Padeshahi (the Kingdom)

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If someone had told Arash just two months ago that he’d be waiting to talk to a sheikh, and patiently no less, he’d have laughed and asked if they were referring to a different Arash…right before he pickpocketed them for the insult, of course. Maybe have even stolen their girlfriend or some such nonsense. But now, things were different. He knew that women weren’t a thing that could be stolen, he’d learned to be patient, and he had a sheikh for an honest friend. It’s true what they say, the duelist mused, people can really change.

He was in the city council building, leaning against one of the white marble pillars that decorated the massive hall, and trying his best not to scuff up the recently polished floor with his dirty boots. Finally, his patience was rewarded, and the doors to the meeting room swung open and the myriad council-people emerged, all chatting happily together and seemingly buzzing with excitement. Arash smiled to himself; Io seemed to have that effect on people. Before the doors could close –or somebody else came up, demanding some of the sheikh’s attention- the duelist quietly slipped through and approached the desk where the Deva was sitting.

Seeing who it was, Io’s face split with a beaming grin, and he got up and came around the desk to give Arash a grateful hug. “It is so good to see a friendly face, somebody who doesn’t want anything from me,” the sheikh said softly into the Aryan’s ear, clapping the duelist on the back. Pushing gently back from the hug, he studied Arash thoughtfully. “Wait, you didn’t come to ask something of me, did you?”

While he wanted to draw out his friend’s discomfort, Arash only made him wait a few seconds before he threw the Deva a wink. “No, honored sheikh, this is just a friendly visit.” Slowly walking towards the desk, Arash turned and leaned back against it. “The city council seemed happy; what, did they offer you the mayor position?”

Io shuddered. “I told them even if E’laa’hi let me know that being a nazim was what I was meant to do, I still wouldn’t accept their offer. In all of my lives I’ve done my best to avoid politics, and just one month dealing with everyone trying to push and pull me in a million different directions, I see I was far wiser than I knew.” He rubbed his face with his left hand while massaging his lower back with his right. “How did I get to this place?” the Deva muttered.

“Well,” Arash drawled out, “you wanted to show the people of Amol what a ‘real’ –your words, not mine- sheikh was like, and so you approached the city council the morning after we defeated Bahram and volunteered to help.” Arash nearly spit to the side, as he always did after mentioning Io’s goat-rutting brother, but remembered at the last second where he was and swallowed it bitterly. “So, how long are you going to let them keep you here?”

Walking back over to his jag desk, the rosewood glow slightly buffed out in certain spots from numerous people resting their face in their hands over the years, Io slumped down into his chair. “I’ve told them repeatedly that a sheikh shouldn’t be bound to one place, but they always seem to deflect the remark away. Personally, I think they like having a good sheikh here after all the time Bahram spent in Amol using and abusing the populace. No matter; one day I’ll just pack up my stuff and be on my way before they even know it.”

Reaching over and picking up a pear from the shisham bowl set on the desk, Arash bit into it and swallowed before answering his troubled friend. “They can’t hold you, you know. But, travelling alone sounds risky. Have you thought of getting yourself a magi?”

Shaking his head no so hard it made Arash’s hurt just watching it, Io spoke up. “Never. I’m not saying I wouldn’t mind traveling with friends, of course, but a magi…there is too much potential for misuse and abuse in those situations. No, I rather have companions who have free will. May be more difficult at times,” and here he gave Arash a wink, “but at least I know that their mind is their own, and if they agree with me it’s because they want to.”

“Well, Firuzeh is almost done with her degree; the Raees said that my sister’s journey with you and her help defeating your brother counted as her master’s project in his eyes, so she just has a couple of classes left. I’m sure she would love to join you.” Arash offered.

Stroking his hairless chin in thought, Io hummed to himself for a bit. “That might be a good idea. And, I’d love to have Shaagerd Olgun join us, since the two of them now seem to be getting along.” The Deva must have had a hand in that, for he smiled to himself.

Arash gave a short laugh. “Well, most of the time. As well as anyone could really get along with my sister, since she can be quite stubborn and opinionated. Don’t know where she gets it from.” They had basically made up, but in the end she was still his older sister.

“Who can say?” Arash looked down quickly at Io, but the Deva had such a look of innocence that the duelist knew he was being teased about something. But, since he couldn’t figure out what it was, he put it aside. “Have you heard from Ostaad Lahahana or Basma?”

“He was just out here for a couple of days a week ago, and he stayed out here for a few days after we defeated Bahram. The Efreet said he knew what it was like to lose a mate, so he was helping her through the grieving process. Personally, I think it’s because he’s sweet on the Qazzam, even though he would never admit it, and neither would she; but only time will tell if it turns into something.” Arash said as he finished off the pear and got off of the desk, walking over to a rubbish container and depositing the remains of his snack into it. He was quite proud of himself; why, just a few months ago he would have either left the pear core on the desk or hidden it somewhere no one could find, just to giggle thinking of ants and the smell tormenting others.

“We shall see,” Io said noncommittedly, and the duelist could only shrug. If the Deva had seen something from E’laa’hi involving those two, he wouldn’t say anything to Arash about it, so there was no sense in prying into his remark. “What about Yuri?” the sheikh asked.

“Once the Guild of Intrinsic Craftspeople heard what he had done, they offered him membership in their little organization right away. He couldn’t believe it, but he was mortified when his mother heard, made the caravan turn back around, and haggled with the Guild’s leaders over the price of his admission and whatnot. I swear, I didn’t know someone could blush through those wraps they wear, but that Liyudi proved me wrong!” Arash chuckled at seeing the mental image once more, and even Io gave a polite laugh or two. “He’s apparently working on something like a kashti-e-havaayee, but only for one passenger, odd as that seems. Yuri offered it to Lahahana so he wouldn’t have to keep taking a train from Gundishapur University to here, but the Efreet apparently has a thing about heights: they make him nauseous. I do find it ironic that someone who seems to specialize in the Element of Air has that kind of problem,” the young Aryan said, Io nodding his head in agreement.

Taking a deep breath, Io obviously had something he wanted to inquire about, and he seemed to be working up the nerve to do so. “Did you and your father patch things up?” the sheikh asked softly, and Arash began to pace back and forth, slightly agitated. “Come on, Arash, don’t tell me you two still aren’t talking. After everything that happened…”

Still pacing, the duelist answered Io. “No, we did…sort of. After these many years, even after he was turned back into an Aryan from being a sheep, he’s still the same person he was,” and here Arash got quiet, “and I guess so am I. I’d like to think we’re better off than what we were before all of this, but even when my mother was alive we were never what you’d call close. Only time will tell if that eventually changes or not.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Io changed the subject. “What about the lovely monk?”

Arash stopped pacing to smile shyly. “She’s, she’s great. We’re taking things slow, since this is the first real relationship that either of us have been in, but things are good between Hengameh and me. And, we’ve both agreed that maybe we should try being only with each other, which still seems strange. But, for her, I’m willing to try anything she asks of me.”

“That’s wonderful, my friend,” Io said, clapping Arash on the shoulder. “I wish you both all of the happiness and love you could want in this life.”

Looking down for a second, Arash took his time before he was willing to look back up at Io. With a couple of tears in his eyes, he said, “And what about you, Io?”

“What about me?” the Deva asked, confused.

“What about your love and happiness? After all,” here the duelist sniffed a couple of times unconsciously, “I did kill your only living family.”

“Oh, Arash,” Io said, rubbing the distraught young man’s arm. “I don’t hold any grudges against you for that, I really don’t. Not even for stabbing me,” the sheikh tried to make a joke, but Arash didn’t rise to the bait. Sighing, the Deva continued trying to soothe the duelist, speaking softly and slowly. “Really, my friend, there’s nothing to forgive. You did what I couldn’t, and I will be forever grateful to you for that. Not only did you save me from having to choose between my brother and the world, you saved everyone else. So, if you’re carrying around this burden of guilt for what you did, put it down. I never even picked it up.” The sheikh held open his arms, and Arash let himself be held just for a few seconds for comfort before it grew awkward for him and he gently pushed Io away. I guess not everything has changed, the young Aryan thought morosely. But, it can if I want it to, he mused.

After he had stepped back and regained his composure, Arash was about to say something to his friend when the door opened up and one of the city guards rushed in. After glaring at the duelist for daring to have weapons in the sheikh’s presence, the guard remembered why he was there. “Forgive me, honored sheikh,” he said, pausing to salute right hand pressed over his heart, “but there’s been a…well, I’m not quite sure how to say this…”

“Speak freely, my son, it’s all right,” the sheikh tried his best to reassure the nervous guard. “Take a few deep breaths, and just say what it is you have to say.”

Following the Deva’s advice, the young guard –Arash smiled, realizing that the guard was probably his age, but he felt so much older after all they’d done- did breathe in and out slowly until he had gotten himself under control. Once he did, he stood up straight and said, “The grave, honored sheikh, the one for your brother that you’d dug out on the edge of town and asked if we could keep an eye on it during our patrols? The grave has been disturbed.”

“How? How has it been disturbed?” the sheikh asked tensely.

“I would say that a wild animal dug up the body, honored sheikh, but the way the hole appears it almost looks like the body was dug out from inside the grave; and the reason I say it was a wild animal is that there are paw-prints leading away from the grave, only…”

“…the paw-prints are backwards, yes?” Io finished for the guard, paler than he usually was. Arash was confused, as was the guard, but the young man finally nodded his head yes. “Thank you for reporting this to me, my son; please, refresh yourself before you resume your patrol,” the Deva said to the guard, who saluted once more before turning and leaving.

“What was that about?” Arash asked with concern.

“That is the way a rakshasa appears, my friend, hands like animal paws but backwards. Remember how I had warned him that this could happen? Well, it seems like we were able to stop Bahram from ruining Amol, but we were too late to stop my brother from becoming one of those abominations - even without the presence of the darkness inside of him,” Io answered.

“Well then, what should we do?” Arash asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Let’s see if our companions are up to another adventure, my friend. After all, someone has to save the people of Padeshahi from this monster, and it might as well be us.”

“Looks like you get your wish to get out of politics after all,” the duelist joked with gallows humor as he waited for his friend to grab his things from the corner of the room.

“It reminds me of an expression I heard many lives ago: be careful what you wish for,” the Deva joked back. “Come on, we have no time to waste. I’ll go send a message to the University and tell the Raees that I’ll pay him back for passage for 3 on one of the airships; you go get Yuri, Hengameh and Basma, and we’ll meet at the air-wharf by 18th Bell. Your sister and the two Sha’ir should be here by then, hopefully. We’ll discuss our plans after we’re all together.” And with that, the two men left the room they were in and ran out the door. Even though they were all in massive danger -again- Arash couldn’t help but grin. Life with his friends may be many things, but boring was never going to be one of them, and there was nowhere in this world he rather be than by their side throughout it.

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