In the scented air of the pavilion, Alexa settled back on her couch, closed her eyes and let her body relax, whilst her mind wandered. The two girls tended her, one combing through the glistening dark red waves of her hair and the other painting her finger and toenails with vermilion. She wanted to look her best this evening.
She could never allow herself to forget that for a woman to be a caravansi was rare – so rare Alexa had never heard of another. It was the only way of life she had ever known and one that she loved passionately. Much too passionately to give up for settled life or for any man. But whilst she recognised it was strange to others, to her it was the most natural of things. She had inherited the caravan, its animals, slaves, wagons and pavilion from her father as his only child and his apprentice.
When she thought of her father, she would always see him as he had been before he fell ill: tall and proud, his face animated as he told her stories of the past; or still and focused as he poured over ledgers, eyes skimming each page as he calculated the amounts faster than most could even count the numbers. His death had been the most painful event of her life – but the caravan gave her comfort. In the dust of travel, the shouts of the Zoukai and the rumble of wagons, she could sometimes imagine he was still there with her and nothing had changed.
But everything had changed after his death at the end of last summer. The merchants, including those who knew her personally and had been clients of long standing with her father, were very uneasy with the idea of entrusting their precious trade goods to one they saw as an untried woman. Merchants, it seemed, were superstitious when it came to such things. It had been a bitter blow to Alexa since she knew she was a tough, good and honest caravansi – and she knew that they knew it too. Undeterred she had spent everything she had on trade goods she could carry and sell for herself. It was not much but would be just enough to pay her way and make a small profit – if she could sell in Alfor.
Then her father’s Captain of Zoukai, had left the caravan. He had been old by Zoukai standards, past his fortieth season, and he had said he wanted to settle down and raise a family before it was too late. That had been just the beginning. All except a handful of the very oldest Zoukai, those who would have been hard pressed to be taken on elsewhere, took it as an excuse to leave too. Like the merchants, the Zoukai had a superstitious distrust of a caravansi who was a woman.
Alexa had spent most of the long winter scouring the city of Ratzal and sending messages to other nearby cities, seeking a Zoukai captain who would ride with her caravan. But as the first signs of thaw began and the bigger caravans took to the roads across Temsevar, she had faced the bleak prospect of being unable to go with them. If she did not make the Alfor Fair, her trade goods would be worth, at best, half their purchase value and she would have no choice but to sell up everything. That dread had sat colder in her heart than the bitterest winter blizzard.
With just two days left before the departure deadline – the latest they could leave Ratzal and still hope to arrive in time for the Alfor Fair – Caer had presented himself at her pavilion and promised her forty men if she would hire him as her Captain. If Alexa had not been so desperate she would have never given him serious consideration. Caer was not just too young, he was much too young. A good Zoukai captain, it was said, should have seen twenty seasons with the caravans under another’s leadership and Caer had clearly seen no more than half that. Besides, he offered her only forty men when she needed nearer twice that number to be truly secure.
But she had been desperate and Caer, young as he was, was the only chance she had of getting the caravan on the road in time to make the Alfor Fair. Even knowing that, when she had seen the Zoukai he brought with him, her heart had sunk. Almost half were so old that it was obviously going to be their final year riding with the brotherhood and most of the rest were very young – scarcely men at all – their heads newly shaven: boys who had never ridden with a caravan before. Less than a handful were experienced Zoukai of full fighting fitness. It was hardly surprising, though, Caer was no more any good Zoukai’s choice of captain than she was any good captain’s choice of caravansi.
So they had set out for Alfor many days later than the last of the other caravans that had wintered in the city, guarded by a scant force of children and old men, with a woman caravansi and no trade goods aside from the caravan’s own. It was not surprising that the good citizens of Ratzal were laughing behind their shutters as the caravan passed by on its way through the gates.
From The Fated Sky part one of Fortune’s Fools Transgressor Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook
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