It was the dust cloud she saw first.
It started out as a blur on the horizon, visible only to those who spent hours gazing at the desert. Alia wondered if it was a sand storm, but those were bigger, darker, and swept in with ferocity. This one slid in stealthily.
As it drew nearer, she decided it had to be a caravan. And a small one, at that; the caravans that were hundreds of camels long kicked up enough dust to be seen from half a day away.
It was strange for one to be journeying so late in the season, making Alia wonder who was coming and, more importantly, where they were going. She leaned across the wide, stone sill, waiting in anticipation.
The caravan came from the north, so it was most likely traders returning home from their long trip to Petra, or even Damascus. Early in the season, caravans from the south passed through Teloum laden with wares: frankincense, myrrh, silver, spices. And then, several months later, they passed through the town again, their loads lightened, their purses filled with strange, foreign coins.
She knew little about the lands to the north. Those of the south, however, breathed tales of intrigue and riches. They called to her from childhood tales and mysterious rumours. They made her think of bright colours and dark secrets, of majestic cities and mist-shrouded temples. The south clasped all the riches of the world in its hand: gold and silver, precious aromatics, jewels from Nubia, fabrics from Persia, spices from as far away as India.
She wondered whether the caravan would arrive in Teloum before nightfall. The sun glared brightly in the sky, but it was nearing the mountains, and once it slipped behind them, darkness would fall quickly. The mountains, hazy in the distance, were low and shouldered, as if bowing down to the palace, or keeping a watchful eye over the desert route. Or guarding the town, Alia thought. Keeping her in.
Alia longed to make the trip herself. She felt as if she were a statue on the palace wall, watching the people come and go, come and go, but remaining as immobile as the mountains.
It would be some hours before the caravan arrived, so she pushed herself off the sill and back into the coolness of her bedroom, drawing the curtain against the heat. Light seeped through the fabric, bathing the room in a violet glow. Her head reeled for a moment, and she reached for her cup of pomegranate juice.
I’m not sick anymore, she told herself. The marble cup was cool in her hands as she sipped.
Alia walked over to the row of small, stone idols that perched atop her prayer altar. The faces of the gods stared back at her. Ilumqah’s ruby eyes glinted, following her movements with a blood-red intensity. Others gazed emptily, their eyes mere hollows in the stone.
She rested her cup in front of Ilumqah’s statue, as if it were an offering, and leaned towards the idol, whispering, “I wish I could go away from here. Please tell me how, please give me a sign.”
Ilumqah glinted back. As Alia stared into the dark red eyes, a wave of tiredness hit her again. Her eyelids drooped, her head spun. She reached for her cup, but as soon as she clasped it, her arm jerked as if someone had pulled it, sending the marble cup tumbling down to smack against the floor. Crimson juice exploded over the flagstones, glaring brightly for a moment before melting into the porous rock. A few drops clung to Alia’s jewelled sandal. In the dim light, they looked like blood.
She shivered. It couldn’t be an omen, could it?
A knock sounded at the door, and Alia looked up. “Safiy,” she said with relief, as her servant entered the room.
“Alia, what is it? Are you unwell?” Safiy hurried over, taking in the sight of the cup on the floor.
“I’m fine,” Alia said, but as she bent down to pick up the cup, a noise like a sandstorm rushed in her head. She stood up again, noticing that a few dark red drops of juice had stained her hand.
Safiy took the cup from her. “I thought you might be resting for this evening.”
Alia blinked in surprise. The caravan, Ilumqah ? they had made her forget about the show in the marketplace. Wondering whether the caravan would have arrived in town by then, she moved to the window and parted the curtain. The dust cloud was already larger, and through the haze Alia thought she could make out tiny camels and riders. They were moving fast, much faster than a normal caravan. As if they were being chased.
She tapped her finger to her lips, thinking.
“Shall I lay out some clothes for you?” Safiy asked. “What would you like to wear?”
“I don’t mind. Anything—” Then she stopped and said with decisiveness, “Something dark.”
Safiy raised her eyebrows at Alia’s sudden interest in clothing.
“There’s something I want to do on the way,” she said. “When we ride into town.”
“What is it?”
Her answer was forestalled by a knock at the door. Safiy moved towards it, but Alia said, “Wait,” and strode over to open it herself.
It was Fakhiri, her father’s vizier. He stood there with a serious, almost sombre expression on his face. Fakhiri’s eyes were a strange colour ? almost like lead ? and they made Alia think of Fakhiri as being a leaden figure himself: cold, hard, immovable. He was barely taller than Alia, but his rigid, stocky build gave the impression of quiet strength. Stronger than her father.
He bowed. “Ameera,” he greeted her formally. “Your father would like to know if you will be joining him and your brothers for the show in the marketplace this evening.”
“Yes, I will. And Safiy will accompany me.”
“They wish to leave early in the evening, so your father requests that you meet them in the courtyard at dusk.”
Alia nodded. “Tell him we’ll join them then.”
“Of course. We’ll be taking the horses. And I shall accompany you, too. Good day, Princess. Safiy.” He gave a small bow before leaving.
Alia frowned as she closed the door. “That will make it harder to slip away.”
“Slip away? Where to?”
“There’s a caravan arriving tonight.”
“How do you know?” Safiy moved to the window and looked out. “I think I see it…”
“I want to go talk to them,” Alia said.
Safiy turned to her, surprised. “And say what?”
Beg them to take me away from here! Alia thought. “The show in the marketplace… I thought… we could invite them.”
It had been a long time since the malik had offered hospitality to passing caravans. If it were Alia’s role in Teloum to extend welcome to all the passing traders, she knew exactly what she’d do. She’d ride out to greet the caravaneers, regally dressed, a hand raised in greeting and a confident smile on her lips. She would invite the travellers back to the palace, where they would sit on the finest embroidered cushions, quietly appreciating her hospitality in the way of the ‘Aribi people, before launching into discussions of trade, politics, and news from far away.
They would be impressed by her knowledge and understanding, and ask her — and here Alia’s heart gave a leap — to join them on their travels. No, better yet, to lead them. She would make the lengthy, arduous journeys to the faraway empires, negotiating trade for not only Teloum but its neighbouring kingdoms, who would in turn see her as the bravest and most gracious emissary since the Queen of Saba.
“Who do you mean by ‘we’?” Safiy asked. “Your father? Or your whole family?”
“No, I meant… you and me.”
Safiy smiled. “Well, it’s hardly my role. But neither is it yours. Don’t you think your father will mind?”
Alia tapped her lip again. “We’ll see who they are,” she said. “And then decide.” There was something unusual about this caravan; perhaps it was best that they wait before speaking to the traders.
“Do you think it’s safe?”
“They can’t do anything,” Alia pointed out. This wasn’t strictly true, however; caravan traders were secretive about their route, and kept the source of their wealth closely guarded. If she found herself accused of being a spy, would it matter that she was a princess in Teloum? Or would they slit her throat before Safiy could run for help?
She glanced over at Ilumqah, whose blood-red eyes seemed to follow her, and she felt a tremble of something. Excitement? Fear?
“We’ll go,” she said. “No one else has to know about it.”
Chapter 2 – The Evening Show
Alia sat while Safiy braided her hair. In her hands, Alia held a small, bronze engraving of her mother. She lifted it up in front of her, trying to move it so that the drawing outlined her own reflection, but it would not. The drawing was etched and inked in fine black lines, while her reflection remained hazy.
She put the engraving down on her lap and traced the thin lines of the drawing with her finger. She would never be beautiful like her mother. They both shared the dark hair and skin of many people in the region, but her mother’s features had been delicate and ethereal, while Alia’s seemed so plain. If it weren’t for all her robes and jewels, she would look like a boy. The only thing even remotely interesting about her was that people often said her eyes were green. However, Alia could never see it; in the strange hues of metal mirrors, they looked plain brown to her.
She turned the picture over. Now was not the time for remembering her mother. Squeezing her eyes shut, she swallowed through the tightness in her throat. No, she told herself.
A voice drifted up from the floor below. “Alia!” It was her father.
Safiy finished off Alia’s hair. They both stood up and made the final adjustments to their robes, pulling the shoulder end of the fabric up over their heads like a hood. Alia flashed a smile at Safiy, who winked back. They rushed out the room and down the stairs, their abbayes floating out behind them.
“Ah, Alia, you’re ready.” He smiled and held out his arm. Alia wasn’t sure whether to embrace him, and when he went to clap his arm around her shoulder, she turned the wrong way, resulting in an awkward, ineffectual pat.
On either side of him stood her brothers — Yashir, who was eighteen years old, and Tariq, eleven. Yashir was tall and slim, and looked more serious with each passing day. He marched everywhere with a sword hanging from his belt, and seldom seemed to laugh or smile. He and Alia used to be great playmates, but lately he spent his time either with their father or with Tariq.
Tariq was short and plump, and had only two facial expressions: mutinous or smug. Tonight’s was smug. His self-opinion far eclipsed that of either Yashir or their father. Already, at eleven years old, arrogance shot out from him like poison darts, and Alia could see the poison at work: people snapped to attention around him, rushing to fulfill his orders or melting into mushy subservience.
Alia ignored Tariq and nodded to Yashir, who gave her a curt nod in return.
“We’ll take the horses,” their father said. “Fakhiri and two of the guards accompany us.”
“Yes, Father,” she said, shooting a pained look at Safiy. Her father had to go everywhere by horse, even though the market was a mere stone’s throw away. He was obsessed with horses; they seemed to be his only genuine interest in life.
The party walked to the stables, where servants had the animals saddled and bridled. The guards hoisted Alia and Safiy into their saddles. Alia’s horse, Tura, danced restlessly at the anticipation of exercise. Beside her, Tariq was whining and refusing assistance.
“I can do it,” he protested, trying to copy Yashir’s graceful mount. But his short, stubby body weighed him down, and as he tried to hoist himself up, he fell back. He fussed and wriggled as the two guards struggled to push him into the saddle. “You did it wrong!” he snapped, lashing his foot out at one of the guards. Alia met Safiy’s eyes, and they both kicked their heels, urging their horses forward.
“He gets worse all the time,” Alia muttered as she and Safiy rode on ahead of the rest. “The one kindness of the gods is that he is not the eldest, and will never become malik.”
“Unless he marries a nobly born girl somewhere else,” Safiy said. “I think he would very much like to rule.”
The horses’ hooves echoed around the palace walls as they made their way through the gate. Alia’s spirits rose at the sight of the scattered buildings and awnings of the town. Darkness was drawing over it, but from the top of the slope they could still make out where its edges melted into hazy evening and desert dust.
As the far reaches of the city blurred into night, however, the centre came alive. The party approached at a walking pace, as the slope down from the palace was steep, and the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves was soon drowned out by the bustling excitement of the marketplace. Vendors were hawking their wares much later in the day than they usually did, counting on the townsfolk’s bubble of anticipation to open their purses. Their goods glowed and sparkled under torchlight, or melted into mysterious shadows like thieves in the night. Alia was at once hit by the smell of the town — a combination of lamp oil, spices, and sweat.
The marketplace seemed busy to the point of thronging; surely, then, the rumours of people leaving Teloum had to be unfounded. Children dashed around while women gossiped and giggled. Everyone appeared happy and healthy, without any trace of the sickness that had seeped through the town. It looked like the whole town was out tonight. Alia wondered whether anyone was still at home in bed, sick. She hadn’t heard of the illness lingering.
A flaming torch spiralled up into the air and arced back down. The crowd gasped.
“It’s the jugglers!” Alia called to Safiy.
“Move aside, Alia,” Tariq said from her other side, trying to manoeuvre his horse in front of hers. “Princes go first.”
She itched to reach out and slap him. Safiy shot her an anxious look, but Alia merely compressed her lips and shook her head. Now, she realised, was the perfect time to slip away.
She and Safiy drew their horses to the side, and Alia bit her lip at the pretence of letting the men go first. Fakhiri rode beside her father, deep in conversation, and neither seemed to notice her as they passed by. Yashir followed, then Tariq, pudgy chin in the air, self-satisfaction dripping off him like wax.
Alia let the guards pass, motioned for Safiy to follow her, and then they headed to the edge of town. Past the houses, a single track ran alongside the pasture fields, and a few hundred paces along it, out towards the desert road and now more visible through a copse of spindly trees, was the caravanserai.
It had been built long ago to provide shelter for the many caravans that passed through Teloum to stop for water and to trade some of their wares. Now, however, only two of the four caravanserai walls remained, and tenting had been rigged above to form the roof. Inside were posts to tether the camels and horses, along with troughs that could be filled with water from the nearby wells.
The effect was one of a ragged and crumbling stable. Crumbling, like the town, Alia thought. During her childhood, Teloum had seemed a marvellous, thriving place, full of excitement and wonder. However, with each passing year, it felt smaller and more insignificant — a mere desert outpost, dependent on travellers for goods and news from the outside world.
She wondered why her father didn’t invite the caravaneers to stay the night in the palace courtyard, as maliks had done many generations ago. Surely the palace would have been more exciting with the sounds of animated conversation and laughter echoing off the walls, with people gathered in the rooms, filling them with exotic gifts, incense smoke, and fascinating stories.
As they approached the copse of trees, the branches seemed to drift apart, affording them a better view of the caravanserai but making their vantage point less covert.
“Let’s take a look first,” she said, and they dismounted silently. Safiy remained behind the trees, keeping hold of the horses’ reins, while Alia crept as far forward as possible, resting her arms on the branch of a gnarled tree and leaning her body forward.
Just inside the entrance to the caravanserai, bodies moved back and forth. Camels and horses could be heard snorting and braying. The evening was growing darker, making the figures of the travellers look like walking shadows or malicious djinn. Then a fire crackled to life, outlining the moving bodies with glowing edges, and picking out flickers of metal. Gold jewellery and striped headscarves flashed against dark skin and richly coloured robes.
Alia’s heart beat faster. Everything looked so foreign and exotic, from the decorated camel blankets to the hammered copper pots set down for the evening meal.
She was just working up the courage to step out from the trees when two men emerged from the caravanserai. Alia was too close to risk drawing attention by moving. She held her breath, as if this could make her invisible.
The men spoke in low, urgent voices, too low for Alia to understand. It was clear from the way they stood, however, that they were arguing. The taller of the two men, dressed in a dark robe and headscarf, had an imposing, authoritative stature, and the way he rose up from the sand with the desert dusk behind him and the ends of his robe flapping in the breeze gave him the look of a djinni. The other man was shorter, but incredibly muscular, with dark skin, a bald scalp, and a strange style of dressing. His legs were clad in plain sirwal, but he was shirtless, and leather bands encircled his upper arms. One band held a knife.
The men’s voices rose in argument, making Alia glad she hadn’t yet stepped out. The foreign-looking man was difficult to understand, as his speech was heavily accented, but she made out, “We must go fast, we try to overtake them.”
The taller man’s speech was clear, as if he came from this region. “It’s more dangerous to get close to them. We should give them another day’s distance.”
“But they may lie in wait for us!”
“They can’t keep that many animals waiting around, so they’ll have to move on. And they’ll have to travel the regular route to get enough water, so there’s little chance of us running into them.”
“Then why take on more? It is too much risk!” The shorter man stood tensed, as if ready for a fight.
“If anyone questions us, it’s safer to say that we’re taking travellers across the desert. And they will pay their way, which means more gold for us.”
The foreign man gave a grunt, as if in reluctant agreement.
Alia was listening so intently, she didn’t realise how heavily she was leaning on the thin tree branch. Until it gave a loud snap.
The men turned towards her.
“Who’s there?” the taller one called out. Then came the sound of metal on metal as he drew his sword.
Alia stood motionless. She was so close to stepping out from the trees, to standing as confidently as the man and saying, ‘I am Alia, the daughter of the malik. And I am here to greet any traders in our town.’ But she couldn’t move.
“Alia!” Safiy hissed, darting forward. She grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
Safiy’s touch broke the spell. For a split second, Alia saw the hostility in the man’s eyes, and realised he might not stop to listen to who they were.
They ran back to the horses, and were about to mount when they realised they had no mounting block. The two stared at each other helplessly. Alia quickly scanned the trees to see if one of the branches would serve, but through the trees she glimpsed the taller man striding in their direction.
The second man shouted after him, “I’ll get our horses!”
“Run!” Alia said to Safiy.