Enemies in High Places
“Jawad? Are you hurt?” Extricating herself from his embrace, Zaida looked at him with concern.
“All is well,” he reassured her, managing a worn smile.
“Were you caught in the fire?” She glanced at the ruins.
“No, I was far from here when I saw the smoke.”
“You have been gone for days. Salah thought you were not returning. Your hand!” she exclaimed, noticing the bandage.
“I was detained by some unpleasant fellows. A risk that comes with the business I am in.”
“Working for my father.” A scowl appeared on her face, but it did not diminish her lovely features. “This must end. You will die doing his bidding.”
“All I do is by my own choice.” The rain had lessened, falling gentler now.
She cautiously took hold of his wrist, caressing his skin while avoiding any touch to his damaged hand. “Jawad, nothing can be worth this.”
He swallowed, looking at her eyes staring back at him. Try as he might, words to explain himself refused to appear. “Zaida,” was all he managed to say.
“While I am embarrassed by it, I should confess that I thought you had left for good.” She glanced downwards. “I gave it a lot of thought, in fact.”
“I could only imagine two reasons you would remain in my father’s house. Either to seek his favour by catching this criminal that plagues him, or to steal from him.”
“What jewel thief could resist the temptation… when I told you about the jinni and the gem, you had heard the story beforehand, had you not?”
“The Prince of Cats, the Heart of the Sands… these are fairy-tale names. It would not matter if you were chasing one or the other, as neither exists. They are stories for children, rumours, and hearsay.” She smiled without mirth and looked up at him. “I thought you had finally realised this and left in the night.”
“That is how a thief would do it,” Jawad admitted, “and I make no secret of who I am. But I have no intentions of robbing your father, sayidaty.”
“Then why do you stay? To chase a phantom of my father’s imagination? You will never catch a thief that does not exist!”
Jawad had no answer. Her hands were still touching his skin, making it difficult for him to think. “How do you know?” he managed to ask.
“Jawad, I know everything about my father’s business. Misfortune began to haunt him long before any so-called Prince, and that is all it is! Ill luck striking in different places,” she told him. “If anybody is punishing my father, it is the gods, not any man.”
“Maybe the gods sent the Prince.”
“Jawad, it’s time to stop. You need to leave my father’s house before it kills you,” she pleaded, staring at him.
He could not meet her gaze. “I have to find him.”
“He does not exist! How could one man disrupt caravans in Surru, ships from Gadir, and everywhere else all over the Inner Sea? None of this is connected except in my father’s delusions. Jawad, do not die to satisfy the ghost of my father’s fear. Please.”
He raised his eyes sufficiently to see Zaida biting her lower lip in anxiety, but he had no words to reassure her.
“Zaida!” He recognised the voice as Salah’s. The warrior came galloping towards them, bringing the horse to an abrupt halt. With the ease of a skilled equestrian, he dismounted and placed both hands on her shoulders, inserting himself between her and Jawad. “I feared the worst.” He glanced around, looking at the destroyed warehouses.
“I am fine,” she assured him.
“What a disaster, but at least you are not hurt,” Salah spoke before he turned his attention on Jawad. “When the gods throw dice, they throw them all! I thought you were dead.”
“You didn’t think I’d run off?”
“Nothing of value was missing from the house,” Salah pointed out.
“Where have you been?”
“It’s a long story.” One that Jawad needed time to concoct. “You should bring Lady Zaida home.”
“What about you?” she asked concerned.
“There is something I must attend to,” he told her. “I’ll be back before nightfall,” he added to Salah.
The warrior looked at him and unclasped his cloak, throwing it around Jawad’s shoulders. “You’ll catch your death in this rain. Do you need the horse?”
Jawad shook his head. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“Very well. See you tonight.”
Salah helped Zaida mount the horse, and they set off towards al-Badawi’s estate, whereas Jawad set a course towards Dār al-Gund.
Stalking towards the northerner’s compound, Jawad felt fury raging inside of him. He wanted each of the pale bastards to pay. Eventually, as his stalking became staggering, the pain from every step taken began to sober him up. As ire subsided, self-preservation filled the void. Dār al-Gund was a large compound, filled with people, several of whom were armed. Jawad did not even have a blunt letter opener. Nor did he have a single copper coin or any tools at his disposal. In fact, all three pieces of clothing he was currently wearing had been given to him out of pity or scorn.
Not that Jawad felt any of this was an impossible hindrance. He maintained that his greatest weapon was his mind, which at least remained intact. Even so, he was ready to admit to himself that having only his wits at his disposal, subtler means for dealing with Dār al-Gund was called for.
Approaching the compound, the thief remembered another obstacle. The Black Teeth were already hounding him. Making outright enemies of Dār al-Gund as well might not be the best move. In fact, Jawad considered, perhaps one problem could solve another.
The guards eyed him lazily. “No beggars,” came a growl.
“I bring a message for Master Tibert.”
“Hand it over then.”
“A spoken message,” Jawad clarified. “For his ears only.”
“Right,” the guard laughed and made a remark in his own language to his comrade. “Sod off,” he added for Jawad’s benefit.
“Tell Master Tibert that Jawad is here to see him.”
“And he’ll have my tongue for wasting his time. Now piss off!” He raised the blunt end of his spear as a threat.
Jawad stared at him, showing no fear. After what he had endured, fear had been stripped from his being. “He’ll have your balls when he finds out you turned me away.”
The other guard muttered something. “Fine,” said the first one. “I’ll let the steward handle you. Come along,” he sneered, letting Jawad step past the gate.
They crossed the courtyard to reach the main hall. The guard stayed one step behind Jawad, keeping an eye on him.
Once inside, a flurry of words were exchanged in Nordspeech. Jawad stood patiently waiting meanwhile. Finally, a servant of some kind beckoned for him to follow. The thief did as instructed, pretending that he did not know exactly where to go.
They went up the stairs and entered the offices of Dār al-Gund. The clerks sent him curious glances, but given his worn appearance, their interest quickly waned. The servant motioned for Jawad to wait as he knocked on the door to Tibert’s study. After a brief exchange, Jawad was silently invited to step inside.
Renardine was there as well; she smelled like smoke. Jawad repressed the anger that flared up inside of him, turning his attention towards Tibert. “You set the district on fire,” he stated flatly once the door was closed behind him.
“Because you were late,” the merchant said. “Now you show up, brazen and arrogant, announcing yourself at our doorstep.”
“Oddly conspicious for a thief,” Renardine added.
Jawad stared at the pair who had come to his city, acting as conquerors when they should be beggars. “I was detained by al-Badawi’s enemies. I have escaped their custody and will return to al-Badawi presently. What I have suffered on his behalf should strengthen his trust in me.”
“Appearing at our house will erode that,” Renardine snorted.
“Thanks to my involuntary stay elsewhere, al-Badawi has no knowledge of my current whereabouts. I can assure you that he is oblivious of my presence here,” Jawad said sharply.
“Why exactly are you here?” Tibert stared at the thief with discerning eyes.
“Since our plan failed, I thought we might come up with another way –”
“You’re alive and, as you claim, still in al-Badawi’s trust. The purple dye only just arrived, and given what Dār al-Allawn suffered today, they will be in disarray for a while.” Tibert kept his gaze on Jawad. “We have time to complete the plan.”
“But – I have no idea where the bloody cargo is,” Jawad objected.
“A resourceful thief such as you can find out. You have free access to al-Badawi’s house, do you not?”
He did not, but best to keep that to himself. Jawad was beginning to see where this was going. “What do you have in mind?”
“Any merchant worth his salt keeps meticulous records. Somewhere in al-Badawi’s ledgers, it will say where the jars of dye are stored. Or one of his trusted servants will know. You will find out and tell us,” the northerner demanded, “including any precautions taken to protect the cargo. We – that is, Renardine and her men – will steal it. Once you tell us what we need to know, your part in this is over.”
Jawad considered introducing Tibert to the Master; they would make excellent friends. “I run all the risks, and you reap the rewards?” Time to play greedy. “What’s in it for me?”
“Once you return to us with the information, you will be paid handsomely for your help.”
With a knife between the ribs, Jawad guessed. He knew that in their eyes, his status would soon change from useful henchman to loose end. He smiled. “I expect nothing less. We’ll have to meet elsewhere, of course.” Jawad had no doubt that if he walked into Dār al-Gund again, he would never walk out.
“Why?” asked Renardine sharply.
He looked at her with a superior attitude. “Once I return to al-Badawi, he’ll have me followed again, surely. It’s too risky. There’s a tavern by the western docks called the Salty Mug. I’ll meet you there the day after tomorrow, at noon.”
“Fine,” Tibert agreed. “But your payment will wait until the job is done.”
“I’ll need some silver for now to get the information,” Jawad claimed. It was partly true; he could desperately use some coin, albeit for other purposes. “I have people to bribe, hands to grease, doors to unlock, eyes to close. You get the idea.”
Tibert sent him a look but relented, opening a drawer. A purse appeared in his hand, which he tossed to Jawad. “Don’t disappoint me.” Renardine held a casual hand on the hilt of her dagger as a silent gesture to accompany her employer’s threat, and Jawad was reminded of Basmah and the Master. He really needed to meet new people.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” He smiled at Renardine. “See you in two days.”
Jawad was tired of walking the distance between Dār al-Gund and al-Badawi’s estate. The fact that his feet were bleeding through his bandages did nothing to make the journey easier. The Black Teeth, the northern dogs, al-Badawi, Jawad felt like a mouse cornered by three cats, each more starved than the other. A month ago, he would have felt anxious about his position. Now, he was aware that it could not be any other way. He had chosen to play a dangerous game with life and death as the stakes.
As a small pat on the shoulder from the gods, probably Elat, a cart rumbled past Jawad. In exchange for a piece of silver, the driver was happy to not only let Jawad have a seat, but also change his route and bring him right to al-Badawi’s doorstep.
“What happened to your feet, friend?”
Jawad looked down at the bloody bandages. “New sandals. You know how it is, it always takes a day to wear them in.”
The driver nodded with a sage expression. “Don’t I know it.”
Less than an hour later, Jawad stood before the palace of al-Badawi once more.
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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.