Teacher, Teeth, and Tribute
Shortly after his audience with al-Badawi, Jawad found himself on the streets of Alcázar again; as before, Salah was his shadow. Looking at the warrior towering over him, Jawad let out a small sigh. “Let’s go.”
“Where to?” asked Salah as they set into motion, moving southeast.
“The small market.”
“What will we do there?”
“You’ll do nothing,” Jawad snorted. “Other than be in my way.”
“You have high thoughts of yourself for someone who was in prison just hours ago.”
“I’ll make this clear to you,” Jawad declared as he wove in and out of the crowd on the street; behind him, Salah moved forward by splitting the throng through sheer size. “There’s nothing you can contribute here. Just let me do my work.”
Salah reached out to grab Jawad by the shoulder in an iron grip, and he turned the thief around. “Let me make this clear to you,” he growled into Jawad’s face. “I do not trust you in the least. I think this is a terrible idea and that you will betray us at first chance. The moment I even suspect this, you’ll find my blade cutting every sinew in your body and leaving you to bleed out on the street.”
Jawad stared up at the warrior. “Great!” He lit up in a smile. “I dare say we understand each other. I have a good feeling about this.” With opposite emotions expressed on their faces, they continued.
The small market was not named due to its size, as it contained hundreds of stalls and took up a larger area than the great market did; instead, the name came from what was bartered. While its counterpart dealt with livestock, above all slaves, and raw goods for other merchants or craftsmen to purchase, the small market supplied Alcázar with food of every kind, household sundries, clothing, and the like.
“So what are we doing here?” Salah asked in his brusque fashion, using his menacing look to keep the hawkers from approaching him.
“We need some food. All part of the plan,” Jawad told him, steering through the crowd. The marketplace was packed, mostly by women, servants, and children.
“And the plan is?”
“Patience, good Salah, patience,” the thief told him, placing a reassuring hand on Salah’s arm. The warrior looked down, wrestling his arm free of Jawad’s grasp without noticing what Jawad’s other hand was doing.
Haggling, Jawad quickly procured various pieces of fruit and a large wheel of goat cheese; he deposited it all in Salah’s left arm except for some figs that he ate with delight.
Watching Jawad hand over some silver coins to the vendor, Salah frowned in sudden suspicion. “Where did you get money from?”
Jawad threw a coin purse into Salah’s empty hand. “Your generosity is appreciated.”
“You stole from me?” he roared.
“All sales are final,” the vendor squeaked, pulling his wares away.
Salah’s fist clenched around the deflated purse, prompting Jawad to take a step backwards. “It felt uncouth to ask your master for money, but really, am I expected to complete this task without spending even a measly copper coin?” He continued his retreat as Salah strode forward.
“I’ll rip your bowels out and sell them as goat feed,” Salah yelled, preparing his fist for a punch, “and you’ll have your coin then!”
Despite Salah’s quick movement and the fact that Jawad was walking backwards, the thief had no trouble keeping distance between them in the crowd. “That’s hardly advisable,” he replied. “Feeding goats with guts? It’s bound to spoil the milk!”
Unable to catch the nimble thief, Salah stopped to look down at the cheese wheel he was still holding. He looked back at Jawad. “You’re a curse shat out by Haktar,” he mumbled.
“Salah, Salah,” his companion spoke soothingly, “it’s all for the mission. Just come with me, and you’ll see soon enough.”
“I’m keeping count,” Salah promised with a threatening voice. “Every trick you pull, every ploy, I will remember it all. When this is done, I’ll pay you back.”
“You strike me as a man of your word. I am sure you will.” Jawad gave a cautious smile. “Now, can we proceed?”
Salah let out a deep breath. “Lead the way, you miserable mongrel. The sooner this is done, the better.” Jawad did as told, making sure to stay outside of Salah’s reach.
Leaving the small market, their path took them deeper into the city, southwards where the poorest neighbourhoods lay. Reaching one of the medinas that lay close to the southern walls, Jawad crossed an open square to enter its madrasa.
Nothing from the outside indicated that it was a place of learning, not even a small inscription above its door; it was simply an abandoned building appropriated for this purpose. There was a lack of materials inside as well, but the place had the two fundamental things to constitute a madrasa, a teacher and pupils. More than twenty children sat on the bare floor, repeating the famous poem ‘Time and Season’ by al-Tayir in a chorus led by their instructor.
“If you brought me here for poetry lessons, I’ll push this cheese wheel up your arse until you spit it out whole,” Salah remarked with a glance towards Jawad.
“That sounds like a terrible waste of cheese. No, this is my old madrasa, and I am on friendly terms with the teacher. He is going to help us.”
“You’re alhajin,” Salah pointed out with a nod towards the brand on Jawad’s wrist. “You’re telling me that street scum like you were allowed to study here?”
“Yes. Unlike many others, Hasief never let prejudice keep him from beating knowledge into our little heads. Come on.” Jawad moved forward to approach the teacher, waiting a brief moment until the recitation was concluded. “Effendi,” he spoke warmly.
Hearing the voice, Hasief turned his eyes; both were glassy, and he stared without seeing at his guests. “Jawad,” he spoke after a moment. “Already back.”
“I have good occasion, effendi,” Jawad smiled. “This is my friend, Salah.” The warrior coughed. “He has food for you and your pupils.”
“You are a kind and generous soul, Salah,” spoke the teacher.
“I’m happy to help,” he mumbled, sending a disgruntled look at Jawad.
“Please, come with me. Bring the food here.” The teacher moved past them to leave the main room and enter a corridor. Salah followed him down the hallway, reaching a small kitchen. Hasief gestured towards the table in the middle, where Salah dumped the food. “Thank you both,” the old man spoke.
An expression ran across Salah’s face. “Jawad?” He turned on his heel and looked down the empty corridor. “Jawad!” he roared, sprinting back the way he came, but it was too late. The thief had vanished.
Leaving his shadow behind, Jawad moved through the narrow alleys of this particular medina, choosing his path with the certainty only a former child of these streets would possess. If there had been any chance of Salah spotting him leaving the madrasa, Jawad was sure to have lost him in the winding alleyways.
Taking a more leisurely pace, the thief continued through the southern quarters of Alcázar. The afternoon heat was gone, being replaced by the coolness of evening. Public houses and teashops were slowly becoming crowded; the day’s work being done, people were congregating for their daily ritual of evening tea and chatting with neighbours.
Passing by, Jawad felt no temptation to stop and partake; he moved with a clear goal in mind. Eventually, he left the main street to enter the small alleys and courtyards behind the crowded buildings. Glancing around, he made sure none was watching. Certain that he was alone, Jawad reached up to grab a stone that extended slightly from a wall. Using it for support, he managed to take hold of another higher up and use that to reach a ledge.
With a few more displays of acrobatic prowess, he moved along the wall to reach a window with its shutters closed. A thin strip of metal lay waiting for him on the windowsill from his last visit; he prodded it in through the small gap between the shutters and gently pushed the hatch open. Moments later, he was inside.
Carrying a bag, a woman entered one of the buildings that littered the southern medinas, providing cramped homes for many people. She greeted the women downstairs with a flicker of a nod, moving swiftly up the stairs to unlock the door to her room. Once inside, she locked it securely behind her and put the bag on a table. Emptying its contents, several apples fell out. The woman grabbed a knife, sat down, and began carefully making an incision into one of the fruits.
“I always enjoy watching you work.”
She jumped to her feet, wielding the knife. From behind a curtain that covered an alcove with a bed, Jawad stepped out with a grin. “Fuck you and every donkey you call ancestor,” she swore at him, almost gasping for breath. “Why can’t you knock and use the fucking door?”
“It helps me practise.”
The woman sat down, grumbling as she resumed her work. “Do you have anything for me? What about the old jeweller?”
“Sadly, it did not go as planned. The old man had a hound that chased me away. I had to run like a dog at the butcher to escape the guards.”
She grinned. “Not like you to botch a mark, Jawad.”
“There’s a first time for everything. One of the reasons I am here. I lost my tools.”
Prying a piece of apple out, the woman took a small ruby and inserted it by the core before placing the removed piece back, making the apple whole again. “Got money for it now?”
“I’ll pay you back with my next mark, which brings me to the other reason I have come. If you have any rumours for me…”
“You want both tools and your next job? What’s next, how about I do the actual thieving?”
“Amal, Amal, no need to be prickly. You know that helping me is worth your while.”
She gave a twisted expression. “Yeah, like emptying the boils on an old beggar. That’s sure to pay off.” Getting up, she opened a drawer and pulled out a set of picks on a ring. “You better bring me some goods soon. It’s been weeks if not months since you last brought me anything worth fencing.”
“I am reliability itself,” Jawad smiled. “Any leads? Maybe the Black Teeth need a set of quick fingers on their next outing?”
“I can’t help you there,” Amal told him, returning to her work with dissecting apples. “I gave the boys a mark some days ago, and it didn’t work out.”
“Oh?” Jawad’s face displayed pure innocence.
“It was a simple warehouse job, but Hashim and his morons fucked it up somehow. Of course, they blame it on me, so my reputation is blacker than their teeth these days.”
“My sympathies,” Jawad expressed. “I guess I will have to seek them out myself.”
Amal gave him a suspicious look. “You’ve never wanted to join up with the Teeth before, even when I recommended it. Why the change of heart?”
“I got to pay you back for these, don’t I?” He jangled the lock picks.
“Suit yourself.” She sent a glance towards the bed in her room. “You can stay a while before you head over to the Broken Tooth, if you want.”
Jawad sent her a regretful smile. “Business before pleasure, kitten, and tonight, I am a busy boy.”
She scoffed. “As if anything you could do would bring me pleasure. I’m putting business first too. This is just a negotiation technique.”
“Before I leave,” Jawad continued. “Have you heard anything about the Prince of Cats?”
“Just the usual rumours. He pisses gold and shits diamonds,” Amal snorted. “What’s it to you?”
“Idle curiosity,” he smiled.
“Then I suggest you put your time to better use, you limp-dicked mongrel! You can laze about after you bring me my coin.”
“When the lioness roars, the horse should run,” Jawad quoted with a grin. Swiftly, he opened the shutters to the window and jumped out.
“And learn to use the door, you fucking savage!”
The area around the western docks was littered with taverns and brothels, serving sailors, harbour workers, and anyone else with more coin than self-respect. Possessing little of the former but plenty of the later, Jawad steered elsewhere, treading deep into the medinas of southern Alcázar. These were streets where the city guard did not enter, nor did any who valued their money or their life; being so close to the cliffs and the water edge, disposal of bodies was an afterthought.
By now, evening had arrived in full. The moonlight struggled to illuminate Jawad’s path, and the shadows of the surrounding buildings seemed to encroach on him. Keeping any feelings of discomfort from surfacing, Jawad acted as if he belonged and walked at a deliberately casual pace until he reached his destination.
The building had no sign of any kind, but lights and noise from the inside revealed it to be a public house. The locals knew three things about this place. Firstly, that while having no public name, it was commonly referred to as the Broken Tooth. Secondly, it was a gathering spot for the gang known as the Black Teeth. Thirdly, if the uninitiated entered, it was a gamble whether they would be able to leave.
Although his teeth were whole and white as ivory, Jawad entered with a confident smile.
The common room was packed with people. Some were having hushed conversations, others were playing dice or cards, most were drinking. Young men and women were drifting from table to table, plying the oldest trade. Jawad drew looks as he entered, but there was no immediate reaction to his presence. Besides the door behind him, there was a staircase leading to the upper floor. There was also a door far in the back; while Jawad had never been through it, he knew it would not lead to any kind of escape route, quite the opposite. Keeping his breathing steady, the thief walked up the counter. “Not too late for evening tea, is it?”
The surly-looking woman gave him a quick glance. “Three petties.”
Jawad did not bother to argue the inflated price. Instead, he pulled out Salah’s coin purse, which had mysteriously found its way back into his hands, and counted out three copper coins. “There we are.” The barkeep made a growling sound but accepted the money and poured some tea into a cup. “Is Hashim here tonight?”
“You got eyes yourself, don’t you,” came the reply.
“None as enchanting as yours,” Jawad flattered, eliciting only a snort. Instead, the thief turned around, gazing around the room until he saw his target.
Sitting by a table, Hashim was surrounded by his henchmen; all of them were engaged in a game of cards, and several were deep in the cups. As befitted the ringleader of such a group, Hashim was the largest and strongest. Numerous scars covered his body, telling a tale of having survived countless fights. One ear was mangled, looking like a dog had chewed it through. As Jawad walked up to the group, Hashim glanced at him. “Who let this piss ant in?”
Jawad kept his face blank; it had always been a challenge to understand Hashim’s moods. “Hashim, I always bring you something of value,” Jawad reminded him. While he spoke, he noticed the earring in Hashim’s undamaged ear, worth about five silver pieces, and the dagger in his belt, worth only trouble.
“I’m not in the mood for your tongue and tail wagging tonight,” the burly man replied. “Piss off before you get pissed on.”
Jawad licked his lips, resisting the urge to remark on Hashim’s preoccupation with urine. “This is the most valuable mark I’ve brought you yet, and it’ll also be easy.”
“It better be worth more than the usual dog shit,” Hashim snorted, throwing his cards on the table with disdain as he lost the round.
“Several bolts of silk,” Jawad said in a gamble.
The brute’s demeanour changed entirely. “Now there’s a good boy,” he grinned. “Come, sit next to me, Jawad.” He pushed one of his companions off the chair next to him. Swallowing, the young thief took the seat. Hashim’s meaty hand fell heavy down on Jawad’s neck. “You’ve never brought me silk before. Weapons, cotton, incense, spices, but never this. You’ve outdone yourself.”
“Best of all, it’s sitting in a warehouse barely guarded,” Jawad continued.
“Let me guess, the only guard is a naked jinni, hotter than the desert and begging to be fucked,” Hashim laughed. His companions joined in.
“Close. They don’t want to draw attention. It arrives tomorrow at the warehouse, being moved the day after. Kept in a plain looking crate to throw off suspicion,” Jawad explained. “Each bolt is worth at least a hundred birds.”
“And my grandma is the Kabir’s courtesan,” one of the rogues grinned.
“Shut up, you fuckwit,” Hashim sneered at his henchman. The table immediately became quiet. His hand on Jawad’s neck began a kneading motion. “How many bolts?”
“Three.” Jawad swallowed again, trying not to dwell on the unpleasant sensation of Hashim’s hand or the stench of his body so close.
“How many guards?”
“One inside the warehouse. Another four patrol the district. They appear about once every hour,” Jawad explained. “Plenty of time to force the doors open, get the crate, and be gone.”
“What’s the warehouse?”
“The one belonging to al-Badawi by the meat market,” Jawad elaborated.
Hashim’s expression darkened. “I have a bone to pick with that fat silk beard.” His hand squeezed uncomfortably tight on Jawad’s neck.
“Here’s your chance. The crate will be easy to find, too. It looks ordinary from the outside, but it’s been marked with a black cross on top, so those in the know can distinguish it. People like us,” Jawad added.
“How did a degenerate pickpocket like you come across this?” The question came from Rifat; gaunt and scarred, Jawad knew he had a gift with knives and liked to make use of it. Even now, questioning Jawad, Rifat was twirling a dagger between his fingers.
“Dock workers like to drink and talk,” Jawad explained. “The crate got damaged during transport, revealing its content. That’s why they’ve had to disguise and move it until it gets sold.”
Hashim leaned back in his seat, finally withdrawing his hand. “Tomorrow night, you say.”
“An easy job,” Jawad repeated with confidence. “You just need to handle the guard inside.”
The leader of the gang broke into a smile. “Looks like we got ourselves a mark, my brothers.” His companions grinned back at him.
“What’s my pay?” Jawad asked. It was always good to appear greedy; people never questioned the motivations of a greedy thief.
“The fuck are you talking about, pay,” Rifat snorted. “You’re not one of the Teeth.” He gave a scornful smile, revealing how the lower part of his right fang had been painted black, making it look broken and jagged.
“Now, now, dear Jawad deserves something for telling us what his ear heard,” Hashim declared magnanimously, winking at the small thief. He reached out to rub Jawad’s earlobe between his fingers. “Such a good, useful ear.” Jawad was acutely aware that silence on his part was worth gold in this moment. “For something of this value, why, thirty silver would be reasonable.” Hashim’s fingers began to pull down, threatening to tear his ear. “If the silk is there. You wouldn’t be mistaken, Jawad, would you?”
“Never.” Jawad wished he had sounded more confident. It did not escape his attention that some of the thieves from the other tables had gotten up and moved behind him, keeping him surrounded.
Hashim brought his face close to Jawad, like a dog sniffing a dead animal. Jawad kept himself facing straight ahead without moving a muscle. “After all, you’re not one of us. Just a street rat,” Hashim mumbled. His wet breath landed on Jawad’s ear.
“He’s a cocky fellow, chief,” Rifat pointed out. In an instant, he had a knife pointed at Jawad’s groin. “Let’s cut him down to size.”
“Maybe we should initiate him,” someone suggested. “The real way. Break his teeth.” The cutthroats pressed against Jawad from every side, keeping him trapped.
“Quiet,” Hashim barked. He released his hold on Jawad and patted the young rogue on the head affectionately. “Don’t you worry that pretty little head. If the mark is solid, Hashim will pay you in full.”
“Thanks,” Jawad mumbled, not daring to say anything else.
“But if you’ve whetted my appetite and there’s nothing tasty at the end of this mark,” Hashim continued, his voice turning into a growl, “there won’t be anywhere for you to hide. The Teeth got people watching every street, every ship, every cart in this gods-forsaken city. You hear?”
“I don’t care what rat hole you scurry down, we’ll find you.” Hashim pushed his nails into Jawad’s ear, talking directly into it. “I’ll make you drink lamp oil and piss on fire.”
Hashim patted his cheek. “Good boy. Now fuck off!” He pushed Jawad off the chair. Turning around, Jawad crawled as much as walked, moving frantically to escape the tavern while their laughter rang in his ears.
Once outside, the thief got on his feet and hurried away.
Jawad walked through the night. He stayed in the southern medinas, navigating their labyrinthine streets until he reached a small building; unlike all others, it was built standing free. It was in fact little more than an empty space with an altar inside, serving as a shrine to Elat. Her epithets were many, including the Lady of Luck, the Courtesan of Fortune, the Shadow’s Friend, and so forth. Her true name, fitting to her elusive nature, was hidden, and so she was simply referred to as Elat, the goddess.
While thieves were not known for their religious zeal, they all showed her respect; it could be the difference between a patrol walking closer or further away, between the moon illuminating you or hiding behind a cloud, and countless other little coincidences that decided whether your fate was wealth or poverty.
A roughly hewn statue of a woman stood upon the altar, which was otherwise bare; priests from the temple came by daily to collect offerings. Jawad left what little remained of Salah’s coin purse on the altar and bowed forward to kiss the foot of the statue. Straightening up, he winked at the statue. “So far, so good.” Outside, the horizon was slowly brightening.
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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.