I | Vhaki's Gift
"Do you believe in legends, Mister Pandrigon?"
Balasar weighed his client's question. A wind cantered in from the open air balcony to his left. With it came the salt taste of sweat and desert mingled with a cacophony of other assaults to the senses: odors of raw and dried fish, poultry, and other meats; fresh exotic spices, frying fruits and various street vendor treats. The bray of mules, cluck of chickens, whine of cats, and the constant tinkle and clack of belled carts and wagons.
After determining that his answer likely would not affect the outcome of their transaction either in his favor or otherwise, Balasar answered honestly. "No."
From this viewpoint—a west-facing second story suite in the second largest building in all of Bhepal, Surrhi province's proud capital—the soon to set sun looked like an orb of melting gold awash with a backdrop of blood. It painted the domed golden roofs of the prouder buildings in rich, fiery hues, too resplendent to hold one's eyes on for long.
As predicted, the only other man in the room, Abdhi Faarek, Chief Minister of Trade and Finances in Bhepal, looked unaffected by Balasar's negative comment. He smiled. "I do."
As a high ranking official of the Imperial Court in addition to his already weighty city office, Abdhi had worked long and hard for his positions, often resorting to methods that would make men of more honor cringe.
"It is good that you do not, though," the Minister continued. "That is why you are here. Humor an old, foolish man for a moment?"
Balasar curbed the urge to snort. Abdhi was not old. Late forties or early fifties at the most, if Balasar had to guess. Only a decade or so older than himself.
And he most certainly was not foolish. Foolish men—particularly wealthy foolish men—did not live long in cities like Bhepal. However, if nothing else, thirty-eight years of life had taught Balasar when to hold his tongue. As anticipated, Abdhi continued without prompting.
"This city prospers," Abdhi said, "and I grow rich with it. It abounds in resources denied many of Akan's other provinces. Crops, trade, minerals. But do you know what its most precious resource is?"
Water. Balasar thought it without answering.
Akan was a massive, predominantly desert region, split into the four main provinces of Surrhi, Khikaban, Aitreya, and Jabbha. Surrhi, Akan's wealthiest province by far and home to its capital, the Imperial City of Bhepal, was the only one of the four provinces fed by a proper river. The Sadd'Fajhyr ran from the Red Gulf in the far North, all along Surrhi's northern and western borders, feeding the province with the lifeblood of any desert.
"Water," the Minister confirmed. "With water comes all of Surrhi's power, concentrated in Bhepal at its center. We are healthier and happier here, and the other provinces depend on our resources for their livelihoods. This is why we have power. But it is not as much as it could be. Do you know of this land's history?"
"Vaguely." Balasar knew more of Akan than most foreigners. He knew of the basic political and economic structures and even spoke the primary dialect of the region at a functional level, though he was happy to allow the Minister the privilege of preening by showing off his intellect and holding the current conversation in Balasar's native tongue.
"Once, Bhepal ruled over all of Akan. A thousand years ago, the whole of the region was united under the title of a single Empire. In times of prosper, however, the provinces broke away from that rule. They did not need us, so they left to fend for themselves as independents. But times of prosper are ending, Mister Pandrigon. For the past twenty years, the streams that flow from our mighty river to feed the provinces have been drying up. Rains come less frequently and in shorter spells every year. The dry season grows ever longer. Do you know why the provinces refuse to give up their independence?"
This answer, Balasar did not know, but the silence stretched long enough to indicate that the Minister clearly expected one, correct or not. "Pride."
The Minister smiled. A patient smile, like one a parent might turn on a naïve child. "Faith," said Abdhi. "They have faith."
Whatever expression Balasar made must have betrayed his opinion of that, because the Minister laughed aloud.
"Is that such a foreign concept to you, Mister Pandrigon?"
"Not foreign," Balasar said. "Foolhardy."
The Minister's laugh petered to a low chuckle, but his amusement lingered, crinkling the corners of his eyes in a way that made him look almost friendly. A deceptive look for him. "Foolhardy, perhaps," Abdhi agreed. "But their faith is not without reason. There is a cycle."
"A cycle to their faith?"
"A cycle of prosperity and scarcity," Abdhi said. "A cycle of exactly fifty years. It has, for many centuries now, followed a reliable loop down to the day. At the coming of each fifty year cycle, there is a great rain. It rinses the land, bathing the starving earth and sinking deep into the parched soil. Many rains follow this one, filling each of the Sadd'Fajhyr's greater tributaries, and then the smaller ones. The rains feed everything they touch, and for many years to come all of Akan knows a time of richness."
Balasar listened, watching in silence as the Minister paced across the room with his speech. Giving a quick snap at the door, the Minister signaled a servant—no, slave, Balasar thought, identified by the mark high on their forehead. The slave offered up a gilded tray littered with edibles.
"Come," the Minister pressed, "I insist."
When Abdhi smiled this time, it came off as far more feral—a desert lion, coiled to pounce. For an instant, Balasar wondered if the man might consider poisoning him. As soon as it came, though, he dismissed the thought. However ruthless Minister Faareck's reputation made him out to be, nothing he heard had painted the man as reckless.
"I don't drink."
"Mm." The Minister's quiet snort conveyed his opinion well enough, but he made no comment and selected a single glass for himself regardless.
When he went on to pluck a treat from the platter and pop it between his lips, a smear of excess stained his mouth in the aftermath. Watching him wipe the surplus on an embroidered napkin—the embodiment of waste—Balasar's eyes darted to the angular, twig thin arms of the boy sporting the tray.
He forced his attention away. For a wealthy city, Bhepal housed more than its fair share of wretchedly poor, the disadvantaged ranging from too-thin shopkeepers to skeletal beggars. Yet, it did no good to dwell on what inhabited the streets beyond the walls of the Minister's extravagant abode or on those who suffered inside it.
"Where was I?" the Minister asked, cutting Balasar from his thoughts.
"Fifty years," Balasar said.
"Ah, yes. Of course. The cycle. So. After our ten to twenty years or so of flourishing prosperity, the rains diminish. The fates turn, and as I recently explained to you, the circumstances grow ever more dire for the next line of decades until the passing of the fiftieth year…"
When he trailed off, he sent Balasar an expectant look. Balasar humored him. "At which point the rains return."
"Precisely!" Abdhi grinned. "So, do you have any idea how near we are to that turn, mm?"
From the state of the droughts and the murmurs among the market folk about increasingly violent skirmishes in other provinces, Balasar guessed soon. "Not the faintest."
"Nine days," Abdhi said. Balasar was caught off guard in spite of himself. "Ghahi shidra—the 'Great Rebirth'—is scheduled to occur in nine days."
"Mm." Abdhi hummed into a sip of wine. "At this moment, Bhepal is at its highest point of influence. All the other provinces need us, but they do not submit to us. Why? Because of ghahi shidra, because of their faith in the rebirth. And when it comes? They will no longer need us as before. We lose tremendous amounts of influence, the outer provinces become strong, and there is no hope of once again reuniting Akan under a single Empire."
Balasar frowned as sudden comprehension dawned on him. With it came intense disbelief. "And you have brought me here to…what? Stop this 'rebirth'?"
Abdhi's grin was poison. For the first time though, he looked genuinely impressed with Balasar's answer. "You are quick," he said. "For a foreigner."
Balasar's thumb scratched idly—back and forth—over the hilt of one of his less concealed daggers. If the Minister noticed, he paid the action no mind.
"Yes," Minister Faareck said. "I intend to hire you to help me facilitate the stopping of this rebirth. The first break in the cycle in a thousand years."
"I assume you have a plan for how I am to do that other than catching the rain in a giant net and stealing it away from the other provinces?"
The Minister ignored him. "There is a legend. A great, unbroken tradition that follows with the cycle," Abdhi said. "Every fifty years, thirty years after the coming of the rebirth, the priests of the Channai Temple in Jabbha province go on a pilgrimage across the land, searching far and wide through all the provinces, looking for su Vhaki Balhia."
Balasar frowned. "I've heard that term. It is translated as 'Vhaki's Gift'?"
The Minister's grin stretched the sides of his cheeks. "Yes. Vhaki's Gift is the exchange we, the people of Akan as a whole, make with our greatest god, after which it is named."
"The storm god." Balasar had learned that much.
Abdhi hummed the affirmative. "Vhaki is our life giver. Before him, vicious gods ruled our lands, but Vhaki gives us rains, bountiful harvests, protection for the great sun and guidance with the stars in the unruly desert. It is he who blesses us with ghahi shidra, and in exchange for this, he demands only one thing. Every fifty years, a single child across Akan is born 'marked' with the signs of the Gift, signs only a trained priest can recognize."
"More than a sacrifice," Abdhi said. "The perfect sacrifice. Once this child, the Gift, is found, he—or she, for it is as often a girl as it is a boy—is taken in by the priests, collected at infancy and relocated to the temple in Jabbha, tucked away at the foot of the Ghazi mountains. The Gift is raised there, trained in all manner of things. Everything you might imagine that could possibly come of use to a servant of a god, and then other things as well. Combat, cooking, dance, song, instruments. The Gift is even taught to read—all volumes of literature available, from classics to poetry." He smiled. "And, of course, each one is well trained in the art of giving pleasure…"
Balasar said nothing.
"Why am I telling you this, yes?" the Minister said. "Well. As I have said, this is the fiftieth year of the cycle. In nine days exactly, it will have been twenty years since the priests of the Channai Temple found their Gift and began his training—for this time it was a boy, mm. On the eve of his twentieth birthday, the boy will be taken on a trip. The first and last trip of his life more than ten miles outside the walls of the temple. They will take him fifty miles deep into Jabbha's desert, and leave him there to meet his god."
Balasar resisted the urge to fold his arms over his chest to quell an uncalled for chill on his skin despite the hot room.
"This of course is only a very kind way of saying they drop him in the desert to die. He will be left with nothing, and it is expected of him to pray. To kneel in the sand and pray until Vhaki takes him. Once Vhaki has claimed his Gift, ghahi shidra comes and bounty is resorted to the land." The Minister pinned Balasar with a curious look, as though weighing him. "I am hiring you," he said, "to assure that this does not happen."
Balasar rolled a shoulder, aching slightly from having stood still too long. "You're hiring me to stop a miracle. One that you only assume will occur–"
"I am hiring you to kidnap a boy," the Minister corrected. "What happens after is no part of the deal. I chose you because you do not believe in miracles, Mister Pandrigon. If you are half the man your reputation suggests, you make quite a show of how little you believe. Most men in this city…" The Minister frowned. "No, that's not right. Most men south of where the Sadd'Fajhyr joins the Red Gulf would not touch the Gift for fear of inspiring Vhaki's wrath…"
"You are handing me what most would consider a suicide mission."
"More than that," the Minister said, the gravity of his statement somewhat belied by the return of his characteristic smile, "a natural disaster. Inhumanely cruel. Tragedy, to all of Akan's people, delivered by the hands of Vhaki himself. Without the return of water to feed the outer provinces, all of them will become increasingly dependent on Surrhi. Not only for specialty goods, but for everything. Their very lives," the Minister said. "They will be absolutely at our mercy, and the Empire will rule as it once did again. Water will be priceless, and Bhepal…" He spread his arms, goblet of wine still clasped in one hand as he grinned, "…will be a gold mine."
Balasar kept his opinion to himself. If he turned down every job offer from a superstitious nutcase placed in a high office with the spare gold to throw around on fanciful whims, he would have been a much poorer man. He did however have to ask, "You're not concerned this will backfire? Affect even your prosperous city here?"
"Bhepal has not only the single source of reliable water, but the best defenses, the strongest functioning army by a hundredfold and the most advanced technologies. No matter how few the resources, Bhepal will have the best of them, and if it does not, it will take the best from whoever has them. Wherever tragedy may strike, here at the heart of the Empire will be the safest, and those with the most power at their fingers will be the last to feel its impact." Sliding a single, appraising glance over Balasar, the Minister took a sip from his goblet. "Is it true that you were banished indeterminately from your homelands for burning to ash the chapel of a god of the North?"
"Goddess," Balasar corrected. He turned a look on the Minister. "Is it true that you poisoned an entire bathhouse of senators' wives over an insult directed at you during a dinner party?"
For a moment, some color in the Minister's cheeks drained. Quickly, he composed himself, but when his smile returned, it did not reach his eyes. "You are lucky that I like you–"
"You don't like me," Balasar said. "You have a purpose for me. One that I am willing to perform," he said. "For the right price."
The Minister recognized the time for actual business and consented. "Four thousand rhebals–"
The Minister stiffened. "That's ridiculous–"
"No," Balasar said. "It's a bargain. No one else will get the job done for you. As far as everyone in a thousand mile radius is concerned, you're asking for lunacy. Should this go through and you get your drought, you'll make up the cost in conquered territory and tribute in a day. Less, even."
"The Gift is priceless," the Minister growled. "If you find the right buyer, you can sell him at port in the Gulf of Carpath for at least half again that price–"
"I factored that in."
"Do we have a deal, Minister?" Balasar asked, meeting his fuming client's gaze dead on this time. He swore he spotted angry sweat beading up on the man's red faced brow as he sputtered.
Then, with the disconcerting immediacy of sliding on a mask, Abdhi's expression cooled. The wrinkles in his forehead and blotches on his cheeks smoothed, and he studied Balasar, as though seeing him with new eyes. "I could have you killed before you made it from this building." To Balasar, it sounded like the musings of a man talking to himself, but he answered anyway.
"Likely," Balasar said. "But then who would kidnap your miracle?"
"Mm." Abdhi's fingers tapped the cup of his goblet. "Half up front."
"Have the other half sent to wait for me in Carpath when you hear of the 'Gift's' disappearance," Balasar agreed. "Will that be all, Minister?"
They held each other's gaze, neither consenting to look away. Finally, the Minister clicked his tongue and some genuineness in his expression returned. "We're not so different after all, you and I…"
"Said the villain to the hero?" Balasar asked. "I think not, Minister." He pushed up from his perch against the wall, making to head for the door. "I'm no hero. I'm working for you, remember?"
A chuckle answered him. "How could I forget?"
A/N: Sorry to those of you patiently waiting on other stories. Rest assured none of them have been abandoned. This is simply my NaNoWriMo project - i.e., what I will be working on all November. My goal is to finish it in November (which probably won't happen, but hey, I'ma try). I will not be updating as I write because the actual product of November is going to be disgustingly unedited, but I will update as I edit, however fast that happens to be (probably slow during November, faster later, if I had to guess).
Thanks for reading!