Zarif Al-Sudairy was, as his name implied, a friendly, gracious Khatta who was quick to laugh and had a charitable heart. Despite these blessings (and in some cases, because of them) he was not a particularly wealthy or successful trader. The loss of his young bride decades before to illness had drained away much of his youthful ambition, and so he had become listless in his life and business, often taking on contracts that less desperate caravaners would consider foolhardy or dangerous.
It was on one of these risky enterprises that his life took an upturn. While transporting goods of a slightly-less-than-legal nature along the dangerous northern route from Olympia to Tizhar, Zarif came within range of a fierce battle between Amazonian tribes and stumbled upon an abandoned Lapi boy. Originally planning to sell the boy into slavery, the then middle-aged Khatta had a change of heart by the time he reached Tizhar. Childless and alone, the trader found in the boy a surrogate son, and named him Layth for his golden hair and extremities.
Layth grew up as a slave, but one that was cared for. Zarif felt better about his life, and consequently did better in business, although he never reached a level much beyond 'comfortable'. And despite many generous offers over the years, he refused to sell Layth.
But nothing lasts forever. Already past his prime when he found Layth, Zarif was now in his declining years, and was ready to retire.
"I have searched for many spheres now to find a new home for you, Layth," the old Khatta said over breakfast that morning. "As much as I wish for you to stay with me, Son-Of-My-Heart, my dear brother, who has agreed to take me in for these my golden years, cannot support us both."
Since the Lapi has always been up earlier than Zarif to deal with preparing the meager household for the old Khatta and preparing his breakfast and eating for himself, he was already busily doing some other chores. The Lapi pauses in his morning cleaning when Zarif finishes speaking. Quietly he sets aside what he was working on and walks over to kneel beside the feline. He brushes his lop-ears back, off the open-front vest he wears and looks at the Khatta fondly. "Sir, I … I understand, and cherish in my heart the concern you have shown me over the years," Layth says in quiet, gentle, voice. "You gave me a life and a home. I do not wish to burden you and your family in the twilight of yours. Since you now say this, I presume that you have found some place for me?"
Zarif smiles and places a hand atop Layth's golden-maned head. "Indeed, Layth, I have found a place where you will have a future. A prominent contractor, a creator of villas and apartments, has agreed to take you. Our wise Emir may his fur shine forever golden is using the wealth from the Gateway to create a wonder of the world: the great Zoological Gardens. Those who toil in construction will benefit greatly, and I am told that Jumah Al-Firaih is a man who knows how to reap such benefits."
Layth dips his head slightly. "Is he a good man, Sir? A fair and just one?" the Lapi inquires and smiles slightly. "Though, I must apologize for even asking that; if you feel this is the right thing to do, then who am I to question your wisdom? I would ask only one thing, if I may?"
"He has my respect, Layth," Zarif says, then smiles again and nods. "You may ask anything, faithful one."
"Only that I be allowed to visit you from time to time. I may no longer be serving you … but I do not want to lose you from my life," the Lapi replies, "But, only if it is possible, of course. I do not know where your brother may be taking you." He then smiles again and adds, "And I hope he gave you a good price for me, Sir?"
"Fear not, I will not be going far, for my brother lives here in Abu Dhabi," Zarif answers, then twitches his graying ears and whiskers when he considers the second question. "Layth, you are not being sold. I have arranged… a trade of sorts. In exchange for your service to his household, Jumah Al-Firaih has promised that you have a chance to join his household. Jumah Al-Firaih is a Lapi, you see."
The Lapi blinks at this news. "I … I … wouldn't it have been better to have sold me? You could have used the money … I. I'm honored beyond words, Sir," is all he manages to say to that. "I won't dishonor you or the trust you've placed in me."
The old man laughs, a hearty and healthy sound. "There is very little you could do to disappoint me Layth. You are my only legacy in this world, and I wish with all my heart that you prosper."
Layth rises to his feet and goes to fetch a small bag. He returns and removes a small brush from it and proceeds to carefully groom Zafir's graying mane of hair, brushing out the kinks and disarray from sleep. "When do I go see him, Sir?" the Lapi inquires.
The Khatta relaxes under the brushing, even mustering up a purr. "Tomorrow, Layth," he says with a sigh. "Jumah is most eager to meet you."
The Lapi switches to a small fine-tipped brush and works carefully along the base of the Khatta's ears and then along their length. "What can you tell me about him? What does he know about me?" Layth inquires.
"He knows that you are strong, and experienced in travel," the Khatta purrs. "I have not spoken to him of your true origins, telling him you are from Tizhar, as the style of your ear-tattoos hints. He was most interested in your skill as a bodyguard, but learning of your ability with the lyre and maintaining a home brought the greatest twinkle to his eye, I would say."
"Ah, so he doesn't know I'm from … but that's in the past, isn't it? This place is my home," Layth remarks. He pauses a moment to run a fingertip along the tattoos lining the inside of his ears. With a slight shrug and a smile, he resumes his work on the Khatta, carefully brushing back up the old man's ear tufts. "Well, I look forward to meeting him. And a thousand pardons, Sir, where is my mind? This is all tomorrow, and I should be concerned with what you want today. Is there any matter of business you wish me to address?"
"Today we rest, Layth," Zafir says. "Perhaps we can walk to the harbor, and breathe in the sweet ocean air? Or visit the racing track, and watch the vanderrats try to outdo each other."
Layth nods and puts the brushes away. "I will prepare your clothing for going out then, Sir," the Lapi replies and sets the bag back where he got it from. "I would not mind visiting the harbor for a relaxing walk under the azure sky. Perhaps if there is time we could go by the track later. The day is still young, after all."
After a relaxing and pleasant day with Zafir, Layth prepared his travel kit, which conveniently held all of his meager belongings, and tried to sleep despite the knowledge that his entire life was about to change with the rising of the sun.
In what seemed like far too short a time, the Lapi and his master were walking through the gates of the Al-Firaih estate. The villa and courtyard were modest, with a reflecting pool instead of a more ornate fountain, but the garden itself was lush and well kept. A group of women clustered around a low table in a small gazebo, while men could be glimpsed rushing about with heavy scrolls.
A tall, gray-haired Savanite woman met the pair just inside the gate, and silently led them towards the main house.
"He has an amazing place," Layth says, sounding impressed by even the more modest decor. "I must be honest with you, Sir, I feel out of place here." His head turns and tilts as he checks out the surroundings, nose twitching excitedly. "Are all these people employees of his?"
"A few of them are, but many are his family," Zafir confides. "Jumah is blessed with many daughters, and his best architects tend to become his sons-in-law," he adds with a slight chuckle.
The Savanite leads them through an arched doorway into a small, cool room. The floor and walls are covered in blue tiles, and there are many sitting-cushions set around a low tea table. A young Lapi girl tends to the tea, while a pudgy Lapi man hops up and approaches, arms outstretched. "Zafir! And this must be Layth! My… he is a tall one," the man says, only coming up to Layth's chin as he embraces both him and his master.
"Ah, Jumah, my friend," Zafir replies, returning the greeting and kissing Jumah once on each cheek. Various clips and chains adorn the Lapi's left ear, and tend to chime or rattle as he moves.
Layth for the moment seems at a total loss for what exactly to do. So, he does the first thing he can think of and hugs the man back, mindful of his strength. He then shifts his stance out of nervousness, hoping his meager attire of sky-blue loose pants and an open-front vest don't make him stand out too much. "It is most assuredly a delight and honor to meet you," he says to Jumah and bows politely, his flop-ears falling forward which he has to quickly brush back. "My beloved master, may he live forever, told me of your offer."
Jumah smiles even wider, if possible, and gestures toward the table. "Please, let us sit and get to know one another," he says, and gestures to the girl, who begins to pour the tea from a long-necked kettle. The Savanite servant nods once to Jumah, then backs out of the room.
Layth moves to the table. For a moment, he stands there, resisting the urge himself to take up pouring the tea. But, he finally smiles to the Lapi and tells her, "Thank you and may the sunlight always bless you." But out of tradition he doesn't sit yet, but instead goes to one of the seats and says to Zafir, "Let me help you sit first, Sir."
Zafir sits on one of the cushions, moving a bit slowly but determined to manage it without help, "Ah, I must get used to doing these things on my own, Layth. Please sit beside me," he says. The Lapi girl blushes when Layth thanks her, and looks like she wants to pull her ears down over her face in embarrassment.
"Sabriyya, you may go and play now," Jumah tells the girl, who quickly exits the room.
Layth dips his head in deference to Zafir and settles himself down by the Khatta on the nearby cushion. "Your daughter, sir?" he asks Jumah.
"My youngest," the man says, sounding proud. "She is at that awkward age when shyness seems to be her primary reaction to things," he adds, chuckling. "If only they would retain some of that shyness in later years! Which is one of the reasons your master's offer piqued my interest, dear boy."
"Sir?" Layth says, sounding a bit confused at first. He then smiles, nose twitching, and says, "If I may be so bold, is it that you wish me to look after your yet unwed daughters and protect their purity, perhaps?"
Jumah nearly chokes on his tea as he tries to laugh. It takes a moment for him to recover, then say, "Ah, nothing quite so direct. You see, my third youngest, Aisha, is very gifted. But she is also very ambitious, and wishes to be a… 'business woman'. At her insistence, I granted her a chance to prove herself by giving her a small, unproductive property on Rephidim for her sixteenth birthday."
"I had hoped that would be the end of it; that she would come home defeated and use her skills for the family business," the buck continues, his whiskers starting to droop. "To her credit, she did manage to turn things around, and may soon be showing a profit. But during her stay on the sky island, she has been exposed to many does with… masculine mannerisms, I suppose. If she is to continue in her ventures, I would see that she at least remain grounded in Lapi tradition and not forget that she is a doe."
Layth takes a sip from his teacup, looking slightly embarrassed about his deduction as to what his job might be. "I see," he replies after setting the cup down gently. "A thousand apologies, but the light of understanding has not yet blessed me and I do not understand what I am to do. Shall I be travelling to the island to assist and remind her? Or, has she returned here and you have some task for me to perform to help remind her of Lapi tradition?" For a moment, he taps a fingertip on the tabletop as flashes of vague memories of Lapi women behaving in quite an unfeminine fashion. A quick head-shake, and the memories fade back into the recesses of his mind.
"Ah, she has returned home, but has not quite shaken off the Sky Island yet," Jumah says. "She is headstrong, and sometimes too headstrong for Abu Dhabi. At the moment, her greatest need is for a bodyguard, lest she speak out too openly and draw ire."
Layth dips his head. "As my beloved master can attest, I can perform that service well. My life has left me … well, as you noted, I am not a small Lapi. While I prefer to avoid physical confrontation … I am more than capable of defending myself and others. If you wish to put me to some sort of test, I am most willing to demonstrate."
"Ah, excellent!" Jumah says, clapping his hands together. "If you are willing, you can follow my daughter for the day, and if you survive… ah… if you feel comfortable, we can see about making it a permanent position, may the First Ones be willing."
Layth dips his head again and smiles. With a push of his hears back again, he says, "I will survive, sir. You have done a great service to my master and I will not let him, or you, down." He takes another sip from his teacup and says, "May I meet her? Speaking with someone often will bless the person with some understanding of how to deal and associate with that person; my beloved master taught me that. It helps with trade and diplomacy. And may my ears itch forever if I'm wrong, but I believe I will need all the diplomacy I can get." He offers a lopsided smile to Zafir.
Zafir smiles and winks to Layth, while Jumah hops to his feet and claps his hands. "Minori, take our guest to see Aisha," the man says, even before the Savanite woman has fully entered the room. She looks at the sitting Layth, and arches one grayed eyebrow as she sizes him up.
For some reason, Layth feels he's in for a bit of trouble with this one. Still, he stands and bows to Jumah. "Thank you again, sir. I will not displease you," he says then turns to Zafir. The Lapi then kneels slightly and kisses the top of Zafir's head and whispers, "And thank you for everything. You will always be in my heart."
The Savanite woman, Minori, beckons Layth to follow and walks quickly across the garden, towards a pillared, open-walled gallery on the opposite wing of the villa.
Layth follows along. He smiles, enjoying the sunlight and fresh air. "Thank you for your assistance, Lady Minori," he says as he remains a few steps behind out of habit.
Seated on a bench at the edge of the gallery, where she could soak up some sunshine herself, is a doe. And at first glance, it would be hard to believe that Aisha Al-Firaih needed any help in remembering that she was a doe. Her fashionably cut ha'clohi was the same sky-blue as Layth's own attire, but far more flattering against the doe's golden-hued fur. Elegant clips and chains decorated both of her ears, and when she stands up she cuts a lithe and very attractive figure. It is her eyes, however, that give her away; the brown windows meet Layth's blue ones, and he can sense none of the endearing timidity or humbleness of an Abu Dhabian doe. Aisha's expression is more a sentiment of 'who are you and why are you wasting my time?'"
Layth approaches and finally goes to stand side by side with Minori. He bows politely and then offers the doe a kind smile in spite of the feeling he gets from her eyes. "A blessed and wonderful day to you, Lady Aisha, jewel of Abu Dhabi," he says as he pushes his flop ears back over his shoulder. "Your father, may he live forever, has asked me to look after your well being while you are home. I am honored to meet you."
The doe crosses her arms over her chest, and looks Layth up and down. "You… you're my new bodyguard?" she asks, her voice sounding much softer than the buck was expecting.
"I am. I am called Layth, former servant of the honorable Zafir," Layth replies, still smiling, his blue eyes calm and gentle. "A thousand pardons for asking, but am I not what you expected?"
"No, I was expecting Fadwa… the tigress Khatta my father hired last time," Aisha says, then twitches her whiskers and makes a dismissive gesture with her hands. "No matter, you're here now, finally, and we can get going." The doe turns and makes strides (although not moving at an undignified pace) towards the main gate. "Try to keep up, I don't want to be late."
"May I ask what your business of the day is? It will help me understand what to expect today," the buck inquires as he follows along, his height making his stride longer and thus fairly easy for him to keep up with her. Again, he remains a few paces behind her, and as he walks his nose twitches as he sniffs the air.
Aisha turns towards the harbor once they reach the street, and says, "We are going to meet some friends of mine, and then see a merchant who may need some intimidating." She glances back at Layth, then looks forward again and says, "You should do."
"A thousand pardons, Lady Aisha, but I will not threaten or harm anyone who is not threatening you," the buck apologizes as he follows. "Violence only begets more violence and the Gods, may they be merciful, will often repay unkind acts tenfold."
"You just have to look like you might hurt someone," Aisha says, sounding a bit exasperated. "You can scowl can't you?"
"An unhappy face makes for an unhappy soul," Layth replies, still sounding a bit apologetic about it all. "But fear not, you are safe."
While Aisha did not admit it, having Layth walk with her did make the journey go smoother. At the sight of the large buck, many street merchants decided to give the pair their privacy, no matter how tempting a target Aisha presented. They arrived at the harbor and the airship docks with time to spare, which left the doe no choice but to talk to Layth while they waited. "So… your name is Layth, is it?" she asks, suddenly sounding a bit awkward at having to make small-talk.
The buck nods slightly, one ear slipping forward. "It is, Lady Aisha. Your father seemed very concerned for your safety, and for the aid he has given beloved Zafir, I am more than happy to protect one of his shining children," he says. "Is there anything else you might wish to know? I fear my life is not the most interesting one."
"Well, uh, you're very tall," the doe notes, being of normal stature herself and thus nearly a foot shorter than Layth. "Is that something drawn on the insides of your ears?" she asks.
Layth lifts the ear that fell forwards and turns it so she can better see. "It is a mark from Tizhar. I have been a slave since I was five years old, and this is a mark indicating such," he answers, not sounding the least bit ashamed or bothered by it.
The doe's eyes seem to pop at this information. "You're a slave? That seems… uh… unnatural," she says, and then nearly jumps as the shadow of an Aquilan dock-master passes over her. Layth can see the avian flying to intercept an incoming airship with a long, slender hull and strange outrigger 'wings' that act as perches for a group of pteras.
"Well, was. I'm not certain of my status now. It's complicated," Layth admits. The shadow has no startling effect on Layth, though. He simply looks up to watch the airship come in. "Such a magnificent thing those ships are. To be able to fly free of the bindings of the world and touch the stars," he says.
"Stars?" Aisha asks, then blinks and turns around to see the ship in question. "That could be them, let's go see it when it lands."
"The points of light sometimes seen at night. In the wilderness they are easier to see," Layth answers and then nods. "Lead on, Lady Aisha."
"Oh, right, the lights beyond the Procession," Aisha says. "I knew that!" she asserts, then heads for the docking platforms. Her fourth guess at which one to go to turns out to be accurate, since by then the airship is all but secured and boarding ramp is being lowered.
For the remainder of the walk to the ship, Layth remains quiet. He spends his concentration on scanning the dock with both eyes and ears for any signs of trouble. Now and then, his nose twitches.
While the dock-master talks with an old Vartan on the deck, a small group comes down the ramp. Bringing up the rear are a Lapi buck white with a few black patches loaded down with baggage, and a tall (although only slightly taller than Layth) red-furred Vartan hybrid. In the lead is a chocolate-and-cream Lapi doe with a bronze dagger strapped to her upper left arm. For just a moment, her eyes seem to lock with Layth's before sliding on to Aisha. "Aisha!" the doe calls, and hurries to hug the golden doe next to Layth.
"Oi! It's right hot, ain't it," remarks the Vartan hybrid as she walks down the ramp. Given her rough voice, limited clothing, and significant driving whip, she must be a member of the crew.
"At least you aren't lugging junk around," the Lapi next to her says. "All you have to do is look scary."
Layth remains quiet at first, as he hasn't really been spoken to. Upon hearing the comment from the buck near Tasha, he says, "A thousand pardons for speaking up, sir, but could you use some assistance with your belongings? I could not help but overhear your complaint to your friend." He then turns and bows slightly to Aisha and adds, "With your permission, of course, Lady Aisha."
"What? Oh, yes, help Aaron, Layth, he's getting old," Aisha comments, then turns back to the other doe and says, "I'm surprised you could come so quickly, Calligenia! But I don't know if your goods are still intact or not."
Another bow and Layth heads up the plank to help the other buck if needed.
"Think I'm scary, do you? An' just a day or so ago you was offerin' me the sponge." Red and gold, with canine features, hoofed feet and wings, the hybrid might pass for exotic, strange, or demonic depending on a viewer's acceptance of unusual Vartans. She the hybrid's outfit making her gender, unlike her parentage, rather obvious pats the buck beside her heavily on the back. "See that Leadface? Things are lookin' up for you, they are helpin' you in your senior years!"
"Thirty is not old," the laden buck grumbles, but gladly hands over a small traveling trunk to Layth when he offers to help. He blinks once he gets a good look at the larger buck, and has to brush his black ear back out of his face afterwards. "You are… Aisha's attendant?" he asks.
"I am. Her father, may he live forever, has employed me to look after her," Layth answers as he accepts the truck, lifting it in an apparently effortless motion and resting it on his shoulder. "Is there anything else I can carry for you?"
The Vartan suddenly laughs, pushing Aaron forward. "Why don' you carry 'im? 'Es old, 'e is." She laughs some more.
"Oh, that's fine," the new buck says. He's dressed in an Abu Dhabian style vest, but has on a shirt and trousers that seem foreign. "I'm Aaron Lightfoot, the doe up ahead is Calligenia Circerae," he says, then gestures towards the Vartan, adding, "And this perversion of nature and femininity is Tasha."
Layth smiles and dips his head. "I am Layth and I am honored to meet all of you, Master Lightfoot of the inexhaustible patience," he says and actually winks at Aaron. And then with a smile to Tasha, he adds, "And a thousand pardons, but I am certain Lady Tasha is not nearly so bad as you make her sound." And with that, he turns and heads back down the ramp to return to Aisha's side. He nods to Calligenia now and says, "An honor to meet you as well, Lady Circerae of the bronze dagger."
Calli pauses in her whispered conversation with Aisha to look at Layth again. "Is Layth your real name?" she suddenly asks him.
Tasha's own outfit looks foreign in its style, if not the basic design. Tunics, it seems, are universal. A sudden crack of the woman's knuckles as she glares down at Aaron announces her anger. "Oi, what! Perversion! Ain't feminine! I'll feminine you, I will!" She lifts a hand as if to bonk Aaron one, glances at Calli, frowns more, then shrugs out of it and roughly, very roughly, rubs up Aaron's head hair. "Hrrf, eh." She grins toothily at Layth, then says, "You one of them Amazonians, too?"
"I can turn your hair purple you know," Aaron grumbles to Tasha.
"I can turn YOU black an' blue," Tasha retorts. Then she gooses the buck.
"Ack!" Aaron yelps.
Layth blinks and shakes his head of he had just misheard the question. "A thousand pardons, but I don't understand. Do I perhaps remind you of someone you've met before? Well, I regret to say, and may the Gods not weep for it, that we have not met. My name is Layth and I have lived and traveled in these lands for many years." He does not answer Tasha's question.
Tasha seems to have overlooked her own question, as she seems more interested in tormenting Aaron than conversation. She does grin at Layth after she gooses Aaron, though, before winking as if to suggest she could goose him, too.
"He's just someone my father hired to protect me, Calli," Aisha says. "He'll be handy… just look how big he is! And… by all the gods, what is that thing behind you?"
"That is just Tasha, my demon friend," Calligenia says, off-handedly. "Xavier says she will be 'sicko-logical-lever-age' so that I will not have to kill anyone. He often says things like that."
"Well, Gods willing there will be no violence during your stay, Lady Circerae," Layth says and glances skyward briefly. "I hope I do not offend by suggesting that we unload and move from the docks? Lady Aisha said she was to meet with a merchant today."
"You tell the strangest jokes, Calli," Aisha says, shaking her head. At Layth's reminder, she says, "That's right! We have to get to Sylvester Al-Hasbeen, which I'm certain is a made-up name. He's the one who bought your stuff."
Tasha's expression seems to go through a rapid mix of emotions as she's called "thing," "sicko-leverage," and "demon." It's the same sort of change a snowball goes through when it rolls down a mountain: small and worrisome, then looming and dangerous. The Vartan crosses her arms, frowns, and insist, "I'm no' a demon, you!" She swats Aaron, despite the two does having made the remark.
The chocolate doe smiles, and not in a very friendly way. "Yes, please take us to this man, Aisha. I would have some words with him."
"You should choose better people to associate with, Lady Aisha. Surely someone with such a name cannot be trusted," Layth recites, then turns to Tasha. "And a thousand pardons, Lady Tasha, but please do not abuse Master Lightfoot. He has a heavy burden, and it would do no one well if he dropped it off the docks."
"Could have fooled me," Aaron says, rubbing his ear. Aisha nearly freaks at the outburst, but forces herself to calm down when she sees that Layth isn't concerned. "Yes," the doe says, "Just follow me!"
"He 'as a thick head, he does, an' more muscle than he 'as right too." Tasha demonstrates by poking Aaron's arm. "He an' Calli both! 'Course Calli's a better number, an' right fine at that bu' he ain't goin' to break. I'm makin' him tough, I am." She pats Aaron's head, too, suggesting he's perfectly sound. "Off we go, Leftfoot."
Layth glances at Calli several times, actually looking nervous for a moment. Something about her mannerisms seems to have had an effect on the buck. Still, he resumes his place in line behind Aisha and says, "I will endeavor to keep all of you safe should things go badly, which may the Gods prevent. I gave my word to her father to protect her."
"I have no doubt you are a very fine Guardian," Calligenia comments to the buck. At the back of the group, Aaron whispers, "I've been smacked around by prettier girls, Tasha. Don't be too jealous though."
Tasha just laughs at Aaron's remark, sounding amused. "We sailors 'ave stories too, we do," she teases him. Unlike Aaron, Tasha doesn't bother to whisper.
"Guardian, Lady Circerae?" Layth asks; though having vague memories as to what that exactly means. The buck definitely is looking uncomfortable now and fiddles with the trunk on his shoulder. "Gods, what do I tell them … if they are Amazonians? he thinks, for the first time his expression is neutral and not cheerful. "I left that world behind when master Zafir found me … and here it now stares me in the face. Who am I … should I be? Layth or … Chrysanthos?"