Chapter 4: Border of the Arabian Desert and the Eastern Roman Empire
The caravan was a day from arriving in Aqaba, and the wave of relief swept across the weary travellers.
The awaiting Gulf of Aqaba excited everyone, for after almost a month and a half of rationing the life-giving liquid, to see such a large amount of water would be a gift of the gods. Many swore the first thing they would do was throw themselves into the watery expanse, hoping that soaking their skin could undo the punishment they had endured through the desert.
Yafeu’s face betrayed a sense of achievement from crossing the torturous expanse of sand. For Zia, knowing what now lay between her and her former home, she truly realised that the new chapter of her life had begun. Far from her father and mother, and betrothed to a man who loved her yet had a sadistic side, the part of her that desired adventure and travel fought against a desire to return home to safety.
“Behold, my dear. We approach the easternmost border of the Eastern Roman Empire. A wealth of history belongs to the area.”
Zia looked through her tagelmust to her husband-to-be. “What can you tell me of it?”
“We approach the Wadi Arabah. It a rift in the land that runs from the inland seas to the north, continuing south until it reaches Aqaba. There were many great desert towns along this area, running along the merchant roads between your homeland, further east to Hind and Cin, and of course north to Damascus and Palmyra.
“For a time, this land was ruled by a great merchant tribe named the Nabataeans. For some hundreds of years, they ruled from a great city named Petra, and controlled essentially the whole of the Wadi Arabah. One could not move east or west without their knowing.”
Zia seemed puzzled. “I have never heard of them. What happened?”
“A combination of factors, it seems. The trade routes were diverted once the Roman Empire reached their lands, which moved the trade away from Petra and towards Palmyra. The wealth that Palmyra now holds was believed to still pale in comparison to Petra in its prime. Alongside that, some natural disasters crippled its infrastructure, and the knowledge of how to repair it had disappeared with them.”
“I would love to visit this old city. It sounds amazing.”
Yafeu gave a laugh. “That is not allowed. Many believe it is haunted by the ghosts of merchants long dead, and that to visit it will bring bad luck upon any merchant who travels there.”
“I never thought you superstitious, my love.”
“I am not, but I am not a risk taker either. Merchants do not get rich taking risks when the odds are stacked too highly against them.”
They turned to see the events around them. Everyone was setting up camp for the night, and seeing that their camels were properly tended. The animals looked as weary as their masters, though they had the added advantage of water storage in their humps. They were tired, but not thirsty. The laggin movements of the other merchants indicated that they were both.
Yafeu looked within the crowd. “I don’t know what has gotten into those three since they rejoined the caravan. Their attentiveness has been sorely lacking.” He raised his voice so that it carried across the bustling crowd. “Amon!”
The call was relayed through the crowd, and after a few minutes, the three guards appeared on their camels. They dismounted a distance before their master, and walked up to him.
“Where have you three been? I did not order you away.”
Amon bowed. “My apologies, Master. We went to ensure that no greedy nomads followed the tail. We may be close to Aqaba, but I do not doubt they keep their eyes on us even here.”
Yafeu pondered the words for a moment, before grudgingly nodding his head. “Very well. Get my tent arranged, and my lady and I would appreciate a meal.”
The three went about the request, while Yafeu and his betrothed went about the camp. The Egyptian complimented those he spoke to on their successfully crossing the Arabian Desert, his words accepted in a wary yet grateful way. He seemed to notice this uneasiness, but did not pay much notice.
The pair returned some hours later to where they had left Yafeu’s personal guard. The tent had been raised, and an enticing aroma wafted out of the entry flaps. Zia was grateful that the tagelmust hid her watering mouth, having not smelt such a delectable meal for many a week.
As they entered, they saw Amon carefully tending a boiling pot. Nakht and Akh stood either side of the door, and stepped outside as soon as their master and his wife-to-be had entered.
Yafeu considered the scene. “We have cooks accompanying us, Amon. You surprise me with this. I did not think you a cook.”
The man stood, turning to face Yafeu. “I save my cooking for once we exit the desert, and as long as there are decent ingredients available. Some of the straggling merchants had some very good ingredients, so I am happy to cook for you.”
The Egyptian nodded. “I appreciate this, Amon.”
The guard gestured for them to sit, and used a ladle to pour the contents of the pot into serving bowls. Offering the first bowl to Yafeu, it was gratefully accepted.
“Please try it. Let me know what you think. Some of the herbs used are a little different, but work well with the vegetables and dried meats.”
Yafeu took his spoon and ate a mouthful. He gave a considering look, before nodding and smiling. “The seasoning is different, but it is quite tasty.” He started eating quickly, showing he was hungrier than he held out to the other travellers.
The next bowl was offered to Zia, who accepted it and ate eagerly. She and Yafeu accepted another bowl each, both eating them with gusto. About five mouthfuls in, Zia noticed she felt faint. Not sure of what was happening, she looked to her betrothed. He had slumped to the ground, unconscious, the remnants of his bowl in front of him.
Amon moved forward to consider his master’s sleeping form. That smirk crossed his face again. He pulled a leather strap from his belt, and began to bind Yafeu.
“Nakht! Akh! To me!”
The pair stepped inside the tent, sparing a wary glance outside before closing the flaps. Zia could see the darkness creeping into the edges of her vision, and feel an irresistible sleepiness pulling her to the ground. The scene around her began to unfocus, and her hearing as if she was moving away.
Amon gave a smile of triumph to the pair. “As I promised, we will have our revenge on Master Babafemi. Let us leave our parting presents.”
The two guards smiled, and opened the satchels attached to their own belts. Zia could focus just long enough to register what they had placed in front of the bound Yafeu, only her mind able to recoil at the horror of it: a pair of flayed human faces, matching their owners.
The person posing as Amon did the same before moving over to inspect Zia, a wide smile crossing their face. She saw that glint in the man’s eye, finally remembering where she had seen it. Some words were spoken by the person, which Zia heard but did not understand before she finally succumbed to the darkness.
All she noticed was that the voice was female.
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