Songhai Islands, south of New Djibouti
8 Ramadan a.h. 1294
(Sunday, September 16, 1877)
The day had been glorious. The southern sun gilded the sparse clouds as they frolicked in a fair wind. It was a time of slow delicious sweltering. Now, at last, the day drew to a close. The past seventy-two hours had provided recreation and renewal for the family of Bilalistan's youngest Wakil, Kai of Dar Kush. For those precious hours, duty no longer deviled him.
For now, Kai could release the tension from body and mind, allowing both to dwell only in the fathomless crystal blue of the waters, hands and spirit stretching out for the rainbow of tropical fish fluttering just beyond reach.
He dove deep, suspended as if by the hand of an invisible djinn, hovering above the twisted wreck of a triple-master that had foundered fifty years before his birth. That there was another ship, far more recently scuttled, in the waters east of the islands, he knew too well. The sight of this wreck sobered rather than enthralled. It reminded him of the carnage that his father's gold had, if not wrought, endorsed after the fact.
The sailors' bones scattered in its shattered hull were not the first, nor would they be the last to drift in the depths of the Songhai. The deceptive tranquility of these islands had concealed fierce and deadly battle as the nations of Africa contested for the New World.
Mali had been first to touch Bilalistan's shores, her ships piloted by captains and navigators refused by Abyssinia's royal court. But that kingdom's Immortal Empress had swiftly grasped the potential of the storied land far to the west, and had claimed ownership. Egypt likewise had sent ships and men, as had half a dozen other peoples. Bitterly they fought. As kingdoms rose and fell in the Old World, so did they in the New.
The derelict's barnacled ribs shimmered in twenty cubits of crystalline water, not some heroic singularity but merely another of the rivened husks scattered about the sea bottom like broken birds' nests, once the proud carriages of the bravest sailors the world had ever known. Whether their destroyers' vessels had flown the flags of their origin or slunk through the islands like sharks in the starlight, death had been the same, the watery graves the same, the end the same: northern Bilalistan belonged to Egypt and Abyssinia alone.
Kai resented the fact that such thoughts had interrupted his swim. This was a time for pleasure, not politics. So despite these waters' grim history, or the urgency of a mission he dared not share even with his beloved wife, he paddled about like a boy half his age, reveling in the sun and surf.
Kai of Dar Kush had known war, and loss, and twenty-three summers. He was a tall man, so perfectly proportioned that, in repose, he seemed smaller than his actual height. Beardless and smooth-skinned was Kai, of almost weightless carriage, as easily underestimated as a sleeping cobra.
A solid shadow glided beneath him, roiling the water with its passage. Kai blinked his eyes to clarity, bringing into focus the dolphin's every gray-black digit. Its five cubits of muscle could have shattered him with a flick if it chose, but the creature seemed more inclined merely to float and study him.
On other days the islands' watery denizens had seemed more playful, carving watery loops and curlicues, inviting him to follow if he could. Today the dolphin seemed merely to examine him. Its flat black eyes brimmed with a questioning intelligence. Close behind it, a second, smaller dolphin kept pace.
Trailing bubbles, Kai paddled back up to the surface, where his dhow Baher Feras, the "Sea Horse," awaited. Its swooping teak hull bobbed gently on the waves, lateen sails billowing in the afternoon's warm, moist breeze.
Copyright © 2003 by Steven Barnes
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