In the beginning was...an ending...a change....a stale reworking...a fresh start...an ongoing saga accompanied by the laughter of gods playing with the cosmos of their creation.
In what world is this tale set? On Earth, O revered reader. A wise man once divined that the universe surrounding us may be one of a vast array of parallel universes, some of which split off from the one we regard as unique. Who can say which of an infinite number of Earths represents perfection, if indeed perfection forms a quality possible of attainment by any world hosting intelligent life?
His lined face peaceful, the old man lay as if asleep, but his hand, firmly clasped by that of his employer, turned ominously cold. He’s dead, Astur silently concluded. Grief enveloped him, when no faint rise and fall of his long-time servant’s chest met his questing glance. Dead. May the gods in whom Obur placed such touching trust give him welcome. Assuming, of course, that deities exist, and the spirits of the dead really do live on in some beatific state. Well, if loyalty and competence count for anything with whatever gods there be, this man deserves a rousing welcome to their nebulous realm.
Of all the ill luck! How will I ever find a trustworthy servant here in Jankar?
Exasperation contended with sorrow as the Benizari nobleman ended his soliloquy. Rising, he drew the blanket over the face of the dead man, before striding out of the rented quarters to arrange for the funeral.
Two hours later, Astur stood stiffly erect before the newly filled grave, flanked by six men of his company of caravan-guards, who modeled their bearing on his. A stooped, frail priest from the Temple of Kallinor sprinkled scented water on the earth covering the departed as he chanted prayers in the Old Tongue. A row of stunted trees, their gnarled trunks attesting to their advanced age, bordered the Place of the Dead on the north. The fortification wall of the town formed the southern boundary of the burial ground. A hot, dry breeze blowing out of the west promised to increase in intensity as the day wore on. Beyond the trees lay the Plain of Shobrun, and beyond that arid, rock-bestrewed land rose the mountains.
Rest easy, O Paragon Among Servants, the Tenzar mutely urged the spirit that he hoped soared free to a safe haven. I?ll miss you. Unstoppering a wineskin suspended by a strap over his shoulder, he strode forward, and poured a generous libation on the grave, in keeping with Benizari custom. Rest easy.
When the ceremony ended, Astur pressed a silver coin into the hand of the devotee who had performed it, prompting him to bestow a blessing in a voice strong for issuing from so fragile a body. Out of respect for the priest, if not for his faith, the stalwart fighting men walked decorously to the rear of the stooped figure wrapped in the white robe signifying that the rite performed on this day honored one newly dead. Having passed through the North Gate of Jankar, the procession halted before the door of the Temple. Turning, the priest blessed the mourners, before vanishing into the sacred precincts.
Standing at the convergence of the three thoroughfares that led away from the North Gate, Astur dismissed his men. A twinge of envy assailed him, as he watched them hasten as one man down the Street of Brothels. Squaring his shoulders, he turned in the opposite direction, and entered the Street of Slave-Sellers, which formed the shortest route to the Street of Lodgings for Travelers.
As he strode down that bustling thoroughfare, he reviewed certain truths well known to him. Although the Jankari held themselves aloof from traffic in slaves, as did the Benizari, the city’s rulers tolerated the selling of captives taken in raids, given that Jankar formed a crossroads of five important caravan routes, and always swarmed with foreigners. Local bandits bred in foothills cursed with a short growing season, scant water for irrigation, low humidity, and frequent late frosts--conditions that made growing crops chancy--regarded attacking poorly protected caravans and wandering herdsmen as their only viable method of acquiring vital goods they could not afford to purchase. The marauders spared the prosperous residents of the town, when those people ventured beyond the walls, bearing banners identifying them as Jankari. That security formed the townsmen’s reward for allowing the hapless prisoners to be sold to buyers from the myriads of caravans passing along the route that wound along the south wall of the town. As the Benizari nobleman dwelled on those dismal circumstances, he frowned in disgust, his reaction occurring without his conscious volition.
Normally, Astur disdained even to glance at the captives, as he fended off the more daring of a host of importunate vendors competing for the attention of the motley horde crowding the thoroughfare. On this day, however, knowing that he must quickly find some sort of servant to replace the old man just laid to rest, he let his glance rove over the merchandise.
Stout wooden rails inserted into holes drilled into posts set deep into the dusty earth--rails fitted with iron rings to which the traders tethered the bound wrists of the unfortunates--lined the crowded thoroughfare flanked by crude log-walled structures that served as quarters for the vendors, and windowless cells in which unsold wretches could be imprisoned at night. The nobleman’s lip curled, as he observed the line of mostly male figures offered for sale. Pensively, he studied the faces, some rebellious, some apathetic, some despairing, some striving to appear ingratiating in the eyes of a potential buyer.
Of a sudden, he stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes riveted to a female captive: a tall woman clad in the long, belted, multicolored tunic and blue-dyed trousers that proclaimed her a Kithari. Thick, straight, dark hair, plaited into a single braid, hung to the middle of her back. Her oval face, set like stone, he saw to reflect combativeness rather than despair. Strikingly handsome, she projected an air of wary self-possession totally devoid of fear. Her rich garb the viewer knew to be that of a mistress, not a servant.
Now, how did this daughter of prosperous roving traders fall into the hands of Shobrunni raiders? Astur wondered. She’s a long way from Kithar!
"Lovely, eh?" the slave-merchant purred, thrusting his unsavory face close to that of the man who instinctively stepped back so as to increase the distance between them. "Dainty fare for a soldier, mmm? Strong, she is. She can serve as well as pleasure you, O Guardian of Caravans."
"She?d fight a ravisher tooth and nail." Astur drawled that sardonic reply, adding, "But I?ll take her off your hands, if you?ll name a reasonable price."