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The House of Authority

It was a pitiful shape that crossed the streets of Alcázar in the early morning light. His passage was not hindered in any way; all others kept their distance. Even the doorman at al-Badawi’s palace managed to convey disgust with but a single grunt. “I know,” Jawad mumbled.

Staggering into the reception hall, Salah appeared by his side and retreated just as expediently. “You’re back! And…”

“I know.” Jawad took out the parchment hidden in his inner garment. “What your master is after.” He extended the document towards Salah. The latter eyed it with doubt. “It’s clean,” Jawad claimed with clenched jaw.

As if dealing with a lion showing teeth, Salah snatched the parchment and immediately withdrew his hand. “Perhaps you should bathe.”

“You think?” Jawad all but shouted, stalking past him.

~~~~

For the past hour, Jawad’s only thought had been the bathtub in the servants’ chambers. As soon as he reached it, he stripped all his clothes and filled the tub with the few buckets of available water. Harsh soap and rough cloth was present for washing; both seemed like gifts from the gods to him. He did not hesitate to submerge himself into the cold water and begin scrubbing.

Nobody disturbed him for a while until Salah entered; for a man of his size and confidence, his entrance was unusually timid. “Once the incense had burned for a while and the master could stomach reading the document you brought, he was pleased with its contents. You have done well.” He hesitated. “I will not ask what you went through to get this information.”

Jawad kept his thoughts on the matter to himself. “Good.”

“I will have someone bring you new clothes.”

“Thanks.” Jawad took a deep breath. His mood was slowly improving as his body became cleaner. “I must be costing your master a fortune in garments.”

Salah smiled. “He can afford it. Especially with the aid you have provided him.”

“There is something we should discuss, Salah.”

“Yes?”

“This obsession you have with watching me bathe. I’m flattered, but as we work together, it is starting to feel unprofessional.”

Salah stared at him for a moment before he laughed wildly. “I should break your nose for that, but I get the feeling that fate punishes you already for all your misdeeds.” His laughter dwindled to a chuckle. “I’m sure this one will come back to bite you sooner or later.”

“I take offence at that,” Jawad protested. “I’ve never done anything to deserve the wrongs that befall me.”

“Sure,” Salah snorted. He took out a piece of parchment, placing it on a nearby table. “This is for you, by the way.”

Jawad frowned in speculation. “What is it?”

“An official notice stating that you are in the employ of al-Badawi, master of Dār al-Allawn.” Salah’s eyes rested on the red cross on Jawad’s wrist, marking him as alhajin. “Should any of the city guard give you trouble, this will make them back off.”

Jawad had not even entertained the idea of this. It meant that he could walk freely on the streets at night; while the hojon were not allowed inside the city walls after sunset, this document would supersede such a ban. With but a few words and the seal of one of the Hundred Houses, Jawad had gained the rights of a citizen. Of course, it would only take a few words for him to lose those rights. “Thank you, Salah.”

“It was only right that the master rewarded you.”

Jawad had no doubt whose idea the reward had been. “Why do you serve al-Badawi?”

“Why not? I could not hope for a higher position than this.”

“You seem ill at ease, being al-Badawi’s hound.”

Salah punched his fist into the palm of his other hand. “You’re calling me a dog? If you smelled any less foul –”

“See, there it is,” Jawad interrupted him. “You’ve threatened me with violence numerous times, but you seem reluctant to actually follow through.”

Salah was quiet for a moment. “I’ve found that the threat is usually enough. Why use violence if the threat of it will do?”

“That is what strikes me as strange. It seems obvious to me that al-Badawi only values you as his muscle.”

“Hardly,” Salah objected. “He listens to my advice. Something that has benefitted you, I might add.”

Jawad had to concede that. “I suppose you are better paid here than anywhere else.”

“Do not presume you know me,” Salah scoffed. “That’s how a thief thinks. I am a warrior. You’re only motivated by coin, whereas I am motivated by honour.”

“Of course,” Jawad grinned. “We are all driven by what we lack in life.”

“You little rat.” The insult was undercut by Salah’s wry smile. “I owe the House of al-Badawi a debt of honour that can never be repaid.”

Jawad settled into his bathwater. Like any child of Alcázar, he adored stories. “Do tell.”

Salah leaned against the doorframe. “My father was a modest merchant. We did not belong to the Hundred Houses, but he did business with Dār al-Allawn. This was when my current master was a young man, and his father led the House of al-Badawi. I was little more than a grown boy when this happened, and I do not know the details. I only know that my father’s investments went poorly. None of us knew until it was too late.”

“What happened?”

“One day, a servant entered my father’s study to find him dead by his own hand, choosing death over dishonour. Of course, that only saved himself.” Salah smiled bitterly, staring into empty air. “Our debts were ruinous. We sold everything, and it was not enough. My mother, my sisters, my brother, and I were to be sold as slaves to cover the rest.”

“And then what?” Jawad stared at him in rapt attention.

“The master’s father stepped in. He had a kind heart. I have met few men equal to him,” Salah remarked.

“What did he do?” Jawad asked, nearly breathless.

“He saved us all. Paid our debts to save us from slavery. Found husbands for my sisters and an honest trade for my brother to learn. My mother lived in his household until her last breath, gods rest her soul.”

“And you entered his service out of gratitude.”

Salah nodded. “I was never any good with numbers, and my old master already had a son and servants to handle his affairs. But I knew he would never find a bodyguard so devoted to protecting him as me, so I learned how to wield a sword. I was by his side until age took him. I will do the same for my current master, and should the gods wish that I outlive him, I will stay by the lady Zaida’s side until it is finally my turn.”

“You’re a loyal man, Salah.”

“I am.”

“A good servant, no doubt. Which reminds me.”

“What?”

Jawad stretched out a hand from the bathtub, dripping water onto the floor. “Towel?”

“Fuck you.”

~~~~

The next day, the noise of people moving about alerted Jawad that something was afoot. Curious and with nothing better to do, Jawad followed the trail of people to the salāmlik. A few of them actually had a purpose for being in the reception hall; the rest, like Jawad, were merely there to gawk and gossip.

Al-Badawi was present in the centre, flanked by Zaida and Salah. The merchant was dressed in opulent fashion, as could be expected. Salah was dressed in more practical terms, but still in fabric so costly, Jawad had never even touched anything like it.

Zaida’s clothing seemed almost modest, but with an elegant cut that set her apart from everyone else. Jawad found it hard to look away, and every time he did, his eyes inevitably wandered back soon after. As always, she wore only her pearl earrings to complement her garments.

An entourage of soldiers and slaves entered, led by a young man dressed as richly as al-Badawi. The prime difference between them was the lack of a silver ring on his hand, revealing that he was not the head of Dār al-Imāra. Instead, he had simple bands of gold set with rubies, tastefully done in comparison to the garish jewellery worn by al-Badawi. Jawad would have to see them up close to be sure, but judging by the artisanship, each of the young man’s rings had a worth of sixty or seventy silver pieces. His tailor was less skilled than his jeweller; Jawad did not expect he would get more than twenty birds for the nobleman’s clothes.

The mamluks accompanying Dār al-Imāra were by far the most impressive part. All of them stood a head taller than others, their armour shone, and their very posture revealed that they were at ease with the weapons at their side. They stared straight ahead in a display of unbroken discipline, and Jawad had no doubt that they could slaughter everyone in al-Badawi’s house with ease, Salah excluded. The meaning of Dār al-Imāra’s name occurred to him; they dealt not in dye, but in death, specifically mamluks. No doubt it was from them that al-Badawi purchased his own soldier slaves. For this meeting, the young man, who Jawad assumed was the heir to Dār al-Imāra, had decided to trot up with the finest of his wares on display.

“Faisal al-Musharaf, I bid you welcome,” al-Badawi declared, inclining his head. “You are my guest, and my home is yours.”

“Master al-Badawi,” Faisal replied, bowing. “I am honoured to be under your roof.” He turned slightly towards Zaida. “Lady Zaida, it is an utmost pleasure to be in your company.” She bowed her head to reciprocate his greeting, but did not speak.

“Your father will not appear today?” There was a hint of disapproval in al-Badawi’s voice.

“Business has tied him to Sayda,” Faisal said regretfully. “His return to Alcázar has been delayed. I am to convey his apologies along with this gift.” He clapped twice; behind him, a servant appeared with a small chest in his hands. Faisal opened it, and Jawad stretched his neck to see. “Gems from across the Inner Sea,” the young nobleman explained, “flasks of precious balm, and the finest incense from Gadir.” It was difficult to tell from the distance, but the gems would probably fetch twenty or thirty silver each. Jawad was less sure about the balm and incense, but he imagined that each item had maybe half the value compared to one of the precious stones.

“A splendid gift,” al-Badawi assented with shining eyes and beckoned Salah to step forward to accept the chest. “Please, come,” the merchant continued, extending his hand in an invitational gesture. “We shall share a table with bread and salt to lay the foundations of friendship between our houses.”

“Nothing would please me more,” Faisal claimed with a smile. He fell into place next to al-Badawi, and together with Zaida, they walked deeper into the palace, leaving the mamluks of the two houses behind to trade stern looks with their counterparts. As for Jawad, he yawned and left the salāmlik.

~~~~

With the spectacle of Dār al-Imāra’s visit finished on his part, Jawad spent the next couple of days lying low. He assumed that his foray into Dār al-Gund had gone unnoticed, but a good thief always kept indoors for a while after an outing. The Black Teeth would remain on the lookout for him as well. Jawad also suspected that despite his services to the merchant, al-Badawi still had him under watch. Since none of his plans required urgent action, Jawad decided to avoid suspicion and simply remain at home.

Of all the residences in Alcázar that he might confine himself to, the palace of al-Badawi was among the most pleasant. He continued to strike up friendships with the servants and slaves, serving them tea and listening to all their gripes and gossip. The mamluks still denied him access to the harāmlik, unfortunately, and despite his best efforts, he could not find a route inside. The inner part of the palace had been built to be easily defended by just a few guards; even if al-Badawi was employing less and less people, he retained enough mamluks for this purpose.

This also meant that Jawad was kept from seeing Zaida. He spent several nights outside in the gardens, but had no luck. Either she had completed her star-gazing or chosen to continue her efforts in an arbour inside the harāmlik. He only caught a glimpse of her one morning as she left the palace to carry out her weekly tour of her father’s holdings, and he had no cause for delaying her to stay and talk to him.

With so much time to himself, he did a thorough cleansing of his tools. Now that the unpleasantness of his trip to Dār al-Gund was behind him, he balked at the thought of replacing the lantern or the lock picks. A complete waste of silver.

Some days passed in this fashion until one morning, when Jawad was sleeping soundly after spending a fruitless night in the gardens, he was woken by Salah. “Come with me.”

While his senses were dulled, Jawad noticed a strange tone in Salah’s voice. Getting out of bed, he glanced at his tools, wondering if he should bring them along; he always felt defenceless and vulnerable without any lock picks on him. Salah was staring at him, though, and reaching for his tools would seem an odd gesture. Trusting that his wit would suffice, Jawad left his room and followed the big warrior.

They entered the harāmlik, but they did not have to go far. In the first hall they reached, al-Badawi waited for them along with his scribe, Dars, and three mamluks. Jawad had to control his breathing upon seeing the guards; all his instincts warned him of danger. He felt the urge to look behind him, to check his escape path, but all eyes were upon him, and he dared not move.

“Your information was wrong.” Al-Badawi’s voice was cold.

Jawad feigned ignorance as he had never feigned before. “I don’t understand, effendi.”

The merchant held up the parchment that Jawad had brought with him from Dār al-Gund. “This claims that the northern savages would not receive their shipment of yellow dye for at least another two weeks.”

“If you say so, effendi. I do not speak their crude tongue, so I simply copied the letters.”

“I have just been told that yesterday evening, the ship containing this cargo moored on the docks of Alcázar. Can you explain this?”

“Fortunate winds?”

“There are two possible explanations. Either you are incompetent,” al-Badawi stated, “or you are working with my enemies.”

“Effendi,” Jawad objected, “I did as you asked.”

“I want to know which one it is.” The merchant nodded to one of the mamluks. “Hurt him.”

“Let me.” Salah quickly stepped forward. Making a fist, he planted it onto Jawad’s nose. Blood gushed forward.

With pain searing through his mind, Jawad tried in vain to stem the flow of blood with his hands. “Master! I only did as you told me!”

“Again.” Another punch, this time to Jawad’s stomach. The thief buckled over.

“I swear,” Jawad managed to groan.

“Again.” By now, the thief was lying crumbled up on the floor.

“I swear it.” It was only a whisper now.

“Again!” This time, it was a kick. Jawad did not have the resilience left to protest his innocence yet again. Al-Badawi looked down at him with disappointment. “I am not convinced. Salah, Dars, you are with me. We need to salvage this situation while there is time. As for you,” he added, directed at the mamluks, “continue the interrogation until I return. Beat the truth out of him.”

~~~~

It was hard to think with three men aiming powerful kicks at his body, but Jawad did his best. As much as he wanted to place full blame on al-Badawi for his current situation, he had to shoulder some of it himself. He should have expected the merchant to react this way. Jawad suspected that his weeks in the darkness of the cell had affected his mind more than had been apparent. There was no other explanation for why he had risked his position among Dār al-Allawn simply to get even with al-Badawi for locking him up. It was the actions of a novice, not a seasoned thief. Jawad was embarrassed by himself.

He still hated al-Badawi.

~~~~

Jawad’s sense of time was not the best while he was being beaten up; he estimated that it had been close to an eternity when al-Badawi returned with Salah and Dars in tow. The mamluks stopped, stepping away. One of them casually wiped blood from his boot with a handkerchief.

“Tell me, thief.” Al-Badawi’s voice dripped with contempt. “Are you ready to confess? Are you in the employ of my enemies?”

“Effendi,” Jawad managed to utter, coughing. He felt blood, spit, and slime in his throat. “I have only ever done as you asked. I warned you when the Prince came to rob you. I protected your possessions at the risk of my own life.”

“He did,” Salah inserted.

“I inspected your properties and advised you how to safeguard them best.” Jawad was interrupted by the pressing need to cough up the aforementioned mixture of bodily fluids onto the marble tiles already stained by blood from his nose. “Have you suffered any theft since then?” he managed to ask after emptying his throat of his own liquids.

“You haven’t, effendim,” Salah helpfully replied.

“Is it not possible that the Prince, seeing this avenue of attack closed to him, devised another way to hurt you?” Jawad continued to ask. Al-Badawi did not reply, but he did not dissuade the battered thief from talking either. Emboldened, Jawad spoke again. “I do not know the inner workings of your ventures, effendi. I cannot say why this piece of information matters to you.” Jawad made a point of staring down and not look at Dars; if the scribe knew what was good for him, he would keep his mouth shut. “But if this shipment was of such importance to you, is it not reasonable that your enemies would know as much?” Having spoken all this, Jawad wheezed for breath.

“You think the Prince of Cats is behind this?” The scorn practically spilled over as al-Badawi spoke. “That he somehow devised this?”

“His purpose seems to be to destroy you, effendi, and this is a swifter way than robbing you one warehouse at a time.”

“Or maybe Dār al-Gund planned this, effendim,” Salah spoke quietly. “It has been their aim all along to steal this trade from you.”

“Yes, maybe they anticipated this,” Jawad exclaimed with as much force as he could muster, which would barely have been enough to bend a leaf of grass.

“Quiet,” al-Badawi sneered, but the malice in his voice had lessened, and he fell silent afterwards. Jawad dared not look up to inspect the merchant’s face; he could only hope that the silence meant al-Badawi was contemplating his arguments. “This is a matter for another time. Lock him away,” the merchant told the mamluks, “until I return.”

“No!” Jawad cried out at the thought of being imprisoned in the darkness; the sudden effort provoked another coughing fit.

“Effendim, perhaps I could –”

Whatever Salah wanted to suggest, his master did not allow him to finish. “We have far more pressing business to attend to,” he lashed out. “My wealth and my reputation is at stake! Is my carriage ready?”

“Yes, effendim.”

“To the Kabir’s palace, without delay!” Al-Badawi moved around Jawad’s body on the floor without sparing it a second glance. Salah and Dars, both sending a look of pity towards the thief, followed.

Once their master was gone, two of the mamluks reached down to grab Jawad by the shoulders. They lifted him up, leaving a pool of his blood on the floor. It was in this moment she entered the hall. Through swollen eyes, Jawad glimpsed a female shape. At first, he thought it was Elat; he had seen an exquisite statue of her in the big temple, carved from what looked like the softest marble. He blinked, and the pain of moving his eyelids helped cut through the fog. He managed to notice that Zaida was staring back at him before he felt himself being moved; with little sentiment or care, the guards dragged him away.

Shortly after, he was thrown inside the same cell he had occupied less than a week ago. As the door closed and was bolted, complete darkness descended upon him.

END OF SUMMER

Toil and labour, know the names of summer’s master
Sweeter sleep accompanies the work done faster
Weak the man who yields when first he feels the feared pain
Gird your loins or lose all thought of silver-bright grain
Note with care while sun grows strong the moon may oft wane
Yet the poor will show himself to have the strong reign
Some may choose a dwelling made from alabaster
Others find their heart amidst the oleaster

Second strophe in the poem Time and Season by the renowned poet, al-Tayir

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About the author

Quill

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.

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