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The Price of Honor

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Listening to Ammar's declaration of his final loyalty to Al-Rassan, watching Rodrigo's head fall away in despair, Jehane felt the first poundings of fear begin in her own heart. She had long since made her own choice of loyalties--to a man who loved her first, instead of a man who would rightly choose his wife first. Now she realized, although with no regret, that Ammar had his share of conflicting loyalties.

They were riding into the nearly-lost remains of Al-Rassan, to an uncertain Muwardi welcome. Away from her parents and her friends. Away from a man whom they both loved and a king who made lofty, alluring promises. On one hand, the thought of leaving Ammar was unthinkable; on the other hand, her heart broke a little bit at the other, inescapable thought of seeing Rodrigo again from the other side of a battlefield. She moved her horse closer to Ammar’s, reaching out to lace their fingers together. She had only this one man now, but his worth dwarfed the price that she paid.

After a tenday, they crossed paths with King Badir’s Ragosan army on the way to Cartada. The leader was an Asharite captain whom Jehane did not recognize, bearded and silent. She supposed that the Jaddite captains from Karch and Batiara who had frequented the court might be fewer in number now. Ammar tried his best to keep a low profile until he was recruited into the war counsel. Jehane took up her usual position as a company physician, treating stomach sicknesses and skin rashes.

They settled into a not-unfamiliar routine, and as each day passed through the endless desert sands, the two moons exchanging places overhead, it almost seemed like their time together was endless too. When she glanced up one morning to see the veiled ones first appearing above the horizon, Jehane dropped her urine flask in startlement. It fell safely onto the sandy blanket of her treatment tent, and she picked it up again before her patient noticed. But when Ammar popped open the tent flap a little while later and peered inside, she knew from his perfect composure that he was worried.

“Stay here,” Ammar instructed. She obeyed him only so far she could blink a few times, before moving quietly to the tent flap and securing it ajar. Jehane watched as the Muwardi vanguard grew steadily larger in her view and finally halted at the edge of the camp. She watched Ammar hailing them from a sentry post, watched some of the desertmen visibly recoil and draw their scarves tighter.

One, likely their leader, wheeled his horse up to Ammar and spoke down from his mount, the words carrying on the wind only as harsh, gutteral syllables of a typically fluent language. Ammar responded quietly, and each remained in his unmoving position while a short conversation took place. At length the Muwardi turned and led his company past the Ragosan camp, continuing in the direction they had begun, only a single rider detaching with messages to the captain’s counsel tent.

Jehane waited for Ammar to return to her tent, as she knew he would. She knew also that he would note the unfastened tent flap. Ammar sank cross-legged onto the blanket, took one of her hands, and pressed it briefly to his lips. “I don’t believe that Ghalib ibn Q’arif likes me very much,” he said.

Jehane gave her characteristic small shrug. “I’m sure his brother will not supplant him as ka’id of Al-Rassan’s armies,” she said. “You have more to fear than he does, in any political contest.”

“Perhaps,” Ammar said quietly. And nothing more, which Jehane took to be a worrisome sign.

***

She had almost lost a child tonight. Diego, the quiet one whose brilliance was often overlooked. Diego, whose dangerous gift had brought him so close to death and barrelling into peril.

Both Jehane and then D’Inigo had urged Miranda to take rest, allow her body to recuperate from the wild swings of grief, shock, and numb relief. She had consented to leave Diego’s tent, but she was far too anxious to sleep. Instead she wore measured paces in a winding circle around the camp, glancing past the tents every so often to see Rodrigo by the river, closeted with the king. She had desperately missed Rodrigo on the ranch, but now that they were finally reunited, yearning love and desire had been pushed aside by a mother’s fear.

On the next circuit she saw Jehane, the Kindath physician marked by the blue shawl draped over her hair, and another man with Rodrigo. They and the king seemed to converse for a long while, until at length Jehane and the other man moved away, with some finality.

At the same time, Miranda suddenly felt the weariness buried in her bones begin to surface. She returned to Diego’s tent and lay down, although she was soon woken by Jehane’s movements. She remembered speaking to Jehane about Diego, about Jehane’s father the blind (blinded) surgeon, and then she remembered very little more as sleep claimed its due.

***

Hazem One-hand, King of Cartada, now lived in the same palace that his brother and his father had presided over. However, he preferred to hold court in an elaborate tent erected over one of the largest palace gardens, the interior more sparsely furnished with carpets and pillows than with Muwardi guards. Yazir ibn Q’arif, Zuhrite leader of the tribes on both sides of the waters, maintained a place of honor at Hazem’s right hand--or at the sharp steel hook where it would have been. Yazir’s brother Ghalib, the war-leader and ka’id, sat on a cushion to Hazem’s left when he was present in Cartada and bothered to attend court, which was rarely.

Hazem had adopted the customary Muwardi half-veil, and the wadjis had never been so highly esteemed in Al-Rassan since the days of the Khalifate. For Ammar ibn Khairan, kneeling in obeisance before his third king, these changes were not unexpected. But although he knew Prince Hazem well--a disgruntled second son who had been exiled by Almalik for attempting to incite the wadjis to revolt--Ammar regretted not having made a more careful study of the two Muwardi leaders from the desert. Over the years, his spies had consistently described the two as close brothers in blood and spirit, fanatical in their dedication to Ashar, disdainful of the soft, fat city-dwellers in Al-Rassan. The Muwardi had a few city-settlements now, but Yazir and Ghalib maintained their nomadic lifestyle.

Yet the sweet wind of shifting politics and the tantalizing scent of conquest had finally brought them across the straits, all the way to the palace in Cartada. The bulk of the Muwardi army was not in the city, of course, nor at Tudesca where the ships had first landed. They were spread out in companies along the River Guadiara, their war-leader moving amongst the split armies and frequently leading raids himself. In the months since his arrival to Cartada, Ammar’s counsel was frequently solicited by Yazir and begrudgingly accepted by his brother.

“What do you wish of your servant, Magnificence?” Ammar raised his head slightly, gaze still lowered, to project his voice toward the pillow-dais in the center of the courtly white tent.

Hazem gave a small cough, one of his several nervous tics. His voice, however, was smooth and clear as he declared, “We have discussed with our advisors and decided that you shall lead our eastern armies for the next campaign, extending from your native Aljais toward the outlaw harborers of Arbastro. His Excellence Ghalib,“ here he nodded respectfully toward the man in question, who ignored him in favor of cracking beetle shells, “shall command our western forces to engage the enemy near Ardeño. And he will instruct you on your campaign, before you depart.”

Ammar felt a clever poet’s response rising to his tongue as to Ghalib’s instructing him on the art of warfare in Al-Rassan, but with practiced wisdom he suppressed the thought. He judged that today, with both brothers in attendance, was not the right time to make an outright enemy of Ghalib ibn Q’arif. “As Your Magnificence sees fit, I am happy to be of aid in any of my meager capacities.” And wished silently, not for the first time, that his well-reputed talents as a poet might be called upon even once; but in this Muwardi court, poetry held no sway.

At times it was difficult to countenance what the lion’s oasis had become, when even the lesser beasts of the desert were overcome by foreign predators. But he had committed to this choice, to saving what little he could of Al-Rassan, and Ammar ibn Khairan had not yet enough cause for regret.

***

Jehane was interrupted in her examination of the newest harem woman, a timid girl with chestnut-golden hair and eyes as large as the moons, by insistent coughing. “Yes?” she said without looking up.

“Your presence is requested by the king in his personal chambers,” said the head eunuch. “He commands that you come at once, leaving all other duties aside.”

Jehane wanted to retort that the king could wait until she ascertained whether his concubine had cleared a nasty infection that he most assuredly did not want to catch in his own nether parts. Instead she said merely, “I’ll be just a minute.”

The head eunuch was good at his job, however. Jehane found herself bundled up and packed out of the harem with surprising speed, leaving no excuse to linger.

It wasn’t that she disliked King Hazem so much; his manner was uncomfortably awkward and he complained of every trifling ache, but he respected a doctor’s expertise enough to retain her services. As a Kindath and a woman, Jehane had been relegated to treating mostly women and children, the male children only after word passed around that she had attended upon Hazem. So she owed a not-insignificant portion of her clientele to his patronage, all the more valuable because she had been barred from setting up a public booth.

But Jehane would have traded half a month’s income and more for the chance to avoid regularly meeting Yazir and Ghalib, the two Muwardi leaders who were Hazem’s closest advisors--almost his regents, by controlling Al-Rassan through military means. Yazir gave her continued wariness and never acknowledged that she might know something useful about the vagaries and wonders of the human body. Ghalib, with his crude contempt and active disbelief of a practicing female physician, was worse.

Luck had abandoned her today, because she met Ghalib in the king’s antechamber. On her way in she had the perfect pretext to be abrupt; alas, dispensing her father’s headache remedy to Hazem did not take enough time that Ghalib had found elsewhere to be when she came out. Sometimes Jehane thought that Ghalib lingered intentionally to irritate her, or simply to bully her.

“Why do you visit the king so often, woman?” said Ghalib as he stood against the doorway of the antechamber, blocking her passage. “One would think that you belong in his harem, where you spend the other half of your days.”

“I am a doctor, not a concubine or a whore,” snapped Jehane. “Now may I be on my way? I have other business to attend to.” She felt fatigued, and especially weary of Ammar’s tenday absence out east with the army; she had less defiance than usual to spend arguing with Ghalib.

Ghalib stepped closer to her, still blocking the doorway. “So you are not ibn Khairan’s concubine?” His dark eyes reflected nothing, a few strands of his long hair fell forward to outline the nearness of his face, and Jehane began to be truly afraid. Ghalib stared at her for an endless moment in time, then reached forward with lightning quickness and grabbed the end of her blue headshawl. He pulled and twisted it in such a way that it fell halfway off and simultaneously threatened to wrap Jehane in a chokehold.

She had had some experience with unwanted advances in the Kindath Quarter of Fezana, in her youth, but it had been years since anyone dared. Drawing on feeble memories, Jehane spun on her heel to untwist the shawl, rendering it useless for modesty as it fell onto her shoulders, and deliberately shouldered Ghalib aside as she marched out of the antechamber. He was startled enough to let her pass through, although he recovered in time to tighten his grip on her shawl, which she gladly left to him.

Her heart was beating too fast, the sound of her quick-shuffling footsteps loud in her ears. When she finally made it back to the small house that Ammar had rented--their house, but the deed in his name only, of course--Jehane slid the deadbolt home and slowly collapsed onto a chair.

How could she stay at this court, knowing now what Ghalib desired? Nothing so much more than to fuck her a few times, put her in her place, she thought, but her distaste of him had settled squarely into hatred. Cartada was a shadow of Al-Rassan only, a mirage of the tolerance and peace that mutual prosperity had brought.

Jehane slid to her knees behind the blessedly locked door, feeling bare without her shawl. Nonetheless she closed her eyes and began a quiet incantation to the blue sister and the white, moving high above her in the sky. She prayed for long enough that her knees became numb, before she rose to her feet with a small stumble and stepped to a window overlooking the back courtyard, not outside of her house but close enough to see the moons.

What would become of Al-Rassan? As for her, Jehane bet Ishak; would she become like Miranda Belmonte, waiting for her love to come home from war, but without even the defenses of family and loyal servants? She was a physician, the greater part of her identity tied to her chosen profession.

At length, in the quiet of the moons, Jehane came to a decision. Ammar could not have fought against Al-Rassan without betraying himself, and Jehane realized that she cound not live in an Al-Rassan that betrayed her with every new day and every breath of fear. After that, the path forward was clear.

***

Ardeño’s walls loomed in the background, but Rodrigo was not interested. To take the city he would have to fight through its best physical defense, a Muwardi army. And that prospect, at the moment, was far more interesting. The eastern approach was difficult, on sloping and slippery ground, but as a result its walls were less recently shored up from the outside and the Muwardi horsemen, used to racing across flat sands, had left it more thinly defended. Rodrigo cast a searching gaze across the enemy front line and identified the obvious leader, a burly man with a long mane of dark hair.

The hair marked him later, after the battle had begun in earnest. Rodrigo fought with his characteristic cold fury, funnelling helpless anger for Diego’s near-tragedy and despair for Ammar’s permanent departure. He worked his way closer to the long-haired tribesman while his target cut down several good men, fighting with impressive skill and fervor. Rodrigo’s approach was angled from behind, obstructed in the Muwardi’s peripheral vision by the press of bodies.

Finally he was close enough to land a blow, and he knew that the first one needed to be most useful. Rodrigo raised his sword, saw Diego in a fleeting vision of his mind’s eye, bore down with pent-up strength and lethal speed. The Muwardi was good enough to have a veteran’s instinct for danger as he turned with his shield in time to block the blow, but Rodrigo’s motion could not be stopped. It smashed through steel helm and iron shield, knocking the tribesman off his horse.

Rodrigo had already leapt down from his own horse, ready to finish this fight on foot. He danced with the Muwardi in the tiny space afforded by their horses. There on the slopes of Ardeño, driven by a father’s rage, Rodrigo Belmonte found the edge that he needed to overcome a holy warrior’s zeal as he slew his enemy with a splitting swordstroke through the neck and collarbone. Thus he slew Ghalib ibn Q’arif, and the world shuddered.

***

Ammar ibn Khairan of Aljais, who spent his most recent days skirmishing with out-laws and killing more than a few that he recognized, to his sorrow, learned only belatedly of his promotion to ka’id of Al-Rassan’s armies when he finally returned for a spell to the royal court in Cartada. He knew that something had happened when he saw the Muwardi sentries on the city wall wearing grey veils of mourning. Soon after, one of his outriders returned with the news and an urgent summons: Ghalib had been killed by the cursed Jaddite, Rodrigo Belmonte. Ardeño was lost to the infidels.

He was a little surprised, actually, when Hazem immediately named him ka’id. More so when Hazem mentioned that Yazir had recommended the appointment, sending a message by bird on the same day as his brother’s funeral rites.

Ammar inquired after Jehane’s whereabouts--she might have received the news already, but she would still want to hear it from him--and Hazem responded irritably, “We would like to know that ourselves. The woman has not been seen for two days, nor answered my summons.”

Then he knew that something was very wrong. He raced home to a locked house, cleanly swept and unlived-in. There was a note on the side table in the foyer, written in the Kindath script and a familiar hand:


My dear,

You must be frantic by now. I am very sorry. I will follow you to the ends fo the earth, but I cannot be other than a doctor, and the prescribed treatment is clear. I risk not only independence but my profession and my bodily safety as a single Kindath woman in Al-Rassan. In this particular case, I cannot wait any longer for you in Cartada.

You know where to go, if you choose to follow me this time. No matter what happens, I love you always.

-J

With a diplomat’s precision and a soldier’s reaction time, Ammar read Jehane’s letter only twice over. He did not doubt its veracity, although that was possible. Assuming that Jehane had left of her own accord--fleeing some unspoken threat in Cartada, which he could not save her from while saving Al-Rassan from itself--then he did know where she would have gone.

Not Ragosa this time, besieged as it was, though Ammar wouldn’t have guessed it first regardless. No, Jehane would go north, deliberately aimless and hoping to run into a Valledan army before any others.

How did one find love, navigating by the stars of Ashar? Ammar had known what he was bringing her into, knew that she wouldn’t think of staying behind. A dear woman, the love of his life, offered up to Al-Rassan along with friendship and freedom and poetry, everything that he gave up in the name of honor.

What price did love cost, for a memory and a dream of Al-Rassan?

***

It was a dangerous time to be a Kindath in Al-Rassan, traveling alone through the deserted countryside. Jehane packed away her blue and white clothes, borrowed a pair of Ammar’s silk pants that had shrunk in the wash, and veiled herself with the wide-brimmed hat that merchants frequently wore to shield against the sun. She saddled a good horse, bringing only enough food for a few days if she was careful, and rode.

She went at a carefully moderate pace through Cartada’s cobblestone streets and then, once she had passed beyond its walls behind an Asharite caravan, at a near-gallop. Once Cartada was a distant dot on the horizon, Jehane dared to stop a few times by the Guadiara to rest her horse and take her bearings. She had to guess where to go--but Ragosa was besieged by the Jaloñans, and Rodrigo would take no part in that. Remembering discussion with Ammar about his military campaigns, she decided to ride west toward Ardeño. Most likely the Muwardis would be stationed in between, but the hilly landscape and wooded forests might allow her to slip by.

Jehane realized, later, she had been extraordinarily lucky on that journey. Circling north around the eastern approach to Ardeño, it was late afternoon when she approached and decided to carefully circumnavigate a large hill. She rounded one slope and suddenly stopped short before the final dredges of a harsh battle, a few Jaddite horsemen on foot cleaning up those of the enemy too incapacitated to run. It was difficult to see so many wounded on both sides and keep herself from going to tend them. But in her struggle, Jehane looked up and saw, at the crest of the hill, a familiar man dressed in herald’s white and gold.

By the grace of the sun, the stars, and the moons, she had found Alvar before encountering either army proper. He took his role very seriously and seemed happy to be a step away from the killing. More importantly, he also brought Jehane to the Jaddite camp and settled her into the medical tents, where soldiers had already begun straggling in from the field. The triage work was complex enough that Jehane fell into a familiar flow, efficient and detached that she needn’t see the faces belonging to the sometimes terrible bodies.

So she almost didn’t see him at first, coming in still garbed in half armor and bleeding from a deep gash on his wrist. Jehane automatically reached for a fresh roll of bandages, picturing the correct way to wrap the wrist for stability, when her hyper-focused gaze met Rodrigo’s eyes and time stopped. She was transported back to Ragosa, to a cold, quiet street and a woman looking up at a window where a man wrote letters by candlelight.

On the night before she left Fezana, Jehane had asked Rodrigo, “Is it wrong, or impossible, for a woman to love two men?” And he had responded, after an endless moment, “No more so than for a man.”

It was an answer of sorts, the only and the best that he could give. But Jehane knew, with the unexpected return of a thing that she had set aside as gone, a new answer.

***

He had come to her first, after returning from battle and meeting Alvar on the way to her tent. Alvar the herald, who brought wondrous tidings this time. Nonetheless, Rodrigo had sought her out.

Miranda said as much to herself, like a child’s reassurance. They had been married a long time, their love strong throughout, and Rodrigo still came home first to kiss her cheeks and stroke her hair. They had embraced, and she felt like she did every time that she would never let him go again, and then he had told her quietly about Jehane’s surprising return.

She was jealous, of course, but not rightfully so. Despite her repeated threats, she had never doubted Rodrigo. Miranda could not control her feelings, however, not the jealousy nor the self-shame that accompanied it.

Fresh air and exercise would do her good, she decided after Rodrigo had left for the infirmary. She wrapped a shawl around her neck, the only concession to women’s garb, and began her usual walking circult around the sentry posts. By the second round she felt notably calmer, if still uneasy in her stomach.

A commotion near the camp border drew her attention. A horse was flying towards them at a breakneck speed, its rider difficult to distinguish but not clearly colored for Valledo, Jaloña, or Ruenda. “Halt!” came the expected cry.

The horse slowed enough to avoid barrelling into the camp, but not enough to keep the sentry from nocking his arrow. Now the rider reined in and swung his horse around to a sudden stop, just out of accurate bowshot for the average archer. “Hail, soldier!” he yelled in reply. The voice was strained but projected clearly across the distance, and it sounded familiar.

The rider continued, still declaiming with the ease of long practice, “I seek a woman, a Kindath physician. Have you seen her?”

Miranda suddenly realized who he was, and the thought propelled her forward. “Ammar?” Her voice came out more tentative than she would have liked.

He turned to look at her in surprise, sketching a bow from his horse. “My lady Belmonte. Have you seen Jehane?”

Miranda felt a kinship with this man, the other spurred lover who was, most probably, still loved as much as she was herself. She gave him truth with no preamble. “I have not seen her, but Alvar brought her here.” A pause, then, “Rodrigo went to see her in the infirmary.”

Ammar dismounted and approached, correctly judging that the sentry would refrain from shooting him. “I have come to speak with her,” he said softly. “And with your husband.” That last, phrased like a request.

Miranda looked steadily at the man whom her husband had praised all winter, even while he orchestrated clever, terribly effective raids on the Jaddite supply lines. She granted him permission with a nod--because it was right, he deserved that right, and because somehow his arrival, in pursuit of Jehane, had settled her snake of insecurity into a quiet rest. With a final passing smile, Miranda turned back to her tent a little less lonely than before.

***

Winter in Ragosa, for the second time. The city is more subdued but no less vibrant after surviving a long siege. Of course it remains under Jaddite control--Valledan control really, say those who would point their fingers at the company of Rodrigo Belmonte quartered here. But the common folk in turn are quick to point out that their governor is an Asharite of no small repute, Ammar ibn Khairan of Aljais.

Fewer people mention the governor’s physician, a competent Kindath woman who is often seen in both his company and at the Jaddite barracks. Perhaps she is unremarkable because the citizens of Ragosa have already, after scarcely a year, begun to take for granted the common values of peacetime: joy, blessing, love, and honor.