"It's time to go," my Father said.
With that, our journey began. Little did I know it wouldn't end when we reached our destination three days later.
We set out from Khal with one purpose; my Father's closest friend and business partner, Zulran, had died. Upon receiving word, he immediately began making plans to attend the funeral. Custom required our participation, which meant a journey to Ahgram. Father absolutely refused to travel by boat, meaning a long, dust-choked trek behind the caravans heading south along the trade roads. Worried that our business would suffer from our absence, I tried to beg off accompanying Father, but to no avail.
I don't remember when I first met Zulran. It had to have been well before I could walk. Although we were not related by blood, the strong merchant ties between us intertwined Zulran's family with ours. I often felt that Zulran was more than a kind uncle; he was really a second father and a mentor to me. Along with my Father, he taught me much in the ways of commerce, so that by the time we moved to Khal I had become an important part of my Father's business. Sadly, after that, our families drifted apart.
As we loaded our wagon in preparation for the trip, the other merchants and customers milled about. The importance my father placed in our journey was evident to everyone. He had never before closed the shop in the seven years we had lived in Khal. Even if both of us were gone, as happened occasionally, the shop had remained open. It always was open. Business first, family second, the Empire third. Except that in our case there was a wide gap between first and second priorities and an even wider one between second and third -- the empire was far beyond the dunes on the horizon.
We loaded up our wagon with gifts for Zulran's family and our own trunks, filled with our ceremonial clothing for the funeral. I tried once again to talk my Father out of requiring me to go.
"Father," I said, "Our rivals will try to gain advantage while we were gone. Our iron contracts are fragile. Our prices are a bit above the others-- we rely on our service to keep our customers."
"They will understand," he replied. "And if they don't, no matter. Our place is at this funeral." My Father deflected every other argument I put forth. After I had exhausted all my excuses, he placed his hand on my shoulder. "We must go, my son. Our faith requires us to be there. That means we both must go, not just me."
We made our way through the gate with our wagon, and headed south along the trade road. It was filled with merchants, farmers, and animals, in wagons and on foot. Although most of the traffic was heading into Khal, there was a caravan in front of us heading to Ahgram. As I added our wagon to the line, their mounted guard moved directly behind us.
The road to Ahgram is usually safe. However, because of the bandits that sometimes appear along it, caravan owners often offered security to those traveling without guards for a small fee. As the head guard rode alongside to collect the fee, I asked him if he had heard anything about the new trade routes opening with the gnomes of Mekalia.
He smiled. "My last trip was out that way. The gnomes are a stubborn lot and keep to themselves mostly but are harmless enough, for now. It also paid quite well for guard detail." I handed him a couple of gold coins as payment for protection. He nodded and rode on.
The trip was uneventful. Father spent time reminiscing about Zulran and how they started working together. I sat and listened, nodding at the appropriate places even as I wished I could be off both the wagon and the road.
On the third day, we neared Ahgram. Its high walls stood out along the horizon and loomed larger as we approached. As we made our turn west, I could make out the three gates, each with their own line of people waiting to get in. The south gate, called the Port Door because it was the one closest to the harbor, opened to the harbor district and the docks. Many of the minor merchant families, dock workers, and stall owners lived within this area. To the north was the Gate of the Sun., the Imperial Gate that only nobles or those with special credentials were allowed to use.
The trade road led directly to a large gate in the middle of the wall. The Mercantile Gate was the main thoroughfare and access point for all trade and most visitors to Ahgram. It was to this gate we were headed.
We waited in line for about an hour before reaching the entrance. The duty guard asked us our business, and if we had any goods to sell during our visit. I told him we were there for the funeral of a family friend and that we had not packed a single crate of merchandise for the journey. He motioned us through with a bored wave and as we entered the city, I was struck by the changes since I was last there. Certainly, Ahgram has always been buzzing with activity like bees around a hive, but this time the press of people, the exotic wares, and smells assailing me from all sides was overwhelming.
Slowly, we navigated our way up the main thoroughfare. At the end of the market square, my Father climbed down from the wagon, walked up to a stall, and spoke with a merchant. After conversing for several minutes, my Father told me to follow him and proceeded on foot. Several crowded streets later, he pointed to the right, motioning for us to head down a smaller street. We followed its uneven paving until the end of that path, where my Father headed down a small alley. I turned the wagon after him, barely passing between the buildings, so closely they stood together.
The alley narrowed even more near its end, preventing us from going any further with our wagon. I climbed down to continue on foot, passing between two large warehouses. Directly in front of us, at the end of the alley, was a small house.
"There it is," my Father said. "We have arrived."
This was not the house of the great merchant Zulran, at least not that I remembered. I had always pictured Zulran as larger than life, a wealthy magnate who could buy and sell entire enterprises on a whim. Now his business was no longer envied throughout the city and he long ago ceased being a great merchant. Perhaps my view of Zulran was similar to the one I had of my Father before I grew up. As I matured, reality began to eclipse my imagination and I started to see his failures along with his successes. I had been removed from Zulran's presence for so long, though, that I hadn't gone through the same change of perspective.
We walked up to the modest dwelling crammed between the massive walls of storehouses. I was amazed the house still stood, seeing the shape it was in; unadorned, walls needing repair, and a roof that looked on the verge of collapse. It spoke of how far Zulran had fallen.
My Father knocked on the door, and in a few moments time, it opened. A young woman clothed in a simple yellow sleeveless robe with a green sash stood at the threshold, the curves of her body evident through the heavy linen. Her smooth dark hair glistened, framing her face. Full lips the color of pomegranates parted in a small smile. Her eyes, deep dark pools, pulled my gaze to them and held it for several long moments. Time stopped, and I wanted it to never start again.
She turned to my Father and said, "Uncle, we weren't expecting you. I'm happy you made it safe."
"Thank you, Idara," my Father replied. "We belong here. We too are part of Zulran's family."
Idara. This was Idara. And that was when my world changed.
“Won’t you come in?” asked Idara.
Her words drew me from my trance. I forced myself to look away, towards the darkened room behind her.
My Father glanced at me. “What’s wrong with you, my son?” he said. He laid his hand upon my arm. “You remember Idara, don’t you?”
Of course I remembered Idara. However, when we had left Aghram, she didn’t look like she did now.
Idara offered her hand in greeting and I hesitantly grasped it. It was cool to the touch, soft skin I wouldn’t soon forget. Unconsciously, my fingers lingered over hers for several moments.
“It has been a long time, Tanir,” she said smiling. “Please come in. You must be tired from your trip. I have fresh tea.”
I replied with a nod. My Father spoke up. “Thank you, Idara. Please forgive Tanir his manners.” He glared at me. “It appears the sun has struck him daft.” He motioned for Idara to lead the way.
We entered the small house and I closed the door behind us. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw an older man seated at the table. He had the look of a magistrate, or perhaps a tax collector. He was dressed in a dark robe, and a neatly trimmed beard partially obscured the sour expression on his face. In front of him were several scrolls and a quill.
“This is Kahlil,” Idara murmured, introducing her guest. “He is here to—settle my Father’s accounts.”
My Father sat down opposite Kahlil and pushed the scrolls away. “My friend,” my Father began, “perhaps there is a better time to balance the scales? Zulran still needs to be buried and here you are asking for payments?”
Kahlil looked at my Father, contempt smoldering in his eyes. “My duty comes first and is no concern of yours. Zulran owes much to many.” The man began to roll up his scrolls. “We are done—for now. But there are many accounts to still reconcile.”
Kahlil stood, gathered the scrolls and quill and began to place them in a bag. “I will be back after the funeral,” he sneered at Idara. “I would hope you will not be busy then.” He walked stiffly out the door.
“What a rude man!” my Father exclaimed as he stood up from the table, arms waving. “Is this what Aghram has come to? Treating a merchant like some mendicant and ignoring the mourning period?” My Father’s voice rose as did the color in his face.
Idara moved to comfort him, placing her hands on both his arms and guiding them back down to his sides. “Please don’t fret so, Uncle. Things have changed since you were last here. In so many ways.” Idara released my Father and sat down, motioning for him to join her. “My Father’s business failed some time ago. He never wanted you to know.”
“What happened, my child?” my Father asked, dismayed.
“His drive for profits trapped him,” explained Idara. “Several years ago, he began dabbling in selling spices. However, the Zephyr Trading Company already had firm control of that market.”
“But he was a linen merchant,” I said as I pulled a chair up to the table. “Why would he go up against them?”
Idara looked at me. I felt her gaze on me as she searched my face and it softened as she replied. “It wasn’t the wisest choice but he was not content with the profits of just one product. He wanted more. He always did,” she added softly.
“And?” inquired my Father. “Certainly one setback couldn’t have destroyed him. He always had reserves.”
“He did. However, this wasn’t just a mere setback. The spices he was selling were smuggled in. That allowed him to undercut Zephyr’s price.”
Idara poured two cups of tea from the pot sitting on the edge of the table and offered one to each of us. Her fingers brushed mine as she handed me my cup, and we stayed like that for several moments. She seemed lost in thought as her fingers traced along my hand and she gazed at me. When she reached my fingertips, she broke out of her reverie and pulled away, quickly smiling at me. The gentle reminder of her touch remained on my skin.
Focusing back on the conversation, she continued. “Those within Zephyr found out about the black market connections. They used their influence within the Council and early one morning, our warehouses were raided. The clerks couldn’t produce the tax writs and all the spices were confiscated.”
“No doubt they found their way into Zephyr’s stores,” my Father added dryly.
“Yes, they did,” she said, frowning. “We were also fined an exorbitant fee which we couldn’t pay. We were forced to sell all but one of our storehouses and everything within them for a fraction of their worth.” Tears welled up in her eyes. The pain, although years in the past, was still fresh to her.
“My Father died that day. Not physically, but his life ended all the same. He had nothing. His shame was so great.”
“What happened to his linen contracts?” asked my Father.
“Most of the weavers left when we ran out of coin to pay them. Without them, we couldn’t fulfill our orders.”
“Why didn’t he write me?” my Father demanded. “I had plenty of work I could have given him, especially in Aghram.”
“He was ashamed of facing you, especially after hearing so much about your success in Khal.” She then went on to tell us about how Zulran had tried to petition the Council about his situation. However, since he wasn’t born in Aghram and hadn’t paid the citizenship levy, he wasn’t allowed representation within the Council. He was allowed to be a business owner and to pay the sometimes excessive taxes that kept the city functioning, but he had no legal voice. Idara added that many of Ahgram’s residents, including all the women, were in similar situations. In fact, her own schooling was cut short because she was not a citizen, despite being born in Aghram. Lately, it seemed most were awarded citizenship primarily based on their ability to pay the corrupt officials.
When we came back to the topic of money, I spoke up. “If I may ask, how much does he still owe? Can we help?” My Father glowered at me. I had overstepped my authority in asking.
“We owe more than we have,” she replied. “The day after the funeral, this house will belong to Khalil’s master.” Idara took my hands into hers. “I thank you for your offer to help. However I think it is time for me to give up this merchant life. I was never meant for it.” Idara stood, any trace of melancholy banished, and a new gleam in her eyes. “Come, let me show you your room and get you settled in. You might also want to move your wagon from the alley. Khalil could mistake it for mine.”
Later in the evening, after Father had decided to take a stroll about the city to visit some of our merchant contacts, Idara and I shared a meal at the small table. Between stolen glances at each other, we talked about the years we had been apart and she laughed at my stories, encouraging me to tell her further of my travels and life in Khal.
As we were finishing, Idara poured tea for both of us. “Tanir,” she asked, “why were you so surprised when you saw me this morning? When I opened the door, you acted like you didn’t know me.” The light of the candles reflected in her eyes. The soft glow caressed her cheeks as she gazed at me.
“I was surprised to see how you have changed,” I replied. “You weren’t as I expected.”
“Certainly, you didn’t expect to find a young girl with her hair bound up and face dirty?” She smiled. “I am no longer the child you knew running through the shops. I am long past those days of youth.”
“I remembered you as I left you,” I admitted. “ A dirty young girl in the marketplace. And today, I was surprised by your beauty. But I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think I have seen anyone more beautiful.” The color rose in my cheeks as I said the words, and I worried I had been too forward in my statement.
“You are too kind, Tanir,” she said. Even in the dim light, I was able to see her cheeks blush. “Thank you.” She gripped my hand, our fingers intertwining. “I hear words of flattery often--however, none given with more sincerity. It is wonderful to know that there are still people in this world who believe in saying what they feel without any pretext. I am very honored by your sentiments.” She squeezed my hand and looked at me for several moments. “Besides, I was very surprised to see you as well. I can’t believe that a handsome and prosperous merchant like you would still be unmarried. Perhaps the maidens of Khal are not as clever as they are purported to be.” She grinned and a sudden thought came to Idara then. “I almost forgot. I wanted to share something with you. Do you remember the letters you wrote to my Father?”
Idara stood and moved to a small chest in the corner and opened it. She picked out a bundle of papers tied with twine and returned to the table. “He kept all of your letters. These last few years, on many nights I would come home and find him sitting at this table reading them.” Her hands ran over the letters and then she passed them to me. “I have read them as well. You were very kind to him. He took great comfort from knowing you and your father were doing well.” Sitting next to each other at the table, we opened some of the letters and I explained more details about some of the incidents I had written about. Idara made another pot of tea and the candles burned low.
Much later as we waited for my Father to return home, I asked her what she was going to do about Khalil. The visitor from this afternoon was very much in my thoughts. I still wanted to help her, but was unsure how.
Idara stood, placing her hands on the table. “It is time for me to move on,” she said firmly. “I held onto Father’s business these last years in hopes it would revive him. Now that he is gone, there is nothing left for me here.” Idara moved to the small window and looked out. I pushed away from the table and stood next to her. Watching her.
“If there is anything I – we can do for you, let me know.” I said. She turned towards me then and we lost ourselves in each other’s gaze. I placed my hand along her cheek and caressed it, letting it trail down her neck. She closed her eyes and leaned towards me, and I placed my arms around her. She turned her face to mine and our lips met as I pulled her close. The kiss ended and she ran her fingers through my hair. Our embrace ended with the sound of the door opening to admit my Father.
The next morning, we prepared for the funeral. Father and I dressed in our dark gray mourning robes after a sparse breakfast consisting of flat bread and fruit. Idara was stunning in her red robe, denoting her status as a grieving family member. We walked to the small graveyard outside the wall of the merchant quarter. A few distant members of Zulran’s family were already at the grave, standing next to an unadorned stone coffin. The priest spoke briefly, and then we lowered the coffin into the shallow grave as Idara thanked each person for attending. Many of the attendees left, but some stayed to join us for a funeral meal. Zulran’s poverty didn’t allow for a lavish feast but its simple fare and good wine satisfied the requirements of the ceremonial meal.
The last guests departed and Idara, my Father, and I made our way back into the city. My father had some family he wanted to visit before we returned to Khal in the morning. He asked me to join him, but I stayed with Idara. She and I spent the late afternoon in conversation. I told her more about our business and urged her to come to Khal. She was insistent on staying in Ahgram. I felt that her staying was an unwise choice and would prevent us from seeing each other.
Later that evening, I decided to make my concerns known to her in hopes of changing her mind and saving her from a life of poverty or even servitude. The slight chill of winter had settled on Ahgram that night. Ribbons of clouds wisped across the sky, sometimes obscuring the waning moon. I found Idara on the roof terrace. She had climbed out through the small window in the loft and stood on the uneven tile roof, gazing up at the stars.
I had dressed in a deep blue tunic and a pair of linen trousers. Despite the chill, Idara was wearing a green, sleeveless robe, her hair pulled back and tied with ribbons.
I came up behind her, laying one hand on her shoulder and resting the other at her waist. She leaned back into me and gently sighed, not the least bit startled by my presence.
“Do you think we have a purpose?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I replied, inhaling the honey fragrance from her hair.
“Do you think the time we have is for a purpose?”
My heart leapt in my chest. Thinking she meant the time she and I shared, I responded carefully. “I think our purpose together is something we need to find together,” I replied. “That is why I came to you tonight. I want to ask for your hand in marriage.”
She turned to look at me. I saw something in her eyes I couldn’t mistake, and my heart fell. “Tanir, I’m sorry…I don’t know what to say. I didn’t mean our purpose. I meant the purpose of our lives.” Gently, she placed her hand on my cheek, pulling my face to hers. She kissed me then, her eyes closing as our lips touched. The kiss ended but her hand remained on my face. “No matter how much we could both want it to be different, it can’t be as you ask.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I can give you your life back. The life you deserve. I know you said the life of a merchant wasn’t for you, but I’m sure that’s just because it’s been so hard these past years. You would be part of our business.” I met her eyes as I emphasized my point. “An equal part of our business.”
“I know you want me to be your wife, your partner, and to leave Ahgram. Part of me desires that as well,” she said. “I could never lie to you and tell you different. You mean a great deal to me, but I don’t need saving. You aren’t the first man to come to my door trying to save me.”
“It isn’t like that!” I stammered.
“I know, Tanir,” she said as she embraced me. “But I have something I need to do here. What has gone on in Ahgram needs to stop. I want to stop what happened to my father from happening again. And it isn’t something you can help me with.” I felt her tears as they rolled onto my tunic, soaking the shoulder, and my own eyes welled up. “You don’t see the inequalities.”
“I see the problems,” I said. “You told me what happened to you but it’s different in Khal.” Our embrace ended as we stood looking at each other.
“That’s part of the problem.” She reached out and cautiously touched my eyes. “You see with these. What you don’t see with is this,” she said as she touched my forehead, “and this,” resting her hand over my heart. “Your life is too different now to really know. You haven’t seen the suffering, the injustice done to so many. You can’t see it from where you are now and because of what you are--a citizen.”
Her words, although hurtful, rang true. I didn’t know the life she talked about. My life, even when we lived in Aghram, was a different experience. We had always been citizens and took many of the privileges citizenship afforded for granted. I could only nod, stunned at her words, her rejection of my offer.
“Tanir,” she said. “Don’t despair.” She wiped a tear from my cheek. “You live in my heart. Perhaps when my task is finished, things can be as we want.”
The rest of the evening we spent together, savoring the time we had remaining. Laughter replaced the tears shed earlier and I opened myself to hearing more of her thoughts about our society and her desire to change them. The candles were almost out when Father came in, to find us sitting close at the table. He hugged both of us in turn and promised Idara his support.
The next morning, we left for Khal. Idara escorted us to the gate where we said our farewells. I promised her I would be back. And someday I will. Idara’s fight is not one she should face alone.
To Be Continued...