Seeking Feedback on Chapter 29 of “Firedancer”

What I am looking for here is constructive criticism.  The goal of this chapter was to convey a sense of suspense and foreboding – it is the second-to-last chapter of the first book in the series.  I am not really looking for spelling/grammar stuff but, if you happen to find it, please let me know!

Chapter 29 – Abraq

The wadi had been meandering through the narrow sandstone canyon for the better part of a day when the canyon finally opened up into a wide valley cut into the red and orange striped earth. The sun was high in the sky when Emyni, Nusiki, Datena, Bes, and Mel’k emerged from the road that followed the remnants of the river. The walls of the canyon sloped gently there, a contrast to the sheer cliffs of the riverbed, and were segmented by many cut terraces that ran all the way to the rim. Each terrace was a paved road with mud brick dwellings attached to the walls and stacked on top of one another. And on the canyon floor the remnants of the river emptied into a small brown lake.

“Behold,” Bes said with exaggerated aplomb, “The Sunken City of Abraq.”

“It’s…” Emyni began.

“…filthy.” Datena finished and absently brushed at her clothing, dirty from the road.

“And it isn’t really sunken.” Nusiki mused.

“Just because these people don’t live in sewers,” Datena muttered, “doesn’t mean they are any less filthy than you, thief.”

Nusiki opened his mouth but was silenced by Mel’k’s icy glare.

“Dwarf,” the Igibarra addressed Bes, “I will not be a babysitter. You said they could come along, you keep them in line.”

“Of course, Galkin. We wouldn’t want to see Nun-Ki’s mightiest warrior brought low by a few unruly teenagers.”

Emyni stifled a laugh. Mel’k glared at her and turned back towards the city.

The brown trickle of water that was once the river separated from their path and wandered off towards the east. The road followed the canyon wall to the west. On the outskirts of the city were small huts, a village in its own right, made of wood, palm fronds, and, on occasion, mud bricks. They were all ramshackle affairs and had the air of being semi-permanent. It looked to Emyni as if the residents of these homes were ready to move at a moment’s notice.

When they were close enough to this village within a city the residents became visible to the small troupe. They wore ragged clothing, long robes exclusively made of an undyed rough fabric woven from the hair of camels and goats, and were universally covered in dirt. Listless and fearful eyes stared warily at the quintet as it passed. The only words Emyni could hear were hushed and in a foreign tongue.

“What is wrong with them?” Emyni realized she was whispering as well, as if the hush were infectious.

“They’re poor,” Datena snorted.

“It is more than that, Builder’s Daughter,” Bes admonished lightly, “the desert of Abraq, as you well know, is not a kind place. The cities that sit within are no better. The life of a person in Abraq is a constant battle. A battle for food, for water, for shelter, and for life itself. The entire city is based around the oasis there,” he gestured towards the stagnant lake, “because it brings traders who are passing from Eridu to Adummatu and back. Without these traders there would be no food or goods for the poor souls that live here.”

“Why don’t they leave?” Nusiki piped up.

“Where would they go?” Mel’k asked, “They have little money and no army to defend them. To get anywhere requires a perilous journey across the desert and through the unregulated Bedda wastes.”

“If they don’t have an army how do they protect themselves from the Bedda?”

“Good question, Emyni.” Bes smiled, “Shrewd thinking. They protect themselves by being necessary to the Bedda. There are few places where Bedda are openly welcomed for trade. Abraq is one such place. The Bedda restrain their more violent tendencies in exchange for access to the water of the oasis and the right to trade with the people here.”

“Where do they trade? I don’t see a market.” Nusiki asked, his nose twitching.

“No markets here, boy.” Mel’k grunted, “Trading is done within the very homes of the merchants themselves. It is a different way of doing things here in Abraq.”

“In their homes?” Nusiki smiled broadly, “How easy it would be to bargain if you could see the true wealth of the merchant.”

“And how easy it would be to steal from them if they invited a thief into their house?” Mel’k frowned at the boy.

“I-”

“Do not think of it, Nusiki,” Bes said sternly, “there are only two punishments for crimes in Abraq. And neither leave the criminal alive.”

The boy swallowed hard. Emyni smiled and looked away.

The buildings that made up the ragged village began to grow fewer and eventually gave way as the dirt road merged with a paved ramp that led up to the city proper. Several men and children lounged at the base of the ramp, some armed and some begging, but all garbed in the same filthy robes of the villagers. One of two listlessly stood to approach the travelers but one stern look from the black-robed Igibarra returned them to their places.

“Amateurs,” Nusiki coughed, “don’t even make an effort.”

Emyni frowned at Nusiki, her thoughts returning to the beggars at the gates of Nun-Ki and Bes’s tale of their plight. To keep herself from snapping at the boy she looked up the ramp to the city.

The mud brick buildings were uniformly tan in color, large and of many stories. The buildings had no windows that Emyni could see but were instead festooned with uncovered oval doorways cut into the bricks. Steps were carved into the very walls to lead to the second, third, and sometimes fourth floors. The tops of the buildings were rounded and possessed of a teardrop appearance. Jutting out from the otherwise uniform walls, at seemingly random, were the ends of logs and small sticks. Emyni imagined they must have been part of the framework of the unusual buildings.

There were no breaks between the buildings. Instead the city was one long semi-circle that spanned the canyon wall. At the far end she could see that the road doubled back onto another ramp that led up to the second of at least five levels of similar design.

Outside of the buildings, and on the steps, sat hundreds of people. Most wore white or black robes in desert fashion that covered all but their faces. But while the people and the buildings may have seemed as featureless and uniform as the desert itself, the wide street was lined with date palms, cacti, and other hearty desert plants. The green of the plants and the often surprisingly bright flowers on them provided the only color in the otherwise unimpressive city. All in all, Emyni thought, Eridu and Abraq had done nothing to dispel her belief that Nun-Ki was the most beautiful city in the world.

“Do you have a plan for the night?” Bes asked Mel’k. The big man nodded softly. The vague answer seemed to be enough for Bes who settled back into his saddle in silence.

They rode on for some time while the people of the city eyed them without speaking or with hushed words among one another. Emyni felt a prickling on the back of her neck and a sudden uneasiness in her joints. Her knees seemed to itch under the vacant stares of the citizens of Abraq. She wanted to scream.

“What are you peasants looking at?” The sudden loudness of Datena’s shrill question made the riders jump. The people nearby all turned dead eyes upon the ebon beauty from Nun-Ki.

“Datena…” Bes began.

“What is wrong with them? Why are they just staring and not talking? What is wrong with you?” Her voice grew louder with each question, more panicked with each word. The soundless stares of the people were unnerving her as well, Emyni thought. Somehow that brought some comfort to the girl.

It was Mel’k who spoke up, “These are a quiet people, girl. You could do to learn from them. They are patient; the desert has a way of making you so. They only speak when they feel it is needed. They never speak loudly because they think it is rude.”

“How do they make any money trading if they don’t talk to visitors?” Nusiki asked, wide eyes scanning as his head twisted about to view the crowd. Emyni noticed that the usually in control thief seemed rattled as well. Somehow, though, this only made him seem more enthralling. With an angry shake of her head she forced herself to look away.

“They watch and learn. They know a trader from a traveler just by looking. Tell me, thief, you know how to make a mark, do we look like traders to you?” Mel’k raised an amused eyebrow at the boy. Nusiki wisely chose to look away.

It wasn’t until they reached the second level of the city that Mel’k’s plan was revealed. On that level they were met by a man dressed much like Mel’k who wordlessly led them to one of the many openings in the continuous building that was the city. Emyni marveled that he knew where to go as there appeared no markings to distinguish one doorway from another. They dismounted and as they did Emyni searched in vain for a place to stable Kunga. She looked on in shock when Mel’k and Bes led their mounts through the opening and into the building itself. The three young charges followed suspiciously.

The inside of the building was a surprise for the three who had never been to Abraq before. Hidden within the drab face that the city displayed to the world was a surprising world. The building they entered, at first blush, appeared to be nothing more than a stable. It was a large room with several camels and horses already within. They stabled their mounts in separate pens. When they had removed their bags their guide wordlessly led them further into the building. A door led to a hallway that Emyni realized was cut into the living rock itself. At even intervals along the walls of the striped sandstone recesses had been cut and light from oil lamps escaped and cast long, dancing shadows on the opposite walls. Every few paces they passed doorways, as well, but their guide ignored them all. Most were barred to the travelers but one, larger than the others, stood open. As they approached it the tired troupe could hear the sounds of revelry from within but they did not enter. Mel’k and Bes paid no notice but their three charges all succumbed to curiosity.

Nusiki was the first to pass the open door and looked within. He smiled a wicked smiled and his nose twitched and then moved on. Emyni was even more curious. Datena was next, the orange light of the lamps flickering and dancing on her shining onyx skin, and her response was less amused than Nusiki’s. She raised one eyebrow and involuntarily licked her lips but also moved on. Emyni was the last to pass and was eager to see what the fuss was about. This close the sound had become a din of voices and song. The doorway opened into a wide room with wooden beams supporting the rock ceiling and pillars supporting those beams. Oil lamps of brass and clay hung from the ceiling and cast long shadows through the sickly smoke that hovered in the hall. Tables of rough wood lined the room and were filled with many men and women, eating food and drinking from clay goblets. In a corner two men played a tune on a hide drum and a stringed instrument Emyni didn’t recognize. It looked fun and frightening all at once.

The prickle on the back of her neck returned and she found her eyes drawn to the farthest corner. There, hidden in the ever-moving shadows, a figure could be seen. As if sensing her eyes upon him he leaned into the light. When she saw the scarred eye she shuddered and quickly moved on. A part of her wanted to tell Bes and the others but that other part of her that always appeared when the man did warned her that they would say it was nothing. The man had never been a threat to them, after all, he just seemed to be there, watching with his one baleful eye.

They ended their trip down the hall in front of one of the shuttered doors. The guide produced a key from his robe and opened it, revealing a large, though not nearly as large as the dining hall, room with five mattresses on the floor, a wash basin in the corner, and a night basin in another.

“An Inn.” Nusiki stated the obvious, “I thought as much when I saw the tavern.”

“I will bring you food. Certainly you will wish to refresh yourselves and rest.” The guide talked only to Mel’k. The quiet warrior nodded.

– – –

After a simple meal of bread, cheese, and vegetables with warm goat milk the travelers found the rigors of their ordeal weighing them down. A wordless agreement passed amongst them and they each retired to one of the five plain beds and fell asleep – all but Datena, who lay with her eyes lidded but open. While the others had their midday nap she played the events of the past two months over and over in her mind.

There was one event, of course, that she did not want to recall but nonetheless her own thoughts betrayed her, in much the same way that her servant had betrayed her when she was captive, in the same way that the witch had betrayed her. That night before she was to be sold at market in Eridu. She closed her eyes to ward off the memory but it only returned with vivid detail. The cold breeze on the open salt flats, the distant glow of the city of Eridu, the sparkling ribbon of stars painted across the midnight sky. And the steely resolve of a girl who had but one goal: revenge. Oh, how she thought she was so secret, so clever. Crawling through the sand to the sleeping form of Adini and carefully removing the mountainglass blade from his belt. The terror that gripped her, the fear of getting caught, as she sawed through the hemp rope binding her wrists was palpable even months later.

Then they came. For some reason, despite what followed, it was the glowing eyes that stuck in Datena’s mind. She had not seen anything like them before and she prayed to all the Gods that she would never see them again. They certainly must have been demons; summoned from the other worlds to do the bidding of the witch. They came in the camp and…she turned away. She would not remember that. She would not remember the screams and the blood.

Instead she was running. Blindly running in the dark. Not towards anything – just away. Away from the dying light of the fire, away from the screams of the two men, away from the glowing red eyes and matted mass of fur. She ran, but it wasn’t fast enough, not this time. She could hear them coming closer. The sound of sand behind kicked up under four feet. Panting, grunting, growling. She could feel the hot breath on the back of her neck. It stank of rotting flesh and sulfur. She tripped and fell. They were upon her. She turned and screamed.

Instead of the beasts there stood a man holding a staff. He was simply robed in white with a hood. His free hand was outstretched to her and his face bore a smile. But it wasn’t the smile, which seemed less an expression of warmth or mirth, but instead looked as though a force was stretching his lips into a facsimile of emotion, that drew her eyes. It was his eyes – or his lack of one. Where his right eye should have been was a mass of scar tissue criss-crossed with deep cuts, one which ran the length of his cheek. His other eye seemed to shine of two colors, half green and half blue, as if to make up for the lack of the right one. She tried to crawl away from the man but found herself rooted to the sand.

Suddenly beside him stood Emyni aglow with the flames of her power. Not blue flames, though, red flames; a bright red, like blood, that flowed as a liquid fire off of her body. And her face was locked in a soundless scream – eyes open, mouth contorted, in an expression of fear and pain. The man’s one eye flashed red and the twisted smile settled into a primal frown. Emyni reached out to Datena, as if imploring her for help. With a retch and sickness in her throat Datena saw that Emyni’s fingers were melting like a tallow candle and dripping blood red to the sand.

She screamed again and sat up in the bed. Her skin was covered in a cold sweat and she was shaking. The flame of the oil lamp had long flickered out and only a dim light from beneath the door shone in the room. Somehow she had fallen asleep. But the nightmare was so real, so intense. It had to be the witch. She was in her mind.

“Enough,” she whispered in a shaken voice and drew the mountainglass dagger from her pack. She no longer cared if the others knew. They wouldn’t wake up in time to stop her. It was her chance.

She crawled, shaking, across the floor to the mattress that Emyni had fallen asleep on. The girl was hidden under a pile of furs. Datena rose to her knees, lifted the mountainglass high above her head, and with the other hand threw back the covers and drove the dagger down.

“DATENA!” Nusiki’s shout came too late, the boy realized. Some instinct had told him to wake up in time to see the lithe silhouette of Datena drive a dagger into Emyni.

Mel’k and Bes both jumped to their feet. An eerie blue light appeared in the palm of Bes’s hand and he held it briefly before flicking it to the ceiling where it stuck. The room was bathed in it’s pale glow. For a heartbeat, a flash of eternity, the three men stared in disbelief at the slumped form of Datena who wept over Emyni’s bed. Then Mel’k sprang into action and pulled the girl away. The sharp crack of glass breaking accompanied the sight of the onyx blade shattering upon the floor when the warrior disarmed her. Bes and Nusiki were already at Emyni’s side before Mel’k could strike the girl.

“Igibarra! Stop!” Bes’s voice was commanding, powerful. The enraged soldier froze with his hand raised, ready to strike the cowering Datena with the back of his hand.

Nusiki stared in disbelief at the bed. Bes closed his eyes and muttered incoherent words in a language known only to the Asipu. It was Datena’s repeated sobs that finally made Nusiki understand what he was seeing.

“Gone…gone…gone. Cheated again. She’s gone.”

“She’s right, Mel’k,” Nusiki said, “Emyni isn’t here.”

“Where is she?”

“Gone.” Bes sighed and sat back on his haunches in defeat, “Taken.”

“Gone, gone, gone.” Datena’s sobs sang a funerial tune.

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