Sayeh led the way into the depths of the rock.
The passage was the height of almost two people, and narrow. The layers of rock exhibited the ripples seen around much of the city’s environment, with the torch’s light turning them blood red, the brown of polished timber and golden. The ladies were able to walk with straight backs and shoulders, where most men would be forced to turn sideways.
Zia’s voice reverberated along the passage. “The Nabataeans certainly planned for everything.”
“When you are one of the richest peoples in the known world, there are bound to be robbers nearby. The hall ahead was picked cleaner than a set of bones when I discovered it, but for small and insignificant items dropped by the looters. I do not doubt many greedy people had visited again once the peoples left and headed into the surrounding desert areas, but ceased to bother when the horde of goods never reappeared.”
“The goods magically reappearing? Did they think some fool would happen to leave a djinn behind?”
The Sand Pirate leader snickered. “Do not question the logic of desperate people; in many cases there is nothing but survival behind their actions.”
The passage continued for almost ten minutes before a large wooden door appeared, the metal adorning it glowing in the presence of the torch. Sayeh reached into the neck of her dress, and unlooped a chain with a key. Unlocking the door, she pushed it inward. Zia saw as she stepped past it that the door’s depth was longer than her outstretched hand, amused at the relative ease the desert dweller had opened it.
Sayeh placed the torch into a nearby wall brace, not needing it further. Standing at the top of a raised area, a set of stairs wound down towards a hall floor akin to a tent city. The roof of the vast room looked like a starry night, with innumerable pinpricks of light providing illumination. As the pair descended, Zia was able to see that the tents were made of translucent layers of silk, held up by sticks in some places or just draped over items in others.
“My goodness, that is a lot of silk!”
“And good quality too. The Chin trader assured me it was worthy of presentation to his Emperor before I took it off him. It stops other goods being destroyed by excessive dust and possible sun damage, so it serves a worthy purpose.”
Zia gave her a bemused look. “Silk worthy of an emperor being used to protect goods? You could use any manner of cover to do that.”
Sayeh gave her a cheeky grin as she shrugged. “Call it my version of being extravagant. Using it to protect my takings ensures they remain in good condition, and that they fetch a worthy amount when I send my men out to a merchant city to sell them.”
“You trade them?”
“Of course. I hold onto the goods for long enough that they become more valuable, and then send small enough portions out to Aqaba, Amman or even Damascus to sell. Just enough to ensure top dollar is paid by willing buyers, who will likely have heard a merchant’s tale of how they were ‘misplaced’ somewhere on the original merchant’s travel path. Gives the buyer a thrill to think they have a forbidden item.”
“My father would like your train of thought. Ensure demand is high, supply only a little, and watch the agreed prices soar. How do your men avoid getting in trouble with the city authorities? They would likely hear of stolen goods being sold.”
That cheeky smile crossed the Sand Pirate’s face again. “As long as they get an acceptable cut of the sales proceeds, they will look the other way. And there are plenty of goods being sold in the cities that are of dubious sources. The authorities merely use it as another form of revenue raising, one that is likely more profitable than the regular trades.”
They walked along the paths between piles of goods. Lifting some of the silks, Zia saw that there were clothes of both local and exotic qualities, plush and elaborate carpets, swords and spears, shields, armours, paintings, drawings, statues, and almost every other valuable good one could imagine. One portion of the hall had an immense quantity of chests, arranged in tidy rows. Who needs a djinn when you have this lady and her crew stockpiling, Zia thought to herself.
“You cannot sell very much of what you take, Sayeh.”
“Of course not. My team need to be fed every day, and to make sure that happens I have to ensure that we have goods to sell in the future.”
Zia looked to her. “I did wonder how you fed everyone in an abandoned, deserted desert city.”
“There are still sources of water around. A great many of them that relied on rainfall have dried out, but there are some underground sources that remain. Managing them properly, we have enough to grow some crops in strategic locations. It would not do much to maintaining our façade if anyone walking in here could see them.”
The Persian nodded as she perused the many chests. They tapered off towards an open display of fine jewellery, with the fine silk above protecting them from falling debris. Her eyes widened as she saw what held pride of place in the collection.
“Where did you get that necklace?” The chain was rose gold, and held a large sapphire.
“A gift from my mother. The first time we met after my leaving the tribe, she left it with me. Despite not being with her, she wanted me to know she still loved me. Why do you ask?”
“My mother has the exact same one.”
“That is intriguing. Mother said it was an exceptionally rare item; one of only two made.”
Zia’s hand flew to her mouth. “All this time we have speaking of your mother, but haven’t considered my mother’s part in all this.”
Sayeh shrugged as she moved over to the lines of chests. “She undoubtedly has a part in all this. But she cannot help us, as she is so far away.” She selected a chest and dragged it out of the line. “My mother will still take a pair of weeks to reach, but that is less than yours.
“Help me take this back outside. We need to get our mounts and meals arranged before we head off towards Sakakah.”
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