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an extract from the novel

by Patrick Welch

No one can say who founded Cynnador or when. Even "where" is open to interpretation. cover scanIt spreads across the vast Istaghian plain, waxing and waning like the tide as merchants appear, pitch their tents, sell their wares and leave. The great nation Kiwoa borders it on the south; to the north lies the city-state Phyx; the east is guarded by the Ciikaan desert while the impassable Manipur mountains rise in the west. No crown claims Cynnador, although several have tried.

The poet/historian Linitius of Avagna wrote a history of Cynnador purportedly based upon oral tradition and legends. True to the style of his culture, he began: "I beseech The God of Wind, The God of Water, The God of Sun and The God of Salt to smile upon their unworthy servant as he attempts to recount the legend of Cynnador. The spawn of Othios and Lhhaign, severed from the womb by the blade of Revaage, its birth cry answered by the God of Wind and the God of Sun. Those in the Istaghian plain trembled and cried out in terror as the birth throes of Cynnador threw fire across the sky for fifty days and fifty nights.

"Then Cynnador called to them, embraced them like a grieving mother, succored them, shielded all who responded to her promise of escape from the untoward calamities of cruel fate. They came from the forests of Kiwoa, the mountains of Manipur, beyond the Ciikaan desert in eager response. And the Gods of the Seasons smiled upon Cynnador and all who dwelled within her borders. Megnuvon of Pharnia, Ghizk of Sousaan, Arrigdoth of Hynx ..."

Much of the remainder of his narrative is little more than a recounting of names and minor historical events, the latter almost exclusively devoted to unsuccessful attempts at conquest or caravans and the goods they carried. Later scholars agreed his efforts were mostly fabulous exaggerations, as his descriptions upon the birth and growth of Cynnador could not be verified even by the eldest residents of the bazaar. But those residents had no reason to tell the truth either.

Prelude: The Catacombs

Mavix held the torch forward like a lance. Before him the passage through the catacombs of Cynnador twisted and turned like some possessed snake so the light illuminated only a few feet ahead. "What do you see?" came a voice from behind him.

"Just rock, my lord."

"No signs of demons?"

"No. Just rock."

"Good." Master Magician Vynf clapped his hands, the sound echoing ahead and behind. "As I've suspected all along. The catacombs of Cynnador are protected by lies, not by the unholy. Continue."

Hoping and praying the magician was correct, especially since he had just alerted any curious ears, Mavix walked onward. The floor beneath was uneven, the walls closing in at all angles. He didn't want to ask the obvious: if there are no demons, then what protects the catacombs? There had been attempts to explore these dark caves before. Never successfully. When the magician had approached him about the expedition, he had been assured that Vynf had planned for every eventuality. "A small party is less likely to attract the attention of whatever lurks below Cynnador," he had said. "I am sure that is one of the reasons why others have failed. For this venture there will be just the two of us."

"Two? But what if we are attacked?"

"I will have magical sentries sent out ahead to warn us of any 'demons.' And we will both be protected by the strongest shielding spells. We will be safe."

Mavix had been swayed by his arguments and the large amount of money and salt he would earn if they were successful. Although now, as he ducked under an overhanging rock, he was beginning to have doubts. Seconds later he heard the magician curse. "What happened?"

"I hit my head on that rock. I can't see standing here behind you."

"Do you want a torch?"

"The less light, the less obvious we are. Let me lead for a bit."

The passage was narrow and Mavix had to set down the torch so the magician could squeeze by. "That's better," Vynf said. "Stay close behind and have your weapon ready."

Mavix nodded and followed the magician onward. Yes, it was difficult to see, he realized. Thanks to the severe turns of the tunnel, about all that was obvious was the light reflecting off the ceiling and the shape of the magician before him.

The narrowness of the passage made carrying his sword difficult as it continually bounced off protruding rocks. He would have a long session with the whetstone ahead of him, he realized. Still he did what the magician bade as holstering the weapon, or, worse, withdrawing it, could prove difficult in these catacombs.

So they continued onward until the passage veered sharply to the left. Mavix watched the reflection of the light on the wall as Vynf turned the corner. And then the light totally disappeared.

Mavix stopped and his grip on his weapon tightened. "Vynf, what do you see?" he called out. There was no response save the echo of his voice.

There had been no warning, no sign or word from the magician. Had the demons attacked him? Mavix crouched down and, on hands and knees, slowly moved around the corner. Then he stopped and ice flowed through his veins. The magician was gone.

There was no light ahead, no shadows. Just overwhelming darkness. Mavix called out the magician's name again, with the same results. I can't fight demons! He crawled backwards, his gaze still forward, his hand on the sword in case he was attacked. But without the torch, without the magician, he was helpless in these catacombs. As soon as he dared, he turned, stood and dropped his weapon so he wouldn't be encumbered by its weight. He started back, his hands outstretched so he could follow the twists and turns of the passageway. If he survived, he would tell all he knew that the demons had attacked and killed Vynf. And his great magic had been of no aid at all. They had to be warned: no one could survive the haunted catacombs of Cynnador.

Prelude: The Fire Pits

The wind was blowing from the west this evening. Houg wrapped the filthy rag tighter across his nose and mouth, yet even that couldn't keep the stench rising from the garbage pits from making his skin itch and eyes burn. It was something that after all these years he still had not grown accustomed to.

Each day, wagons brought refuse from the giant Cynnador bazaar to the side of the Manipur Mountains for disposal. Each night, his acolytes fought the vermin and smell to shovel the rotting food, discards -- even the occasional body -- into the great roaring fires.

But they could not do that without him. It was nearly time, he knew. Time to speak the spell and make the benediction to awaken the demons below and use their fiery breath to light the fires. His men were already leaning expectantly on their shovels as he made his way down the familiar path. As he did so, he noticed in his peripheral vision the horde of scavengers hurrying from the pits. They came every day to search through the refuse for anything they could sell or eat. But when it was time to summon the fire, they had no choice but to flee.

After a few moments, he reached his destination. Here the earth was singed to coal black, as lifeless as the remains that covered it. Burnt bones and cinders crunched beneath his feet as he made his way to the Demons' Mouth. He stood before the great gaping hole in the dead earth and spread his arms. "Hear me," he called to the creatures hiding far below in the catacombs, "hear me and cry and tremble in fear. Your master has come to demand your obedience. Speak to me and show me the sign of your continued servitude."

He felt a slight tremble as the demons below displayed their allegiance. He heard it before he felt it and he was already in retreat when a tower of fire erupted from the heart of the earth.

His acolytes responded quickly, shoveling pile after pile of refuse into the cataclysm. The discards caught fire immediately, sending fetid smoke into the dark sky. The breath of the demons would only last for a few more minutes, but it would be sufficient. Already fires were burning all around the ruined land and his men would continue to feed them until all the refuse from Cynnador had been destroyed. Houg was smiling as he left them to their labors. Once again he had tricked the demons to do his bidding. Just as his order had done for hundreds of years.

Prelude: The Magician

Kjouj held up the jeweled bracelet to get a better look. In the sunlight peeking in under the tent, the detail in the engraved silver finish was breathtaking to behold. A fine piece, he realized, and one certainly worth what the merchant was asking. Still it was necessary he remain indifferent. "You insist this is from Pejer Bay?"

The gem master nodded. "It went by caravan, by ship and by caravan again to complete its journey here to Cynnador and my shop. If you are familiar with the craftsmen of Pejer Bay, then you understand just how well made and valuable this bracelet truly is. One that will be handed down and treasured from generation to generation. 90 gold coins is more than a fair price for such a work of art."

Not very likely, Kjouj thought. Once he had it, he would be removing the jewels and melting down the metal. In one sense it was a crime to do such to a piece of jewelry so finely crafted. But once it was returned to its original forms, it would be much easier to sell. And safer.

"90 gold coins you say?"

"Quite reasonable I'm sure you'll agree."

It was, he thought, but he had no intention of paying it. Kjouj made a great showing of opening his purse. "I do not have that much on me."

The merchant's smile darkened. "I will take nothing less."

"I understand. I have the funds back at my camp. Would you accept 20 gold coins now as a reserve if you will? I will return shortly with the remainder."

The merchant relaxed. "That would be acceptable. But of course I keep the bracelet. And the funds remain mine if you do not return today."

"Understood." Kjouj dutifully counted out 20 coins. "I can trust you?" he said after he relinquished them. "I need no document?"

"Absolutely. Return any time today, I will be here. I will remember."

"Then I shall see you soon." With that Kjouj turned and walked away. So simple, he thought and smiled as he made his way through the bazaar. As long as he wore expensive robes and bore the mien of the rich, he was assumed to be as such. Unfortunate he couldn't have brought more of his "coins" with him, but that couldn't be helped. After all, he wasn't the only thief plying his trade in Cynnador.

But he would be as good as his word ... which was worth about as much as the "coins" he had just given away. He retrieved his horse and returned to his camp in the nearby Kiwoa woods just as he promised the gem master. But it was not money he was returning for. Among his meager belongings was a simple leather pouch. He opened it and counted out 70 wooden disks, each the size of a gold coin. Kjouj made those disks himself. He set them on the ground directly in the sunlight, whispered the spell he had learned from another magician and then poured water over them. Now there was nothing to do but wait.

Kjouj enjoyed a leisurely lunch as the disks slowly dried in the sunlight. Once the process was finished, they would no longer be wooden but gold. At least for a week or so. He occasionally regretted he couldn't be present to see the looks on victims' faces when the gold coins he had given them reverted to their original composition. Of course he wouldn't have survived this long if he was.

It was nearing late afternoon when the spell was complete. Kjouj returned the now-gold coins to his purse and rode off to the stables, then walked to Cynnador. He was sweating but also pleased and confident when he finally approached the gem master. "Good afternoon, friend," he said to the merchant. "As you see, I have returned for my bracelet as promised."

"Yes. I am so delighted you have." Yet the merchant did not return Kjouj's smile.

The merchant's demeanor troubled him. "Is there a problem? You haven't sold it I hope."

"No. In fact we've been waiting for you."

We? Before Kjouj could react, four other men appeared, surrounding him. He turned from one to the next, confused and suddenly afraid. Two of them he recognized, one a food seller and one another merchant; he had done brief business with both before coming to the gem master. "What is this?" He tried to force outrage in his voice, but he wasn't entirely successful.

"We were going to ask you the same." The gem master held out his hand. He was holding a wooden disk.

My spell. Kjouj shuddered as two men stepped forward and seized him. I just cast my spell this morning. This is impossible. "Wait!" he yelled as he struggled in their grasp. "This is some magician's trick. You are trying to rob me. Those are not the coins I gave you!" They can't be the coins I gave you.

"I have 19 more just like this one," the gem master said calmly. "There is no question these came from you. Take him to the stocks."

How did they know? How did this happen? Kjouj frantically searched for answers as he was dragged away. But he knew that even if he found them, they would do him no good now.

The gem master nodded, satisfied, as the would-be thief was removed. Then he looked at the disk in his hand. He had been deceived by it without question. It would have been costly in more ways than one if the thief had succeeded. Yet somehow, in some way, for some reason, Cynnador had protected him.

But, he knew, this was not the first time Cynnador had thwarted magic.

Prelude: The Attack

"It just sits there like some useless dog sunning itself."

Borq merely grunted as he took the spyglass from his eye. He certainly didn't need it. Even this far away, the tents of Cynnador were visible on the desert horizon. "Indeed, Roffo. A dog that needs to be kicked and beaten until it obeys."

His second-in-command grinned. "We will enjoy that. The merchants must be taught they cannot continue to defy the will of Phyx."

Defy. Yes, that was indeed the case. For far too long the Cynnador merchants had grown fat and lazy while they played the power of Phyx and Kiwoa against each other. Refusing to pay tribute, refusing to obey the orders of either government. Remaining a constant irritant, like a stone in a boot.

No longer, Borq vowed. If Cynnador would not give what Phyx demanded, then he and his men would burn the bazaar to the ground. And dare Kiwoa to do anything in return. "Are the men ready?" he asked Roffo.

"Of course. And pledged to uphold the honor of Phyx."

Borq looked back at his men. Each dressed in black armor that nearly blended with their skin, the golden eagle with wings and talons spread -- the symbol of Phyx -- emblazoned on the chest. The sight filled him with pride. For Phyx. He gave the signal and they started forward. No need to hurry, he thought as his mount moved easily beneath him. In their unbearable arrogance, the Cynnador merchants steadfastly refused the protection of even the smallest contingent of guards. So simple; merely ride up to the bazaar, kill whoever tried to defy them and set the tents ablaze. His band numbered no more than 20. But they were well trained and loyal and more than sufficient. This will be no battle. It will be a slaughter.

The sun was rising steadily and Borq was growing increasingly hot and uncomfortable in his armor when he heard Roffo yell out. He pulled up. "What?"

Roffo came up fast behind him. Borq had become so engrossed in his own musings he hadn't realized he had outpaced his troops. "Are we going the right way?" Roffo asked when he arrived.

"What do you mean?" Borq pointed straight ahead. "You can see Cynnador yourself."

"Or perhaps a mirage. Look for yourself," and he handed Borq the spyglass. Borq brought it to his eye and gasped. The Cynnador he had been approaching wasn't Cynnador at all, but a mere shadow cast by the Manipur mountains. He stared at his aide, confused and too stunned to speak. "To your right," Roffo said and pointed.

Borq turned ...and saw the tents of Cynnador rippling slowly in the distance. He handed the spyglass back to his aide. "I don't know what happened. The heat ..." He paused. Glad he was that his helmet prevented his second from seeing his embarrassment. "I will follow your lead."

Roffo nodded without comment and steered his horse in the new direction. Borq and the others followed dutifully behind. I don't understand, Borq thought as they rode on. How did I become so confused? He glanced to his left. It was a shadow he had been pursuing, he was convinced of that now. I must be more tired than I thought.

The band continued on, the sun rising higher and with it the temperature. Ahead, the lure of Cynnador remained, as enticing and easy as a common street whore. Borq was content to ride in the pack lost in his own thoughts, allowing his second to remain at the point. He barely noticed the growing discomfort of his soldiers when Roffo abruptly signaled them to stop. Rousing himself, he made his way through the group to the front. "Why are we stopping?" he asked.

Roffo pointed to their men. Their armor hid their faces, but by the way they sat on their exhausted mounts, Borq recognized that they needed to rest. "Some water, a brief lunch," Roffo said. "This shouldn't delay us long."

"Agreed." Borq dismounted and joined his troop, who to a man were eagerly drinking from their flasks and chewing on jerky. He sought out Roffo and squatted beside him. "I apologize," he said.

Roffo looked up, a slab of bread halfway to his mouth. "For what?"

"For leading us astray out there."

He shrugged. "It is of no consequence. Cynnador will still be there."

Not true, he thought. This was an important mission. If he failed, he would lose his command ... if not more. But there is no reason for us to fail. "Still you have done Phyx a great service this day." And I as well.

Roffo looked him in the eye. "It will not go on my report, I promise you."

Borq smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "I knew I could trust you." He stood and stretched, then looked back across the Ciikaan the way they had come. And cursed. "Hand me the spyglass!"

"What?" Roffo almost dropped his meal, surprised at his commander's alarm. "What is it?" he asked as he complied.

Borq looked through it and cursed again. "Cynnador!" and he handed the glass to Roffo. "Look!"

Roffo peered in the direction Borq was pointing. "Impossible!"

"We've been going the wrong way," Borq said as he seized the spyglass, then threw it to the ground and crushed it beneath his boot. "We are still going the wrong way!"

Roffo could only stare sightlessly at his commander. They had been going toward Cynnador. He knew that without question. Yet if he could believe what he had just seen through the spyglass, Cynnador was now behind them. "How is this possible?" he finally managed to ask.

"Magic!" said Borq. "Some magician has cast a spell protecting Cynnador."

"No." Roffo shook his head, frantically trying not to believe what he was seeing. "No magician can be that powerful. Cynnador has never had use for magicians. They say magic doesn't work in Cynnador."

"They've lied," and Borq snarled. "All these years they've lied." We can't attack them now. We have no defenses against magic this powerful. He had no choice. "Tell the men we have to return to Phyx."

Roffo didn't try to argue. Their men were too exhausted now to attack a defenseless Cynnador, let alone one protected by a master magician. The others were surprised at their new orders but also grateful. Although each kept his comments to himself. Within minutes the troop was making their long journey back to Phyx.

"What do we tell the Council?" Roffo asked as they headed north.

"That we've failed. That Cynnador is protected by powerful magic." But it won't protect you forever, he vowed as they labored home. Someday you will belong to Phyx.

Prelude: The Escape

Moq cowered behind the boulder. He held his breath and tried to still his racing heart as he strained to hear the voices of the guards. He counted three distinct voices engaged in casual conversation. Good, he thought. They were relaxed and unconcerned and not at all aware of his presence.

Crouching as low as he could, he went off in the other direction. Fortunate, he thought, that the moon was little more than a sliver in the sky this evening. His own dark skin blended with the night and there were plenty of boulders to hide behind so the careless sentries would find him difficult to see. If he was careful, he could avoid the patrols and escape.

He had to escape. What was it? he tried to recall. Five years? Yes, five years since he had been brought to the salt mines as a slave to the Reszy House. Five years he had toiled in the mines, enduring the whips of the overseers. Five years sleeping on a pile of straw in the common room that served as home for all the slaves. Five years with no end in sight save death.

It had taken him, he guessed, six months to prepare. He had to guess because there was no real time in the salt mines. Every day ran into the next, the hours marked only by the sun rising or setting, unending labor broken only by the occasional meal. Maybe he hadn't been there five years (although he had counted the change of the seasons). Maybe it hadn't taken him six months to loosen two boards on the side of the simple wooden building so he could force them open enough to crawl out. But it certainly felt that long.

He hadn't told his fellow slaves of his plans. Too great the risk that one might betray him on the false promise of more food at supper. Do his work late at night and only for a few minutes before slinking back to his straw bed. Until he was ready to make his attempt.

Moq continued his slow escape from the encampment. As he got farther away, the hiding places became fewer and fewer. How far out do they post sentries? he wondered as he dashed to another boulder. Out here there were too many open spaces, too great a risk he could be seen. Yet he knew he had to get as far away as possible before sunrise. Taking a deep breath, he crouched down and ran to the next boulder. And the next.

He was rapidly becoming tired, both from his efforts and his concentration, so he sat behind another protecting rock to rest. Ahead of him he could see the edge of the forest. Behind him rose the mountains that had become all too familiar. Reach the forest, he told himself. Reach the forest and he would find many places to hide.

Then he heard something. A scraping sound. He held his breath to listen. I must have imagined it, he tried to reassure himself after a minute. Then he heard it again. Followed by voices. "He must be around here somewhere," he heard someone say.

"Can't be far," another voice answered.

They've found me! No time to waste now. Moq jumped up and began running toward the forest.

"There he is," he heard someone say behind him.

"Don't worry, I've got him."

I've got to reach the forest! Gasping for breath, he ran as fast as his aching legs would allow. Then sudden blinding pain engulfed him and immediately he was falling to the ground, unable to stop himself.

He rolled on his side and reached behind ... and felt the shaft of the arrow sticking in his back. Moq screamed as he tried to remove it, then nearly blacked out from the additional onrush of flaming agony. He knew there was no escape now. He could only lie on the ground as the guards slowly approached. Through blurring vision he saw them standing triumphantly over him.

"Excellent shot, Narov," one said and patted his partner on the back.

The other man ignored the compliment. Instead he kicked Moq lightly. "You didn't really think you could escape, did you?" and he laughed. Then he knelt beside his victim. "We've been following you since you left the camp." He reached in his pocket and pulled out something. "Look."

Moq found himself staring at a mirror. At his reflection. One that, even in the darkness, was glowing as bright as a beacon. "How?" he managed to ask, then coughed.

"A spell. A simple spell really. One we place on all our slaves. You can't see it but we can. You were quite amusing actually," and he patted Moq on the cheek. "Darting like you were from rock to rock. Like a firefly. And just as easy to catch."

"So do we carry him back or what?" the other guard asked.

Narov glanced down at Moq. "I don't think he'll be able to walk without our help, and he'll probably be dead before we reach the camp anyway. Easier just to drag him." And he reached for his sword.

Moq turned his head, not wanting to watch his own death. Instead he concentrated on the forest that was so close. A forest that might have meant his freedom. Then he gasped. Even from here, in the darkness, there was something familiar about that forest. "No!" he screamed. Then screamed again. For the final time as the sword came down.

Prelude: The Dancer

"Do I have to dress like this?"

"Of course. You must catch their attention."

Nia studied herself in the mirror. The gold silks covered her well enough and, as promised, accented the rich ebony of her skin. But the curves of her body were obvious beneath. In the right light one could nearly make out her nipples and pubic area. "This is embarrassing."

Her mother came behind her and caressed her shoulders. "Not embarrassing, dear. Business. Now." She spun her around and looked into her deep brown eyes. "You will only watch this evening. Say nothing to anyone."

Nia looked down and bit her lip but nodded. But when can I perform my dance?

Her mother read her frustration and smiled. "I know, Nia. I was the same way at your age. You will dance soon enough. Come," and she took her hand and led her to a nearby chair. "Dance for your mother."

Nia closed her eyes and stood straight as a tower. She concentrated, her body still, as she summoned the music from deep within. It filled her, flowing through her like a river threatening to overflow its banks. Slowly she began to move to the silent melody as if thawing from a long freezing winter. Her hips swayed, her arms interlocked, flew apart, then created other increasingly intricate patterns. Yet her feet and head never moved, her eyes never opened, no sound escaped from her lips. Only the constant movement of her hips and hands until, abruptly, her private symphony ceased.

Nia opened her eyes slowly, then smiled as she saw the delight on her mother's face. Her mother rose and embraced Nia. "Excellent, my dear. You are a better dancer than I could have ever hoped for. Come. Tonight you have much to learn."

A few hours later they were in one of the many wineshops in Cynnador. It was the first time her mother had brought her to one and Nia was nervous and excited at the same time. "Why did you choose this table?" she asked. They were in a secluded corner where they could easily survey the crowd but few could see them.

"I choose the customers, they don't choose me," she replied.

"How do you do that?"

Her mother patted her hand. "Watch and learn, my dear." With that she rose and walked to a nearby table.

Nia saw her mother hold a whispered conversation, then began her dance. Those in nearby tables ignored her and her patron as she continued the speed and intricacy of her performance. It was part of the power of the dance and it took Nia's total concentration to watch it rather than look away, which is what the other customers did. She recognized the movements as they had been so rigidly taught to her, although her mother's performance was more accomplished than her own. Will I be as good as her? she wondered.

The dance continued, the other customers steadfastly looking elsewhere. The customer's response, however, startled her. Although her mother never touched him, even spoke to him, he was reacting as if they were having an intimate encounter. He was panting and sweating and one hand was caressing his throbbing erection now standing out where all could see.

The dance continued as did the man's determined strokes until the inevitable happened and he ejaculated. Only then did her mother stop. She reached down and Nia watched her take his purse and remove coins before returning it. Then she came back to their table.

"Now what do we do?" Nia asked.

"We leave. There are other wineshops. Come." And they quickly departed.

"Why did you dance so long? Why did you let him that?" Nia asked as they walked on.

She shrugged. "It's what he wanted. It's what he paid for. Even though," and she looked at the coins in her hand, "he doesn't know that yet."

"Why did you choose him? There were others."

"We only dance for one. You know that. He was drinking a finer vintage than the others. Look at their clothing and what they are ordering. That will tell you who has the most wealth."

"When can I dance?" she asked as they walked into another establishment.

Her mother hugged her briefly. "Soon, impatient one. Very soon. For now, let us concentrate on teaching you our business."

Prelude: The Merchant

"Drop that and it's the last thing you'll ever do," Hynan Zana cried out. His assistant carefully returned the crate he was attempting to unload to the wagon, then stepped back to collect himself before trying again.

Zana grimaced. He had just crossed the Ciikaan desert to bring all his wares to the Cynnador bazaar. After braving heat, sandstorms and the constant threat of raiders, to have his goods destroyed by carelessness would be intolerable. He lingered several minutes longer, but his three assistants were now performing adequately so he left to attend to more immediate concerns.

Erecting his tent for one. He had hoped to find space near the pool that provided water for the residents and customers of the bazaar. The entire area, however, had already been usurped by merchants of long standing and his offers of goods or coin had been ignored. So he was forced to open his business on the fringe of Cynnador. Getting customers to visit would be difficult, he knew, and profits, initially at least, would be small. But it could not be helped.

The morning faded into afternoon as Zana and his men slowly prepared for business. Meanwhile a few curious visitors stopped by to see what he had to offer but he discouraged them. Tomorrow, he assured them. Tomorrow we will be open for business. Stop by tomorrow.

He was just completing the arrangement of silk scarves on one of his tables when a man approached. "I'm sorry, we are not yet open for business," he said, not even looking up.

"Quite understandable. It took me over a week before I was ready myself."

Then Zana looked at the visitor. The man was short, dressed in casual robes, long curled hair and a gold earring in one ear. Yet he bore the aura only the wealthy carried. "You are a merchant then?'

"Yes, my name is Brydan," and he offered his jeweled hand.

Zana shook it reluctantly. He waited a moment but the man said nothing more, so he decided to break the silence. "Is there a problem? Are you a representative from the merchants?"

Brydan laughed. "Just myself. Greeting a new colleague. Anyone is welcome to open their tent at Cynnador."

Which is what he had heard. Which is why he had come here, after being driven from so many other places. "I greatly appreciate your generosity."

He shrugged. "There is plenty of business for everyone. Tell me, what do you sell? Silks, I see."

"A variety of items. Many rare, all of the highest quality." Were that the truth!

"Excellent! I think you'll discover Cynnador customers are quite discriminating and willing to pay a fair price for what they want. You should do well, I'm sure."

"I hope that is the case." I will make sure of that.

"May I?" and he pointed at one of the scarves.

"If you wish."

Brydan chose a simple red one and held it up. "Fine workmanship. I know some other silk merchants who will not be pleased about your arrival."

"Is that a problem?"

He shook his head. "Honest competition is encouraged at Cynnador."

"That is all one can ask for."

Brydan carefully replaced the scarf and stepped back. "I see you still have much to do. I'll drop by later, when you are really open."

"I look forward to that. And thank you for the information."

Zana's smile slowly turned to a scowl as Brydan walked away. Perhaps Cynnador encouraged honest competition but he did not. And he had ways to eliminate it.

The following morning he met with his men. The sun was just rising over the desert and the bazaar would be opening soon. Even though they had done this before, Zana still felt it necessary to remind them. "Phaz and Caal, you will scout out the merchants. Not the largest. Find several who appear susceptible."

"What type of merchandise?" Phaz asked.

He thought of his recent meeting with the other merchant. "Silk, I think. Today it will be silk."

"Do we look for guards?" asked Caal.

"From what I have heard, Cynnador is not burdened by authorities." Which is why we came here. "Perhaps the larger merchants have their own guards, but that is not of concern today. Once you return, Haxyl will know what to do."

His two men nodded and left. He and Haxyl remained before their small fire to finish their meal. This will be so easy, Zana thought. Not at all like in a proper city. He had plied his trade in many places ... with the same results. Inevitably there would be complaints by his fellow merchants or customers, the soldiers or police or government would intervene and he would be forced to leave. But at Cynnador, that would not be a problem.

The sun was well into its daily route and the bazaar teeming with traffic when his other men returned. Zana thus far had had no customers, but it was early and this part of the bazaar was as yet virtually empty of all save his fellow merchants. As soon as they entered his tent, he pulled them aside. "What did you find?"

"There are four merchants who are perfect for us," said Phaz. "They have very little merchandise and only sell silks."

"Where are they?"

"We'll have to show Haxyl," said Caal. "The bazaar is large and confusing. It will be difficult for him to find them without our help."

Zana frowned. "One of you can stay I hope."

"We had separated," said Caal. "I know where two are but Phaz knows of the others."

If he enjoyed the influx of customers he expected, he would be hard pressed to serve them, Zana realized. But if it couldn't be helped ... "So be it. Haxyl, you are ready?" Haxyl nodded. "Then go with them. You know what to do."

Haxyl nodded again and the three men started out. Zana decided to relax while he waited. Their plan was simple enough, so simple it rarely required more than one assistant to carry it out. Haxyl would buy a scarf or whatever, leave, then return shortly, complaining loudly so all could hear about the quality of the product and his shabby treatment at the hands of the lying merchant. The product he brought back would be of inferior quality ... although not the one he had purchased. Haxyl carried scarves of several different colors, so it would not be difficult to purchase a similar-appearing substitute. During his tirade he would mention the other silk merchant he had discovered, one who offered superior products at a fair price. Inevitably, those who overheard would search for Zana. And Zana would enjoy a steady stream of curious customers.

So Zana waited. Even this far from the heart of the bazaar, the number of potential customers grew steadily as the day grew older. Despite that, none stopped to look at his silks, jewelry or works of art. Several times he even called out to passers-by but they either ignored him or would look his way but quickly move on.

The sun continued to rise and with it the heat. A breeze rose from the east, forcing Zana to put his lighter wares away. He was growing angry and tired and hungry when finally his three assistants made their way back to his tent. "What took you so long?" he asked and favored each with a glare.

"We failed," said Haxyl and threw the cheap silk scarves on the ground.

Every other sensation was overwhelmed by anger. "What do you mean? How could you fail?"

"We couldn't find the merchants," Phaz said and sat down on the bare ground, exhausted.

Zana studied his three assistants. He could see each was as mad and frustrated as he. "How is that possible? You knew where they were!"

Caal shook his head. "We went back. They weren't there. We couldn't find them!"

Zana fought to control his anger. He and his men had worked together for years. They had never failed him so totally before. "Then why didn't you find another silk merchant?" He tried to soften his voice, not totally successfully.

Haxyl returned an angry glare of his own. "We tried. We could find none. And all I had were silks, so we couldn't work our plan on another merchant."

"If there are no silk merchants, then why aren't I selling any?" Zana slammed his fist on a display table, threatening to overturn a vase. "No one has visited our tent since you left! I have sold nothing!"

"Perhaps the people here don't buy silks," Caal said.

"That merchant I talked to yesterday said they will buy anything." But apparently not from us. "There is something else happening." He studied them again. Could they be betraying him? But to whom? And why? Finally he shook his head as he could find no answer. "Get something to eat. We'll just have to let the customers come to us this day."

No one did. The day dragged into the evening and even as visitors stopped and bought at other nearby tents, Zana's till remained empty. He conceded defeat and was already packing his wares for the night when the merchant who called himself Brydan approached. "Closing early, I see," he said to Zana.

"Yes," he replied through gritted teeth.

"I trust your day was a profitable one."

"What I would expect for my first day."

"Good! Cynnador is always pleased to welcome new residents. You'll find we're one big happy family here. There is plenty of profit to be made for everyone so there is no reason not to be cooperative."

What is he saying? "Cooperative?"

He gave a sad smile, as if troubled by a memory. "There have occasionally been those who were, I don't know, less than honest? They didn't stay long."

Zana's mood became as black as his skin. "I thought you said there was no council or government ruling Cynnador."

"There isn't! Cynnador rules Cynnador. Cynnador determines who can remain and who cannot." He smiled again, not a warm smile. "I'm sure your stay in the bazaar will be quite prosperous for you. Now if you'll excuse me, I have my own shop to attend to. Good evening."

Zana stood still as his tent posts pondering Brydan's words long after the merchant was lost in the maze that was the bazaar. Cynnador determines who can remain and who cannot. His decision surprised his assistants, but after what had happened that day they could offer no persuasive argument. The following morning they were on their way to Kiwoa.

Prelude: The Shipment

Calph stirred the embers of his small fire, trying to encourage them to flare into life one more time. Above, the desert sun beat down upon him unmercifully, darkening his already dark skin until he now appeared to be carved from a giant block of cinder, not made of flesh and bone.

Just three more days, he thought as he gazed out at the Ciikaan desert. Three more days and he would deliver the shipment to Dharza Gra. Thus far his journey had stretched into two months; two months in the heat and sand and no one to talk to save his protesting animals.

But that had been the plan from the beginning. "Sending the shipment in a regular caravan is too dangerous and obvious," the merchant had told him. "Everything brought to Cynnador is examined by her guards. There is no way it will not be discovered."

Instead there was only him and one solitary wagon. Just another adventurer coming to Cynnador or Kiwoa from across the desert, not at all uncommon. The wagon held clothes and supplies and one imposing barrel for the water someone would need to survive the trek. Although inside there was another barrel that held something far more valuable. He and Gra hoped that one solitary traveler would not attract the interest of any bandits on the way. Or, more importantly, the Salt Queen's guards.

Three more days. Now that the fire had reluctantly revived, Calph happily cooked the small desert hare for his breakfast. As he sipped some water, he thought about Cynnador. Soon he would be drinking the finest wines, dining on the finest food. Just three more days.

It was late afternoon when he noticed a cloud of dust rising ahead of him. A small sandstorm? he wondered. Easily avoided if so and he urged his mounts forward. But the cloud continued to grow as he went on, as if it was searching for him. Then he realized it was no sandstorm at all, but approaching riders. And he was sure they were coming for him.

He stopped his wagon then and waited and watched as the cloud grew and turned into shadowy figures which eventually revealed themselves to be two men on horseback. Under the seat of his wagon was a bow and arrows, but they were still too far away to effectively attack. But he and Gra had planned for this as well. If he could get past these two men, then he would almost surely arrive safely in Cynnador.

So Calph sat and waited until the men rode up. Even in the hot sun they were wearing leather-covered armor, including helmets. Guards without a doubt, he realized. Almost surely in the employ of the Salt Queen. They positioned themselves on either side of his wagon, their swords drawn. Then the one closest to him spoke. "Who are you?"

Calph forced himself to remain pleasant. "I am Calph from Daskou."

"Where are you going?"

"To Cynnador. Perhaps Kiwoa. I am seeking a new life. Why do you ask?"

"A new life." The helmet concealed the man's face, but there was heavy irony in his voice. "Is that what you are carrying? Supplies to start a new life?"

"What little I own, yes," and he forced a smile.

"No jewels or silks? No contraband?"

"I wish I had. Those would be worth much more than I possess. As you can see," and he pointed behind him, "I own very little."

"So it would appear. Corcoco, if you would."

The other rider dismounted and climbed into the wagon. He quickly searched but found only some clothing and little else. Then he rapped the handle of his sword on the barrel. "What's in here?"

Calph shrugged. "Water. It is a long journey across the desert and oases are few and far between."

"So they are," Corcoco said. Calph held his breath as the guard turned the spigot on the side of the container. Warm water rushed out. Corcoco watched it flow for a moment, then turned it off. "It does contain water."

Calph didn't have to force his smile now. "As I said. I couldn't have survived the journey without it."

"Yes," said the other guard. "But being by yourself, that appears to hold more than one person would need."

Calph felt a shiver of apprehension and his confidence was immediately replaced by fear. "I have to have extra for the horses."

"As well you should. But you are only two days from Cynnador now. You won't need that much anymore. Corcoco, if you would."

The other guard suddenly struck his sword into the side of the barrel and began moving it back and forth, forcing the staves apart and breaking the wood. Water poured out and soaked him completely, but he continued his attack on the barrel. Meanwhile the other guard had come closer and now held his sword just a lunge away from Calph's throat. "Find anything?" he asked his comrade.

"In a minute." Corcoco ripped away more of the ruined staves, opening a large hole on the side of the container. Then he reached in. "Yes, there is another container inside, Pfannif."

"So you are carrying contraband!" The sword wiggled mockingly in front of Calph. "And what are you carrying?"

"Jewels," Calph lied quickly. "I had hoped to sell them to the merchants. I thought it was the only way I could protect them."

"Corcoco, find out if this man is telling the truth."

Corcoco thrust his sword into the side of the smaller container. After a few minutes he had made a hole large enough to reach into. He did so and examined what he had found. "Salt. Our informant was correct."

"So." Pfannif sat back on his horse. "You were attempting to smuggle salt into Cynnador. That is against our laws."

Calph tried another lie. "I, I didn't know."

"Dharza Gra does. He was paying you well, I take it."

There was no escape now. "Yes," Calph said softly.

"This will have to be confiscated. Breaking the laws of Cynnador cannot be tolerated." Pfannif climbed off his horse, then into the wagon beside Calph and took the reins. Then he stared at Calph. "You won't be coming with us."

Calph tried to jump away, but the attack came from behind. Corcoco brought his sword down, splitting Calph open from the top of his head nearly to his chin. Pfannif reached across and pushed the still-quivering body off the wagon to the desert floor. Then he waited while Corcoco tied their two horses to the back of the wagon, then sat next to him.

Corcoco looked down at his clothing and cursed. "I think these are ruined," he said as he tried to wipe away some of the blood.

"You could have just knocked him out. He would have died out here anyway," Pfannif said.

"That's not the way I do things." Corcoco began removing his armor. "Our lady will be pleased."

Yes, she will, Pfannif thought as he urged the draft team forward. Discourage a competitor and make a tidy profit all in one day. Pleased indeed.

© Patrick Welch 2003
Cynnador cover
Cynnador (February 2003) is published by Twilight Times Books.

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