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SHAZRAD: City of Veils
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ZHAEL KHAJAT VNER

A character created and played by Vega.


Appearance

Upon first sight, Zhael may pass for a Kivredese. But take a closer look at her appearance and her name, and her indigenous heritage from a Sands tribe becomes evident. Like all the purebloods of her tribe, Zhael is sturdily built and of middle height, her bearing regal and somewhat aloof. Her dark, thick wine-red hair is tied in a long braid, which, along with the angular and chiselled features of her face, is always hidden beneath the elaborate headdress of her tribe. Only her smoky-gray eyes, their alertness sheathed in indifference and coolness, are visible. While her appearance is pleasing, something in Zhael's movements and bearing belie a more resolute disposition: deliberate in ease, quick and agile in haste, a type of raw and unrefined grace. Only her fingers display any sort of elegance, for they are the long and supple fingers of a trained musician, despite the roughness of her hands produced by years of hard work. It is Zhael's voice -- a low, musical alto with a lilting accent in speech, perfectly pitched and flute-like in song -- that distinguishes her from the crowd, the jewel in the rough, the rose amid thorns, a voice that has earned the (exaggerated) praise of being rival to a dragon's. Despite her many years in Shazrad, Zhael has refused to conform to the Shazrash norms of attire, preferring the dress of her tribe that distinguishes her from the average Shazrash.



Personality

There is a proverb, spoken (in different forms) in Shazrad and the Sands, that goes: "The sands of time cannot erase a man's heritage." It is a proverb that holds true for Zhael. In the eyes of the average passerby, she appears unduly aloof, cold and distant, a quality without the intention to offend, but has many times drawn offense from others. But such is the way of the Sands, for the concealment of emotions is the only method of survival. And living in the lower echelons of Shazrad have made Zhael streetsmart and wise, and her steely exterior discourages any incidental harrassment.

But perhaps Zhael's face is not as stern and cool as it appears. Perhaps her mouth is softer and more prone to laughter, the indifferent gray of her eyes gentler and more expressive. But only one of close acquaintance can see past Zhael's cool exterior and the real person behind: a soft-spoken, quiet maiden of few words but many deeds, a person of loyalty and complete honesty. Guile and flattery have never been Zhael's fine points; she is unassuming and to-the-point. But those qualities lie alongside faults of equal measure. The quickness of making decisions may be a tad too quick, and actions, though deliberate and fast, too hasty at times. Keeping secrets is of no difficulty to Zhael, but speaking up at the appropriate time sometimes is. And even if the time is appropriate, the manner may not be, for she is blunt and straightfoward to almost a fault--this, perhaps, is her greatest weakness.

Riddles and wordplay are a great source of intrigue and curiosity to Zhael, as much as song- and poemwriting is. She has staunchly refused to blend completely into the Shazrash culture and is proud of her Sands heritage, taking offense at any slight to her background. She speaks her native language among family members and dresses in the attire of her tribe. Perhaps the pride of bloodline may result in aloofness toward others, but her heritage and cultural identity is something that Zhael would not willingly let go.



Background

Zhael was born in Shazrad, but has her roots in Zhjaka'or, an indigenous bedouin tribe of the Sands. Her father's family had migrated from the desert to Shazrad for some ulterior motive, and had established themselves as traders in exotic weaponry and handicraft. Her mother was a first-generation 'migrant' who followed her father here after their marriage, and maintained the family's strong ties with Sands culture. As a result, Zhael grew up straddling both worlds, immersed in the Shazrash culture while learning the ways of the Sands from her parents.

The family, though not rich, was close-knit and loving. Zhael had an elder brother, Tergiz, and both were inseparable. But Tergiz's life was soon swept away in a misadventure at the seaside. Zhael, at the tender age of six, could not understand the permanence of death, and even today she still imagines that he would one day return and their family made whole again.

The father's relatives had loose affiliations with a merchant Kinship and, while not living hand-to-mouth, remained lesser traders. It was Zhael's stirling voice that made the difference between a sale and none. This quality was evident early in her youth, and her fondness for singing came to her parents' attention, not to mention that of potential buyers. Every day since she was six, Zhael's singing became an integral part of her parents' stall, and that corner of the market, as passersby paused to listen to her sing. Her father began to nurse hopes of enrolling Zhael into a music school, even as her mother continued to teach her the exotic and seldom-heard songs of the Sands.

Eventually, the father's hope came true. Zhael's songs had attracted the attention of a teacher in Shazrad's Academy of Voice and Musicianship, an institution headed by the House of a Thousand Tales. The family could not afford the cost of sending Zhael to the Academy, but the teacher, Nehqari Tharikh, offered to sponsor Zhael on the grounds that she will be bound to the Academy for several years once her training was over. Her family agreed to the deal, and Zhael began her lessons at the School at the age of nine, under the tutelage of Tharikh and her compatriots, and soon became known as a 'dragonsinger', the layman's name for a student of the Academy.

Zhael's life was soon alternating between the Academy in the day and home in the evening. She was trained in singing and musicianship, becoming accomplished in playing the baduul (similar to the mandolin or oud) and the dhara (similar to the dulcimer), the former in particular for it complemented her voice. She took her lessons seriously, knowing that it was out of kindness that she attained such a worthy place in the Academy. The soft-spoken girl grew into a woman with a voice like an instrument, but the knowledge of her position and years of rigorous training had made her serious and focused upon her musicianship. Music became the centre of her life, and little else seemed to matter to her.

Zhael was eighteen and coming to the end of her training when she met Tiuuran Sadje, a fellow student several years her senior. Their friendship eventually deepened into love, but love was only in its prime when Tiuuran disappeared. The Academy had never heard of him, let alone had him as a student, and even her parents retained no memory of him, much to Zhael's consternation. Perhaps a Veil had turned in the night before. Zhael never saw Tiuuran again, and sometimes wonders if she had been living in a waking dream, if not for the memories of their friendship.

Now, at the age of twenty-four, Zhael's golden voice is recognized more-or-less in almost all strata of Shazrad; it and her position as a music teacher under the Academy has briefly lifted her into the courts of the wealthy. Unlike most of the Academy's affluent students, the end of Zhael's bond marks the end of a steady income for her proletariat family. Zhael now willingly lends her musicianship to her family's corner in the Bazaar in the evenings, as she had always done since her youth, despite the frowns of the Academy. As a result, Zhael's evening songs has become an integral part, if not an attraction, of that area, and made her a name among the people of the Bazaar, a fact that she often has mixed feelings over.



Introduction

Zhael had grown accustomed to the rapt faces that turned toward her voice as she sang in the Bazaar, and the occasional shy child running up to ask for a favourite melody.

The man who approached her, however, seemed to have no such thing in mind. He had one of those faces that would slide past notice in any ordinary crowd, wore a conservative and unobjectionable turban over a conservative and unobjectionable white robe. But the way his eyes followed the lines of her baduul, the way he waited until she had reached the end of her set of songs, bespoke a passing familiarity with the ways of music. Zhael did not recognize him from the Academy; then again, many a Shazrash, especially from the middle or upper classes, had grown up to the strains of oud and jaw-harp, crystal chime and the music-bow with its impossible demands on dexterity.

"Pardon," he said quietly, holding a hand out before him to catch her attention, "but I have a proposition for one who is versed"--a flicker of his eyes suggested the pun was deliberate, in this city of double entendres and hidden meanings--"in the ways of music."

In his other hand the man carried a slender, almost dainty knife that she recognized from the morning\'s wares. Well, it would not be the first time her music had enticed someone to buy her parents' offerings, if in a more roundabout manner this time than most.

"There is a riddle of sorts," he continued quietly, his voice barely floating above the Bazaar's accustomed din of haggling and goodnatured threats, "that I am unable to solve for myself. Parts of a--song, if you will, whose greater portions I am trying to reconstruct. I had heard of you from the Academy and other echelons of this city, you see, and your skills would be better suited to this than my own."

From behind their cool facade, Zhael's eyes missed little. Now that she looked more closely, the hand that clutched the newly-purchased dagger was strangely twisted in shape, though surely this man was too young to suffer arthritis or rheumatism or any of the thousand afflictions of the joints that plagued the elderly. There was no telling what his voice would sound like lifted in song, but there was no way that he could play the majority of instruments that Shazrad was heir to.

Glancing around, he said quickly, "I shall not monopolize your time here any longer, but if this is a task that interests you, I should be pleased to treat you to dinner at the Three-Eyed Peacock tonight."

The place he named was a coffeehouse of no small repute, located in an unassailably reputable part of the merchants\' quarter.

Zhael's gray eyes met his, and she gave the briefest of nods. "I will come," was all she said.

The answer satisfied the man, for he nodded, and without further ado, turned on heel and strode away into the Bazaar main. Zhael watched him melt into the crowd, then returned her attention to music. The noisy bustle of the Bazaar faded into the background as strains of melody issued from her baduul.

After playing a few ballads learnt from the Academy, she launched into a song perhaps not altogether familiar to the Shazrash: The Eagle's Eyes, a legend of the times when the world in its youth. Then, the Eagle was king of all birds and the Star-Eyed God's personal messenger between the heavens and the earth. As a heavenly courtier, Eagle was bestowed with two of the Star-Eyed's many Eyes, enabling him to see all things beneath the heavens. But proud Eagle became dissatisfied. Why was his vision limited to only the earth? And was the Star-Eyed so miserly to give him only two Eyes if He had countless many? Surely he deserved one more! Eagle grew ambitious, and conspired to steal one for himself. But in his pride, he forgot that the Eyes of God could also see the intentions of the heart. Eagle was caught in the act of plucking out one of the all-seeing Eyes, and as punishment, the Star-Eyed removed his two Eyes and banished him to earth. Blind and shamed, Eagle wept and mourned for his folly. For twenty days he ate and drank nothing, but at the end of those days, the Star-Eyed had mercy on him and once again bestowed him two of His Eyes. Even though he could never return to the heavens, his Eyes would make him the sharpest-eyed creature on earth. Such it is today. And one would often see Eagle soaring in the sky at great heights, his wings brushing the heavens but never quite reaching it, as he remembers his days as the Star-Eyed's messenger before his folly brought his fall.

The sounds of the string died away, and the sounds of the Bazaar dropped to a reverent lull as the musician's voice heralded the end of the epic. Zhael stirred and gently laid her instrument in its case, binding the hide cover firmly.

"Ai, Dragonsinger, not so soon!" the cheery voice of a merchant broke the silence. "Perfume the air with more of your sweet songs!" A chorus of approval rose from merchant and patron alike.

Zhael smiled and shook her head, slipping behind her father's stall as a wave of protest followed. Behind the bright curtain was home, where she lived with her parents. She carefully laid her instrument in a corner and scooped a mugful of water for her parched throat. Beyond the partition, her father was working the intricate hilt of a dhokhara shortsword, while keeping an eye out for passersby who happened to wander close to his wares. Mother was away -- had been away for a week, now far in the depths of the Sand Sea. Like a dutiful Zhjaka'i daughter, she was making the customary homecoming to her nomadic family, perhaps already reunited, and would not be back for another week. Zhael would have gone with her as before, but now was a crucial time as her bond with the Academy was coming to a close. And Father always needed a helping hand (and eye) at his stall. Neither could afford to leave their home now.

Some time later, the thick curtain parted and Qaraid Khajat Vner entered to see his daughter laying out dinner. "For one person only, Dora?"

Zhael nodded. "Yes, Nushpa." She hesitated, wondering whether to tell him. "Someone has invited me to dinner."

"Ah, so another man's company takes preference over your old father's tonight," her father said good-humouredly, and his eyes twinkled as she sighed at his wisecracks. "With whom?"

She chose to be vague. "Oh... someone I met earlier on."

Father seldom missed anything. "That man who spoke with you just now?" At her nod, his face turned serious. "Be watchful, Dora. Bring your dagger."

"I will. Don't worry about me, Nushpa." Zhael wrapped the veil of her bashlyk around her face, until only her eyes were visible, and concealed her short dagger in the wide sash around her waist. Father had taught her to use the little weapon, and once or twice it had come in handy during sojourns in the streets at night. For a moment she contemplated bringing her baduul, but decided against it as it would attract unnecessary attention. Then she stepped into the streets, now dusted in gold beneath the paling light of sunset.

The journey was short and uneventful, and in no time Zhael found herself at the doorstep of the Three-Eyed Peacock, over which a banner depicting three peacock feathers fluttered. This place was notably larger than the eating-houses near her area of the Bazaar, and she hesitated a moment before stepping through the door. Not only was this coffeehouse large, but also busy and noisy, as it was the hour when many Shazrash were having dinner before commencing the evening prayers.

Zhael spotted her contact sitting at a corner table, and wound her way toward him. She sat down without a word, but before touching her hand to her lips and extending it toward him, a gesture of respect.




Copyright © 2000-2001 by Alioqui & Yoon Ha Lee
<shazrad@cityofveils.com>


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