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"In the name of Lady Sun the All-Merciful, the All-Knowing, and Life-Giving Lady Sun I tell my tale. And my tale is true. As true as any other tale that has ever been told"

It has been said that this was a bleeding land, a wounded land. Those words were written by a man who

Had never set foot here, for all the blood from this land dried up long, long ago. It was not a bleeding land, it was a burned land, a wasteland.

It has also been said by a much wiser man than the first that the land was cursed long ago by Lady Sun, and it was only by her merciful grace that we were allowed to live. That is why we invoke her mercy with each mention of her name, so we do not draw her wrath once again as we did so long ago.

In the heart of this wasteland, this burning land, there was a city. Ah, but not just any city, but the most beautiful city in all the world; the Jewel of the Desert. It was a city built on the only river Lady Sun allowed to survive her Day of Wrath. Within this city, thousands of merchants barter over fruits, milk, silks and of course life-giving water. It was a city where sorcerers sold their hearts for arcane power and the children of the smokeless fire that we call the jinn can be bound with a single word. It was a city where shadows breathed and legends walked with men.

Her name was Medinat al-Salaam, the City of Peace. But everyone called her the City of One Thousand Stories.

This is one of her stories.

The Caliph did not like the judgement chamber. It was a hot, dreary place where dead men awaited official approval to die. An iron ring was set in the floor before her chair where manacled captives were held fast by their chains, and the only light in the room was from two burning pots set beside her. The chair itself was hard wood with no cushions, a low back and creaky legs. Comfort and duty do not mix, she thought to herself. That is what the Prophet taught.

She smiled. How little truth he really knew.

The huge doors at the end of the room swung open and four guards threw in a ragged little man. The Caliph looked at him tumble and for a moment, the Caliph thought she recognized him. But then she saw his face in the firelight and knew she was mistaken. The bruised little mans chains were hooked to the iron ring in the floor and he sat there for a while, gasping for breath.

The Caliph waited there in the firelight for a moment, then she spoke.

"Do you know what day it is?"

The man shook his head, his long hair dangling over his shoulders.

"Today is the third day of the Fasting festival."

Those words caught the mans breath. He looked up, the firelight shining in his eyes.

"Yes," her voice almost a purr. "Today is the day the Sultan hears the plea of mercy from one prisoner condemned to death."

The prisoner lifted himself to his knees, wincing. "Mercy?"

The Caliph nodded softly. "If I am pleased with your plea."

Despite the pain in every part of his body, he smiled. "What if I dont want your mercy?"

The Caliph shrugged. "No matter. Either you die, or you live. It makes no matter to me."

The prisoner nodded. "Living is always better than dying."

"I could tell you a story that would convince you otherwise."

The mans brow raised and his grin turned rakish. "Really? I dont think so."

The Caliphs smile faded quickly. "Watch your tongue, little man. You are condemned to die tomorrow."

"I meant no disrespect, she who is the guiding light of our great Sultan, may he find blessings in every footstep."

The Caliphs smile returned. "Very well. You speak eloquently. But I am afraid your time is running out. When the Forgiving Lady rises, I will make my judgement."

"And you may forgive me, oh wise one, so when your time comes, Lady Sun will find the graces to forgive you."

The Caliph shook her head. "You are going to have to do better than that, little one."

The prisoner nodded grimly. "I know."

"Then begin your plea, and when the time comes, we will see how much of my forgiveness you have won."

The prisoner bit his lip, pushed the hair from his face, and took a deep breath. Then, spreading his arms out as far as he could, he began his story.

"in the name of Lady Sun," he said, "the All-Merciful, the All-Knowing, and Life-Giving Lady Sun I tell my tale. And my tale is true. As true as any other tale that has ever been told!

The Tale of the Robber and the Caliph

Know this, oh mighty Caliph, that when the troubles began, I was not in the city, but pursuing my trade. Several leagues outside the citys walls, there are many ruins of lost cities from a time when the world was much younger than it is today. I was in the ruins of such a city, having only just won a particularly fine prize for my troubles, getting ready to make my way back to the city, when I saw the broken army. The dust from the catacombs I had scoured was still in my eyes, and as I wiped them clean, (and hid the small treasures I had discovered), I saw that it was like no other army I had seen before or since.

Their banners flapped weakly in the wind and they looked as if they would collapse at any moment. Nearly all of them were dressed in crimson and carried the sign of a scorpion, but there were others, many of which I did not recognize. I could see from my hiding spot that they were only days away from meeting Old Man Death, and I thought I might meet with them and tell them they were only two days ride from Medinat al-Salaaam but then the army of the Senpet appeared.

At first, I thought that they were a mirage as they charged from the dunes, unseen until it was far too late. I instinctively fell deeper into the shadows of the cavern I had just escaped and watched as the armies of the Scarab descended on the armies of the Scorpion. Of course, what followed was no real battle, but the Scorpions fought with a courage that is only found in the hearts of storybook heroes.

But courage was not enough for that day. They fell under the Senpet swords, feeding the desert with their blood. The slaughter went on only for a few minutes before it suddenly ceased. I recognized the man who rode up on his horse and held up his hand to cease the bloodshed. His name was Abresax, and he was the High General of the Senpet. Beside him rode the sahir Nepherus, Astrologer and High Advisor to the Senpet Pharaoh, Hensatti.

Well, yes, great Caliph, I do know much of the Senpet. But in my trade, such knowledge is not only helpful, but it can save your life if certain situations arise. One must always be able to praise ones enemy, dont you agree? From your smile, I see you understand my meaning, I shall continue then? Good!

I was forced to creep from my hiding place to see what happened next. I agree, my curiosity will get me into trouble one day. In fact, it did! But it was not this day.

Abresax and Nepherus were looking over the quiet body of a beautiful woman. The sahir was doing something with his hands and I watched as the air turned suddenly cooler and the lady took a deep and what appeared to be a painful breath. Then her eyes shot wide open and the two Senpet sighed great breaths of relief.

"It is she," said Nepherus.

"Are you certain?" asked Abresax.

The sahir nodded. "Selqet," he whispered.

Abresax nodded. "Then she will come with us." He pointed at the others. "The rest to the gold mines with them!"

The Scorpions screamed as their "Selqet" was taken away. She looked at them with a deep sadness in her eyes, and I could only imagine what she was thinking. Then, she stood, her weak body trembling under the strain. She shouted something to them in a tongue I did not understand, then she collapsed into Abresaxs arms and was silent again.

I beg your pardon, great and mighty Caliph? Ah, is that what she shouted? I trust you, she who is wisest of all.

I was forced to wait until nightfall to make my way back to the city. I could not risk being seen by the marching armies of the Senpet. I have spent some time in their Copper Mines, Ill tell you. Why yes, I did escape, but I would never want to have to do it again.

When I reached the city, I found my old friend Wijdan and showed him the treasures I had Acquired.

"Quite a find," he said as he looked them over.

"Worth at least fifteen coppers," I told him.

He disagreed, we bartered and I ended up with seven new coins to keep my empty purse company. He pulled out a wine flask and we talked a little.

"What happened to Josephs across the street?" I asked as I whisked down a swallow from my glass and re-filled it before he noticed.

"Ah, the Senpet," he said and spit on the ground. "They bought him out." He poured himself another drink and looked into the half-filled cup. "They own half the city already. And soon they will own every building, every street corner every soul."

"Why are they here?" I asked. "Whats here that they dont have?"

"Dont you know? Its the water! Theyve got no more water."

I nodded, even though it made little sense to me. We had only a little water ourselves. What good would just a little do? Oh! How stupid I was then. If only I knew what I knew now. But I suppose we all think that sometimes. Except for yourself, mighty Caliph who rules all that falls under Lady Suns great sky!

When I was finished, I made my way to Abdul-Rafis and spent most of it on wine and the wheel. I talked a while with a man who called himself Hisham, and I listened closely to his half-drunk ranting.

"Curse the khadi and curse the Caliph!" he cried out.

"Hush that tongue of yours, Hisham," I warned him. "If you keep waggling it about like that, someones likely to come along and cut it off."

"And curse the Senpet as well!" he shouted, his words rattling against the windows and spilling out into the street. "Things were just fine til they came along with their one hundred thousand gods and theirdrink and theirpretty women!"

I again urged him to stay quiet, but he continued.

"The Senpet buy up the shops and the khadi sit back and watch!" The Senpet guard the streets, enforcing the Sultans laws, and the khadi sit back and watch! They swallow more of the city each day, and all we do is watch!"

Just then the door burst open and three tall figures walked in.

The first I knew. His name was al-Hazaad, and he wore the red and black robes of the khadi. Ah, but you know him already. A thousand pardons, my lady.

The other two were thick and wide and dark and wore the armor of the Senpet. As soon as they walked in through the door, a hot wind swept through the room, killing every sound it touched. As they looked through the dark room, I remained perfectly still and quiet as my pounding heart would allow me to be. The three men approached our table, their eyes glaring in the darkness.

Hisham looked up at them through his glazed eyes and his lips curled into a frown. Then, as quick as a cat, he pointed at me. "He said it! It was him!"

I almost laughed, but then I saw the khadi and Senpet turn to me.

Mother always told me I was born under a bad sign.

I leapt out of my chair and kicked the table. I smelled a foul burning odor and felt a scorching heat burn at my back, but I was already through the window and into the street. With black smoke swirling behind me like a tail, I ran through the dark city streets and into the Maze!

The Maze, my lady? It is what we call the tight cramped poor quarters. Many khadi are either too wise or toowell, just too wise to enter the Maze after dark.

I ran, I climbed, I leapt over rooftops, ditched my smoldering shirt, grabbed a new one from a laundery line and finally found a nice, cozy shadow to crawl into. I sat still and quiet until I was shure that trio had lost my trail, then I took off again, back the way I came.

As I walked down the quiet night-filled streets, I saw just how much of it had really changed. I never noticed it before, but it was just as Hisham and Wijdan had said. Nearly every other shop bore the Seal of the Scarab. I shook my head and turned a corner, and that was when I saw the leaping shadow.

She soared between the buildings, over the allyway and through a glass window just as the khadi that chased her cursed her with foul words I would never repeat in the presence of the great and wise Caliph. I heard a laughter then, a sweet high laughter that I swore I had heard somwhere before. The khadi cursed again and turned away, and just as he did, I saw a tall man with glowing tattoos carrying another man through the allyway, careful not to draw the notice of the sahir high above them. He wispered softly to the man, who I then saw as a Senpet, and they slipped into a dark portal that slid shut behind them.

I waited for a moment there, then moved closer. I knew the door was there, and had no problem finding the secret latch. It opened easily for me and I peered down into the darkness. I could see the mans glowing tattoos and I knew that he must be one of the Ashalan I had seen wandering the desert under sleeping Lord Moon. I stepped inside and let the door shut behind me as I followed them down the stairway.

* * *

The robber paused and saw the Caliph was leaning ever so slightly forward, her eyes intent upon him.

"And what happened next?" she asked, half-heartedly hiding her interest.

"It is late, my Lady, and the day is almost upon us. I am afraid I cannot finish my story before daybreak."

The Caliph smiled. "It is a seven day festival, little one. I need not make my decision until the morning of the seventh day."

"Then perhaps I can return tomorrow night and continue my tale?"

The Caliph was silent and the robber watched her eyes carefully. After a long silence she nodded, "Very well. Tomorrow you will finish the tale?"

"I will do my best."

"Make certain you do." She motioned for the robber to be taken away and the two large men removed his chain from the floor. "Your life depends upon it."

The robber smiled. "Ah, but my Caliph who is wise in all matters of the world," the robber said, allowing himself a wicked smile. "So does yours!"

The doors closed behind him and the Caliph looked out to the city, waking from its slumber, preparing to meet the new day Lady Sun was so generous to provide.



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