WITH A GOLDEN RISHA, by P. Djéli Clark
The Hanging Stones of Ispa had been aptly (if also quite boringly) named. Twenty or more boulders floating high above the Jade Sea, as if unaware their weight should have made such a thing impossible. Some held a sorcerer had convinced the fool things they were feathers rather than stone; others said it was the practical joke of a mischievous Efrit, though the humor had been lost to time. The erudite scholars of the college at Alm dismissed such tales, claiming the stones were filled with ore that repelled the earth much as a magnet—or some such thing. The lone figure that sat perched on one of the hovering rocks weighed these many arguments, deciding in the end they were irrelevant. All that mattered now was that he was trapped here, with little chance of rescue.
Saleh plucked the strings of his pear-shaped oud with a worn tortoise-shell risha, sending music into the air that turned and danced in time to his song: an ode to a fat-bottomed girl named Neshi, who liked to watch him dance with silver bells in his hair. He once had the fortune of meeting the celebrated oud player Mahir the Magnificent, who between a haze of hashi smoke dispensed sage advice: sing what you know, tell tales that you have lived.
Mahir the Magnificent shared other secrets to his success: keep a salted fish tied to your beard for luck; gargle with bitter black leaf tea for the voice; use only one name; and earn a sobriquet, which every musician of note carried. Saleh passed on the first two bits of counsel, but followed the third, to the mortification of his family. They had hoped his pursuit of music a passing phase, until he dropped out of the college at Alm. Lectures on law, mathematics and alchemy moved him little. He wanted to travel the world, see wondrous things, compose songs that would be sung forever—and earn a sobriquet.
None of that included ending up here.
Saleh lay down his oud, eyeing the azure expanse that stretched in every direction. Who ever knew there could be so much sky? Peering over the edge of the airborne boulder, he stared down at the Jade Sea. He could almost make out its glittering surface between patches of clouds, where birds soared on the drafts. A few came up at times to regard him—curious of this flightless interloper.
Not for the first time, he cursed the spineless captain who deposited him on this rock. Don’t have a choice boy, the man told him—not when you’ve made enemies of a high caste noblewoman threatening to have my airship impounded at the next port! He muttered apologies, for all they were worth, leaving food and a cask of water. But that was two days past! Saleh finished most of the food that first night—how else was he expected to ease his troubles? His water was near gone, and he could already feel his belly touching his back. A few more days, and the next passing ship might find nothing but his bones. The thought wilted his spirit. If that happened, who would ever complete his songs?
He ran a hand through his bushy hair in frustration. His mother had warned that his smile and pretty face would one day land him in trouble. He’d only taken the job as Neshi’s music teacher to gain passage out of the port city of Bukra. Who could have guessed the tongue in that pampered noble mouth was so skilled? Her large eyes were tearful when her mother had him put off ship. He wondered if she cried for him now?
Saleh scowled, pushing Neshi, her eyes, and especially her fat bottom, from his head. Fishing through the pockets of his trousers, he retrieved a set of wooden beads. Despite his naming, he was not the most pious of men. But this seemed as good a time for prayer as any. He had been raised to revere the One God, though his mother still kept a small chapel to honor the Many. Sitting cross-legged, he began to recite the ninety-nine names of the One passed down from his father, hoping for miracles, mercy and favors. It was as he was on the thirty-second, that he spied the ship.
It was a speck in the distance, so far away that he first mistook it for a bird. Only birds didn’t leave trails of smoke in their wake. Scrambling to his feet, Saleh shouted, his voice echoing through the expanse as he jumped, waving his arms in desperation. When the ship turned towards him his heart soared, sending his legs into a frenzied dance. The One truly was Beneficent! But as the craft drew closer and he spied it for true, his elation and shouts died away.
The sky above the Jade Sea was a shipping way for cargo vessels and barges. This ship was neither of those. Black and sleek, it cut through the empty sky like a steel shark, its engines and propellers unnaturally silent. The flag it flew was plain enough: white with crimson calligraphy worked into a serpent with clawed feet. Not the standard of any kingdom or federation, not even a merchant’s guild. That was the flag of a pirate.
Saleh cursed anew. Of all the misfortunes! Not some spice drug smuggler or sky squid hunters, but pirates! He must have been a brain-addled fool. He was above the Jade Sea! How could he forget that nearby was Adaal? Or what had once been Adaal: a sultanate splintered by wars of succession and now ruled by scores of clans, each their own fiefdom. Other kingdoms had taken advantage, fishing Adaal’s waters openly, roaming its skies, and plundering its goods. Adaali fisherman and farmers had turned to piracy, exacting what they called “the local tax” upon any vessel they captured.
Frantic, he wondered at his next course. Hide? Eyeing the barren rock he laughed aloud at the impossible. Should he perhaps wave them away? And do what then, he mused, remain here? Resume his title as the lone Lord of Ispa? But pirates! The stories said they flayed captives alive, killed for sport and ravished women. Come to think of it, those tales said they ravished pretty-faced men too!
Kissing his prayer beads, Saleh stuffed them back into his pocket. There was no way out of this, and he needed more than prayer now. Strapping on his oud, he placed the risha to its strings and began plucking out a tune. Mahir the Magnificent claimed the truly skilled could soothe men or beasts with their music—though Saleh was not sure where pirates fit along that line. So it was, when the sleek black airship finally reached him, it found a lone figure in a garish green kaftan, tan trousers and the worn tan boots of a city dweller, playing an oud and humming an idle song.
Adaali faces stared down at him from the railing of the airship’s hull, bewildered. A few pointed and laughed, exchanging words and incredulous looks—as if they’d happened upon a talking mule. Saleh continued to play. If they were laughing, they weren’t skewering him. Finishing a final chorus, he bowed. There was no applause.
“A wonderful serenade to the clouds,” someone remarked.
Saleh looked up to find a man leaning over the side of the ship, weighing him like a fisherman eyeing a strange catch. He was unmistakably Adaali, lean with dark taut skin. His voice was so high-pitched and melodious Saleh almost mistook him for a woman—but for the beard. A ransom of gold circled his neck, matching the stitching worked into his ivory kaftan.
“Peace be with you,” Saleh greeted amiably. “I’m Saleh, a musician by trade, born in the city of Koms, recently departed from Bukra. It’s my fortune—my very life—to come upon you.”
The man arched an eyebrow. “And how is it, Saleh, music maker of Koms, recently of Bukra, that you find yourself—“ He gestured to the length of sky and hovering rock. “Here?”
Saleh put on a half grin. “I owe a necromancer in Bukra a bit of money. Well more than a bit actually. But this latest setback, was a noblewoman’s idea of a joke.”
At that the man wrinkled his lips, as if tasting something sour. Before Saleh could discern what he might have said wrong, another voice called out from the ship. This one was deep, and not at all melodious.
“You’re often in the company of noblewoman?” it rumbled.
“If I was,” Saleh called back loudly to the unseen voice, “I’d probably know to keep away from their daughters.”
“So you’re no rich man.”
Saleh laughed. “Rich men don’t borrow money from necromancers to pay gambling debts.”
“A rich man’s pet then?”
Saleh’s smile faded. His family were petty artisans, hardly wealthy. And while he wouldn’t mind riches, he’d gladly take fame first. As for someone’s pet… “I am rich in talent,” he said pointedly. “What I earn is honest, created by my own hands. And I am no one’s pet.”
There was quiet. Chagrin momentarily heated Saleh’s face. Not very smart if he had just insulted his would-be rescuers. But instead of anger, there was laughter—a booming thing that rose up from that unseen voice.
“Now that is a proper answer!” it bellowed. “Bring him on then!”
There were new shouts, and in short order a plank was lowered. Saleh breathed in relief as he walked up its length. His anxiety returned however when he stepped on board.
There were Adaali everywhere, more than he had imagined. Most wore the long colorful sarongs common to Adaal, alongside an outlandish clash of embroidered kaftans, silk shawls and other garments. The ivory hilts of pistols and knives showed from where they were tucked into folds and sashes. Not just Adaali either now that he looked close. Bronze and even pale hues dotted the bunch. At least three were Yuangari, their faces bearing the tattoos and curved eyes of the Dragon Kingdoms. One of the pirates was actually a woman—with long raven black hair and coppery skin, though she dressed little different than her companions. Saleh’s gawking at the strange crew was broken as a tall figure strode from their midst.
This man was decidedly not Adaali—with broad shoulders and muscled arms that looked better fitted on an ironworker. His black skin was darker than even the Adaali, clashing with his blue gold-trimmed coat and crimson trousers. And were those papers stuffed into his pockets? He towered over Saleh, a wide grin flashing from inside a rich black beard.
“So this is the oud player,” he rumbled cordially. “Fell into debt with a sorcerer? Plucked the wrong noblewoman’s daughter with your risha?” The crew cackled at this, some grinning to show dark stained teeth. The raven-haired woman cackled loudest of all.
“She was my patron,” Saleh explained. “I taught her daughter—”
“Oh I’m sure you were a master teacher,” the big man cut in. This set off a new round of mirth. Saleh tried to smile along, though he felt ill at ease among the raucous lot. They had it all wrong anyway; it was Neshi who chased him, like a hawk after a mouse! He was the one they should feel sorry for!
“Still,” the big man said, his tone turning serious. “Your honest work was worth more than whatever this wretched noblewoman paid you. She robbed you of your true worth.”
The crew murmured solemn assent at this and Saleh nodded feebly along. He supposed that was the case, though he’d never thought of it that way.
“I owe you thanks,” he said graciously. “I would have starved out here. You must have been sent by the One.” He paused and then hastily added, “Or the Many.” People could be touchy about religion. Best to cast a wide net.
The big man smiled wryly. “Don’t thank us yet. We’re not putting to port for another month. You’ll be here a while.” Saleh felt his stomach fall away. A month? Among pirates? The One preserve him!
“And there’s the matter of what to do with you,” the big man continued, fingering his beard. “Labor is cherished here; everyone earns their keep. You have any skill working an airship?” Saleh shook his head. Airship work? He couldn’t even change a carriage wheel.
The big man grunted. “Well, looks like it’s the bowels for you then.”
“The bowels?” Saleh asked. That didn’t sound pleasant.
“The engine room,” the big man explained casually, “where we keep most of our…‘guests’…helping feed the fires. Hard work, dirty work, but honest.” He turned to the melodious voiced Adaali, whose sour face now wore a satisfied grin. “Qooleey, see that he’s shown his proper place.”
Saleh started in alarm as Qooleey took hold of his arm. The engine room? He’d heard of such places, so hot you had to strip to the waist, spending days shoveling coal into furnaces. He looked down to this brown delicate hands. They were his life! He couldn’t ruin them between gears and soot!
“Wait!” he cried, trying to pull away. “I can do other work! I’ve been to school! I speak three of the old tongues!”
“I speak five,” the big man shrugged, already turning away.
Saleh tried again. “I’m a musician remember? I could entertain you!”
The big man seemed offended. “Do I look like some pampered noble, oud player?”
“Your crew then!” Saleh urged, desperate. “I could sing for your crew!”
This earned a dismissive wave. “My crew is busied with their labors. There’s no time for song.”
“There’s always time for song!” Saleh retorted. “All you do here is labor? Your crew has no enjoyment?”
That seemed to catch the big man’s interest, as if Saleh had offered some challenge. He walked back, bending close to speak. “Everyone you see here were fishermen once, or toiled on merchant vessels. They were treated like beasts. On this ship, they work for themselves. And they are treated like men. There’s contentment in that.”
There was such surety in his proclamation, Saleh almost faltered. But remembering his predicament, he held his ground. “Didn’t ask if they were content. Asked if they had enjoyment. What’s the purpose of work if you can’t enjoy yourself now and then?” He swung the oud from his back, patting its wooden frame. “What I do is work. Not just for the wealthy, but those who labor. It gets them through the day, and soothes them after. Reminds them there’s life, beyond their tasks. I wager if you asked your crew, they’d tell you the same.”
The big man listened earnestly, then turned an inquisitive eye to his crew. There was silence for a moment and Saleh looked into those Adaali faces, pleading. Place your faith in the music, Mahir the Magnificent had told him. It will always bring you through.
“I could use some music,” someone finally voiced.
Saleh saw it was the raven-haired woman and smiled appreciatively. She shrugged in response. “Let him play. If he’s no good, we’ll throw him and his silly oud over the side.” The crew cheered in agreement and Saleh lost his smile.
The big man appeared to mull this over, then nodded. “You’re quite the philosopher oud player,” he remarked. Saleh almost laughed aloud. Philosophy? That was boredom itself! “Seems you’ve convinced Dali. And with her the crew. Keep them satisfied and you might just avoid the bowels yet.” He chortled at this. “Good luck. Qooleey, let’s get under way. And give him what he needs.”
Qooleey snapped at the command, barking out orders that were picked up and carried. The crew scattered, going about their varied duties with precision. In moments the sails of the airship billowed as the propellers spun, sailing them away from Ispa. Saleh watched the hovering rocks recede in the distance, hoping he’d made a fair trade.
“Suppose you need food?” sour faced Qooleey asked finally.
Saleh clutched his stomach, which growled in answer. The man rolled his eyes, but beckoned him along.
“Your captain—” Saleh began as they walked. He motioned to the big man, who now stood upon the deck with arms clasped behind his back like an immovable statute.
“He’s not a captain,” Qooleey cut in. “No captains on this ship.”
“Your leader then,” Saleh tried. “He doesn’t look Adaali.”
“Not Adaali,” Qooleey responded dryly. “He’s from farther south, though he’s traveled much the world, more than most men. A great amount of wisdom in him.” The man’s melodious voice seemed to sing now. “In his homeland, his given name was Aganda. In the kingdoms however, he goes by Usman.”
Saleh stumbled to a stop and gaped. Qooleey turned back with a toothy grin, his dark eyes mischievous. “So you’ve heard the name,” he purred.
It wasn’t a question. Everyone had heard of Usman, the most notorious pirate in memory. He attacked merchant and imperial vessels alike, and spoke treason against the Emir—calling for the end to rulers. A madman certainly. The bounty he carried was rumored enough to buy a small kingdom, though none who tried to collect it returned alive. Many named him, the Pirate Prince.
When Saleh finally got his legs working again, he trudged along in silence, whispering to the One—and the Many—that he managed to leave this strange affair alive.
His work on the airship—which went by the peculiar name The Beggar—began that very day. After gorging on a meal of rice, caramelized onions and lentils with spiced lamb, he found a place with shade on the deck and set about his task. The crew however proved less than receptive. His best melodies of skillful heptatonic scales produced barely a glance—certainly no applause.
He went to sleep frustrated that first night; sharing a cramped space with an Adaali who snored like a boar had not helped. Still, it was better than the alternative. He learned that the “guests” assigned to the engine room were nobles and merchants, captured from vessels and held for ransom. While they remained, they were put to work feeding the furnaces. Usman was determined that for at least that time, they would know honest work.
With that threat hanging over his head (the bit about throwing him over the side had to be perverse pirate humor), Saleh took another course. The next day he did not sit. Instead he roamed the airship, walking among the crew as they labored. He also remembered one of Mahir the Magnificent’s bits of wisdom—give the people the music they want, not what you believe is best for them. That morning he struck up a popular Adaali song, playing it in the manner of their kaban—a type of oud. He’d listened to a few Adaali play, and remembered well their tempo and lilting voices.
The crew reacted with surprise, at first suspicious but eventually granting grudging approval. A few soon asked to hear songs from their home, as if putting him to a test. At first he was uncertain. But if he was sung a verse, he often realized he did know it—though by different names. The fast-paced The Dancing Dervish turned out to be one in the same with the Adaali The Whirling Star. And the well-known folk tale The Pearl and the Fisherman was for the Adaali, The Fisher’s Fortune.
In short order, it seemed the whole crew had requests. Some tried to teach him more obscure Adaali songs, and bits of Adaali to go with it. At night, the tunes called for turned bawdy. The exploits of a dashing Adaali seaman with private parts of iron; the fisherman’s daughter who was always easily talked out of her dress; the eel with a curious shape that startled all who caught it. Saleh sang them shame-faced, to boisterous laughter. The odd women of the ship—four in all—seemed to enjoy the bawdy songs most, taunting him for even coarser lyrics.
Most especially however, the crew enjoyed songs of the less fortunate: the tale of the nobleman’s daughter, who became a pauper to live with her poor lover; the story of the boilermaker cheated from his pay who died for lack of medicine; the girl thief who duped a foolish king from his wealth.
His music brought him acceptance among the pirate crew. They showed him around the airship, teaching a bit of rigging and knot work—at which he was terrible. They also displayed other talents. Some Adaali were remarkable dancers, clapping their hands and moving their hips as Saleh played. A thick mustached Yuangari dazzled everyone with the ability to make coins and even knives disappear from his fast-working hands. He offered to teach Saleh the trick, if he could learn the oud in turn; but thus far neither had picked up the other’s skill.
Even Usman engaged him, during evenings on the windswept deck sipping mint tea with sweet milk and cardamom. Unfortunately, all the man talked about were the many ways the wealthy robbed those who labored for them, and how the poor would soon overthrow their masters. Saleh listened politely, though he thought it all boring to the point of numbness. He had known more than a few poor men. All they hoped for at the end of a day was to drown their sorrows with hashi or with a wide hipped woman—and they would expend their meager earnings for both.
But Usman was not dissuaded. The man fashioned himself one of the philosopher-kings of old who had ushered in “divine faith”—reconciling the worship of the One and the Many. Usman claimed to be writing a treatise of labor and rebellion that would be just as inspiring—which explained the papers he kept stuffed in his pockets. When it was complete, he planned to spread his book far across the lands to begin his “revolution.” What grand delusions!
Still, these pirates were not what Saleh expected. They spent their days at storytelling, trading jokes or assigning biting nicknames. There was One Leg, Six-toes, Scarface, Big Teeth, Knock-Knees, and so on. Qooleey it turned out was itself a nickname—a chirping bird particular to Adaal. Usman was the only one it seemed above such taunting. Though claiming no one land or ruler, the pirates held a zealous faith in their leader’s vision. Saleh might have simply called them naïve wanderers—if not for the raiding.
The day of his first raid had started out like any other. He spent the morning flirting with the cook for an extra bit of the honeyed flatbread Adaali preferred (the woman was old enough to be his mother, but tittered like a girl at every joke) and took to strolling the deck with his oud, strumming a light song. It was a traditional Adaali folktale about a giant whose heroism had healed their broken lands long ago. It was said when he returned, Adaal would be united once more in peace. The sailors hummed along, starting out their day’s work.
Stopping to rest, he leaned against a railing beside a hawk-nosed sailor nicknamed Bidar, on account of his balding pate. Hailing from one of the Pasha kingdoms, the veteran sailor had once been an officer on an imperial vessel—an amazing feat considering he started as a lowly Zanja working the gas flats. His reasons for turning pirate were a mystery. But he found favor among Usman’s crew, where rank counted for little but age was valued. At the moment he was busied spying through a brass telescope, eyeing the distance.
“Peace be with you uncle,” Saleh greeted. “Catch sight of something?” He nibbled at the bread and a few sweet dumplings he kept in a trouser pocket.
“Could be,” Bidar drawled beneath curving white whiskers that looked much like tusks. “There’s something big out there, moving behind some clouds.”
Saleh turned to look, unable to make out anything beneath the sun’s glare. “What do you think it is?” He paused his eating, eyes going wide before whispering. “Is it a sky krayken?” In his two weeks aboard The Beggar, the pirates had regaled him with tales of fantastic sights in their journeys—herds of green horses that galloped upon the waves, great rainbow-hued serpents that lived in snowcapped mountains, and monstrous sky kraykens with tentacles that could crush an airship within their armored bulk.
Bidar barked a laugh. “Sky kraykens don’t hide behind clouds boy.” His voice lowered to a mutter, and he frowned as if recalling some memory. “Unless it’s a female nesting with her young. Brood swarm like that can pick a ship clean. By the One and the Many, that’s not something I want to see again.”
With a shake the old veteran brought himself back, unaware of Saleh’s ashen expression. “But don’t you worry boy!” he assured. “That’s no krayken. That’s a ship. A big, lumbering beauty of a ship.” He offered a crooked grin at that. Then shouted. “SHIP!”
Saleh jumped as his cry was picked up across The Beggar. As one, the pirate crew raced to the railing, jostling one another for a good look. Usman soon appeared, reaching them in long strides. “Found us some good hunting uncle?” he asked.
Bidar cackled, making his whiskers dance. “Fat and ready for the plucking.” He handed the telescope to Usman who peered out into the distance. Saleh still could see nothing, but the big man smiled broadly. “The One and the Many bless your marvelous eyes uncle.”
He turned back to the crew. “We go as three! Select your parties! And be quick!” His eyes fixed on Saleh and something in them flickered. “Oud player. Grab your instrument and come along. Your skills might prove helpful in this raid.”
Saleh almost choked on a sweet dumpling. “Raid?” he croaked. But Usman was already moving, and he ran to catch up. The crew scurried all about them, like an ant’s nest that had been kicked over. Clearing his throat he tried again.
“I think there’s a mistake.”
“Oh?” Usman asked, never stopping his hurried paces.
“I play an oud. I have no skills with…raiding.” He stopped, gawping as an Adaali ran forward and handed Usman the largest rifle he had ever seen. The weapon began with a mahogany frame etched with gold designs, and ended in two long silver barrels that flared open at the front like trumpets. Catching his stare, Usman grinned and patted the weapon with affection.
“I unburdened this from a Jawgan noble. The man used it to hunt giant thrice-tusked Maroodiyaal. Majestic beasts. And he slew them for no more than sport. I let him spend extra time in the bowels, denying his family’s ransom five times. I’ve never hunted Maroodiyaal, but I’ve put this rifle to good use.” He leaned closer. “You may have never raided a ship, but you are going to put that oud to good use as well.”
Saleh barely recalled how he came to be on the small dhow, what the Adaali called a beden. It was one of three, with long iron hulls sporting wing flaps and small engines along with a lateen sail. It had all been a flurry of activity. What he mistook for disorder was in fact the well-honed precision of a crew of brigands. He was bundled into the vessel with Usman and several others. Qooleey of course. The melodious voiced man leaned casually in the stern, eyeing Saleh’s nervousness with barely suppressed glee. A grey-eyed woman named Barisha, whose amber skin showed more muscles than most men, sat beside him. The two openly made bets on if the oud player might empty his last meal or his bladder in the raid to come. Truth be told, he felt he might do both.
A chip-toothed Adaali nicknamed Genay prodded him, offering a small bit of jaad. The green leaf that stained the teeth and made your mouth dry as dust; but chewing it brought a bit of euphoria—and maybe bravery. Saleh accepted, stuffing a bit between his jaws and biting to release the nutty taste.
“Ready yourselves,” Usman declared. The big man stood at the dhow’s front, his head wrapped in bright yellow turban in the Adaali fashion, and that giant rifle slung over one shoulder. “We’re right on top of her.” And they were. Saleh gasped as he set eyes on the massive airship. It was slate grey and bulbous, with at least eight spinning propellers that carried it slowly through the sky like a lazy whale. It dwarfed The Beggar several times over. And in these dhows they were gnats in comparison.
“We’re going to raid that?” he sputtered, almost swallowing the jaad.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Usman replied. “This is a merchant freighter. Too big, too slow to outrun us. With a small crew and a small guard. They’ll run before putting up much of a fight. When we board, stay close to Qooleey and Barisha.” He turned to them. “Watch after him.”
Saleh looked to the two, who grinned toothily now like wolves. And they were to protect him? “Shouldn’t I have a sword?” he asked. “Or a pistol?”
Usman glanced down to him. “Do you know how to use either?”
“No,” he admitted. He was a musician, not a fighter.
“Then no. Don’t fret oud player. You’ll be looked after. What I want you to do now however is play a song. Play it loud. And play it clear.”
Saleh brought his oud around, uncertain. “What kind of song?”
Usman thought for a moment. “The one about the rich man and death.”
“Oh I like that one!” Barisha perked up, earning a reproachful glare from Qooleey. “What? It’s good!”
Saleh looked to the oud that sat heavy in his lap. An odd request. But what about this day hadn’t been odd? Place your faith in the music, he heard Mahir lecture again. With a held breath, he put a tortoise shell risha to the strings and plucked out the tune.
The song told of a rich man who lived in a mansion atop a hundred stairs. Learning that Death would come for him, he sought to cheat his end through trickery. He dressed a servant in his place and took up the garb of a poor gardener. Masked, the rich man watched as Death began the long ascent up the hundred stairs, knowing the servant would be taken in his stead. But after reaching halfway, Death let out a weary breath and turned to the rich man saying, “I came for your master, but I’m too tired to walk these stairs further. I will have to take you instead.” And the gardener, who was the rich man, dropped dead. The servant, now rich beyond measure, treated his workers well, paid them fair, and spent a lifetime giving away his wealth. When in the end Death came for him as an old man, he went willingly, and at peace.
Saleh finished to find that he had gained an audience. The dhow was now close to the freighter and several figures peered at them over the railing. They stared in confusion, trying to make sense of the approaching craft that made music as it came. For a moment there was silence, as the two groups merely watched the other. A sudden cry shattered the quiet, succeeded by the sound of pistols. Saleh cowered, thinking they had been shot at. But no, the sounds came from elsewhere on the freighter. It was followed by a second set of cries from yet another part of the airship. The two remaining dhows of the raiding party Saleh fast realized. He hadn’t noticed their disappearance. They had broken away, no doubt boarding the freighter elsewhere. His music had been a diversion, to distract the airship guards. The gathered figures on the freighter seemed to grasp as much, many of them running off to meet these new threats.
Usman beamed at his plan’s success. Lifting his rifle high, he fired it once into the air. The boom that followed was like thunder, enough to scatter the remaining figures on the railing. With a lurch the dhow picked up speed, racing now to the freighter. When they reached, Usman jumped out even before the grappling hooks moored them, his booted feet landing easily on the deck. Qooleey, Barisha and the others followed. Someone was sent back to fetch Saleh, who was lifted and all but dragged aboard.
“Play us something lively oud-player!” Usman bellowed. “Something to move the spirit!”
Saleh willed his trembling fingers still and began plucking out a song—a fast-paced tune usually accompanied by Adaali clapping. This time it matched the sounds of battle.
Saleh barely understood what was happening. He seemed to be running to and fro with his small group. Barisha brandished two leaf-bladed short swords and fought while screaming curses. Qooleey’s movements were as melodious as his voice, smiling as he whirled a slender sword. And Usman lived up to his fearsome tale. The pirate leader had left his great rifle in the dhow, and now wielded a long pistol and a heavy wide-blade saber. He led their charge, the sight of him alone sending challengers scurrying from their path.
Saleh scrambled to keep up, plucking his oud as swords rang out and the scent of gunpowder filled the air. The airship’s guards often stopped to stare at him, dumbfounded. He offered them awkward shrugs as Usman and the others took advantage of their confusion to press the attack.
It was in the middle of this tumult that the man appeared. Saleh watched as he peeked a long face about a corner, sending furtive eyes darting about. He didn’t look to be a guard, dressed as he was in a long violet kaftan and golden slippers. Glancing about, he sprinted across the deck, his arms laden with items. He appeared to be trying to reach a dhow anchored to the freighter, carefully avoiding any skirmishes.
Saleh wondered if he should say something. He was no brigand. Did he care if someone on this hapless airship fled? The decision was taken from him, as a handful of frantic guards appeared. They shoved the man aside, ignoring his protests and clambering onto the dhow. It seemed Usman was right. These hired sentries weren’t willing to further risk their lives. They broke and ran everywhere now, making their escape.
A nearby melee sent the man scurrying heedless for safety—directly towards them. Saleh tried to shout a warning to the man, whose long face looked in every direction but the one he was running. Trying to move out of the way, he somehow tripped on his own feet. The collision was not graceful.
Saleh went down in a heap with the man, careful not to fall on the oud—which was more precious to him than his own bones. The man bawled pitifully, trying to pull away. But his long kaftan prevented any extraction and the two lay tangled in a mass of twisted cloth and limbs. It seemed to Saleh they rolled about on the deck in an undignified manner for a long moment. Then hands were upon him, separating them and lifting him up.
“Well caught oud-player!” Usman complimented.
shakily, dusting his clothes and checking his oud. No broken strings.
“Thieves! Bandits!” the man howled. His long face was flustered, as he wagged a finger adorned with rings menacingly in their direction. “Do you have any idea who I am? I work for the Imperial Ministry! In the Golden Archives! My family is noble born! Have you any idea—!”
“Be quiet!” Barisha growled. She slapped his backside with the flat of her sword, causing him to yelp. Usman bent to inspect him, plucking away the items he attempted to clutch onto. Some were books of all things, and rolled parchments.
“Perhaps you know who I am,” Usman greeted with a smile. “I hear I am called the Pirate Prince—though I’ve never cared for the name.”
At that, the man’s long face quailed.
It was some evenings later that Saleh received a summons to Usman’s quarters. He groaned. It had been two days since the raid on the freighter, during which Usman had sequestered himself to his hold. Two blessed days of not having to listen to the man’s philosophical lectures, now come to an end.
With flirting praise to the blushing cook, he finished off a bowl of stewed chicken and beans cooked in buttery sugar, then made for the upper deck. Along the way he tried again to complete the Yuangari’s sleight-of-hand trick with a rice cake, but to no avail. Raven-haired Dali passed him, laughing at his fumbling, her pearl-black eyes smoking with possibilities. He turned to admire her swaying hips, but no more. Dali shared her bed with Barisha and a whip lean, adept, knife-wielding Adaali called Xiito. Saleh had no intention of intruding upon their tryst; that was trouble he could do without.
Downing the rice cake, he made his way to Usman’s cabin, where he knocked before being admitted entrance. The room was larger than most quarters of the ship and Usman used it as a general meeting place, sleeping in a simple woven hammock. Flickering tallow candles lit the space amid stacked books and manuscripts, which Usman claimed to consult for his grand work.
This evening the Pirate Prince stood in the center of the room. Qooleey, stood beside him. Saleh looked past the man’s sour stare to find more persons of general importance among the crew—including Barisha, who idly twirled a dagger while staring down at a lacquered table. They were all staring at the table, where a broad parchment lay stretched across its length.
“Peace be with you oud player!” Usman greeted, looking up to acknowledge him.
“Lucky fool,” Barisha teased, tossing a lone greying forelock from her eyes.
Saleh returned the evening’s peace with a grimace. The raid had been celebrated for its haul—mostly trade goods and some new workers for ransom and the bowels. It was the One’s own mercy that no one on either ship had died. Barisha attributed it to the oud player’s fool luck, and the crew eagerly affixed him with the nickname.
“Fortune smiles on the just,” Usman said by rote, never losing his grin. “But I didn’t call to have you pluck your risha today.” He beckoned Saleh closer, pointing to the table. “Recognize it?”
Saleh looked down and nodded. As was custom on The Beggar, one twelfth of the looted goods had been split among the raiding party; all else was divided evenly under Usman’s watchful eye. Saleh never fashioned himself a thief, but what else to do among bandits? This particular item had been one of the rolled parchments bundled in the arms of the fleeing imperial archivist.
“I speak five languages in the old tongues,” Usman said. “And devils take me if this isn’t written in one I cannot. What do you say oud player?”
Saleh looked to the faded brown parchment, where a mishmash of shapes sat imposed on a blue background. Lines of unbroken script surrounded the crumbling edges, with more writing on the inside.
“I can read it,” he answered. Perhaps his time at Alm wasn’t a full waste.
Usman clapped his large hands. “Praise the One and the Many! You are good luck!”
Saleh smiled sheepishly and scrutinized the parchment. “Some of these are names. And others look like directions. I’d say it’ a map.”
A murmur rose up in the room and Saleh looked about. Usman met his questioning gaze. “Just the confirmation we needed oud player. The man you liberated this from was indeed an archivist. And quite corrupt. He pilfers rare writings from the imperial libraries and sells them to wealthy collectors. He was on this way to deliver this parchment and other items to a buyer. He tried to use it as his ransom, claiming it was a map. To a place called Arakhee.”
“That’s here,” Saleh nodded, pointing to a shape on the map emblazoned in calligraphy. “Where is that? Arakhee? I’ve never heard of it.”
Usman paused, his dark face lit by shadows and candle flame. “Because it hasn’t been called that in a thousand years,” he murmured. “Most today remember it as Jabel’s Doom.”
Saleh’s eyes rounded. “King Jabel? Arakhee is where King Jabel ruled?”
Usman arched an eyebrow to him. “So the stories say.”
“The stories say many of things,” Qooleey chirped.
That they did, Saleh thought. Jabel was a king dead now at least a thousand years, long before the founding of the kingdoms. He ruled a city of vast riches that travellers spoke of in wonder. His power, and that of his kingdom, had been gained through dark sorcery. By some means Jabel summoned and bound terrible Efrit, which plundered other lands, bringing him their riches. Fearful rulers bowed and offered tribute, lest the Efrit be loosed upon them. But Jabel grew careless. The Efrit broke from his control, and laid waste to his city.
“They say a dark cloud covered Arakhee,” Barisha recalled, “even the ships at port. And from that blackness all that could be heard were screams. Passing sailors went mad, leaping into the sea to their deaths. Then the island and all its inhabitants vanished. Jabel’s Doom.”
Saleh shivered. He had heard those tales as a child. How could an entire island vanish?
“They also say,” Usman countered, “that King Jabel’s wealth remains there, ripe for the taking. No one’s known where to find the island-city, until now.”
Saleh goggled, parsing his meaning. “You mean to try and go there?”
Usman grinned wider. “Oh I mean to do more than try.” He turned to the others. “And I ask all of you to come with me. Keep quiet for now. The crew may be put off by this venture. I’m sure they’ll come around in the end. But best we’re in the thick of it by then.”
A stillness descended about the table as a yowling gale sounded outside. Everyone exchanged glances. Raiding merchant vessels was one thing; plundering some cursed island was another. Usman patiently waited them out, as if knowing that was all he had to do.
“Devils take me,” Qooleey sighed finally. “I’ll go. Too rich a chance to pass up.” He swung his gaze to Saleh. “But only if the Lucky Fool comes along. He found the wretched map. Seems only fair.”
Saleh took a step back. “What?”
“Yes!” Barisha echoed, her grey eyes aglow. “The Lucky Fool found the map! I’d feel better with a bit of his dumb fortune. Wager the rest of the crew says the same when they find out he’s going.”
“I’ll go if the Lucky Fool does,” a scarred Adaali called Canjeh agreed. Saleh listened in stunned silence as others joined, each nodding approval at the brilliant plan.
“Wait!” he shouted above their conversation. All eyes turned to him. “No one’s asked Lucky Fool—I mean me, if I want to go!”
Usman frowned, genuinely perplexed. “Why wouldn’t you?”
Saleh gaped at the man. “Perhaps because it’s a haunted island? With a mad king and the One knows what else!”
Usman laughed. “Do you really believe those fanciful tales oud player?”
“Something happened to that city,” Saleh countered. “It’s in the histories!”
“I’ve read the histories these past two days,” Usman remarked, gesturing to a stack of books. “They say only that Arakhee fell. There’s nothing about a curse. The wealthy rely on fear and superstitions to keep the masses oppressed.”
Saleh was in no mood for philosophy. “Why not take the archivist? It’s his map!”
Usman laid a hand on his shoulder. “Because he’s not a member of this crew, and sits where he belongs—tending the furnace in the bowels. Fortune brought you to us oud player, and you brought us this map.”
Saleh shook his head. “I’m just an oud player. Nothing more. I’m sorry.”
Usman stared at him for a while then sighed. “Very well. You won’t be forced. Only as you found the map, it’s a shame you will not claim your share of the twelfth. That amount could be substantial. Enough to pay off your necromancer.”
Saleh eyed the man dubiously. “You expect to find that much?”
Usman shrugged. “You know the histories as I. The wealth of Arakhee is legendary.”
“Mountains of gold I have heard,” Barisha put in. She elbowed Qooleey.
“Yes, mountains,” the sour man sang. “Jewels too I expect.”
Saleh licked his lips. That would indeed be enough to settle his debts—enough to whisk Neshi away from her mother. Maybe even buy up her estates. The thought of putting the noblewoman in the streets actually made him giddy.
But there was still that matter of a dead king. And a curse.
“Think of the songs you could tell of Arakhee,” Barisha added. “What other oud player will be able to make such boasts?”
Saleh paused. Now that was tempting. The words of Mahir the Magnificent played in his ears: sing what you know, tell tales that you have lived. He looked about at the expectant faces. Usman grinned at his silence, like a man who knew he’d just tossed a winning hand at dice.
“Are we decided then oud player?” he asked.
Saleh slowly nodded, wondering if he’d lost all sense since being around these brigands. But how could he say no to riches and songs? The One keep him alive long enough to tell of both.
The trip to Arakhee took them far out onto the open sea. The crew was curious but dutiful. Keeping a secret on The Beggar however, turned out to be futile. As expected, when news of the plan broke, there was uproar. Saleh feared a mutiny. But Usman stood inside the melee like a rock in a storm. He instructed Saleh to play something soothing, and then the big man’s booming voice broke through the din. Mouths fell silent and he seemed to reach every ear, promising each treasure for their troubles and stoking their courage. By the end, they were cheering.
But as they neared their destination, apprehension grew. Seasoned sailors like Bidar complained that the winds flowed oddly. Others claimed the seas were strange too, as were the clouds. Saleh himself knew nothing of either, but he could feel a difference in the air: a cold that prickled the skin. The crew took to completing their tasks in silence, and he plucked his oud with somber tunes to match the mood.
Arakhee appeared one morning out of nothingness, shrouded by a mass of black clouds that sat upon the waters, extending high like a mountain. There were no screams like the stories told. Only silence. And stillness. Saleh watched that dark veil churn as if boiling, and his spine turned to ice.
“Jabel’s Doom,” Usman proclaimed, appearing at his side.
Saleh turned to regard him. “I thought you didn’t believe in that.”
“The One or the Many cast down Arakhee for its greed,” Usman replied. “Destruction wrought by folly. That I believe in.”
Saleh looked into the blackness and shivered. “But what we do now, isn’t that greed?”
A slight smile creased Usman’s face. “We liberate stolen wealth. That is justice, not greed.”
Saleh didn’t bother to argue. “How has nobody ever seen it?” he wondered aloud. “It’s so…obvious.”
“I have thought on that myself,” Usman responded. “Perhaps Arakhee remains hidden unless it is sought. Sorcery can be strange.”
Saleh frowned, looking up at the man. “You make it sound like the island’s…alive, like it’s expecting us.” Usman said nothing more, walking away and leaving the disquieting notion unanswered.
A short while later, the small party was on a lone dhow that skimmed low across the waters. Saleh clutched his oud tight as they approached. They were twelve altogether now, each with large sacks and a few burly Yuangari with wooden chests strapped to their backs. All had weapons. Usman carried his great rifle and saber. Saleh was this time given a small pistol, which he tucked into his waist. The thing felt like a snake coiled there, but it gave some comfort.
“We’re going in!” Qooleey cried. It was the only warning before the cloud enveloped them.
Saleh looked around, blind. He could see nothing. Not even his hand. Everywhere was darkness, a black thick as a wall. The coldness grew here, like thousands of tiny unseen teeth biting into his skin, threatening to freeze his blood. There was suffocation and a moment of panic as he fought to breathe. Then they were through.
He drew a long breath, clutching at his pounding heart. Most of the others seemed similarly shaken—except for Usman who stood resolute. He sometimes wondered if the man was human. In the newly revealed sky the sun shone dully as if filtered through a veil, rendering midday as twilight. The waters here barely moved, and the sail of their dhow turned limp in the lifeless breeze. There were no birds either, not a single gull that winged or cried. It was as if everything was gone, or worse, Saleh feared, dead.
The dhow arrived at a white painted pier. Ancient seaborne vessels with pristine sails and
dozens of oars bobbed upon the waters—their decks empty. Disembarking, the small party walked along a stone pier and stood gaping. The lost city of Arakhee lay sprawled out before them, an array of bulbous spires with colonnaded buildings that competed in opulence. They seemed built one upon the other, with walls that gleamed beneath that unnatural sun.
“It’s very…clean,” Saleh murmured. Not a single building looked to have fallen into disrepair. Trees and gardens sat tended, as if recently pruned. Even fountains spewed water that flowed uninterrupted onto colorful mosaic tiles. A thousand years gone, and the vanished city Akharee remained untouched by time.
“So where do we go now?” Barisha asked as they reached the pier’s end. Her blades were sheathed, but she kept hands on the pommels.
Where indeed, Saleh wondered. The city was a labyrinth. Searching it would take days.
“If I was a greedy king,” Usman pronounced with an air of certainty. “I would make my palace large and magnificent, and surround myself with my wealth.” He pointed and every eye followed. In the distance, a golden dome rose high above all else like a second sun, in what must have been the heart of the city. Its surface glittered even in the dull light, while a twisting spire reached from its top towards the heavens.
“Jabel’s palace,” Saleh marveled. He could already imagine the songs this sight would inspire. “The stories say under the midday sun, the sight of it blinded those who stared too long.”
“Then we should stop staring and get about our business,” Usman proposed. Motioning them forward with his rifle, he began walking.
Saleh took a place in the middle of the small party that moved through Arakhee’s lonely streets. They passed shops and markets, where goods hung ready as if expecting buyers. Food remained piled atop stalls unspoiled, as if awaiting the return of those who made them. Saleh wondered to himself what this city would have looked like filled with people. More to the point, where might all of them have gone? When one of the Adaali reached for some fruit that lay in a basket, his companion stopped him with a hiss. Saleh agreed. He would starve before taking a morsel from this unnatural place.
As they moved closer to the palace, the grandeur of the city grew. Saleh stared up at vast halls and towering statues of winged beings cut from cobalt blue stone, monuments he speculated to rulers or gods. It was then that he first felt the odd tingling at the nape of his neck, as if he were being watched. His gaze darted to cut out windows and arched doorways. All were empty. Still, he could not rid himself of the feeling. Voicing his concern, he found he was not alone.
“Eyes,” Barisha said looking about. “Endless eyes, following us. I feel it too oud player.” The others murmured in agreement, peering into alleys at still shadows.
“Keep your mind on the task,” Usman ordered, never breaking his stride. “Or it will wander down dark paths. The palace is near now. Come!”
They quickened their pace. But try as he might, Saleh could not push away the uneasiness. Neither could his companions, whose fingers strummed along weapons as if expecting an ambush. When they reached the steps of the palace, the small party took them hurriedly, eager to leave the open streets. They stopped before two towering doors of dark wood worked with gold. Usman and the burley Yuangari took hold of bronze handles fashioned in the shape of lions and pulled, until the muscles on their arms strained in exertion. The wooden doors groaned and creaked stubbornly, but slowly parted, revealing their hidden secrets.
Saleh gawked as they stepped through the open doors. Jabel’s palace was even more opulent on the inside, filled with statuary and pottery that could have come from a hundred different lands. Rich tapestries decorated the walls, covered with designs of sunbursts and bright flowers, competing with intricately woven rugs that extended the length of the halls. Walking the corridors in silence, he marveled at craftsmanship made by hands over a thousand years dead.
When they stopped again, it was before a set of black doors adorned with interlocking stars. This time Usman ordered two other men to pull them open, standing with his rifle at the ready. Saleh stood ready as well, a hand on the small pistol at his waist and his heart pounding. He was not certain what to expect, as fanciful tales of angry spirits and other fears danced in his head. When the men finally pulled the doors open his breath caught, and he thought he might faint away.
It was a chamber. Gold sat piled within, making dunes a man could climb—coins and bars, plates big as platters. Fist-sized jewels sparkled among them, alongside ivory carvings and silver chalices ornamented with sky blue sapphires or blood-red rubies. Saleh swooned at the sight. Enough to pay off a sorcerer? Buy Neshi’s mother’s estates? There was wealth enough here to make him perhaps the richest man in the kingdoms.
Usman began a low laugh that fast built into a booming rumble. The others joined in, cheering like wanderers who had completed some quest.
And then the looting began.
The small party ran amidst the heaps of wealth, filling sacks, chests and pockets. There was little need to squabble; the room contained more than enough to go around. Qooleey lauded over a curved sword, its hilt adorned with orange gems. Barisha lifted a necklace of ruby fire drops, each large as a hen’s egg, which she claimed as a gift for Dali. Saleh followed suit, picking through the valleys of riches, at times wishing he had brought a larger bag. And that was how he came across the man. Or what had once been a man.
Saleh shrieked at sight of the shriveled corpse wrapped in bright saffron robes. It sat against a golden mound, its once living skin stretched like parchment across bony limbs withered to bone. A bulbous hat layered in gems was fitted onto the corpse’s head, though it seemed overly large for the shrunken frame. No, Saleh corrected, looking closer. Not a hat, a crown. He jumped as the others found him.
Barisha frowned, glancing around with her swords drawn. “We heard a scream.”
“Like a woman’s,” Qooleey purred.
“It did not sound like a woman!” Saleh snapped, indignant.
Qooleey only snickered.
Saleh began another retort, but took a breath. “I was startled by this.” He pointed to the corpse.
Usman stepped forward, bending down to lift the rigid body upright, so that its empty sockets stared out from a contorted visage fixed eternal in death. “King Jabel,” he murmured. “So this was your fate, wealthy man.”
Saleh’s eyes rounded. The mighty and fabled King Jabel! “He must have locked himself in here, with his riches,” he surmised.
“As his city died about him,” Usman derided. “He came to be with his gold.”
“He looks…frightened,” Barisha noted with unease. Saleh agreed. On that dead man’s face was fear that reached through the ages.
“Maybe he knew what his greed reaped for him in the next life,” Usman jeered. Standing, he shifted his big rifle to one shoulder. “Let’s finish here and leave the king to his realm.”
The others turned away, returning to their looting. But Saleh found himself still staring at the Jabel’s unhappy corpse. Here was the man of stories and legends, who had unleashed a terrible evil that consumed his people. He wondered if wherever Jabel’s spirit lay in torment, it now howled in rage at their pilfering.
It was by chance that his eyes fell to the man’s lap. Clutched in those desiccated hands was a thing of wood and strings. Saleh bent to look closer. Did his eyes deceive him? An oud! Or something similar—more square than pear-shaped, but in many ways an oud. Sure enough, in the other hand, the dead king held a small glittering item between his thumb and forefinger. Saleh reached down, grimacing as he pried withered fingers apart to pluck out the small treasure.
It was a risha! A golden risha!
He stared at it in wonder. The thing was perfectly shaped, smoother and lighter than gold should have been. Yet who had ever heard of a golden risha? Hardy tortoise shell, eagle quill or cow horn made for a good risha. And why would a king surrounded by all this wealth, clutch so hard to this? Had he spent his final moments amusing himself with song while his city fell? Was Jabel truly such a monster? He would have thought on these things further, had he not heard the voices.
Saleh jumped up, whirling to look about. No one was there. But the voices remained, a buzzing that grew louder by the moment. They were many voices, like people talking all at once. No, not talking. They were singing. A clash of discordant melodies. Yet strain as he might, he couldn’t make out its content or source. It was as if there were people looming right over his shoulder, whispering into his ears. Seeking his companions he found they had gone still. So they heard it too.
“What is that?” Qooleey asked, shaking his head as if to rid it of a fly.
“It’s coming from all around us,” Barisha said. Her swords were back out, and she spun about searching.
Saleh looked back to the dead king, an uneasiness gnawing inside him. Stuffing the golden risha into a pocket, he backed away. “I think we should go. I think we’ve been here long enough.”
Usman frowned deep, his eyes roaming. For the first time, uncertainty marred his face. “Take what you have,” he said at last. “We leave now.”
No one needed to be told twice. They packed their plunder, rushing from the chamber and staggering beneath the weight. It was Barisha who noticed what little light that existed disappearing from the hall, consumed by creeping shadows. Their walk soon became a run, the unseen voices now blaring like trumpets. Saleh almost cried out in relief as the palace doors came into sight. He passed through them in a sprint, eager even for the open discomfort of Arakhee’s streets. What he found however was horror.
Beneath a sky roiling with black clouds, the once empty city was filled with people—men, women and children. They ran through the streets, screaming, wailing, crying and clutching their ears. And the things they did…
Men hacked one another with swords. Women plunged knives into their own throats, all the while weeping in terror. Children tore at each other with teeth and nails like animals. And the dead did not remain so. Saleh watched in horror as a man was ripped apart, only to have those same pieces knit back into some grotesque semblance, now walking on hands with his head nestled into his belly’s glistening entrails. He shrieked his terrible song, lashing out with misshapen limbs.
“The song!” Barisha stammered through clenched teeth. “It is the song!”
And then, Saleh heard the words that poured in his ears for true. The song spoke of death. It called to him, crooning, besieging him to rip out his own tongue, to rip out the tongues of his companions, to break their bones and suck their marrow, to make their bodies dance anew. It not only sang, it compelled, pushed, urged and enticed him to join in the murderous revelry, to become part of this carnival of chaos. This was Jabel’s Doom, what had destroyed the fabled city and claimed its inhabitants.
There was a shout, and Saleh turned to see one of the burly Yuangari clawing at his face. The chest on his back slipped away, crashing to the ground and spilling its contents. He looked up at them, screaming with laughter as he offered up his plucked out eyes between bloodied fingers. With a bloodcurdling howl he ran off to join the mayhem, dancing to his death song. Saleh tried to hold the contents of his stomach down, and found he was unsuccessful.
“Get to the pier!” Umsan shouted, pointing with his rifle. “Move you fools!”
The big man’s words were like the crack of a whip. They ran, stepping into the maelstrom, going around the damned when they could, or through them. Make shift staves pummeled flesh. Swords cut down reaching limbs. Usman’s great rifle thundered, tearing through bodies.
Saleh learned fast these were no apparitions. One took hold of him, a woman, her neck oddly twisted about as she ran on all fours like a beast. He floundered for his pistol, only to have it tumble from his shaking hand. The woman bore him down beneath her, teeth snapping viciously—until a sword swipe from Barisha severed her head, sending it spinning. She pried the still groping body from atop him, kicking it away. Together they stumbled to what remained of their party, which now took shelter beneath the broad wings of a statue.
“We won’t make it!” Qooleey wheezed, doubled over in exhaustion.
“We go on!” Usman growled. He bent to reload his rifle, where smoke poured from the flared muzzle.
“But they are too many!” Barisha panted. “And they don’t die!”
She was right. The press of bodies had grown. And those cut down rose anew, more grotesque. They had lost two more of their number to the song, one ripping out another’s throat. Saleh wondered which of them would be the next to surrender.
He clutched at the prayer beads in his pocket, fervently begging that the One carry them from this nightmare! But the song competed with his pleas. He tried not to listen, but it was insistent, seductive—burrowing into his mind. If he could just shut the voices out, do away with the damned song!
There is only one cure for bad music—better music.
Mahir the Magnificent’s words reached him through time and a haze of hashi smoke. Swinging his oud around, Saleh fumbled in his pocket for a risha and plucked the oud’s strings.
There was a resonance, a terrific roar that surged outward, so strong it seemed to Saleh he could see it—a wave of golden light that flowed as it went. He turned to find every eye staring at him.
“By the One and the Many!” Qooleey’s melodic voice was a whisper. “What was that?”
Saleh had no answer. He looked down, confounded, to find something unexpected between his fingers—the golden risha. He had distinctly reached for his own. Yet this one found its way into his hands.
“Look upon this,” Barisha breathed.
Saleh followed her gaze to the streets. Wherever the golden wave had touched, the chaos vanished, leaving clear paths empty of people and murder. Even the horrid song seemed to have lessened.
Usman reached to grip Saleh hard by the shoulders. His face was a grim mask splattered in gore. “I don’t know what you’ve done oud player. But by the gods do it again! The rest of you, we run! Drop the cursed gold if you must. Riches aren’t worth our lives!”
Saleh required no further urging. Putting the risha to the strings he played. Once more the beautiful melody of golden light flowed from him—pure and cleansing. He was singing now, words to a song he didn’t know, as the risha guided his lips and fingers. It told of Arakhee and King Jabel, who through a magic risha played music so sweet, it enslaved Efrit to do his bidding. They were his to control, until one day the Efrit learned the secrets to his song. Freed from their bondage, they sang their vengeance on the doomed city. Jabel tried to stop them. But he found the risha would no longer work for him. In fear and horror, he locked himself away, desperately trying to retrieve its lost magic.
Saleh played on, the music of his oud and the golden risha drowning out the deathly voices. Paths opened up for them, and wherever the golden wave struck the damned vanished into motes of dissipating light. They were almost upon the stone pier, the survivors laughing giddily at the rescue of their lives, when the great roar crashed around them.
It sounded to Saleh like a hundred beasts, all screaming in a mangle of tongues. He turned in time to see a monstrous shape descending from the sky in a swirling torrent of black clouds. They parted to reveal a terror tall as a mountain, with fiery wings wreathed in flames. It stood in the midst of the doomed city, its horned head shrouded in shadows, its gaze and a gaping maw burning with the light of ten suns.
“By the One and the Many!” Qooleey cried in dread. “It is a devil!”
Saleh shook his head. “No,” he replied through clenched teeth. “An Efrit. Goragan, the Keeper of Songs.”
He stepped forward, his feet as guided by the risha as the words on his lips. The thing seemed alive, speaking to him, telling him all he needed to know. Plucking the oud once he released a wave of light towards the fiery giant, who clove it in two with a forked sword, all the while screaming its rage. The rage of its enslavement. Its humiliation. Its insatiable vengeance.
The Efrit began to chant, weaving a cacophonous song that Saleh could now see—tendrils of blood that snaked in every direction, seeking out ears to listen. He struck back, plucking the oud this time in a continuous rhythm, creating a scale of such complexity he could not conceive it in his mind. His fingers danced across the strings. And with each stroke, waves of light crashed into the Efrit like a sea, severing the bloody tendrils. The two settled into battle, the mortal with a golden risha against a being that had seen worlds born and spun to ash.
Saleh faintly heard the voices of his companions, calling out to him. But they seemed far off. All that he knew now was the music, the beautiful celestial song of the oud made by the golden risha. It swept him up in a whirlwind, wrapping him in armor against the Efrit’s onslaught. His fingers tore and bled, and yet he played, the power of the song building in him like untainted light. By the One God, by the Many, he was light! He was the song! And the song was everything! There was a scream, his own, competing with the roar of the Efrit. And then there was nothing.
Saleh sat on the bow of The Beggar, watching clouds fly above the airship, feeling the sun and air on his face. The ship’s healer—a tall Yuangari who claimed to have studied medicine—said it was good for him. Then again, the man had also forced him to drink that wretched bitter black tea. And then had wanted to stick him full of needles!
He managed to escape by claiming he was better. After all, their ordeal in Arakhee had been days past. He awakened to find himself weak as a child, in a bed Usman assigned to him specially. The man had personally carried Saleh back to the dhow to make their escape. But Barisha, and even a grudging Qooleey, had told the entire ship of his deed—his battle of songs against the Efrit. Now they fashioned for him a new nickname: “Saleh the Great.” He had long wanted to earn a fitting sobriquet, but he never imagined it would be among pirates.
“Rested now?” a voice asked.
Saleh turned from staring at this bandaged fingers to find Usman striding towards him.
“Much rested,” he replied. “I haven’t had a chance to thank you, for rescuing me.”
Usman barked one of his big unnerving bouts of mirth. “Way I remember it oud player, you’re the one who did the rescuing. Make sure you get that part right hero, when you tell your song.”
Saleh felt a heated blush beneath his skin. Him? A hero? He wondered what Neshi would think?
“Your share of the gold from Arakhee is in my hold,” the man went on. “Much smaller than you probably hoped.”
Saleh sighed. Most of the riches they pilfered had been lost in the escape. What they managed to bring back, once divided among the crew, was not even enough to settle a quarter of his debts. There had been half-hearted talk about making a second trip. But the island had vanished again. And Usman and his inner circle had the map burned. Saleh didn’t blame them.
“We’ll make port by week’s end,” Usman said. “I can drop you off in Amsra. But if you’re looking for refuge, at least while still in this sorcerer’s debt, you’re welcome here.” He paused, a frown darkening his face. “And what of the risha?”
Saleh had known that was coming. No one forgot something like that. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew what he had tucked away so carefully. The risha glinted gold in the morning sun, deceptive in its smallness. The thing had rarely been from his thoughts.
“Where do you think it comes from?” he asked.
“Who can say?” Usman murmured, his eyes hardening on the risha “The world is full of wonders. It’s undoubtedly a thing of magic. Powerful enough to ensnare even an Efrit.”
Saleh thought momentarily of the fiery being. “It had so much anger. If you could have felt…” He shivered. There was no way to describe it.
“The hatred of a slave,” Usman asserted. “Anger was its right. As was its vengeance.”
Saleh regarded him in shock. “You sound like you’re on its side! It would have killed us if it could, done to us what it did to Arakhee. All those people…” He shivered again.
Usman nodded solemnly. “Who is to blame when the slave rises up and set’s its master’s house on fire? No being deserves to be shackled.”
Saleh let the matter drop. He would never understand this strange man. His eyes went back to the golden risha. “I could probably become the greatest oud player in the lands. Create music that would be remembered for ages.”
“But would it be your music oud player?” Usman probed. “Would such music truly be guided by your hands?” He paused. “I tried to take it from you.”
Saleh looked up in alarm.
“While you slept,” Usman confessed, his voice low. “I thought on the good to which I could put a thing of such power. I am after all, a man of vision. With that risha I could lift the veils from the minds of so many, make them see how they are exploited, fill them with the fire to overthrow this corrupt order that oppresses us.”
Saleh stared at the big man. There was a hunger in those eyes. And it unsettled him. “What stopped you?” he asked.
Usman’s gaze hardened on the risha. “Jabel,” he said tightly. “The doomed king achieved much with this magic, but became a slave to it himself. That is the secret of power oud player. It corrupts the just as well as the wicked.”
Saleh looked down to the risha, tracing a finger along its length. Its promises whispered across his thoughts. But catching sight of Usman face, he saw a man waging an inner struggle. He might try to take the risha again if given a chance. The Pirate Prince was indeed a man of vision, and he would yearn the risha’s power much perhaps as it yearned for him.
“Probably for the best,” he sighed. Placing the risha on top of his thumb he held it aloft, then in one motion flicked it over the bow—sending it to the sea far below.
Usman released a held breath. “For the best oud player,” he agreed. Clapping Saleh’s shoulder, the Pirate Prince prince turned and walked back to overseeing his crew.
Saleh watched him go—and then with satisfaction pulled the golden risha from inside his sleeve. He smiled at the sleight-of-hand. He had finally mastered that Yuangari trick. And just in the nick of time at that.
Perhaps he would rid himself of the thing one day. But not just yet. His visions after all, were much smaller. With a chuckle, he placed the treasure deep into his pockets and pulled out his worn bit of tortoise shell. Leaning back upon the bow, he returned to plucking out an unfinished tune—an ode to a fat-bottomed girl named Neshi, who liked to watch him dance with silver bells in his hair.
Phenderson Djéli Clark resides in Washington DC, where he writes speculative fiction during his spare time—when he is not wrestling an overly ripe dissertation into submission. His fantasy stories have appeared in publications such as Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Hogglepot and in the print anthologies Griots I, and Griots II: Sisters of the Spear co-edited by the legendary Charles Saunders. This is his second publication in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. You can read Djéli’s ramblings on speculative fiction, diversity and more at his blog where he writes as the aptly named Disgruntled Haradrim.