Shamali sat behind his finely carved wooden desk, looking across at the three ladies. Hafthah sat in the middle, the package open in front of her. She and Zia had blanched at its contents, while Sayeh had gone into a fury as wild as a desert sandstorm.
The caravanserai owner gestured for the Sand Pirate to return to her chair. “Sayeh, please calm down. Letting rage control you will play into his hands. The Babafemi family have always been generous, both in reward and retribution.”
She continued to pace the opulent office, her deep brown eyes burned with anger and still focused on the package’s contents. “I will kill him. The nerve of him, thinking he can cut off Heydar and Kadir’s digits, and send them out across the merchant paths of Arabia.”
Hafthah considered her desert daughter. “There is always risk in a life of robbery, Sayeh. You of all people should know that. Your two men should have been more aware of their surroundings, and not have got caught.”
“The pair must have underestimated Yafeu,” Zia agreed. “You knew the risk you were taking in kidnapping me, or did you forget those whip marks across your back? And how is his doing this worse than your flaying his guards’ faces as a parting present?”
Sayeh rounded on her. “Are you actually defending him? You think this mutilation is acceptable?”
The Persian lowered her eyes. “Of course not.”
“This would not have happened if not for this act of the gods. I would have sent the ransom note to him, he would have agreed to my terms, you would be returned to him, and you would have continued onward to married bliss in Alexandria.”
“I doubt you could call it bliss, living with someone able to be this cruel.”
“Your father knew of Babafemi’s barbaric tendencies?”
“Of course he did. I knew of it too,” Zia admitted.
“And yet you both agreed to the marriage?”
“I am not the sort of person to willingly cause trouble. I left those days behind in my teenage years.”
Hafthah’s stern tone quieted her daughters. She looked over to Shamali, who silently watched the proceedings with a hint of amusement. Her mother pointing her to the vacant chair, Sayeh complied while the thunderous look remained on her face.
“The two of you bickering like children will solve nothing. The path is clear; Zia must be returned to her husband-to-be as soon as possible.”
Shamali considered the letter that had come with the grisly package. “He sets the meeting point as a day’s travel outside of Maan, where the offence took place, three days from now. He will be accompanied by a legion of Roman legionnaires… Impressive! If he can organise that, he has powerful connections indeed.”
Sayeh looked around the room angrily. “Have you all finished complimenting the man?”
“Calm yourself, my dear. One can be respectful of another’s talents, even if they do not agree with other aspects of the person. He is a fiendishly cruel, well-connected merchant. You may have finally overstepped your boundaries with the kidnapping of your sister.”
The Sand Pirate nodded. “That’s a slight improvement.”
“And now that he has reinforcements, and bargaining items with your injured associates, it looks like there is little for you to bargain with.”
“If I walk away with nothing, then the whole plan will have been for nothing. It took almost a year to plan, after we first heard of Babafemi’s intentions to request the engagement.”
Shamali shrugged his shoulders. “It is the nature of business, legal or otherwise. Risks are taken in order to reap a certain amount of reward, but it does not always work out according to your plans. You will have to accept this is such a time.”
Hafthah took Sayeh’s hand. “You have been excellent at everything you have ever done, but you have always managed to draw the scorn of others through it. Your piracy has been rewarding, but you are finally being forced to face the risk it poses. Is your life, or your friend’s lives, worth continuing if it leads to a conflict with another person, possibly worse than this Egyptian merchant?”
The Sand Pirate’s eyes moistened. “It was never the aim to hurt anyone. The riches crossing the desert were disgustingly excessive, while the peoples in the desert saw little of it. Stealing the meagre portions we did was to help them feel a small measure of comfort and wealth, and give some stability to their lives.”
“If they wanted that, they are perfectly able to move themselves to the cities. They choose to live in the desert, and maintain their nomadic traditions. Respect their choice. With or without you, they will find a way to survive.”
“So you think I should give up the life of a Sand Pirate?”
Zia looked over to her. “Your holdings at Petra were unbelievable, more than enough to look after the others who live there with you. You need to decide if you wish to continue and risk the lives of your friends, or to find a new path to follow.” She reached a hand over to her sister, who took it. “I do not wish for you to die. We have only just met, and I wish to know more of you.”
Hafthah placed a hand on each girl’s leg. “And I wish to see my daughters happy, wherever life leads them.”
The three shared an embrace.
“We had best make preparations to travel to Maan,” Sayeh said as the three stood up. “We can discuss the matter over the next three days of travel.”
Shamali rose from his ornate chair. “I will see to it that you have everything you need. Should you ever find your way back here, I will be happy to look after you in any way I can.”
Sayeh playfully narrowed her eyes at him. “Next time, you can place my mother in more suitable accommodations. Making her sleep under a table in your common room? It is not befitting of my mother. I will buy one of your luxurious homes off you if need be.”
– ∏ –