When I woke up it took me a couple of minutes of gazing around the thick dark shadows of the room to realise where I was. It then took another minute or two before I realised that the thick dark shadows indicated that sunset had long since come and gone and with it the much-anticipated lantern show. After a brief wave of regret I was still tired enough to shrug philosophically and roll over back to sleep. But then the consequences of the couple of glasses of rice wine I’d had with lunch made themselves felt and I realised there would be no more sleep until I’d answered the call of nature. So I reluctantly hauled myself up off my mattress and, leaving Michael snoring gently on his side of the room, headed off in search of the bathroom.
The room that Zia and Amak had so generously given up to us was tucked away in a corner of the tavern by the kitchens. In order to reach the nearest bathroom I was obliged to cross the courtyard, now starkly lit by a bright full moon. At first, as I made my way past the tables on the far right, the courtyard seemed entirely empty, all the patrons having by now either retired to their rooms or gone on somewhere else. But then a hushed murmur of voices brought to my attention a small group of people lurking in the shadow of the cherry tree.
I first recognised Amak leaning on a broom and then, alongside him, clutching a large cloth, Zia. They had clearly been interrupted in the middle of the cleaning that Zia was so keen to get on with. The final member of the group, the person who was the apparent cause of the interruption, was a young woman in her early twenties. She was half-hidden by the shadow of the tree but even from this distance I could see that she was strikingly beautiful, with a delicate oval face and glossy black hair straight out of a shampoo commercial.
It was obvious from their postures that they were engaged in some kind of urgent debate. I swear that I had no intention of eavesdropping. My first instinct was just to roll on unnoticed along the edge of the courtyard and leave them to their business. It was just that a few words were carried across on the still night air as I passed by and, without really thinking about what I was doing, I slowed to a sleepy halt and turned to listen.
It was Zia’s voice that first emerged from a sort of general background hum into distinctly audible speech. Her words, punctuated with irritable little flicks of her cloth, were addressed to the young woman. “…to tell the truth Talia, I don’t really care what you’re up to. Your uncle and I want no part of it,” she insisted. “We’ve no intention of getting mixed up in any palace intrigues.”
“But you won’t be mixed up, not really,” replied Talia. “All I’m asking is that you hold onto it for me for a couple of days.”
The ‘it’ that she was referring to appeared to be a small earthenware jar she was holding, the kind of pot that might contain expensive oil or wine. There was a pause whilst both Zia and Amak gazed suspiciously at the item in question. Finally, Amak said, “Are you sure that’s really the Emperor’s dream in there?”
“Of course, it’s got his seal on it.” Talia held the jar up slightly and I could just about make out the image of a dragon painted on the side. “Besides, who else in this city has the time, the money or the trained priests necessary to have their dreams bottled?”
Still gawping at the jar, Amak acknowledged this point with a wave of his hand.
“Anyway, the point is that this isn’t just any dream of the Emperor’s,” continued Talia. “This is his very last dream. It was collected about six months ago and he hasn’t had another dream since.”
“Why not?” asked Zia curiously.
“I don’t know,” said Talia with an impatient shrug. “He sleeps well enough, he just doesn’t dream. All the shamans have been consulted, nobody can offer an explanation.” She shrugged again. “He’s an old man now, maybe his dreaming days are over.”
Amak snorted. “You don’t stop dreaming just because you get old.”
“Well, the Emperor has and that’s that,” retorted Talia. “Anyway, the reason isn’t important. What is important is that Prince Altan is willing to pay a lot of silver to get his hands on this little jar.”
“I don’t see why,” muttered Amak. “What on earth would he want with some old dream of his father’s?”
“The Prince’s wise man has convinced him that the Emperor’s last dream will contain important omens for the succession,” said Talia. “I suppose he thinks he can finally get an advantage over his brothers and sisters if he sees it.”
Amak tipped his head from side to side whilst continuing to gaze thoughtfully at the jar. “Sounds pretty unlikely to me,” he murmured doubtfully.
“Or maybe he just wants to take it to annoy his father,” Talia went on with a hint of exasperation. “They don’t exactly get along all that well and everyone knows how touchy the Emperor is with his dreams. Not long ago he ordered a Palace Guard have three fingers cut off just for carrying one of the jars in what he called a ‘disrespectful manner’.”
“Three fingers!” exclaimed Zia in horror. “And just what do you suppose he’s going to have cut off when he finds we’ve stolen his last and most precious dream?”
“Relax! He’ll never know,” insisted Talia soothingly. “This whole dream business is very strictly controlled with a scroll of rituals and protocols as long as your arm. The dream reliquary is only ever allowed to be opened by a specially appointed seer when the moon sits over the highest peak of the Grey Mountains. So you see there’s no chance they’ll even know that it’s gone for at least another week and a half. And I’ll be back long before then to take it off your hands. I just need somewhere to keep it safe for a couple of days while the details are finalised. I don’t trust Prince Altan to play fair if he knows I have it on me.”
Zia spent another moment or two looking doubtfully at the inoffensive little object that threatened so much harm. “No, forget it,” she finally snapped. “We’re having nothing to do with it.”
Talia tried turning her big dark eyes upon Amak but he shook his head with just a hint of regret. “Your aunt is right Talia,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s just too risky.”
There was a long, heavy pause.
“Of course, it goes without saying that I’d be willing to offer you a cut of my take in return for your trouble,” Talia said. “Say, ten per cent.”
“Ten per cent!” spluttered Amak. “You expect us to risk our fingers – and the Great Lord knows what else – for a mere ten per cent!”
“I’ve already told you, there is no risk,” Talia impatiently insisted. “Nobody at the Palace has any idea the dream is missing…”
“If nothing else I’d have thought you might show a little more consideration for your family,” Zia cut in with a wounded tone. “After all, didn’t we take you in after my poor sister’s death? Didn’t we feed you and clothe you and raise you as though you were our very own?”
“Oh yes. And whored me out to the Palace Harem as soon as I was fifteen years old!” Talia hotly retorted.
“That was a very good position we got for you and you won’t find anyone to tell you otherwise,” insisted Zia sharply.
“A good position, is it?” scoffed Talia. “Lying on your back half the night, waiting to see if an old man can get it up?”
“Well, you tell me what you’d prefer,” challenged Zia. “Going to live up there in the Palace with all the fine food and beautiful silks you could ask for in exchange for a little stroking of the Emperor’s cock every now and then or staying down here in a rotting riverside tavern, cooking and scrubbing and serving from morning till night just to make ends meet?”
Talia glared for a moment, apparently stuck for an answer. “Well, if I pull off this deal with Prince Altan I won’t have to worry about either working or whoring ever again,” she finally snapped. “And you won’t do so badly either.” There was a moment’s hesitation. “Alright, fifteen per cent.”
“Make it twenty-five and we have a deal,” said Zia.
“Twenty. That’s my final offer.”
Zia shared a glance with Amak. Turning back to Talia she finally agreed with a nod.
Talia smiled. “Now, you just need to hide that away on a shelf where nobody’ll touch it for a day or two,” she said, passing the jar carefully over to Amak. Amak instinctively reached out his right hand and took hold of the stopper as if to open it. Talia flung out her hands and instantly snatched the jar back. “Stop! What on earth do you think you’re doing?” she cried.
“I was just going to take a peek,” replied Amak with rather a wounded expression. “I want to see what the dream of an Emperor looks like.”
“You can’t just open a dream jar and peer in – there are rituals and incantations to perform,” explained Talia with a shake of her head. “This is a delicate business, you fool. If the jar is opened without the proper rites being performed then the dream will escape and be lost forever. And with it your twenty per cent.”
“I’ll take care of that,” said Zia briskly. “It can go on the bottom shelf of the pantry. Nobody will touch it there.”
Reassured, Talia handed over the jar.
“But you just make sure you get back here as soon as you can,” Zia added. “I know I won’t have a wink of sleep whilst that thing’s in the house.”
“Don’t worry, just give me a day or two to finalise the deal and then we can all enjoy the proceeds,” said Talia with a smile.
With their business concluded, the three of them moved out of the shadow of the cherry tree, ready to say their goodbyes. Feeling a little embarrassed at the prospect of being caught eavesdropping, it was my intention to simply fade away towards the bathroom without being seen. Unfortunately, in my still half-sleepy state, I promptly knocked over a chair as I backed away. The clatter as it fell to the floor echoed around the courtyard and all three pairs of eyes turned swiftly and anxiously in my direction.
“Sorry. Just on my way to the bathroom,” I called out softly by way of explanation.
There was a long uncomfortable pause and for a moment Talia seemed to be considering taking drastic action. But my weary fumbling seemed to convince Zia at least that I was not a threat and she laid a calming hand on Talia’s arm. “It’s just a pilgrim who’s sleeping in our room,” I heard her murmur to her niece. “Nothing to worry about.”
I offered what I hoped was a reassuring wave and continued on my way. I could feel all eyes follow me as I stumbled on out of the courtyard but by the time I returned from the bathroom Talia had gone. Muffled sounds from the kitchens indicated Zia had resumed her cleaning there and only Amak remained in the courtyard, resolutely pushing his broom around the tables. He looked up as I passed and I called out a hesitant goodnight. To my relief he offered a simple smile and a wave in return before resuming his sweeping.
I stumbled back to bed, lighter in heart for this cheerful signal. I would have hated to think that Amak and Zia might harbour suspicions that I would repay their hospitality by betraying their confidences in any way. After all, I had no interest in stolen dreams and palace intrigues. First thing in the morning Michael and I would be heading back out across the mountains and before long Khotya, its moons, its Emperor and all its business would surely be little more than a distant dream to me.
To be continued…