The next day, Jawad strolled around the palace, having nothing to do but wait for night to arrive. He soon found himself outside; the orchards surrounding the buildings still made him marvel. While he had seen such gardens before, it had usually been while making a stealthy entrance to or hasty exit from a mark, leaving him little time to enjoy the lush surroundings. Each time he wandered into al-Badawi’s gardens, he felt like he was entering a jinni’s palace after marching through the desert.
His wanderings eventually led him to the courtyard, and he paused upon seeing a great stallion tied up by the stable. It was a magnificent beast; Jawad had little knowledge of horses, but he imagined this specimen would fetch a better price than many a slave. Its harness was made from black leather and silver clasps, shining brightly; all of it was definitely worth a pretty petty too.
Jawad approached the stable boy who was tending to the horse, greeting him with a smile. “That’s quite an animal!”
“Isn’t he,” the boy replied with affection. “He’s fit for a king.”
“Is Salah going somewhere today?” Jawad could think of no other in the household who might ride this horse; from what he knew of al-Badawi, the merchant only allowed himself to be transported by carriage these days.
“This does not belong to the master,” the stable boy informed him. “He is just a visitor, aren’t you, big boy.” He patted the stallion’s neck.
“Who is visiting?”
“I don’t know his name.” The servant bit his lip. “Salah greeted him, but I don’t remember. Oh, I think he mentioned Dār al-Imāra.”
Riding such an expensive horse across the city without guards, Jawad considered, was the kind of behaviour he would expect from a young, wealthy man such as Faisal al-Musharaf. He felt that old beast awakening that lived inside every thief; curiosity demanded to know what dealings Dār al-Imāra had with Dār al-Allawn.
It was not hard to track the two men down; they were not hiding, and luckily for Jawad, they had not confined themselves to the harāmlik where he could not go. Instead, they were walking down corridors, deep in conversation. Jawad snuck closer.
“The steel is thrice as expensive, but the investment is well worth it,” Faisal claimed.
“If only. My master thinks that as long as a guard looks dangerous, that should be enough,” Salah sighed. “Not that I question his judgement,” he added hastily.
Faisal laughed. “Of course not, good Salah. Besides, unless my eyes deceive me, you wear Nordsteel by your side.” He nodded at the blade by Salah’s waist while his left hand rested casually on the hilt of his own sword as they walked leisurely around. It was unusual to see any member of Alcázar’s mercantile aristocracy wear a proper weapon, and Faisal’s stance made it obvious that it was not merely for appearance’s sake. He stood and walked as Salah did; no wonder the two found conversation easy.
“Your eyes tell you true. Dwarven-forged as well, if you believe such tales,” Salah said wryly before changing the topic. “When does your father return?”
“Not soon, I fear,” Faisal replied, “but he will be back in time for the ceremony of rings, I am sure. I believe one of your servants wishes your attention but does not dare intrude upon us,” the young man continued, turning to stare at Jawad.
Embarrassment washed over the thief. He had been spotted, and not by a guard or servant or even a slave, but worse than that. Normally, the wealthy only took notice of who they wanted to see, which would be people of their own standing or higher. To be noticed by someone with a name as lengthy as Faisal al-Musharaf would get Jawad laughed out at every tavern in southern Alcázar. “Jawad? What is it?” asked Salah.
“Forgive me. I should have retreated the moment I saw you were in company with an esteemed guest,” he replied, seeking to extricate himself.
“Jawad? Salah has mentioned you to me,” Faisal remarked.
The thief in question sent the warrior a confused glance. “He has?” Jawad imagined Salah issuing a warning about keeping a tight grasp on all valuables if alhajin was spotted skulking about.
“He explained that you have been instrumental in tightening the defences of Dār al-Allawn, plugging every gap there might be. Salah boasts that your house is nigh impenetrable. I have no doubt as to your deep loyalties to your current master, and I shall make no attempt to steal you away, but I know my father would pay heavy silver for services such as yours,” Faisal explained.
Jawad’s face twitched, reminding him of the recent pains. This had to be some form of intricate jest. “Master al-Badawi is a virtuous master in every respect,” he said smoothly, “but I am humbled by your words, sidi.”
“So humble it comes out both ends,” Salah mumbled.
“Forgive me?” asked Faisal.
Salah coughed. “I merely suggested we continue. I am sure Jawad has duties to attend to.”
“Of course.” The young nobleman nodded to Jawad. “Farewell, Master Jawad.”
“Farewell, sidi.” Jawad made a hasty retreat; it only occurred to him afterwards that he had failed entirely to deduce the reason for Dār al-Imāra’s visit.
At nightfall, Jawad stayed true to his purpose. Leaving al-Badawi’s palace, he walked the familiar route towards Dār al-Gund. The streets were mostly empty save for guards on patrol or, Jawad assumed, al-Badawi’s spy watching him. He took care to avoid the former while also ensuring that the latter did not lose track of him; an odd, almost awkward situation, but it broke the monotony of breaking into the same place twice.
Reaching Dār al-Gund, Jawad quickly located the same entry point as before, scaling the wall and jumping down behind the stables. Since this was an ordinary night, more caution was called for; on the other hand, having done all this before, Jawad felt confident he could do it blindfolded. He crossed the open space to reach the main hall. The stench of the dungheap reached his nostrils; nausea turned his stomach around, due to memory rather than the smell. No matter what, he was not going to repeat his exit from last time.
The kitchen door proved as pliable as last time. Stepping through it, Jawad locked it from the inside. He grabbed a few apples from a barrel on his way; he had a long night ahead of him.
When morning came to Dār al-Gund, the clerks filed into the office, collected ledgers, took their seats by the writing desks, and began work. Shortly after, their master appeared. Tall and thin, he had a stern face that seemed unable to smile. His clothes were plain and sensible, belying the wealth of his position. He wore no tokens of affluence either, except a copper ring granting him the rights of a citizen and a gold ring with the seal of his house.
Passing through the office, he reached one end that held the door to his personal study. He quickly unlocked it and stepped inside. He had barely moved forward when he froze in his tracks. The study contained a few bookshelves, a desk containing a writing set and a chair behind it, and a sofa. On the final piece of furniture, a thief lay in repose.
Tibert shut the door behind him. “What are you doing here?” he sneered. He spoke the language of Alcázar in a stilted fashion, but it was easily intelligible.
Jawad opened an eye and turned slightly towards the merchant. Several apple cores fell from his stomach to the ground. “Master Tibert, well met. It was time we spoke.”
“You have not been summoned,” Tibert hissed. “This is not the agreement. It’s the middle of the day! Anyone might see you.”
“These are your people, Master Tibert, they’re hardly going to question your affairs.” Jawad yawned.
“I would appreciate a great deal more caution and common sense from you nonetheless. Why are you here?” the northerner reiterated.
“Al-Badawi, why else? I have a plan in mind.”
“Wait. Be quiet,” Tibert said emphatically, opening his door briefly. He barked a string of orders in the northern speech, raising his voice. To Jawad, it sounded like pebbles being crunched between his teeth. From what Jawad could hear, one of the scribes jumped up and ran off; he imagined the rest bowed their heads, writing diligently and avoiding eye contact with Tibert.
Jawad smiled as Tibert closed the door. “Shall we talk?”
“This was not the agreement. Renardine was to contact you first if we needed to speak again.”
“That would be difficult, effendi. I live in al-Badawi’s home, and when I leave it, he has spies watching my every move. If Renardine were to approach me, we would be revealed.”
“What kind of thief are you that you cannot shake pursuers?”
“Effendi, of course I can. But that would inform al-Badawi that not only am I aware he is having me followed, I am also carrying out activities I don’t wish him to know about.”
“Fine,” Tibert granted. “Does this mean he knows you are here? Does he suspect us?”
“He ordered me to investigate your house, effendi, as you are his rivals. He has no specific reason to suspect you,” Jawad said smoothly. “I have spent tonight meticulously searching your compound, as you can see.” He glanced at the eaten apples lying on the floor. “I will return to al-Badawi and inform him I found nothing, directing his attention elsewhere.”
“Good,” Tibert declared, relaxing. “As long as he still has that silver ring, he has the ear of the Kabir. He could cause many problems for us.”
“Then we best make sure he loses that ring,” Jawad smiled.
While he spoke, the door opened slightly ajar to let a slender figure slip in. The clothes, short hair, and smooth face suggested a young boy, but she moved with the confidence and posture of a trained warrior, despite the absence of conspicuous weapons. In fact, the only thing hanging by her belt was a small knife and a set of picks much like those carried by Jawad. She addressed her master in the Nordspeech, leaving Jawad clueless as to what was said.
“Yes,” Tibert replied, using the southern language. “Our intrepid – friend has taken it upon himself to visit us and discuss our future plans.”
Renardine sent Jawad a measured look. She had a scar across her face, which always wore a steeled expression. He had little doubt that if she wanted to, she could plant her dirk in his heart before he even had time to plead for his life. “Perhaps he needs to be reminded of his place in our arrangement. Let’s arrange another trip to the Tower of Justice for him, but this time, we leave him there to rot.”
Tibert raised a hand in a calming gesture while taking a seat behind his desk. “That will not be necessary. We do have matters to discuss.”
“As Master Tibert was saying before you graced us with your company, you would prefer if al-Badawi’s commerce deteriorated to the point he cannot pay tribute to the Kabir,” Jawad informed her. “I believe we should make that happen.”
“It is too late this year,” Tibert stated. “We had hoped to supplant his trade with the Kabir’s palace in yellow dye, but the wily old bastard must have expected it. He acted before we were ready.” Jawad kept his lips tightly shut. “It means that al-Badawi should have the coin to pay tribute to the Kabir and retain his silver ring. It will not be this year that Dār al-Gund takes his place among the Hundred Houses.”
“A pity,” Jawad feigned. If he learned tomorrow that Dār al-Gund had burned to the ground, he would have forgotten its name by the third day. “I do believe I have something even better. I am preparing a mark that will leave al-Badawi ruined. Even a copper ring will be beyond his means.”
“A mark?” asked Tibert, exchanging confused glances with Renardine.
“A theft,” Jawad elaborated; he had forgotten for a moment that his companions were foreigners and hardly fluent in the cant employed by thieves. “A prize so valuable that without it, all the trades of Dār al-Allawn will crumble.”
“What is it?”
“In a few weeks’ time, a ship will arrive in Alcázar from Labdah. Its entire cargo will be purple dye, meant to be sold here. All of al-Badawi’s wealth depends on it, and I intend to steal it.” Jawad smiled triumphantly. Denying al-Badawi the gold from the sale would be the final nail in his coffin; once Jawad did this, he would soon be done with the merchant.
Tibert leaned back. “I agree, it will strike a blow he cannot recover from. You are certain of this?”
Jawad nodded. “I have confirmation that the dye is arriving. The workers at the docks will keep watch for me, letting me know where it ends up. And thanks to my extensive knowledge of al-Badawi’s properties and precautions, I will know exactly how to steal it.”
“So why have you come?”
“I need one final piece of information. I will have the workers track the shipment the entire way from pier to warehouse, as soon as the ship moors in Alcázar. But they can only do this if they know what ship to watch.”
Tibert scratched his thin beard. “You need to know the ship.”
“It will be too late to find out once the ship arrives in Alcázar. The cargo will vanish into one of al-Badawi’s storehouses before I can discern its destination.”
“You need someone in Labdah to find the ship for you and warn you, so that you will be ready when it does arrive in Alcázar,” Tibert continued. He looked towards Renardine. “Can this be done?”
“Labdah is not far from here. There should be enough time.”
Jawad smiled. “Excellent. Soon, the house of al-Badawi will fall. Don’t you agree, princess?” he asked Renardine with what he imagined was a charming look.
“Every time you talk, I want to cut your tongue out,” she replied calmly.
“You sure know how to ruin the mood,” Jawad mumbled.
“Enough,” declared Tibert. “While I applaud your plan, I have my doubts whether it will succeed.”
“I have everything prepared,” Jawad protested.
“Time is against us,” Tibert contemplated, ignoring Jawad. “Al-Badawi is beginning to suspect us. Your very presence is proof of that. His wealth is his power, and we must take that power from him before he makes a move against us.” He looked at Renardine. “How long until we will hear back from Labdah?”
“If I send a messenger today, ten days at the most.”
“Not much time to spare if the shipment arrives in less than two weeks,” Tibert considered.
“It will be enough,” Jawad claimed.
“Regardless, while you busy yourself with this, we will plan for contingencies,” the merchant said, looking at Renardine briefly. “Return to us in ten days, and we will provide you with the information you need.”
Jawad grinned. “Excellent!” He frowned for a moment. “What contingencies are you intending?”
Tibert gave a shrug. “One way or another, al-Badawi must be ruined. If you fail to steal the dye, I see only one recourse.”
Renardine gave a harsh smile. “There’s nothing like fire to cleanse away the old and make room for new.”
Jawad paled a little. “I thought we agreed that setting fire to his warehouses was a tad too conspicious, not to mention destructive?” A fire inside the city could be catastrophic, especially since it was too early for the winter rains to arrive, and every wooden building in the city was dryer than the desert.
“We agreed nothing,” Tibert sneered. “Do not presume your opinion bears any weight.”
Jawad was not what most considered an upstanding citizen of Alcázar. Strictly speaking, he was not even a citizen, and he earned his living by illicit means, which meant he never paid taxes either; an arrangement he was most satisfied with. Even so, the thought of fires ravaging his home gave him reason to pause. Yet knew that the same would not apply to these northerners, who had only came to Alcázar in the search of coin. “My apologies, effendi,” he smiled.
“If the thought bothers you, you need simply to carry out your plan, and ours will not be needed,” Renardine said. Her smile reminded Jawad of a wolf. “I will make arrangements immediately for Labdah,” she added, directed at Tibert. He gave a cursory nod, and she left without delay.
“I suppose there is no need for me to linger about either,” Jawad said.
Tibert glanced out the window. It was still morning. “How do you expect to leave here unseen?” He nodded towards the door, beyond which sat a score of scribes or more. “That room will not be empty until evening.”
Jawad gave a sly smile. “You could let them finish work early?”
The thief got up from the sofa and walked over to the window, opening it. He glanced down the outer wall that looked smooth and difficult to climb. He turned back towards Tibert. “You wouldn’t mind if I waited in your study, would you? Just until nightfall.”
With more bruises and less dignity than when he arrived, Jawad made yet another inelegant retreat from Dār al-Gund.
Support "The Prince of Cats"
- 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.