It was a wonderful day for a hanging. The sun was covered by some merciful clouds, offering the small dustbowl town of Shasallam some welcome respite from the blistering desert heat. Marakash was standing in the town square, his arms linked with a beautiful woman by the name of Jezrai, an island of love amongst the hateful crowd around them.

They, along with the people around them, were focused on one thing: The gallows, and more importantly, the criminals about to be hanged there. Nooses encircled their necks, and they were looking down at their trapdoors, their path out of the world.

As was often the case for small Qarasi towns, the Sharif was also present, acting as the judge and executioner of all capital criminals. While the criminals were sand-swept, roguelike, with scratchy black beards upon their dark olive faces, the Sharif was regal, wearing thin, airy white clothing and a long, flowing keffiyeh that somehow made his untrimmed beard seem tidy and dignified.

Next to the Sharif was his son, Azram, a beardless man with cropped hair and a clean handsomeness to his face, dressed in similar whites but without his father’s headwear. Even Jezrai was not immune to his beauty, it seemed, yet Marakash did not fear. Jezrai was a delicate woman despite her full figure; she didn’t need a regal man, but one like Marakash, a man of handiwork and ruggedness. He held his lover by her child-bearing hips and whispered to her.

“It seems the Sharif’s son has a poor stomach,” Marakash said, gesturing to the young man as his gorge seemed to rise. “I’m sure he will harden in time, though. The Sharif is godly and hard, he would never spare his son of hard truths, I imagine.”

“He doesn’t need to enjoy death to deal it when he has to,” Jezrai claimed. “Justice is not the same as vengeance, is it?”

Marakash let his lover go and gave pause. The Sharif walked in front of the criminals and cleared his throat. Afterwards, he raised his hands and called out to the crowd.

“People of Shasallam, today we are gathered for the hanging of two criminals. These two murdered Dalaam, Shasallam’s finest wine merchant and a man beloved to us all. These men shall pay for their crimes; those who deal in death shall be paid in death, just as all things cycle. Men of Shasallam, I will allow you all a moment to express your grief.”

His widow fell to her knees and wept openly, rending her black mourning clothes, while the rest of the crowd grew hateful, throwing rotten langsah and persimmons at the criminals. Jeering and mocking filled the air, and Marakash was no exception to this.

“Murderer! Murderer! Die! Die and be cursed! The Gods demand it!” he called out, smiling and pumping his fist in the air.

It felt somewhat homely to join in on the hatred. In truth, Marakash didn’t know Dalaam, he wasn’t even a wine drinker. The most he knew of the man was that he brought money into the town, but despite this, there was a catharsis to it all. These men were criminals, monsters, people who Marakash was free to hate. It wasn’t malice when he demanded the deaths of these people; it was justice.

Eventually the Sharif, tall and resolute, rose up a single hand. “Enough. The time has come for justice to be served. You may all grieve freely again when the deed is done. Mazma and Al’makash, do any of you have any last words?”

One of the men looked up at the crowds. “You all know Dalaam had my son killed! It was vengeance! Justice and vengeance! The Sharif had his catspaw executed, but he never killed the bastard who hired him! I did it all for vengeance! And cursed be the one who comes between a man and his vengeance!”

Marakash’s throat stung. He couldn’t help it; his anger got the better of him.

“You’re just making excuses! You killed an innocent man in cold blood, and you should die!”

Jezrai tugged at Marakash’s clothes and whispered to him. “Marakash, what are you doing?”

“He’s trying to shame us!” Marakash replied. “He’s trying to shame us for doing the Gods’ work!”

“And what’s the Gods’ work?” Jezrai asked. “Shouting at men who are already marked for death?”

Marakash grimaced. He admired Jezrai’s smooth complexion, her flowing black hair and her full, youthful lips. However, her tongue was an increasingly troubling aspect of hers. She was speaking out of turn more and more often as of late, and she’d been going to calligraphy lessons alone without telling Marakash what brought such interests on.

“Jezrai, do not question me in public. Wait until we’re alone,” he whispered, then elevated his voice. “Criminals like you are stains upon the world! You should die, the Gods demand it!”

The to-be hangman looked down. “This whole town’s the same. I’m glad to be leaving it.”

The Sharif looked to the criminal and nodded. “As you wish. Al’makash, do you have anything left to say?”

“I followed Mazma in all things. Now I follow him to my grave.”

The Sharif inclined his head towards his son. “Very well. Azram, open the trapdoors.”

Marakash smirked and whispered to Jezrai. “That’s the first time the Sharif’s asked his son to do it. He must have realised he was getting touchy about it.”

The woman was silent at this. Marakash grunted and turned from her; if she was going to be this unappreciative of being taken to a hanging, she didn’t deserve conversation anyhow. The young man in white walked over to a wooden lever whose mechanisms could be seen linking to the trapdoors on the gallows. The two men kept their eyes on the ground, stoically awaiting their fate.

Azram’s eyes dulled, his throat pulsated, and he pulled the lever. The doors opened, and thus, they fell. This wasn’t the end for them, though; their necks hadn’t fully broken. They twitched, they struggled, they gasped for breath and their eyes began to bulge. Life drained out of them until eventually, the only motion that remained to them was the gentle swaying of the taut rope holding them up.

“It is done,” the Sharif said. “Justice has been served. Now, all who knew and loved Dalaam, be at peace. His murderers hang here, and their bodies shall be left at the town’s gibbets for the vultures to peck at. Please leave, and peace be upon all of you, and all of Shasallam.”

With that, the crowd dispersed, happy in knowing two men died for the sake of a safer community. Jezrai speaking out of turn was a dampener to the day, but seeing the two men who tried to shame him, who tried to shame the very justice falling upon them, that was enough to make Marakash smile again.

“Jezrai… listen. I’m sorry that we disagreed,” Marakash said. “Know that I do listen to you, it’s just… the Sharif knows what he’s doing. What’s happening there, it’s what needs to be done, it’s how it’s always been, and personally, people like that deserve to be humiliated before they die.”

Jezrai looked to Marakash for a moment, then sighed. “It’s… um… it’s as you say, Marakash. Ignore me, it’s just… it’s just the words of a soft-hearted woman, after all.”

“Now, don’t get in a quiet rage with me. Come, let’s go to the saloon and drink. There’ll be plenty of people wanting to celebrate the hanging, we could make a night of it!”

The woman swallowed. Her eyes seemed unwilling to meet Marakash’s; her slight hands were folding into each other and shifting.

“I… I’m not sure, Marakash, I need to tell you something important-”

“Nothing’s so important that we can’t share it over drinking. Jezrai, if you’ve been fearing telling me about something, remember I love you. I’d never hurt you, I… all the odd jobs I do, all the money I earn, it’s all for you! So don’t be afraid, just drink some liquid courage, forget your fears, and tell me all about it.”

This didn’t seem to comfort Jezrai. Her breathing was shaky, and she was making sporadic, unsure eye contact. “All right, Marakash. Let’s… let’s go to the saloon.”

Shasallam was a rickety old town. It seemed to be almost entirely constructed of palm wood and crumbling limestone, the Sharif’s house the only one indicating maintenance of the even the slightest competence. It was a dead, decaying place, each parched, sandy street a twisted spectre of a once prosperous land.

The saloon was a short walk through said streets, with a name atop its entrance written in faded old Madaki. None were quite sure what it said, so the people took to calling it ‘the saloon’ and leaving it at that. Without another gold rush, there wasn’t going to be a second saloon any time soon.

Marakash and Jezrai walked in to the sound of a creaking, rusted hinge, and beheld the chaos within. Men of all ages, dressed in the scruffy, desert-worn clothes of the Qarasi, were sitting at the bar and at tables, drinking rice-wine and raki. There were barely any women aside from the back-room courtesans, seen only in glimpses as the lesser men knocked on their doors with rupees jingling in their pockets. As such, Jezrai drew many a gaze from the punters, and Marakash smirked, knowing none of them would ever enjoy her.

The barkeep was a hook-nosed man, thick-bearded and grizzled. He had a thick set of arms which he never failed to bear, marked up to the shoulder with henna tattoos.

“What’ll it be?” he asked as Marakash reached the bar.

“Can I have one of Dalaam’s rice wines? I imagine it’ll be the last time we get to drink it.”

“That’ll be twelve rupees.”

“Twelve? That’s double the usual price!” Marakash yelled, looking around the bar for clarification.

“We have a limited stock, obviously,” the barkeep said, rolling his eyes and grabbing a glass.

“This is ridiculous! I’ll pay eight, no more!”

“Eleven.”

“Nine!”

“Ten.”

Marakash grunted. “Very well, ten is a fine price for a limited-stock rice wine.”

“I knew we could come to a deal!” the barkeep said, then gave a small smile to Jezrai. “And what would the lady like?”

Jezrai opened her mouth. “I’d like a-”

“She can have a rice-wine too. Does that seem good, Jezrai?”

Once again, Jezrai seemed pensive. She paused and rubbed her temple. “Yes. Rice-wine is fine.”

The barkeep laughed. “She’s got a bit of lip on her, hasn’t she?”

Marakash felt his cheeks flaring up. “W-what in the world are you implying? Jezrai is a good woman, a fine woman, you shan’t talk badly of her!”

“Yes, yes. Anyway, I shall get you two glasses from Dalaam’s final wine delivery.”

Marakash grunted, searching his pockets for a twenty-rupee piece. Jezrai lowered her head and averted her gaze when looked upon, but the damage had been done. First the questioning at the hanging, then this. If he didn’t start drinking soon, he’d forget why he loved her.

The barkeep parted with his wine, Marakash parted with his money, and so he and Jezrai took a seat at one of the smaller tables for two, making sure his lover was next to him. He watched the other men around the bar, raucous and laughing with their friends, playing cards and chatting about the hanging.

There was something about it all Marakash didn’t quite understand. He was a serial transient, a man who moved from job to job, never making close working relationships. He lifted what needed to be lifted, toiled where people needed someone to toil, filled in the spaces where an extra man fit. Fellow men were never his strength; he couldn’t understand them, nor did he want to. His only friend was Nalim, a mystic from the nearby deserts of Sahra-ul, a man who bent the very sands to his will, a man far beyond the calibre of these drunkard fools around him.

Feeling his mouth dry, he took a sip of his rice-wine, then put his arm conspicuously around Jezrai. “So, what is it that’s troubling you?”

“…it’s… it’s nothing.”

“You weren’t acting like it was nothing before,” Marakash pointed out. “Come on, you can tell me. I’m not like these other men, I’m not the kind of person who locks his woman away while they go drinking. You’re everything to me, you know that.”

Jezrai closed her eyes. “It’s… please drop it, Marakash. It’s not something I can say in public.”

Marakash tried to loosen her up. She was always subject to his will whenever he held her thigh, always pliant; so beneath the table his hand went, and along her skirt. “Come, my love, it’s not so bad. You’d let me kiss you in public, whatever embarrassing secret you have is nothing that would concern these men.”

In truth, Marakash did rather like it when the men became concerned. All these other men, these cowards, kept their women locked up in their homes while they drank. Perhaps they were afraid of their women seeing them enjoying themselves, or perhaps they were afraid of losing their women to a better man. Perhaps they simply had a woman they were ashamed of. In any case, when Marakash sweet-talked, when he stroked Jezrai and whispered in her ear, it rightly shamed the lot of them. They knew they didn’t stand a chance with someone like her, while Marakash… he’d won.

“Really… Marakash, stop, it’s nothing,” she said, squirming under Marakash’s touch. “Let me have a drink first, please.”

“Ah, you’re once again being wilful. I like it when you’re wilful,” Marakash said, laughing a little.

Jezrai stiffened, and pushed his hand off her. “Do you?”

Suddenly, Marakash was unamused. “What do you mean by that?”

“Do you really admire it when I’m wilful, because you… you talk over me all the time.”

“What the- no! No, I don’t, I just talk for you because these fools don’t know how to talk to women, that’s all!”

“The bartender just then, he wanted to speak to me. You didn’t let me.”

Marakash’s voice tightened. “I was just… I was careless, that’s all, I didn’t hear you speak.”

“When I questioned you before, you got angry that I was even speaking to you in public.”

“No, no, that’s not it!” Marakash stammered. “I was… it was just that I was shouting for the crowd in that moment, it was crucial I wasn’t interrupted, I-”

“You didn’t even have to speak for the crowd!” Jezrai pointed out. “Marakash, you didn’t even know Dalaam, why were you yelling at the men like you were somehow affected by his death! The… the worst you can say you are off now that he’s gone is that you won’t be able to drink this… swill!”

“Swill? What are you talking about, this is the best wine in the town, you’re being ridiculous, you’re making a big deal out of nothing, and…” Marakash paused, and looked around at the nearby men, gazing at the couple from time to time, “…and now look! They’re all watching, they’re all laughing at me! You’ve humiliated me again!”

Jezrai stood up. “Marakash, stop prattling and tell me true. Why are you even with me? You don’t love me.”

“I-I… what are you talking about, I love you, if you weren’t with me, I’d… well, I’d leave this town, I’d have no need of a job, I wouldn’t even want a house, I’d just travel, I… you’re the reason I’m grounded, you’re the person I work hard for!” Marakash insisted.

“But why? Why do you do all this if all I do is humiliate you?”

Marakash found himself faltering. “I… you don’t understand I… I… I find you beautiful, I find you enchanting, you’re the person I talk to, the person that gives my life meaning, the person I…”

“…show off at the saloon to make the men envious, right?” Jezrai said. “You know, when I say ‘stop touching me’ in the saloon, I’m not being coy, I do actually mean ‘don’t touch me’. You’re just… Marakash, you don’t love me. Maybe you do all these things for me, but you don’t love me.”

“You’re just… Jezrai, what are you trying to say? I do love you, you might not love me, but you can’t speak for me. I know what I feel, and what I feel is love, you just don’t understand, I-”

“I’ve fallen in love with Azram, Marakash.”

Marakash couldn’t stand up to match Jezrai’s height. She was above him, looking down on him, mocking him with her dark brown eyes. His arms slumped, and his stare became blank.

“No… no… I… how? You… you don’t even know Azram…”

“It’s where I’ve been on those nights. You know how I was going to the Sharif’s house? It was to learn calligraphy, just as I said, and it was there I met Azram,” Jezrai said, her voice becoming clear and unreserved. “He’s a better man than you are, Marakash. He builds me up where you tear me down, he listens to me while you simply hear. You’re nothing compared to him, yet… maybe you knew that. That’s the only reason you’d mock him for being unnerved by hanging men. Because you’re afraid of him.”

“I said that because he’s a fucking step down from his father! He… he’s half a man, Jezrai, he’s effeminate, he’s bald-faced! He’s nothing compared to someone like me! He couldn’t protect you if a rapist came, he’d flee, like all pampered children would! You’ll see, Jezrai, you’ll get with him, then you’ll see him for what he is, you’ll run back to me and beg me to forgive you.”

Jezrai picked up her glass of rice-wine and flung the contents in his face. “Only in your imagination. Goodbye, Marakash.”

Hatred surged through Marakash. His temples flared, the tendons in his wrists tightened, the entire bar’s eyes seemed to be piercing him like a thousand tiny needles in his face. Jezrai’s back was getting further and further away, but that was for the best. Even now, Marakash loved her. She was the one he loved, even if she didn’t believe him. Yet still, he must have hated something.

That was it. It was the men around him, the one who looked at him like he was some curiosity, who never wanted to be his friends, who rejected him and didn’t call out to him once he’d stopped working with them. He stood up and threw his glass on the floor, loudly shattering it.

“You want to fucking laugh? Go on, fucking laugh!”

An older man in a fez stood up. “Serves you bloody right! I tell my wife about your antics and she thinks it’s pathetic. Says she thinks it’s the mark of a husband who can’t do his duties!”

Marakash squared up to him. “What’d you say? Say that to my face, tell me I didn’t do my duties as a man to Jezrai!”

“She left you for Azram,” he said with a smirk. “Ain’t a doubt to me. You didn’t do your duties.”

The barkeep raised an empty mug. “Hey, if you’re going to get violent, do it outside, or…”

Marakash threw the first punch regardless of the bartender’s words. It hit the man clumsily, just about connecting with his jaw, yet somehow, he was pushed back disproportionately, smashing his head against a table on the way down. It was always the way with Marakash; lifting objects, moving them, they always seemed that extra bit easier to move when he was focusing on them.

Another, much more youthful man in a fez stood up. “Hey, moron, that was my father!”

“He started it,” Marakash said. “He said to my face I couldn’t satisfy my girl! So fuck you, and fuck your father. Unless you want to come at me too.”

“Marakash, that’s enough!” the barkeep said. “Please, for the sake of the Gods, stop-”

It was quite impossible for Marakash to hear the rest of the barkeep’s words, as a fist landed square against his ear, yet all he did was stagger. He felt a wetness coming out of it, and he rubbed the side of his head as he got his bearings.

“Ugh… you fucking…”

“You’re happy to punch an old man, but can’t take it, eh? Come on, fight someone your own age!” the young man said, holding his fists up in a ridiculous stance.

Marakash steadied himself. “Come at me.”

The boy yelled and charged into Marakash, staggering back into a nearby table and breaking it with the combined weight of two men. Splintered wood pricked against Marakash’s back and the young man’s punches battered his face, and slowly, the whole world resembled the pain he was feeling here and now.

The surge of a good fight drained from Marakash, his body became limp. He tried to push the youth off him, but his arms weren’t obeying him. He grunted, and though his mouth hurt, he sputtered out one word.

“Yield…”

“You’re joking. Yield?” the young man said, his voice queerly muffled by his damaged ear. “You punched my father unconscious. Like I’d let you yield!”

“Please…”

The barkeep was heard saying something. With his bleeding ear, Marakash could only guess the words. Knowing the fool he’d made of himself, it was that he should be spared, that he’s just an idiot that doesn’t know any better. He wasn’t worth finishing off, just let him be. It’s all anyone thought of him. Now that Jezrai had left him, he was nothing.

Someone he didn’t know and didn’t care about stood him up, and brushed his clothes down. “There you are. Just… get yourself a drink, calm yourself down.”

“…don’t tell a man who’s lost his woman to another man to calm down,” Marakash muttered as he stalked over to the bar. “Calm down, he says, calm down, you can’t calm down when there’s nothing here for you. Fuck this, fuck my life, fuck-”

“What’ll it be?” the barkeep asked.

“One of your courtesans,” he grumbled. “How much are they?”

“It’s a hundred rupees for half an hour.”

“What kind of man do you take me for, sir?” Marakash said, staring with a murderous form of misery.

“The kind of man who’d immediately ask for a courtesan after losing their woman?”

Marakash clenched his fists and slammed one of them on the bar, making the old counter shudder enough to disturb the other drinks resting upon it. His other hand he uncoiled and put into his pocket. Soon enough, he’d handed over two fifty-rupee pieces and was walked over to the courtesans’ doors.

“What do you like in a woman?” the barkeep asked.

Marakash grunted. “I loved Jezrai. Give me a woman who looks like her.”

“…erm… as you wish,” the hook-nosed man said, before knocking on one of the courtesans’ doors. “Anisha, I have a new customer for you. He’s frustrated, you’ll be able to deal with that, won’t you?”

The door opened, and a woman with Jezrai’s long, black hair and full figure opened the door. However, her nose was all wrong, and her eyes didn’t have the same brightness Marakash loved in Jezrai, while her clothes were colourful and revealing, exposing her belly and her legs. She was a poor imitation, but at least she wouldn’t betray him.

“She’ll do,” Marakash muttered, and with that, he walked into the room.

The woman closed the door behind him and tugged on her half-veil. “So, how do you want it, darling?”

For some reason, this false affection filled Marakash with rage. He knew it was just a courtesan’s routine, a simple platitude, there wasn’t malice or mockery or love, it was simply business. Yet it was also what Jezrai called him when they shared their bed. She was just as false as this courtesan.

“Be quiet,” Marakash commanded, using a single hand to hold the woman by the neck and the rest of his body to push her against the wall.

The courtesan tensed up, seemingly struggling against him, but to her credit, not another word was said. Marakash did everything he saw fit within his allotted time, all the things Jezrai deserved but he couldn’t do to her. The courtesan was nought but meat to him, a comfort blanket, something to be dominated, used, and thrown away.

By the time he was done, the woman seemed somewhat pale. Marakash left her lying on the bed, wheezing irregularly as he put his clothes on. He looked over the woman’s body, looked at her quivering mouth. He wanted to say something, but what was there to say? She’d done her job, she’d done as she was told, and she’d see her money soon enough, no doubt.

“Thank you for staying quiet.”

The courtesan didn’t reply. Marakash shook his head and left the courtesan’s room, looking around the saloon for the prying eyes of the other men. Plenty had left while he’d been preoccupied with his replacement woman, with those remaining being drunken, staggering messes.

There was no point in drinking. Dalaam’s rice-wine would only have a bitter taste now that Jezrai had tainted it with her memories. The barkeep called out to Marakash, but whatever was said, he didn’t listen to it. He made his way out of the saloon and back to his home.

It was a ramshackle old place, bought with the last of his father’s savings and a little of Marakash’s own when he was in his teenage years. It was never a large or affluent-looking place, but with every odd job Marakash pursued, he’d neglected the upkeep of the building. There was only one bedroom, complete with a double bed that Marakash had taken extra care to make each day.

One side of the bed would now be forever empty. He looked to his wardrobe, where Jezrai’s dresses and saris hung up. Marakash’s working clothes, in contrast, lied scrunched up in the lower compartments, with little point being seen in maintaining their looks.

Marakash shoved the wardrobe over and yelled at no-one in particular. “WHY? WHY DID SHE DO THIS? I did everything for her, I breathed for her, I gave her priority in everything and she… she leaves me? She just wanted my money, she was just thinking about money, it has to be that, once Azram fell for her, she saw better money, the bitch, the reaching, miserable bitch!”

He kicked Jezrai’s side of the bed and screamed in pain as his reward was bestowed upon him in the form of a stubbed toe. “VILE WOMAN! VILE, CURSED WOMAN!”

Marakash turned away from the bed and gritted his teeth in pain, before punching the wall three times. He attempted to say more words that conveyed his feelings, but nought was coming forth but indecipherable roars and grunts. Eventually, his hands bloodied and his throat rasping, Marakash collapsed onto his bed and lied face-down in his tears.

Strangely, in spite of everything, there was respite for Marakash in his dreams. Jezrai’s face drifted away from Marakash in a white void, and Azram’s bald, boyish face was next to it, frolicking in disembodied, childlike glee. Marakash, however, had a revolver in his hand.

“Jezrai, you don’t know a real man when you see one,” Marakash stated.

The floating face of Jezrai smiled absent-mindedly. “What do you mean? Azram is beautiful and fears hangings, just like a woman! He’s the perfect partner for a woman.”

“In that case, how will he protect you when another man rapes you?”

Suddenly, Jezrai had a full body, while Azram remained disembodied. An amorphous black mass approached the woman, its fluid form shifting from man to twisted, tentacled abomination, creeping and stroking her with its many tendrils.

“Stop!” Azram’s face commanded.

The black, inky beast was unresponsive. Jezrai squirmed under its grip and cried out. “Azram! Azram, Marakash, please, somebody help!”

Marakash smirked with a quiet satisfaction. He knew what he had to do. He shot the inky creature, making it collapse into nothingness. When its liquid, shiny nature sloughed off its form, it revealed underneath a corpse of none other than Azram himself. The floating face who had impotently begged so was now bleeding from the mouth, rolling its eyes back along with its corpse.

“Azram… Azram was a cowardly monster the entire time!” Jezrai said. “I should have seen it in him, but I was simply taken in by his youthful looks and his rich, brilliant father!”

“You were. I don’t need you anymore, Jezrai.”

The woman suddenly took Marakash by the shoulders. “But Marakash, without you I’m nothing! I’m sorry I made that mistake; will you ever forgive me?”

“I forgive you,” Marakash said, removing his trousers. “But if I take you back, you have to repay me in kind, and promise never to talk back or humiliate me ever again.”

“I promise I won’t. Let me use my mouth for more appropriate things…”

Jezrai crouched next to Marakash and she began to do what she always refused to do before. She was brilliant at it, of course. Marakash stroked his lover’s hair, he closed his eyes in satisfaction. When he opened his eyes again, however, he noticed that the woman fellating him was no longer Jezrai; it was Anisha the courtesan, with her dull, unloving eyes and her decidedly wrong face.

Marakash shot out of his dreams and rolled over into the void where Jezrai should have been. “No… no, it was… no, no, no, no, no! If only I could… if… only…”

The pale light of sunrise was peeking through Marakash’s windows, and the prospect of another day of searching for odd jobs loomed over him like a hangman’s gibbet. What was the point in waking up when every reason he had to work had been taken from him? What he needed was a new reason to get up, one that…

…the idea came to him in the glare of rising desert sun. He would challenge Azram to a gunfight. He was a lily-livered man, after all, raised in the privilege of the Sharif’s house, and had no taste for blood as any respectable man should. There was no way he’d win. In addition, if he refused to accept Marakash’s challenge, he would humiliate himself in front of Jezrai, he’d show himself to be the coward Marakash knew he was. Either way, Jezrai wouldn’t be able to be with Azram, so she’d have no choice but to come back to Marakash. It was brilliant, it was devious, it was the best way to make this terrible situation right.

If Jezrai were still with him, Marakash would be searching for odd jobs once again. There were always goods that needed lifting, carts that needed shifting, even a job cleaning out a barn or two would be enough to tide him by. However, his house was bought and Jezrai was no longer being provided for by him. So instead of reducing himself to beggardom yet again, he charged to the Sharif’s residence, revolver in hand, as soon as he was up and dressed.

The Sharif’s house was made of limestone, polished and brilliant in the blinding desert sun, only distinguishable from light itself by the cracks and imperfections in its upper levels where the builders couldn’t climb. Standing at the entrance were two men, each in keffiyehs tied in a way that resembled a woman’s headscarf. Despite this, Marakash dared not laugh; in their arms were rifles, long-barrelled and accurate, no doubt a gun used in the capital.

“Peace be upon you, friend. What brings you to the Sharif’s residence at this hour?” one guard asked. “Firearms training is in five hours, and calligraphy in eight. Unless there’s a crime to report, you have no business being here.”

“My manhood’s brought me here, friends,” Marakash muttered. “I’m not here for the Sharif, nor his lessons. I’m here for his son. I have to ask something of him.”

The guard who spoke to him narrowed his eyes, then turned to his co-worker. They whispered to one another, nodded a few times, then turned back to Marakash.

“Leave in peace, friend. You are not allowed to enter this residence without prior permission.”

Marakash’s chest filled with anger hot as the deserts of Sahra-ul. He’d only just concocted his plan to challenge Azram to a shoot-out, yet already his cowardice had foiled him. While the Sharif’s son likely laid in bed, gently talking with Jezrai about how foolish and uncouth Marakash was, his guards kept him safe with loyalty his father had earned.

“No! I’m not giving in! All I need is to talk with Azram, it’s nothing, he’s not going to be hurt, just-”

One of the guards lifted his rifle and aimed it squarely at Marakash’s forehead. “You must leave now, friend. Peace be upon you.”

Fear consumed Marakash, yet somehow his legs weren’t moving. He was unable to speak, so the best he could do was stare. The guard held steady, looking along his sight and keeping eye contact.

“Don’t make me do this.”

Shock and fear took over Marakash in a spastic fit; he waved his hands erratically as the rifle’s barrel swerved and unleashed a loud, deafening bang. The man wasn’t about to stay any longer. He rushed away from the Sharif’s house, away from the hand-bound thunder the two guards wielded.

Hiding in a nearby alley, Marakash gathered air within his lungs and thoughts within his head. Watching the guards from afar, they seemed confused about the matter that had just occurred; the one that looked on was shouting at the one that had given what must have been a warning shot. It was unclear what was being said, but whatever the case, their ruckus drew the attention of the Sharif’s son, along with Jezrai.

It was surreal, seeing her from a distance, tracking her while she looked on obliviously rather than being the man next to her. Azram was apparently scolding the guards, as the two men were kneeling, their heads lowered and their guns on the ground. The boy no doubt was playing at being his father, showing off his authority for Jezrai. Marakash was wise to such pathetic displays.

Yet it seemed Jezrai wasn’t. She was holding herself in the frail manner of a protectorate, pleading with Azram in silence, begging him to show himself off some more. It was enough to make Marakash sick. The more he saw the Sharif’s son gesticulate, the more he lost his control. Once Jezrai linked arms with him and made to drag the young man back into his house, Marakash’s inhibitions were forfeit.

He strode towards Azram and Jezrai, calling out to them before they could close the door on him.

“OI, WOMAN-MAN! THE ONE WITH THE BALD FACE!” Marakash called out.

Azram did not respond for a moment, but when his guards stood up and aimed their rifles, he raised a hand and turned to face Marakash.

“Men, do not shoot him. Jezrai’s former partner, correct?” Azram said, his boyish face creasing. “What brings you here?”

Jezrai whispered something in Azram’s ear, causing Marakash to scoff. “What brings me here, what brings me here, is that what you ask? When you’re there, whispering and conspiring with my woman, laughing at my expense? I’m here to challenge you, Azram!”

“Challenge me? I’m my father’s only heir, friend, and defeating me won’t earn you a place in his succession.”

“You… I’m talking about Jezrai, you fool!” Marakash said. “You’re acting like you don’t know what I’m talking about, but that’s just because you’re afraid to face such manly things! You can’t handle a hanging, so of course you couldn’t handle a gun fight!”

“Is it a stand-off that you want?” Azram asked, his arms folding.

Jezrai’s eyes filled with fear. “Azram, don’t, it’s all right, you don’t need to prove anything. I love you, Azram, Marakash is just being mad, he’ll forget about this soon enough, and-”

“I won’t forget a thing, you vile woman!” Marakash said. “Azram’s taken everything from me, and I’m going to claim it all back. Only way such a dispute can come to an immediate close is a stand-off, if you ask me.”

Azram laughed. “Winning a stand-off proves nothing. But all right, Marakash. Let’s have a stand-off. Quick draw, first to die loses.”

“No!” Jezrai pleaded. “Azram, don’t sink to his level, it’s not worth risking your life for the sake of your pride!”

“I’m not doing this for my pride, Jez. I’m doing this for you,” the Sharif’s son claimed.

“And I don’t want you to do it for me! Azram, just ignore him, come back inside, it’s fine!”

Marakash laughed. “Jezrai has a gentle heart. A woman’s heart. Of course she’d try to talk you down, but come. A man like you wouldn’t listen to this kind of soft-natured cowardice, would you? I could kill you in a stand-off, easily. While Jezrai knows this, she’ll never be safe in your arms.”

Azram scoffed. “My friend. You’re misunderstanding me. I don’t need a beard or a crass mouth to be a man. I don’t even need a gun. However, I’m not a man if I don’t protect what I love. And I know that while you live, Jezrai will never be safe. She’s told me about you, about everything you’re capable of.”

“Then you should know all the lies she’s capable of.”

“I don’t think they’re lies,” Azram said. “A man like you shouldn’t be anywhere near someone like Jezrai. So I accept your challenge, on the grounds that you stay away from my house and away from Jezrai until the day one of us dies.”

The woman’s eyes were full of defeat. “I… none of you are making any sense. I’m going inside. Marakash… stand down. If Azram won’t see reason, maybe you shall.”

“Ha!” Marakash yelled as the woman retreated. “I’m not falling for it! I’m willing to fight for you, Jezrai, look! I’m a stronger man than this bald-faced effeminate ever could be! You’ll see when I shoot him dead!”

Jezrai had, unfortunately, already closed the door behind him. Azram had been steadily and stoically accepting the insults, until he knew Marakash was done. Then he cleared his throat.

“Did you not hear me? I accept your challenge. Once you’re dead, Jezrai can stop living in fear. You can make your peace knowing I’ll make her happier than you ever could,” Azram said with a harsh laugh. “Goodbye, Marakash. Jezrai will always hate you.”

With that, he turned his back on his challenger and opened the door. “Get your affairs in order. I’ll give you… two weeks. Then we meet at sunrise before the gallows. I’ll tell my father not to get involved and we can both have a good, clean fight. May the best man win, eh?”

“Hmph. The best man,” Marakash said, folding his arms. “You’ll be sorry.”

Azram didn’t have the nerve to respond; he closed his door on Marakash and the guards raised their rifles once again.

“You got what you wanted, friend. Now leave. I shall not miss a second time,” one of them said.

Marakash had no reason to quarrel anymore. All he needed to do was stock up on his bullets, train with a few bottles in the desert, no doubt anyone would be a better shooter than the likes of Azram. Feeling in his pockets, he realised that the courtesan from yesterday had not only stripped him of clothes, but money too. And given he would have Jezrai back, it was not too clear how he was going to save money up unless he once again worked an odd job or two.

Begrudgingly, Marakash acknowledged that in the time he had spent unshackled, he had only succeeded in shackling himself again. He wandered about the husk of a town, revolver in hand, looking for teams half-full.

 

***************************************************************

 

 

Three days of solid work had passed Marakash by, and finally he’d been paid enough to get a pack of eighteen bullets with which to practice his revolver. He’d figured out his training spot; on the southern edges of Shasallam were badlands that blurred the border between Qaras and the deserts of Sahra-ul. There, he’d set up empty water bottles and shoot at them until they shattered.

It wasn’t the most methodical way to learn, but it was better than nothing at all. Marakash was coming home from a camel-herding job in the north of town when he found himself paralysed with curiosity. A crowd was gathered around a pair of men, hollering and whooping; while Marakash had places to be, bullets to propel and bottles to shoot, the commotion was enough to draw him away from his path.

Two men were aiming pistols at a post in the ground, with several small nails hammered along its horizontal top section. While one of the men was someone Marakash did not remember, a scruffy fellow with a scratchy beard and ragged clothes, the second participant was none other than the Sharif’s son himself. Marakash’s chest bubbled with palpitations for reasons he couldn’t fully accept; his staying to watch was now inevitable.

Marakash approached a young man with tied-back hair and tapped his shoulder. “Hey, what’s the game about?”

“It’s a test of accuracy. They both have six bullets in their revolver, and they have to try and shoot one of the nails. If it hits, we’ll get that metal ‘ping’, and one of the nails should bend. So far, the Sharif’s son’s got one and Ali here hasn’t got any.”

“Hmph. I’m sure it’s just luck,” Marakash said.

The young man squinted at him. “Do I know you from somewhere? You seem familiar.”

Given the last thing he’d done in the public eye, this wasn’t a good thing. Marakash scoffed. “You probably don’t know me. Anyway, just because he’s privileged doesn’t mean he-”

The scent of burnt gunpowder filled the air as all speech was abruptly cut off. The man with the scratchy beard’s gun was the one smoking, and the members of the crowd closest to the post gave their best glances over.

“I didn’t hear any nail bending, did you?” an older man remarked.

“Nah, not a chance.”

Azram chuckled. “It’s simply poor fortune, my friend. I’m sure you’ll be able to catch up. Once I fire this round, we’ll both have three bullets left. Everything’s left to play for.”

The Sharif’s son lined up his shot and Marakash craned his neck to get a better look at the man. He didn’t seem to be struggling, he didn’t even seem aware of the gun in his hand. It was as if he was simply moving a part of his body to where it needed to be.

The crowd leaned in, then back out again as the loud crack of his pistol went off, followed by a harsh, scraping ‘ping’. The crowd cheered, Ali stood in awe, and Marakash’s eyes widened in terror. He couldn’t let himself blink; it felt like every moment not observing was a moment missed.

It was probably still luck. Perhaps the group had given Ali a faulty gun so that they could butter up the Sharif’s son. There was still everything to play for, just as Azram himself had noted. Marakash was still safe, he’d still defeat this bald half-man with ease.

Ali took another shot and missed. Azram’s next shot was also a miss, and following a successful ping from Ali, Marakash allowed himself to have hope. Azram had, after all, only landed half of his shots. While it was true that they were mere nails sticking out from the top of some useless old post, it was still possible Azram was unreliable.

Another bang was heard, followed by a ping. Ali was crestfallen, and the crowd gave a singular, conclusive cheer. Marakash scratched his head.

“Hold on, why in the world are you acting like the match is over? Azram hasn’t won yet!”

Both Ali and Azram turned to see Marakash, and the latter laughed. “You haven’t been keeping count, have you? Ali has one point, I now have three. Ali and I both have one more shot; there’s no way he can catch up.”

Marakash’s face was warming up from the inside. He sputtered aimlessly for a moment, then looked to Ali. “Don’t give up hope, try for the last shot anyway, show that… that you could have come close!”

Ali cocked his head. “Why would I waste a bullet on that? I’ve just lost a bet from that anyway. I can’t be wasting money on shit like that!”

Azram gave the ragged-looking man a small, womanly smile. “It’s all right, my friend. You can keep your money. I was only doing it for a little fun myself.”

Marakash beheld this flattery and grunted. Bile was building in his throat, and the only way to free himself of it was letting it spill forth from his mouth.

“How can you act the kind man now when you took my woman from me?” Marakash yelled out to him. “You can’t pretend you’re a good sport when you seduced a woman who already had a man!”

Azram swivelled his revolver in his hand. “My friend… Jezrai made her choice. She chose me.”

“She chose me first, though!”

“Our first choices are often wrong,” the Sharif’s son said, his tone lowering and sharpening.

“This… how can… you’ve done something here, you’ve set this up, this was all done to intimidate me! You’re acting all gracious and comforting the loser because you know the loser’s taking your fall!”

Azram raised an eyebrow. “You cannot be seriously asserting I had a gunplay-related bet and somehow convinced my friend to throw just for a low-life like you.”

“Of course you did! I’m the man that’s going to shoot you dead! Of course you want to intimidate me so I hesitate on the day!”

The Sharif’s son looked around at the crowd, then shook his head. “You still don’t understand, do you? I only agreed to take you on so I could legally kill you. You seemed so eager to die, and for Jezrai’s sake I decided to help you get to the grave faster. I’m doing this so everyone will be free of you, Jezrai most of all.”

Marakash’s mortality was creeping through his chest. He wanted to yell at Azram, he wanted to strangle him, shut him up, beat him bloody, yet he was frozen in place. Cold tendrils of anxiety snaked between his ribs and threatened to pull his very body apart.

He was going to die. Azram wasn’t cheating, Azram wasn’t playing a game of intimidation. He made his shots, he beat his friend fairly, and now Marakash had to face him in a stand-off. Jezrai would laugh at him, the townspeople would forget about him, he’d just be another corpse thrown into the desert for the birds.

“No! No!” Marakash spluttered, and with that, he scrambled away from the group.

The sound of the men’s laughter could be heard fading slowly away as the dusty streets of Shasallam moved backwards with his frenzied leg movements. He was headed home, he had to get his bottles, he had to practice, he could only practice, it was all he had left. His job, his food, his livelihood, none of it would matter if he was dead.

All was gathered together; Marakash wasted no more time. He pushed his broken-hinged door and left it swinging open as he charged for the town’s outskirts. There was an overall gradient in structural integrity in Shasallam; the further south one went, the closer to the desert one was and the more degraded the houses were. At the very edge, where the signposts for the town and the gibbets laid, naught but neglected, empty shacks remained.

Strung from the gibbets were the two hangmen from the day Jezrai had broken up with Marakash. Even in his panic, he couldn’t help but stop and take the two corpses in; the desert heat and the vultures had stripped them of all recognisable features, and most of their organs were reduced to shrunken, desiccated streamers trailing from yellowed bones. Marakash couldn’t even remember their names.

It was justice. This was what they deserved to become. Marakash moved on from them, lugging his bottles and feeling at the revolver at his hip. He wasn’t about to join them, not for a moment. There was a spot in the desert, a set of odd black rocks that were smooth and even, perfect for setting bottles out on. He’d practice. It’s all he needed to do. Practice, practice, practice, and that way he’d survive Azram.

Another thought entered Marakash’s mind for but a moment. He could run. The man grimaced and purged the thought from his head. That was never going to happen, he wasn’t a coward just yet. He’d rather die than live with the shame of letting himself lose his woman without a fight.

So he traversed the great sandy expanse that was the northern edges of Sahra-ul. Dunes stretched as far as Marakash’s eyes could see, with the occasional tower of limestone propping itself up in the distance, with the desert sun radiating from both the sky above and the blistering, whipping sands below.

His spot wasn’t far, but it was enough to make him regret not taking a canteen of water. When he reached the spot, a smooth expanse seemingly hollowed out between three small dunes, he put his bag of bottles down.

“I could have filled any of these with water if I’d have thought. Worthless Azram, working me into a frightened frenzy…” he muttered to himself.

The rocks that he’d chosen this spot for seemed to be part of something artificial, something Marakash didn’t fully understand. They were smooth-edged cuboids that had bases that were well underground, made of slick, almost slimy black stone. Marakash moved from rock to rock, placing a bottle on each, noting the peculiar symbols on each. While some were too skew to place a bottle on, most were perfectly horizontal, and so Marakash set up his own little shooting range.

Marakash stood at a point where most of the rocks were in front of him and steadied his gun, aiming at one of the closer bottles. His hands shook, and he couldn’t quite grasp how he’d ever make an accurate shot. In essence, it seemed easy; one pointed the end at something that they wanted dead, and squeezed the trigger. Yet the further away the target was, the more every jitter affected the path. The desert winds were scorching Marakash’s hands, and sweat was loosening his grip on the pistol.

“I have to do it. I have to do it. It’s easy, just…”

He pulled the trigger, and the small gun let out a harsh, powerful bang. Marakash’s body naturally negated the recoil, and a bullet could be heard whizzing through the air. However, if it hit something, it was neither a bottle nor the bizarre rock it was placed upon.

Marakash grunted. He’d been practicing the days before and had manged to hit a bottle at least once. Yet now, it felt as if such a task was insurmountable. Azram’s effortless hitting of nails, his flaunting of Jezrai, it was all too much. The pampered, the beardless, the hanging-fearing effeminate was somehow Marakash’s better despite every indication he shouldn’t have been.

“Why?” Marakash yelled, missing another shot.

“Why?!” he repeated, walking towards the bottle and unleashing another shot.

“WHY?!”

He kept questioning and kept missing until his cylinder was empty, the last shot being a deliberate miss at point-blank range. He collapsed upon the slick, black half-pillar and hid his head in his arms.

“I’m going to die… this is it, I’m going to die, I’m going to be shot and everyone’s going to be happy that I’m gone…”

Marakash felt a desert wind whip at his back, and the sound of what seemed to be a dune collapsing could be heard. The despondent man lifted his head up and turned around to find the dune behind him completely parted, its middle circling around a dark-skinned man in elegant, undulating waves.

“It seems you’re in a crisis, Marakash,” the man said, a wide, thick-lipped smile on his face.

He was someone Marakash knew well; the geomancer of Sahra-ul, the great nomad himself. His skin was black as pitch, in some parts painted with a thick red substance of some kind, forming spirals and false flames. His body and head alike were hairless, and his nose was flat and wide.

“Nalim!” Marakash said, backing away and assuming a bow. “My apologies for making a noise on your land, I simply need my space, and this was ideal…”

“If I was bothered by your firearms’ noise, I’d have stopped you the first time you set yourself up here. I’ve been watching you. You were doing poorly before, but you didn’t seem distracted. Something’s different today. Would you like to talk about it?”

Marakash looked away from the mystic. He wouldn’t understand what it was like; the very sands of the desert were orbiting him as he spoke. There was no way he could understand the powerlessness Marakash was experiencing, no way he’d be able to help.

“It’s nothing.”

“There is no such thing as ‘nothing’,” Nalim said. “Especially not when it’s a thing that’s driving a grown man to repeat the word ‘why’ at some reformed sand.”

“I was… I was just frustrated, that’s all!”

Nalim sighed. “Marakash, tell me why you’ve been practicing your skills with a firearm.”

Marakash couldn’t look the man in the eyes. He was so beyond him, so wise and strong that there was nothing that could be said. Everything he did and thought felt petty compared to the man that commanded the desert itself.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“You wouldn’t understand!” Marakash repeated. “I can’t share it with you, you’d consider me stupid, you’ll just reprimand me and tell me I’m stupid!”

“You are making a lot of predictions about me. Would you care to test them?” Nalim said, dropping his orbiting sand with a mere raise of his brow.

Marakash sighed to himself, and threw the nearby bottle on the ground, leaving it in an impact crater of sand instead of smashing it as he’d hoped.

“…all right, Nalim, I’ll tell you. Jezrai and I broke up. And… well, she broke up for the sake of another man. I wanted to prove that I’d fight for Jezrai, that Azram wasn’t as great a man as I, so… so I challenged him to a standoff.”

“A poor reason to challenge someone to a mortal duel. What exactly do you think fighting like this will achieve?”

Blood rushed up to Marakash’s cheeks and he grunted. “It’ll prove me the better man, and Jezrai… Jezrai won’t have Azram anymore, so she’ll have to take me back. I’m a good man, I’ll forgive her, we can make up and it’ll be like nothing happened! It was a perfect plan, I just… I just thought…”

Nalim’s wide forehead creased. “You thought you would win naturally. That you weren’t truly putting your life on the line. What foolishness. Even I know not to bet my life upon something. And can you think of anything that can stand before me?”

“N-no, Nalim, no, I can’t.”

“Marakash, your foolishness has to have a toll. I don’t think you know it yet, but even if you win, you’re likely to pay a price you will never fully comprehend,” the mystic said, walking to one of the black stones and brushing his hands over it. “However… I’m willing to help you survive.”

“What? You know how to shoot? You know how to help me? You… you’re not going to cheat for me, are you?”

Nalim closed his eyes. “Of course not. But I am going to help you cheat on your own. Have you ever heard of red peyote?”

“No… what is it? Is it a spice of some kind?”

“It’s a cactus. Follow me, Marakash,” the geomancer said, gesturing to another dune and parting it. “I’ll lead you to some peyote, and with it, your full potential.”

“Wait, but why do you want me to see a cactus? I don’t understand!”

The mystic walked towards his parting without a word. Silently, his back urged Marakash to follow him. Before long, Marakash obeyed. He drifted through the excavated dune, beholding the two compacted walls raised around him. The path offered shade, it offered a ground that wasn’t burnt by the sun, yet it still filled Marakash with dread, simply in a different form.

“What happens if this collapses?” Marakash asked.

“We both die. Do not think much of it. I’m in control here,” Nalim stated. “Just through this dune, we’ll reach a crop of red peyote. You won’t be able to miss it.”

“You still haven’t told me why I should see them.”

“Yet you followed anyway. You know I’m your only hope, don’t you?”

Marakash frowned. “You’re a despicable person sometimes, Nalim.”

“A good thing I don’t need a tribe, then, isn’t it?”

Once they left the simultaneous comfort and dread of the parted dune, Marakash found himself in a part of the desert with slightly courser dirt, parched earth that instead of separating into fine dust and shifting sands instead felt capable of sustaining some form of life. Well-rooted grasses and desert roses sprouted from the ground; Nalim walked amongst the plants until he found his quarry; a set of vaguely spherical, purple-red lumps in the ground.

The dune behind the pair collapsed as Nalim crouched by the bulbous plants, causing Marakash to jump. “What the fuck? Nalim, you can’t scare me like that!”

“It was not my intention; I simply cannot hold sands up forever. Here we are; red peyote. They’re a potent divination ingredient, but their true purpose only reveals itself to mages.”

“Hmph. Well, that’s great for you, but I’m no mage,” Marakash said, folding his arms and looking away from the mystic.

“Are you so sure about that?” Nalim asked. “What jobs do you commonly hold, Marakash?”

“Well, they vary, but… mostly manual labour, carrying things, you know… simple tasks, really. Just require someone strong.”

“Someone that’s good at moving things. Have you ever noticed an object start to move before you touch it, or suddenly become easier to lift? Have you noticed that your strikes are more… impactful than they should be?”

Marakash swallowed. “You… you can’t be saying…”

Nalim picked a peyote bulb and plucked off its flower. “Eat this. Chew it well and swallow. You’ll feel a little… ill before you feel its effects, but I assure you, they’ll come.”

Something about this felt wrong. Nalim had been more accepting of Marakash on his land than Shasallam had ever been about him being on theirs; if it was merely the result of him being some sort of mage, then the friendship may as well have been a lie.

Marakash shrugged. Everything he knew had been proving false as of late. What was one more challenge of his worldview? He took the tiny cactus and chewed it, though each bite proved more and more difficult. It was bitter, inky in taste, the aftertaste running down his throat thoroughly unpleasant; there was an awful sense of nausea coming to his stomach. Just as he gagged and made to eject the disgusting purple mush, Nalim covered Marakash’s mouth.

“Chew and swallow. You must endure it.”

It was too much to stomach. He couldn’t endure it, it was too much, the taste, the anguish, the loss of everything, it was all taking form at the expense of his surroundings. The desert around him melted away, the limestone columns, the dunes, the grasses, the roses, it became nought but flashes of feeling and colour in unforgiving darkness.

Nalim’s voice echoed in the form of a sand-coloured wisp. “You’re starting to enter the trance. Can you feel your inner power? Can you feel it surging within you?”

A blood-red torrent pushed itself out of Marakash’s chest, leaving him writhing, kneeling on the floor as it floated around with Nalim’s wisp. “AGH! All I feel is pain, there’s pain, there’s something eating at my body!”

Marakash began to scratch at the hole in his chest, scratch as if there were a thousand lice consuming his rotting flesh. “No, no, there’s nothing, it’s everything, I’m frightened, I’m afraid, please make it stop, please, please make it stop!”

“You’re letting your fears dominate you. If your fear is what you take with you, your journey from the peyote will take a fearful turn,” Nalim’s wisp said. “See this red essence? This is your power. It’s yours to claim, you need only seize it.”

“But the bugs, the bugs are biting me, they’re everywhere, it itches, it hurts, I can’t seize my power, I can’t do it! I’m too afraid, I’m too… JEZRAI!”

In the blackness, an inky mass rose up. It twisted to form the ever-beautiful Jezrai, idealised and perfect, a tin-glazed doll without problems. Azram was rising out of the darkness as a titan, devastating and unforgiving. His face was smeared as if he was a ruined oil painting, and his hands were enough to crush Jezrai.

Slowly, the great Azram lumbered out of the crumpled, black earth, each step of his a massive, grand undertaking. He was bringing his great body towards Jezrai, but the woman was not running. She was standing, beholding him, smiling and expectant.

“NO! No, Jezrai, he’ll crush you!” Marakash yelled, pushing himself up.

“She cannot hear you,” Nalim’s wisp said. “She doesn’t want to hear you.”

“Then… then…”

Marakash had no time to think. As Azram’s step made to crush Jezrai, Marakash charged towards her and dived, bringing himself and Jezrai to the floor. She was just as blank and unreceptive as ever, but the dive was also not enough. Azram’s massive foot was descending, and the red wisp of Marakash’s power seemed distant and uninterested.

“Embrace what you have or die here. Let go of your fears and be free,” Nalim insisted.

“I can’t!”

“Then you will die.”

The foot kept descending. Marakash winced and closed his eyes, before the sound of something shattering was heard. When Marakash opened his eyes again, he saw that his hands were outstretched, a red glow engulfing them. Azram’s foot was stuck, pressing against an unstoppable force. Consumed with an overwhelming lust, Marakash laughed with a mania he’d almost forgotten he could feel.

With a grand sweeping gesture he flung the titan away from himself, making Azram land on his back with a weight so intense that it broke the very inky earth that Marakash was standing upon. Marakash breathed heavily, he quivered, he opened his posture and roared to the black heavens above.

“JEZRAI! YOU’RE SAFE! YOU’RE SAFE WITH ME!”

“Is she? Look around you.” Nalim’s voice commanded.

Doubt suddenly returned to Marakash, and he looked around himself. Shattered pieces of tin-glaze surrounded him, some resembling Jezrai’s hair, others her face, others her body.

“No… no… what happened?”

“It’s… something that’s telling. You have found your power. I’ve helped you all that I can. The rest… well, it’s up to you to see what’s next.”

“I don’t understand…” Marakash said, picking up a piece of Jezrai’s face, “…I… I slayed the monster, I… I found my powers, I overcame my fears…”

“If only life was that simple, Marakash…” Nalim’s voice said, feeling a lot less detached compared to his wispy form.

Marakash looked up from the tin-glaze in his hand and tried to find Nalim’s sandy apparition. Instead, he was greeted with the night sky of the desert, the shooting stars and the sky-paintings. Nalim was crouched next to him, dabbing his face with a damp cloth of some kind.

“What… what happened? What did you do to me?”

“I unlocked your magical potential. While you were convulsing, you said things. You did things. You lifted all sorts of objects in your sleep; you uprooted marram grass, you stripped a desert rose of its petals. You’ve grown in magical power. Try to catch this…”

Nalim stood up, and made to drop the damp cloth of his onto the dirt-ridden ground. Without a moment’s hesitation, Marakash reached for it, but could not physically catch it. Instead, the cloth stopped falling with his will for it to stop falling. It seemed to be trying to fall, but as long as Marakash didn’t want it to, it held steady in the air.

“…madness… sheer madness. Am I still hallucinating?”

“Not at all,” Nalim said with a smile that could almost be confused for pride. “You’re fulfilling your potential. And if you come with me, you could grow even more. Marakash… have you considered that perhaps Shasallam, perhaps Jezrai and Azram and all of Qaras, perhaps it is not the culture you belong in?”

Marakash’s heart sank, and the cloth fell into the dust beneath it. “I knew it. There was a catch. You never wanted to be my friend at all, did you? How long have you known I was a mage? How long have you been scouting me out?”

“Since you first started your desert wanderings. On the day we met. I have never tried to convince you of my selflessness. I do see a potential travelling companion in you,” Nalim said. “My friendship with you has not been any less genuine because I had a design in mind for you.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, Nalim, but I’m not interested,” Marakash stated. “I’ve just learned that I have powers I never knew I had! I… I could use them to beat Azram! I could make his bullets bend in the air, and make mine do so as well! Then Azram will be dead, and Jezrai will love me again, and everything will be exactly as I wanted again!”

Nalim’s expression became profoundly disappointed. He crouched, picked up the now-dirty cloth and shook his head. “Very well. If that’s your decision, I respect it. If Jezrai truly means that much to you, you’re free to approach this however you like. In fact, I’ll help you attain your goal.”

Marakash sat up. “What? What do you mean you’ll help? I thought… I thought you’d abandon me now that you know I don’t want to be… uh… whatever it was you intended me to be.”

“Not at all. You’re correct in how you intend to win your little gun fight. Train not in how to handle your revolver, train not in how you shoot bottles. From this day until your standoff, meet me in the desert and let me handle your gun.”

Marakash’s stomach tightened up. “I… I don’t quite understand your meaning, Nalim.”

“From now on, you’re not going to learn how to shoot a gun. You’re going to learn how to survive being shot at.”

 

***************************************************************

 

 

The day that Marakash had been waiting for had finally come. There was an unmistakable feeling of culmination; either his life ended today or it started afresh. Jezrai would be forgiven; Nalim had been teaching Marakash to let go of his hatred. He wasn’t sure it was working, but in any case, Marakash was now convinced that both his pride and Jezrai were worth fighting for.

Every day he’d been working for his food and his bullets, then sneaking off to the desert to get shot at by Nalim. The nomad was not a good shot, but the revolver was enough of a threat that his powers were more than awakened. He’d started off ducking and diving, panicking and gibbering with fear, but over the week and a half he’d trained, he’d learned to stand up to the bullets, face his terrors head-on.

There was a sense of true accomplishment; he’d come close to greatness, and this day was simply the final test, the thing that would prove once and for all that he was better than Azram, better than the men in the saloon, better than Shasallam itself.

It was the early morning and the desert sun was just creeping over the horizon, a light, creamy blue filling the sky. He was at his practicing spot with Nalim, who once again was holding his revolver.

“All right. Marakash, you know what you must do,” Nalim said. “I’m going to shoot straight at you. No missing, no games. I’m going to try and kill you. And if you die here, well, you’ve only lost a few hours from your life. If not… you’re ready. You can overcome your adversary… and from there, who knows. Remember, Marakash, killing Azram will not be the end of your problems.”

“It’ll be the end of most of them,” Marakash insisted. “Come on, shoot me. Shoot me as close as you think you can go.”

Nalim pointed the revolver at Marakash and frowned. “This is it. Do you have any last words?”

“I don’t need them yet.”

“Good answer.”

The nomad pulled the trigger, and Marakash held his hand out. The bullet stopped, clean in the air, pushed back by his will until eventually, it dropped. Nalim seemed dissatisfied.

“You defended yourself, yet I don’t think the people of Shasallam would be satisfied by that, do you?”

“They’d think I’m cheating.”

“You are cheating, but in the wild, all cheating is fair. I can’t say you’ll get… what you want if you do things this way, but I won’t judge. Will you be returning here later today?”

Marakash nodded. “I intend to. If… if I don’t, you know what’s happened to me.”

“I understand. I’ll find myself an oasis and rest a while, then. Until we meet again, Marakash! Here, you’ll need this.”

The mystic walked up to Marakash and offered him his revolver back. “I’ll miss this contraption. Even with the sands at my command, there’s something… appealing about it. Remember, Marakash. This standoff isn’t the solution to all your problems. If you die… perhaps then you won’t have to suffer again, but victory isn’t going to guarantee you happiness. If you return to me, remember that.”

“I… I will, Nalim,” Marakash said, the sting in his throat forcing him to choke out a laugh. “What? I will! I swear upon the Gods!”

“Hm. I see. Very well. May you have good fortune, Marakash.”

The dark-skinned man gave Marakash a wide smile and put his hand on his shoulder. “Now, off with you. You wouldn’t want to keep Shasallam waiting.”

With that, Marakash inclined his head. He’d see Nalim again, he was sure of it. With the magic he had at his command, he was unstoppable. Azram didn’t know it, but today was the day he died. The day he reclaimed Jezrai, and the day he reclaimed his life. No-one in Shasallam would mock him again.

As he neared the southern side of town, once safely out of Nalim’s hearing, he began to chuckle to himself. It felt so perfect. Seeing that bald face of Azram’s crumble, seeing the pride leave his eyes. It was going to be glorious, and Jezrai was going to see all of it. He was going to prove himself a real man.

Shasallam was waking up from its slumber; builders were reaching their construction sites, camel-herders were getting their morning drinks, and those with nothing better to do were heading out towards the gallows. Incidentally, that was exactly where Marakash was headed. He was going to be there early; what better way to show he was unafraid?

Everyone was going to be shocked; everyone would revere him. The Sharif would lose his inadequate inheritor and would perhaps sire a bolder one, one with true moxie about him, as opposed to the pretty-faced woman-stealer he was stuck with. It was going to be a triumph.

When he reached the gallows, however, he found that Azram was already one step ahead of him. He was in the midst of the crowd, loosening his body up, huffing and puffing. Next to him was Jezrai, quiet and resigned.

“Azram, you… you really shouldn’t be doing this,” she insisted. “You can still back out, you can still just stay alive. You don’t have to kill anyone, please…”

Marakash swaggered up to Jezrai and scoffed. “You’re joking, aren’t you? He can’t back out now! He’s the big man who accepted my challenge, and now he’s got to back himself up! What do you say, Azram? You going to back out like Jezrai says?”

Azram waved his revolver around in an overly carefree manner. “Jezrai’s heart is in the right place. If you weren’t so insufferable, I’d agree with her. But Shasallam doesn’t need a jealous waste of space like you. No place in this world needs someone like you.”

Jezrai covered her face with her palm. “Neither of you are… Azram, I’m going to get out of your hair. Good… good luck. I’m really not sure how to feel anymore.”

Marakash watched his former lover melt into the larger crowd, then gave Azram a knowing look. “She hates you.”

“No. She loves me, and thinks I’m throwing my life away. I… I’m hers, and it’s irresponsible of me to think of my life as mine to throw away. My father isn’t happy about this, Jezrai isn’t happy about this, but…”

“But you can’t help it,” Marakash said with a grin. “You have to prove yourself. You know that if you don’t do this, you’re not a man.”

“You’re a delusional sort, Marakash. I hope for your sake there isn’t an afterlife. You’d just wander for eternity, always confused by the world around you.”

“I can’t wait to kill you,” Marakash spat.

Azram looked at the crowd around him, then scratched the back of his head. “Well, we’re both here. We shouldn’t waste any time.”

“Everyone here loves you, it seems. Why not shout out if you want to start so badly?”

The Sharif’s son seemingly ignored Marakash, yet he called out nonetheless. “All right, people of Shasallam! The fight’s going to start! Stand either side, but we need a straight line for us to shoot down!”

Frustratingly enough, the crowds did as Azram bade. They separated out into a pair of linear groups, leaving a passage between them where clear shots could be made without endangering the onlookers. Marakash grimaced. The people of Shasallam were all rooting for his death, they were looking at him with mocking, hateful eyes. Why shouldn’t they have been collateral damage? They were only here to watch somebody die. They didn’t have a stake in anything, it was all a twisted joke to them.

Somehow, Marakash was beginning to understand how the hangmen felt. Azram walked so that he was far away from Marakash, his body framed in a silhouette against the sun. Marakash looked around; even though Azram was here in all his finery, the Sharif wasn’t anywhere to be seen. He must have had misplaced confidence in his son. That, or he didn’t want to watch his son die.

Locking eyes with Azram, Marakash saw no fear. This was a man who knew what he was; he was shameless. He had a brazenness about his effeminacy, his cleanness that Marakash could respect, in a way. Still, Marakash could kill a man he respected as easily as a man he hated. Jezrai was watching to the left of Azram, silent amongst the wittering residents of Shasallam.

She was wrong to deny Azram of his manliness. Marakash’s lip quivered as he remembered the day they broke up, the day she humiliated him in front of the entire saloon. All his work to remember what he was fighting for, and yet here, staring his opponent down, he was asking himself what the point of it all was.

“Well? Who’s counting us in?” Marakash called out, his hand dancing around his pistol’s holster.

Azram nodded to a nearby member of the crowd. “Ali. Wave us in.”

“Er… yes, Azram.”

The Sharif’s son stared Marakash down. “Any last words, Marakash?”

“I hate you all, Shasallam!” Marakash responded. “Your last words?”

“I don’t need any,” the man called back.

With that, Ali unsurely lifted his arm; after the longest moment in Marakash’s life, he followed up by chopping down through the air. Azram was quick to draw, as expected, and opened with a single merciless shot.

Time seemed to slow for Marakash. He took aim with his right hand, but his true focus was his left. He was attempting to do something impressive, yet by the time it was over, all he knew was the bullet had flown past him.

Azram’s face was too far off to properly see, but his gestures became less controlled. He made another shot before Marakash could even aim, causing the man to forget his training entirely. He ducked and dropped his gun, and the crowd began to laugh and hoot.

“Look at him, crawling on the floor like a snake! Guess you can tell a lot about a man from his actions!” one man taunted.

“HA! All right, Azram, stop toying with the man, finish him!” another called out.

Just as Marakash got his bearings, Azram unleashed three more shots. Marakash was intending on making his shots look like a miss, but his plans were eroding all around him. Curled in a foetal ball, his gun was an arm’s length away, but for all intents and purposes it was a mile away. The man closed his eyes. He quivered and prayed to whatever Gods would have him, yet when he opened his eyes, the bullets were before him, floating in the air, stationary and harmless.

Azram backed off from this, and in this moment Marakash felt a surge of adrenaline. He stretched his arm out for his gun, threw himself back up, and anticipated Azram’s desperate final shot. It would have been perfect, it would have hit his chest without issue, but Marakash waved his left hand and it was once again deflected.

Marakash was closing in on his rival. He wasn’t the crack shot Azram was, but he didn’t need to be. Azram was out of bullets, and Marakash wasn’t. The crowd booed and called out, but nothing was going to stop Marakash. Azram was his now.

The Sharif’s son panicked. “I don’t understand, I-”

He pulled his revolver’s trigger once. Twice. Thrice. All three bullets hit Azram in the chest. The man twitched and recoiled against the impact of each bullet as they landed, then fell to the floor, limp as a puppet. Jezrai screamed and ran out of the crowd, falling to her knees and cradling the man’s body.

“HA!” Marakash yelled, mania consuming his voice. “YOU’RE DEAD, AZRAM! TRY TO UNDERMINE ME NOW! TRY TO STEAL MY GIRL! I WIN! I BEAT YOU! YOU’RE NOTHING BUT VULTURE FOOD NOW! HA! HAHAHAHAHA!”

Jezrai looked at Marakash with wide, horrified eyes. “What… what have you done? Marakash, what… what did you do? You… you set Azram up, you set him up! You murdered him!”

For a moment, Marakash stopped. He looked upon Jezrai, in all her beauty, in all her misery. Then he suppressed his weakness, he covered his trembling mouth until it exploded with laughter.

“THE ONLY RULES HERE ARE THE RULES OF THE DESERT, JEZRAI! I WON! I killed him… don’t you see, Jezrai, I killed him for you… so… so you’d see how weak he is… that… that you need someone like me, that he couldn’t protect you… that… aha… ha… look at him! He’s DEAD! He’s useless, he couldn’t protect you, he’s nothing! It’s all right, though, because… because even though you were stupid, even though… even though you made a mistake and went off with that worthless woman, I’m here! I forgive you, and I’ll take you back! We… we can be like we used to be!”

Jezrai’s eyes, though tear-filled, were hard and unyielding. “You didn’t do this for me. You did this because of your bruised pride. You… you just killed the man I love, Marakash. I’m never going to forgive you, Marakash. I hate you. I’ll always hate you.”

Marakash’s right hand clenched. His arms were tensing, his jaw was shaking. “No. No, you’re lying. You’ll take me back. You have to. You have to take me back! YOU HAVE TO!”

“NEVER!”

The revolver went off in his hand. Marakash’s index finger was pushing the trigger down, yet it didn’t feel like he’d shot it himself. Jezrai was lying atop Azram now, blood pooling from her chest.

A moment of horrified silence took both the crowd and Marakash hostage. Despite what he was seeing, what fruits his mindless rage had born, it didn’t feel real. Jezrai was fine, she was going to get back with him, she was going to see the error of her ways and get with the stronger man. She wasn’t dying, she was fine…

“EUAAAAAAARGH!” Marakash roared, and with that he made to run from the crowd.

“Kill him!” one man yelled. “He shot a woman!”

“Someone get the Sharif!” a woman called out.

“I’LL GET HIM!” a young man claimed.

As Marakash bolted southwards, said young man could be seen sprinting after him. The vigour of madness had taken him, yet his legs simply could not match the lad’s youth. He felt himself get tackled to the ground, knowing only that he had to keep hold of his gun.

He rolled over to get the dust out of his eyes, but the boy held him down. “Stop! You’re not getting away with this, you coward!”

Marakash didn’t care anymore. Coward or man, this town’s opinions were now as worthless as they were ever going to be. He was a monster, and thus he had to act like one. He pushed the youth off him with his mind, throwing him upwards into a stagger. By the time Marakash had got up himself, not only had the boy regained his bearings, but there was a steadily approaching crowd.

He wasted no more time. As the boy made to tackle him again, he shot him in the face, then kept running. The whole town was after his blood, and now that Jezrai was gone, all he had left was denying them the satisfaction. He scrambled and stumbled, sprinting until his throat was dry. He passed the piles of bones that were once the gibbet-hanged criminals from a fortnight ago and continued into the deserts of Sahra-ul.

However, when Marakash reached the black rocks, his meeting ground with Nalim, the desert mystic was nowhere to be found. His killer’s rush had shielded him from the blistering heat of the sun and his own thirst, but as he stood around, as he let himself breathe, he realised how truly fatigued he was.

His throat was drying up, and his neck was frying in its own sweat. “NALIM! NALIM, WHERE ARE YOU?”

He paced from stone to stone, pulling at his hair and working himself up into a self-loathing frenzy. He’d killed Jezrai. He’d seen red, he’d pulled the trigger, he’d killed the woman he loved. Maybe Jezrai was right, maybe he’d never loved her, maybe he was mad all along.

No, that couldn’t have been it. She drove him to it, she doubted him, she said she hated him, that was it, it was the point of no return, he had a gun, he was in the killing spirit, what could she have expected, she had a death wish, it was what had to happen, it was bloodlust, that was all…

Marakash sat on one of the rocks and screamed out to the desert sun. “NALIIIIIIIIIIIIIM! NALIM, THIS IS YOUR FAULT! YOU MADE ME DO THIS, YOU MADE ME WIN, YOU MADE ME DO IT!”

He stopped shouting, showing mercy upon his ravaged throat, and looked down at his trembling hands. His revolver was still loaded; three bullets were inside Azram, one bullet inside Jezrai, one inside the boy fool enough to try and stop him. One bullet was left.

“This… this is it, then. It has to be the only way…”

Marakash opened his mouth and pointed his revolver’s barrel into it. He closed his eyes and remembered everything. Jezrai’s betrayal, the saloon’s mocking indifference to his suffering, Azram’s arrogance, Nalim training him up and giving him false hope, Jezrai’s final defiance. This world wasn’t fair, the world was cruel, it was not worth his time. Marakash wasn’t about to be like the hangmen outside Shasallam. He was going to die on his own terms.

Yet he hesitated nonetheless. He didn’t know what was stopping him. Azram was dead. Jezrai was dead. Nalim wasn’t here, and if he was, he was the enemy. No-one was waiting for him here. All he had to do was shoot, and the Gods would take him into their caring arms.

No. The Gods had forsaken him. No-one could forgive him; the Gods hated him for loving Jezrai, they couldn’t possibly understand why he had to kill her. What if he was to suffer forever? It didn’t seem such an easy choice any more.

His breathing became laboured, dry and scraping. It was now or never. If he didn’t do it, there would be no absolution. It had to be this way.

“Stop.” a familiar voice commanded.

Nalim. Marakash took the gun out of his mouth, and without hesitation, pointed it straight at where the voice came from. The dark-skinned man stood his ground, moving the sands around him to demonstrate his control.

“I told you that you wouldn’t get what you wanted, Marakash. What happened? Did they run you out of town?”

“DON’T PLAY THE FOOL WITH ME!” Marakash screamed. “You knew everything! You knew I’d kill Jezrai! You knew it! You tricked me, it was all a lie to make me lose everything so I would follow you! BUT I’M WISE TO YOUR TRICKS, NALIM! AND THIS IS WHERE YOUR JOURNEY ENDS!”

Nalim said nothing. He raised his hands and formed a wall of sand, but Marakash smirked. He simply shot his revolver anyway, supposing that the bullet would go through the sand.

It did not.

Instead, it pinged against the wall like it was solid glass, but in the same breath, the wall became like a liquid, forming a massive hand out of itself and grabbing Marakash by the torso. It slammed him against the ground and pinned him down, crunching his ribs like they were deadwood. Out of the sand pillar rose Nalim, who cast down additional smaller sand-arms to restrict Marakash’s limbs.

“You fool. I thought you could have been a worthy companion. I wanted you to let Jezrai go, not because I wanted you to be unhappy, but because your obsession with her was making you unhappy! You clearly hated Shasallam! You could have left with me! You could have been happy! Instead, here you are, protesting like an angry child.”

He lowered himself to Marakash’s level as he spluttered for breath within the sand. “Did you truly think you could kill your way out of dealing with me? Child, I am the ruler of this land. The desert answers to me. And you? You’re nothing but a madman. Worthless, not only to your hometown, but to me as well. We were once friends, Marakash. But if you’re going to blame me for your failure, then you have lost me too.”

Marakash was just about able to breathe. He was spitting out sand whenever he could, but the searing heat of his surroundings, the coarseness ravaging his mouth and nose, it was not a death to be envied. With the last of his willpower, he tried to groan out one last plea.

“Kill… me… quickly…”

Nalim raised his arm, forming one massive hand behind himself. Marakash closed his eyes; the desert nomad was at least honourable enough to fulfil his last request. The madman took in the injustice one last time, embracing his fate.

Yet his fate did not come. The sound of sand collapsing could be heard, and Marakash felt the pushing sensation against his back ease up. He was no longer drowning in sand, he was simply lying on the floor.

“You’re not mine to kill,” Nalim explained. “You’ve wasted your bullet trying to kill me, and I have no reason to kill you. You’re beneath that. If any of my friend remains… he’ll know what to do to find absolution. Accept your fate here… or find a new life out in the desert with me. I will forgive your sins, but I’ll never forget.”

Marakash’s vision cleared up, and he pushed himself onto his hands and feet. Why did being spared feel so wrong? Why was it not right that he was being shown mercy? He was a victim, he was betrayed by everyone, by Jezrai, by Azram, by all of Shasallam, and even by Nalim. All this could be was a little respite, a small sign from the Gods that they weren’t done with him yet, so why did it feel so wrong?

His chest tightened up. It felt wrong because it was. He shouldn’t have ran at all. He shouldn’t have shot that boy. The young man was a hero, a person trying to stop a madman. Jezrai wasn’t a betrayer, she was a woman who was grieving her lover. Azram… he’d agreed to what he’d agreed to, but who was the one who challenged him? The more Marakash thought, the more he realised he couldn’t accept Nalim’s generosity.

“Nalim… I don’t deserve another life. I… I know what I have to do.”

The ebon-skinned nomad closed his eyes in contemplation. “I understand. If that’s how you’ll reach absolution… do it. Your hands are stained with blood, Marakash. If you can only wash yourself clean in waters that will drown you… I cannot stop you.”

Marakash’s eyes were filling with tears in spite of his parched throat. “I… I’m so sorry, Nalim. I’m… I’m so sorry…”

“I know. Leave this place, Marakash. You no longer have any need for it.”

Nalim was right. There was no point waiting. In his tattered, sand-rent clothes and his worn-out sandals, Marakash limped back to the southern side of Shasallam. Strangely enough, the townspeople weren’t waiting there in a mob, as he expected. The streets seemed uncommonly quiet, without so much as a camel being visible.

Marakash edged past the southern shacks and nervously asked, “Is anyone there? I… I’m here… I’m… I’m turning myself in…”

The only answer was a tumbleweed blowing through the streets. Marakash swallowed his unease and continued through the town, past the saloon. Something felt wrong about all this, as if there was a trap waiting.

“Please, if someone’s there, show themselves! I’m unarmed, I… I won’t kill anyone! Please! Someone… anyone…”

His feet had taken him back home, it seemed; he was standing outside his ramshackle, poorly-maintained house, staring at the door. He’d never valued it on its own; all that mattered was it was large enough for him and Jezrai, that it would be a place for a family to grow up in.

There was nothing left to lose. Marakash entered the house and walked through the dilapidated, mouldy ruin. It was never amazingly tidy, but in the two weeks Jezrai had been gone, its condition had deteriorated. Unwashed dishes with stew stains on them filled the kitchen’s basin, and the windows had become opaque with dust and grime.

Up in his bedroom, Marakash stared at the double bed he’d once shared with Jezrai. He paced around for a while, he rubbed at his temples, and a familiar smell wafted from the wardrobe. Jezrai’s perfume, mixed with her sweat, coming from her dresses within. She was still here, she was still clinging to the world, even as she lied down dead in the street.

“No… no, Jezrai…”

Marakash sat down in his double bed and wept openly. He was all alone in the world, alone with his thoughts, his guilt, his memories, the actions he would never be able to take back. He was monstrous, yet he couldn’t even face up to his actions. Was this his fate, to be trapped in this bedroom, wasting away with the last physical remnants of the lover he’d murdered in cold blood.

The sound of his door being broken into soon freed Marakash of this limbo. He almost smiled for a moment; they were here, they were finally here. A group of men could be heard speaking to one another, and one of the men’s voices was familiar to him; stern, authoritative, strangely impartial.

“He’ll be hiding upstairs. Cowards like him seek childish comforts. He shall be brought to justice.”

“Yes, Sharif,” another man’s voice said.

When Marakash saw the men come into his room, he couldn’t even speak. He was dragged to the floor, entirely numb, nothing going through his mind but Jezrai. What was she thinking in her last moments? Was she confused? Afraid? Disappointed? Sadly validated? She was right to hate Marakash. Everyone was right to hate him. He was a mad, violent fool. Nalim was more the fool for giving him a chance.

Somehow, between being pushed onto the floor and restrained and his thoughts ending, Marakash had found himself standing on the gallows themselves, before a crowd of jeering civilians. They’d come out to see him after all. There wasn’t a drop of water left in his body; as much as he wanted to cry, no tears came out.

“People of Shasallam,” the Sharif’s voice could be heard saying, cold and deathly in tone. “We are gathered here to… to witness justice. This man killed my son in a legitimate challenge, a fight to the death. I… I… as much as I hate him, I cannot condemn him for that. However, for the murder of Jezrai, my son’s lover, and Jasal, the heroic youth who tried to stop his escape… the Gods shall show him no mercy. You… you may all express your grief.”

Marakash wanted to look away, but that would have been shying away from his wrongdoing. The people of Shasallam were jeering, they were mocking, they were hating. They threw rotten food at him, langsah and persimmons, yet somehow, it felt welcome. Then a young man, accompanied by his beautiful lover, made himself particularly conspicuous and loud.

“DIE! AZRAM WAS MY BEST FRIEND! I LOVED HIM AS I’D LOVE A BROTHER! YOU’RE A MONSTER! THE GODS DEMAND YOUR DEATH!”

Marakash grinned for a moment, half wry and half accepting. It was all the same; a tragedy to him was just another day to Shasallam. All that was left for Marakash was the Sharif’s decisive pull of the trapdoors’ lever.

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