know what it’s like to have them, but is that normal?” Olgun asked, and Firuzeh gave a little shudder at the calm way she discussed her brothers and sisters being murdered. Thank E’laa’hi that I’ve never known what that’s like, the alchemist offered a quick prayer to the Divine.

“You mean the fighting, the tattling, not getting along? I can’t speak for everyone else, but from what I’ve heard from friends and classmates yes it is pretty normal,” she offered.

“Almost makes me glad I never knew any of them,” the diminutive Sha’ir said.

“And we all know from my story that having a sibling isn’t always nice,” Io said, and they all nodded their heads in agreement. “But, it’s not always that bad. Sometimes a sibling is your best friend, the one who knows all your secrets and still loves you anyway. And at the end of the day, they’re family, and it’s hard to turn your back on family. So, maybe after all these years, your brother may be more understanding?”

Firuzeh scoffed. “You really don’t know Arash; next you’ll be telling me that he has females who are just friends and has actually befriended someone who is different than him. You’ll forgive me, honored sheikh, but I won’t hold my breath.”

“As you said, I don’t really know him. Now, since we’re all here, how about we starting making some lunch? And afterwards, I even brought some playing cards and we can play some As-Nas…as long as you all don’t mind losing badly.” Groans and good-natured jeers greeted Io’s pronouncement. As Firuzeh got up to clean herself off and to help with the meal preparation, she smiled fondly. She had many wonderful memories of sitting around the gaming table with her family, laughing at Arash’s mistakes as he refused to change up his tactics, watching her mother and father teasing each other in between warm kisses. Back when she was happy, her family was whole and they all were loved. And if she had anything to do about it, they would be that way once again.

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