Ssrathep-Iln hobbled along the path winding past the rocks. The stony ground offered some comfort with each step, the warmth of twin suns stored within. He paused to inspect the guards before making his way around the outcropping into the chill shade of the oasis.
A pair of lavish tents of immense size linked together, one encased in silken walls and the other open to the desert wind, formed the heart of the Sultana’s personal camp. Across the pavilion from the Sultana’s quarters were raised a handful of tents in varying sizes and colours, some nearly the size of the Sultana’s and some barely a third the height; all residences for the nobility.
The grand pavilion had been raised with its back only a few great strides from the oasis’ waters; the only tents allowed within the surrounding greenery. Outside that limit a myriad of tents in all manner of sizes dotted the landscape. Some were ornate while others remained humble, worn and patched, all packed one next to another with little semblance of order.
It was unusual to find a gathering such as this. True, it was common enough to find small tent cities gathered on the outskirts of permanent settlements or around an oasis. Caravans resting for a few nights while stocking up on supplies, overseers moving large bands of labourers, and even the occasional noble and their entourage; all these were common causes for large groups of tents, but this was all of those and more.
This was a complete city, full of people who normally lived in relatively comfortable adobes. Why the Sultana had displaced them all here was beyond Ssrathep’s knowledge, but it was not his place to understand Her motivations. The group She had gathered here consisted mostly of ordinary freemen, as well as most of the nobility and the minimal guard She permitted them.
The Sultana emerged from Her tent, ending his reflections. Despite towering nearly twice the height of Her attendant nephaim, and almost triple that of Ssrathep himself, She was only of average height for a sollim, with a likewise average build. She was typically considered rather homely, and was said to dress in far less ostentatious a manner than the fashions enjoyed by Her predecessors.
Even so, Her clothes were made from the finest white silks, embroidered with deep golden thread. She wore only sparse jewellery of simple gold, and eschewed the veils favoured by most nobility. Her light brown hair was braided neatly with little silver rings clamped around the ends, thus leaving Her lavender eyes the only real colour She wore.
Ssrathep-Iln was not of the Sollim and had little grasp of their sense of beauty. To him they looked like little more than very large nephaim, a group which in turn appeared much like overgrown humans to his reptilian eyes. At times, he found them difficult to tell apart from each other, even though he had spent his whole adult life among them.
The Sultana settled down on a small mountain of pillows, opposite the Serenite dignitary She had invited here. The man was rather rotund, even by human standards Ssrathep-Iln was sure, and of above average height for a human, yet so close to the Sultana he seemed quite tiny all the same. He greeted his hostess with the utmost etiquette, despite the hypnotic jiggling of his jowls.
The entire meeting proceeded quite smoothly, though it dragged on for quite some time as the visitor proved to be quite chatty. Mercifully there was very little business to discuss. The Sultana wished to know if the Serenite had made any progress hunting down the outlaw they had promised to deliver, and the emissary wished to make sure the Sultanate was not planning an invasion.
“Do you believe him?”
After the emissary had left, the Sultana had retired to Her private tent for some time before eventually emerging to bathe in the oasis. She was now reclining once more upon the mound of pillows in the pavilion.
“Well, do you believe him?” the Sultana repeated Her question, this time looking straight at Ssrathep-Iln.
“It is conceivable,” he began. “Water is more abundant in the east, settlements are more numerous and bigger. This would make it easier for the sha’ir to hide. At the same time…” He paused to try one of the fruits the visitor had brought as gifts. “An Ireha would draw attention by being different, limiting her to major settlements along the trade routes.”
The Sultana leaned back and swept Her gaze out over the still waters of the oasis, though Her attention no doubt remained fixed on his assessment. “More tellingly, none of the many traders visiting us has made any mention of the Serenites seeking an Ireha outlaw. Something is not right with this whole thing…”
“Shall I summon the council?”
“No…” the Sultana drew out Her reply before falling into silent reflection for a few moments. Suddenly She snapped Her gaze back at Ssrathep-Iln. “I want you to gather the Shapers. Call upon the winds, the waves, and the suns themselves, if you can. I want to know what the Serenites are doing about the sha’ir.”
“Yes, Greatness.” Ssrathep-Iln paused respectfully, waiting for the Sultana’s permission before continuing with other business. “The newly arrived Emir Al-Rukh has requested an audience, Greatness.”
“The election is over? Good. You may send the new Emir in, Ssrathep. Let Us confirm this new Emir swiftly that they may serve the Sultanate well. Did Our candidate win?”
“No, Greatness. It is as unfortunate as Your cousin having won,” Ssrathep-Iln replied before bowing respectfully and backing out of the pavilion to fetch the Emir.
There was little love lost between Julnar and Her cousin. Umar was an impulsive and glory-seeking young man who thought himself invincible, one who was well-liked both among the Rukh tribe and at court. Julnar did not like sharing glory, especially not with someone who had very different ideas about what the Sultanate should be doing.