Over three months! How shameful! My profound apologies for such a long wait. The long-promised next instalment is below.
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Zia was astounded to find the unforgiving Arabian Desert was only unforgiving to those who did not live in it.
The lack of a caravan procession had increased their pace considerably, allowing them to cover twice the distance compared to the trek from Susa. The Persian had noticed that the heat of the desert had risen noticeably from the levels previously experienced, and the added pace was greatly appreciated. The veils they wore protected their eyes from the sand, and any possible sandstorms.
The rations packed before leaving Petra had seemed frugal to Zia, but Sayeh assured her that it would end up being generous. The pair travelled a winding path, the Sand Pirate keeping them away from the merchant trails, on the chance that they were spotted by anyone known to Yafeu. The chance that a passing caravan could carry news of their whereabouts was a risk she did not care for. The flatness of the desert required they keep a large distance from the well-travelled paths to ensure that they were reasonably hidden.
Initially putting blind faith in Sayeh knowing where they were going, Zia soon saw there was little reason to trust the desert dweller’s instincts. Two days into their travels towards Sakakah, they passed a nomadic tribe. Its leader warily noted their approach, flanked by the other men in the tribe, weapons at the ready. The women and children stood a distance away, minding their herds of camels and goats.
Sayeh placed an arm in front of Zia. “I will speak with them. You follow behind me.”
The Persian arched an eyebrow. “Are you afraid I’ll embarrass you?”
She received a withering glare as Sayeh increased her camel’s pace. As they approached the tribe leader, his aggressive posturing softened and he waved away his men. The Sand Pirate dismounted her camel, while he did the same and approached with open arms. The pair embraced warmly, as they spoke in a tongue Zia did not recognise, but presumed to be Arabic. After a time, the leader motioned for Zia to approach. He gave her an appraising look before speaking to Sayeh.
Zia gave her a puzzled look. “I do not understand him.”
The Sand Pirate gave her a surprised look. “Your father never taught you Arabic or Egyptian?”
“No. The only travelling I was ever allowed was throughout Susa, and even that was too much at times.”
“He was that protective?”
Zia rolled her eyes. “Unbearably so. What were you talking about with the tribe leader?”
Sayeh’s eyes crinkled with mirth. “He was uncertain of you. He is used to Kadir and Heydar accompanying me.”
“The friendly greeting said that you know each other. How did he know it was you before you dismounted?”
The Sand Pirate patted her camel’s nose. “Aziz breeds the best camels in all of the Arabian Desert. After I had robbed my first merchant train, I came to him to secure the best camel in the whole of Arabia. He refused to sell from his prized herd, as they normally remain within the tribe to keep the bloodline pure.”
“How did you convince him to sell?”
Sayeh turned to Aziz, speaking Arabic with a note of amusement in her voice. He gave her a mocking glare as he smiled broadly, speaking rapidly.
“I won Shedad from him. He let loose two of his fastest camels, and challenged me to return mine to the herd before he brought his back. It was a close battle, but I returned mine with about ten camel lengths to spare.”
Sayeh returned her gaze to Aziz, holding up all of her fingers and indicating the length of her camel. He waved away her claim, holding up the middle and fore fingers of his right hand. She laughed and reduced her claim to seven fingers, which he seemed to grudgingly accept.
Zia watched the pair as they good-naturedly teased each other. “He does not seem the type that likes to lose.”
The Sand Pirate laughed. “Name a man who does!”
Aziz motioned for the pair to follow him as he returned to the tribe. He bellowed to them, Sayeh translating for Zia that he was informing them of the arrival of prized guests, and to prepare five goats and a camel for the feast tonight.
“Of course. He knew of my plan to ambush Babafemi’s caravan on its return to Alexandria. He has no love for your betrothed, who tried to sell him short on some camels some time ago. Apparently Yafeu got quite… annoyed, when he was refused.”
Zia could not resist a smile. “That sounds like him.”
“Even Aziz’s second-rate camels are better than many you will find anywhere else. I have overheard others at caravanserais speaking of Yafeu’s camel stocks. They are supposedly the best to be found anywhere in Egyptian lands.”
“Why would Aziz not sell his herds himself, if there is that much wealth and fame to be had?”
Sayeh laughed. “He is wealthier owning the best camels than selling them off. To him, his tribe and their stocks are more important than any material gain.” She looked past Aziz for a moment before returning her gaze to Zia. “However, his wife is another story.”
Aziz had approached a lady standing at the forefront of the tribe, a stern-looking lady with a face weathered by the harsh desert climate. Sayeh dismounted, reaching into her saddle packs. Removing a package, she approached the lady. Bowing before her, she presented the item. Keeping a dignified air, Aziz’s wife opened it to assess its contents. Her eyes widened before she closed the package and embraced the Sand Pirate. She quickly moved back to the other ladies in the tribe, talking excitedly as she removed the contents for showing off.
Sayeh watched contentedly as she leaned over to Zia.
“It has always amused me that no matter where a lady lives, she loves fabrics and jewels. Desert dweller, Pharaoh’s concubine, Shah’s harem, city housewife. It’s in the blood.”
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