Adijan carefully eased her way along street after street of shouting hawkers, haggling stall owners, chattering shoppers, braying donkeys, and laughing delivery boys to be brought up short by the silent red cloth of mourning nailed to the rear door of Merchant Nabim’s house.
Adijan bit her lip as she stared at the blood-colored banner. Still, it might not be for Nabim. His wife might’ve died. Even if the merchant were dead, whoever inherited his business was obliged to honor his debts to his creditors—even so minor a one as Adijan.
Imru, his beardless face artistically daubed with red smears of mourning, invited Adijan to sit on the cushions beside his desk. The red was lip paint not real blood. She also noticed the larger than normal stacks of cloths waiting his attention.
“Sad, sad days.” Imru signed the Eye above his chest. “May the Eye greet and honor the soul of our dearly departed master.”
“May the Eye bless him,” Adijan said. “So, he is dead? When? How? Only two days ago, he was fine.”
The eunuch glanced around before saying, “It was very sudden. Died in his bed.”
“The envy of many men.” She piously traced the symbol of the Eye. “It was peaceful, then?”
Imru’s lips twitched. “Not exactly. His heart burst.”
After a moment of incredulity, Adijan smiled. “He wasn’t sleeping, then?”
Imru shook his head, his grin finally escaping his control.
“He wasn’t alone?” Adijan asked.
“Not his wife?” Adijan’s mind grappled with the unlikely image of the corpulent Nabim slumping lifeless over the wizened body of his wife on that whore’s bed.
“My glorious master died in the arms of the most beautiful woman this side of the Devouring Sands. The envy of many men.”
Adijan laughed. Nabim seemed so unlikely a candidate for cheating his wife under her own roof. And to be caught out so irrevocably! This juicy tidbit would be the delight of the prim and snooty neighborhood for years to come.
She struggled for composure. “Who was she?”
“The mistress hasn’t seen fit to enlighten me with that information.”
Adijan shook her head. This story was one to tell back at the friendly house. “Who inherits the business?”
“The widow. They haven’t officially read the Will yet, but she’s already taking a personal interest.” Imru spread his hands in a gesture that took in the large piles of receipts, tally sticks, and orders. His raised eyebrows spoke, where his lips would not, how trying he was already finding his mistress’s intervention.
“I’ve got a bill of debt.” Adijan produced the cloth woven with Nabim’s signature pattern of yellow, blue, and green threads through it. “Can you pay me off, or will I need to see her?”
“It’s a difficult time. The embalmers are still here. She has many other preoccupations.”
“I know. But this is urgent. I need the money now.”
Imru cocked his head. “Does this have anything to do with those bruises?”
“Yeah. Can you talk to her? Please.”
Imru stood. “I can’t promise anything.”
Adijan followed him into the corridor, another giggle welling up inside her. Imru stopped short of the beaded curtain to what had been Nabim’s office. He put a finger to his lips before turning away to step into the room.
“What is it?” The widow’s voice stabbed from behind the curtain.
“Forgive me, glorious lady,” Imru said.
“One of my late master’s creditors has applied for a most urgent discharge of the debt.”
“This is indecent,” she said. “Couldn’t the vulture wait? My husband is barely stiff.”
Adijan guffawed. She clamped a hand over her mouth.
“What was that?” the widow demanded. “Someone laughing? In this house of mourning?”
“It sounded like a cough to me, mistress,” Imru said.
“How could anyone find mirth in my misfortune?” the widow continued. “It’s inhuman and impious.”
“I’m sure, glorious madam,” Imru said, “that the whole world weeps as much as you for your loss.”
There followed a tense silence, in which Adijan imagined the widow glaring suspiciously at Imru and the eunuch maintaining his expression of neutral sincerity.
“Shall I bring in the creditor, mistress?” Imru asked.
The widow grunted.
Imru poked his head out of the curtain and winked at Adijan. She removed her fez and stepped into the room. The tight figure of the Widow Nabim perched in the centre of her late husband’s large chair. She glared at Adijan like a jealous she-dragon guarding her treasure.
Adijan bowed low. “Forgive my intrusion in your time of sorrow, oh munificent and generous madam.”
“A messenger boy?” the widow said. “You said this was an important creditor.”
“Most perceptive mistress,” Imru said, “Adijan was one of the most trusted of your late husband’s special couriers. She undertook many deliveries for him that—”
“That is a woman?” The widow leaned forward to peer at Adijan. “A brawler in men’s clothes? I see my ignorance of my husband’s affairs is monstrous. Oh, All-Seeing Eye, give me fortitude. I had no idea Nabim had to soil himself with dealing with such riff-raff and rabble.”
Adijan carefully maintained a polite smile.
“If you will forgive me, oh generous madam, I have a bill of debt for three obiks.”
The widow signaled Imru to pass her the cloth. Her face folded into sharp-edged planes when she frowned.
“Three obiks. For deliveries? Imru, is this a forgery?”
Adijan gritted her teeth and reminded herself that the woman’s husband had just died in bed with another woman—a younger, more beautiful woman.
“No, mistress,” Imru said. “Adijan undertook special deliveries which the late and much lamented master entrusted to no one else. He—”
“Special? Trusted? This beggarly riff-raff? I can’t believe—” The widow’s eyes narrowed as if she peered into a sand storm. “Was it you?”
“Forgive my ignorance, oh wondrous madam,” Adijan said. “I know not—”
“Imru, was it her?” the widow asked. “Did she bring that—that thing from the enchanter?”
Adijan and Imru imperfectly concealed their surprise.
“It was!” The widow clapped her hands and leaped to her feet. “Convicted by your own face! Oh, All-Seeing Eye, help me! Imru, fetch the city guard. Fetch the caliph himself! Don’t just stand there! I’ll have you flogged.”
Imru bowed deeply. “A thousand pardons, mistress, I know not—”
“I’m not stupid,” the widow said. “I saw her! That—that creature. With my Nabim. I burned the piece of cloth with its filthy instructions and incitements with my own hands. He’s the last honest woman’s husband you’ll capture and ruin with your spells and sorceries.”
“Wise and benevolent madam, I’m just an ordinary person,” Adijan said. “If I were an enchantress, I’d hardly be running errands for a merchant.”
“Adijan is telling the truth, oh glorious mistress,” Imru added. “Her origins could not be more humble.”
“I’m happily married,” Adijan said. “Your esteemed and glorious husband held no interest for—”
“Married, eh?” the widow said. “How unlikely. How would you like it if—aha!” Her eyes glittered and her thin lips twisted in a grim smile. “Oh, yes! Perfect. Imru, bring her.”
The widow shoved past the eunuch and marched out, setting the beaded curtain swaying. “Quickly. I’ll have you flogged!”
Adijan and Imru shared a look.
“What was that all about?” Adijan asked. “Is she unbalanced? I just want my three obiks.”
Imru shrugged and spread his hands. “We’d better go or she will whip me. She has your bill cloth.”
Adijan silently cursed and trailed the eunuch out. As they neared the central courtyard, the wails and moans of the professional mourners grew more distinct. To her surprise, she counted only four. She would’ve expected twice that number for someone as rich as Nabim. The widow’s lamentations weren’t so large, then, that they stretched her purse very wide.
Imru steered Adijan through an ornate archway into a large chamber. A group of well-fleshed people looked up from plates of honeyed dates, pomegranates, and figs. Two of the women looked like female versions of the late Nabim. Neither of his bereaved sisters had torn much off the ends of her hair.
Adijan bowed low and was unsurprised to receive no acknowledgment.
The widow Nabim burst into the chamber from the other doorway. She held a clenched fist out before her. Her sticky-faced relatives watched with only mild interest as she bore down on Adijan.
Adijan dropped to her knees and bowed so low her forehead touched the carpet. She ignored the sharp pain from where Hadim’s servants had bruised her bottom ribs. “Oh, glorious and munificent madam, may I be flogged one thousand times at the gates of Paradise if I have offended you. I humbly beg and implore you to grant me the little that is owed me.”
The widow grabbed a handful of Adijan’s hair and yanked her head up. “I’ll give you what you deserve!”
Adijan barely glimpsed a dull flash of metal before the widow stepped back and straightened with an unpleasant smile.
“There,” the widow said. “For all those honest, Eye-fearing wives you’ve robbed before me, I’ll have our revenge. May she plague you and every husband of yours she wears out. Now, Imru, get her out of my house. If she ever casts a shadow on my doorstep, she’ll be whipped raw. Servants!”
Adijan glanced down to see a brass pendant and chain around her neck. It was the one she’d brought back from the enchanter.
Imru nudged her in the back. “Come on, Adijan.”
“But my three obiks,” Adijan said.
The widow remembered the cloth in her hands. She tore it in two and dropped it on the carpet. “My husband paid a hundred times as much for that vile thing. Enjoy it.”
Three hundred obiks? Wow.
“You men there,” the widow called. “Get her out of my house.”
Adijan rose when the eunuch tugged at her shoulder. “Glorious madam, I don’t want the necklace. I want my three obiks. They took me many weeks of honest labor to earn. Imru, you know—”
“Not now,” Imru said.
“No!” Adijan tugged free of his grasp to turn back to the widow. “I worked hard for that money. I’m owed! I need it!”
Adijan was still protesting when the servants threw her out the back door. She landed heavily in the street, hurting her battered body anew.
She eased to her feet. This couldn’t be happening.