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Hospitality

Returning to the home of al-Badawi, Jawad sought out Salah at once. “Is the master at home? I have exciting news!”

Salah sent him a scrutinising glance. “I’ll be the judge of that. What do you have to tell?”

Jawad grinned. “How about the identity of the Prince of Cats?”

“That’ll do.” The thief noticed with satisfaction that Salah sounded impressed. “Follow me.”

They walked swiftly through winding corridors to reach al-Badawi’s study; Salah knocked briefly and stepped inside. “What is it?” asked the merchant curtly.

Salah gestured for Jawad to approach and speak. “Good master, I have found the Prince of Cats.”

Al-Badawi’s head whipped up. “Who is he?”

“It is a confounding tale,” Jawad began to say. “After deducing that the Prince would be a northerner, I spied upon Dār al-Gund. All I saw were servants, scribes, guards, and the like but one.”

“Who?”

“Short, slender, adroit, and dexterious with a set of tools akin to mine.” He rattled the lock picks hanging in his belt. “There can be no doubt.”

“Get to the point,” al-Badawi demanded irritated.

“I did not acquire a name. Their foreign tongue is nonsense in my ears. But our elusive Prince is easily distinguishable due to one thing in particular.”

“What is it?” asked Salah.

Jawad smiled. “She is a woman.”

“You jest,” exclaimed the warrior.

“I do not believe it,” the merchant said with scorn. “How could a woman accomplish all the feats attributed to the Prince?”

“Is it so strange? A slim, nimble woman would make for an excellent thief. She can hide easily, move undetected, and many paths closed to a bigger man would be accessible to her.”

Salah nodded slowly. “There is some truth to that. After all, we are not looking for an honourable warrior, but some thieving scum. Fighting from the shadows is what I would expect from someone weak, like a thief or a wench.” Jawad did his best not to feel insulted.

“Besides, she takes orders directly from the master of Dār al-Gund. She is his right hand man – woman,” Jawad added. “All of your troubles has been orchestrated by him.”

“It should not be difficult to find out if he’s right,” Salah claimed. “We will set a sharp watch around Dār al-Gund. There can’t be more than one woman inside that compound fitting this description. We’ll catch her in the act now that we know where to find her.”

Al-Badawi gave a brief nod to Salah. “See it done.”

~~~~

The following days saw little excitement. The only thing out of the ordinary was Salah being away at most hours along with some of his men, and it provided no entertainment to the residents of the estate. It was thus a welcome break from routine when a tall and handsome youth rode into the courtyard on a black stallion; as the stable boy hurried to take the reins, a servant announced the arrival of Faisal al-Musharaf.

Shortly after, the man in question stepped into the gardens, deep in conversation with Zaida. “I am surprised you would seek to speak to me alone,” she admitted.

He smiled. “Why would that be unexpected? Do you have such little faith in your powers of conversation?”

“No, I simply –” She paused as she saw his expression. “You tease me, Master Faisal.”

“I cannot help it,” he confessed. “Swordplay, dancing, conversation, all three are games of dexterity, whether it be physical or mental.”

“I have not heard it described before in this manner. You enjoy games, I take it.”

“Of every sort,” Faisal assented. “It is the privilege of youth to indulge in such. Each day, I have one moment less for leisure than I had yesterday, which is one moment more than I will have tomorrow.”

“How old will you be when all your moments are spent?”

“I wish to never find out,” he smiled.

“That can speak either of hope or despair,” she considered.

“Only fate can tell if it will be one or the other. Is that not the wisdom of the poets?”

She glanced at him as they walked along the pathways between berry bushes in bloom. “It is, though when it comes to the study of the ten virtues, poetic gift is oft neglected.”

He laughed. “You are clear-sighted, Lady Zaida. As a boy, I found pursuit of the other virtues to be more exhilarating, much to the consternation of my father and my tutors.”

“My father left me mostly to my own devices during my childhood. I should be thankful to him for that,” Zaida mused. “It allowed me to pursue arithmetic as I desired.”

“I have heard word of your work making observations of the stars,” Faisal mentioned. “I fear it is above my head, but I should like to hear you tell me of it nonetheless.”

She frowned, stopping underneath a pear tree. “I could speak for hours on the subject, but why do you ask if it would bore you?”

“If our fathers can reach an agreement, you and I will be bound together.” His eyes had been wandering around the orchard, but they came to rest upon her face. “I should like to know you as well as possible beforehand. Affection is not a storm, but a seed. It should be nurtured and watered if it is to blossom.” He gave a wry smile. “I do not recall the poem quite, but something like that.”

She laughed a little. “Close enough,” she told him, placing her hand on his arm. “Very well, since you are brave enough to venture forth, I shall tell you all.”

They began walking again. “You make it sound as if I am charging the front lines, not making pleasant conversation in beautiful surroundings.”

She laughed again as they continued on their path. Behind them, Jawad leaned down from a branch upon the pear tree, staring at their backs; soon, the distance blurred their voices, and he heard nothing more. He threw his half-eaten pear away and let himself drop to the ground, going the opposite direction of the beautiful couple.

~~~~

The next week left Jawad restless. There was little he could do other than wait for word to arrive from Labdah. Until the northerners could inform him about the ship carrying his chosen prize, Jawad’s plans were on hold. There were no services he could perform to ingratiate himself further with al-Badawi; Salah and his spies had taken over the hunt for the Prince to verify his information. He was not sure if he wanted to meet Zaida again or avoid her; in the end, it did not matter as she remained inside the harāmlik and thus beyond his reach.

Soon, Jawad began to feel much as he did when jailed in the Finger. In most aspects, it was an unfair comparison. He was not chained nor beaten, the food was infinitely better, he slept on a proper bed, and he could bathe as he pleased. But he was still consigned to remain inside four walls, even if they covered much more ground than a cell.

He knew that going to southern Alcázar or Almudaina was a risk with the Black Teeth still out for blood. It was hard for Jawad to understand exactly why he suddenly longed to walk the streets or run across the rooftops of the southern medinas; there was certainly nothing in the shambled huts of Almudaina to make a man long for that place. The idea that he would sit on soft pillows eating fresh bread in one of the finest palaces in the city and wish himself elsewhere was laughable; nonetheless, it was true.

He was alhajin, a child of the streets. His mind turned to the ships he had watched with awe in his childhood, entering the harbour of Alcázar. They ploughed the open seas, steered by their captains following no master but the direction of the wind. He recalled that once, going beyond the city, he had seen a ship dragged ashore to have its hull repaired. It looked trapped outside its proper element, paralysed, its pride and strength made void.

Jawad knew that these sentiments were nothing more than a weakness of his. He was not under any form of duress or threat. The most careful plans were often ruined by impatience. Instead, he found games to while away the time. He stole small objects of insignificant value from the others in the palace, waiting an hour before putting them back with none the wiser. He planted seeds of gossip in the ears of the servants, often over servings of tea, watching them bicker and argue with amusement.

After seven days of this, Jawad grew bored of even his boredom. While it would still be a few days before news arrived from Labdah and his plans could advance, he could at least check his preparations. Crossing all of southern Alcázar to reach Almudaina beyond the walls was too big a risk to run without good reason, but he should pay a visit to Amal. After all, there would be no point in going through all this trouble to steal the dye if she had not found any buyers.

Should that be the case, he could perhaps arrange for Dār al-Gund to buy the lot, but Jawad preferred that as a last resort. While he had dealings with the northerners, he had not actually done business with them, and when it came to thievery and fencing, the law provided no guarantees of honourable conduct. In Jawad’s world, no relationship was as sacred as that between thief and fence, and he was not going to trust the plunder of a lifetime to the likes of Tibert. Amal, on the other hand, he had known for years, and she had never cheated him out of his payment. If a buyer could be found for three dozen jars of purple dye, she would be the one he would trust with the mark.

Merely the thought of his excursion cheered Jawad up. The distance from Amal to Ishak was not too far either; he could drop by and see how the brewer fared with the mixtures Jawad had requisitioned from him. It was a sign of Jawad’s state of mind that the thought of visiting the surly fence and the crazed alchemist put him in a good mood. Disregarding this notion, Jawad took his tools, a few coins for spending, some cloth to cover his head, and left the palace one early morning.

~~~~

The sun was still mild this early, making for a pleasant walk; it was one of the reasons Jawad had chosen this hour. The coolness of the morning meant that the streets were busy with people running errands or doing work, another reason for Jawad’s choice. Slaves and hojon moved in all directions, carrying goods. The children of the street ran around, some playing, some working, many of them stealing. Jawad felt their gaze upon him constantly, but he was not concerned; he knew all their tricks, having employed them himself in his own childhood.

Leaving the main street that led to the southern gate, Jawad entered the medina where Amal lived. Reaching her house, he briefly considered crawling up the wall to enter through her window, just to keep in shape, before he dismissed the idea. It was too conspicuous, and he should not draw attention to himself these days. He entered through the front door, walked up the stairs, and knocked on her door.

“Who is it?” Jawad removed the cloth around his head to reveal his face, smiling at the spyhole. Slowly, the door opened. “Come on in,” Amal told him hesitantly.

“Inviting me in? I knew you’d warm up to me.”

“Shut up.”

“You have to admit, it’s nice to converse without a door between us.” He stepped inside.

“Why are you here?”

Jawad smiled. “In a few days, I’ll know where our purple gold is stored, and the rest is a matter for the storytellers. Of course, we won’t get anywhere without someone willing to buy the lot.”

“I have someone in mind,” Amal nodded.

“In mind? You haven’t approached them?”

“I have,” she replied hastily. “We’re just figuring out the details. The jars will have marked seals, no doubt. We need to change them once the dye is in our possession. That requires preparation too. It’s not as simple as merely walking up to someone and asking them if they fancy a score of jars with purple dye.”

“Of course not, but I imagined such trivialities would be handled by our prospective buyer,” Jawad frowned.

“It doesn’t matter what you imagine,” Amal said curtly. She glanced at the door. “I’m thirsty. Do you want some water?”

“I’m fine,” Jawad told her, narrowing his eyes as he watched the woman pour a cup of water and drink it slowly. “Amal, what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve never offered me anything before. The last few times I was here, you couldn’t wait to get rid of me, but this time you invite me in. You haven’t even cursed at me once.” His gaze moved towards the door. “You’re stalling.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You sold me out,” Jawad stated. “The Black Teeth?” He suddenly realised why the children on the streets had been watching him so intently.

“I’m sorry, Jawad. They’ve been watching –”

He saw no reason to waste time listening to her excuses. He turned towards the window and aimed a kick at the shutters, throwing them open. He jumped onto the ledge and began his descent down the wall.

“He’s here, boys! I see him!”

Fuck.

He dropped down to land on the ground and set into a sprint immediately. At every corner, someone appeared to grab or tackle him. Jawad twisted and turned, jumping over barrels and under carts as he ran for his life through the medinas of Alcázar. Thoughts raced in his mind in concert with his frenzied escape. They would expect him to flee north, beyond their reach. He might fool them by turning south, and beyond the gate lay Almudaina. Its centre was a labyrinth for outsiders, built with the very intention to hide those inside. Jawad felt a glimmer of hope and began running southwards.

People got pushed aside or to the ground. Loud curses followed Jawad on his way along with the constant shouts from the Black Teeth, tightening the noose around him. Dogs barked, women scolded his reckless running, and children watched in excitement.

The guards at the gate saw the young thief bolting towards them, pursuers hot on his heels. Their only reaction was to step aside. They were well familiar with the Black Teeth; if one criminal wanted to kill another, they saw no reason to get in the way. In their eyes, all of the hojon were criminals.

Passing through, Jawad saw Almudaina sprawled out before him. Relief flooded his mind, and he had never been so thrilled before to see its derelict buildings. He ran down the only thing that could be described as a street. The residents of the shantytown made sure to keep their distance. Occurrences such as this were common, and they knew better than to get involved.

Jawad’s heart felt like it would burst in his chest, and he had a pain in his side. It had been a long time since he had been forced to run for his life. At some point, he had also lost one sandal, impeding his speed and causing his sole to be torn up with every step. But ahead of him, salvation beckoned in the form of Ghulam’s shed and the entrance to the inner maze of Almudaina.

He reached the door. It was bolted. Frantically, he tried to force it open. “Ghulam! Open!”

“I can’t,” came the reply. “The Teeth warned me.”

“Ghulam!”

“They’ll raze this place to get to you.”

“Help me!”

“I’m sorry. I can’t.”

Jawad kicked at the door; the only result was that he drove splinters of wood into his uninjured foot. “Fuck!” he yelled in pain and frustration.

“He’s over here!”

“Hurry!”

“Get him!”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Jawad bolted. All through Almudaina, shouts could be heard. They were coming at him from every angle, and he was low on options. He fled the place, running past the decrepit huts into open space. He ran and ran on the stiff, brown grass that covered the plateau upon which Almudaina stood; soon, he reached its end. Only cliffs were ahead of him and a drastic fall into the sea.

Jawad looked down. It was madness to jump, which meant his pursuers would not risk the same. If luck and all the gods were on his side, he would miss the cliff and hit the water. The only problem was that Jawad did not know how to swim. People could be negotiated with; drowning could not.

The thief turned his back on certain death to face certain agony. He stared at Hashim, the greatest brute in a gang of cutthroats. He sent Jawad a vicious smile that made it clear he had not forgotten the night when Jawad’s information had lured Hashim and his thieves into an ambush. Meanwhile, more of the Black Teeth were coming.

“Hashim!” Jawad sent him a broad smile. “Fancy we should meet here of all places.”

“I’m going to enjoy every little moment of this,” he promised.

“Now, I can explain –” Jawad was interrupted by a fist to his mouth, and he remained silent as the thieves dragged him to the Broken Tooth.

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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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