Kedor and Shikha exited the hareem, in deep conversation. Oblivious to the gathered crowd of nobles outside the Gate of Felicity, he strove to ignore their newest member as well.
"It would seem my plan has been put into motion a little earlier than I had anticipated." Kedor's former affectations had been completely replaced with a new earnestness.
"You should get it over with young master; it is too obvious to hide for long," Shikha boldly stated, with a secretive smile. "I at least saw your reaction."
"What ever are you referring to Shikha?" Feigning innocence, Kedor's eyes darted to Tabitha and back as he blushed.
"You won't be able to ignore her forever."
They were interrupted by Arioch, Kedor's cousin and best friend; he came bulling his way, with his Sarmatian bodyguard, through the quietly circling crowd of nobles, surrounding the heir and his bodyguards. Other than Shikha, only Arioch and his bodyguard Leda were aware of Kedor's true nature and privy to his future plans. Though Arioch was quite content to help Kedor carry his act of spoiled noble to all extremes.
"What are you doing in your underwear? Where did you get that old baldric? Who is this young beauty? Did you really kill those two Nubians, they were huge? Is your grandmother furious?” Arioch gushed. "Is this some new plan you haven't told me of?"
"Enough, Arioch! We must speak privately, soon." Kedor gave him a conspiratorial wink.
They were intruded upon by the distant bray of horns.
Kedor looked to Arioch. "Was that a call to the northwest gate, to repel attack?"
"That's impossible; Susa hasn't been attacked in two centuries. Not since Sargon gave us a try in our grandfather's early reign."
Looking flushed, Kedor turned to go. "Shall we respond, Arioch?"
"But of course my prince, we might well be needed to repel invaders." His cousin laughed.
"My young master, you were ordered to await your mother here in the Consortium," Shikha admonished.
"Surely my mother will understand, given the circumstances, "foreign invasion" and all. What say you Tabitha, Leda, shall we off to the Golden Gate to defend our fair city?" Kedor smiled at them brilliantly.
"You’re trouble! I knew it the moment I laid eyes upon you. I should have shot you then." Tabitha muttered, "Perhaps your grandmother will allow me to become an odalisque for your father after all, once she has you beheaded..."
Kedor and Arioch leaned on the parapet, breathlessly watching the confusion gradually escalate. The Golden Gate was closed and that was merely the first thing out of place. Farmers, their herds, and their loads cluttered the inner courtyard. The city guard was wandering amongst them, speaking separately to each person.
"Who is your new dour shadow?" Arioch asked, between gasping breaths.
The pell mell sprint to the gate had left all winded. They had approached along the wall and now stood unnoticed atop the gate tower, watching the confrontation between the City Guard and the hastily gathered group of Rostan (the Padishah's own bodyguard), led by their older cousin Iskander.
"A gift from grandmother and my mother." Kedor rolled his eyes. "I think they have finally come together on something and it spells trouble for me."
"Two exotic beauties, I am positively green with envy." A wide grin crossed his face.
The Sergeant of the City Guard was explaining again, to Iskander, why the Golden Gate was closed as they watched. "The flow of farmers across the ford outside the gate came to a halt an hour ago, the last to cross telling fantastical tales of an army of Bedouin amassing on the opposite banks of the Kerkah. Messengers have been sent to all authorities, my lord"
Adding to the confusion of the panicking farmers was the bristling hostility building between the City Guard, who insisted that the gate remain closed until Pajah Nouri Commander of the City Guard was found, and Iskander with his young band of noble cataphracts, who insisted he open the gate and allow them through.
As the beleaguered Sergeant of the guard flinched and dodged Iskander's nervously prancing mount, Kedor stood and looked to Arioch. "Right, cousin it's now or never. Grandfather has responded in an admirably prompt fashion, our plans are in motion now."
"Are you sure this is wise..." Arioch turned to see Kedor, Shikha, and Tabitha speeding down the brick stairway leading to the gatehouse.
Arioch emerged from the doorway of the gatehouse to see Kedor boldly striding toward the wicket built into the much larger portcullis now barring the Golden Gate. So far no one had noticed the briskly moving party. Arioch began to jog.
As Kedor unbarred and threw open the wicket, Iskander's imperious voice rang out. "Halt fool!"
The five quickly slipped through the opening, as Iskander dragged his speeding mount to a stop on the other side of the barrier.
"Has anyone seen a Bedouin as of yet?" Kedor asked cheerfully, as he spun to face Iskander through the portcullis.
While Iskander struggled to keep control of his courser, Kedor pressed him." No? Perhaps we should cross the river and confirm these frightened peasant's reports?"
Gasping, the sergeant of the guard arrived." No one leaves through this gate 'til the Pajah arrives. Return to this side at once!"
Ignoring the red-faced guard, Kedor cheerily waved to Iskander and set off at a brisk walk." I was thinking I might have a look for myself."
An apoplectic Iskander bellowed, "Open this gate immediately! Gather your men and stop him! Do something you dolt!"
"My duty lies here at this gate." The sergeant moved to the reinforced door, intending to close it. "I'll not be leaving my station 'til my commander gives the order."
Throwing his armored body from his saddle, Iskander thrust the guard out of the way as he ran to catch the princeling and his quickly receding party.
"Just what do you think you are doing my little cousin?" Iskander sneered, as he gave Shikha a wide berth. " The last thing we need is to send a clown in his underwear to meet our enemy."
"Enemy!" Kedor chirped to Arioch." Iskander, always so dramatic, so serious, so precipitous. Have there been reports of any deaths? Attacks? Or, could they be here for the festival?"
"These bandits leave their desert for one reason only." Iskander growled," To raid!"
"Perhaps." Kedor turned on Iskander and stopped. "Still I believe we should lay eyes on this situation. You are welcome to accompany me if you choose. I stress though, no aggression will be shown unless it is warranted."
"Now YOU presume to give ME orders my prissy little cousin?" Iskander blustered, as he grabbed for the hilt of his sword.
"I do, my esteemed cousin, and am in the position to enforce these orders." He meaningfully eyed his companions who had taken up positions surrounding Iskander, hands upon their weapons.
"You speak of my mother's people and they are allied to my father through marriage. You will take your cues from me, or you shall be left here, bound, awaiting our return." Kedor's grey eyes blazed with a command and intelligence Iskander had never encountered before in his foppish young cousin.
Iskander followed deep in thought. They topped the rise of the river bank to behold, a virtual city had sprung up over night along the banks of the Kerkah. They stopped in awe, this was no small tribe. A couple thousand tents had been raised in the dark of the night. As if they had sprung from the ground, no word of this had reached the city until this morning. None of the surrounding fields of grain had been trampled and no scouts had brought word of this massive approach.
Yet, here they were, thousands of their long, low, black tents. They filled fallow fields across the horizon. In other fields herds of their cattle, horses, camels and goats milled about. They all stood in wonder, how could this have been accomplished? As they stood there they observed a troop of horsemen, veiled and in Saracen robes, approaching.
Surrounding Kedor and the others, the leader hailed them. "Young Prince, the Sheikh bids you welcome and asks that you break bread and take your morning repast in his tent. He has sent me to escort you."
Five of the horsemen rode forward, hurling themselves from their saddles, they thrust the reins of their mounts into the hands of Kedor, Arioch and their bodyguards. They then moved to surround Iskander, drawing their scimitars.
"You shall remain here Parsian," the leader declared.
Whirling his mount, he shot down the road setting a ferocious pace. Kedor giving the incensed Iskander an innocent shrug, leapt aboard and urged his steed to match. The others hurried to follow...
They arrived before a huge bayt in the center of the encampment in a fevered swirl of horses, robed men, and dust. Dismounting the leader approached the robed figures guarding the entrance of the immense tent and spoke quietly with them. One entered the tent as the leader spun to take his place on guard at the entrance.
After a moment the guard stepped forth from the tent, throwing back the flaps of the entrance, he announced," The Sheikh will receive you now."
Kedor strode into the tent as if he owned it, which in reality was not far from the truth, being the grandson of the Sheikh. His eyes immediately roved the dimly lit interior. Several men reclined to either side of the entrance leaving the central approach clear. These were obviously honored and trusted elders of the Dulain Tribe. Behind these stood six guards against the walls of the bayt, three to each side. His eyes finally focused on the figure reclining on a huge pile of cushions in the center of the tent.
As their eyes met, the figure spoke," Welcome grandson, to what do I owe the honor of this auspicious summons? By the son of the Padishah, no less! Though never before seen, Sheikh Rashidi bit Dulain responds with instant fidelity."
Kedor bowed deeply. "I thank you, honored grandfather and Sheikh of my mother's people, for responding so promptly. My mother sends her fondest regards. My father also bids you welcome and hopes you will attend a place of honor at the festival feast anon.
"I am here to call on you to honor your obligation to the empire, grandsire."
He focused on Kedor with fiery eyes. "As always, Sheikh Rashidi honors his arrangement with the Padishah. To what forgotten responsibility could you possibly refer?"
Kedor seating himself cross-legged before the Sheikh, at his gesture, stated plainly," You have not entered a challenger in the tournament. This tournament only occurs every three years and determines the Padishah's champion for the next three. The winner, if not a slave, brings honor and obligation on his people. Thus, you are hindering your tribes ability to rise in stature, in the eyes of the Padishah."
At this last declaration, a gasp could be heard to rise from behind the silken divider that sectioned the hareem from the rest of the tent.
"Ah, the reason of your summons becomes somewhat clearer. Perhaps you have a plan in mind to accomplish this adventitious rise in regard?"
"I do, most honored grandsire. I propose you sponsor "me", as champion of the Dulain Tribe, in the upcoming tournament." He smiled, as if this were the only logical conclusion anyone could come to.
This time Kedor's party could be heard to join the gasps of surprise that arose from behind the silken screen.
The Sheikh, smiling a smile that did not reach his eyes, mused," What impossible goals has my soft little grandson set himself? What unknowable aspirations, my pretty little son of the Shah of Shahs, do you wish to achieve by this foolish action? Think you Sheikh Rashidi has not heard of your pampered life or your failure to grasp even the basics of the sword and buckler taught by the very champion you seek to defeat? All this beside impossibility, as I already have a champion."
"Aspirations, yes, perhaps I shall take your position one day." Kedor smiled smugly. "As to my deficits, perchance your champion could teach me something of your scimitar?"
Kedor's declaration was followed by a large gasp from all present in the chamber. The reclining elders all sat up and began to mutter amongst them selves. Angry guards could be seen fondling their hilts.
The Sheikh, rising to a seated position, squinted as though having discovered some new insect. "Kindatu has raised himself an insolent young pup, and foolhardy as well. You issue a challenge and had best know how to use those battered tulwars you bear."
"SUMMON MY CHAMPION!"
Kedor stood, divesting himself of first his baldric and then linen tunic. His bodyguards stepped forward, Shikha grasping his arm.
"My young prince, I would warn against this ill advised behavior. This man you face will undoubtedly be a warrior seasoned in many battles against the Rapha"im and will seek to sorely injure you at best."
Kedor pouted. "Am I not Rakshana?"
This drew sharp looks from both Shikha and Sheikh Rashidi, and started another round of muttering from amongst the elders.
"Did you not pronounce that, this very morning?"
From behind him Arioch whispered," Kedor, I don't like this at all. I have seen you on the practice fields and this is probably a bad idea."
Kedor, shaking off the grip of his bodyguard, pulled the baldric over his now naked torso." Thank you, Arioch, for your vote of confidence, but trust me plans once put into action must be adjusted to come to fruition."
"What has your grandmother done? Attached me to a fool as well as a trouble maker..."
Kedor, interrupted Tabitha's reflection, as he took her hands, and looked into her faded blue eyes. "Trust me, though you know me not. I know what I do and have planned this for years. Come along for the ride and see my plans bear fruit."
Releasing her, he turned into the center of the tent. Drawing his tulwars he began the steps of the Dance of the Rakshana.
He would be limber when his challenger arrived.