Zia looked to the west as she sat at the first floor window, one of her books in her lap, considering the desert that awaited the vast caravan.
The week it had taken to travel from Susa to Samawah had been mostly comfortable. Yafeu had declared that they would depart Zia’s hometown at the beginning of Ouravahara, in order to acclimatise the travellers to the torturous conditions of the Arabian Desert. The path thus far had seen comfortable stops at the caravanserais, where many travellers shared their news and rumours with Yafeu’s contingent. There was plentiful water to drink, and always the shade of a tree or building to protect from the steadily increasing heat.
She sat in a well-made wooden chair, with the irregular head covering Yafeu had provided her hanging from one of its back posts. The deep blue item had been described as a tagelmust, with the Egyptian speaking animatedly of how the desert tribes living to the west of Alexandria used these to protect their faces from the harsh desert winds. He had had the headgear made especially for her prior to his leaving for Susa, wishing to protect her face on the return trip.
She heard some motion outside the door. It slowly opened as Yafeu leaned his back against it, and she saw the tray with their meals as he turned to face her. He wore a vest as yellow as desert sand, with black baggy pants and black sandals.
“Here you are, my beloved. The food being served down in the common room is exactly that; common. I had the kitchen make their best dishes for us.”
She gave him the warmest smile she could as he set the tray upon the table. She set her book at the edge of the table. “You are most considerate, my love. I would not have minded the more modest meals. How far did you say it would be until we arrive at the next town?”
“The next town is Sakakah, and it is thirteen days from here.”
“I imagine our food stores will be short prior to reaching it.”
Yafeu nodded as he placed her meal in front of her. “That is true, though it is our water stores that suffer the most. Being true desert conditions, it will be a difficult to ration liquids during the heat we will encounter.” He let out a melodramatic breath. “If only men could be like camels.”
Zia looked over the tray. There was a generous bowl of kushari, with various beans mixed amongst rice and topped with tomato sauce and onion. It was accompanied by falafel balls, some thin bread wraps, meat kofta balls, and two side dishes of duqqa. A fine glass carafe held a deep red wine, with two glasses alongside it. The final two plates held desserts, with one covered in shortbreads covered in almonds, and the other with generous slices of baklava.
“This is a fine meal, Yafeu. I fear you pamper me too much.”
He smiled as he waved away her words. “Nonsense, my dear. You are to be the wife of the most prominent merchant in all of Alexandria. You should be treated as such.”
They each took a plate and began to serve themselves. She tilted her head towards the headgear hanging from the back of her chair. “Do other wives wear such garments?”
Yafeu looked at the tagelmust for a second before looking back to his plate. “Merely a protective measure. I would not have the desert try to damage your beautiful face, and it also serves to not draw attention.”
She narrowed her eyes at his words. “Draw attention?”
“Of course. Before I reached this city on my way to Susa, there was already talk of my arrival and my intentions. Any greedy person who had functioning ears would have heard I was returning with you and the marriage dowry.”
Zia nodded, and sounded uncomfortable as she spoke. “I have heard rumours of how you deal with those who work against you. That would surely stop them considering trying to steal from you or cheat you.”
Yafeu gave a short laugh. “You would think so. There are some people you could mummify, and yet they would still try and steal from me.”
“Are most of the ‘punishments’ I hear of true?”
He nodded. “Believe me when I say I take no pleasure in such acts. The moment a person sees a sign of weakness in a merchant, be it soft punishments or easy forgiveness of debts, there will be those who seek to exploit it. I do what I must to ensure my family retains its stature, though the methods can be uncomfortable.”
“Are there many thieves in the desert?”
He gave her a bemused look as he finished his mouthful of kofta. “The worst are in there, my dear. Surely you have heard of the Sand Pirates.”
She nodded. “I know there are some, but thought the stories too outrageous to be true.”
“Oh, their abilities are amazing. A caravan half the size of ours disappeared within an hour in one instance. All that remained was a scroll at the foot of the caravan leader’s tent. It was from the leader of the Sand Pirates, thanking them for their generosity.”
“Do you know much of this pirate leader?”
Yafeu shook his head. “No. Such letters are always signed off with an elaborate ‘S’. I would bet his name is Sayyid; a common name, yet one befitting a master or a lord.”
The pair began to eat their meal in earnest. As Zia filled the glasses of wine, she began to feel uneasy. The trip to Alexandria still had a further six weeks barring any interruptions. Fearing a surprise attack from Sand Pirates the whole time would be unsettling.
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