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Chapter 4

The elders had scheduled a “hearing” for Twapa on the morning of our fourth day in the canyon, feeling that two nights in the pit was enough to teach even the most callous of miscreants a solid lesson. Had I been asked I might have suggested that they were underestimating exactly how stubborn Twapa could be, but, of course, no one asked me.

I was allowed to attend the proceedings, however, since no one could prove that I had any prior knowledge of Twapa’s attempted crime. I was under suspicion, but they still believed that I was the long-lost son of their late chieftain, and therefore I still commanded a little bit of respect from even the elders.

I had no idea what I was going to do. If they decided to punish Twapa by throwing her out of town to die in the desert I wouldn’t have much choice but to follow her. Perhaps I could plead for mercy on her behalf, though I felt that my influence had probably diminished significantly in the last day or so.

How did things go downhill so fast? Our first evening here they were throwing a party in my honor, and then the very next night Twapa got herself arrested and I was suddenly not such a golden child anymore. What next?

People were gathering in the cave where the elders met, many more than had been there on the day I had come to ask for… whatever the heck I was supposed to ask for. Capacitors or something. It seemed rather inconsequential, now. At any rate, I found myself sitting near the cave entrance, next to Adiya, while others filed in around us and seated themselves on the floor.

Yellow-sash-guy took his place at the center of the table, further back in the room, and called for silence while several sturdy young fellows brought Twapa into the cave.

I watched Twapa intently, anxious to know how she was holding up. She looked bedraggled, tired, and sullen, but I could tell from the tension with which she held herself that she was far from broken. In the back of my mind I prayed that she would not be inclined to try anything stupid during the hearing.

The elder had just begun to explain what Twapa was accused of when, quite suddenly, everything came to a screeching halt.

I looked around, uncertain of just what was going on when everyone abruptly leapt to their feet and hurried outside. Then I heard the sound again – a trumpet? I got up and followed the crowd, who were clustered outside gazing up at the opposite cliff-top expectantly.

Presently a single kangaroo rat appeared and clambered hastily down a rope ladder which swayed alarmingly from side to side as he descended. The lookout leaped the last several feet to the ground and ran over to where everyone was standing.

“Where are Rabeen and the elders?” he demanded, wide-eyed.

Rabeen pushed to the front of the assembled throng. “I’m here, Nazara, what is the matter? Tell me it’s not another sandstorm…”

Nazara shook his head emphatically. “No, no, no, it’s much worse than that! There is a Faransi raiding party approaching from the west along the base of the cliffs!” he explained flailing his arms in the general direction of the threat.

This revelation sent cries of shock and fear rippling through the crowd, which had grown substantially in the last few minutes as more people rushed out of their homes to learn why the alarm had been sounded.

“Everyone be calm,” ordered Rabeen, raising his hands authoritatively. “This is no cause for panic. You may go prepare for an emergency tunnel evacuation, but proceed in an orderly manner. The Faransi may not be threatening us – perhaps they merely want to trade or buy food.”

Judging by the frightened faces of the people, who were now scattering back to their homes, nobody took much comfort in Rabeen’s suggestion that whoever was coming this way had peaceable intentions.

I stayed close to Rabeen, not wanting my ignorance of the situation to be painfully obvious.

“I will gladly do anything at all to help,” I offered, following Rabeen back to the cave.

“We shall see. Right now we must organize ourselves and fortify against the event of an all-out attack,” Rabeen explained, impatiently. Then, turning back to Nazara, he demanded further details of the situation.

“I… I couldn’t count them – there were so many! I would say perhaps three hundred of them, but maybe more, with at least 60 camels,” said Nazara in a low voice, wringing his hands.

“That’s not a raiding party, that’s an army!” muttered Rabeen, frowning darkly and beginning to look worried. “How fast were they approaching?”

“They were keeping a brisk pace, but definitely not charging. I’d say they’re a couple of hours away at their current speed.”

Rabeen nodded thoughtfully, his brow deeply furrowed. “It’s a good sign if they are not in a great hurry, for it means they do not expect to take us by surprise and destroy us outright. However it worries me, for they must have been traveling through the night to have come up on us so rapidly without our noticing them. And such a huge force… We might be able to match them man-for-man, but I fear they are far better armed for conflict.”

Nazara hung his head in shame. “I am sorry, I should have been up on the cliff much earlier. I might have bought us more time to prepare-”

“Enough!” Rabeen snapped. “There’s no use in dwelling on what might have been. Neither you nor anyone could have predicted the Faransi would show up today! Now go back to your post. And take your brother with you, he can help to call down reports.”

Nazara bowed quickly and spun on his heel to dart off towards the opposite side of the canyon, pausing only briefly to address another young kangaroo rat who then followed him up the rope ladder.

My heart quailed. By my estimate there were <i>maybe</i> three-hundred people living in the village - and obviously not all of them able to fight. How Rabeen thought that they could “match them man-for-man” I had no idea. Maybe my estimate was off. Of course, the canyon-dwellers could easily control the cliffs, and the mouth of the ravine was sufficiently narrow that it might be defended for a little while against invaders. But as far as I had seen the people living here were farmers and traders, not warriors. They couldn’t possibly stand up to an army in combat.

My mind also played with the idea of running away. If everyone was distracted I might be able to free Twapa, after which we could steal the needed capacitors from the Treasury, repair the device, and make our escape without anyone noticing that we were gone until it was much too late… But after all I had been through I found such a cowardly course of action somehow unappealing... Besides, I knew there were two pistols hidden amongst mine and Twapa's belongings back at Adiya's house. That alone probably wouldn't make much of a difference, but still...

While I was pondering my own options Rabeen had been conferring with the elders. I could not tell whether or not they all agreed on a plan of action, but soon it seemed that a decision had been made, and Rabeen approached me.

“Minzar Khair, since you were so quick to volunteer your services, I want you to accompany us when we go out to try and negotiate with the Faransi,” he said, solemnly.

I stammered a bit. “O-okay, yes, I will do that.”

After Rabeen left to give instructions to some other individuals, I noticed the elder with the yellow sash (I thought I had heard Rabeen call him "Asfar" during their conversation) in the background ordering Twapa’s guards (who had dutifully kept an alert and firm grip on her in spite of all the commotion) to return the prisoner to the pit for the time being.

I wanted to speak up and suggest that perhaps this was not such a good idea, since if we were all killed Twapa might be forgotten entirely and die in that pit or else be captured by the enemy if the town was overrun, but discretion forced me to bite my tongue. No doubt the elders feared that if she were set loose Twapa might either defect to the other side or clean out the Treasury while nobody was looking. With a heavy heart I watched as the guards lead Twapa back towards her prison, fearing that I might not see her again.

Preparations were made with swift efficiency and absolutely no input from me. Rabeen delegated the task of overseeing defensive measures to several other people while the elders vanished up the canyon to assist those who were preparing for the eventuality of an evacuation. I learned that there were some tunnels, carved out of the rock, which led away from town, but that their locations were a closely guarded secret which only the elders and a few others knew.

Several sacks filled with “valuables” were brought forth by the Treasurer, intended as a peace offering (in other words, a bribe) for the commanders of the Faransi army. I was tempted to try and see if any of those capacitors were among the bounty, but I certainly did not wish to get myself into trouble at a critical moment like this, and anyway those bags were tied up snugly with rough and tightly-knotted twine.

An hour passed, and it was mid-morning, which meant that the sun was already heating things up. Whereas normally Rabeen and Asfar would have been ready to seek the shade at this time of day, instead they walked boldly to the mouth of the canyon to wait for the imminent arrival of the Faransi.

The guards who had taken Twapa away had returned and now accompanied us as we walked away from the safety of the village. I still had no real idea what we were up against. Nevertheless, I strode bravely forward with the others, honored and terrified to have been granted such a serious task as negotiating peace with a potentially dangerous foe.

We walked towards the fields which lay directly outside the canyon before turning to the west. By this time a cloud of dust was visible, coming toward us along the base of the cliff. After several more minutes of walking I could pick out dark shapes within the cloud, and soon I could clearly see that it did, in fact, appear to be an army. My legs went all weak under me. For the first time I began to really feel like there was a very good chance I might die that day.

Before long we stopped and stood facing the army, which for a few more uneasy minutes showed no sign of halting its progress. The dust cloud arose from the hooves of dozens of camels, upon which rode most the Faransi. Others followed them on foot. The army were dressed in desert clothing similar to what I had seen in the village, with the exception that they all carried weapons. Swords, mostly, though I noticed some carrying bows and arrows. Most of the warriors had their faces half-covered with kerchiefs to keep from inhaling the dust.

  At last someone from within the advancing horde yelled loudly and the procession came to a halt. As the dust settled three figures detached themselves from the ranks and moved forward on foot. We waited with trepidation as they approached. The three stopped a few yards from us and the two larger and more intimidating warriors allowed the third to step forward. This last then (rather dramatically) pulled back the cloth which covered his face.

“I am Minzar Khair” he announced boldly. “I have returned to claim what is mine!”

My companions gasped, but I was too mortified to make a sound. Never before had I wished so hard to be either dead or invisible or possibly both… but of course none of those eventualities occurred, so instead I stood frozen in place and waited for the inevitable crapstorm to descend.

“W-what? You are Minzar Khair?” cried Rabeen, taking an involuntary step backwards. He clearly had not expected anything remotely like this to happen.

“Yes, I am,” said the stranger in an even voice. He had great composure, though he spoke stiffly, as though he had rehearsed this dialogue before hand.

Asfar frowned and slowly turned to look over his shoulder at me, and then slowly back to face the interloper. “I can see that we now have a dilemma on our hands,” he grumbled, “for, you see, this young man also claims to be Minzar Khair of Nass Jandal.”

Asfar gestured towards me, breaking my intense concentration on trying to sink quietly into the sand.

The newcomer fixed me with an intense gaze which I did my best not to return. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that he and I did bear a striking resemblance to one another, though he seemed taller and more rugged than myself.

“Who… who are you, impostor?” the stranger demanded angrily, though, to my surprise, I thought I detected an uncertain waver in his voice. He was outraged but a bit disconcerted as well. For a second I was afraid he was going to attack me, but he didn't budge. His inaction did little to reassure me, however, since he was armed whereas I was not. This put me at a marked disadvantage, obviously.

I slouched, still vaguely hoping to vanish into thin air. “I-I’m nobody, sir,” I answered, feebly. I no longer had the will to keep up the charade. If this guy wanted to pretend be Khair (I found it difficult to believe that he himself was the real thing) I'd gladly let him have the job. Of course that left me in rather a precarious position…

Rabeen glared at me, even more furious than the new Khair. “I knew it!” he exclaimed distastefully. I was by far the least of his concerns at the moment, however, and he immediately returned his attention to my doppelganger.

“I will deal with him later,” said the new Khair, coolly. “For now, I wish you to lead me into the village so that I may publicly announce my return and take my rightful place as chief of the Nass Jandal.”

Rabeen and Asfar exchanged a furtive yet meaningful glance.

“With all due respect, I am afraid we cannot oblige you,” answered Rabeen with measured resolve.

“What? Why?” Khair raised an eyebrow and cast a fretful glance back at the two generals who flanked him. They merely glared out from under their turbans, however, and made no comment.

Asfar stepped forward a pace. “Young Khair, if that is, indeed who you are, you must understand that many things have changed since you left. Your father is dead, but we are no longer ruled by a single man. Rabeen is merely our… symbolic leader, if you will. The people of the stone are governed by a group of elders – I myself am one among those – and everyone is quite happy bringing matters of dispute before us. You will be hard pressed to convince the village to accept you as sole ruler.”

The new Khair seemed to regain his composure and tried to assert himself once again. “Asfar, you seem to misinterpret my intentions. I do not intend to <i>convince</i> any one of my right to rule. I am here to <i>claim</i> that right, and I am well-prepared to use force if necessary.”

Khair sniffled smugly, indicating with a jerk of his head the army which stood behind him.

Rabeen and Asfar were not about to give up that easily, however. Clearing his throat, Rabeen brought forth the bags of treasure and presented them, bowing low as he did.

“Minzar Khair, we do not wish to fight against this army of Faransi you have brought, and instead wish to offer this token of our good will. We are not a wealthy settlement, as you should know. We were saving this treasure to trade with the caravans, but we gladly give it to you, instead,” Rabeen said, eloquently.

Khair waved his hand in the air and four soldiers ran forward from the ranks which were paused some distance away. They retrieved the bags and then quickly ran back, vanishing in the sea of similarly-attired Faransi warriors.

“The Faransi could easily crush you now,” said Khair, haughtily, “but since this is my home I will allow you to return to the canyon and discuss this matter amongst yourselves. I will give you one day to surrender or else I will take your canyon with the might of my army!”

With that, Khair turned on his heel and strode back to his army, escorted closely by the two generals.

We watched as the Faransi began to move again, heading towards the oasis.

“They mean to surround us,” muttered Rabeen under his breath. “Fine, let us return to the village and plan our next move.”

We hurried back to the canyon as Khair’s army prepared to settle in for the night.

If I was hoping that I might be somehow forgotten in light of a more serious threat I was wrong. As soon as we were back in town Rabeen ordered the young men who had guarded Twapa to take hold of me and bring me into the elders’ cave. With remarkable swiftness the other elders arrived from far-flung corners of the town (I was beginning to suspect that the cliffs must be riddled with secret tunnels, indeed) and a new emergency meeting was convened. A few townspeople who were not in hiding drifted in, their faces distorted by fear and anxiety, to learn what was happening. I noticed Ajul slip in and tuck herself away in an inconspicuous corner. I felt more ashamed than ever.

“I think,” said Asfar darkly, once everyone was seated, “that the first thing is to learn your real name and what your true purpose here is.”

I shifted uneasily on my knees, hemmed in on all sides by Rabeen’s chosen tough guys.

“My name is Ciaran,” I said quietly. “And as to why I’m here, it was really an accident...” I paused. The truth wasn’t going to make a lick of sense to the elders, but it was all I had left. “I was traveling with my friend Twapa when we found your colony. I stayed because I didn’t want to disappoint you all by revealing that I wasn’t really this Khair guy, but also because I was stranded. You see, our method of traveling relies on that box – that device – that Twapa had. It had stopped working and we couldn’t travel on without replacement parts. That’s why Twapa broke into your treasury. She was looking for working pieces to complete her machine.”

Asfar and the other elders exchanged glances and looked at me like I was crazy. Around the room murmurs sprang up and then died back down.

Rabeen scowled. “What kind of nonsense are you talking? I believe that your real purpose here was as a spy for the Faransi!”

“No, no, no!” I protested earnestly, “We’re definitely not spies! I’m telling you the truth! Yes, I admit that I lied when I pretended to be Khair and told all those stories about his adventures, but I didn’t mean to cause any harm. I love it here, and I like all of you people. I don’t know who this new guy claiming to be Khair is – maybe he’s the real thing and maybe he’s not – but I can tell you that I sure as heck never saw him before today! I swear it!”

The elders conferred briefly in heated whispers amongst themselves, then Asfar spoke again.

“Rabeen,” Asfar said, addressing the frustrated and worried leader, “We have neither the time nor means to seek out the full truth of this matter, therefore we are compelled to take him at his word. Likewise, we must take this new Faransi leader at his, for the time being. If he truly is Minzar Khair, then he has betrayed us most deeply by siding with the brutal Faransi. If this is the case then he is no longer one of us – no longer the person he once was. Keer-an, or whoever he is, has lied, but Khair has committed the more serious offense and he may yet commit far greater and wholly unmentionable ones if he is allowed to carry on with his ambitions.”

This speech left the cavern in silence for several minutes as everyone pondered Asfar’s weighty words. At last, Rabeen spoke up again, more thoughtfully this time.

“If Khair is commanding the armies of our enemy then he is an enemy in his own right. If this assault was his idea, mightn’t his followers abandon the plot if he were ‘removed’ from the picture?” Rabeen mused, rubbing his chin in deep contemplation.

“They might, or they might not”, replied Asfar. “Revenge is a dangerous thing, Rabeen, though I can see your reasoning. If we allow Khair to attack us come tomorrow we may not have a chance to see him brought to justice for that very crime.”

“Do you agree, then, that Minzar Khair must be killed?” asked Rabeen.

Asfar sat in silence, giving no answer.

I listened to this discussion, amazed at what I was hearing. Rabeen seemed to be suggesting that they should assassinate Khair before he had a chance to lead his army against the Nass Jandal. It seemed like an insane idea, but perhaps, I thought, there was some cultural significance to the whole thing that I was simply missing.

“But who could possibly carry out such a mission?” asked one of the female elders, perhaps rhetorically.

Asfar shook his head. “It would be suicide for the one who tried it. We cannot risk the lives of our own able-bodied young men in so rash an action,” Asfar glanced at Rabeen, critically “…Which might not even succeed, after all,” he added.

“Yes, you are right,” admitted Rabeen, shaking his head bitterly, “We need everyone here to defend the town in the event of an all-out attack. But…” He lifted his eyes and gazed into the flickering flame of a nearby lamp for a few significant moments, “But we have someone here who is not one of our own, after all.”

I slouched. Should have seen that one coming.

“Are you suggesting we send him?” asked Asfar, pointing to me.

Another torrent of whispers swept across the room.

“He claims to care about our well-being, and says that he means us no harm. He does not know enough of our secrets to pose a real threat if he defects, and if he succeeds he may well save us all,” argued Rabeen, seeming to grow more confident in his idea with every passing moment.

Asfar looked straight at me. “Keer-an, would you agree to this plan of action?” he asked me flatly.

I sputtered. “With all due respect, you just said it was suicidal. It’s true that I want to help, but personally I’m not all that keen on assassinations!”

Rabeen tapped the side of his nose, pondering something. “I think what Keer-an means to say is that he is a coward,” he said with a wry smirk.

“Yes, I am, rather squeamish,” I assured the elders, “not to mention highly incompetent! I’d only botch the job!”

Asfar seemed about to dismiss the matter when Rabeen interrupted again. “Perhaps you need some motivation!” he said.

“What sort of motivation,” asked Asfar, annoyed and suspicious.

“He seems to care very much about that devil-girl of his,” said Rabeen, a dangerous and cunning glint appearing in his eyes. “I suggest that if Keer-an refuses to help us that she should be executed.”

Several of the spectators gasped audibly. The elders were a mix of horror and anger.

“That is ENOUGH, Rabeen!” exclaimed Asfar, bringing his hand down on the table so hard that it caused the flames of the candles and lamps to flicker.

An argument was about to start, I could tell, so I pre-empted all of them.

“Stop, I’ll do it!” I cried.

All eyes were on me.

“I’ll do it, okay,” I repeated, scrambling to my feet “but if I go then you have to promise to release Twapa.”

Rabeen objected, “That is out of the-”

“Very well, I consent to that,” Asfar didn’t let Rabeen finish. “What about the rest of you?” he turned to the other elders.

They all nodded their agreement.

I felt suddenly more in control of things than I had in a long time. “Good. And you may find that she could actually be an asset to you in ways you might not expect,” I added, smugly.

“We shall see,” muttered Rabeen.

“Oh, and one more thing,” I said, “If I somehow manage to succeed and miraculously avert disaster, I want you to give Twapa whatever parts she may need to make her machine work again.”

A couple of the elders muttered a bit, but probably could not think of any good reason to deny my request, seeing as how it was highly unlikely that it would ever come down to that.

“Yes, very well. Since you are willing, we will allow you to attempt this ludicrous plan and see that your requests are carried out when the time comes,” said Asfar, sighing wearily. “Now, we must move on to other matters…”

I found myself escorted roughly outside while the elders discussed sensitive matters presumably involving evacuation routes and the like which I was definitely not trusted enough to be privy to. I didn’t care, though, because at least I was out from under their scrutiny for a moment. I leaned against a rock in the afternoon shade and exhaled deeply.

“Hey Kh- uh, Keer-an…”

Hearing Ajul’s voice I looked up to find her standing nearby inspecting me shyly.

“Oh, hey Ajul. I’m really sorry about all of this, I-”

Ajul stepped past the four guards who surrounded me and took my hand. “It is all right. I understand, now.”

“You do?” I asked in surprise.

“Yes, I think so,” she smiled apologetically, “As best as I can, anyway.”

“I take it you’re the only one who actually believed my story, then? The true one, I mean.”

Ajul nodded. “I believe you. I know you’re not from around here, and it only makes sense that you and your friend Twapa are the only ones who regard our “treasures” as anything more than something to be collected or used as currency…”

Ajul glanced around, then lowered her voice (I was sure the guys who were watching me could hear her, but apparently neither she nor they cared what was overheard), “I’ve always wondered, myself. We find these things in the desert, so they must have come from somewhere, and they have such particular shapes and forms and usually when people find them they’re put together but we take them apart and use them for other things. Your friend knows how to put them back together, though, doesn’t she?”

I nodded, amazed and a little baffled by how astute Ajul had turned out to be. “Yeah, she does, but how did you guess?” I asked.

“I went and talked to her, of course. While you were out with my father. She asked me if I could find her machine… but I don’t know where it is,” Ajul hung her head.

An odd feeling came over me, a sort of resignation that I had only felt a few times before in my life – usually times where I thought I was going to die, like I did right now.

“Ajul” I said, “if you possibly can, make sure when I go that they let Twapa out of the pit. And when they do, you stick with her. Help her find the device, if you can. She’s not a bad person, really, and she can protect you…” I felt a lump beginning to form in my throat and I had to stop talking.

Ajul looked up at me, pained. “You’re really going to do it, then?” she asked, softly.

“I don’t have much choice,” I said, despondent.

Ajul threw her arms around my neck and remained there until I began to feel a bit uncomfortable, but at last she released me, sniffling a bit.

“I’ll miss you. I know we only knew each other for a few days, but I think of you as a friend.” She clasped my hand, formally, then turned and started to walk away.

“Ajul,” I whispered.

Ajul didn’t respond, however, but I saw her hunch over and bury her face in her hands, as though sobbing, before she scurried away out of sight.

I sighed. There was nothing left to do now but wait for nightfall, so I slunk back to Adiya’s house to prepare myself for the task ahead.

I tried to wait, to rest, to calm my nerves, but the day wore on interminably and I couldn’t help but become restless. I paced through the house, a little scared to venture outside. Adiya was nowhere to be found – I assumed that she must have gone to help the families who were in hiding farther up the canyon.

I thought about whether I could risk going to the cave where Twapa was being held, but I feared it would look too suspicious. Still, I wanted desperately to see her regardless of whether or not she wanted to see me.

I wasn’t totally despairing of ever seeing Twapa again, however. The elders thought this was a suicide mission but I had one or two tricks up my sleeve – not to mention a couple of extra magazines.

Okay, I would be in real danger. There was no way could I take out an entire army on my own, even with my superior weapons. But Twapa had insisted that if I was to accompany her on her expeditions that should become proficient in handling firearms. This meant that we spent several hours a week doing drills and occasionally practicing at the local pistol range. It gave me comfort to think that maybe, somehow, this training might just save my skin.

My plan was going to rely on a good deal of sneakiness, however, and that seemed the most likely area in which I might fail miserably. For the first time in ages I thought of Xe… Not in a sentimental sort of way, mind you, but simply because <i>he</i> was trained in the art of sneaking around and killing people. I had to wonder what I’d be like if I had that advantage. Or even if I simply weren’t a bumbling oaf, in general. Practically everyone I knew would have been better for this job than I.

But everyone wasn’t here. No Misha to bail our asses out, no Xe to take out the bad guys ninja-style, not even Snits to distract the enemy with song, dance, and mini-muffins! I was alone in this alien world and it was up to me to save Twapa and the Nass Jandal tribe. Alone.

Enough of that. I shook my head to clear away the angsty thoughts. Everyone was counting on me, and I was determined to prove myself, period. I mustn’t consider the possibility of failure. I was <i>going</i> to do this!

And so I passed the afternoon giving myself a pep-talk every twenty minutes or so as I waited for the sun to set.

The hours passed and darkness did arrive, eventually, but I couldn’t act just yet. I had to wait until it got <i>really</i> late and there was more of a chance that everyone would be either sleeping or quite drowsy. At last, though, I heard a voice calling from the front door, and I went to see who it was.

It was Nazara, the lookout. “I’m supposed to inform you that it’s time for you to go to work,” he said. He looked tired and on-edge.

I noticed Nazara was carrying a bundle under his arm. “What’ve you got there?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, they sent this for you. It’s a disguise, kind of, but it won’t do you a lot of good,” said Nazara, presenting the bundle of clothes.

“Uh, thanks, I guess,” I said.

Nazara shuffled, uncomfortably. “Rabeen was worried that you might try to run away. But I guess he was wrong.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve no intention of leaving you all at the mercy of those invaders,” I told him.

Nazara looked relieved. “We’re counting on you, you know. I have to tell you, people are pretty impressed that you decided to help us,” he confided.

I shrugged, embarrassed. “What else could I do? Everyone here has been very kind to me. And to Twapa, even though she acted like a brat.”

I didn’t know whether Nazara knew what the word “brat” meant, but he grinned and nodded. “Thank you” he said.

“Thank <i>you</i>” I replied. Suddenly I felt very grown-up, for some reason.

Nazara left and I went and got my gear together (including the two pistols I had stashed in my backpack).

I then tried on the “disguise” Nazara had brought for me. It seemed to be a very hastily compiled costume meant to look as similar to what the other supposed Khair (and the Faransi in general) were wearing, and included a sort of little turban, a (somewhat worn and shabby) robe which reached to well below my knees and had a sort of covering which draped across the shoulders and was fastened with a metal button near the top, and, rather surprisingly, a pair of leather arm bracers. I knew there was no way any of the Faransi could possibly mistake me for their leader if they got a good look at me since Khair, naturally, did not go about wearing a conspicuous pair of black-rimmed glasses like mine, but perhaps the darkness would be on my side and no one would notice if they saw me from a distance.

I double-checked to make sure I was not forgetting anything, and once I was fully prepared and  attired (with the guns hanging from either side of my belt hidden beneath the robe) I set out into the night.

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