Excerpt from the Journal of John Smidley: Collected by T. P. Hade of the Nonhuman Cultural Illumination Project
Shasiek territory, Saaraiah Desert, 9/24/621 AK
Today I met a ghul. The foul thing urinated on my personal tent and vomited in the mess tent. I hesitate to call any day in Saaraiah normal, but this departed further than usual.
Perhaps I should not think too ill of the beast. He could hardly be expected to understand civilized behavior. His master has no such excuse. A Queen shouldn’t belch in front of guests.
Al-Keffan was elated to see his negotiations with the Shasiek come through. He had us rearrange our tents in a pattern which would communicate our status at a glance to their Queen. It felt a silly waste of time given that he could only convince her highness to visit and dine for a few hours. Barson gave one of his dry little laughs when he saw my tent beside his. The oaf remains ungrateful for Father’s contributions to his merry expedition and my management of them.
Queen Amina and her escorts arrived a few hours before sunset. The Shasiek were an imposing tribe, well muscled and far darker than the traders at O-Hambar. The Queen was a tall woman with a long face and prominent lips and cheekbones. Her robes were identical to those of her male companions, save for being blood-red instead of beige, and traced with gold thread. She wore a leather helmet inlaid with rubies. Each ear was pierced with four gold rings. The top three were small and contrasted beautifully with her brown skin, but the effect was marred by the hoops at the bottom, which stretched the lobe to create enormous holes one could only imagine were ripe for catching and tearing the flesh. The men wore a smaller pair of gold hoops.
But Amina would not be known more infamously as the “Ghul Queen” if not for her constant companion, which we had no choice but to host as an honored guest. Al-Keffan informed us about the ghul before he went to negotiate the meeting. He told us everything would be fine as long as we did not threaten his master or try to pet him. He said this with a straight face.
The ghul was named Sadani. He was captured as a pup by Amina’s grandfather, who trained him in useful tasks such as guarding camp, panicking enemy camels, and ripping out the throat of anyone the current monarch was displeased with. Since ghuls live several human lifespans they become part of the inheritance for generations. Other tribes will occasionally keep ghuls, but none have the deadly reputation of the Shasiek when it comes to their use.
Amina arrived on a white camel, the ghul crouched behind her with his claws digging into the saddle. The painting at O-Hambar did not do justice to the creature’s ugliness. Shorter than a woman when standing on two feet, he had the general appearance of a rangy dog which had lost its fur and tail. He had the yellow eyes of a cat and a nose shaped like that of a horse. Two long fangs protruding down past his lips gave the impression of a constant snarl, whatever the expression. His large, rat-like ears were absurdly festooned with gold rings, one small pair and one pair of hoops the same size as those worn by the men. He wore beige robes and a leather collar adorned with a gold thread pattern and a single ruby.
They stopped while they were a stone’s throw from our party and the ghul leapt from his perch. He trotted toward us on all four feet, head lowered like a herding dog set after a flock of sheep. He stopped before Al-Keffan and spoke in an eerie, rasping voice. Though I could not pick out any words, I recognized the sound and cadence of Haashon, the widely used language which is Saaraiah’s equivalent to King’s Tongue.
Al-Keffan smiled and waved his hands and spoke in an easy tone as if greeting an old friend. He slapped Barson on the back and gestured at Sadani.
I will never tire of watching that man squirm. He seemed to need a moment to draw strength from Al-Keffan’s hand on his back, and then he stepped forward, hand extended in a downturned fist, and offered the phrase we had been instructed to use. “Haala osoate Sadani!” (A rough translation of a Shasiek greeting- “Peace be with my friend.”) The ghul pressed his nose against Barson’s hand and sniffed noisily.
I was next. He ran his wet nose along my hand, up my arm a bit for good measure, and then poked it into my groin and ran it along my shoes. It took a tremendous effort not to flinch away.
All the expedition leaders had to endure the same routine. The remaining staff grouped behind us got off a little easier. They didn’t have to worry about pronouncing the greeting, and the ghul was content to restrict his invasion of personal space to their feet alone. Nonetheless it was a tedious event to stand through in the heat when there were inviting tents at our backs.
The Queen watched silently with a hint of a smile on her lips, her eyes narrowed, black and mysterious. There was a sort of cold beauty about her, like a knife with an elegantly engraved hilt. This was a woman you could believe led her people into battle and drenched her sword with the blood of her enemies.
She waited until Sadani returned to her side before dismounting and leaving her camel in the care of her servants. She scratched the ghul behind the ears, and then they conversed rapidly in Shasiek. Something he said made her grin, and she met my eyes for a moment. It is very unsettling to listen to someone talk about you to your face and have no way of knowing what they say.
She then approached Barson and they engaged in energetic conversation through Al-Keffan. I tried to pay attention, but it was difficult to when I noticed what Sadani was doing. The ghul had broken away from his master and was trotting among the expedition leader’s tents. He would sniff around the entrance to each one, and then urinate on the canvas. Al-Keffan must have caught a sourness in Barson’s expression, because he finally waved a hand at the creature and applauded Amina for being such a thoughtful ruler. He explained that the scent would discourage wild ghuls from breaking into our tents and stealing our food.
We finally retired to the mess tent, which had a fine arrangement of dishes laid out on the beautiful carpets favored in place of tables by most of Saaraiah’s tribes. The atmosphere at tribal meals is warm and welcoming. United by food and the humbleness of our seating (the Queen’s personal mat was no more embroidered or cushioned than anyone else’s), it is a little easier to feel comfortable in the presence of a people so different.
Barson sat at the Queen’s right side, and Sadani sat at her left. Al-Keffan gestured to me to sit beside the ghul. He smelled of dust and dead things dried up in the sun. I focused on the patterns in my mat, in case eye contact was considered some kind of challenge.
The Queen’s servants gathered a little of everything and offered it to Sadani. He bolted it down in a minute or so and then licked the plate. He met Amina’s eyes and nodded. The servants collected our plates and put our meals together. Al-Keffan told me later that due to their excellent sense of smell and taste, Shasiek royalty use ghuls to test their food for poison.
Barson and the Queen kept Al-Keffan busy all through the meal with their talk. She had a surprisingly sharp sense of humor, and they traded jokes and stories. Her laughter had a rich honesty to it, and she had a tendency to throw her head back and flash her bright teeth, making her look rather like a snarling ghul.
After the meal Barson presented her with a bottle of red wine from one of Father’s vineyards. He opened it and poured for her. She held the cup out for the ghul and watched thoughtfully while he lapped from it. Sadani wrinkled his nose and snorted, but offered his nod of approval. I should have been expecting it, but it still turned my stomach a bit when she put the cup to her lips and took a deep drink. She smiled and said something to a servant, who brought a bowl and poured a helping of wine for the ghul.
Conversation shifted to grand comparisons of exploits. Barson told the Queen about the far-flung lands he had visited, how he had meet with their monarchs and established powerful trading ties for his King. He could not get her to say if any of the gold or rubies her people wore were mined from her own land, but if I know Barson he will soon track the scent to its source, diligent as any hound.
Amina boasted about her years of battle with King Iftekharul of the Hoshantii tribe, and how she had avenged her father’s death by cutting off his head. As a final insult she fed his body to Sadani. She advised us to keep this meeting a secret if we happened to come across the Hoshantii.
Our talk was interrupted by a hideous retching sound. I flung myself backward as Sadani leaned over his bowl and vomited half of his meal into it and half onto our dining mat. He swayed from side to side. A drunken glaze dulled his eyes.
Amina shot a ferocious look at Barson and rattled off something in Shasiek. She pulled a sword of shocking length from some hidden sheath beneath her robes.
Al-Keffan knows the language little better than I know Haashon. I have never seen him so flustered. He gestured with his hands and spoke to her in Haashon and I wondered if we were about to part ways with our heads just like King Iftekharul. Finally he took a drink from the bottle and sent for a bowl of water for the ghul, and she calmed down.
Amina placed a hand under Sadani’s jaw, held his head up, and wiped his face clean with her robe. She spoke to him in a soft voice and stroked his ears, then held the water to his muzzle and encouraged him to drink. I must admit it was a rather touching scene.
Unfortunately for Barson’s trade interests, the incident cut the visit short. Queen Amina presented him with parting gifts- a young camel and a leather helmet adorned with a single ruby. Then she helped Sadani onto her camel and they set off, heedless of the oncoming cold and darkness of night.
I find a small part of myself wishing I could go with them and see what kind of fantastic way of life bred such a woman.