The ebony box was a perfect cube, a hand’s width on the sides and unadorned except for a gold lock fastener on one edge. Shiriin knew better than to try to open it. Even if she had the key.
The box had been in her family for three generations. Wrapping herself in a blue pashmina, she watched the heavy downpour outside. Thick droplets rippled pools on the cobblestone. Foliage, waterproofed with oils from the local flora, covered her stall. Her brow sodden from the humidity. She tucked her hand beneath the shawl and creased her fingers through damp braids.
The rainy season was good for business. Few off-worlders ventured this far. Curiosity seekers, searching out local handicraft, that was her main stock and trade. The rains quenched the fires. The oxygen-rich atmosphere and plentiful tinder combusting with regularity. Caravan drivers swapped tales of far-flung settlements which were there one spring. And then nothing more than ash washed away during the floods. The news channels only reported the wildest of the infernos. Sweeping through the jungles, destroying hectares a minute. They marked the planet with red spots visible from space.
Life is fire and rebirth, the proverb went. Shiriin had lived to see it a dozen times. Fire cleansed away the old, brought opportunity to the young. Rebirth never more than a cycle away. The story was writ large in the stars beyond.
Shiriin had never had much cause to travel. Her extended family, however, had spread far. Their lives turned on intrigue and deceit, all meaningless to her. News from the core worlds had less than a tenth of a cubic of truth to it.The old princes swept away, a new ruler ordained. What mattered, Shiriin thought, is business was better than ever. At least when it’s raining.
A caravan in which she had a stake had returned to the village that very morning. Bringing gold perfume wrought from the silken vines. Now, as the sun set, the caravan was ready to travel the roads again. Loaded with plastic consumer goods from distant worlds. So many worlds, most not marked in the locally woven fabric maps sold to amused tourists. Worlds not marked even on the UniNet maps.
The Von Neumann probes aided mankind’s exponential spread. Too many colonies for any chart now. This too mattered little to Shiriin. The passing of hundreds of ships had raised the aspirations of those around her. Their growing desires under the scrutiny of the mullahs. The mullahs, who with their own insatiable appetites, were jealous to keep the sinning for themselves. The body and soul are in constant struggle, so it went, Shiriin canted.
She traced the edge of the box with her fingers, her nails dappled with peeling gold varnish. Icy cold, the wood peeled away her body’s warmth, leaving her breathless. Pupils dilated, she ignored the inner voice telling her to remove her fingers. Lingering, ecstatic, her eyes rolled back, she collapsed. The box rolled on the ground with a hollow rattle. So little of its cause understood. So little of its potential savoured. The box silhouetted on the ground, she denied herself another touch. Soon the man would come to take away her heirloom. To put it to it’s intended use, its horror twinned with its pleasure. The fool parts with her inheritance. So the proverb went.
The box, she knew, was a relic from some ancient civilisation. The craft of some aliens long forgotten. The mullahs would give her forty lashes in public for trading in such haram. More if they knew its providence. How it had worked its way into her grandfather’s possession. Her grandfather, a soldier, a Mubarizan, champion of the people. A smuggler, an abuser of women and opiates. Shiriin knew the history, how he had stolen the box from a guarded reliquary. Knowledge is for the righteous, so the proverb went.
Her grandfather’s legend seeded the honour of a progeny born from a dozen indentured women. Shiriin remembered little of him. A cantankerous old bigot who delighted in taking the belt to his wives and kin. And worse besides, if half of what was best forgotten was true. His death mourned, an extravagant burial fit for a war hero, but there was none who missed him the day that followed. Nor spoke of him since. The dead are best laid buried, so the proverb went.
The box whispered to her, her fingers reached out before she caught them and bit hard on the tips. A shaitun’s possession, they said. A curse and bad luck on the family, they said. Superstitious nonsense, she had thought. She had taken the box after her uncle committed suicide. Something to make back on a decade’s worth of debts, another gift she had inherited from him. That and not some curse, Shiriin thought, was why he had hanged. He wills it as He wishes it to be. So it went.
The box hummed from the floor. She let out a gasp, noticing for the first time the quiet man opposite. The parted canvas behind him twitched as he loomed over the tablecloth. Rain beat down a relentless rhythm, Shiriin vulnerable and aware of her isolation. The man had honey coloured hair, greased back. Augmented eyes glowed a machine red. Wearing a weathered studded jacket, his biceps ridged underneath. Gloves with metallic piping flexed into a greeting.
“Hello Shiriin,” he said.
Fear is knowing the devil knows your name. So it goes.
“You are late,” she said.
“My apologies. The shuttle pilot had some difficulty locating your settlement.” He noticed the box and picked it up.
Taking the pot off the gas stove, Shiriin poured spiced tea into a glass cup. She served nougat covered pistachio sweets on a china plate. The man looked at the plate and the tea but remained standing.
“Let it be as He wills it,” she said. Cold air blew inside, prickling her skin. The quiet hum of machinery coming from the foreigner filled the silence.
Putting the box into a satchel hung around his waist, his face was blank. No sign of exaltation, Shiriin noted. Her own memories tempting to break the oath, to reclaim the box.
He exited with a half bow and no further words. Time hung heavy in the tent. A thunderous boom as the shuttle departed the world.
Shiriin spoke aloud, “You don’t want to know why?”
Before the fall, so the proverb went. So it went but so be damned! A tremor of rage engulfed her. Pouring tea, the glass rattled in the saucer.
“Once we were a people. With land and children, nieces and nephews. Our farms had few comforts. We built on the unforgiving soil. With faith, the hard rocks, we made our home.
“They came, hated and desperate. First as guests then soon as our masters. They took away our meaning and gloated in our faces.”
The glass rattled again, the tea now bitter. “That is why,” she said.
Vengeance is His gift alone. So the proverb goes.