• 07 May 2010
    [below are some scenes which i cut from the book during the editing process, mostly for reasons of pace; none of the following scenes are essential to the plot of the book, but they shed a little more light on the world on Makhras and the ways of its people]

    [this scene comes from early in the novel, a short paragraph which describe a bit more about the city of Wadi]
    The high maid Debbat Alg was watering flowers in one of her father’s gardens. Although Wadi rarely saw rain in summer, it was situated on the sea front, at the mouth of both the great river as-Sudat, and the as-Surout, so water was never scarce. This was why it had flourished as the capital of Abu Aineh, and as one of the great cities of the world. It was ideally placed for trade and the launching of war ships. The as-Sudat linked the city with most of Abu Aineh, as well as Abu Judayda, Abu Nekhele and Abu Saga. By sea they could sail to Abu Safafaha (not that anyone ever bothered!), Abu Saga, Abu Rashrasha and Abu Kheshabah, as well as several of the countries to the far south and north. Wadi was located in the geographical south-east of Abu Aineh, but it was the country’s commercial and cultural centre.

    [these paragraphs describe a bit more about the High Lord of Wadi and how he came by his position]
    The palace of the high lord and lady of Wadi was hundreds of years old, although many new buildings had been added to it during that time. It was a haphazard mix of old and new, carefully preserved show rooms filled with antiques, sleeping quarters, kitchens, slave cellars, dining rooms, dance halls, music auditoriums, several armoury rooms, a library, many offices where official business was conducted, and more. There was representative architecture from every era, and portraits of all the high lords and ladies hung on walls across the palace. No high lord or lady could remove any of the portraits, but they could move them around, so the etchings of more recent family members generally took pride of place, while older portraits were stuck away somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

    The current high family had been in control of Wadi for five generations. While the high lordship was usually passed on to the eldest male heir when a high lord died, the incumbent high lord had to be approved by a majority of the true families. After four years in office, the true families all voted. If eighty percent approved of the new high lord, his position was confirmed. But if seventy-nine percent or less approved, he was executed and the true families fought each other for the right of succession.

    The Algs were skilled politicians, and none of the Alg high lords had been objected to by more than eight percent of the true families of Wadi since they came to power. It was a time of great stability for the city. Some thought it would be this way forever, with the Algs in control and the true families obedient to each new high lord. But others knew that nothing in the universe lasts – except the gods – and this era would eventually pass. But it probably wouldn’t be in their lifetime, so very few worried about it — the distant future was the concern of Khor Al Ajram, the great snake god of time, not of mankind.


    [these paragraphs explain a bit more of the history of Abu Aineh, Abu Nekhele and Abu Judayda, and the relationships between the three nations]
    The journey north through Abu Aineh was as pleasant and easy-going as any traveller could have wished. Abu Aineh was a civilized, settled country. The Um Aineh were a war-like people, but it had been a long time since the high lords waged war on one another. Although there would always be internal political bickering and petty family feuds, there was simply too much wealth to go around for any of this to spin out of control — deep-rooted, divisive discontent was a thing of the past (and, in the minds of those who knew their history, the future).

    It was a time of stability. With their array of ships, the Um Aineh controlled the sea and most of the sea trade, and launched raids on countries to the south-west and north beyond the al-Meata. On the raids they stole crops, jewels and people. The crops they feasted upon, the jewels they admired or sold, and the people fed the beast that was the slave trade. There was a great need for slaves in Abu Aineh and Abu Saga.

    With the exception of the warriors and servants, few Um Aineh worked hard any more. No farmer tilled his land — it was easier and more efficient to use slaves. Houses, roads and ships were all built by slaves. Cleaning, cooking, weaving — the work of slaves. Some of the wealthier high families preferred servants, and there was still a tradition of service among a number of Um Aineh. But the opportunities for girls or boys like Bastina were lessening each year, and lots of poor Um Aineh now had to sell themselves into slavery or starve. Some Um Aineh said this was a problem which would lead to trouble one day, but most thought it was just the natural order of the universe — the strong got ahead, while the weak fell ever further behind.

    There had been no significant wars with neighbouring countries since the building of Abu Judayda. The city state had been built across the southernmost section of the Judayda Pass and peopled with an equal mix of um Aineh and Um Nekhele volunteers. The new race, the Um Judayda, broke all their ties and oaths to their sires, becoming a separate breed overnight. Old allegiances lingered for a decade or so, and many spies were weeded out and executed, but the volunteers quickly took to their new position, and no Um Judayda children now bore any love or loyalty for either of their nation’s founders. They were their own people, warriors every one, the thin dividing line between two ancient enemies.

    Before the founding of the city state, Abu Aineh and Abu Nekhele had always been at war, raiding up and down the Judayda pass, biting away at each other like a pair of savage tigers forever locked in combat. Contested land had been won and lost a hundred times over the centuries. At one time the Um Nekhele controlled all of the land south of the Judayda pass, down to the sea. They’d held it for three generations before being forced back. At another time the Um Aineh had controlled all of the land to the west of the as-Sudat, up as far as the al-Attieg. That had lasted less than a generation, but almost every living Um Aineh regarded those few decades as the golden age, the time when Makhras was theirs for the taking. They’d expanded north and west, taking over Abu Safafaha, Abu Saga, Abu Rashrasha, Abu Kheshabah and a number of other countries, before the eventual fall and retreat. In school, Jebel had been taught by one teacher that ambition had got the best of those great expansionists. If they hadn’t bothered with the northern and western countries, he claimed they would today be in command of Abu Nekhele and Abu Safafaha. But most teachers disagreed with him. Greed was considered an asset in Abu Aineh — those who reached highest were afforded the most respect.

    [this is a bit more about the town of Disi]
    Disi was a huge, sprawling, trade-centred city. It was built on the banks of the as-Disi, but stretched almost fifteen miles to the west, from where, by road, it was just another forty or so miles to the as-Sudat. The original intention had been to extend the city limits all the way west to the as-Sudat, to create one great city which linked the two rivers. But miners to the north were worried about the taxes such city adminstrators might impose. It was bad enough having to pay the Um Siq at the al-Attieg pass. The last thing they wanted was another checkpoint where they could be held to ransom. So they revolted and a brief civil war ensued. The um Disi might have been able to hold their own against their northern kin, but those of the southern nations were also reluctant to see the city expand, and made it clear that they were prepared to attack from the south if the miners asked for their aid. In the face of such a threat, the um Disi relented and construction ceased. The city hadn’t grown much in the centuries since, and though the docks on the as-Sudat had multiplied many times over, no actual town had formed there: all the workers and traders lived in Disi, where they commuted back to after a few weeks or months of shift work.

    Because of its immense size, Disi never felt crowded. The streets were wide, mansions were common, many houses were vacant. Some of the finest inns in Makhras were to be found here: this was where the miners came when they wanted to live glamourously for a while. It was rougher than the cities in Abu Aineh – Um Saga were a rowdy, unkempt lot, despite their wealth – but more elaborately decorated. It was a strange mix, where the rich brushed shoulders with the poor, where inns with gold toilet seats stood next to the lowest brothels imaginable. It was said that only the Um Saga could have built Disi, and it didn’t take Jebel a long time to understand exactly what that meant.

    [at one point in the editing process, i explored the possibility of changing the last chapter of the book; below, you can read that alternate ending; ultimately i decided to stick with my initial ending]
    Jebel was surprised to see the dour Bastina laughing, but her laugh made him chuckle too. He looked at Debbat Alg again and her furious expression made him laugh even louder. Looking around, he saw a similar expression on the faces of all the girls in the square and he almost collapsed with laughter. Couldn’t any except Bas and him see the joke? What a glum, moody, shallow bunch they were.

    Shaking his head, Jebel wiped tears of mirth from his eyes, then looked to where Debbat Alg and Bastina were standing. Pulling himself up as straight as he could, he pointed at the most beautiful girl in Wadi and said with all his heart, “I choose her — if she’ll accept me.”

    When the girl of his choice didn’t answer, only stared at him with wide, stunned eyes, Jebel strode across, went down on one knee, smiled up at her and said quietly, earnestly, with all the love in his heart, “I’m yours if you’ll have me — Bas.”

    THIRTY-EIGHT
    Years blew away like leaves in an autumn storm. Ten, fifteen, twenty. Jebel got older and taller, but never much fatter. He would always be a thin executioner. His wife said he’d be as thin as an insect until the day he died and he supposed she was right. She normally was.

    Wadi Alg never did find a law to oust Jebel Rum, and though he and his advisers debated the subject often and considered re-writing the laws, that would have been a dangerous move. Once a high lord started changing laws to suit himself – even when it was for the good of those he governed – people grew nervous and wondered what laws he’d focus on next. It was simpler to maintain the status quo and just grumble about Jebel along with everybody else.

    Jebel hadn’t missed a day’s work since winning the mukhayret. Every morning he turned up at the executioner’s platform and waited for that day’s criminals to be led forward. In the early years there had been many, and he’d offered his life for each, taking their place on the block, surviving the trio of blows and getting on with his job again. Many had tried to behead him – the high lord had offered great riches, as well as the position of executioner, to any who could rid the city of Jebel Rum – but none had succeeded.

    Of late, Jebel had less to do and was only occasionally called upon to place his head on the block. This wasn’t because crime had dropped in Wadi. On the contrary, it had increased sharply. The trouble with setting every criminal free after they’d been pardoned by Jebel was that many committed crimes again. Wadi had become a cesspit for a while, a beacon to all the thieves, rapists and murderers of Abu Aineh. They’d flocked to the city in droves, breaking the law on countless occasions, laughing as they walked free to do it again. Many deserved death and Jebel hated setting them free, but he was determined not to play judge. Besides, he had a hunch the chaos wouldn’t last, that his obstinacy would pay off quicker than anyone imagined. And that proved to be the case.

    When Wadi Alg was killed by an assassin who knew he couldn’t be punished, his replacement – not any of his sons, who’d all fled the city, but a member of another true family – was determined not to meet with the same fate. He made a pilgrimage to Jebel’s house and begged him to reconsider. The city had become a foul stain upon the landscape. Didn’t Jebel care? Wasn’t he concerned?

    Jebel said he was, but he wouldn’t kill. When the high lord lost his patience and demanded to know how Jebel suggested they put a stop to the madness, Jebel told him of the penal customs of other nations, how they built jails to lock up their criminals. The high lord protested – were the um Wadi to lower their standards and live like those of lesser nations? – but when he considered his options afterwards, he saw it was the only way forward.

    In the beginning nobody thought the prisons would work, but time had shown they did. If they were sturdily built and properly manned, escape was impossible, and if you sent a person there for the rest of their life, they ceased to be a problem. At first the judges of Wadi issued life sentences for every criminal but it soon became apparent that they couldn’t afford to house and feed so many people. So they took a more lenient approach and introduced shorter sentences for lesser crimes. Some suggested floggings or amputations, but those were the remit of the city’s executioner and Jebel refused all such requests point blank.

    It took a while, but gradually the prison system proved its worth, and had even been taken up by some other towns in Abu Aineh — by fining their wealthier miscreants and charging an exorbitant rent for their enforced stay, a prison could turn a profit, and no Um Aineh ever said no to a profit. Wadi still drew more lowlifes than it had before, but the streets were safe again and life was going on as normal — only without the executions.

    * * *

    Jebel finished breakfast at the start of another glorious day and bid farewell to Bas and the children he adored. They had eight of them, ranging in age from seventeen to three. An equal complement, four boys and four girls. Three were named after people he’d met on his journey north — Hubaira, Samerat, Ramman. Four had been named by his wife — Madhbah, Temenos, Farasa, Deir. And the one who’d been born first, of course, was Tel Hesani Rum.

    Jebel dealt with the children one by one, dismissing them with a short slap on the back or a kiss. When the last had been seen to, he turned to Bas, waiting for him as she always was, hands crossed across her chest, smiling that delightful little smile of hers. He’d thought her the most beautiful girl in Wadi when they married, and he still did.

    “Leaving me alone again, husband?” she said with mock formality.

    “Heads need chopping, wife,” Jebel said.

    They laughed and she threw herself into his arms and kissed him firmly. “I love you, Jebel,” she said, hugging him tight. It was something they never tired of saying to each other, and which neither thought they could ever say enough.

    “Of course you do,” Jebel smirked, kissing her nose and gently tweaking her ears. “I love you too, gorgeous. Now where’s my lunch — and have you polished my axe?” That was a standing joke between them. Jebel’s axe rarely needed polishing, since it had never been stained with blood. He carried it merrily over his shoulder as he set off for what would hopefully be another bloodless day at work, whistling a tune he’d picked up on the road to Tubaygat all those years before.

    Attitudes towards him had changed over time, and though many um Wadi still hated him, some admired him for his stand and waved to him as he passed or stopped to wish him good health. It was common for people to come to the square or to his house, to ask why he refused to kill. In response he’d tell them of his trip to Tubaygat (never relating his meeting with Sabbah Eid) and all the suffering he’d endured and witnessed. He said the world was harsh enough, without humans making it even harsher. Power should be used for good, not bad. The strong should help the weak, not exploit them.

    He was careful with his words, never saying outright that slaves should be set free or that the laws of Abu Aineh were unjust. If he gave his enemies the chance, they could demand his legal resignation. All Jebel did was tell his tale and answer questions gently and vaguely. He’d become quite a diplomat after so much practise and sometimes those with political leanings came to discuss affairs of state with him, to get his feedback and copy his mannerisms. If he’d wanted, he could have had a profitable career as an adviser to the high lord, but Jebel was content to be the executioner who did not execute. From here he could do his bit to change the world and work the most good.

    He strolled by the banks of the as-Surout on his way to the square, leaving the walls of Fruth – where his home was – far behind. He hadn’t chosen to live close to the slave quarters to make a statement — he simply wasn’t welcome in other parts of the city and hadn’t been able to buy a house anywhere except here. Not that he minded. He often entered Fruth to talk with and learn from those who came from lands outside Abu Aineh, and offer comfort where it was needed — “don’t despair, stay true to your faith, your day of freedom will come.”

    He thought of Rakhebt Wadak as he strolled by the river and wondered when his old friend would come calling for him. Not for many years, he hoped — there were a lot of necks he still wished to save. He smiled as he thought of all the things he’d be able to tell the boatman of death. He hoped Rakhebt Wadak picked him up well before his final moment or there wouldn’t be enough time to fit in even a tenth of it!

    Thinking of death made him think of his father, and that made Jebel sad. One of his few regrets was that he’d never been able to make peace with Rashed Rum. The old executioner died a couple of years after Jebel replaced him (some said of shame) without ever having come to see his son. J’Al and J’An both served in overseas regiments, not wishing to live anywhere near their despised brother. J’An had died young, of some disease or other. For many years Jebel heard nothing of J’Al, until he turned up one day, a year or so ago, scarred and crippled but with more of a glow about him than he’d ever had in his prime. He was tired of war, death and suffering, and wanted to work with Jebel. That had been one of Jebel’s happiest days ever.

    Jebel turned away from the river and moved in through the city streets to the square where he plied his trade. The crowds were a thing of the past — hardly anyone came to watch the executioner at work now, and the fashion-conscious youths had found other areas where they could be noticed. He washed dust and dirt from the platform in the early morning sun, cleaned bird droppings from the rusty executioner’s block, then settled back to bask in the sun and think about how good life was.

    Later, an Um Kheshabah slave was led to the platform by a glum guard. The slave had been sentenced to death for killing his master. Most murderers were now imprisoned for life, rather than sent to the block only to be set free. But this slave’s master had been a nasty piece of work, known for his short temper and vicious ways, regarded with contempt even by the more bloodthirsty um Wadi. The judge hadn’t said as much, but he believed the city was well rid of the tyrant, and it would be for the best if the slave was sentenced to death and let go free by Jebel.

    The guard was new and had been sent to the square by his superior officer as many young guards were. He bore no love for Jebel Rum, and prayed to the gods for the strength to overcome him and slice that hated head from its neck, though he had no faith that the gods would answer his prayer.

    Jebel noted the determination in the young guard’s eyes as he took the slave’s place on the block. He saw the way the guard hefted the axe and tested the blade. How he squinted at Jebel’s neck, carefully choosing his spot.

    Jebel knew he wasn’t immortal. He was aging the same as any man, and while his strength had yet to desert him, he knew that one day his powers would fade and he would have to heed the call of death the same as any mortal man. He believed he would die here when that day came, in the square, on the block. It would be a fitting end to his life, and he was not afraid of it. When he woke each morning, he acknowledged that the day might be his last, and when he returned home safely in the evening, he was always grateful.

    “Yes,” he thought as the guard raised the axe and held it high over Jebel’s neck, “I will die here one day. The blade will cut, blood will spurt and my head will roll.” Then he grinned as he heard the swish of the axe and felt a little blast of air on the back of his exposed neck. “But not today!”

    Thwack!

    THE END
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