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ali An-destan drew his camel-wool cloak closer and shivered. It didn’t seem right to be up this late. Whether or not Zalir was smiling on him at this time in his life, he still felt the lack of the sun-god’s unmistakably powerful rays of sunlight. And being forced to remain not only awake, but outside, during the dark, cold night of the Kharazim desert was… unsettling, to say the least. The moon was out, but its light was cold, foreboding… like the sun-god’s jealous brother who could only mimic the glory of true sunlight.
“Here they come,” said Hizan. Rali looked to where his friend was pointing. Sure enough, in the distant cold moonlight was a cloud of dust being kicked up by the hooves of four or five horses. Their riders were dark—black shadows against the bluish night sand, almost like extensions of the black of night itself. Rali felt a pang of fear shudder through him, but he tried to cover it.
He looked at Hizan, trying to lighten the darkness with a smile. “No turning back now, right?”
Hizan smiled back, but Rali could see fear behind his eyes. Hizan was a couple of years older than Rali, and a couple of inches taller. His own cloak pressed tightly against his bald head as he looked back toward the riders. “I guess not. You scared?”
“Yes,” said Rali.
“Me too,” admitted Hizan. He looked back at the dust cloud. The riders were already slowing, even though they were still a hundred or so yards away. “Do you think they see us?”
Rali pulled out his long knife and a lump of flint from his pouch. He struck the two together, making brief sparks illuminate the air. The riders paused for a moment, then sped up again toward the two men.
Rali pocketed the knife and flint, then closed his eyes, trying to swallow his fear. Why was he so jumpy? He had been through much more terrifying ordeals than this. Some of them in the past few days. And he had handled them beautifully, like he always had. Perhaps this was more of a “dread” sort of ordeal, though. Acting on impulse was always second-nature to Rali, but this stewing in impatient dread of what could happen was much worse.
The riders finally arrived, stopping in front of Rali and Hizan. Rali closed his golden eyes once more, imagining himself in an alley, facing another thief. Time for talk. No fighting even… at least, he hoped not… just talk. He could handle that. He opened his eyes.
One of the riders dismounted. His head was wrapped in a black camel-wool scarf, and he had an equally thick and dark vest over a linen tunic. His arms, however, were bare, and golden bangles shone in the light of the desert moon. Two unsheathed swords also shone, one at each hip, as well as a single orange gem on a golden chain around his neck.
“Shouldn’t you be leaving the night watch to the Tibaa?” the man asked in a high, raspy voice.
“They cannot be trusted,” said Hizan carefully, “for they shun the light that must be embraced.”
The rider nodded at Hizan, then extended a hand to clasp his wrist. He reached to Rali, who shook it, nodding. His hand felt rough, as if it had been grated on rocks. Or perhaps scarred by holding the wrong end of a sword many times.
The other riders dismounted. It turned out there were five of them, and they formed a sort of half-circle around the two men. They were dressed in cloaks, more like Rali and Hizan, except for their choice of black attire. They each also had two swords at their waists.
“Hizan An-Tosif?” asked the head rider. Hizan raised his hand and bowed respectfully. “And Rali An-destan?” Rali mimicked the gesture.
“Who do we address?” asked Rali, hoping he was acting the way he should.
“You address Sharoh, the first-chosen of Zalir, brother,” said the head rider. “You will learn the names of these your four other brothers in time. For now, we must talk business. But first, shall we sit?”
Rali looked at Hizan, who seemed relaxed. He tried to relax as well as they all sat cross-legged on the sand. They each pulled their cloaks up beneath themselves as they sat.
“Now,” said Sharoh, removing the scarf from his face. “You know why I am here. I am here to bring you into the horde of the sun-god.” Sharoh’s face looked as rough as his hands were. He had a black goatee, but some parts of his chin were scarred where no hair grew. “I have heard of your… inexperienced thefts in Ptaliram, which is why I sent Zalir’s second-chosen to reveal to you my intentions to recruit you. The question is, why are you here?”
The two men hesitated. Rali spoke first. “We wish to accept your recruitment, sir.”
Sharoh’s golden eyes flashed at Rali. “There is no sir,” he said as Rali’s spine turned to ice, “but Zalir.”
“Yes… brother,” said Rali.
Sharoh smiled, the fire in his eyes immediately gone. “You wish to accept? Fine enough, but why? Why leave the town of your birth, your houses you call home, your thieving routes, your reputations? Surely you’ve worked hard to become the clandestine thieves you are. You have avoided the capture of the amin, or else you would be dangling from the ropes on the Tree of Thieves right now. As far as my men have gathered, you aren’t even suspected or wanted men. For all the amin knows, you are upstanding citizens who do good for the community.”
Hizan spoke next, leaving Rali relieved. “You flatter us, brother, but we are not as silent as you say. The amin is indeed suspicious of us, and were it not for your timely arrival, we may have been making our last few robberies before being strung up.”
The head rider smiled. “Ah, so it is out of desperation that you accept my invitation?”
“N-no! That is…” Hizan fought for words.
“What he means is, Zalir be praised that you have come to take us to our next station in life,” said Rali. “It truly is by providence’s hand that this opportunity has presented itself.”
Sharoh nodded assent. “Perhaps. It is common for Zalir to shine upon those who hide in the shadows. Perhaps he has seen it fit to bring us together for mutual benefit.”
Hizan nodded, bowing his head again.
“What, brother, is this mutual benefit?” asked Rali.
“Yes, I have been a bit vague about it, haven’t I?” said Sharoh. “I accept your reasons for joining, and will now explain. In the palace, in the Grand City, there is a man who Zalir sees fit to dispose of. He has grown fat on the money of those who serve him, but his real sin lies with the Tibaa.”