The mutual enmity I have built with Asad has also given way to a certain trust. For that, I am ironically grateful. I trust that he will never see a wizard enter the Crown of Stars while he is king. He trusts that that we fear his cult army enough to not challenge him on this policy. It is a delicate balance we must maintain, a frigid conflict which I fear thaws further with each passing day.
When the Shah’s paranoia gets the better of him, blood will be spilled and much of it will be to spite me. This is precisely why I know that my treasure will be safest within his impenetrable walls. No one would seek it there, in the domain of one of my greatest adversaries.
Dated 40th of 4th Moon, Year 981 of the 100th Millennium, from a journal found in the ruin of Castle Reid ---- Willow felt he had no choice in this matter. He had made great haste through the Southern Quarter and it’s arid, desert-like neighborhoods to reach the meeting point Dermot had arranged for him. He was to meet a driver called Gabir, who transported goods and passengers regularly to the inner districts of Aljana.
Aljana was a city far larger than one would expect. The four outer districts, North, South, East and West were merely a bulwark against the inhospitable Copper Sea for the immense Lutsalma District, which housed the city’s farmlands and manufactories. Beyond that was the Muthalia District, which housed the upper echelons of society, including the Shah himself.
When Willow reached the gateway at the inner wall he was able to spot Gabir, a squat, affable Sarrasad man with a curled black mustache and a thinning hairline glistening with sweat. Gabir was standing in the back of the cart, scanning the crowd for Willow. Oddly enough, his cart was pulled by a short haired ox, a rarity in this part of Lumea.
Upon laying eyes on the brightly dressed Wizard, Gabir shouted and waved his hands. Willow returned the gesture with a wave of his own and began to hurry over, but he felt an impact to his shin and looked down. He’d bumped into a hebetite child. The hebetite was snake-like, with a long neck and a long head with a flat skull and unblinking yellow eyes. Willow was surprised to see that the hebetite had remarkable blue and white scales that ran along its head and down its neck. A sign of nobility.
“Pardon me,” Willow said, stepping aside from the hebetite’s path. “I did not intend to get in your way my young lord.”
The child tilted its head and looked up at Willow with an inquisitive slitted eye.
“Lord?” it asked.
“Adrik!” a voice snapped. An adult female hebetite with similar blue coloring to the child stepped up and grabbed it by the back of the neck. “Do not speak to strangers!”
The female, with her head stooped low was only at stomach level with Willow, stepped in front of her offspring.
“I am sorry Master,” the female said, keeping her head low. “My son comes back from the fields, he is weary and inattentive.”
“As am I, my good lady,” Willow said, bowing to her slightly. This surprised the hebetite, and she raised her head to look at him. “You see, my pocket was picked earlier, and I am still rather upset about it, but that was no excuse for me to let my legs wander so haphazardly. Take this as a token of my apology and esteem to the little lordling of Zimenyostrav.”
Willow reached into his sleeve and produced a silver coin, and tossed it to the child, who caught it in his scaly hands.
“I cannot accept this Master,” the female began to insist, but Willow ignored her. He simply nodded his head and walked around her and her son, approaching Gabir, who watched him while mopping his forehead with a brown rag.
“That was kind of you Master Willow,” Gabir said. His cart was nice but not fancy, with steady, well-balanced wheels and padded seats to fit four passengers at once. He kicked open the door at the side of the cart, allowing Willow to lift himself up and into his seat. “But there are no nonhuman lords in Aljana, and you’d best keep that in mind when we pass through Lustalma.”
“Do you know what clan those hebetites belong to Gabir?” Willow posed the question while pulling up his hood to block out the sun.
“I can’t say I do,” Gabir said, stepping out of the bed of the cart and into his own seat at the front. He took the reigns of his ox and smacked the beast upon the flank with a riding crop, spurring it into motion towards the great Lustalma Gateway.
“They were of clan Sapfir,” Willow clarified, making himself comfortable. Dermot was right about Gabir, “Banished to the Sarrasad Caliphate years ago by the Serpent Queen Rubino of Clan Malinovy. That boy's forefathers were champions of peace and tolerance until they were cut down and their children sent to die in the Copper Sea.”
“Such is the way of the world,” Gabir replied. “A shame they must rely on the pittance of farm work with such a fine history, no?”
“A shame indeed.”
The cart came to a stop just outside the gate to Lustalma, the largest district of Aljana. The gates that divided the districts were guarded at all times, and people had to queue up to provide proof of passage into the inner city. Gabir directed his ox to the queue for carts and wagons. Some were pulled by horses and others by camels and most carried cargo of some kind. When it was their turn, a guardsman approached Gabir, who handed over a writ of passage printed on paper. After the guard had confirmed Gabir’s validity and handed him his papers, he approached Willow.
“Papers,” the guard said in Sarrasad, holding out a hand expectantly. The man wore a typical Saqr Guardsman’s uniform, similar to Captain Solomon’s: a chest plate of steel with an elaborate visage of a falcon etched into it, it’s wings spread to encompass the man’s shoulders. He wore a helmet that did not cover his face, a pair of huge brown and white feathers sticking out from the top.
Willow nodded and reached into his sleeve, pulling out a card etched in gold leaf. On it was emblazoned the Lion of Asad and a name.
“What is your business in the Greater City?” the guard asked, taking the card and looking it over.
Willow opened his mouth to respond but stopped short, suppressing a smile as he pulled up his sleeve a bit to read a note written hastily on his wrist. His eyes darting from his hand to the guard, who watched him with a raised brow, Willow read the note aloud
“I have an audience with His Holiness the Great Lion of the Copper Sea, He Who in the Name of the Burning White Star Above in His Generosity Provides the Wealth of His Domain to all of Mankind and Resists the Corruption of the Lesser Beings of this World.”
The guard pulled a small red piece of chalk from his pocket and ran it across the gold leaf. He watched it for a few seconds, and Willow stared at it with him, his mouth hidden under his mustache. The mark slowly disappeared. The guard nodded in satisfaction and handed the card back.
“When you see His Holiness the Great Lion of the Copper Sea, He Who in the Name of the Burning White Star Above in His Generosity Provides the Wealth of His Domain to all of Mankind and Resists the Corruption of the Lesser Beings of this World, please pass on a prayer from his most humble of servants of the Saqr Guards.”
“That I shall,” Willow replied with jubilance, gesturing emphatically with the hand that carried his pass of entry. “A most humble of prayers for your safety and well-being my friend. Do your duties well and with faith in the Lion."
Now permitted to proceed, Gabir drove his ox through the dark corridor that divided the districts, the creaking and bumping of the cart staff echoing off if the stone walls. While the Southern Quarter had been arid at best and reeked of urban living, Willow was beginning to smell the difference between the outer ring and Lustalma.
At the other side of the gate was a small patch of flowering trees and tall grass that gave way to a view of lush farmlands that went on for miles. Willow found himself surrounded on all sides by the pleasing smell and sound of water, and greenery of the likes he had not witnessed in months. It was as if he’d entered another world entirely.
Canals of clear, fresh water fed great orchards that supplied citrus to Aljana almost year-round. Workers plowed fields and harvested fruit and vegetables, and herds of cattle numbering the thousands pastured in the distance. Looming above it all, larger than was possible to comprehend in the Southern Quarter, was the Crown of Stars perched within the Shihabi Mahal. Only here could one truly appreciate the true scale of the Oasis City.
“The trees, the grass, the water!” Gabir, enthused, his ox plodding along the dirt road before it. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful Lord Wizard?”
“I have only seen such beauty in the peach groves of Yaolan Shan,” Willow replied with a tense smile. He was reclined in the open cart, his staff resting against his shoulder as he was ferried across the dirt road. “But nothing could have prepared me for such a jewel among the sands of the Copper Sea when I first laid eyes upon it.”
“Beautiful yes,” Gabir said, urging his ox onward and away from the trickle of people still entering the district behind them. Guards lingered, watching them go, distrustful of the wizard and his staff. “But built on cruelty. Do you know how long I have been a friend to Dermot, Master Willow?”
“Many years,” Willow replied with a half smile. “Or so he's told me.”
“Decades,” Gabir said, taking the ox in the direction of a second inner wall which could be seen above the fields. “And I have come to sympathize with the plight of elves and dwarves and other ‘detestables’.”
“Is that what the Sarrasad call the nonhumans now?” Willow asked, his expression darkening.
“Since the University was destroyed,” Gabir said, his voice taking on a bit of an edge. “I sympathize with the plight of wizards as well. I understand you were there when it happened?”
“Indeed,” Willow said. “I was in Aljana performing research for an old friend of mine when the Shah enacted his jihad against the blasphemers. I was one of the lucky few who escaped the city in one piece. I hear the University has been converted into a Lion’s Temple.”
“It has,” Gabir said. “I must ask you Master Willow. Have you come to avenge your brothers and sisters?”
Willow’s face split into a grin, and he let out a trilling laugh.
“I am here for no such act, I assure you,” he said. “I have cut my ties to the guild entirely. I am known as an apostate and a traitor among my kind, and I do not believe that will change.”
“Apostate?” Gabir asked, turning his head over his shoulder. “So you abandoned your position as a guild wizard?”
“I did,” Willow said, leaning forward in his seat. “And I do believe that that is exactly why the Shah did not ignore my request for an official audience.”
Gabir mulled on this for a moment. “You are an interesting fellow Master Willow. I dare not ask what your true business here may be. A wizard’s secrets are his own, but I fear my curiosity will plague me to the end of my days.”
“If all goes well,” Willow said, his voice taking on an uneasy tone. “And the Shah accepts what I have to offer him, my purpose here will become open to all, and all Lumea will reap the benefits.”
“And if all does not go well?”
Willow did not respond to this, and he and Gabir fell into a companionable silence for the remainder of their journey through Lutsalma. The farmland of the central ring of Aljana was pristine, withstanding the extreme heat of the desert thanks to the massive irrigation works that coursed throughout.
As the cart made its way further into Lutsalma, the Crown only grew to dominate the sky above. The inner wall came into focus, bathed in the soft green light that refracted off of the towers.
A reinforced metal gate stood at the end of the road, embedded in the wall and flanked by a pair of dark iron towers. The wall itself had a garrison station carved into it, with arrow slits stacked alongside the doors. Archers could be seen standing atop the wall, unshielded from the sun, and uncaring of the heat. Infantrymen stood in reinforced positions and marched in formation along the road, making it clear that no one would be permitted beyond this wall without certain measures.
As the cart and its chaperones approached the gate a captain, as indicated by his heraldry, stepped forward, his hand raised for the cart to halt. When it did, he kept his hand dangerously close to the sword at his hip. Gabir turned and extended his hand.
“Your pass, Master Willow.”
Willow reached into his sleeve and reproduced the card, passing it to the driver with a nod. The guard stopped to speak to Gabir first.
“What is your purpose in the Holy Muthalia District?” the man asked in a tone that radiated authority.
“I am escorting a visitor to the Shihabi Mahal,” Gabir said, handing the pass to the captain, who examined it closely. “The wizard has the invitation of His Holiness, The Great Lion of the Copper Sea, He Who in the Name of the Burning White Star Above in His Generosity Provides the Wealth of His Domain to All Mankind and Resists the Corruption of the Lesser Beings of this World.”
The guard repeated the check with a piece of red chalk, and upon seeing the mark vanish, he returned the leaf.
“My name is Captain Affan Mehmed,” the soldier said, approaching Willow. The wizard peered at the guardsman from under his hood. “You are expected. I will escort you personally to meet the Great Lion, Master Wizard. I must ask you to comply with several commands handed down by the Grand Vizir.”
“By all means,” Willow replied with an accommodating smile.
“First,” the captain said, raising a finger. Willow’s smile began to fall off as the soldier listed off the demands of the Vizir. “I must confiscate your staff and any magical objects in your possession. I will then subject you to a pat down to ensure there are no hidden weapons or artifacts on your person that could potentially harm the Padishah. No magic is permitted beyond the gates of Holy Muthalia or you will be put to death. When you have finished your meeting with the Shah and you have returned to this guard post, your items will be returned to you, and you will be given a suitable grace period to arrange expedient departure from Aljana. Do you understand?”
Willow grunted his acknowledgement and passed down his staff, which Mehmed, for his credit, handled gingerly and with care. Whether this was respect or a religious fear could be debated. The captain called over one of his men, and Mehmed passed the staff off to him.
Willow stood up, unclipped his belt and pulled off his robes, revealing a thin black shirt underneath and a dark blue half-skirt over black pants and simple slip on shoes. Gabir and Captain Mehmed blinked at the wizard. The man’s torso, arms and abdominal region were set with tight, corded muscle, hidden from view under his robes most of the time.
The purpose for discarding his robe was made clear when he pulled a brown shoulder bag off of himself. It had been concealed under his robes securely.
“You’ll want to keep this,” Willow said tersely. “I just need to retrieve something from within.”
Willow set the bag on the seat in front of him and opened the front flap. He reached down inside of it, and, to the Sarrasad men’s surprise, continued to reach down until he was shoulder deep.
“Damn it all,” Willow muttered. “If I’d kept the key in here…”
He came back up and in his hand was an immensely thick tome bound in faded black letter. The pages were wrinkled and appeared slightly water damaged along the side, but it was intact otherwise. He lowered it to Captain Mehmed gingerly.
“Be careful with this,” Willow intoned. “This is what I intend to present to the Shah. It is one hundred thousand years old and extremely delicate. You can confirm it is not magical but if it is damaged I fear the Shah may see your head roll long before mine.”
Mehmed swallowed and looked to Gabir, who stared at the book in mixed fear and awe.
Mehmed slowly opened the cover, giving pause as the binding creaked dangerously. He peered among the pages, looking at diagrams and runes that he could not read. The pages did not glow, the images did not jump out at him. He looked relieved.
“It reeks of mold,” Mehmed said, closing the cover and gently passing it up to Willow.
“The nice thing about these ancient texts is,” Willow said, setting it on the seat next to him and passing down his bag. “The people who wrote them used spells to ensure that they could be preserved for all time.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t magical,” Mehmed said suspiciously, watching as Willow opened the cart and stepped down. Willow handed him his bag, which was light in Mehmed’s grip.
“It used to be,” Willow said, tilting his head to the side. “But such things wear off over time and spells need to be reapplied. The time eventually came when there was no one else who could care for these books. I was quite lucky to find this one in such fine condition.”
“I see,” the Captain replied, handing the bag off to his subordinate. “I am going to pat you down now.”
Willow extended his arms out to the side and permitted the captain to pat him down from his shoulders to his ankles, reaching under the half skirt to feel around his waist line. When he’d finished, he pointed to the robes in the cart, and Willow nodded his understanding.
Mehmed went to the cart and dug through Willow’s robes, feeling through them for any solid objects or abnormalities. He came up empty. He took the robe in hand and held it to Willow.
“Everything is clear,” he said. “Thank you for your cooperation Master Willow.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Willow said, taking the robe and swinging it around his shoulders. “You have been far easier to deal with than your counterpart, Solomon of the Southern Quarter.”
“Solomon,” Mehemed said. “I know him. Do not take his attitude personally Master Willow. He manages a chaotic district and it has hardened him. He is an effective leader, and respected among the Saqr.”
“All the same,” Willow said, clasping his belt. “I am grateful to be at your mercy.”
Mehmed nodded and looked to Gabir. “I will accompany you in your cart.”
“You honor me, Captain,” Gabir said, taking his seat as Willow and Mehemed boarded. Gabir swatted the ox on the backside, and the beast gave a great bellow, pulling forward. Mehmed gave a signal with his hand to a guard inside of the fortress.
The gate lurched, inching open until just enough space was open for the cart and the guard escort to pass through. When it did, the difference was remarkable. Where the outer ring was arid, and desert-like, and Lutsalma was a garden of paradise, the Muthalia District at the center of the city was like Heaven itself.
Streets paved with ornate tiles, buildings made of fine white stone, all capped with swirling golden domes, this was the home to the cultural elite of Aljana. Men and women could be seen walking along the street, and in carriages so fine they put Gabir’s to shame. Instead of oxen, or camels they were pulled by trotting, lithe horses of varying color and pattern. There was an almost uniformed fashion within Muthalia. Men and women alike wore fine white robes inlaid with jewels, and they bore turbans and headscarves of shimmering golden silk.
Dominating the district and sitting at its very center was the Shah’s Palace, the Shihabi Mahal, surrounded by its walled gardens, with a half dozen pikemen standing guard at the gate. The palace was constructed of the same white stone as other buildings within the district, with massive golden domes capping its four corners. It was flanked on either side by two of the emerald towers that comprised the Crown of Stars. The third tower jutted from the center of the palace, its base hidden behind its sturdy walls. The palace was indeed massive, but it only served to emulate the glory of the Crown.
“Is this your first visit to Muthalia?” Mehmed asked Willow, noting that the wizard had adopted a distant stare as he gazed upon the towers. Willow snapped out of his reverie and regarded the captain.
“No,” he said, running his sleeve across his lips. “I have been here before. I never have visited the inside of the palace, but I did attend the tournaments at the Alqamar Arena many years ago.”
“Should your meeting with the Holy Lion go well,” Mehmed said. “You should visit the Arena again. There is a tournament taking place in three days, in fact.”
“Would I be welcome?” Willow asked, raising his eyebrows. “Or would I be an involuntary competitor?”
Mehmed laughed, and Gabir shook his head.
“You could come as my guest,” Gabir said over his shoulder. “I assure you that I am not going to throw you to the fighting pits, Master Willow.”
“I take your assurances with faith in the Lion and accept your kind gesture.”
Mehmed tried to conceal a smile at the small blasphemy, but quickly adopted a stern glare at the wizard. Willow winked at him.
Mehmed presented Willow’s pass at the gate to the palace gardens, and the pikemen opened the gate to let them through. The cart bumped along a cobbled walk through a veritable forest of palm trees. Albino peacocks trumpeted their songs and roamed about the road, fluttering out of the oxen’s path.
Finally, the cart reached the entrance to the palace, and there appeared someone awaiting them, flanked by more Saqr guardsmen. Instead of another captain, or a Sarrasad dignitary, it was a woman. A remarkably beautiful woman by Willow’s reckoning, with skin as dark as Ulfalman coffee, and even darker lips.
Her hair was nearly black, but it had a reddish tinge to it, and was worn in tight curls that hung heavily down her back. Her neck was long, her stomach narrow and her hips wide
She wore rings of gold about her neck, broad hooped earrings of silver and a stud through her nose, and bracelets hung from her wrists and ankles. The woman’s dress was sheer and revealing, though she wore dark wrappings about her erogenous zones to preserve what little modesty she possessed.
When the cart stopped, Mehemed stepped down from the cart and knelt before her. The woman’s hands rested on her hips, and she looked down upon the man with an almost divine countenance.
“My Lady, Vizir Shaba,” Mehmed declared. “I bring you the wizard as you have commanded, for his audience with His Holiness the Great Lion of the Copper Sea, He Who in the Name of the Burning White Star Above in His Generosity Provides the Wealth of His Domain to all of Mankind and Resists the Corruption of the Lesser Beings of this World.”
Shaba’s eyes moved from Mehmed to Willow, and Willow almost took a step back from the very presence that radiated from her gaze. Willow glanced at Gabir, who stared at the woman, almost entranced. She was dressed immodestly by Sarrasad standards, to an extreme degree, and Willow wondered what a person like this was doing in such a high position of governmental power. The Sarrasad were nothing if not conservative.
Shaba began to step towards the cart, her guards following behind her. When she was but a foot from Mehmed Willow suddenly felt a wave like death on the air, to the point he could almost smell it. He tried to look impassive, but her very presence made him nauseous.
“You have taken his staff?” she asked, her voice low and smooth like heavy silk.
“We have taken his staff and confiscated anything that could be magical,” Mehmed replied. “Except for the book he intends to present to the Padishah.”
She held out her hand, and Willow retrieved the book from the seat in the cart.
“It is delicate,” he said, stepping up to her, holding the book out gingerly.
She took it from him, and when her hand touched the cover, he felt a sudden shock run up his arm. His eyes widened involuntarily. Willow pulled the book back and held it to his chest. “I must examine the book,” she said. “Or my men will be forced to take it.” Willow glanced at Mehmed, whose hand had fallen to his sword, as had the guards flanking Shaba.
Willow slowly handed the book over to her. The smell of death had grown in its intensity, as if she’d carried rotten meat under her tongue. Like Mehmed, she took the book gently, and opened it to a page near the center, looking over a diagram. Shaba’s expression became one of concern, and she began to flip through pages, examining runes and diagrams. Willow exchanged a glance with Mehmed and Gabir.
Shaba closed the book and ran her fingers over the cover, and she let out what appeared to be an involuntary shudder.
“Where did you find this?”
Willow held out his hand. “I will discuss my findings with the Shah.”
Shaba watched Willow, who continued to hold his hand out expectantly. She handed him the book.
“You have brought us something remarkable today, Willow,” Shaba said, turning to enter the palace. “His Holiness will be most pleased. Come.”
Mehmed nodded to Willow, and stood at attention by Gabir’s cart, indicating that he intended to wait for Willow’s return.
Willow fell into step behind Shaba, his shoes clicking against the tile as he entered the great hall of the palace. Guards lined every entrance and patrolled every pathway. Dozens of guards in their steel falcon armor watched him as he passed and entered through the main passage. The floor of the palace consisted of complexly patterned turquoise tile that matched with the glowing surface of the Crown towers.
The walls, to contrast, were made of a black and white checkered tiles that Willow found rather distasteful. There were guarded passages along the length of the entrance hall, each leading to a different part of the palace, and a great staircase that reached up to a second floor of balconies. Shaba led Willow around the staircase, and through a pair of large, open doors to the rose gardens of the Shihabi Mahal.
As was the case with the palace grounds, the garden was massive, with a man made stream running through it. Rose bushes lined the walkway, forming dedicated paths to various entrances to the surrounding palace. Willow could not help but release a shaky breath as his eyes fell on the path leading directly to the base of the center tower. The lowest point of the tower sported a diameter of almost 50 feet, and it shined with an emerald luminescence
As they took a path away from the tower, Shaba stepped off of the tile, and onto grass, leading the wizard into the bushes. Willow was surprised to see that the Padishah was not waiting for him in the great hall, sat upon his throne as was tradition, but was in fact in the courtyard garden, examining one of his rose bushes. The man stood as tall as Willow, his beard almost stark white, and extending midway down his belly. He had over one hundred pounds on Willow, and had piercing black Sassar eyes. His turban was massive and lined with beads, with a great golden emblem of a lion embedded at the center. The interior was likely supported by a cone shaped frame and it added over a foot to his already impressive height.
The Shah was pruning bad roses, and tossing the trimmed flowers into a basket at his feet. Four guards manned either side of Asad, standing a few feet from the Shah’s position. Two small children, a boy in a turban and a small girl with a beaded headdress ran about the garden and around the Shah’s feet. Willow knew them to be the Shah's grandchildren, with names and titles almost as outrageous as Asad's: Crown Prince Shazad bin Amir bin Asad bin Fahim al-Mukhtar, and Princess Shazia ibnat Rukhsana ibnat Laiba al-Mukhtar
“Shaba!” the little girl yelled, running to hug the Vizir’s legs. Shaba let out a gentle laugh and kneeled to hug the girl.
“How are you, my love?” Shaba asked, standing back up with the girl’s hands held in hers. Willow’s lip curled in disgust. Of course those without magic could not smell the rot of Shaba.
“I want to play with the peacocks, but grandfather said no!”
“I am afraid he is right, my Shining Star,” Shaba said, placing her hands on the head of the princess’ head. “For the birds may try to peck your eyes out. As it stands now if you try to play with them, they will try to fight you, or they will try to flee. It’s best not to tempt them either way, and allow them to get comfortable with you. It is the duty of a ruler to maintain respect with their subjects, so that they may respect you in turn.”
“Okay,” the girl said, moving in to hug against Shaba’s stomach. The Vizir pulled the girl away after a moment.
“It is time for you to leave, Princess,” she said, then she directed her attention to the guards. “Take the children to the outer grounds. The Padishah’s meeting with the wizard is a private affair.”
The guards saluted, and led the young Prince and Princess from the gardens. When they were gone, and out of earshot, Shaba announced the presence of the Shah.
“Presenting His Holiness the Great Lion of the Copper Sea, He Who in the Name of the Burning White Star Above in His Generosity Provides the Wealth of His Domain to all of Mankind and Resists the Corruption of the Lesser Beings of this World, Asad bin Fahim al-Mukhtar.”
Willow, doing his best to follow protocol, leaned down to the ground and set his book at his side, and then got down on his knees. He bent forward, touching his forehead to the grass, and placed his hands on either side of hs head.
“I am honored to be in the presence of His Holiness the Great Lion of the Copper Sea, He Who in the Name of the Burning White Star Above in His Generosity Provides the Wealth of His Domain to all of Mankind and Resists the Corruption of the Lesser Beings of this World, Asad bin Fahim al-Mukhtar.”
Asad ceased his pruning and turned to look down at Willow. He held up his hand and moved it in a halfhearted display of his blessing before moving back to his pruning.
“I present for your service,” Shaba continued. “The Wizard of the Northern Lands who has come on the invitation of His Holiness, Willow the Apostate.”
Willow stood, bringing the book up with him, gripped firmly in his hands. He spoke clearly, and with great inflection to mask his current anxiety. “I thank you for this opportunity Your Holiness.”
Asad grunted, and clipped another rose. Willow watched the flower fall into the basket, laying with its dead, imperfect brethren.
“The Padishah wonders why you have come,” Shaba said, pacing in between Willow and Asad.
“I believe,” Willow continued slowly. “That the book I bring you is of vital importance to both of us, and I need His Holiness’ help in accessing the knowledge it implies.”
Asad said nothing, and Shaba continued to speak on his behalf as he cut another rose from the bush.
“Where did you find this book?” she asked. “I agree that its contents are most interesting, but I find its arrival at this time, at this place, in your tainted hands rather unsettling. I have seen many forgeries in my time.”
“You recognized the value of its contents when you skimmed through it,” Willow said. “You know that it is real.”
“Address His Holiness,” she snapped at him. Willow sighed in irritation and looked past Shaba.
“Your Holiness,” Willow pressed. “I must show you a passage within this book. Only your eyes can determine the vital importance of its nature, and only you can take advantage of this opportunity. I come for your help, but I need your eyes first. You cannot afford to overlook this!”
Asad stopped in his trimming and blinked. He turned to look at Willow, and Shaba spoke for him in a way that Willow could only perceive as eerily accurate.
“You come to this holy city, and you enter this holy palace,” she said. “And you make demands of the Lion? He does not heed to your whims, wizard. He does not speak aloud to your filth. Speak with the proper reverence or begone.”
Willow glared at Shaba, and then looked to Asad. He looked down to the ground, and spoke in a low voice, almost as if in prayer.
“I humbly ask for your blessing, Holy Lion, to help me mend the hurts of this world. I stand on the precipice of greatness, but I cannot be great without you, and I would pledge myself to your service for now and all time should you grant me but one kindness. Look into the Book of Cerurile and behold the secret powers that await you.”
Asad regarded Willow’s bent posture, and then looked to Shaba. The Vizir nodded her head slowly, and Asad stepped around her, dropping his shears to the basket. He motioned for Willow to stand straight.
“Show me,” he said in a low growl.
Willow stood straight, letting out a long breath.
“Progress,” he muttered. He opened the book to a page he had earmarked, and turned it to face the Shah. “Five years in the Gol Wastelands it took for me to find this, and now it has led me to you, Your Holiness. See here, what lies beneath Shihabi’s Crown.”
Spread across both pages was a diagram. On the left page was an intricately detailed blueprint for Crown of Stars, showing a bizarre and intricate mechanical structure, with captions written in a long dead script. On the right, was a map a network of catacombs deep beneath the towers. There was a chamber at the bottom of the depicted catacombs. Within it was a drawing of a circular structure resembling a gateway. Surrounding the chamber was a large blue oval.
Shaba stepped around the Shah to peer into the pages of the book, and her eyes fell on the bottom chamber.
"Is that the lake beneath Aljana?" she demanded, her eyes growing wide with stark realization. "My God. The theories are true."
“Behold,” Willow said, his voice rising in excitement. “The source of your city’s unlimited water supply, and the light of the Crown. The key to your prosperity and the secret to even greater power! The Crown of Stars is no mere relic of a bygone age! Aljana lies on the ruins of the ancient elfish city, Cerurile! The Shihabi Mahal itself rests upon one of Bezerenbam’s Conduits!”