Ssrathep-Iln gazed silently at the blank surface of the water. Around him the Council were watching the large basin intently. The new Emir Al-Rukh fidgeted impatiently on his divan. Sultana Julnar was reclining calmly on Her throne of pillows.
The night breeze carried with it the distant sounds of the bustling tent city as well as the fragrant scents of an oasis in bloom. Despite this the atmosphere of the pavilion was tense and restless. The gathered crowd was uneasy, full of anticipation mixed with uncertainty.
Slowly the shadows in the bowl began to swirl. Images formed and dissolved before reforming again.
Julnar watched the Council with a detached air as Ssrathep-Iln began his report. She had already been briefed about the Shapers’ divinations and so afforded herself the placing of her attention on the Council’s reactions to the news.
The Emir Al-Rukh, her quarrelsome cousin Umar, seemed impatient. He motioned at the scene, that of a man engaged in battle. “What does this have to do with the sha’ir? An Ireha fighting… what are those things?” He peered at the basin with furrowed brow. “Overgrown sand trolls?”
‘Patience, dear cousin, patience,’ Julnar thought to herself as she waited for the battle to unfold. The trolls faded and another figure appeared. Lithe and quick, it was hard to distinguish. A silhouette of blurry shadow, forcing the man to his knees and closing in for the kill. She shifted her gaze back to her cousin.
Julnar knew from the Council’s collective gasps what was happening and could not resist glancing at the scene.
The warrior’s wounds no longer flowed freely with blood, but smouldered with thick smoke. His eye immolated with angry flames and his skin, now the colour and sheen of dark copper, criss-crossed with leaping arcs of lightning. Though the image was silent, Julnar could readily imagine the sound as the warrior howled in furious rage and rose to his feet, flinging his would-be slayer aside with a sweep of his shield.
Yet the Emir seemed bored, gazing at the images with a growing scowl of annoyance. One he did his best to hide as he turned to look at that Sultana. “I ask again: what does this have to do with the sha’ir?”
Julnar tilted her head and arched an eyebrow at him, a polite yet inquisitive smile on her lips. “What makes you so sure it does not?”
“The last Shaitan died centuries ago, Your Greatness.” He had recovered his manners, at least.
Julnar turned to her advisor, motioning for the tiny Shaper to explain.
“This event took place only recently,” Ssrathep offered. “No more than a few weeks past, at most.”
Umar stared at her, wide-eyed and apparently at a loss for words. Julnar merely continued to smile pleasantly at him.
”What is the meaning of this?”
A nervous chuckle.
“A Shaitan?! Alive?!”
“This cannot be possible!”
An irate growl.
The entire Council broke into murmured discussions, each with their own view of what it might mean for there to be a Shaitan. Was he one of the original warriors, kept alive somehow for millennia? Had he inherited the djinn from his mother, thus making him the last in a long line of Shaitan? Was he the one the prophecy spoke of, not the sha’ir? Was he in league with the sha’ir? Perhaps it was the sha’ir that had bound the djinn to him?
“This man, this Shaitan, died somewhere beyond the Sandwall. The djinn was outmatched against this enemy, desperate though it was to keep its prison, and thus itself, from death.” Ssrathep’s voice cut through the drone of others. “He is dead and so is the djinn bound within him.”
“What was this enemy, to defeat even a Shaitan?” The Emir was leaning in now, clearly intrigued.
“It is unclear, Your Eminence.” Ssrathep conjured forth the silhouette. “The entity is not a person, not in any sense we would recognize. They are… something different. Something other. An eastern version of the djinn, perhaps?”
Julnar held up a regal hand before anyone could start speculating about the matter. It was her intention that discussion about the revelations come later. The Council fell obediently quiet, all eyes turning once more to Ssrathep as he moved on to the next scene in the basin.
“Well, what have you to report?” The fat man was reclining on a divan, eating fruits and occasionally stretching for a new one somewhere outside the image.
“According to the one tracking her, the girl is still hiding in Malqish, sire.” The speaker was only partially visible from behind his shoulder, so it was hard to tell much about him. By Umar’s best guess he appeared to be some sort of aide to the fat man, whom Umar thought to be the Emir of Solmuth, the… Markey? “She seems to believe she is safe and secure with her new allies, all of whom appear utterly oblivious to her shadow.”
“Ah, I see… That is very good.” The Fatman paused to take a bite of melon, juices smearing his mouth. “What luck digging up why the Sollim are so intent on getting hold of her?”
“None, my lord.” The servant shifted uneasily on his feet. “However…”
“Yes, what is it?” the Fatman asked, his jowls swaying hypnotically as he looked up from his meal to stare at the man. “Out with it!”
“There is, eh, ah-” The man cleared his throat. “There are reports that Duke Arcald of Brighthill is raising an army under the banner of the Light. He claims that there is dark magic corrupting Raven’s Nest and that this taint has led the nobility astray. A life of indulgence and excess at the cost of the people. This has caused significant disruption of the lumber trade, which-”
“Thank you, I understand the implications of civil war.” The Fatman grabbed another fruit and chomped a big bite out of it, munching slowly as he contemplated the situation.
The aide waited a few moments, then offered a polite bow and left.
“Worry not, dear Marquess, the Duke’s little spat is with the Vizier and his stalwart companion.” At first Umar thought the speaker to be someone that had been present all along, just never visible in the limited view of the basin. Yet moments later smoke rose in front of the Fatman and coalesced into a vaguely humanoid head and shoulders. “It will serve only to strengthen your position.”
“What?!” Umar hopped to his feet. “Is the Shaitan’s Bane now conspiring with the Monkey?!”
“No, Your Excellence,” the salamander replied, motioning at the image. “The shadowy figure you see here is not hidden from our scrying. We see it as the Marquis saw it. It is a magical projection, not an actual entity. And one very different from the otherworldly magic of the Bane.”
Umar slowly sank back into his seat, eyeing the image closely. Though both had been indistinct and shadowy the Shaitan’s Bane had felt out of place, as though something was missing from it. This silhouette, however, seemed to blend naturally with the scene.
“…providing a plausible excuse to tell the Sollim,” the voice was saying. “It will also serve to keep the Prince Regent from looking into the matter, saving you from being caught between him and his advisors.”
“You are saying the Vizier would disapprove of handing the girl over?” The Fatman said, tossing aside the remains of his gluttony and labouring to stand. “Why should he care? Why do the Sollim even want a runaway slave? They usually do not care.”
“That is not our concern, Marquess. You need only stall them until everything is in place, and then we shall hand her over in return for whatever you wish of them. Dead or alive, at their discretion.” With that, the figure vanished in a wisp of smoke.
The Fatman picked his teeth, moving over to the side and looking at something. “Well, unless my city is burned down in the meantime.”
“He plays a dangerous game, that Fatman,” Umar commented when he found the Sultana alone later that evening. She was reclining on the grass, letting the sunlight dry her off after a bath. Umar respectfully kept his gaze locked on the oasis’ calm waters. “He hides our search from his lord, allowing rumours to spread about looming war. A threat he could avert simply by handing her over. Yet he lies to us, claiming he has not found her. Why?”
“A better question, Emir, is what is to be done about it,” the Sultana asked.
“I do not know, Your Gloriousness.” Umar certainly had a few ideas, most of which included the added bonus of claiming Solmuth for the Sultanate, but he knew the Sultana would not approve of such a plan. Her vision for the future was one of peace and trade. There is no glory in building roads and farms.
“No?” She laughed, her deep voice rolling out over the oasis. “We now know where the sha’ir is hiding, even if only the city. We also know that the Serenites are ready for war, not just with us but also with themselves. So it would be a terrible idea to attempt force, as that would serve only to unify them against an outside foe.”
Umar tried his best to remain impassive, though surely he felt as though she had been reading his mind. Even though it would hardly have been difficult for her to guess at his first thought. “Perhaps a small flight of riders? Even if they fly only at night to avoid notice, they would reach the city quickly.” Umar almost forgot. “Your Greatness.”
“Even if they could find somewhere near the city to hide their mounts, it could take weeks or more for them to locate the sha’ir. Assuming she does not hear about them first and escape again. Even Ireha would draw attention to themselves during such a search.”
“We cannot threaten them to demand she be turned over, we cannot sneak in and grab her. What would you have us do, Your Excellence? Wait for the prophecy to be fulfilled by the return of the djinn?”
“Hardly,” she scoffed. “No, we shall send an emissary to speak with the Prince Regent. Enlist his aid in finding the sha’ir, and at the same time provide reassurance that we are not preparing to invade. Provided they deliver to us the one we seek.”
“And what emissary, Your Eminence, might we send that they would not dismiss it as simply a ruse to cover our true intentions?”
“Myself, of course.” She rose to her feet, towering beside him. “There can be no doubt as to Our peaceful intentions while the Sultana herself is a guest of their Prince Regent.”
Umar nodded slowly, trying to figure out some way to turn the situation to his benefit.
“And worry not, dear cousin. You will find plenty of chances for glory as a mercenary during their little civil war,” the Sultana added before disappearing into her tent.
Umar remained standing among the shrubbery, basking in the dim light of the lone remaining sun and gazing out over the waters.
There was an even greater opportunity here than that of mercenary work.