By Milton Davis
The white haze enveloping Shaigu seeped into his nostrils and cleansed his mind. He lounged in Paradise again, surrounded by swaying date trees and grinning servants carrying silver platters filled with foods of every delicious description. Below the dais dancers cavorted; voluptuous women whose dress, movement, and manner hinted the pleasures to come. Above it all sat the Teacher on his gilded stool, his body hidden by layers of elaborate tobes, his smiling countenance overseeing every activity in his walled sanctuary. Shaigu had been blessed to be chosen. He was smiling when Pandare’s firm hand gripped his shoulder and shook him hard.
“That’s enough,” his blood brother said. “We must go.”
Shaigu’s first instinct was to slap Pandare’s hand away but his brother was right. He inhaled one last time then crawled out of the vision tent. Pandare stood over him wrapped in robes to protect him from the desert sun.
“I hope you are renewed,” he said, disapproval heavy in his voice.
Shaigu stood then knocked the dust from his clothes. It was a futile gesture but it came instinctively. He was a man of the forest and was not used to the constant sand of this vast emptiness. The dry air killed the haze effect quickly, leaving Shaigu with only his will and his camel.
Pandare looked into the horizon, his hand shielding his eyes. Green mountains beckoned the end of the desert and the beginning of a more temperate environment.
“Another day’s travel at least, maybe two,” he judged.
Shaigu broke down the tent and folded it neatly. He stuffed it into its canvas case then secured it to his back.
“I hope it’s one,” he said. “We don’t have much food left.”
“It’s your fault,” Pandare chided him. “You eat like we’re still in Paradise. You must discipline yourself. We have to make the right impression when we enter Sala. We must be starving acolytes, not well fed merchants.”
Shaigu said nothing. It was easy for Pandare to make such statements. He was eating just as much if not more. But he was right. This was not a trip to a market or a search for potent herbs. They journeyed to Sala to kill a man, a dangerous man whose very existence threatened not only the school but the life of Teacher.
As always Pandare was correct. The green hills beckoning them took three days to reach, three long hunger filled days. By the time they reached Sala’s gates there was no need to pretend; they were starving. Sala perched on the edge of the desert, her grey walls in contrast to the pale tan sands and the verdant mountains rising behind her. The walls were like nothing he’d ever seen, circular tower-like sections connected by straight walls.
“Clever design,” Pandare commented. Shaigu nodded his head despite his hunger and fatigue. He didn’t know much about Pandare’s life before the Temple but he did know that he had been a warrior of some kind. Some whispered he was a fallen general forced to choose between entering the temple or death. But there were always rumors floating within the Temple. Shaigu’s story was not so glamorous but resembled most of his brothers. He’d lived in the streets of Sala before being captured by men who combed the alleys for those like him, hoping to sell them to anyone willing to pay their price. Those who couldn’t be sold were given to the Teacher for his blessings. Shaigu was one of the gifts. But instead of being sent to the fields he was chosen for Training. The Teacher saw promise in him and Shaigu worked hard not to disappoint him. Despite his hard work he was still the weaker of the two. There was no jealousy however; Pandare was his brother. The only thing that mattered was the will of Teacher.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“See how the turrets are built into the wall?” he asked. “Any army attacking the city would not be able to form a uniform line. Some would be trapped between the turrets and massacred.”
Shaigu had no idea what Pandare was talking about but he nodded his head anyway. He didn’t want to appear stupid.
“Look,” Pandare said.
The city gate squealed open, the sound annoying despite the distance. Pandare frowned.
“The Teacher said they rarely opened the northern gate,” Shaigu said.
“The key word is rarely.” Pandare answered. “Try to look destitute. Maybe whoever is coming won’t kill us.”
“That will be easy. We are destitute.”
Four riders emerged, taking their time approaching the duo. They rode the finest horses Shaigu had ever seen. Colorful robes covered their lean bodies; their heads crowned with turbans. Only their ebony faces were exposed. Sabers hung from finely crafted baldrics draped over their shoulders; a quiver of arrows bounced against their horses rumps beside their bows. Pandare and Shaigu stopped as the riders circled them, inspecting them with their intense brown eyes.
“Who are you?” one of them asked. A gold ingot inscribed with symbols hung from his neck, probably a symbol of rank. He spoke Ngar, to Shaigu’s relief. He had not done well mastering the native tongue of this land.
“We are unfortunate travelers,” Pandare replied. “Our caravan was attacked by raiders and only the two of us survived.”
The man looked at them skeptically. “You are from the North. We never receive caravans from the North for the Kashites do not trade. You’re lying.”
Pandare looked away from the soldier. “Yes, you are right, master. We are not merchants. We have come from the south in hopes that Amadou the Learned will take us on as disciples.”
The rider smirked as his companions laughed. “I thought so. You wouldn’t be the first fools to perish in these sands seeking the conjurer. “
The leader turned to one of his men. “Kai, give them your provision bag.”
Kai guided his horse to them then tossed them a leather bag. Shaigu caught the bag and began to open it. Pandare grabbed his wrist then led him down into a bow.
“We thank you for your generosity,” he said.
“Thank you,” Shaigu repeated.
“You may not be so thankful once you see Amadou. Our business is done. We’ll ride back to the city and inform Amadou of your presence. He may send someone for you but he may not. I would go lightly on the provisions. It’s a long way back across the desert.”
The sentinels rode away. Shaigu scrambled to his feet then quickly opened the provision bag. There was a water gourd, two red round fruit of which he was not familiar and a flat cylindrical object that resembled bread. He forced himself from gorging on the tempting fare. Instead he extended the bag to Pandare. Pandare peered inside the bag and frowned.
“It’s not much,” he commented.
“What are you talking about?” Shaigu argued. “There’s more than enough to get us through the night if need be. We’ve lived off less.”
“The rider said Amadou may not come,” Pandare reminded Shaigu. “If he doesn’t we’ll have to go back. I don’t think they have any intentions of letting us into Sala without him.”
Shaigu shrugged and took one of the red fruit out of the bag. He bit into it and closed his eyes in ecstasy. The sweet flesh culled his hunger and the rich juice seemed made to quench his thirst.
“This is truly food of the Maker!” he exclaimed.
Pandare frowned at him as he gobbled the fruit. “I hoped you’re enjoying it. When the time comes I won’t share mine.”
Pandare’s words were prophetic. For seven days they waited, their food and strength dwindling away. Pandare, despite his warning, shared his fruit with Shaigu after the water gourd was empty. They nibbled on the moist bread on the fifth day, their desperate eyes locked on the city gates. By the morning of the seventh day their food was exhausted as were they.
Shaigu lay on his back beside Pandare, staring into the afternoon sky. The bright sun did not affect him; he was too fatigued to care. They had failed the Teacher. Maybe their bones would be of some help to the next assassins, a sign that their quest would be futile. As he closed his eyes for what he hoped wouldn’t be the last time a shadow intruded on his light.
“Are you alive?” a voice asked.
Shaigu nodded his head.
“You’re tough ones. That could be useful.”
Coarse hands wrapped around his wrists and ankles then lifted him from the hot sand. They carried him for a short distance then placed him gently on a wooden board.
“Is the other one alive?” the voice called out.
“Yes,” someone replied. “He’s talking!”
Moments later Shaigu felt a body touch his.
“Where are you taking us?” he heard Pandare croak.
“To Sala,” the now familiar voice replied.
Shaigu turned his head toward Pandare. His brother looked at him as well, a weak smile on his face.
“See?” Pandare said. “This was a test.”
They lurched then rocked slowly. They were in a wagon of some kind, but the details didn’t matter. They were on their way into Sala. Their mission was still intact. Shaigu managed to sit up. They rode in a two wheeled cart drawn by a donkey. Two tall men walked on either side of the beast, both draped in white shirts that fell to their knees. Flat conical caps covered their heads.
“Here,” a voice said. He turned to his right to see the third man. He was young, probably barely past his initiation rites. Two ritual scars adorned his cheeks, a sign of his successful passage into manhood. He was dressed similar to the other men, the only exception a red beaded belt riding low on his waist. He extended a water gourd to Shaigu.
“I am Kakou,” he said. “Who are you?”
Shaigu took a long drink from the gourd before answering. “I am Shaigu.”
Kakou gestured past Shaigu. He turned to see Pandare frowning at him, his hand extended.
“Oh, I’m sorry, my brother!” He handed the gourd over quickly.
“You are a selfish man, Shaigu,” Kakou said.
“How do you know this?” Shaigu challenged him.
“A man reveals himself in his action, not his words,” Kakou said.
“Wise word from such a young mouth,” Pandare said.
Kakou grinned. “They are not my words. They are Amadou’s.”
“We have travelled far to see him,” Pandare said. “It is our hope that he will take us on as students.”
Kakou’s smile faded. “That is not possible. Amadou rarely takes students, especially those who are not buSala. His skills are unique and essential to the defense of our city.”
“We are simple folks,” Pandare said. “All we wish is to sit at the feet of your master and learn enough of his wisdom to help our people. It is all we ask.”
“You’re wasting your pretty talk on me,” Kakou replied. “My teacher has arranged lodging and food for you. You can stay until you are fit to go home. “
Kakou moved closer to both men. “Do not take advantage of my teacher’s benevolence. It would not go well for you if you tried.”
Shaigu gave Pandare a worried glance. Pandare shook his head angrily and Shaigu dropped his head in shame. He was giving in too easy. There was still a chance they could see Amadou. At least they were entering the city. It was better than starving to death in the desert.
Sala’s gates opened wide for the small entourage. Shaigu expected the musky odor of a populated city but instead his senses were greeted by an intoxicating blend of herbs and incense. The two men sat up to see the sights of Sala and were taken aback. Shaigu pinched his lips together to keep from uttering words of praise. The city was the closest the two had come to experiencing Paradise since they left its gilded walls. Colorfully painted family compound walls bordered the brick paved streets, each compound separated by narrow alleys where fruit trees and other succulent vegetation flourished. The people traversed the wide avenues on oxen drawn wagons, camels, donkeys and horses while others walked leisurely along the mud packed sidewalks. Their garments were as gaily colors as their buildings, the men covers in large shirts that draped to their knees, the women garbed in dazzling dresses that bunched tight at their waists and emphasized their comely figures. Before them was the first market place, but Kakou guided their wagon onto a narrow road that bypassed the bustling bazaar. The street they followed was quieter but no less colorful, the vegetation a bit more unruly. They travelled a few moments longer before stopping in front of a tall building adorned with the most beautifully carved doors Shaigu had ever seen.
Kakou knocked and the door immediately opened.
“Good blessings to you,” Kakou said.
“And to you, Kakou,” a soft male voice answered. “What does your teacher wish of me today?”
“I have two men from the desert that need lodging until they are fit to go home,” he said.
“I will see to it,” the man replied.
Kakou stepped away and the man emerged from the building. He was a giant, towering over Kakou like an acacia over grass. He strode to the wagon and bent closer, his eyes squinting.
“Welcome to my hostel,” he said gently. “I am Ogbe. I am honored to have you as guest. Come, we will see to your needs.”
Shaigu and Pandare climbed from the wagon. Pandare approached Kakou and bowed.
“Please thank your teacher for us,” he said humbly. “Though we are saddened he will not see us, we wish him well.”
Kakou bowed in returned. “Take care, both of you. Your determination will not go un rewarded.”
Shaigu bowed as well, watching Kakou as he climbed into the wagon and rode away.
Ogbe clamped his huge hands. “Come now. We will get you out of those dusty clothes and get a good meal inside you.”
The duo followed Ogbe into the hostel. The foyer was sparse, a plain wooden bench propped against the right wall, a pedestal with a washbowl to their left. Ogbe gestured towards the bowl and both men washed their faces and hands with the cloth towels handing on pegs nearby. A carpeted hallway extended before them. Ogbe removed his shoes and so did Shaigu and Pandare.
“I will take you to the baths first,” he said. “One must be clean before a meal, don’t you think?”
Shaigu didn’t agree but nodded anyway, following Pandare’s lead. He was starving. He would eat a piece of bread covered with mud from a pig sty if he could. He reluctantly followed Ogbe to a large room at the end of the hallway. A cool breeze escaped from the room, drawing Shaigu toward its source. A clear pool of water shimmered before them held in a bowl of hardened clay. Ogbe reached into a depression along the wall an extracted two gourds.
“Here, this is drinking water. The water in the pool contains special minerals designed to heal and refresh. They are good for the skin but bad for the stomach.”
They indulged on the cool liquid then disrobed and enter the bath. The medicated liquid tingled against Shaigu’s skin and he smiled. He immersed his head completely then shook it as he emerged. Shaigu grinned as he enjoyed the needed respite. Pandare’s expression was the opposite.
“You enjoy yourself too much, brother,” he warned. “Remember the teacher’s words. The Enemy’s seductions are many. It takes only one to corrupt the Spirit.”
Shaigu waded close to his brother. “Why should they wish to seduce us? They don’t know our purpose. We are poor disciples.”
Pandare rolled his eyes. “The temptations exist without direction. It is the way of the Enemy. Society controls the mind by its structure. Amadou is the center, which is why he must be killed.”
Shaigu lowered his eyes in shame. “You are right, brother. The depravations of the desert have weakened me. “
They spent the rest of the bath in silence then quickly donned their clothes. Ogbe waited for them as they exited the room.
“That’s much better!” he said. “Now no one will think you are camels. Come, it’s time to satisfy your stomachs.”
Ogbe led them down the hallway. The aromas of the waiting meal reached Shaigu’s nostrils before they entered the room and his mouth watered. Four long ebonywood tables stretched from one end of the room to the other, flanked on both side by benches. The room was empty save a woman spooning an aromatic stew into two bowls at the end of the table. She looked up and greeted them with a generous smile.
“Come,’ she chirped. “It’s best when it’s hot.”
Shaigu had to restrain himself from running to the table. He followed Pandare’s lead, walking calmly to the table then bowing to the woman before sitting.
“We thank you for your hospitality,” Pandare said. “It is rare to find such courtesy in this world.”
“Courtesy is a sign of either abundance or scarcity,” a male voice commented.
Shaigu turned to the source of the voice. A man entered the room draped in a large white cloak that contrasted starkly with his black skin. An embroidered cap graced his head; he looked at them with a strong and pleasing gaze. His strong chin was graced with a grey speckled beard. He gave their server a slight bow then sat before Shaigu and Pandare, placing his fly whisk on the table.
“You are the men from across the desert,” he said.
“Yes,” Pandare answered. “My brother and I traveled here hoping to become students of the great Adamou. It seems our journey was in vain.”
The man’s eyebrows rose. “How so? Surely he would grant you an audience after such an arduous journey.”
“It seems that will not be so,” Pandare said. “His student Kakou informed us that he is not taking new students under any circumstances.”
“Ah,” the man said with a smile. “Kakou. I should have known. Even the best students have their faults. Kakou is very talented but that does not allay his insecurities. He is always wary of anyone that might threaten his status. It seems I have more work to do with him.”
Shaigu looked at this man with a puzzled gaze. What was he saying? Pandare’s response was entirely different. He jumped to his feet and bowed deeply.
“Amadou!” he exclaimed.
Shaigu dropped his spoon and stood as well. He bowed, his eyes wide in surprise. The great Amadou had come to see them!
“Please, sit. There is no need for praise. I am a man just as you. Be thankful that Kakou’s brothers witnessed his actions and chose to share what they saw.”
Both men sat. Shaigu studied Amadou as he was taught. He was younger than he expected but not a young man by any means. This meant his skills were mature which would make him a formidable target. This would take time; months, maybe even years. He was not sure if he was up to such an assignment. He looked over at Pandare, his brother showed no signs of vigilance, only the enamored gaze of a humble admirer. He could see why the Great Teacher chose him for the task ahead.
Amadou stood. Shaigu and Pandare began to do the same but Amadou waved them down.
“Enjoy your meals and rest. I will send someone for you in the morning. There are still questions to be answered before I make my decision. At least you’ll get the chance. You have come far to seek my instruction. I will not turn you away without at least giving you the opportunity to prove yourselves.
“We thank you, teacher,” Pandare said. “We thank you!”
Amadou left them to their meals. Neither man was hungry.
“That was unexpected,” Shaigu said.
“Very,” Pandare replied. “You did well, brother.”
“I’m only glad he did not speak to me,” Shaigu confessed. “I would have lacked your poise.”
Pandare laughed. “I was shaking in my sandals. I was sure he was through my words. I waited for him to strike us dead at any moment.”
“I can see why the Teacher chose you,” Shaigu ate his stew, enjoying the savory concoction.
“So what do you think of him?” Pandare asked.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Shaigu answered. “Besides, does it matter what I think?”
Pandare nodded then gulped a spoonful of stew. “True. But it is always necessary to understand a person. You must learn their strengths and weaknesses in order to exploit them and gain access to their confidence. “
“It is their weakness that draws our attention, because by applying our strength to their weakness we achieve victory,” Shaigu finished.
Pandare smiled. “The words of the Teacher.”
Ogbe appeared, bringing bread and beverage. “So you have met Amadou.”
“Yes we have, and we are greatly honored,” Pandare answered. Shaigu nodded as he slurped more stew.
“You should be,” Ogbe replied. “Amadou rarely travels beyond his compound. He must be intrigued by you.”
“We only hope he is intrigued enough to allow us to study under him,” Shaigu said. “His reputation spans the desert and reaches into our mountain home.”
Ogbe’s eyes widened and he smiled. “The quiet one speaks! You must be impressed!”
“I have a habit of saying the wrong things,” Shaigu said. “So I stay silent until I am sure of my words.”
“That is a good practice,” Ogbe answered. “If only more of us were more prudent.”
Ogbe placed the bread and drink at their table. “Here is the rest of your meal. If you slow down you’ll see that they complement the stew very well.”
“We thank you again,” Pandare said. “The people of this city are more generous than most.”
“I could not say,” Ogbe answered. “I have never been beyond the gates. Most of us haven’t. “
Shaigu was surprised. “Not even into the countryside?”
Ogbe shook his head. “I am not a farmer nor do I own herds. And as you say, we are a generous folk. I can imagine that there are places just as pleasant, but I can’t imagine any place better.”
You have never seen the Teacher’s garden , Shaigu thought . And you never will .
The duo finished their delicious meals then was lead to their sleeping quarters. They were given separate rooms; business was slow during harvest season so the space was available. Shaigu’s cot was narrow but comfortable. As he laid his head on the cotton padded headrest he wished he had the luxury of the vision tent. This mission was nothing like he expected. He had imagined Sala a harsh place filled with crazed and depraved people; instead he and Pandare had been treated with respect and kindness by also everyone, the exceptions being the Salan guards and the suspicious Kakou. He had to be diligent, however. He more than anyone else knew that behind a veil of kindness could be a cruel truth. Was he not here to kill a man?
Sleep came easily to him and the morning arrived too soon. Someone shook him awake; he opened his eyes to Pandare’s stern face.
“Wake up, my brother. Amadou has sent someone to bring us to his compound.”
Shaigu groaned as he sat up then rubbed his eyes.
“So early?” he complained.
Pandare chuckled. “It is well into the day. I overslept myself. Ogbe must have put a sedative in the food we ate.”
“I doubt it,” Shaigu said as he stood and stretched. “If there is one thing I can do it is detect elixirs. We were tired, nothing more.”
“Hurry,” Pandare urged. “Our new master waits.”
Shaigu followed Pandare through the hostel. Waiting at the entrance was Ogbe and his ever present smile.
“I hope your stay here was to your satisfaction?” he asked.
“Very much so,” Pandare replied.
“Yes, it was,” Shaigu said.
Shaigu did not think it was possible for the innkeepers smile to be any brighter but quickly discovered he was wrong.
“Excellent! Be sure to share your feelings with Amadou. “
Both men bowed.
“We will,” Pandare said.
They stepped through the door into the daylight and were greeted by a familiar face.
“Greetings to you,” Kakou said.
Amadou’s student forced a smile to his face. Pandare nodded respectfully while Shaigu looked away to hide his smug grin.
“Amadou wishes me to bring you to his compound. Come.”
He turned away abruptly and walked rapidly away. Pandare and Shaigu scampered to catch up with him.
“Thank you for your help,” Pandare said.
“Do not thank me,” Kakou replied. “I still believe you both should be on your way back to wherever you came from.”
“But Amadou disagrees,” Shaigu said.
Both Pandare and Kakou turned to glare at him. Shaigu lowered his head and cursed himself silently.
“Amadou is my teacher,” Kakou said. “But we do not always agree. He is a great man but he is not always right. Even he is not perfect.”
They walked in silence afterwards, exiting the narrow street to the broad avenue that led to the city center. The homes along the street became grander as they progressed, large stone structures surrounded by high walls and well-kept vegetation. They passed through a crowded market where they almost lost their reluctant guide, but managed to find him on the other side of the crowded venue.
They finally reached Amadou’s compound. Shaigu was not surprised at what he saw; it was modest and non-descript, a reflection of the teacher’s façade. What did surprise him was the openness of the place. There was a constant flow of people in and out of the gates. The men and women were not unusual, but it was the presence of children that caught his eye. Boys and girls from infants to adolescents were everywhere, laughing, crying, working and playing among the adults.
“Does Amadou teach children as well?” Pandare asked.
“Of course not,” Kakou replied. “These are his children, nieces and nephews.”
“He allows him in the school?” Shaigu asked.
Kakou spun to confront the two, an annoyed look on his face.
“Amadou has no school. When you are selected as a student, you are chosen to be a part of his family. This is his family compound.”
Kakou turned about and led them into the compound. A few curious eyes followed them as they entered. Their plain white garb made them stand out among the bright and varied colors of Salan dress. There were a number of building within the walls, each belonging to a separate family. Kakou led them to the largest, a rectangular structure that contrasted with the cylindrical homes. Amadou sat before the entrance surrounded by children, their wide eyes locked on his smiling face.
“I thought you said he didn’t teach children,” Shaigu observed.
“He does not teach them what you seek,” Kakou snapped.
They stood behind the children.
“Stay here,” Kakou said. “Amadou will talk to you when he is done with the children. I must tend to my duties.”
He marched away, sharing a parting glare at them before joining a group of men at the compound gate. Together they left the compound.
Shaigu and Pandare turned to Amadou. He spoke to the children in the language of the city, his tone gentle and engaging. They repeated some words and sang others, each child never taking their eyes off their teacher. Finally Amadou stood and the children did as well. He raised his arms and they scattered like gazelle, giggling and screaming as they ran to their homes.
Amadou greeted them with a wide smile.
“Welcome to my home,” he said. “I see Kakou brought you all the way this time.”
Both men bowed. “He was most attentive,” Pandare said.
Amadou laughed. “There is no need to lie to me, Pandare. Kakou shouted loud enough to wake the ancestors when I asked him to bring you here. Do not expect to have his help. You will have to win him over.”
“I don’t think we can,” Shaigu said.
“Anything is possible,” Amadou replied. “All it takes is perseverance and persistence. But you are not here to know whether or not I will allow you into my family. I’m curious to know if I will, too.”
Amadou gestured for them to follow him. They entered the rectangular building. The building was empty except for a collection of carved masks that hung from the walls. There were no chairs or stools, no pedestals or dais. They followed Amadou to the center of the room. They stood together, Amadou smiling.
“Teacher, what are we to do?” Pandare asked.
“We are waiting for someone,” he answered.
“Who?” Shaigu asked.
“We are waiting for my wife, Timneet,” Amadou answered. “No one enters the family without her approval.
“I am here,” a woman’s voice announced.
Shaigu looked to the entrance. Timneet sauntered into the building, a smile on her youthful face. The green head wrap hiding her hair contrasted with her smooth black skin and complemented the green patterned dress hugging her slim but shapely frame. Her numerous bracelets jangled with her steps as she approached them. It had been a long time since Shaigu had seen a woman so lovely.
“Sorry for the delay, husband,” she said. “Your young students can be quite mischievous.”
Amadou laughed. “I told them a mischievous tale.”
Timneet stood before Pandare and Shaigu. Shaigu stared into her caramel eyes, transfixed by her smile.
“Pandare, Shaigu, welcome to our compound.” Shaigu jumped when she grabbed his hands and her smile widened.
“Don’t fear, Shaigu,” she said. “This will only take a moment.”
Her grip firmed and she looked into his eyes. Shaigu could not look away, nor could he blink. After a brief moment she let go of his hands and turned her attention to Pandare. Pandare placed his hands in hers and received the same scrutiny. Once she was done she stood beside Amadou.
“Welcome to our family,” she announced.
Pandare bowed to the couple. Shaigu bowed as well, joyous that he’d passed Timneet’s mysterious inspection.
“Pandare, you will come with me,” Amadou said. “Shaigu, please go with Timneet.”
The two men looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Shaigu fought to hide his apprehension.
“This is our way,” Amadou assured them. “Shaigu, please follow Timneet.”
Shaigu glanced and Pandare and Pandare nodded. Timneet walked toward the entrance, Shaigu following. He caught up with her as they emerged into the sunlight.
“Mistress, where are we going?” Shaigu asked.
“I will give you a tour of our compound then we will assign you duties,” Timneet replied. “We have a big compound and a bigger family. Everyone has a duty.”
“Is this part of my teaching?” he asked.
Timneet’s face became serious. “You are not ready for teaching yet, Shaigu.”
Shaigu’s eyes widen. Had he betrayed their intentions?
“There is fear in you, and doubt,” Timneet continued. “I am sensitive to these things. Amadou feels it would be better for you to get used to our way before taking you on as a student.”
She smiled again and Shaigu felt the tension inside him fading.
“Don’t worry. This is normal. Your friend seems to be in a better place so Amadou will begin his instruction immediately. He will be given duties as well.”
“So we will stay?”
Timneet smiled again. “Yes you will. Now come let me introduce you to our family.”
Timneet led him through the compound, pointing out every man, woman and child and giving their names. Shaigu was overwhelmed; there was no way he would remember so many names and faces in one day. He could not concentrate on her words for he was still engrossed with Timneet.
“We are similar to your folks,” she said. “Yet many of our ways are different. We have no king; we are ruled by a council of elders in which each caste and clan has a voice. Decisions are made by consensus. If there is a stalemate the eldest of the elders makes the final decision.”
“I see,” Shaigu said absently.
Timneet stopped and turned toward Shaigu. He almost ran into her.
“I am so sorry, mistress,” he said.
“Make sure you are paying attention to the proper things,” she said. A knowing smile came to her face and Shaigu eyes widened like a child caught in mischief.
“I…I am so embarrassed! Forgive me for my disrespect.”
Timneet chuckled. “You are a man. Come, I’ll show you the rest of the compound.”
Their tour took the remainder of the day. By nightfall they returned to the building where they first met. Pandare and Amadou waited for them.
“That was quite a tour,” Amadou said. “I didn’t realize our compound was so interesting.”
“Our new brother had many questions,” Timneet replied. “And how was your day?”
“Productive,” Amadou said. “Pandare is a promising student. He will be placed with the seconds.”
Timneet looked skeptical. “Are you sure?”
Amadou frowned. “Yes I am.”
Timneet smiled again. “I will leave you with my husband,” she said to Shaigu. “Tomorrow we will decide how you’ll be helpful.”
Timneet sauntered out of the room. Shaigu took his place beside Pandare before Amadou.
“You will share a room for now,” he said. “Once you have become comfortable here you will be separated. Unlike the others you must learn our ways before you can begin to reach your potential. Rest well, sons. The day will begin early.”
Amadou left the building, following Timneet to their home. Kakou entered the room soon afterwards and waved for them to follow him. They followed the student to a long reed walled building situated along Sala’s western road. It was a dormitory, the home of the Teacher’s students and assistants. They entered the building then Kakou led them to a room at the end of the hall.
“You will sleep here,” Kakou said. “I will wake you in the morning.”
The acolyte turned to walk away and then stopped.
“This is a great honor my Teacher bestows upon you. Do not disappoint him…or me.”
Kakou stalked away then entered a room near the compound entrance.
“He does not trust us,” Shaigu said.
“He is of no concern,” Pandare. “One swift thrust and he is a memory. What have you learned?”
Shaigu squatted over the floor and took a short stick out of his shirt. The ground was hard packed but he was still able to scratch out thin lines without breaking his makeshift writing tool. Shaigu knew his spiritual skills paled in comparison to Pandare, but he had other skills that were useful, such as his uncanny memory of physical details. He quickly drew out a complete map of Sala.
Pandare studied the diagram while rubbing his chin. “It is a good design, strong and easily defended. The road allow of easy traffic flow within the city but limits entrance. These Salans are no strangers to sieges.”
“What have you learned, brother?” Shaigu asked.
“Nothing, though I am not surprised. Today was mostly a briefing of our duties and what this Teacher expects of us. I had hoped to glimpse a reason of why Teacher wishes this man dead, but he is shrewd with his talents.”
“I must apologize to you and Teacher,” Shaigu said. He bowed briefly after saying Teacher’s title. “I should be with you as a student. Instead I have been made servant to his wife.”
“There is no need to dwell on such misfortune, brother.” Pandare patted Shaigu’s shoulder. “We know our purpose here. At least he didn’t reject you completely. He sees potential. Besides, we don’t need to become completely close to either of them. We just need to get close enough to fulfill our task. Then we will see Paradise again.”
Pandare’s mention of Paradise made Shaigu think of the tent. When he looked at his brother there was a frown on his face.
“You must be strong, Shaigu,” he admonished. “There may be a time we may need Teacher’s reinforcement, but not now. Now sleep. Who knows what this man has in store for us.”
Kakou woke them early as he promised, seeming to take pleasure in their discomfort. They ate a quick breakfast of ground corn then separated, Pandare following Kakou to the teacher’s home while Shaigu waited for Timneet. She appeared with the rising sun, sauntering to him with a basket balanced perfectly on her head.
“Good morning, Shaigu,” she sang. “Come. The day is late and we have much to do.”
“Late?” Shaigu rubbed his chin. “But the sun is still rising!”
“You are not a farmer, are you?”
Shaigu shook his head.
Timneet gave him a sad smile. “Then today will be a very long day for you.”
Timneet led him to the sorghum fields beyond the city walls. The people harvesting the grain seemed to have been at work for hours. Stacks of grains stalks lined the field edges, tied together with stalks and waiting to be loaded on nearby two wheeled donkey drawn wagons.
“You will load today,” Timneet said.
Shaigu nodded and went to his task. The first few wagons were easy for the grain bundles were bulky yet light. As they day went on and the temperature rose the work became more laborious. By the time the first break came he was hungry, sore and exhausted.
Shaigu devoured the bowl of sorghum porridge given to him. The water was warm but refreshing after such hard labor. He looked into the sky at the sun directly above him and cursed. He had a half a day of work ahead.
“I see you are still alive.”
Shaigu stood over him, smiling down with the sunlight. Her mood seemed infectious and he felt less tired in her presence.
“You are right,” he said. “This will be a long day.”
“You will sleep well,” she replied. Timneet reached into her dress and retrieved a bundle of cloth. She opened the cloth to reveal a large nut-like object. She handed it to him.
“It’s a kola nut,” Timneet explained. “It’s bitter, but it will give you energy.”
“Thank you,” he said. Shaigu place the seed in his mouth then chewed. It was bitter, but not disgustingly so, and as Timneet said he felt a rush of energy. He smiled and Timneet clapped.
“You should be good for the rest of the day,” she said.
She rejoined the others and continued harvesting. Shaigu finished his meal and continued gathering the sorghum bundles. Timneet sang and the others joined in. It was a song Shaigu was not familiar with sang in a language he did not know, but the sound soothed him and eased his burdens. Suddenly there were no more bundles to load. The sun was settling into the western dunes and the workers trudged to the city, their work done for the day. Timneet met Shaigu as he loaded the last sorghum bundle on the wagon.
“Not bad for your first time,” she commented.
“Thank you,” he said. Timneet’s compliment made him proud. He always strived to do well, but his body or mind always seemed to fail him. At least he was good at collecting sorghum.
“You will tell Teacher, won’t you?”
Timneet laughed. “Of course I will. But this was only one day.”
A shrill voice interrupted them.
A small girl ran to them, her hands cupped before them. Timneet face bunched with concern.
“What is it, Almaz?”
The girl ran up to Timneet and extended her hands.
“I didn’t mean it!” she squealed.
Shaigu peered at the girl’s hands. A dead bird lay on them.
“I was throwing clay balls at it to keep it away from the sorghum,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean to kill it!”
Timneet knelt down and cupped Almaz’s hands in hers.
“Close your eyes,” she whispered.
Timneet leaned until her forehead touched Almaz’s.
“When we take life, we must give life,” Timneet whispered.
“We must give life,” Almaz repeated.
Timneet blew on the bird. It twitched and then its wings fluttered. Timneet drew her head away just as the bird flew from Almaz’s hands.
Shaigu was stunned. He’d seen Teacher do many things, but never had he seen him restore life. If Timneet possessed such powers, what was Amadou capable of?”
“Thank you, mama!” Almaz jumped at Timneet and Timneet caught her in an embrace.
“You be careful with those clay balls,” Timneet said.
“I will, mama.”
Timneet put Almaz down and she skipped away. Timneet looked at Shaigu and pressed a finger to her lips.
“Not a word,” she said.
The two of them walked back to the city and to the lodge. Timneet said goodbye and Shaigu went inside, still marveling at what he had witnessed. Pandare was there fast asleep. Apparently his day had been just as strenuous. Shaigu was relieved. He wouldn’t have to lie to his brother about what he witnessed. He had no intentions of tell him. Timneet was innocent; they were here for Amadou. It would remain so.
And so the next days, weeks and months passed. Shaigu and Pandare barely spoke, each exhausted by the work given to them. Shaigu found himself so engrossed in his work that there were times he was unsure why he had come to Sala.
A respite finally came when the rainy season arrived. Shaigu awoke early as always, ready for another day of hard work. Pandare woke as well and began to dress. They prepared in silence, like two strangers occupying the same cramped space. Two hours passed before they began to realize that no one was coming for them. Pandare looked at Shaigu awkwardly before speaking.
“This is not what I expected,” he finally said.
Shaigu nodded in agreement. “I thought I would hate them.”
“I thought so as well,” Pandare agreed. “Amadou is a wise man. He had taught me things I never knew.”
“His wife is helpful as well,” Shaigu said. “I do not understand why we must kill him.”
Shaigu’s words seemed to spark something in Pandare. His face went firm, his eyes focused.
“Secure the door,” he ordered.
Shaigu pushed his cot against the door. Pandare opened his bag and extracted the tent. The room was cramped but there was just enough room. They made a small fire and placed the incense pot directly on the fire. Soon the tent filled with the thick fumes of illusion. Shaigu shut his eyes and opened his mind to the effect, eager to be in Paradise. Instead he found himself standing in a sorghum field surrounded by recently harvested grain. He heard a familiar laugh behind him and he turned to gaze into the face of Timneet. She stood before him; her arms opened wide, her smile sensual and inviting. He stumbled to her like a drunken man, wrapping his arm around her narrow waist as she lay arms on his shoulders and cradled his head. She smelled of sweet sorghum and jasmine and he inhaled her like air.
“Tell me your secrets,” she whispered. “Share your life with me.”
This was not the dream he was supposed to have. He tried to take control of the image as he had been taught, working his mind to create some familiar totem that would bring him back to Paradise. But every path was filled with Timneet.
Shaigu was thankful when the incense was spent. He kept his head low, afraid to look at his blood brother because of what his expression would reveal. When he finally looked up, he was surprised to see in Pandare’s face what he was sure displayed by his.
“We must strike soon, brother,” Pandare said with a quivering voice. “Sala has wounded our faith. We can only restore it by fulfilling our duty. Paradise will be closed to us until then.”
Shaigu only nodded.
“Good night, brother,” Pandare said. “Remember, we must strike soon.”
Sleep did not bring Shaigu any respite. He dreamed of Timneet, her arms wrapped around him, her body wrapped about him like a comfortable blanket. In his dreams he told her everything and she listened. When he woke the next morning he was less sure of himself than when he laid down to rest. The incense failed him.
When he woke the next day Pandare loomed over him.
“Today is the day. I will go to meet with Amadou. You will go to Timneet and bring her to the house as well. When we have them both together we will kill them.”
Shaigu fought hard to hide his shock.
“Both of them? We were sent to kill Amadou. Why must we kill Timneet?”
“Because she is his wife. Whatever secrets he possesses she knows. It serves no purpose to kill Amadou if the knowledge he has remains.”
Shaigu wanted to argue with Pandare, but to do so would reveal his feelings. He chose this journey to enter Paradise, but now his mind told him that Paradise was in Sala with Timneet. If Amadou was dead, he would have his chance. But Timneet must live. She would live.
“I will bring her,” Shaigu said.
They dressed in silence. Shaigu moved slowly with eyes closed, trying his best to summon the visions and feeling that led him to this point. The Teacher had done so much for him; he rescued him from a destitute street life, delivering him to a world of knowledge and abundance. A world of much more awaited him if he could only accomplish a simple task. So much had changed since then.
He pulled a heavy blanket over his shoulders to protect from the rain. When he finally looked up Pandare stared in his eyes. He seemed so poised, so sure. Shaigu looked at his brother’s hand and stifled the shiver that threatened to take over his body. Pandare held the blade in his hand, the hilt extended toward Shaigu. He took the knife and hid it within his clothes.
“Bring her to the main house,” Pandare said. “Amadou and I will be waiting.”
Shaigu left the dormitory, stepping into the pouring rain. He trudged through the muddy streets, the compound walls blurred by the downpour. He didn’t need to see; he knew the way by heart. He’d walked it so many times accompanied by the woman that he was about to kill. He found the compound with the gate opened as it always was, always welcoming anyone who wished to enter. He crossed the wide courtyard to the carved door then knocked. The door opened, revealing Timneet’s concerned face.
“Shaigu, what are you doing in such weather? Come inside.”
“No, Timneet. Master Amadou sent me for you. He said it is urgent.”
It upset him how easy the lie came from his lips and how easy he controlled his emotions.
“Now?” Timneet looked skeptical. “What could be so important?”
“I don’t know,” Shaigu replied with a shrug.
Timneet sighed and left from the door. She returned with a cloak and umbrella. Shaigu took the umbrella then escorted her to the main house. He stood before the door and looked into her questioning eyes.
“Shaigu, I’m getting wet.”
He opened the door. Timneet walked in then stopped.
“Amadou, why is so important that you sent for me in the rain?”
Amadou looked back with questioning eyes. “Sent for you? Pandare said you sent for me.”
Shaigu moved behind Timneet, blocking the door. Pandare looked at him and nodded.
“For Paradise!” he shouted.
Shaigu pulled the knife from his shirt. He stepped toward Timneet as Pandare plunged his knife into Amadou’s chest. Amadou did not look at Pandare. Instead he turned and looked into Shaigu’s eyes.
“Timneet,’ he gasped.
Timneet turned toward Shaigu. She looked at him with amber eyes that transformed from confusion, to shock, disappointment and finally rage. Shaigu froze, unable to move his hand. At first he thought it was because he didn’t want to, but then he realized it was because he couldn’t. He tried to pull his hand back but it refused to move. Then it was swallowed by searing pain. He cried out as his bones shattered, the knife tumbling from his crushed hand. He fell to his knees, gripping his wrist. He looked up to Timneet but her attention was no longer on him. She looked at Pandare now, who hovered over Amadou. She extended her right hand and Pandare’s downward knife stroke stopped. His face strained as he tried to push through the invisible force. Timneet closed her hand and Pandare dropped his knife. His hands went to his throat. She lifted her arm and Pandare rose from the floor, his hands digging to stop the pressure crushing his throat. Then Timneet swung her arm as if swatting a fly. Pandare sailed across the room and collided with the wall. There was a hollow cracking sound and blood splattered the wall behind his head. His arms fell to his side and his head tilted awkwardly. Timneet dropped her arm and Pandare’s lifeless body fell to the floor.
The door burst open and Amadou’s acolytes and family poured in. They saw Amadou’s body and the room filled with cries of pain and rage. Some ran to their fallen master but others hovered over Shaigu, their intent clear. Timneet raised her hand before they could kill him. She knelt beside him.
“Who are you? Why did you do this?” Her voice trembled.
Shaigu cleared his throat. “We were sent by out Teacher, to rid this city of that which would drag it down to evil.”
Timneet closed her eyes and shook her head. “That old fool. He never forgave us, I see.”
She stood over him. “He has failed. Amadou will live. I will see to that. You would have done better to strike me first. It is I the Teacher wishes dead.”
Shaigu looked up at her in shame. She stared back then her eyes widened.
“You couldn’t do it, could you? Even if I had not stopped you.”
Shaigu nodded his head.
“Then I was right. There is some goodness in you. Goodness…and love.”
She extended her hand. “For that reason only you will not die, at least not today.”
Timneet closed her hand and Shaigu blacked out. When he opened his eyes again bright sunlight stabbed them, forcing them closed. His back burned; he sat up quickly and opened his eyes again. He was surrounded by sand and dunes, the sun high overhead. He looked at his hand; it was still broken. He searched for some sign on how he arrived in such a desolate place but there was no sign. Then he saw the vision tent. He struggled to it, setting it up as fast as he could with his crippled appendage. His incense was in its bag but there was no food or water.
Shaigu set up the incense pot. There was one spark stick; he used it to light the incense. The smoke rose about him and he inhaled. The pain in his hand subsided then dissipated. Timneet said he would not die today, which meant his love for her meant something. He inhaled again and drifted into a vision. He dreamed of Paradise. He dreamed of Timneet.