SHAZRAD: City of Veils

A character created and played by Kit.


A child who just dropped her ball in Azad's path looks up and sees a queer fluttering thing, perched precariously on what are either very tall-soled sandals or short wooden stilts. The grown-ups never move this much and never look this odd! Is this a goblin, then? It's smiling--but what a smile! It could surely pop an entire bluemelon in its maw and have room for a little girl's arm or leg! Why, the child wonders, does this thing not stop moving? It's twitching, making odd sounds! And what manner of clothing are these, these drapings of silk so bright and confusing to make one dizzy? "Are you lost, little one? Are your parents about? Are you lost, little one?" the goblin thing enquires in a soft, odd-sounding voice, peering down from its stilts and silks and twitching head and tiny darting eyes and long, long face and wispy beard and crystal lenses and shiny bald pate and sharpened nails--sharpened, to a nasty nasty point!

The child, wide-eyed, grabs her ball and dashes back into the crowd.

Passers-by glance, not wondering at the child's fright, for what a peculiar looking little man this is indeed. Well proportioned but strikingly diminutive, twitching nervously as if not quite at ease with the world--or with himself. That face, that long face with its small green eyes, is the strangest; paired with the voice's odd inflection and accent, no one could mistake this man for a Shazrad native. But that smile--what is it indeed, that toothy smile?


As an entertainer and a mountebank (both literally and figuratively), Azad's true nature remains well hidden while he is on display. He is well aware of his foreign form and mannerisms and capitalizes on them. He entertains and he confounds, and all the public sees is his odd look and odder displays. When approached in public he is affable enough, but thoroughly unwilling to engage in more than misleading banter. Often people who seek answers of him suddenly find themselves the locus of a new spectacle!

As an entertainer, Azad is of the highest quality. He claims to be a mage-god from a distant, fog-shrouded land, and backs up his claims with the finest displays of street-performer legerdemain. He has a large repertoire, many tricks from his homeland never before seen in the streets of Shazrad. His performances, though quite thorough entertainment, are in fact only a supplement for his true vocation, mountebankery. The demonstrations of magical prowess from the supposed mage-god ensure that his oils and potions, philters and draughts he sells after a performance net him a considerable haul.

Privately, Azad is a broken man and suffers greatly the loss of his home. With money, he hopes, he can buy his way into the houses of men and women who know what lies beyond the seas and, more importantly, how to reach it. This loss, and the daily humiliation such a proud man puts himself through, drives Azad ever deeper--only the company of his daughter Jaanana keeps despair at bay. She misses her home, too, but the wonders of the City of Veils have so entranced her that Azad cannot help but to be swept along in her enthusiasm.

Azad is not well-skilled in the fine art of conversation--his is a talent for the melodramatic and the extraordinary. He has made few friends since his arrival in Shazrad, and though he seems to prefer it that way, there is little mistaking a look both weary and lonesome in his emerald eyes.


No mage-god, this one, no great healer or soothsayer. Just a simple fisherman living a simple life in a small nation consisting of a string of lush and lagoon-spotted islands. Very little about Mikinasili Adaaninga's history is remarkable, in fact--he lived a quiet existence with his wife, her three other husbands, and enough children to warrant four family cows. The most excitement most islanders witnessed was the occasional Sokaru whaling ship gone off course in a spring storm, which always meant odd trinkets and families competing for the right to host a party for the weary crew. The islanders possessed few goods and the islands fewer resources, so visitors never stayed for long. Sharp-witted Mikinasili managed to pick up a smattering of Sokarese from such visits, a skill that served him well on arrival in Shazrad. From the Sokaru he also learned--and improved upon--the skill of legerdemain, and quickly became something of a celebrity among the islanders.

The gods have left us, the shaman declared as the winds picked up from nowhere and the sea frothed against the reefs. The gods have left us, and we are lost.

Mikinasili was out at sea, teaching his youngest daughter about those fish not native to the traquil lagoons, when the phantom storm hit. In the pitch blankness and icy winds the sudden clouds had brought Mikinasili fought desperately to keep control of the tiny fishing boat. He fought for the life of his daughter, who showed no fear at the storm and merely picked up a bucket and began to bail the boat. Dozens of times he thought they were lost, but always the little craft would manage to right itself, always the waves would break and crash just to the side or just behind.

The storm died at last, but dawn never came. Low, black clouds choked the sky, bringing soft stinging rain--always the rain. The sun, the stars Mikinasili depended upon never showed themselves; even the wind changed as unpredictably as a horned amawhal's temper. Mikinasili and his daughter drank the rainwater, ate the fish from the sea, shivered under sodden oilcloth.

It did not seem that long, really. Certainly not long enough for the shock that met Mikinasili when the clouds broke and foreign stars looked down at him from an ink-black sky. In the distance, a lighthouse flashed a pattern of gleaming blue waves upon the tranquil waters.

The sodden pair were feverish and incomprehensible when their little, oddly-shaped craft found the docks of Shazrad. Both spent weeks in convalescence at the Temple of the Star-Eyed God. The girl recovered first, as the young often do, and made unfathomable demands in a strange tongue upon the priests of the temple. When she realized she was not being understood, she sat on a chair at the head of the strange small man's bed until he awoke.

The man spoke haltingly in the musical tongue of Sokaru, though even to Dakhad the translator his name sounded like the whistling wind. It was Dakhad who gave him the title Azad Jalakheed, from the story of a strange warrior who appeared from the deserts and demanded he be given a name.

Azad and his daughter--who picked the name Jaanana for a small desert flower that caught her fancy--lived with Dakhad and his family for months, and it wasn't long before the precocious pair spoke Drakash as fluently as their native tongue.

When Dakhad's wife finally cast the pair out, Azad's skill in prestidigitation managed to keep them off the streets until he perfected his mountebankery. Using the remedies he learned as every youth does in the islands Azad managed to brew potions and philters that, unlike most sold in the streets and bazaars, actually worked. The ingredients, imported from Sokaru, were dear--but so were his resultant potions. It wasn't long before Azad's performance and merchandising placed the pair in a small but comfortable apartment not far from the House of Crescent Swords.

Azad has no House affiliation, for he operates as a street performer and seems to aspire to little more. Only the commoners give any truck to his claims to godhood--most people of standing dismiss him as a lunatic at best and a demagogue at worst. But Mikinasili Adaaninga is a man obsessed--Azad Jalakheed, consequently, is a man of ambition. Soon, he says to himself with that smile, that toothy smile--soon he will begin to climb.


People would speak about anything in an entertainer's hearing.

Especially, say, if that entertainer had oasis-green eyes in a foreign face, if that entertainer were no taller than a child. Even the canny Shazrash often assumed that a diminutive stature implied a diminutive mind.

Amid the gewgaws, medja-carts (whose offerings were starting to look wilted in the afternoon heat, and never mind the canopy) and crush of people reputable and less-so at the Patchwork Bazaar, Azad was but one more entertainer, though more unusual than most.

So it was, as he practiced his legerdemain of birds and glass balls for the wide-eyed crowd--there were tricks to charm even Shazrad's jaded folk--that Azad heard a man say, in a low tense voice, "She was supposed to be here a couple days ago, with the hand"--his tone became sour--"in her hand."

"Perhaps she's wearing a veil," suggested a different voice. "Even the Sokarese can pass beneath a veil as long as they keep their mouths shut."

"I doubt it. I wonder if the Houses got word of this one. They keep their secrets well, and we were so close--those street toys, music boxes and metal birds and suchlike, they don't work the same way." He lowered his voice. "We may have to risk compromising some of our ears."

Long practice enabled Azad to continue his patter while he listened, but the purloined conversation was worthy of more attention than tricks his hands and tongue knew by heart. A conspiracy, or at the least illicit actions: what might a House pay, to learn of such things?

* * *

It hadn't taken much time among the Shazrash for Azad to learn the soporific effects of a fattened purse. He lazed amongst polychromatic pillows and sheets, allowing himself to be entranced by the regular, soft breathing of the slight form beside him. A day's surplus well spent he thought, grinning at his inadvertent double-entendre, and leaned across his supine companion to take a long draught from a jug of spiced wine. He would gladly spend the evening here thus if more important matters did not tug with insistence on some distant, slightly wine-fogged part of his mind.

But tug they did, and Azad realized with a sigh that while pleasure was easily exhausted, business was unflagging. He needed to think, and these quarters were poorly suited to such endeavours. With an elbow, he gently nudged his companion to consciousness.

"Surely not," the svelte creature murmured with a sleepy, teasing smile.

"No indeed," Azad replied with crisp precision as he whisked about the room, draping silks over his body and lighting incense burners to cleanse the air. "Our time is at an end," he continued with practised drama, "as was inevitable from the beginning. Do depart from here. My daughter will be returning shortly. There is a pouch on the table in the kitchen. Take it and its contents if you are out of this door in the next five minutes."

To his companion's credit, there was no urgency in the liquid movements of rising and dressing that followed. Azad always made sure to pay in advance, and thus what sat in the other room was merely a handsome tip; one of his companion's standing would never be so base as rush after such a thing. Azad noticed with amusement, however, that despite much exaggerated primping his companion still made it through the door in time to claim the prize.

"With the hand ... in hand". It was vexing. Azad settled by the window in the kitchen, shivering slightly against the cool evening breeze, and peered thoughtfully into his cup of tea. He studied remembered details of the men's faces in the cup, a blurred patchwork of glimpses caught while diving after a squawking gull that had most unexpectedly appeared from within one of his sleeves. He had had time for little more than glimpses: the pair were as good at their trade as he at his, and while they didn't seem to consciously recognize his scrutiny, some instinct seem to impel them to depart soon after.

Shazrash, definitely, though their voices had told him as much. Apart from that, one seemed to possess a lazy eye and the other a small, curving scar over one shaggy brow. In other words, he'd learned almost nothing to distinguish them from the multitudes. He doubted he'd ever see them again.

So, then, perhaps he could derive something from what little they'd said. If he could tie the pieces together, at least enough to make sense to someone who mattered, he might be able to leap forward in his own quest for answers. Or, if it were conspiracy indeed, he could simply be leaping into an early grave.

Azad had learned very quickly since arriving in the city.

Hands. Secrets. Toys. Music boxes and metal birds. Sokarese and veils and hands and mysteries and hands. It was all a fearsome muddle, one that recreation and wine certainly hadn't helped. At least his pungent tea could be counted on as an ally. He needed his allies, needed to build more allies, desperately sought-

Build. Building. The Houses. Secrets, and metal birds. What foolishness had ensorcelled Azad, sex and ample wine aside? Of course they were talking about the House of the Watching Dragon! Azad grimaced and poured another cup of tea, stronger this time, and prayed his stomach could handle the strain.

What remained was a stupid little riddle about a veiled woman--a mark, perhaps, or a contact?--and "the hand" in her hand. Was she leading someone, then? Someone the blackguards (for Azad, drawing upon his ample imagination and love of melodrama, had decided the pair were villains of the worst kind) wouldn't recognize, but doubtlessly meant to kidnap? The woman, then, was complicit and had betrayed her ward's habits to the pair so they might make off with him or her.

Only the woman had been found out at the last minute, Azad thought with satisfaction, and was busy making close acquaintance with the coral and the kelp. Her ward was safe from harm, and House agents were combing the markets for signs of the would-be kidnappers.

In other words, Azad had absolutely no clue what was going on. He laughed into his tea, then sighed deeply. The cup was halfway to his lips when it froze, its roiling contents reflecting a distorted vision of his widening eyes.

But did they know he had no clue? The blackguards? The woman? Whatever or whomever she carried? The Watching Dragon? Surely Azad's skills were readily applicable. Though he worked best at moving the hand faster than the eye, he had no small talent in making the tongue move faster than the mind. His peculiar and diminutive stature could only prove an asset in disarming the unwary.

Of course, even given that he could drop the right words with the right people--no easy feat!--there was still the simple fact that he didn't know what he was getting himself into. If he played games, he could easily end up dead.

The bell hung against the door jangled. For a moment, Azad smiled in happy anticipation--then all the blood drained from his face.

It could be far worse than ending up dead, he thought, and the sudden tang of bile was in his mouth.

"Hello, father!" a cheerful voice proclaimed.

He would pursue it, he decided suddenly.

But he would play no games.

Copyright © 2000-2001 by Alioqui & Yoon Ha Lee

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