Getting the town elders to agree to a meeting was easy enough with Adiya’s help, for it seemed that, being elders, they did not really have anything more pressing to do with their time. In only a couple of hours all the arrangements had been made, but for whatever reason we had to wait until after dinnertime, when the sun was well on its way towards the horizon, to commence the event.
We met inside another converted cave – it was a good-sized one, but more comfortably furnished than the treasury. There were mats and patterned rugs on the floor (I was still unclear as to whence they were getting all these furnishings), as well as cushions, tables, and various <i>objets d’art</i> (statuettes carved out of sandstone, most notably). There were a number of lamps burning, which kept the place quite well lit.
Everyone found a seat on a small cushion (myself and Adiya, who had graciously agreed to accompany me, included) and tea was served in a formal manner. The Treasurer was there, as well, as his expertise would be required. Rabeen also showed up, though, thankfully, he had left his daughter at home.
There were seven elders present and they all seemed quite ancient - though I supposed that living in this sort of environment would tend to age a person more quickly than if they lived in a temperate climate. Of the seven, two were old ladies who must both have been perpetually cold for they each remained tightly wrapped in their thick, woven shawls. The other five were (obviously) male, and most of them seemed to favor layering their garments almost to the point of excess. At any rate, none of the elders appeared to be infirm or senile by any stretch of the imagination, and as I looked around at each of the wizened yet intent faces I found myself feeling fairly intimidated.
“Shall we begin this proceeding?” Asked one of the elders, a tired-looking fellow who wore a bright yellow turban-sort-of-thing and a very wide sash around his middle of the same color. His features were well-weathered but his voice was steady. I couldn’t remember his name, though I was sure Adiya had told me at some point.
I nodded vigorously, flashing a nervous smile around the room.
Everyone looked at me, expectantly.
I cleared my throat. Apparently I was supposed to jump right in.
“Uh, thank you all very much for agreeing to this meeting. I really appreciate your generosity and hospitality,” I began.
“You are welcome. What is this request of yours?” asked the old guy in the yellow sash, a touch impatiently.
“Well, I would like to arrange a trade on behalf of my companion, Twapalena. She needs a few particular items that I believe may be stored in the treasury. She is willing to exchange some nearly identical items of equal value.”
The elders exchanged glances and low whispers. I waited on pins and needles, knowing already that I was going to have a struggle on my hands if I was to succeed in my mission.
“Your <i>friend</i>,” said the old man sitting to the left of the one with the yellow sash, “She’s a strange foreigner, so I hear. I think everyone has also heard that she sits indoors all day guarding a box filled with treasures, is that not so?”
“Yes, that’s true, but-”
“Why does she not spend any of it here in the town?”
I stopped, bemused. I hadn’t really thought of it that way.
“Well,” I said, half-shrugging, “Everyone has been so generous that she has thus far had no need to.”
The yellow-sash guy spoke again, with great deliberation and gravity. “We have treasures in great plenty, as you know. We are more in need of necessary items that we cannot fashion ourselves. You may not be aware of this, Khair, but the trading caravans have been delayed this year and we have not heard from them in over six months. Perhaps your friend would be willing to trade some of her other belongings for the things she is apparently so set upon acquiring.”
I nodded, wishing to seem agreeable and understanding of the situation, which, admittedly, I did not fully grasp. “I can certainly ask her if she would be willing to do that. But it is quite important to her that she get the parts that she needs quickly.” I was taking a chance, I knew, but I didn’t want to waste any time.
There was more whispered consultation, then a long pause during which everyone (myself excluded) sipped their tea very thoughtfully. The lamps flickered steadily in the background, casting shadows that bounced oddly. A tingling sensation alerted me to the fact that my left foot was falling asleep beneath me.
Suddenly Rabeen spoke up - something I was not expecting.
“Khair, we all realize that you have been gone from us for a very long time, and that while you have changed immensely, we, for the most part, have not. Nevertheless, I must call attention to what all of us have been thinking but no one has yet dared say: we are concerned by your behavior. You have only just arrived, but you are already asking favors – which we gladly give, of course – and you furthermore show more interest in doing the bidding of this “Twapalena” person than in finding out how your old friends and loved ones are doing. Forgive me if I am overly suspicious, but it troubles me. Far be it from me to pry into deeply personal matters, but you do not even seem to have been mourning your father’s death. Even my daughter admitted that she was disturbed by the way you talk and act. So I must ask you: what is really going on, Minzar Khair?”
I blinked hard, shocked by this sudden assault out of nowhere. My mind raced, searching for convincing excuses but finding none. In the end, I merely hung my head.
“Sir, you are right, I’ve been incredibly rude and ungrateful towards you and everyone else. I did not even thank you all properly for the gracious welcome you gave me yesterday evening. I can’t express how sorry I am for behaving the way I have.”
This seemed to have something of the desired effect, for everyone seemed pleasantly surprised. I wasn't finished just yet, though.
“I have been hiding something from you all…” I paused, letting the words sink in. “You see, when I was in the desert I temporarily lost my mind. I forgot completely who I was or where I came from. It was Twapa who found me and rescued me, and that is why I feel that I owe her a debt of gratitude. I would have died without her, and she has saved my life many times since then.” I felt a sort of satisfaction in the thought that this story did have some degree of metaphorical truth to it... although deep down I felt even worse for being so manipulative.
I had shocked the room back into silence. More tea was sipped, but with an air of anxiety and confusion.
“Khair, I am sorry, I certainly was not aware of this,” said Rabeen, inclining his head respectfully. “Of course I understand your sense of honorable duty to your friend. I hope, though, that now that you are home you will wish to re-integrate into the way of things here.”
I knew that Rabeen was thinking specifically about the promise of me marrying his daughter. Actually, I was relatively sure that everybody in the town had that one thing in particular on their minds, seeing how everyone had gawked and smiled earlier that day when I was out walking through the canyon with Ajul.
There was nothing for it but to agree heartily, which I did. I felt somewhat more at ease now that the moment of tension had passed.
“Very well, Rabeen.” Said the elder in the yellow sash, clearly wishing to move things along. “Now, Khair, you will allow us to put your request to a vote,” it was more of an order than a question.
“Yes, sir,” I inclined my head in a polite semi-bow.
“We will give you our answer tomorrow. Until then, you may go home.”
The elder waved his hand, glancing around at the others, who nodded in agreement. With that, the meeting was officially over and the elders began chatting amongst themselves, utterly ignoring me.
I followed Adiya when she got up and left the cave, grateful that the awkward session was over. I had no way of knowing, of course, whether or not I had won the day, but at least I knew that I tried. Twapa couldn’t possibly ask for more than that.
It was already dark outside, to my surprise, as Adiya and I walked back to her house in subdued silence. Once indoors, however, the kind lady reverted to her usual cheerfully meddling self and offered me a spare set of clothes she had picked up somewhere in town that day.
“I apologize, they’re rather old and much-mended, but I thought you would like something fresh to change into” Adiya explained, holding up an unremarkable gray linen robe and a sort of tunic to match.
“Oh, thank you, yes, I really appreciate it!” I said, accepting the gift with a smile.
“I’d have got something for your friend, but… Well, I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate.”
Adiya was clearly a quick study.
“Yeah,” I said, sheepishly, “She probably wouldn’t appreciate it as wholeheartedly as I do.”
Adiya grinned and shooed me aside. “Go on, I have some other things to attend to,” she said, bustling off down the narrow corridor.
Feeling only slightly dazed, I went to my room to deposit the hand-me-down garments and then to the living room to look for Twapa.
Alarmingly, Twapa was nowhere to be found.
There was that old feeling of impending doom, again. I slapped my forehead and muttered “Oh great,” to myself.
“What’s that, Khair?” Adiya had appeared in the doorway behind me carrying a basket (presumably of the “sewing” variety).
I whirled and shoved my hands into my pockets casually. “Oh, nothing. Just wondering where Twapa has got to.”
Adiya looked surprised, too. “Why she is gone, isn’t she. Perhaps she’s just stepped out for some fresh air.”
I wanted to be reassured by this suggestion, and told myself that Adiya was probably correct, but there was that little nagging shadow of a doubt.
“Should I go and look for her?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t worry. As long as she stays off of the cliffs the town is a safe enough place.”
I pondered the situation briefly. Twapa wouldn’t leave without me – she wasn’t <i>that</i> mean. If she went out to scope out the town there probably wasn’t much harm she could do anyway, and doubtless she’d be back soon. There was really no sense in my running off into the night like a flailing idiot, at any rate. I decided to stay put.
I sat with Adiya chatting idly while I waited for Twapa to return. It might have been anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half, but after awhile I began to feel anxious again. There was no good reason for Twapa to be out so long. I fidgeted, wishing I’d thought to bring a watch with me on this trip.
“So, <i>now</i> should I go and look for her?” I wondered out loud.
Adiya put down her mending and looked thoughtful. “It is rather odd that she’s been gone for so long but-”
“Yes, I know. She’s a rather odd person.” I said, a little peevishly.
Adiya did her best to ignore my sarcasm and began sewing again. “If you think it best, perhaps you should try to see where she’s gotten to,” she said, flatly.
Sighing, I got up, pulled on my boots (which I had left in the entry room), and ventured out into the darkness.
There were a few torches burning, some outside of homes, others to provide illumination in hazardous areas where one might stumble while walking. But beyond the glow of these lights and their weak reflection off the canyon walls, it was surprisingly black. I could not tell if the moon was out (if, indeed, there was a moon here at all) but looking straight up I could see the sky as a slightly more bluish shade of black besprinkled with tiny silver stars.
“Twapa?” I called out, not expecting to receive a response. Unsurprisingly, none came.
Shoving my hands into my pockets I walked on. The sun had only been down for about an hour or so, by my reckoning, but already it was getting chilly.
I made my way up the path through the center of the village, trying not to draw attention to myself. I needn’t have worried, though, because everyone had already gone back to their homes for the night.
Rounding a bend I stopped dead in my tracks, for suddenly I spied in the dimness a procession of some sort advancing towards me. Several people carried lamps or torches, and I could recognize Rabeen at the head of the column, followed closely by the Treasurer. Several other people were there, some of whom I knew and some who I did not. As they drew nearer, I noticed that they all looked very displeased.
“Minzar Khair!” yelled Rabeen, spotting me. “I don’t suppose you have a clever explanation handy for this!”
I felt my stomach do a backflip. “W-what’s going on?” I stammered, genuinely shocked by Rabeen’s hostile greeting.
Rabeen stopped in front of me, and the rest of the party gathered around. The ranks jostled a bit and none other than Twapa was ejected from the midst of the crowd. She appeared to have her hands bound behind her back and looked very, very furious.
Gaping, I turned to Rabeen. “I think I should be asking <i>you</i> for an explanation!” I snapped.
Rabeen scowled. “To put matters bluntly,” he said, “Your ‘friend’ here broke into the treasury and was caught red-handed!” He glared fiercely at Twapa, who was deliberately avoiding eye contact with anyone.
“Th-there must be some kind of mistake here,” I protested, “She's no thief!”
The Treasurer laughed humorlessly “If that is what you believe then it would appear, dear lad, that you are not a very astute judge of character,” he snorted.
I appealed to Twapa to help me out. “Twapa, come on, what are they talking about? You didn't do it, did you?”
Twapa looked up at me, but said nothing and simply rolled her eyes.
My heart sank. She was undoubtedly guilty, and no amount of insistence on my part was going to convince anyone otherwise.
“What are you going to do with her?” I demanded, looking Rabeen straight in the eye.
“She’s going to be confined until the elders decide her punishment. Meanwhile I would recommend that you make no rash attempts of your own.”
I didn’t even need to read between the lines to detect the threat in that statement. Helpless I stood aside as the cluster of angry townspeople dragged Twapa back down the path in the direction from which I had just come. I waited a several minutes, leaning against the side of a boulder in numb, frustrated silence, before following.
I didn’t bother to try and see where they were taking Twapa, but instead went straight back to Adiya’s house, where I immediately slumped into bed.
As much as I couldn’t believe that Twapa would be so stupid as to do a thing like breaking into the treasury (or at least getting caught in the act), there was a part of me that felt… betrayed. After all I had done to earn the trust of the people here, Twapa had just gone and blown it all in a vain effort to accelerate the process of getting us back home.
And… well, it wasn’t just that. I felt guilty enough playing at being someone else, but I realized that I was actually beginning to like it here. It was a different way of life, and while I was seriously missing the comforts of indoor plumbing and microwave dinners, I felt a sort of appreciation for the tenacity these folks must have in order to survive in such a harsh world as this. Part of me almost wished I really was one of them – not least because I would have liked to possess some measure of that pragmatic toughness.
As it stood now, though, there was no way we could ever truly be accepted here - even if we were stuck here indefinitely.
Depressed and exhausted by these thoughts I slept fitfully.
Since there was no window in my room I had no idea what time of day it was when I awoke. It was pitch dark, but since I no longer felt tired I decided it must be morning and so I got up.
I put on the long tunic Adiya had supplied me with over my pants and shrugged on the robe over that. I found these garments to be not terribly uncomfortable, although unlike a t-shirt they didn’t work at all for polishing my glasses. I had found an old comb made of bone or ivory on the little table in the bedroom and ran this through my hair - since I had no mirror there was no sense in fussing over it much.
I ventured into the hallway, where all was dim and silent, but I could already see that there was light coming in through the windows in the front entry room, so I knew it was morning, anyway. I tiptoed down to where I had left my boots and put them on, fumbling with the laces. I didn’t want to face Adiya this morning, and I did not know whether she was in the house or not, so I was trying to get out of there as quickly and quietly as possible.
Outside it appeared that the sun was already high and the canyon was warming up for the day. I glanced nervously down the path towards the kitchen, but couldn’t see Adiya anywhere. There were other people out and about but they didn’t seem to notice me as they went about their business. It was possible, I thought, that they hadn’t yet heard about Twapa’s criminal activities last night, but I didn’t really feel like finding out for sure.
Walking quickly but casually I made my way down the center of town, hoping desperately that somehow my “civilian clothes” would magically render me invisible to prying and accusing eyes. Maybe it worked, for no one confronted or even seemed to notice me on my way. Of course that also meant that no one offered a friendly greeting, either, and I began to suspect that the few people I passed were intentionally ignoring my presence.
In a short time I reached the home of Rabeen and Ajul, and nervously went up to the door. The door, being made of dried and woven leaves or grass was not suitable for knocking on, so, feeling very self-conscious, I called out a tremulous “hello, is anyone there?” while making ready to flee for my life if I received a hostile response.
There was no answer for several minutes, during which I stood shifting my weight from one leg to the other and reliving the feeling I used to get as a kid when I would ring the doorbell at the house of a friend whose parents I was afraid of.
To my relief, after several minutes Ajul appeared at the door.
“What do you want, Khair?” she asked, frowning.
“Ajul, I know I’m kind of doghouse right now, but I need your help.”
“You’re in the what?” asked Ajul, tilting her head. This movement caused her braids to swing back and forth like little black pendulums for a second.
“I’m in trouble... I mean,” I corrected myself, then, lowering my voice: “Do you have any idea where they’ve taken Twapa?”
Ajul stood with her hands on her hips regarding me coolly. “I might. But why should I help you. What are you going to do, try to break her out? You’re in enough of a spot already, I should think.”
Ajul’s tone was firm, but beneath her disapproval I thought I could detect a note of wistfulness. The truth was easy enough to discern; Ajul really did like me, and wanted desperately for me to be a good guy once again. Perhaps there was still hope, after all.
“No, no. Nothing like that, I’m appalled by her behavior. I just want to see her. I want to make sure she’s all right.”
Ajul’s expression softened, but there was still a bitter edge to her voice. “I wish you could see a person like that is no good for you,” she muttered, sighing heavily.
I winced. “I… I know, but can you please take me to her?” I begged.
Ajul pondered my request for another very long moment before looking up at me with an acquiescent half-smile. “Yes, I will. But we must not let anyone know about it,” she cautioned.
“I won’t tell if you won’t!” I assured her.
Ajul looked around. “My father’s out looking over our crops and he won’t be back until much later, but we mustn’t let anyone else see us going to the pit, either, or they might tell him and then I’ll be in trouble, too.”
“Nobody’s about right now, should we make a break for it?” I asked, half-joking.
“Yes,” said Ajul with a punctuational finality.
Without another word, the girl grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her as she hurried back down the canyon. At times we hid behind rocks and boulders or little niches in the cliff wall to avoid being seen by passers-by, other times we pretended to be walking quite casually, arm-in-arm like sweethearts. Undoubtedly Ajul derived some degree of pleasure from this latter tactic. Since I still did not know most of the inhabitants or physical layout of the area I could not tell if there was some significance in which method she chose each time we spotted another person approaching. Luckily for us it was getting close to lunchtime and many people were preoccupied with the task of preparing a meal.
We passed by Adiya’s house and the cave where I had met with the elders, and eventually arrived at the mouth of the canyon. I blinked under the hard glare of the desert sun, which reached hungrily into the opening as though trying to grab the kangaroo rat colony from its sheltered home in the shade of the cliffs.
Ajul moved slowly, now, keeping close to the rock face. Instead of walking directly out of the canyon we clambered over a pile of rocks where we were more protected from the eyes of anyone either inside or outside.
Peering out from between two boulders I could see the oasis and the irrigated fields which
extended for a considerable distance along the partially sheltered land at the base of the cliffs. I could also see everywhere the various simplistic apparatus for capturing and transporting precious water to the crops. There were a few workers out resting in the shade of the prickly-looking palms which seemed to mark the boundary of the fields. I supposed that Rabeen must be out there somewhere, a thought which made me all the more anxious to get out of sight quickly.
The rocks sheltered us, thankfully, from view as we made our way along the base of the cliff. Before long we came to a place where a chamber had been hollowed out beneath an overhanging ledge. Inside the artificial cave it was well-shaded and cool, though rather dusty as a certain amount of sand was able to blow in through the entrance.
As I stepped into the chamber, Ajul suddenly held out an arm, catching me in the chest. After a couple of seconds of confusion while my eyes adjusted to the comparative darkness, I realized that she had just prevented me from tumbling into a large hole which opened up at our feet.
Cautiously I knelt and peeked over the rim of the pit.
“Keer? Is that you? It’s about time!” Twapa’s voice echoed up to me from the bottom of the hole.
“Twapa! Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed.
The pit was quite deep – at least some fifteen feet or more, by my estimation – and about ten feet across at the top, but somewhat smaller at the bottom. What made it most remarkable was that the sides had apparently been painstakingly lined with tightly-fitted square tiles polished so smooth as to make climbing out impossible.
“Keer, get me out of here!” Twapa yelled.
“Shhh, not so loud! We’re not supposed to be here,” Ajul hissed.
I was honestly a little surprised. I wouldn’t have guessed that so simple a prison could have held Twapa for the better part of a night and a day. I also noticed that her hands were still bound behind her back. Ajul’s people must be quite proficient at this sort of thing.
I also could not help but recognize the uniqueness of my own position. For once I actually, genuinely held the advantage over Twapa. Selfish though it may have been, I couldn’t help but savor the moment. I sat down on the edge of the pit with my legs dangling over the side.
“I suppose it would be grossly inappropriate of me to make some kind of ‘how the mighty have fallen’ comment,” I smirked.
“I’m just kidding, anyway” I said, swinging my feet idly. “But listen, I think you should know how disappointed I am with you right now. Seriously, what were you thinking?”
I almost thought I could hear Twapa grinding her teeth in frustration. “You were getting distracted. I decided it was time I took matters into my own hands. You provided a good distraction, I’ll give you that, but-”
“Hey Twapa,” I called out, cynically, “Why don’t you shut up for a second. I know I’m not generally as patently awesome as you, but for once <i>you</i> are the idiot. I was doing everything you asked and I was having pretty good success until you screwed it all up. Now nobody trusts me and you’re probably going to be staked to an anthill or something.”
Twapa was shocked into silence for a moment, and stood leaning against the wall of the pit, staring up at me in disbelief. It didn’t last, however, and she quickly regained her tongue.
“Fine, I screwed up, but it’s only because I got caught! Now will you please stop yakking and get me out of here?”
I sat there looking thoughtful for a few moments, making Twapa wait for my answer, which I had already rehearsed.
“No, I don’t think I will try to get you out,” I said, folding my arms. “I think you need to learn something from all of this. Preferably something about respect,” I hinted, “Or barring that, at least something about what happens to people who go around willfully breaking the law.”
Twapa gasped. “What?! You son of a-”
“Respect.” I repeated, rather more loudly than I probably should have, judging by the stern look Ajul gave me.
Twapa swore and kicked at the walls of the pit vainly. “I am going to KILL you, Keer! As soon as I get out of here you are <i>so dead</i>!”
I watched her, with a smug expression that belied the heartbreak I felt inside. There was a kind of satisfaction in teaching Twapa a lesson, but when her venom was directed at me I can’t deny that it hurt.
“You know, I’ve always wondered just where it is you store up all that impotent fury you seem to harbor towards me,” I remarked, trying my best to sound hard and unimpressed by her childish display.
Twapa stopped and looked up again, craning her neck to glare at me.
“See, I’ve stopped wondering <i>why</i> it is that you hate me. I just don’t know how you can manage to be such an otherwise lovely an intelligent person when so much of your energy is spent on wishing me ill,” I continued. “You could probably give it up any time, but something compels you to persist in this highly inefficient tradition of hating my guts. It’s really kind of bizarre if you think about it.”
Twapa make a sound of utter exasperation which I knew well. “If you’re not going to help me then why don’t you just get out of here and leave me alone, you smarmy bastard!” she cried.
That was fine, since I didn’t feel like taunting her further, anyway.
“All right, Twapa. I’ll go. And I will try to get you freed, but in the <i>proper</i> way, okay?
Twapa slumped down on the floor of the pit and leaned against the wall, despondently. “Fine, whatever,” I heard her mutter.
I climbed carefully away from the edge of the pit and exchanged a glance with Ajul, who nodded her restrained approval. Silently, we made our way out of the prison and carefully back into town without incident.
As there was nothing more I could do at the moment and I wanted to stay out of the way of the powers-that-be if at all possible, I spent the rest of the day with Ajul. We found a fairly out-of-the-way spot in the shade where a bench had actually been carved out of the rock to provide a pleasant place to sit. The sun passed overhead and disappeared again behind the western cliff. Ajul and I chatted idly on and off, but for the most part we didn’t have much to say.
Ajul’s faith in me, however, seemed to have been restored, for as we sat she placed her hand over mine and gave it a squeeze. I didn’t pull away, even though my conscience was squirming uncomfortably. I let her hold my hand as we sat in silence listening to the sounds made by the wind blowing over the top of the cleft and echoing amongst the rocks.
Even since I fell asleep last night this notion had been growing in the back of my mind and now had finally developed a voice of its own with which it whispered a thought into my consciousness: why not just forget about trying to go home and simply stay here?
Sitting there in the shade, I looked at Ajul, who pulled on a crooked and apologetic smile when she saw me glance over. Her eyes were the biggest and darkest I had ever seen. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, exactly, but something about her face reminded me of the sort of face you’d see in an old painting from centuries gone by. Her hair was black and shiny as obsidian, and the parts that weren't tied up in her two braids fell in graceful swoops from under the edge of her headband. Her smile was sweet as you please, albeit sometimes it was an uncertain, adolescent smile, and other times an overly mischeivous one.
I knew I shouldn’t even indulge the thought, but nonetheless I wondered briefly whether or not I could be happy with someone like Ajul. She was younger than I was by a few years, sure, but she was pretty sharp, and from what I had seen of her character thus far she seemed to be a genuinely charitable sort of person. In a lot of ways she seemed much more mature than Twapa.
Was there even room for comparison? Whereas Ajul could be described as “spunky”, Twapa was generally downright reckless. Ajul was not afraid to speak her mind, but so far I had not heard her utter anything that was unjustifiably disrespectful. Ajul was helpful. Twapa was belligerent. The list of ways in which Ajul was a nicer person could probably go on indefinitely.
Yet as I weighed the differences in my mind I couldn’t help but be reminded of the things I liked about Twapa. She wasn’t <i>all</i> bad, as I well knew. Twapa might sometimes be too smart for her own good, but I still admired her intellect, and what’s more is I admired her tenacity and independence, though she often used these as weapons against me. Then there was the stuff that rarely showed. Twapa held strong convictions, and I knew that deep down she desperately wanted to fight for truth and justice. Her hang-ups and negative personality traits (and I had reason to believe that most of these were deliberately fostered as an emotional defense mechanism) were a big stumbling block, to be sure, but I was still convinced that somewhere behind all the vitriol was a perfectly lovely person waiting just below the surface.
And that, I remembered with a further twinge of guilt, was why I couldn’t just abandon Twapa to her own devices. She needed me. Okay, so she didn't <i>really</i> need physical protection, for the most part - that was largely an excuse I had made up - but she needed a friend who could stick by her stubbornly and never give up on her. It was for <i>her</i> own good that I subjected myself to the endless abuse and frustration that was part and parcel of dealing with Twapa.
“What’s the matter, Khair? Are you worried?” asked Ajul, squeezing my hand gently.
“Yes. I’m worried about Twapa. I mean… they’re going to feed her and stuff while she’s down there, right?”
Ajul looked indignant. “Of course! What are we, barbarians?” she snorted.
“Okay, I just wasn’t sure. I mean, she’s all alone down there. I know I said she needs to learn her lesson but I can’t bear the thought of her really suffering,” I hung my head.
“You certainly care a lot about her, considering how she talked to you earlier,” said Ajul.
“That’s the thing. Ajul… I… I love her. I know it’s a bad, crazy idea, but it’s the truth. I’ve loved her for a long time. She's my best friend an I made a promise to stand by her always. And that’s why I can’t just ditch her and marry you.”
Ajul looked taken aback for a second, but swiftly recovered. “Oh, is that all?” she asked, folding her arms skeptically. “If you don’t mind my saying so, Khair, I don’t think she exactly returns your sentiments.”
I clasped my head in my hands. “I know,” I groaned, “But... She needs me, whether she realizes it or not. She’s really not a bad person, she’s just full of anger and hurt. I’ve been trying for some time now to convince her to let that go and just be… happy. Does that make any sense at all?”
Ajul folded her hands in her lap and stared at them for a moment, deep in thought. At last she looked up at me, this time with sympathy. “Yes, I understand, Khair,” she murmured.
I thought for a second that I could almost see the emotions fluttering to and fro behind her eyes, but then she turned away from me again and the vision was gone.
“That said, you’re a really nice girl, Ajul, and I’m terribly afraid that I’m going to break your heart,” Terrifying though it was, honesty suddenly felt really, really good.
Ajul smiled for real this time, and even giggled faintly. “Khair, you won’t break my heart. I like you, and I was really hoping that you would marry me, but love is something that takes a lot of time and effort. I mean, sure we grew up together, but we don’t really know each other, now, do we? It wouldn't be fair to ask you to leave someone you already love just for the sake of a tradition.”
I felt an immense wave of relief pour over me, though I still felt anxious. “You mean that?” I asked, probably sounding pretty stupid.
Ajul nodded primly. “It’s the truth.”
I chuckled deliriously. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear that – er, that is, not to say that I’m relieved you don’t love me or whatever, but… um… yeah…” Real smooth, Ciaran.
Ajul and I sat and talked or didn’t talk for the rest of the afternoon, until finally she had to excuse herself to go and start preparing dinner. We exchanged a friendly goodbye, and then went our separate ways – she to her own home and I back to Adiya’s house.