[Contains brief violence and fictionalized accounts of slavery and misogyny]
It didn't take long for them to reach Bur-al-Mahdi. Careful star mapping pointed the direction, and by the grace of cool desert nights the journey was over in just three moons. But the journey was never going to be the hard part; convincing Pash Fazim to relinquish his claim on Jena was the task they all dreaded.
Pash Fazim was a slight man with skin like wetted cowhide and tight, white curls. His eyes were rheumy but the color of cut emeralds, and because of this, his harem was twenty strong and famed for its beauty. It was not, however, famed for its obedience, but this is a story for another time. Pash Fazim had been in the camel trade for as long as any grey-beard could remember, and only the beauty of his camels surpassed that of his harem. They boasted fan-like lashes and wide, strong feet. Even a traveler from the snow-squalled plains, who knew nothing of the beasts, would appreciate their splayed toes. For like the snowshoe that keeps the northerlander adrift, those wide, strong feet fairly floated above the dunes.
And it was so, by the strength of his numbers – both women and camels – that Mahmoud promised his only daughter to Pash Fazim. He had been in the wadi only half a moon when Jena, carrying water skins, swished by his camp. It was a great honor, Mahmoud said, to belong to such a man. It was no honor, Jena's mother said, to sell their little bird to a strange man from a strange place. She cursed him and spat at his feet. She was not like other women.
Jena was gone less than two moons before Mahmoud was made to see the error of his ways. Jena's mother would not relent, and Mahmoud was not like other men. So he readied his camels, his sons, and his slaves for the long journey to Bur-al-Mahdi from whence Pash Fazim had come and to whence Jena was now being conveyed, lowest of his many wives. He packed his finest horj with gifts – dried yoghurt, figs, and dates; a bolt of tight-woven mohair; a strange, spotted pelt Mahmoud's cousin had once traded for; and several silver trinkets quietly pilfered from Jena's own mother's coffers – and they were off.
The sun was high when they entered the spice market and began asking of his whereabouts. But no directions were forthcoming. No, everyone knew better than to point a strange caravan in Pash Fazim's direction. Though in truth, it was no longer much of a caravan. The twelve who set out were now only three. Some of their company were lost to oases with sweet figs and sweet dates and sweet women. But many were lost to the merciless desert; to its mocking sun and mischievous sand that, like the women of Pash Fazim's harem, sometimes danced, sometimes lay placid, sometimes seduced, sometimes raged. The first sandstorm took four and the second took two. The desert takes what it wants.
The three who remained were named Afif, Hashem, and Shadi. Afif was the oldest of Mahmoud's sons and their leader now, Mahmoud being taken by the desert. It does not matter how. Afif was tall and wore an imperious smile. He did not see the sense in their journey for he was a different man than his father. But he wondered at the breadth of the desert and longed to see where it might yield to gentler lands, and so he continued. Hashem did not want to join the caravan, but the wants of slaves are immaterial. His father had sold him to Mahmoud for two fat goats. Shadi was the youngest of Mahmoud's sons and watched as brother after brother was enticed by the desert's sweetest fruit. But he had no hunger for women, only a great thirst to prove himself, so carried on.
It was not hard to find Pash Fazim. His tents were spacious and fringed extravagantly with tassels that swayed with each lick of the wind. Camels of surpassing beauty wore tasseled and mirrored horj and chewed lazily as they eyed these strange men. Women were as plentiful as goats in the westlands and reclined here and there with the same nonchalance. Jena was not to be found, but soon Pash Fazim found them.
He set down his camel whip and bowed low before them.
“You carry much but are light of water,” he said, gesturing toward the men and their laden camels. “Come. I will both fill your cup and unburden you, for I feel certain that horj is for me,” he gestured at Mahmoud's once-fine camel bag, which looked as tired as the three travelers after their long journey. As women flitted past in their black madraga, Hashem's sand-stung eyes chased after them.
“But do not look upon my women,” Pash Fazim said, “Instead, look upon my camels. Are they not magnificent creatures?”
“Magnificent,” agreed Afif, running a hand along the flank of the nearest beast. He paused. “What makes you so certain these gifts are yours?”
“I see your robes. I see you have traveled a long way. And whispers in the spice quarter have warned me of your arrival.”
“You have too many women, Pash Fazim, and not enough camels,” Afif said. “And as you have so hospitably offered to lighten our load, we offer to lighten yours. We have been sent for Jena.”
Pash Fazim laughed at this. “Come,” he said, leading them into his largest tent.
As Pash Fazim roasted and ground the beans for gawha, Hashem marveled, for he had never before seen a tent such as this. This was no shabby, sun-bleached kheime awash with flies. And in truth, neither had Afif nor Shadi, even despite their father's great wealth. But while Hashem's tongue wagged at the fine tapestries, Afif considered carefully his next words. Before he could speak, Shadi cleared his throat.
“You have not yet... sullied her, Pash Fazim? For we have lost much along the way and would greatly rue a wasted trip.”
Pash Fazim's grip tightened on the dallah and the flow of coffee sputtered as he looked sharply up, emeralds ablaze. “A woman can only be sullied by one who is unworthy. I have sullied no one.”
“What my thick-tongued brother means to ask is whether she is still fit for marriage to another,” Afif said, “If, of course, you can be persuaded to part with her.” But it was too late.
Pash Fazim unsheathed the heavy blade that never strayed from his belt. So different from his many possessions, it was no thing of beauty – completely unadorned and purpose-made. The piled sheep’s wool carpet stained black-brown as the four men sprang to their feet, overturning the coffee service. Wind whipped the tent wildly as a fifth figure entered, clad in richly embroidered black.
Before Pash Fazim could turn to face her, indeed before any of the men could measure this new threat, she pulled a dagger from the deep folds of her madraga. This was no purpose-made blade, but shone, like a lantern, and as quickly extinguished as it plunged into Pash Fazim's chest. With one hand, Jena cleaned the blade on her hem, while the other clutched a round belly. This little bird was not like other women.
“I knew mother would send you,” she said. “Well, better late than never.”