Zelikman toyed morosely with the bread crust on his platter and waited for Amram to finish his discussion with the boisterous party of travelers at the corner table. The common room of the hastily rebuilt caravansary on the outskirts of Sambunin was crowded and hot, but the pale, gaunt Frank had empty seats to either side of him, as though no one was eager to get too close to such a strange figure. It pleased them to find other seats, and it pleased Zelikman likewise. The approach of his giant partner in business did little to lighten his expression.
"They are indeed Khazars," reported Amram, his voice its usual mellow rumble.
Amram resumed his seat to Zelikman's left. "They had news of Fil-"
"Don't, I beg you, say that name."
"When did you become such a creature of sentiment?"
"So it's sentiment that has tied my innards in such knots. I'm glad I have you to tell me this."
"Your insides would be fine if you fed them something of sustenance at reasonable intervals. That plate looks to have more on it than when you started this meal."
Zelikman looked as though he intended to slam down his pottery drinking cup but seemed to change his mind at the last minute. Instead he set it down with the exaggerated care of a drunkard trying to avoid breaking an egg. "Amram. To the Adversary with my appetite and my guts. For the love of the Holy Name, what did they say?"
The African rolled his handsome eyes. "Since you insist," he said. "The news is that the Bek and Kagan of the Khazars is well. His people admire his wisdom - remarkable for one so young - and his sense of justice. His soldiers boast of his bravery and his firmness."
Zelikman still had on his long face the expression of a man awaiting a visit from the Angel of Death, but something of tension had left his posture. "Is that all?"
"There is also this: the Bek and Kagan of the Khazars has taken a wife."
There was a profound silence from the giant's lean partner, like the stillness before summer rainstorm, and then Zelikman covered his face with both hands and shook with some internal tumult. Amram gazed at him in some concern and cautiously put a large and powerful hand on one of the seemingly frail shoulders of the Frank. "Zelikman?"
Zelikman finally dropped his hands, revealing a tear-streaked countenance and a ghost of a grin. "That swindler! How did this happen?"
"They gave no details, except to say that the bekun is beautiful and virtuous, a veritable Esther."
"That rogue! Amram, you should be proud that we taught that young one so well."
"I am not so much proud as mystified. There is more news. The bekun is already pregnant."
Zelikman looked startled for the first time, and then thoughtful. "Quite a riddle. And all of the possible answers seem to me to be filled with trouble."
"Trouble we don't need," replied Amram, but he was frowning in thought himself.
"Maybe it's not our business any longer?"
"Funny you should mention 'business,' Zelikman. I can't see how we could make the smallest copper coin from any of this news without resorting to base and villainous behavior."
"But she - he - wouldn't be in this position, if it weren't for us."
"No. He would in fact, be dead."
"I hate to mention responsibility."
"For what? For keeping his throat connected to his big mouth, and not kicking his skinny ass into the sea?" Amram picked up his own cup and stared moodily into the wine that remained. "Still, I suppose we could manage to send our congratulations. I know at least one house in Atil that would give us a warm welcome."
"You just want to see Flower of Life again. Such sentimentality."
"Can you think of any better place to pick up clues to answer your riddle?"
Zelikman shrugged: "You have a point." He began at last to eat the mutton and turnips and bread on his plate.
Amram downed the remains of his cup and signaled the serving lad for more. Another wedding he'd not been able to witness, he thought. Still, at least this time, he would be able to offer his best wishes to the young woman.
Zelikman broke into his reverie with a sharp elbow.
"Stop that," Amram said, without looking.
"Not that I imagine you care," said Zelikman, "But the Rus in corner there has strings of amber beads he's trying to unload. Stolen, I'm sure."
"You're right, I don't care - wait. What are you raving about?"
"I don't imagine the Bek and Kagan of the Khazars cares much about necklaces. On the other hand, there is another party who might."
Amram stared at him in disbelief, then nodded abruptly, rose, and pushed back his seat. "So sentimental," he said, in the tone of one discussing a fatal illness.
"Oh, really? And yet you plan to return to her, seeking a favor, empty-handed?"
Amram punched his partner gently in the shoulder and turned away to seek the northerner with the beads.
Illustrations by Gary Gianni scanned from the book.