Thursday, December 29, 2011

Free First Chapter - Malediction

Chapter 1

I still look both ways when I cross a street, even though there is nothing left to look for.  There are no longer any running cars left in this wreck of a world, but old habits still remain.  When I was a child, my father would take me firmly by the hand and pause at the curb.  He would stop and ask me if any cars were coming.  I would dutifully crane my neck and peer down whatever road we were on.  Once I had given the all clear, we would then  hastily cross the street as if some rogue vehicle was about to strike us down.  Cars were rare then, but now there aren’t any to watch out for because there aren’t any left.  The fuel and spare parts have since disappeared.  The roads are just crumbling into weed-choked rubble with only foot-traffic, a few horses, and the now-rare caravan making use of the Ancients’ once-proud achievement.
In my father’s days, the Trail was always busy with the carrying of goods.  But now, those days were long gone.  The Traders are now rare because the number of goods scavenged from the ruins had diminished considerably.  Since no one has the skill to make these glorious objects again, it would only be a matter of time before we were all reduced to digging in the dirt for sustenance.  We were now mere parasites on a dying world, waiting for the end to come.
            Before entering, I paused outside and looked at my home of twenty-eight years.  It was one of the few hotels left on the Trading Trail.  Like the other large buildings in the town of Ewark, it too was made by the Ancients.  What made my hotel different was it stood three stories high, which these days is a rarity.  Anything else taller has crumbled away into decay, becoming yet another ruin to be scavenged.  But nonetheless the brown brick of the outside walls has been repaired many times and hardly resembled the building I remembered from my childhood.  Back then it had looked as new as the day it was made.  But now, large parts of the exterior were patched roughly with mud because there were no more proper bricks left to make the repairs.  My father and mother would have cried if they could see what it looked like now.
            The town of Ewark was nothing more than a few prominent buildings surrounded by a number of smaller residences.  Besides my hotel, there was the mosque where the calls to pray emanated, the town hall where the local Sharif Faisi ruled, an open market, and a general store that often had empty shelves.  The desert we lived in was bad for farming, so the residents raised livestock, or made their living by providing services to the traveling caravans.  In the days past, it was a good living, but recently there had been a decline in business.  Part of me would have preferred to move on, but this town was all that I had ever known or wanted to know.
            Near the entrance to my hotel, a line of nine tethered horses stood at the hitching post.  They snorted and drank from the wooden watering trough, their tails brushing away the ever-present flies.  Two soldiers of the Mujadeen, resting lazily against the shaft of their spears, were watching the horses with disinterest.  There was very little to see in this town and even less to do, unless you knew the right men.  I was one of those men who could find entertainment for the most jaded of customer.
            One of the soldiers saw me.  He grinned when he saw the small barrel balanced on top of my shoulder.  He said, “As you know, landlord, the possession of alcohol is strictly forbidden.  We will have to confiscate it.”
            I stopped and bowed deeply, which is hard to do with a barrel resting on your shoulder.  With my strength, such a task is not unmanageable.  “This is just fresh water for your master,” I lied.  In fact it was beer that I had just bought from my friend Kalam, who lived nearby.  He was a brewer by trade and only sold to a select number of clientele.
            The other soldier laughed knowingly, his round belly shaking under his dirty tunic.  “We would be more than willing to sample this so-called water for our master.  We wouldn’t want him to be poisoned or fall sick.”
            “I’m afraid not,” I said and pushed past them.  There was no reason to talk any further to those two, but there was also little reason to anger them.  The common soldiers of the Mujadeen were an underpaid lot, but at least they had the security of knowing where their next meal was coming from.  The beer in my possession would have cost any other man his life, but the sub-Vizier staying at my hotel was beyond such petty rules.  His men knew that he imbibed the forbidden liquid, but so did everyone, if given the chance.  Locally, I was one of the few black-market sellers of beer, which allowed me barely enough coin to keep this place running.
            Compared to the heat outside, the lobby of my hotel was a cool haven from the blazing sun.  The carpeting underneath my feet was threadbare, and the oak panels were in dire need of a repair, but the hotel still managed to cling to the long-forgotten charm of an older era.  On the wall was a clock that had broken years ago, the hands permanently stuck at ten minutes after five.  There were also a few paintings and photographs showing unknown scenes of the past.  I would have loved to repair the interior to its former glory, but like the bricks outside, no carpenter could truly master the techniques of the Ancients.
Hussen, my recently hired clerk, looked at me impassively from the front desk as I passed him by.  He was a man of medium build, a shock of black hair that always looked unruly, and brown eyes that were forever roaming.  I missed my old worker, Pawl, but he had recommended his brother to take over his duties.  I really had no reason to complain of Hussen’s performance, but he was sullen and did not show me the respect that I thought I deserved.  But at least he could read and write, which is more than I can say for many of the other residents of this town.
            Taking the creaky wooden stairs two-at-a-time, I climbed to the third story.  I then took the hallway leading to my very best room.  It was dark here, the only light coming from the open window at the end of the hall.  After suppertime, candles were lit to guide my customers to their rooms, but economy forced me to rely on natural light during the day.
            I stopped at the door near the end of the hallway.  Giving it a tentative knock, the door was immediately opened by a thin sergeant with a wispy black beard.
            “Ah, the landlord has finally arrived,” he said.  He then flung the door open to let me pass.
            As I mentioned before, this was the best room in the hotel.  It was really two rooms that at some time in the past had been combined into one.  The original wall that had once separated the two rooms was now a graceful arch that ended with a white column on either side.  The open windows revealed the seemingly unending desert outside.  On the two sofas sprawled the other soldiers, busily eating the lunch of lamb stew that the maid had brought up.  They were messy eaters, so I rightfully feared for the condition of the fabric, which was worn but in amazing condition considering the age.
            On the other side of the room sat the sub-Vizier Rasid.  He was resting in a low chair, his feet propped up on the bed.  Rasid was large, perhaps the only obese man in the entire region.  It seems that the rest of us were working too hard to stay alive to afford the luxury of a large dinner.  His Sherwani jacket and turban were made from the finest golden-colored silk, while his pants were made from the whitest cotton.  Only the richest could afford such garments since paying for such rare workmanship was prohibitively expensive for anyone else.  Peeking from the sash wrapped around his rotund stomach, I could see the butt of the ceremonial pistol.  The secret of the gun has been lost ever since time of the Ancients.  Only the powerful Mujadeen had the power to afford the rare but required ammunition.  Their soldiers and the rest of us made due with swords, spears and bows.
            “Mikel!” Rasid boomed out.  He beamed at me, his black, pointed beard bobbing up and down in anticipation of the beer resting on my shoulder.  “I’m so glad to see you.  Come here and bring that good drink to me.”
            I graciously bowed in my most ingratiating manner since Rasid was a valued customer of mine.  Though his visits were rare, he was a big spender, providing enough income to help keep me afloat in these bare years.
            As I drew near, his black eyes glittered at me from the rolls of fat that made up his face.  “Has this year’s batch turned out well?” he asked, licking his lips.
            “It certainly has, sir,” I answered.  “Do you wish me to tap the barrel now so you may sample it?”
            He nodded and watched greedily as I rested the barrel on the table and spiked it open.  The cellar-stored beer splashed cold against the bottom of my hand.  I then poured the golden liquid into a long, tall glass that had already been placed in readiness for the sub-Vizier’s visit.
            Smacking his lips in anticipation, Rasid took the glass from my hand and drank deeply.  After a moment, he looked up from his glass with flecks of foam on his upper lip.  He said, “By Allah, you are correct.  This is the best batch yet!  Now pour out a mug for each of my men and then come replenish mine.  We shall then sit and talk since I have much to discuss with you.”
            I did as he bid, pouring out a mug of beer for each of his man.  Though alcohol was forbidden by law, they did not seem to mind.  I then returned to Rasid and refilled his now-empty glass.  He motioned for me to sit on the edge of the bed, which I did.
            Rasid leaned over and squeezed my knee, the sour smell of his breath hitting me in the nostrils.  I smiled wanly at him.
            “Tell me, Mikel, how is business?”
            “Fair,” I replied.
            Rasid squeezed my knee one more time before returning his interest back to the glass of beer.  He took another gulp.  “Trade is down and does not appear to be getting any better.  The Warlord is worried that the Rebels may be having an effect on the caravans.  What do you think?”
            I knew that Rasid reported directly to the Warlord.  Whatever the sub-Vizuer asked was also of interest to that faraway ruler.  I shrugged.  “Over the years, trade has been getting steadily worse.  I do not see it getting any better, especially since the traders can no longer loot the Ancients’ cities like they once did.  As time goes on, common objects and luxury goods can only get more expensive.  That will hurt all of us.”
            He stared at me.  “So you do not think the Rebels are of any consequence?”
            I shook my head.  “I have never seen one here in Ewark.”
            Rasid’s free hand waved across the points of the compass.  “The Rebels are everywhere.  They travel the roads, looking for easy prey.  It is only through the magnificent power of the Mujadeen that we have any civilization at all.  Do you not agree?”
            “Of course I agree,” I said, bowing my head in supplication.  “The Mujadeen also keeps us safe from the creatures of the Wasteland.”  In fact the Mujadeen had been in power ever since the evil days when the Ancients were destroyed.  No one could imagine a world without the Warlord and his followers.  They not only made the laws, they also enforced them with an iron fist.  It was said that the Warlord, who governed from the city of Washtin, had a mighty army at his command.  Why they did not simply crush the Rebels was a matter of some speculation.
            “If it wasn’t for the Mujadeen, there would be no law.  There would be no order to the world.  And what do the Rebels want?  They speak of freedom when no one can afford it.  They speak of liberty when they offer nothing but chaos.  Those old words mean nothing anymore.  Now what kind of world would their promises bring?”
“I’m just a simple hotel owner,” I replied, slowly shaking my head.  “I know little of politics and even less of these ancient words that the Rebels speak of.”  I was, of course, speaking the truth.  Though a few of the visiting Traders spoke of the Rebels, no one ever claimed of being robbed by them.  I personally put little stock in these so-called Rebels since I had never seen any evidence that they had a hold on the countryside.  People feared the Wasteland more than any man.
Rasid, meanwhile, laughed, the fat jowls of his face shaking with mirth.  “My friend, you would succeed under any regime!  You only care about business, don’t you?”
“Stability is good for business,” I answered.  “What is good for business is good for me.”
He took another sip from his beer, his expression hard to read.  “Which is why I need to talk to you.  The Warlord is worried that the Rebels are starting to gain prominence in this area.  That is evident enough in other towns.  He worries that they will be supported by the populace, especially since the trade is diminishing.  There will be some hungry bellies soon, and that means the land will be ripe for revolution.  Hungry people are more willing to listen to far-fetched promises.  We will need people like you to be our eyes and ears, to stop the rebellion from spreading here in Ewark.”
I frowned.  “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You run a business that caters to travelers.  You certainly must hear many a rumor from the men that stay at your establishment.  If you could pass that information on to me, then that would be of a great help.”
“You attach too much importance to my position,” I said humbly.
His eyes narrowed, becoming near-invisible slits.  His voice became suddenly harsh as he said, “I think not.  And this isn’t exactly a request.  This is an order.  You will do as I say or else there will consequences.”
“As you command,” I replied quietly.

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