The ladies stood in front of four buildings carved side by side into the cliff face.
The first building, despite its being in a larger state of disrepair, was easily the most elaborate of the set. The first level had four entryways, the outer pair with semi-circular arches and the inner pair with triangular arches. The doorways were or varying sizes, one of enormous size while the others remained narrow. The level above these were a worn away forest of stone pillars, with almost twenty of the upright supports looking to support yet another level. That level, however, was heavily worn away where there was not protection from the cliff indentation.
Sayeh murmured to Zia, her tone bordering on reverence. “The amount of decoration and dedication involved in this structure makes me think that the high families of the Nabataeans used it when important travellers visited the city. It is like a stone palace.”
Zia nodded as they moved to the next structure. The general shape of the building bore a strong similarity to the building Zia saw upon entering the city, and also the one in the hills that the Sand Pirate and her minions occupied. As with the previous structure, the elements had greatly desecrated its architectural artistry, with the central section looking like it had been attacked with flying objects.
The Sand Pirate leader spoke again. “This seems like a first effort to create the other buildings. You see how common a structure they have, yet this one suffered by virtue of being more exposed to the wind and the rain. When this did not survive, the architect directed the labourers to the area at the city entry and to the hill location. We found some items buried in sand; some coins and carvings. One of the coins was minted in a place called Corinth, though I don’t know where that is.”
Zia spoke with an excited tone. “There were plenty of Greek stories in my library. Corinth is a major city on the northeastern coast of the Peloponnese region, in the past separating the Greeks from the Spartans. There were many sea stories, as two major ports to the east and west of the city brought trade in from all its neighbours.”
Sayeh gave her a sly smile. “You are quite the historian. I envy your knowing so much of the wider world.”
“It is all thanks to my father and his obsession with pleasing my mother and I.”
The pair laughed as they approached the third building. The lower level showed the varied colour of rock that was prevalent in the hill hideout, which helped in offsetting the weathering of the pillars and some sculptures further up the face. There were two large channels carved into the cliff face, a vertical shaft on the left side, from which a horizontal passage ran above a large portion of weathered rock. Above that, what appeared to be steps led higher before stopping.
Zia considered the building. “Steps at the top? That seems a very impractical way to place them, as they lead nowhere.”
“Not now, but they did once. I thought the same thing when I saw it for the first time. When I was bored, or the weather was particularly nice, I would sit here and marvel at the array of colour in the stone. I suspect that the workers who carved the rock face started at the top, and then worked their way down.”
“But they’d have to get up there first. That would be a struggle before you thought about carving a building.”
Sayeh rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say my idea was a perfect one; just a thought.”
The pair arrived at the final imposing structure. Where the first structure had dazzled with its pomp and excess of pillars, this attempted to intimidate with the many arches that supported to path to the ominous building. The two-high set of arches looked as if they would provide plentiful shade in the hotter days. Some on the lower level looked as if they had been walled off from lower perspective that the ladies had.
A set of flat levels led up to the first set of arches. Sayeh jumped up, and assisted Zia in following her. The Sand Pirate winced as she braced herself.
“What is wrong?”
“Nothing I can’t handle. The whip marks on my back are still tender if you move a particular way.”
They approached the beginning of the stairs. Sayeh continued past them, headed to the furthest arch from the ascending path. Zia followed her, uncertain of her purpose.
“They designed this building to be intimidating,” Zia said as she looked above and behind to see the detail in the decorative carvings.
Sayeh was crouched in the far corner, looking through what Zia believed to be some sort of container. “There were many earthenware jars stored in the building above. Kadir dropped one once, and there was only ash in them. Some of the containers were very ornate; they could have been urns.”
The Sand Pirate turned to face her guest. She had a piece of fabric, which she was wrapping around a piece of wood braced under her arm, while other items Zia could not discern where in her other hand. Once the fabric was tied, Sayeh opened a small tube and poured a foul-smelling substance onto it. She motioned for Zia to follow her under the arch, where she placed the makeshift item into a wall brace. As she threw the tube back towards the container, Zia saw that the last items in her hand were two pieces of flint. With two efficient strikes, the fabric lit and began to burn brightly.
The deepest portion of the arch looked like plain rock, which confused Zia as Sayeh moved forward and began running her hand over the stone. After some minutes, there was a click and the wall moved inward. Zia gaped in amazement at the tunnel that led further into the cliff, though the dark added a sense of fear.
Sayeh held the torch forward into the passage, though it did little to penetrate the black. “The mechanism to the door has a handful of buttons, which manage to change after every use. It is quite a clever mechanism, whoever thought of it.”
“What is down here?”
“Our treasure trove, of course. We have to make sure it is hidden in a safe location, and what is safer than behind a house of death?”
“That is if anyone ever gets past your people pretending to be ghosts of merchants past.”
The Sand Pirate leader nodded. “That is true. None have yet.”
“What do we need from down here?”
“Some tokens of generosity to any nomadic tribes we pass on our way. The desert can be unforgiving on a good day, and deadly at its worst. Any small measure I can provide to help them buy food or other items is provided.”
The Persian lady smiled. “A robber with a sense of charity. Who would have thought?”
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