The House of Colour
It took several skills to be a good thief. Dextrous fingers to pick pockets and locks. Light footfall to sneak about. Good eyes to keep sharp observations of the surroundings. Cunning wit to know where to ply your trade. But the most important thing was luck. Jawad was convinced that while he possessed the former skills in abundance, it was purely a case of ill luck that saw him currently incarcerated in the Finger.
He had done everything right. In disguise, he watched the jeweller’s workshop for days, waiting until a moonless night. In the blink of an eye, his fingers picked the lock on the front door without arousing attention. Moving with quiet, feline grace, he passed by the small chamber where the apprentice was fast asleep. Foregoing the splinters of gemstones and petty valuables in the workshop itself, Jawad went up the stairs to seek the real treasure. The thief had it on good authority that no less than three emeralds, one ruby, and two sapphires were waiting in a strongbox upstairs.
Unfortunately, a vicious dog also waited for him in the jeweller’s inner sanctum, kept chained and apparently starved to enflame its temper. As if Fortune were playing a cruel trick on Jawad, the dog’s fur was stark black. He had not noticed anything until a pair of yellow eyes opened, followed by slobbering jaws. The dog’s barking, not to mention its fangs, sent Jawad backwards and tumbling down the flight of stairs. This caused the apprentice to run out wielding a broomstick, and the thief had to beat a hasty retreat straight into the arms of the city guard. Even those bumbling fools were able to comprehend the situation and react before Jawad could leg it.
Thus his present, involuntary stay at the Finger. Among decent folk, it was called the Tower of Justice. Among the indecent, it was named after what it resembled, a giant middle finger sticking out of the ground.
His thoughts circling back to his imprisonment, Jawad repeated this belief to himself. Fate had placed him here, and he was otherwise blameless. If anyone asked, that was his story. Settling into the meagre straw strewn across his cell floor, the thief let this comfort him. Fortune had gotten him here, and she was sure to get him out of it again. In return, he would be suitably grateful and leave an offering at her altar. Not just any altar, but the one with the voluptuous statue of her wearing a green, flowing dress and a garland of silver flowers in her hair.
Jawad’s reveries concerning the goddess were interrupted as the door to his austere accommodations opened. A guard with a face suggesting bestial ancestry stepped inside, aiming a lazy kick at the prisoner’s leg. “On your feet, scum.”
“That seemed unnecessary,” Jawad complained even as he complied.
Behind the guard, someone else appeared in sight. The thief wondered if Fortune had finally sent her messenger, although this auspicious character looked nothing like the statue of Jawad’s fantasies. Probably for the best, the newcomer did not wear a flowing dress or a flower garland; neither would have gone well with his muscular frame. Jawad’s eyes ran across the man, noting the short sword by his side and the reinforced leather with a linen tunic underneath. The hilt of the weapon was lain with gold, making it worth at least twenty pieces of silver to an honourable fence. Jawad smiled at the contradiction.
“You having a laugh?” asked the guard, cuffing Jawad on the head. His demeanour did not imply he wanted an answer. “Glad you’re enjoying our hospitality. You’ll be leaving behind a hand as thanks, after all.” He grabbed his own groin. “Guess what use we put it to.”
Jawad pulled back in a futile attempt to create distance between himself and his captor in the cramped space. “Let it never be said I am prone to sentimental attachment to anything once lost,” the thief claimed.
“Shut your fuckhole,” the guard spat. “You’ve been ratting on that you know about the Prince of Cats. Get to talking.”
“Shut up, start talking. Consistency would be nice,” Jawad mumbled.
The warden grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close, revealing to Jawad that garlic was being served in the guardroom. “If you don’t put that tongue to use, I’ll be taking it with me! Guess what we’ll do with it!”
“No need to further illustrate your point,” Jawad replied meekly, suppressing a tired groan at the repetitive threat. It showed lack of imagination. Instead, he glanced over the guard’s shoulder at the imposing warrior standing by the doorway. “But if I am to cooperate in this manner, I hope it will be remembered.” The guard slapped him across the face. “Point taken,” he gulped. “It is said that the Prince of Cats seeks to ruin al-Badawi and has chosen the merchant’s warehouse for his next jaunt.”
For the first time, the warrior by the cell door spoke. “Al-Badawi has many warehouses.”
“The Prince is still waiting to determine his mark,” Jawad replied. “Rumour has it that a shipment should be arriving from Gadir with valuable anil dye. He needs only follow the cargo from the ship to the warehouse to find his target and strike when the time suits him.”
The guard turned to look at the visitor beyond the door. “Good enough?”
A slight nod came in response. “It’ll do.”
The warden relaxed his hold on Jawad’s tattered shirt. “If you’re lucky, maybe we’ll only take a few fingers instead of your hand.” He grinned, releasing the thief, who sank to the floor.
Jawad rubbed the skin on his throat, watching the door close behind the other men. Once alone, he relaxed and leaned his head against the wall with a satisfied expression.
Jawad spent the next two days with only rats for company. As they possessed poor conversation skills, he passed the time talking to himself and inspecting the slender fingers on his right hand. The penalty for thievery, if the crime was deemed severe enough, was loss of limb. As justice worked swiftly in Alcázar, Jawad could expect this fate in less than a week.
On the third day, Jawad’s visitor returned along with the guard. He quickly got on his feet. “Looks like even stray dogs can be trained,” the guard laughed.
Ignoring him, the thief looked at the muscular warrior. “I see you’ve taken a liking to me.”
“What more can you tell me about the Prince of Cats?”
“Sadly, my ability to find information has been subdued of late.” Jawad glanced at the guard, who was mostly preoccupied with scratching his privates. “I can’t very well find out while I’m locked up with only this charming sentinel for company.”
“My master expected as much. He has a task for you. In return, he has secured your release,” the warrior explained. “Should you attempt to weasel away, I am to cut you into pieces. Slowly.” His hand casually rested on the sword hilt by his side.
Jawad gave a subservient smile. “I would expect nothing less, good master.” He raised his chained hands towards the guards and let them jangle. “If you would be so kind?”
With a disgruntled look, the guard did as requested. “You’ll be back here within a week.”
The warrior stepped forward to tie rope around Jawad’s wrists and twist it around the thief’s neck a few times, letting him use one end as a leash. With an impatient tug, he led the bound thief out of the cell. “In the meantime,” Jawad called out, looking over his shoulder at the warden, “I will give your regards to your mother, your sisters, your grandmothers, your aunts, your cousins, your second cousins –”
A violent jerk of the rope cut Jawad’s stream of words short.
Leaving the Finger, the warrior and the thief stepped onto the streets of Alcázar. In front of them was the maswar, the open square that lay as the heart of the city, connecting roads in every direction. Once a week, a scaffold would be raised, letting the crowds watch criminals receive their just due. Today, the square only held the usual throng of people crossing in every direction. Clasping his still attached hands, Jawad followed his new captor.
“What might be your name, good master?”
“A fitting name for a devoted servant,” Jawad remarked. His companion’s only response was to pull at the rope, forcing the captive to walk faster and talk less. “Your master –” the thief managed to utter. “Does not employ you –” Another pull of the rope. “For your conversation, I take it.”
Salah stopped abruptly, turning to stare down at Jawad. “He employs me for my tendency to violence.”
“Duly noted. Well, are we to prattle all day, or should we continue?” The thief made an impatient gesture towards the street ahead of them. “Your master must be waiting.”
A sneer ran across Salah’s face. With a forceful grip on the rope, he resumed their march.
After a few hours of walking, the pair reached the quarters reserved for wealthier merchants. The narrow streets grew wider, and the tall, closely built houses were replaced by wide palaces with gardens and walls to surround them. Stopping outside one such estate, Salah knocked on the gate.
“Of course, by then I was long gone,” Jawad related, deep in the telling of a tale. “But not without every ring on her fingers.” His companion’s only response was to roll his eyes.
A spyhole opened, revealing a wrinkled face peering out between the bars; a moment after, the door in the gate was opened.
“Much obliged,” Jawad said with a smile to the gatekeeper, an old man who merely grunted in reply. Nothing about his appearance indicated any wealth to speak of, and while his collar hid his neck, Jawad imagined he was a slave.
Salah led him along the path to the buildings in the centre of the enclosure; on either side, they were surrounded by gardens, lush in the prime of spring. Above the main entrance, a few lines from a famous poem by al-Tayir were carved into the stone arch. Stallions run in war as fast as they are able, yet behold their pace grow quicker near the stable. Smiling to himself, Jawad followed his guide inside. All the times he had wanted to get inside Dār al-Allawn, and now he was being walked through the front door.
“Tell the steward I’ve returned,” Salah commanded a servant. As they waited, Jawad glanced around the salāmlik of the estate. As could be expected, the entrance hall was pompous with pillars of marble. The floor was made from the same material, except through the middle where an unbroken line of glass ran; underneath, a stream of water flowed. The pillars were arranged to flank the water, thereby protecting the glass and naturally leading people to walk around it. Along the walls were numerous niches, all of which contained exquisitely carved statues. Jawad made a note of how well they would serve as hiding spots for anyone sneaking around.
The steward of the household arrived, casting one look at Jawad. “For gods’ sake, Salah,” he exclaimed. He wore a thin silver thread tightly around his neck, showing his status as a valued slave. His attire was made from cotton, not linen, looking soft and worth fifteen silver or more. “He cannot be presented to the master like this. Have him bathed and put in clothes that are not infested with fleas!”
“Summon one of the mamluks,” Salah demanded. “I was only to bring him home. I’m not his foot slave.”
“They are occupied,” the steward sniffed. “There is none to do it but you.”
“Hakar’s shit,” Salah cursed, earning him a scandalised look from the steward. “Fine. I’ll continue watching him like a damned wet-nurse,” he added, pushing the thief in the back to make him move.
To Jawad’s chagrin, his brutish captor did not lead him to the luxurious baths that were certain to exist in a palace of this size. Instead, the inevitable pull of the rope took him to the slave quarters.
At last, Jawad’s bindings were removed; not only that, he was made to strip entirely. Cold water was poured into a tub by a slave, Jawad was given cloth and coarse soap, and Salah gruffly told him to get in. His rags were taken away and burned.
Shivering slightly in the water, Jawad stared up at Salah, who was attempting to keep the thief within line of sight without actually looking at his naked form.
“Does your master make you bathe under these conditions as well, Salah? You would hardly fit in here,” Jawad mused. The image of the big warrior trying to squeeze into the tub brought a smile to his face.
“I am no slave,” Salah scoffed. “When I wish, I use the hammām in the palace.”
“I am not either, yet here we are.”
“You’re less than a slave,” Salah sneered. “You’re a thief.” He pronounced the word with the utmost disdain.
“Where do you belong in this hierarchy? Given your task is to watch me, a lowly thief, take my bath,” Jawad said serenely, scrubbing his arms.
Various expressions crossed Salah’s face before it finally settled on a grin. “With a mouth like that, mongrel, you’ll not take ten steps before you get into trouble that tongue of yours can’t save you from. If the gods are kind, I’ll not only be watching, I’ll be participating.” He flexed his fingers into fists.
Jawad looked up at him, extending a hand. “Towel?”
An hour after his arrival, Jawad was presentable. Salah, his constant companion, led him from the slave quarters through a labyrinth of corridors at such a pace, it took considerable effort for Jawad to build a map of the building in his mind. They moved constantly inwards until they reached a section of the palace sequestered from the remainder. This had to be the harāmlik, where only the family and the most trusted servants could enter. While the other parts of the great house had been mostly empty, several mamluks guarded this place, eyeing Jawad with contempt as he progressed.
Abruptly, Salah stopped in front of a large door. “Speak when spoken to,” he impressed upon Jawad.
“I am civility and servility itself.”
“And I shit gold,” Salah muttered, pushing the door open.
Involuntarily, Jawad swallowed the remark on his tongue. Before his sight, a wonder made incarnate in stone appeared. He gazed upon a courtyard that was partly covered by a roof, allowing streams of light to illuminate the tiled floor. Water fell and flowed along the walls, creating the soft sound of trickling brooks. Countless pillars of slender shape rose up across the hall; they cast long shadows across the space, giving the impression of a forest made from marble. The tender touch of sunlight caressed his skin as he stepped forward while the shade of the artificial trees kept him cool. He was, at one and the same time, standing in nature’s beauty while surrounded by the unrivalled artistry of men.
Following after Salah, Jawad took note of the various corners and niches that might conceal a man seeking to move around unnoticed, and where to step to avoid the water that flowed along the edges of the room.
“This is the thief, effendim,” Salah spoke. Jawad turned his eyes on what resembled a forest clearing ahead of him. Inside a pavilion, attended by two slaves, sat the merchant al-Badawi.
He was dressed in silk and cotton; each item of clothing would fetch at least fifty silver and possibly up to twice that on the market. A necklace of gold hung around his neck with a few gemstones as ornaments, giving it a value of around two hundred and twenty pieces of silver. As he stroked his thin beard, he revealed several rings on his left hand, each worth around seventy or eighty coins. Jawad glanced at the merchant’s right hand, upon which sat a single ring made from silver; it marked al-Badawi as counted among the Hundred Houses of Alcázar, and its value could not be ascertained in coin.
“Approach,” al-Badawi commanded with a nasal voice. One slave was fanning him, keeping the noon heat at bay, while the other held a tray of edible delights.
Jawad stood still, staring at the merchant while lost in thought; only Salah’s push made the young thief move forward. “Effendi,” he greeted al-Badawi hoarsely along with a bow.
The merchant sent the thief a scrutinising glance. “Do you know why I have summoned you?”
“To help you, effendi.”
“Yes. That wretched villain, whose name is too ridiculous to speak, seeks to steal from me.” Still stroking his beard, al-Badawi began talking as much to himself as to anyone present. “Me! The head of Dār al-Allawn, pre-eminent among the Hundred Houses, richest among my peers, supplier to the Kabir’s court!” Salah cleared his throat, making al-Badawi’s attention return to his company. “You, although a lowly criminal, will play a part in bringing this cur to justice.”
“I am happy to serve, effendi,” Jawad claimed with a straight face.
“Of course you are,” al-Badawi said. “Were it not for me, you would be a hand shorter.”
“Speaking of that, effendim,” Salah interjected, “he bears the brand on his arm. He is not a citizen, but alhajin.” Several pairs of eyes moved to Jawad’s right wrist with a crude cross seared into the skin.
“No matter.” Al-Badawi waved his hand dismissively. “He will not be out on the streets at night.” Salah looked doubtful but made no reply, and the merchant spoke again. “What is your name, thief?”
“How did you know my warehouse would be raided by this, this Prince?” The epithet was spoken with extreme reluctance.
“Men only keep secrets if they are buried with them,” Jawad quoted. Seeing the merchant scowl, he quickly continued. “He is not working alone, effendi. It takes a whole crew to subdue the guards and cart the goods away, not to mention he must sell the stolen wares if he wants coin for his trouble.”
“So these brigands that do his bidding, they are open-mouthed?”
Al-Badawi toyed with his necklace; the chain jingled against the metal of his rings. “I want you to do this again, but in greater detail. Find out his plans that we may lay a trap and catch this bastard. I want the birds pecking at his corpse on the maswar.”
Jawad gave a bow, his face placid. “As you wish, effendi.”
“Salah will accompany you,” al-Badawi added almost as an afterthought, placing a small cake inside his mouth and chewing loudly. “He will ensure you do not stray from your task.” Crumbs spilled onto his clothes.
“With all due respect, obtaining this information will require an ability to blend in.” Jawad glanced at the big warrior by his side. “Where I need to go, Salah will be as inconspicuous as a belly dancer in an orphanage.” Salah growled like an angry dog.
“Do you wish to return to the Tower of Justice?” al-Badawi asked sharply.
“Then do as you are told and be gone. Do not return until your task is complete, but do not test my patience either. I plucked you from retribution’s grasp, and I can send you back with but a snap of my fingers,” the merchant threatened.
Jawad bowed deeply, hiding his sardonic smile. “Understood, effendi.”
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- Chronicler of Adal
Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.