The Blade and the Pearl
It was late afternoon when Jawad exchanged grunts with the doorkeeper at al-Badawi’s palace. Heat lay upon the surroundings, and he hurried to reach the shade of the pillars guarding the entrance.
The mamluks at the door sent him a few stares, but did nothing else; their instructions were to keep the thief from leaving the palace, but they had not been told what to do if he tried to enter. Salah was another case. After being told of Jawad’s return, he stormed around the building for nearly half an hour, checking the inner rooms that contained any object of value; finally, he went to the servants’ quarters and found Jawad sleeping soundly on one of the cots.
Staring at the thief with an indeterminable expression, the warrior finally decided to rouse Jawad from his sleep. “Where have you been?”
“If I recall, I was searching the rooms of the Kabir’s palace when I stumbled upon – oh, you weren’t talking about my dream.”
“Where have you been?” Salah reiterated with clenched jaw.
“I have been prodded and poked by this mattress,” Jawad answered. “These beds are most uncomfortable. Every time I fell asleep, it lasted only briefly before I woke again.”
“Of course, because alhajin like you is accustomed to silken beddings,” Salah snorted. “I know you left the palace.”
“When sleep eluded me, I took a walk around the premises. When the heat was finally too much, I fled inside and gave sleep another attempt. This time I had success until you so cruelly yanked me from Eliun’s embrace.”
“Don’t forget about tonight, thief,” Salah impressed upon him. “Any sign of treachery –”
“I know. Your blade, my spleen. Really, dear Salah, there is no need. Your master’s poison is swishing around in my veins, remember? I am already on a leash.”
To Jawad’s surprise, which he made sure to hide, Salah looked uncomfortable. “I don’t agree with everything my master does. If you want someone dead, you use steel, and you do it to his face.”
“Good to know I can keep you from murdering me by turning my back to you,” Jawad remarked. “If you don’t mind? I should like a little more sleep before we head out. Close the door on your way, please.” Salah sneered and stomped away, leaving the door wide open. “Rude,” Jawad called out.
When evening came, Salah and a dozen mamluks lay in wait by a warehouse near the western docks, scattered around the area. Most of them wore anxious expressions, glancing at each other in silence, as none of them dared to speak. Salah sat concealed inside the building itself, keeping a firm eye on the gate with a resolute demeanour as he crouched to stay hidden. Next to him, Jawad sat leisurely with his back against a crate, playing with a knife he had somehow acquired.
Salah stared at the blade in Jawad’s hands with disapproval. “This Prince better show, so I can kill him and be done with you.”
The thief failed to stifle a yawn. “I’m sure they’ll be here soon. But if I fall asleep, do wake me up so I don’t miss the excitement.”
“Sure,” Salah responded with derision in his voice. “You think I’ve never seen an unproven warrior trying to hide his nerves with this attitude?”
“Whatever gave you that notion?” Jawad did not want to admit the notion was correct. It was hard to talk his way out of situations where only steel spoke, meaning he did his best to avoid any such confrontations. While his upbringing on the streets had involved plenty of scuffles, Jawad had usually been on the losing side.
Salah gave him a condescending look. “You hold and play with that knife like it’s a toy, not a weapon. And why the mask?”
Jawad touched the cloth that concealed his face. “Should any of our guests tonight escape, I don’t want them to know I was present. Once all this is over, I would like to be able to show my face in the southern medinas.”
“That’s the thinking of a thief,” Salah informed him. “A warrior would be thinking how to keep anyone from escaping.”
“I leave that part to you,” Jawad confided in him, spinning his knife around in his hands.
Two hours later, Jawad had given up playing and was simply staring into the darkness of the interior warehouse. He had been sorely tempted to begin rummaging around the various crates, but with Salah so close by, that had not been an option. “Elat, forgive me,” Jawad said exasperated. “All the times I complained about how boring it was to keep watch of a mark, I never knew. This is far worse. I can’t take it if this continues until morning. Consider me chastised, I beg of you!”
“Be silent,” Salah grumbled. “If they don’t show, consider what will happen to you. Maybe you should be grateful that morning is far away.”
In his head, Jawad ran through the different possible exits, as he had done when he first arrived some hours ago. Besides the main doors, there was a ladder built into the wall opposite the entrance, typical of these buildings. It led to a hatch that could only be opened from the inside, which in turn gave access to the roof and a ladder that ran down the outer wall. From there, Jawad was confident he could disappear deeper into the district and escape any punishment.
While making his calculations, Jawad was considering his retort to Salah; his witticism was sadly lost as Salah reached out to grab hold of his arm. “Quiet,” he commanded, pre-empting Jawad. The reason for this soon became apparent; outside, an axe was hacking away. It was attacking the part of the gate where the hinges were bolted to the wood. It was crude and noisy, but effective; moments later, half the gate fell open. Four men entered the warehouse, expecting to subdue the lone guard inside, grab a crate, and be on their way again. Two of the thieves wielded bows, while the others had an assortment of blades and clubs.
“Let go of your weapons, get down, and kiss the ground,” Hashim called out to the supposed guard. His eyes peered into the darkness. “Strike a light,” he told one of his compatriots. The robbers took a step further into the building, glancing around suspiciously. It was dawning on them that something was amiss.
As one of them lighted a torch, Salah made his move. “Now!” he yelled, rushing forward to attack the thieves. Seven mamluks followed his lead from inside the warehouse, and five did the same from the outside, keeping the intruders trapped inside the building.
Fierce fighting erupted as the Black Teeth used every underhanded method in existence. But this was not a clash with city guards, who put their own lives above catching criminals. These were mamluks, slaves raised to be soldiers since childhood, and they were well equipped. Hashim’s knife slid through Salah’s woollen surcoat, aiming to strike a mortal wound between his ribs, but it glanced off harmlessly against the chain shirt underneath. With a grim smile, Salah aimed a kick at his opponent’s unprotected groin, sending him flying backwards with a pained expression; although he belonged to neither mamluks nor Teeth, Salah knew how to fight as either.
Keeping to the background, Jawad watched the spectacle while fidgeting with his mask. The thieves understood the odds, and rather than seeking to win, they were trying to fight scattered in the hopes of creating an opportunity to flee. Jawad watched with satisfaction as one of them went down; while he did not recognise the thief, it was someone in Hashim’s personal gang, which was sufficient justification for Jawad to celebrate.
Suddenly, another made an attempt at freedom; running deeper into the warehouse, his unexpected choice of direction took the mamluks by surprise, and they failed to stop him.
Jawad watched with an amused expression until he realised what the thief had guessed; there would be a ladder somewhere along the inner walls, leading to the roof.
For a long moment, Jawad considered the possible outcomes; it was against his personal convictions to become involved in brawls and generally place himself at risk unless necessary. On the other hand, any survivors among the Teeth would be a loose end. With a curse aimed at Haktar and a prayer towards Elat, Jawad left his observational post atop a barrel of fennel seeds and sprinted after the fugitive.
The other thief had spent his brief lead to locate the ladder and had already jumped up the first few steps. Jawad came at him, swinging his knife, but even in frenzied flight, his opponent kept his wits about him. As soon as Jawad came close enough, he received a well-aimed kick to knock him back; even worse, his cloth mask came loose, revealing his face.
He stared at the thief, who stared back; there could be no doubt now that tonight had been a trap and Jawad its maker. If the Black Teeth learned of this, Jawad would be a hunted man in all of Alcázar.
Sneering, Jawad got on his feet and hurried up the ladder, pursuing his prey. The latter reached the hatch, undid it, and disappeared onto the roof. Jawad followed suit.
He found the thief frantically looking for where the outer ladder might be; once Jawad appeared, he ceased his searching and turned to face his pursuer with a drawn dagger. “Come on, then!”
Jawad became acutely aware that they were alone; he had relied on superiority of numbers for tonight’s skirmish. Now it all rested on Jawad’s ability with a blade. “Look, let’s talk about this.” He lowered his knife to seem less threatening.
The other thief took this as an invitation. He withdrew a handful of sand from an inner pocket and threw it in Jawad’s face, making the latter stumble backwards, temporarily blinded.
Desperate, Jawad waved his knife around, hoping to keep his opponent at bay; his hopes were dashed as he lost his footing and fell to the ground.
Half blind, lying on his back and with a loose grip on his knife, Jawad knew he had made a fatal mistake. He had placed himself in a situation beyond his control and where none of his skills would avail him. He had gambled and lost.
His musings were interrupted by a kick to his face, making him drop his knife and leaving him defenceless. Neither death nor the other thief had time to let him finish his ponderings. The sand in Jawad’s eyes were gone, replaced by a haze of pain instead; looking up, he saw his enemy tower over him; the cutthroat flashed a smile and a dagger, both vicious in appearance.
Blood sprayed over Jawad. It took him a moment to realise none of it was his own. Behind his opponent stood Salah; more importantly, Salah’s short sword protruded from the rogue’s chest. Noticing the sharp thrust through the thief’s leather tunic, Jawad surmised the blade was made from Nordsteel and worth at least three times more than he initially imagined. If the Black Tooth had any opinion on the quality of the sword, he made no remark, dying with nothing but throttling sounds.
“Thanks,” Jawad managed to mumble, staring at Salah. The big man returned his gaze before extending a hand, helping Jawad to his feet.
“I owe you,” Jawad added, and he was a little surprised to discover that he meant it.
“All part of fighting side by side. Let’s get back,” Salah replied, moving swiftly to climb down the hatch.
The last few moments had felt like a lifetime to Jawad; only as the feeling of danger receded did awareness of the general situation return. He turned to follow Salah back into the warehouse.
To Jawad’s relief, the fighting seemed to be over. Some of the mamluks stood milling about; one was sitting on the floor, having sustained some injuries. Two of the Black Teeth lay dead. “It’s done,” one of them told Salah. The latter went outside to inspect the surroundings. Two more soldiers stood next to the corpse of the thief that had remained outside, acting as lookout.
To his distress, Jawad noticed someone missing. “Where’s the big lout? The one giving orders,” he asked alarmed. Hashim’s body was not among the dead.
“He ran for it when Salah went after you,” one of the mamluks explained pointedly. “Two of the boys set after him.”
“They won’t get him,” Jawad muttered to himself. The soldiers would be running in heavy equipment, and Hashim was familiar with the area.
Salah returned to the warehouse. “Well done, boys,” he told the mamluks. “Get him to a physician,” he ordered one of them, pointing at their wounded comrade. “The rest of you, stay on guard. You’ll be relieved tomorrow morning.” A few of the soldiers grumbled. “You’re with me,” he finally told Jawad. “The master will be expecting to hear how it went.”
Together, thief and warrior walked through the streets of Alcázar. The city seemed almost serene at night; the hojon were not allowed inside the city walls after dark, meaning they were all either in Almudaina or staying in those southern medinas where the city guard rarely ventured after sunset. They encountered the occasional harlot or servant on some errand; given Jawad’s and Salah’s bloody appearance, everyone gave the pair wide berth.
“Did you see the Prince?”
“What?” Jawad’s mind had been far elsewhere.
“Among the dead.”
“Oh. No, he must have gotten away.”
“Was it that big brute who tried his knife against me?”
Jawad considered his answer carefully; he did not want to reveal being too knowledgeable nor too ignorant about their elusive prey. “No. Given his feats as a thief, the Prince must be slimmer of build. Short, adroit, and all that. He must have stayed outside while sending his gang ahead.”
“Perhaps he could smell the trap,” Salah suggested. “He’s a slippery fellow, I’ll give him that.”
“Careful. That almost sounded like a compliment.”
“Eels are slippery too. It doesn’t mean they’re not disgusting.”
“Good for eating, though,” Jawad claimed.
Disgust floated across Salah’s expression. “I’d rather starve.”
“In Almudaina, that is often the only other choice.”
“Right.” Salah’s reply came slightly hesitant; Jawad could tell that for a moment, he had forgotten about his companion’s humble origins. “You did well tonight.”
“Master Salah, I do believe that is a genuine compliment towards an ill-reputed fellow such as myself. If news of this spreads, your reputation will be tarnished.”
“You always use fifty words where five would do,” Salah growled, but there was no bite in his words, and Jawad hid a smile.
“In that case, thank you.”
“Of course, you would have died, fighting on that roof,” Salah continued, “but at least you tried.”
“Why would you add that unnecessary after-thought? Didn’t you just extol the virtue of brevity?”
“I guess you didn’t do well, but rather, you did the right thing even if you accomplished little by it,” Salah elaborated.
“Stick to five words in the future,” Jawad suggested with indignation.
Salah grinned. “I told you, thief, I would settle the score between us. Be glad I am using words and not whips. Now, what were you actually planning to do once you reached the roof? I’m assuming it wasn’t lying on your back, blinded and raving your hands about after dropping your weapon…”
Jawad groaned. It was a long trip home.
Reaching the palace, Salah beckoned for Jawad to remain waiting in the salāmlik. “I will tell the master,” he explained.
“Don’t forget my antidote,” Jawad reminded him. No need to let them know he had slipped their leash.
“Right.” Salah left with speed.
With nothing to do but wait, Jawad walked around the reception hall idly, staring at its pillars. He was afraid that if he sat down, he would collapse from exhaustion and be unable to get up. Instead, he admired his surroundings. Stripes of misty white ran through the green marble, cool to the touch. Lamps burned, casting long shadows through the room. The smell of lamp oil fought for supremacy against the scent of incense.
Faint footsteps could be heard, coming to an abrupt halt. Turning, Jawad found himself face to face with a woman.
Her clothing was of far finer cut and material than even the most favoured servant or slave could command with fine embroidery; even though it looked old, it would cost thirty to forty silver. Contrary to what he would have expected, she did not pair her expensive clothes with any jewellery other than pearl earrings, worth around fifteen silver. In her hands, she held parchment, ink, and a quill; her face was slightly contorted in a frown. It did not diminish her beauty in any way, Jawad noticed.
“Are you a murderer or a soldier?”
Jawad glanced down. His clothing was still soaked in dried blood, and he realised the cause for her apprehension; his appearance suggested he was a threat to her, while his behaviour said the opposite. He admired her nerve in standing still, asking him that question rather than running away. “Neither, my lady,” he informed her, extending his hands to show they were empty. He followed it up with a bow, keeping it measured; unlike the master of the house, he sensed she was not impressed by courtly behaviour.
“What are you then?”
“Not a good one, it would seem. Have you come to rob my father?”
Her words confirmed his suspicion; she had to be Zaida, the only child of al-Badawi. While Jawad knew the merchant had a daughter, he had not expected this. “My lady, I can truly say that I desire none of his earthly possessions.”
“That even sounds believable,” she admitted, but the cold mask of disdain remained on her face. “What is the explanation for your presence in this condition at this hour?”
“I have performed a task for your father.”
“I imagine I would not want to know the specifics.”
“A thief troubles your father, my lady, and so he has retained my services for a game of cat and mouse.”
“Of course. The Prince. If he is true to his name, that makes you the mouse.”
Jawad could not help but smile. “To be a mouse would not be a bad thing for a man in my profession.”
“Until he becomes prey.”
Jawad nodded at the book and equipment in her arms. “May I ask what you hold, my lady?”
“I cannot prevent you, but that does not entitle you to an answer. As I am not in the habit of conversing with thieves, I will bid you goodnight, Master Mouse.”
Jawad gave another bow, making it as intricate as possible and pairing it with a mocking smile. “Very well, Lady Pearl.”
When Salah returned soon after, he carried a small vial containing a murky liquid. “Your antidote,” he proclaimed, handing it to Jawad, who drank it greedily, trying to show the appropriate amount of eagerness. He pulled a face at the taste; he suspected it was just water mixed with a few drops of lamp oil to make it look unusual.
“Your master does not wish to see me dead, I take it.”
“While the Prince’s escape is unfortunate, the master acknowledges that tonight was a victory. Several of these brigands lie dead, the theft was prevented, and your information was true. He has decided to allow you to continue to serve him,” Salah explained. “He commands that you find this rogue that he may be brought to justice.”
Jawad yawned. “Marvellous. I shall celebrate by sleeping like a rock. The sleep of the innocent.” He winked at Salah.
“I bet that hasn’t been true of you since you left your mother’s womb,” the other remarked.
“The sleep of the wicked will do,” Jawad said smiling; they separated, each to his own chamber.
END OF SPRING
Witness land that springs alive by rain’s soft mention
Water flows the least where given most attention
Barren fields become the place where men will seek gold
Poverty to riches turned make cowards grow bold
Swift they travel hence to see as new supplants old
Thinking never knowing what the future may hold
Few may gaze upon the sun with comprehension
All too soon shall end its bright and brief ascension
First strophe in the poem Time and Season by the renowned poet, al-Tayir
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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.