The city of Gamzhe was like something out of a fever dream. The dusky hue of the golden buildings, the vibrant colours, the taste of spice that lingered in the air, and the thick smell of scented oils, they all melded together into a sensation that proved all too much for their dehydrated minds. Each member of the trio drifted in and out of consciousness for days, all the while being fed water and food they couldn’t quite palate but consumed all the same. When one had been without food and water as long as they had, one would hardly say no because their food tasted strange.
Of all the trio, Shay was the first to awaken from that fleeting state between life and death. He was used to going great lengths without eating, so his body was all too accustomed to the lack of food. It was the lack of water that that had gotten to him, and thus his ailment had been the easiest to remedy. The young orphan was the next to arise, as much like her slumdog companion she had gone lengths without eating before. Never as frequently as Shay, and certainly never to the extremes that he had to endure, but she was used to eating less than normal all the same. Cathedrals, as could be assumed, were not well known for providing nutritious meals to their charges. As long as it kept bellies full, it was enough.
Of course, none of the same held true for Rin. That buzzing in his skill had persisted all the way from Ankora and only seemed to wear him down further. Paired with starvation and dehydration, the Western boy was near exhausted by the time of his rescue, and had been closer to death than any of his companions. While it took but a few days for Shay and Aoife to reanimate, it took a week for Rin to rejoin the land of the living.
Neither Shay nor Aoife had anything to say to him, or to each other, and frankly the Western boy returned the sentiment. The wounds from their argument were still open and sore, and the three of them would rather have parted ways then and there but the reigning Lord had beckoned them together for an audience. He had signed his summons, written in the finest and most elegant of cursive, Gunnar Balfa, though the means of it were lost on the trio. Rin had studied names, and he had never once heard the surname Balfa. It could always be a falsified name, he supposed, but it seemed strange to use a fake name when they were unaware of anything in the first place.
Their audience with him, however, seemed forgotten as the mysterious Gunnar Balfa was nowhere to be seen. The trio were shown into a drawing room swathed in the same golden tiles as the building’s exterior, though an array of jade coloured tiles decorated the room in ornate patterns unlike anything the three had ever seen before. What wasn’t clad in tiles was instead clad in books. Two giant bookcases lined the walls, standing floor to ceiling, and filled with more books than Rin had ever seen in one room outside of the Library. For the most part, however, the books looked untouched, intended to serve more for decoration than as actual reading material. Were he not too busy being wary of just who and what this Gunnar Balfa was, Rin would have examined them to see what the illusive man had in his collection.
There wasn’t much in the way of seating, just the same low-standing table they had seen in the Oracle’s shack, though of course this one was much more finely crafted. Scattered around the table was a selection of ornately decorated silk dressed pillows, their purpose clearly for seating, though none of the trio imagined they would be particularly comfortable, as accustomed to proper chairs as they were.
The sound of a door opening roused them from their observations. They had expected Gunnar Balfa to emerge flanked by guards and ready to apprehend the dangerous criminal that they were sure Aoife had been painted as. But what greeted them instead was a lone man, who bore nothing more than a smile against them. He had the trademark dark hair and olive skin of an Eastern man, though his body language was decidedly more friendly than the other Easterners they had met.
“Greetings, my friends,” he said warmly, arms extended as if he were expecting a hug. “Apologies for my lateness. I am afraid I caused myself a distraction.”
He lowered his arms then, but if he had been expecting a hug, he didn’t let his disappointment show. His smile clung to him like a bad smell, and for all it should have been unsettling, somehow he never failed to present it as anything less than friendly.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Balfa, but-” Aoife started, but their new acquaintance cut her off.
“Lord Merenis,” Gunnar corrected. “By your custom, I am Lord Merenis. By my custom, I am Gunnar Balfa. But please, I would rather you just call me Gunnar.”
“Right… Well, Lord Merenis, again, thank you for your hospitality, but we really should be on our way. I’d hate to waste anymore of your time.”
Gunnar let out a hearty laugh, and Aoife felt an embarrassed blush creep onto her cheeks? Had she said something laughable? She thought she had been perfectly polite. Unless… Unless Gunnar knew about what had happened in Eturia, and they weren’t here as guests but as prisoners. Yes, that must be it. She supposed even she would laugh a little if a prisoner asked to just walk out the front door.
It was at this point, however, that Shay and Rin noticed something of greater importance than lacking social graces. They noticed it for different reasons, of course—Rin for an almost scientific curiosity, and Shay simply because he was looking for something to steal to barter his way out of this backwards country—but they noticed it all the same. Upon Gunnar’s fingers sat an array of gold rings, each with a precious stone set delicately into it. His clothes, while extravagant and stained in equal measure thanks to whatever had held him up, were adorned with tiny gemstones. Just as the Oracle had predicted, they would meet a man dressed in jewels. Just their luck, he was a Lord.
“Please, stay a while. Let me show you the city!” Gunnar spoke with the unbridled enthusiasm of a man that had seen no hardships.
Needless to say, it left a sour taste in Shay’s already sullied mouth. He just wanted to be gone. He had had enough of shepherding two children across the world, and he would be more than happy to pass the burden along to Gunnar. Hell, at this rate, he’d be happy to go back to Olmaea, and that was the one thing he wanted to do least in this world. But Gunnar persisted, and Aoife was ensnared by his charms, and when the girl got an idea in that daft little head of hers, only the Maker Himself could pry it out. As per usual, the prick was silent and invisible as ever.
While Shay and Rin were naturally wary of such a kind gesture—in both their experiences, kind gestures were usually followed by something terrible—Aoife began to see Gunnar for what he truly was; a chivalrous gentleman. Before either of her male companions could object, Aoife had not only agreed to stay in the city, but had also roped them into attending some decidedly unnecessary tour of the city. A tour they were assured they needed since the locals apparently spoke little of the common tongue, though none of the trio were sure what else they could speak. There was only one language in the whole of Valara, unless the people of Gamzhe had created their own? What good would that be? If they ever left the city, they would be lost. And likewise, anyone who came to the city and did not speak it would be lost in equal measure.
Language barriers aside, however, the city of Gamzhe was certainly a sight to behold. Each building was clad in the same golden tiles they had seen in Gunnar’s drawing room. In fact, the tiles left each building glimmering like a rare jewel in the spring sun. As Gunnar led them through the streets, pointing out buildings and pinning strange names to them—the albiniar, which could only be described as a water palace, was the only name they even came close to understanding—something began to niggle at Shay’s largely uninterested brain. Everything seemed too perfect. Too clean cut. Wherever there was a city, wherever there was something with a large populous, there were people in suffering. People in poverty, like he had been. This grand tour of Gunnar’s didn’t seem to edge anywhere near the slums Shay knew had to be there, and while he had little care for the suffering of the impoverished, he despised the aristocracy. Even more so when they tried to hide the failings of their cities.
“So, Gunnar, when does this tour of yours stop by the slums?” Shay asked, when they found themselves out of the heart of the city.
The streets began to funnel off like the threads in a spider’s web and, even through the heavy coating of sand the storm had dumped on the city like a dead-weight, the barest glimpses of gold could be seen.
“Slums?” he asked, confusion ripe in his voice, and for a while Shay could not tell if the confusion was at the word or the suggestion. “Shay, my friend, there are no slums here.”
“Then what happens to the poor?” Shay asked defensively.
If Gunnar was lying, even by Shay’s standards he was good at it.
“We help them.” The way Gunnar stated it so matter-of-factly shocked the Olmaean into a rare bout of silence. “If someone cannot afford to eat, we feed them. If they thirst, we quench it. If they need a home, we house them. The Sands are not like the rest of the world, Shay. We are a community. We help each other in times of need. So no, there are no slums. Our disenfranchised do not want, as long as they are able to voice their needs.”
“An admirable ethic, Lord Merenis,” Aoife said brightly.
Rin could all but see the stars glinting in her eyes, and the perpetual sour expression on his face only worsened. His annoyance at being perceived as little more than a friend was waning, only instead to be replaced by an annoyance that everyone else was apparently deemed worthy of her affection. He was starting to think that even if he were the last man alive, she would still choose someone else over him.
“Aoife, please, there is no need for such formality. We are all friends here, and my friends may call me Gunnar.” His usual grin was plastered to his face, a sight that should have been more menacing than it was.
Gunnar had a strange quality about him. His ever present grin never felt anything other than welcoming, and even though he was charmingly bossy and had ever so subtly asserted his dominance more than a few times, he still never failed to be anything but gracious. He was the sort of man that excelled at politics. He would spit harsh and unwelcome truths, and soften them with that welcoming smile of his. He could likely read a man his death sentence and still make it seem like a gracious gesture. But for all his proficiency in the area, he did not involve himself in it any more than he had to. In his heart, and in his city, Gunnar was a scientist, not a politician. His mind was turned to experiments and chemistry sets rather than seasonal balls at varying Eastern cities and upper class marriages. He paid attention, and he attended them dutifully, but it was science that made him tick. It was science that had paid for Gamzhe, and it was science that left him a pariah among the pious. Not that he particularly cared.
“Nowhere is without its faults,” Rin cut in, standing in for Shay’s new found silence.
“My friend, clearly you have never been to the Sands.”
Needless to say, the Western boy was far from impressed. The idea that one corner of the world could be completely without fault was as ludicrous as it was arrogant, and it didn’t sit well with him. He could only imagine what Shay must think of it, given his hatred of anyone above the poverty line. Gunnar flaunted his wealth like a child might show off a new toy, or so Rin perceived. The ornate golden buildings were little more than a spoiled boy showing off, and Rin would sooner have been rid of the place. From the very first step they had taken in the East, nothing had been normal. Nothing made sense quite like it should, and he hated it.
But what made it worse was the fact that, under any other circumstances, he would be more than thrilled to be in the Sands. To immerse himself in this strange, new culture. To learn its history and its stories. To soak up all the knowledge that Gamzhe had to offer.
But these were dire circumstances. He was hot, he was tired and sore from his near death experience, and, when it came down to it, he just wanted to go home. He longed for the comfort and the safety of Eturia. Even the Aur Valley would be preferable to this, and he had sworn never to return to the Aur after last time.
His comments changed nothing, though, and both his and Shay’s foul moods went unnoticed by their host, who gleefully led them around the rest of the city, though the two young men swiftly lost interest.
Aoife, however, was enraptured. Gamzhe, to her, was like something out of a fairytale, and Gunnar was its dashing prince. Her infatuation with Shay was by no means forgotten, but instead sat simmering away at the back of her mind. If she thought hard enough about it—and her God bade her not to think about it—Gunnar and Shay weren’t all that different, as far as appearances went. Shay was definitely taller—freakishly tall by society’s standards—but Gunnar was broader. He was packed with more muscle—someone who exercised for aesthetics and not out of necessity. His hair was darker and longer than Shay’s. It looked almost long enough to pull back into a bun, with enough patience and determination.
One distinct similarity was their skin tone, however. They both shared the same dark skin that was so uncommon in the South. If not for their accents, Aoife might almost have assumed Niamh, Shay and Gunnar all hailed from the same place, so similar were they. Little did she realise it, but Aoife was beginning to develop a type. One that would never grant Rin what he wanted.
As their grand tour reached its end, the four found themselves splitting up. Shay and Rin were escorted, by Gunnar’s personal guard—and didn’t it just rub Shay the wrong way that the man had a personal guard—to a block of state-owned apartments, or so they were told, and left to ‘settle in.’ They weren’t exactly sure what there was to settle, though. All their worldly possessions were back in their respective homes. Still, they didn’t fight it. Shay was content enough, for now, to have a roof over his head and to be out of the desert and back in civilisation, however suspicious it might be.
And Rin? Rin was just glad to have a bed again.
Their shared suspicions would be voiced soon enough, but for that moment they wanted to enjoy the brief respite from their disaster of a journey.