The Grand Caravan arrived that afternoon in sunlight fresh enough with the spring season to ignore the dust of the travelers and settle on the bright colors of their exotic robes and turbans instead.
Outriders had preceded them into Tengwa Tep, and the merchants and citizens of that entrepôt that could spare the time gathered on the southwest outskirts of the city as soon as the news had spread that the Grand Caravan had come, as scheduled, and that the trading season with sarq-Zannib and upstream Kigali had begun for the year.
Penrys rode well back in the caravan, dressed in the riding-length robes that all the dark Zannib wore, men and women, on horseback. Najud, her husband, was near the front, but the rest of her companions, as new to the caravan as she was, chattered excitedly about their first look at a Kigali city, its yellow brick golden in the light from the west, varied by the colorful stucco of its many residential and manufacturing compounds. By comparison, the caravan’s first stop, a few days ago, had just been a large market town.
She’d seen cities before, in Ellech, across the northern seas. Here it was the children that caught her eye—dozens and dozens of them, screaming with excitement. Some were with a parent, but mostly they ran free, the littlest ones trailed by irritated older sisters or brothers. Unlike their elders, with the long single braid that almost all Kigali not in the military used, the children wore their hair loose or, at the most, gathered into a tail.
“Did they come to see the riders?” Rubti asked.
Penrys smiled at her sister-in-law’s eagerness, a ten-years-younger version of Najud. She was an apprentice herd-mistress, a dirum-malb in her own language, and she’d been fascinated by the rehearsal the night before of the entertainment the caravan would provide this first evening, to entice the crowds to trade for the five-day stop before it swung west, upstream, paralleling the Junkawa, for the longest leg of its great circular route—to Jonggep, the Meeting of Waters.
Ilzay leaned across his saddle to catch Penrys’s attention. “There’s our setup place.” The young man pointed to the left, into the open pasture that was bare of animals and clearly set aside for the use of the caravan, divided from the outermost commercial buildings on the west side of Tengwa by a well-used broad dirt road.
The caravan broke into its smaller components and the travelers began to unpack and erect their dwellings in the unchanging sequence they would maintain for the entire route. Penrys recalled Najud’s advice when the caravan started from Qawrash im-Dhal to pick their neighbors well, since they’d be living with them for four months. That wouldn’t be true for Penrys and Najud who would be leaving the caravan here tomorrow with their apprentice Munraz, but the other four would be hauling their two kazrab and trade goods on all but the final leg, parting from the caravan only once it had returned to sarq-Zannib and reached the land of clan Zamjilah on its way back home.
The six of them led their pack-strings of horses, five each, to their designated spot and began unloading their goods from the pack frames. Before the first of the three round kazrab had been raised, Najud trotted in with his own pack-string.
“Sorry, Haraq—we’ve been summoned. Can you take charge of getting our kazr up? Munraz can tell you where everything goes. I need to grab Penrys for a while, by order of our imperial… hosts.”
A grimace crossed his lively face. *Sorry, Pen-sha. They’re waiting for us. I’ll stall them until tomorrow—we don’t want to cross the river in the dark, I assure you. But they want to make sure I brought you. As, um, requested.*
Penrys felt the mix of exasperation and tension in his mind-speech. “Shouldn’t we change our clothes?” She beat her sleeve with the riding gloves clenched in her hand and let the eloquent dust rise to make her point.
“No time. They’ll have to take us as we are, at least on this side of the river where we can always just leave again.”
With a sigh, Penrys waved her hand at what was left of their unloading and smiled apologetically at Haraq. “Have fun watching the riding exhibition if we miss it,” she told Rubti.
She brushed the trail dust off as best she could and remounted her horse. Najud led her at a trot to the head of the caravan, passing the large kazr of the zarawinnaj, the caravan leader, and then crossed the road to the Tengwa side and slowed to a walk. He searched through the crowd of Kigaliwen, adults and children, who were watching the camp going up in the field, until he spotted two men, dressed somberly, and turned his horse in their direction.
“That’s the dark brown of Imperial Security,” he told Penrys. “Apparently they’ve been on the lookout for us.”
When they reached the two men, they dismounted. Najud bowed in the Kigali fashion and Penrys followed his lead. When she noticed the older one staring at her neck, she raised her hand and unwound the colorful scarf she’d wrapped around it, a gift from a kind tailor’s wife in far western Neshilik. At the sight of the heavy, brassy chain, settled close around her throat, with no method of removal, the official nodded.
“You are wanted as soon as possible in Mentsek Tep,” he said. “Gather your things and follow us.”
Penrys raised her eyebrows, and Najud shook his head. “We’ll cross to Yenit Ping in the morning, Nip-chi, not in the darkness of night. By the time we load goods and horses, the sun will have long set.”
“So they didn’t expect you to be married to my tigha?” Rubti was amused at the surprise Najud had described to her when they returned to their camp.
“News doesn’t travel all that quickly,” Penrys said. The scene of chaos that she’d left had fallen into order before she got back. The horses and other animals were tethered or herded in flocks on the far side of the camp, in the pasture set aside for the thrice-yearly visit from the Grand Caravan. In the middle rank were the kazrab of the caravan leader, the guards, and the permanent staff of the Biziz Rahr, scattered along its length, and then interspersed were all the traders traveling together in the caravan, one group after another. Some were regulars who undertook the journey every year and greeted each other like family, while others, like their own party, were strangers.
The final rank, along the frontage of the road, were the trading booths, still going up in the setting sun, bare and undecorated until the next day’s early morning would see them transformed into colorful and enticing stops for the citizens and merchants of Tengwa Tep, and for any other traders who would rendezvous here before the caravan proceeded further into Kigali. Some would be buying, for the local region, and others would consign their own items for sale. Goods that went by water traveled in Kigaliwen hands, but the overland trade, along the route of the Biziz Rahr, was handled by the nomadic Zannib, by long custom.
Penrys had seen the process a few days ago in their first village, where the kinks had been worked out for the new travelers. The caravan’s customers and trading partners would wait until tomorrow for their official business, but already they were gathering in the open space left beyond the zarawinnaj’s dwelling, waiting for the entertainment to begin.
As she pushed through the crowd with Rubti, Penrys could feel the exercise of the traders’ professional skills, as much a part of them as the skills of a carpenter or soldier would be to another. She reached out with her mind and scanned the people—hundreds of them, in addition to those with the caravan. Across the road were the thousands in Tengwa Tep, and this, she knew, was just a small city, anchored by the caravan trade. The scale was overwhelming, and she concentrated on just the activity in front of her.
*Over here, Pen-sha.*
Penrys zeroed in on Najud’s location from his silent call and steered Rubti in that direction. Along the westward-facing edge of the talkative crowd, their little group stood quietly—tall Haraq made taller by his turban, and young Ilzay, his eyes never still as they drank in and filed the behaviors of the people as though they were an exotic species of animal. Najud was there, younger than Haraq, with his face that so resembled Rubti’s, especially when a smile flashed across it as it did now upon seeing them both. Munraz, their apprentice, stood by his side and smiled shyly at Rubti.
All the men wore the turbans that marked the Zannib, and as Penrys cast her eye across the crowd, she could see the colorful headgear bobbing like the blooms of tall flowers in a field of grass. The Kigali men, some of them, sported the small emblematic caps of their rank or profession, perched moth-like on their heads. The universal single braid down the back for the adults, men and women, was in stark contrast to the exuberant curls of the Zannib women who wore their hair only casually restrained by scarves or pins, like Rubti.
Rima, the oldest of their party, had threaded the brightest scarf she owned through her own dark curls, until she seemed as youthful and uninhibited as Rubti. Penrys felt out-of-place in this crowd, with her shoulder-length brown hair in the sea of black-headed people. She hadn’t stood out so much in Ellech, with its variety of hair colors, but here in the southern continent, any variation from black was unusual, and her skin tones and rounder eyes were wrong, too.
All around them she overheard snippets of conversation. Promises of spices and rugs, jewels and wool, exotic fabrics and dyes. Pearls from the Wandat Sea. Bargains being struck for consignments further along the route.
Suddenly the noise quieted, and Penrys looked west, into the sunset. A single Zan on a white horse had appeared. He bowed, and his horse knelt, too, before rising up to carry him at a gallop along the front of the crowd. Hands reached out to grab children and pull them out of the way, but Penrys could both see and feel how much the rider was in control of his horse, and how often they had done this before.
She felt the arrival of more riders, coming out of the setting sun, before her eyes wanted to leave the first one. They split into two groups of three and rode with their arms crossed over their chests and no reins at all. For a few minutes they wove through each other in intricate crossings, their faces impassive, using only their legs to direct their horses. Penrys could feel their concentration as they performed, something between a dance and swordplay.
With a shout and a flourish, all six riders moved as one and drew their khashab, the curved swords of the Zannib, from the sheaths mounted to the saddles. What followed was a stylized sword dance on horseback, first one group of three slashing and their opponents ducking fluidly away, and then the other. After the synchronized exhibit, they broke off into three pairs and traded a flurry of blows that never connected. Finally, by what signal Penrys was unable to detect, they stopped and struck their swords against their partners’ swords in a single ringing clang that died out in the silence of the fascinated crowd, until the first hand-clapping began, and the children shouted in delight.
All six riders lined up and bowed, and than circled at a gallop and vanished back behind the caravan leader’s kazr on the left, just as the sun finished setting.
Penrys glanced down at Rubti whose eyes were shining. “Think you can learn how to do that, in three months?”
Waking up from her trance, the girl turned a serious face to her. “Do you think they’d teach me?”
That evening all seven of the travelers made themselves comfortable after dinner in the kazr that belonged to Najud and Penrys.
“Last time,” Najud said, as he poured the bunnas for Haraq and then settled the pot on the metal plate that supported the stove. “No more kazr for us, in Yenit Ping.”
He’d miss the comfort of the warm felt walls surrounding the round lattice-work shell, and all the colorful painted woodwork and textiles. It would all collapse down tomorrow into loads for two of the horses in his string, while the other two kazrab remained standing, for the four who would go on with the Biziz Rahr for three quarters of its circular route.
Tun Jeju, the Kigali officer of Imperial Security, had requested his presence, and Penrys’s, in Yenit Ping, and Najud knew it was more in the nature of an order, an obligation already paid for in the form of a permit for a new caravan in the west of sarq-Zannib. He’d brought his apprentice along, but the rest were there to learn how the grandfather of caravans operated, as a model for the new one Najud intended to found.
“It’s not too late, Munraz,” he said. “There are other bikrajab traveling with the caravan—I could probably arrange for you to study with one of them instead, if you wish it. They’re all older than I am.”
Penrys rolled her eyes, and he corrected himself. “Than we are.”
He could see that Munraz actually considered the offer, before shaking his head. “I’d rather study with you two, bikraj, and see the great city.”
“All right, then. You’ll find it… interesting.”
Proceeding in order of seniority, Najud turned to Rima. The widow of a trader from clan Umzabul, she’d wanted to experience the Grand Caravan, from its base in Qawrash im-Dhal to its trading cities in Kigali, the better to prepare the other traders in her clan once the western caravan became a reality.
Najud looked to her steadiness to counter-balance his volatile younger sister. “Is there anything else you need, Rima, before we part? You’re comfortable with your trade goods? Your silver?”
“It’s not my first biziz,” she said, with a smile, “though there’s nothing like the Biziz Rahr, it’s true. Penrys can take her loads of kassa into Yenit Ping, but I’ll seed the market along the way with mine, and see if we can’t stir up a demand for it.”
The herbal infusion was an alternative to the dark and popular bunnas, and not yet well know outside of the far west, around the Wandat Sea.
Haraq was still a puzzle to Najud, even after two months on horseback together. Neither he nor the much younger Ilzay spoke much, and they shared a certain sobriety of character.
Penrys had broken Haraq free from a qahulajti, a wizard-tyrant, a few months ago, when the Kurighdunaq clan had been so disastrously drawn into the grasp of a young girl with overwhelming powers. In the process, Haraq had stuck to them both, and declared his interest in helping to create the new caravan.
Privately, Najud thought Haraq felt he owed Penrys some sort of debt for his life. That was nonsense—others had been saved the same way, including Haraq’s own sister—but Najud was no longer surprised, when he turned around to warn Penrys of something, to find Haraq there before him, tending to the danger.
Ilzay was different. The Kurighdunaq clan was now so reduced in size, that its ujarqa, Umzakhilin, the clan leader, was considering Najud’s proposal to help build a caravan base on the clan territory, like a Qawrash im-Dhal in miniature, as a way of avoiding absorption into the other clans of his tribe. Ilzay wanted a place in that. He was here to learn how a mature biziz operated, to help plan the infancy of a new one.
“You have all the letters for Umzakhilin and the others?” Najud directed the question to both of the men.
“We have everything, bikraj,” Ilzay responded. “If Umzakhilin says ‘yes’ before you return, we know what to do. The rest of the work goes forward either way—the breeding of the horses and mules, and the announcements for the merchants and traders in the west.”
“Good,” Najud said. “I’d rather start the trading base this year, for greater stability next year, but even without it I’m determined to try for a first, short caravan next spring as an experiment.”
“And Rubti, that means I’m placing a great responsibility on you.” His sister returned his look with unaccustomed seriousness. “Just getting our herds from Zamjilah to Kurighdunaq will be a trial, even if those we spoke with when we passed through still plan to come with you. It’s no small thing to uproot so many animals and people, and bring them to a new clan for an… uncertain adventure.”
“I can do it, tigha,” she said. “I may only be a dirum-malb now, just an apprentice herd-mistress, but I’m sure I can do it.”
Penrys laughed. “Don’t you think you’ll be a full dirum if… when you succeed? If that’s not a masterwork, moving so many animals three hundred miles west, I don’t know what would be. Talk to the dirum of this caravan and learn everything you can. Stick to her like a burr and make yourself useful.”
Najud said to Rima, “Take care of her for me.”
“Well, I will,” the older woman said, “but I don’t see the least need to worry about it. You go off and give that old Kigalino what he wants, and we’ll see all three of you in a couple of months.”
Najud and Penrys shared a look. If only it proves to be that simple.
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