When the tide of misfortune moves you over, even jelly will break your teeth
A repugnant smell filled the night air that Kelechi could not place, it was not quite that of night soil, no, it was also not the stench that follows wherever folk were around for there was no one around when they walked towards The Inn of the Fire Lily.
A scarlet lily hung above the door, it was the first thing he spotted of the inn when they came up to the town for the sign was brighter than anything else that surrounded it. Leading his mule by the reins his mismatched eyes looked to his right at his father and brother and smiled. If only mother was here, He thought, he could see their breaths forming around them.
After stabling their mules and horses, the Iborra family walked into the inn and the sudden warmth the place radiated sent chills through his spine, after days of sleeping on his cart and out in the dead of winter tonight he would sleep under a roof and in a bed. If the Almighty wills it. The innkeeper eyed them warily, which was not so unusual for them. They were eyed warily wherever they went. That was the way it had always been and always will be. He was glad those eyes only showed wariness and not disdain. You would think they abhorred us more than they do the elves.
“Is a room available? You need not worry. We’ll pay upfront.” His father said when they approached the innkeeper. He was taller than Kelechi, he did not have the sort of face that made you feel welcome. Which of course was at odds with his profession but what could he do? The Innkeeper looked at them for a long time before he said anything.
“You’re Ghajri? we don’t get many of your kind here. Haan, there are rooms available. I’ll not have it said, Haris Reem turned anyone away, even you and yours. How else would this establishment survive eh? You came here on a cart I take it? So, you’re merchants? How have you fared this time of year? Not many people would trade with your kind.”
“We get by.” Was all his father replied.
“I see. You are welcome to stay in the common room while your room is being prepared, supper will be provided should you need it. Naturally, the food costs extra.”
“How much for it all?” His father asked.
“The lodgings, the food, I assume you’re staying just for the night.” He looked at all three of them. Tilting his head sideways, he continued. “A hundred and twenty Surees/Sonari.”
“A hundred and twenty? That’s bloody robbery!” His brother chimed in.
“The rates are non-negotiable I’m afraid. You can find other places to stay of course but since this is the only one for miles. I pray that the Gods be with you on your journey, shouldn’t take you until dawn if you haste.” Haris Reem smiled a greasy smile. He knows we have no other choice.
Kelechi’s father put his right hand on his brother’s arm. “It’s alright. We’ll take it. How long?”
“It’s alright Aram.”
“Shouldn’t be more than half an hour” Haris Reem scratched his chin slowly. “Should be done by the time you finish your supper. ”
“Alright, we’ll wait.”
Kelechi turned his attention to the rest of the inn while his father paid the innkeeper. At the end of the common room, a dais was raised for musicians or other gleeman but it seemed it had not been stepped on for some time, dust and cobwebs were all over the place, the closer to the dais he got, the grimier it became.
To his right, two men were quietly talking, Kelechi couldn’t say what about. Another was just about finishing his meal, from the way he licked the end of his fingers then started wiping his hands with his shirt.
Kelechi and Aram sat at an empty table near the corner, Kelechi took the seat with his back to the wall so that way he could see everything that happened however dull it was, Aram sat opposite his brother.
His father was coming their way, by the looks of the creases on his forehead, he looked tensed, almost worried, avoiding his eyes from the men who sat at the tables.
“I do not like this place,” Kelechi said when his father sat next to Aram.
“Neither do I but we have no other choice.” His father said.
“Besides, little brother we’re only here for the night, this time tomorrow you’ll have forgotten all about this place.”
“Perhaps but even then we will encounter another place just like this or worse, it gets worse and worse every time.”
“We will be home soon enough-”
“Gentlemen is this seat taken? I ask only to be polite of course, could not help myself, it’s not every day you get to meet Ghajri do you?”
Turning his head to look at the stranger who had interrupted them, he was in his middle years with a hint of grey on his temples, as his long face looked down on them in his dark black eyes Kelechi saw perhaps a little wariness, his moustache and beard were only slightly longer than his lips, which twitched ever so slightly in a smile as if he’d found something of great import. His cloak was entirely maroon, covering most of what he was wearing.
The stranger sat down next to Kelechi and placed a heavy bag on the table, he then started going through his belongings with one hand while the other held the bag. Pulling out a set of loose sheets and a pencil. “I do apologize for such forwardness, my name is Emre Baskar and I am well a lot of things but mostly I’m a scholar and a historian and I would like to ask a few questions of you if you do not mind. I’m writing a book you see, and that is the reason I’m here, in fact, this place holds great significance in our history, from before the elves, to the elves and even now. It’s a great shame to see it forgotten so.” his tone held a whiff of resignation.
“My name is Rahat Iborra, these are my sons Aram and Kelechi. What answers do you think we hold, scholar?” His father asked.
“Well, the book you see, there is not a lot known of your culture, and it has led to what it has led to.” Emre waved his hand dismissively. “I would like to ask you a few questions about your travels, your history.”
“No?” Emre repeated. “I do not understand, don’t you want your story told?”
“Our story is ours to tell. I would not have it distorted for your gain no matter your argument, I have heard it all before. Do you think that by telling our side of the story, the world would treat us differently? No, that stone was cast long ago by men not so different from us. If there will be a history of our people, it would be written by one of us.”
“I see” Emre rubbed his chin “Is there no way that I could convince you?”
“You would only be wasting your time scholar.”
“Any sort of conversation is never a waste of time.” Emre smiled.
“We may speak of other things, my sons and I have just crossed the border into Taiser, we have heard many rumours and hearsay and nothing to tell us what is true and what is not. The innkeeper would not say much when prodded.”
“Ah, well everything has a price and since you would not share your tales perhaps you have something else you could offer.” Emre said.
“What do you want?” Kelechi could see his father’s lips tighten.
“Oh nothing untoward, nothing you would not part with yourself.” Emre ran his arm over his coat sleeve, feeling the fabric. “I require a new coat and I could not stop myself from overhearing about your cart. Do you have one?”
His father sighed. “Very well, it will depend on what you offer interests us.”
“Where would you like for me to begin?”
“How much do you know scholar?”
“Ah, I have been travelling from Aezir for the past eight months, dare I say I have seen more than most men see in their lifetimes.” Emre broke his gaze from his father then glanced at Aram then turned his head towards Kelechi. “Well, I did say most men. I have travelled all the way from Aaban to the capital of this country. I believe I may have picked up on a few things along the way.”
“You have been to Bakhair?” Aram said eyeing their father then tapped his fingers on the table.
“Oh, yes, it is quite the sight to see, not as refined as Aabani architecture but it is still something. Do you wish to know the goings-on around the capital? I was there for a few days, not enough to see everything.”
“Tell us then, what do you know? His father asked.
“Rebellion” Emre whispered. Kelechi stiffened, he looked towards his father and brother. Aram’s eyes widened while his father’s mouth tightened.
Before Emre could continue a serving girl arrived, by the looks of her, she seemed like Haris Reem’s daughter, wearing an apron that was as clean as his table. Kelechi only wondered how a man like Haris Reem could even have a daughter, one that looked like her. Perhaps she goes after her mother. That brought an even worse thought to his mind. What sort of woman would choose Haris Reem? And a pretty one at that. Elsewhere Kelechi could see the two men walk upstairs.
The food she brought made his hunger vanish or near to. The bowl she brought contained some sort of curry that was supposed to look like chicken but the wings were too small to be chicken. He had tried not to smell the curry, but it smelt passable, it tasted nice enough but most of all it was warm and so it was better than anything he had tasted while being on the road.
For that Kelechi tried to smile at the girl but he could not bring up the courage to glance at her again. At least I tried this time. She left as quickly as she arrived.
“Rebellion, you say? Surely we would have heard something this big even in the rumours.” His father said.
“It should come as no surprise that something this catastrophic would need to be suppressed.”
“Tell me this scholar.” His father placed his elbow on the table then held out his finger towards Emre. “How do you suppress a rebellion?”
“If you’re King Jahanmir then by quashing it/by sending in(using) his most effective weapon. He’s sent his own son to do the deed. That is the extent as to what I know. I left soon after Crown Prince Shokrdan marched with his army.”
“It doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t affect us anyhow, we will be out of this country soon enough.”
“You will find that war has a habit of affecting anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped in its path no matter who you are. In the north-”
Kelechi noticed the door of the inn open suddenly as if kicked, it most likely was. The cold breeze surrounded the room. A tall man wearing a long white tunic, the side seams split open below the waist-line (which was known as a kameez in this region) under a velvet coat. Bold choice. I wonder if he has ever seen himself in a mirror or perhaps he is half-blind. Behind him, two more figures appeared behind him one short, the other taller than even the tall man.
“Where’s that wretched innkeeper?” The man in front moved to the counter opposite the door slamming his fist on it. “Reem.” He bellowed.
The gaunt innkeeper hurried through the door behind the counter, his face no longer as smug and as sure of himself as it had been. “I… Rebaz, you’ve come yourself.” Haris then looked at the men behind this Rebaz, his face grew worrisome.
“You see I was ‘round the area by pure happenstance on another venture and I thought to myself why not?”
“Why not? Indeed. Do you need to stay the night? I have a room prepared-”
“I” he paused. “Have come for my dues, Reem.” Kelechi could see Rebaz’s teeth from the corner of his mouth.
That seemed to have taken Haris Reem by surprise by the way his eye twitched and his brow raised, “I… paid my dues to your man near a fortnight ago” he said clutching the chair behind him.
“Did you now? Well, winter brings its own misfortunes, I find your dues to be not enough anymore. I brought my caravan so I do not wish to be in this place any longer than I need to be. Now, pay up or else?” Rebaz said. Kelechi smiled. So, there is justice in this world after all, and yet something inside him felt terrible for Reem.
“We had an agreement, you cannot do this. I will be petitioning to the lord.”
“Jahanmir?” Rebaz smiled. “You can petition but you will find the halls bereft of its people and the seat empty.” This is getting interesting.
“Why? What’s happened? What have you done?”
“Me? He’s brought this upon hisself, you know for a man who has travellers from all over the country you scarcely know the happenings of your own town.” Rebaz said.
Haris glanced at where Kelechi and his family were seated which brought forth the attention of Rebaz as well. “Perhaps we could talk elsewhere.” His eyes shifting back and forth between where they were seated and Rebaz
Kelechi glanced back at his father, he could only see one side of his face, his body half-turned to look at the exchange. Aram had one hand on the head of his father’s seat the other underneath the table, by the looks of it he was shaking his leg. Hmm, he only does that when… The Almighty no… he has his knife under there. Kelechi kicked Aram under the table, he had to stretch his legs farther than he had thought. Aram kicked back but didn’t move, Kelechi scowled at his brother
He could hear Emre mutter something to himself.
“All the more reason to give me what I want and I’ll be gone Haris.”
“I scarcely have enough for the upkeep of the inn.”
“Do I look like I care?” Rebaz raised his hand and the men behind him moved towards Haris, the short one moving to his left, curiously the tall man went inside the room behind Haris. The innkeeper tried to catch the man’s hand but he wriggled free and went inside. “What do you think you’re doing Rebaz?” The innkeeper asked.
“If you don’t have any coin to give us then we’ll just have to take something else.” Rebaz said.
As if on queue the short man moved towards Haris and seized him, the gaunt innkeeper tried to struggle but the short fat man didn’t have any trouble holding one hand behind Reem’s back the other around his neck. Why did the other one go inside to take the money? Had he bothered to check behind the counter he would have found it. Rebaz moved slowly towards Haris Reems hands clasped behind his back. Reem continued to struggle but the short man held his grip firmly.
“I have always wondered how a rotten tree could have fruit so sweet?” Rebaz said.
“No.” He breathed. “Please, anything. I’ll do anything. Take whatever else you want.”
“Oh, I will take whatever I want. You no longer have the same protection as you once did Reem.”
Kelechi could hear muffled screaming coming from behind the door, Haris Reem managed to wriggle his arm free but before he could move, the short man kicked him behind his legs and he fell to his knees. From behind the door the tall man was holding Haris Reem’s daughter over his shoulder, she kicked her legs, screamed, kept hitting him with his hands but to no avail, the man held her like an iron grip.
Kelechi looked at his father who was sitting back now, he tried to meet his father’s eyes but they were looking down at the table, his hands on top of each other, his brother still watched, his head unmoving. Emre watched the proceedings with a sort of grim fascination.
“She’ll fetch me a pretty price.” Rebaz inspected her when the tall man dropped her to the floor. “No, don’t cry, there will be much time for that later.” Kneeling down his hand clutched her face from the sides.
“No! Plea-” The fat man fist came crashing down on Haris’ head and he fell to the floor. When he raised his head blood came pouring out where he had split his upper lip.
“Let her go.” A voice said, Rebaz turned his head and then Kelechi realised it wasn’t just any voice it was his voice. What have I done? But he had seen enough cruelty in this world to let another pass by. Him, his family, his kind had been victims of crimes far crueler than this and often enough there was nobody to help them. People who would happily watch and let cruelty happen rather than to interfere, let innocent people die rather than to risk their own necks. I have had enough. He thought.
He had no way of knowing what he was going to do but now there would be no turning back. Aram has his knife. He had seen him practice with that thing long enough to know he could handle himself.
His father’s head jerked up looking at him. “What have you done son?” He whispered, his eyes twitched then he stood up. Aram turned his head, his eyes widened with shock, he groaned at first but his lips smiled and all of a sudden all the attention of the room shifted towards Kelechi. Emre quickly kept stuffing his things into his bag, the innkeeper turned his head back, the two brutes barely looked at his direction instead they were watching Rebaz.
“Who said that?” Rebaz said as he stood up facing them.
“The boy misspoke, we want no trouble.” His father said, turning to face him.
Rebaz walked in their direction and Kelechi’s heart throbbed, blood pumping through his veins, a fear that had gripped him, a fear so tight it increased with Rebaz’s every step.
“No trouble you say? I do not like the likes of you on my land. The only troubling thing here is your presence.”
“We are men the same as you, leave us be.”
“We are only here for the night, we will be gone on the morrow.”
“No, you will be gone this instant, I would not want you to sully us any longer.”
“Gentlemen, no need for such crudeness, surely an amicable decision could be made.” Emre said, breaking the tension between his father at Rebaz
Rebaz glared at Emre. “I am letting them live, that is amicable enough.” His eyes passed over Kelechi dismissing him but then they returned, his brow raised for an instance, the side of his lip smirked ever so slightly. He is looking at my eyes.
“You are the one who spoke, what happened to your tongue now? You thought yourself a hero? Saving a poor girl from her terrible fate. Well, you’ve only halted it for now and I am standing right here. In front of you. How did you think to stop me?”
Aram stepped in between them, Kelechi could see the knife still hidden behind his back. “Leave him be, try and frighten someone else. ”
“Aram!” His father hissed.
“And who might that be? You?” Rebaz barked a laugh, turning his head sideways to his men. “See lads, this one isn’t afraid of me? What should we do about that?” The men behind him chuckled.
His father let out a soft groan all of a sudden before Kelechi could even move his father fell to the floor. “NOO!” someone bellowed, he couldn’t tell who it was, his head was spinning,
“Kel, run!” The same voice came again, Aram it must be him, but he could scarcely think, scarcely move. It was as if his body had turned to stone, he tried to move but all thought of the concept had fled from his mind, he heard shouting, a woman wailing, men laughing as another body fell to the floor.
And yet that odour still hung in the air.
In that instant, Kelechi knew what it finally was. Death, The place reeked with it, tears flowed down his cheeks and Kelechi shrieked.