The caravanserai in Sakakah, after a week and a half in the barren desert, was truly an oasis to the eyes of the weary travellers.
The desert had been surprisingly mild thus far. The days were warm enough that everyone had a constant film of sweat, yet such that the camels did not suffer from the dowry they bore westward. The nights provided a pleasantly cool change, with many opting to sleep underneath the stars instead of setting up their tents.
Yafeu had warned those who had not before crossed the sands between Persia and Egypt that the true heat of the area could appear quickly. True to his word, there had been isolated days where the heat soared above what had come before, causing the water supplies to be assaulted by the travellers. A pair of immature men had become greedy and tried to sneak extra rations without notice, yet Yafeu had found out. He had made an example of them with twenty strokes on their bare backs, and then forced them to walk in the hot desert sun shirtless. The men’s skin had rivalled the finest crimson silk in their redness by the end of the day.
Leading the procession into the caravanserai, Zia rode alongside her husband-to-be. Her headgear had been annoying to her initially, being used to thin veils and not the heavier fabric of the tagelmust. Despite this, it provided ample protection from the elements. She was more annoyed by Yafeu’s insistence that she wear it. He demanded that no-one look upon her face, and was reluctant to let her out of his sight at any time to ensure that remained the case. None of the caravan, bar her betrothed, had been present at the lavish celebration in Susa.
“Your beauty would surely drive the men mad with lust,” Yafeu had told her one night. “In other caravans I have led, there have been unfortunate incidents involving ladies. The offenders earned a nice profit when we arrived at the markets. Eunuchs always fetch higher prices.”
The stories of violence and torture, as well as instances she had seen herself, made Zia more wary of her husband. Thought he was not quick to anger, his wrath was truly a thing to be feared. Enough stories of the actions of jealous husbands had been gossiped through Susa, the worst of those when the punished wives had later been proved not only innocent of wrongdoing, but the victims of merciless slanderers. Should that ever occur to her, she would certainly fear for her life.
Reaching the stabling areas for the animals, Yafeu and Zia were greeted by the owner of the residence. The Egyptian fairly jumped from his saddle and approached the man like an old friend.
“Shamali! It is always a pleasure to see your face.”
The owner grinned widely, showing golden teeth either side of his front pair. “And I yours, Master Babafemi. No merchant passing through here is as gracious and generous. Your father, may Hormazd bless his spirit, taught you well in this regard.”
Yafeu gave a slight bow. “He always said that to treat a caravanserai owner badly is to curse one’s luck.” He gestured for Zia to come forward. “Shamali, this is my bride-to-be, Zia. We are to be wed once we arrive in Alexandria.”
Zia bowed gracefully. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
The host looked into Zia’s eyes, as only they and her eyebrows were visible through the head garment. “The pleasure is all mine, my lady. You have the fairest eyes I have seen. To gaze upon the rest of your face would surely stop my heart.”
“You are far too kind.”
Yafeu surveyed the rest of the procession moving into the caravanserai, and finding an available place for their animals and merchandise. “Your residence has surely grown. It was a humble abode of maybe a hundred travellers once, was it not?”
Shamali nodded. “That it was. Your father arrived barely ahead of a sandstorm. I remember the sky being almost completely obscured behind him and his team, like the forces of Ahriman himself chased him. I was hard pressed to find more room, but he begged me. When he left after the storm ceased, he left a fortune worthy of any Shah or ancient Pharaoh in recompense.”
“How many travellers could reside here now?”
“Four hundred would be able to stay for a handful of weeks.”
Zia spoke up. “Sir, I know that story. It was mentioned at the celebration my father held in Susa. Yafeu’s father left with a lady and a newborn?”
“Indeed he did, my lady.”
“I was that newborn.”
Shamali’s eyes boggled in amazement. “Hormazd truly honours me that you should find your way back here. That such beauty could come from such a terrifying event warms an old man’s heart. You truly were a miracle.”
A voice spoke up behind Yafeu and Zia. “Master.”
Yafeu and Zia turned to the voice, and they saw three members of his personal guard standing side by side. The trio were never more than ten steps away from their owner. They wore matching loose black pants, long-sleeved white shirts, and vests in similar colouring to Yafeu’s. The speaker had dark skin, brown eyes and prominent lips.
“What is it, Amon?”
“May we arrange the housing for your animal?”
Yafeu handed the camel’s reins to the man. The trio moved away to find a lodging. As her husband-to-be turned to resume his talk with Shamali, Zia saw another three men approach Yafeu’s guard. She recognised them as the merchants who had earned Yafeu’s respect through the goods they collected in Yasuj. Those six never seem far apart, Zia thought to herself before returning her attention to Yafeu and Shamali.
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