Chapter 36


Riyad was finding it hard to stay awake and had to push himself to finish his appraisal. A collection of ancient weapons, mainly daggers, was spread out on his workspace. All of them were so old and delicate that he wore soft gloves to handle them as he studied their markings and craftsmanship. When he had first laid eyes on them, their deteriorating decorations had seemed to call to him, pushing and pulling on his consciousness. The feeling was one of great familiarity, and he didn’t think it was all that inconceivable that they might have been his in an earlier incarnation. The real question was whether or not they were cursed.

Curses were funny things. They generally weren't malicious, were quite rare, and were almost always put in place accidentally by very ordinary people. One of the most vicious he had ever come across had been attached to an expensive comb. As the story went, every night while its owner had brushed her hair with it, she had seethed over her husband’s complacency and worthlessness. Little by little, her anger and resentment had permeated the comb and had lived on inside it long after she was dead. Those feelings had plagued every subsequent over of the comb. It even inspired a few to murder their husbands in a rage that was not her own.

Alan had called the process imprinting when they had spoken about it once. It was a power he could utilize at will and took great pleasure in showing off. He’d said that a person was just as likely to imprint great happiness as anger in an item, though; it wasn't about being angry enough but rather experiencing a strong enough emotion for a long enough period of time while in contact with something that could receive those feelings. Daggers and other weapons were in a prime position to be imprinted by their owners.

As interesting as the whole thing was, and as much as the daggers vied for his attention, it was late. The clock at his left read almost two AM; in contrast, the false window above his workspace showed the desert sands of New Arcadia burning in the intense mid-morning sun, showering him in fake, cold sunlight. The view helped him fool himself into working overnight when deadlines grew near. The trick wasn’t working as well as it normally did, he noted with another yawn.

As though he were also fighting against their time zone, Ath'ran marched through the far entrance of the kitchen. He made for the cabinets and began rummaging through them. Riyad watched him over his shoulder for a moment, glad for a distraction. Small grunts of displeasure gave away his friend’s frustrations as he opened one cabinet after another without finding what he was looking for.

Smirking, Riyad pulled off his gloves and joined Ath'ran in the kitchen. He grabbed him by the shoulders and steered him toward the bar stools at the opposite side of the counter. "Sit down, I'll get it." His voice reflected how tired he was, and his Arcadian came out sounding even huskier than usual. "What are you looking for?"

"Coffee."

Riyad nodded and happily set about making some. He preferred it when his co-workers left the kitchen work to him, even when it was something as simple as coffee. Whenever anyone else did anything in the kitchen, nothing seemed to find its way back to the correct place. He suspected Ath'ran was guiltier of this than the others, since the man had to re-acclimate himself to a different organizational system every time he went between work and home. Of course, he couldn’t discount the possibility that Jin was moving things around just to irritate him.

Ah, the joys of living with three other bachelors. Riyad was used to having a large family, but in most ways, the tight knit group of the Protectors of Antiquity was more family than his family had been or ever would be. Still, they needed to stop moving his stuff around.

The coffee took only a moment to brew. Riyad enjoyed the smell of fresh coffee and disguising this distraction as a need for a caffeine boost made it feel more acceptable to be away from his work. Ath'ran apparently felt the same way, since he had interrupted his own work to come into the kitchen.

"So, what's got you working so late?" Riyad asked as he prepared a mug for each of them. "What's it been, two nights in a row? You're filling Lisa's head with all kinds of paranoid thoughts for sure."

Ath'ran made a face at him. "Lisa and the kids are visiting her mother. I'd just as soon stay here and work than be at home alone. And with Jin at his aunt’s, there's plenty for me to do."

"Why didn't you go with your family? Nyr, Du’shan and I can take care of things just fine."

Ath'ran shook his head and propped it up with one hand. "I have duties to others that are not dissimilar to those I have to her. Lisa visiting relatives a few sectors away leaves me time to serve and protect you and Du'shan without neglecting my wife."

"Till death do we part?"

Ath'ran failed to smirk at Riyad's playful question. The fact that they both knew the answer was yes made it a waste of breath to voice it. Ath'ran was a Mukshah, after all, and Riyad was a D'sen. The lines of conduct and position had been laid down for centuries. Yet somehow, it was Riyad who poured Ath'ran's coffee and served it to him black in a pale yellow cup that read “#1 Dad”.

"You know, it's not like you honestly serve me anymore," Riyad pointed out as he held his own cup in his hands, enjoying the warmth against his palms. "And I wish you wouldn't think of it like that anyway. You're my best friend, Ath'ran. I'm not your ward. Sands, I'm your employee now. Things are different from how they were. Believe me, I want you here, I love it when you stick around, but don't say it's because you have to."

He watched as his friend tested his drink’s temperature and then took a long swallow to wash the sleep down his throat. Ath'ran set his mug down, nodding to signify his thanks for the drink, and saved his words for rebuttal. "I am honor-bound to serve the D'sen whom I admire, revere and love. If I did not feel strongly in my passions, I would not honor them. Whether you approve or not, I am proud to be a bondsman of the D'sen family and if my wife didn’t share your feelings on the subject, I would want my children to serve as I do."

"You're a stubborn, old traditionalist of the worst kind."

"Perhaps it is that you see the Mukshah through their eyes."

Riyad scowled. To an Arcadian, there was only one group described as “them”; Solacians, who jumped to the worst of conclusions when they observed something they did not understand. "I'm not ignorant," he choked. "But we're not in the desert anymore, Ath'ran. In Solace it may as well be called slavery, and whether it is or it isn't, that's practically what it's turned into here. The Mukshah could make more than a decent living on their own here. It's not like it was in New Arcadia where you were either wealthy or poor and there was nothing in between."

"This does not concern Solace. Without the D'sen, my family would have been too poor to give me life. Without the D'sen, I would have no education at all, let alone a college degree, and I would have no Riyad Shihar. It is the D'sen that brought the Mukshah to Solace and because of that I have a wife, three children and a rewarding career." Ath'ran took another sip of his coffee. "Your family has provided for mine for generations and we have served them faithfully for just as many. For all I have received from your father, I will serve him and you as long as I am capable. It is an honor to repay his investment in my future and those of my ancestors by whatever means I may. Whether you feel I’m conditioned to say so or not, I am proud to be a bondsman. You should not be ashamed of being of the D'sen family."

Riyad shook his head. The conversation was going in circles, as it always did. They'd had long debates on the subject before and neither of them ever budged. It was true that Riyad's opinions of certain Arcadian traditions had changed since coming to Solace, but only because he had adapted to the new environment in ways his family hadn’t. He didn't condemn the bond family system itself, only its continued use in Solace, where it served no purpose.

It was the same with polygamy. His father had seventeen wives--though perhaps concubines was a more realistic term--but there was no reason for him to expect any one of his forty-three children to engage in the same practice in a city where it wasn’t economically or politically sound to have multiple spouses. There were more than enough bachelors in Solace for every woman of marrying age, and marriage here was much more removed from politics than it had been in New Arcadia. Riyad doubted that his father would ever seriously expect him to marry more than one woman, but the principals were the same: what was fine in New Arcadia was not necessarily fine in Solace, and it had very little to do with what was or wasn’t socially acceptable.

The sound of soft footsteps came from the other end of the kitchen as Du'shan padded his way toward them in his slippers and pajama bottoms. He had no doubt been enticed from his solitude by the smell of fresh coffee and was unaware of the argument that was also brewing in the kitchen. He nodded to his cousin and Riyad both as he looked for a mug; Riyad smirked and slid closer to him, deciding to enlist his housemate’s help in proving his point once and for all. "Alright, Ath'ran. Here we have a Mukshah whose family has broken ties with the D'sen. Du'shan's about as good an unbiased opinion as we've got. Du'shan, what do you think of owning a bond family? Is it outdated or is it a necessary system?"

Du'shan looked between the two of them as though they had both started spewing sand from their ears. He hadn't been awake all that long, and this wasn't how he wanted to spend this ungodly hour. "Don't you two have better things to do than argue about that again?"

Ath'ran laughed. "Apparently not. Jin's not here to rush in and say something inane or in Mandarin, so Riyad Shihar has decided to bicker with me rather than work."

"Look who's talking!"

Ath'ran raised his coffee mug to remind Riyad of his purpose in the kitchen and took another sip. Riyad grumbled, looking at Du'shan as though the older man had betrayed him, though he wasn’t all that upset at another stalemate. "Coffee all you're going to have? There's probably some leftovers in the fridge, if you're hungry."

Du'shan shook his head. "No thanks." He sipped approvingly from his mug, looking across the kitchen at Riyad's benches. "Still working on those daggers?"

"Among other things." Riyad pushed his bangs out of his eyes. "Should be done soon. Probably not tonight, though."

Du'shan nodded and took another sip. After a long pause, he said, "If I can be of any help, I've really nothing better to do."

Smiling, Riyad declined. "I've got it. They're not as dangerous as they look--deceptively frail, really. Thanks, though." He tried not to let his smile betray the amusement the image had given him: the strong, temperamental Du'shan daintily supporting a tiny knife with white-gloved hands and sitting impossibly still for fear of accidentally destroying the artifact by breathing too hard. It was not at all manly and Du'shan probably would not have found it all that humorous if explained.

As he turned his head, Riyad could see a small, pleased smile on Ath'ran's face as well, more or less intended only for his cousin as it peeked just above the rim of his mug. Someone needed to tell him his eyes smiled more than his mouth did and that he was fooling no one by only hiding his lips.

Du'shan had seen, though, and gotten whatever message was intended for him in the expression. He turned towards the far exit. "If you need me, I'll be in the front room," he said, mostly for Riyad's benefit. As he passed the pantry, he pulled out a bag of chips to munch on, and left them to occupy Jin's abandoned workstation, probably to check the CommNet. Riyad rolled his eyes a bit, slightly annoyed his cooking had been turned down for chips.

"We all serve in our own ways."

Riyad turned back to Ath'ran, but his friend was no longer looking. He swallowed the last of his coffee and stood to put the mug in the dishwasher. He laid one of his strong dark hands on Riyad's shoulder and smiled just slightly. "Don't work too much later. I'll be wanting pancakes in the morning."

"I swear if I find you in here making a mess when I get up, I’m going to call Lisa and tell her to turn around, come back here, and save us all from you!" He pushed Ath'ran away playfully, finding it hard not to smile even as he tried to sound intimidating. Not that Ath'ran would have taken him seriously either way.

Ath'ran guarded himself against any more play punches or slaps. "Calling my wife to tattle is lower than calling my mother."

"Oh, and I will. Both of them. They both like me more than you anyway," he lied. While Ath'ran's mother definitely liked Riyad almost as much as one of her own children, Lisa and he had a complicated relationship. She had a problem with Riyad's family “owning” her husband and, while he felt the same way, to her he was still a D'sen and therefore guilty. At least it didn't stop him from being accepted as Uncle Riyad Shihar by her children, which was practically his favorite thing ever.

"Can't you just say 'okay, pancakes it is,' and let me get back to work?"

"No, because I like making things difficult for you." Riyad pushed his hair out of his face again. "Alright. Pancakes it is. Happy now?"

"Quite. Thank you. Now work off that last cup you had and get some rest. We can't all keep Du'shan's hours."

Riyad nodded, waving him away as though his presence were bothersome. He watched him walked back to his office and waited until he heard the door close to move again. He threw the coffee grounds away, but left the warmer on in case Du'shan felt like finishing off the pot. Then he wiped the counters down. He realized he was still procrastinating, but was not any more enthusiastic about going back to the daggers than he had been before Ath’ran’s interruption.

He heard the front door open and close and heard Du'shan greet Nyr. Riyad looked at the clock and frowned slightly; he wasn't sure the kind of hours a priest kept or what a retired one would be doing out so late, but it seemed out of place. He listened in on their exchange of pleasantries, the "how are you’s” and "how was your day’s” but nothing interesting was said. Du'shan was too polite to ask things that were none of his business, and Nyr never offered more information than was explicitly requested. It was hard to feel guilty listening in on people who had nothing more to say than that they were fine, things were fine, and to have a good night. He had better things to do, he knew, but he eyed the daggers pitifully, as though they'd do the work for him if he waited long enough.

Sighing, Riyad turned out the kitchen lights. He knew that if he stayed, he would find as many little things as he could to get out of doing what he was supposed to. It would be more productive to acknowledge that now and go to bed to read and wind down, than to pretend that he was eventually going to sit back down and finish.

Perhaps they did have a curse--a lazy curse. Daggers once held by the biggest coward in the world, who only wanted to keep himself out of battle and have nothing to do with his weapons.

Well, it was a possibility. Certainly something to sleep on. And it would make for an excellent excuse if Ath’ran asked why the work still wasn’t done. At two o'clock in the morning, that was really all that mattered.