Dār al-Imāra was counted among the Hundred Houses of Alcázar, making it one of the preeminent trading houses of the city. It was owned by the family al-Musharaf, who made their wealth known by living in a splendid palace with stables and beautiful gardens. As the principal trade of Dār al-Imāra was training slave boys into mamluks, the large compound also contained extensive living quarters for the host of people owned or employed by the family in various capacities.
Each morning, the master of the house woke early. Leaving his chamber in the harāmlik, he walked through the corridors of his palace, greeting servants as he passed them. Once he entered the courtyard, he would pause and watch the mamluks conduct their morning exercises. On occasion, he might exchange words with the master of arms in charge of the training, demanding corrections or offering praise before he continued on his way. The manner of his gait and the sword by his side suggested that, although not a slave soldier, the master of Dār al-Imāra knew his own trade.
His morning walk always ended at the stables, where he would procure a mount for a ride to his possessions in the city. While a stable hand prepared a steed for him, the master toured the stalls, inspecting his horses and making idle talk with beasts and servants alike.
“You seem less energetic than usual,” he remarked with concern as he patted his favourite mare on her muzzle. “And your eyes have a bit of shine to them. Boy, how much did she eat last night?” he asked the nearest servant without looking at the latter.
“I’m as old as you are, Faisal,” the other man replied with a quiet mutter, which prompted the nobleman to whip his head around.
“I wondered how long until you made your appearance.”
Jawad approached the nobleman, pretending to be busy caring for the horse. “I didn’t want to show up before I had results.”
“You’ve solved the issue?”
Jawad nodded. “Your lockbox will be returned today along with all of your items that I could find. There’s gold in compensation for the rest.”
“And the thief?”
“His days of thieving are over. His days of doing anything, in fact.”
“Very well. You have held up your end of the bargain as always. But you could simply have delivered all of this in a message,” Faisal al-Musharaf pointed out.
Jawad lowered his head, hiding his smile. “You hold the highest rank of all my friends.”
“It warms my heart to be named thus,” the nobleman replied, trying to tempt his mare to eat by offering the creature half an apple.
“I have heard the Kabir has sent his two favourite sons to Labdah.”
“This is no secret. They left only yesterday, I believe.”
“Given past hostility between our fair city and the Emerald Tower, how should this move be understood?” asked Jawad.
“Presumably, the intent is to open trade once more, though I cannot imagine Labdah will be amenable towards that.”
Jawad glanced through the stable doors at the slave soldiers practising weaponry. “You have more men in training than usual.”
“The Kabir has increased his demand. Though he has not sent many mamluks to Labdah, if that was your thought,” Faisal told him. “The princes have mostly brought mercenaries with them. It makes you wonder what the Kabir needs with so many mamluks.”
“And so many mercenaries.” Jawad abandoned his pretence of tending to tasks. “I’ll take no more of your time. You’re eager to continue with your day, I’m sure.”
“Come by some evening for tea. You are welcome to enter by the main entrance.”
Jawad smiled. “You know me better than that.” He made his exit, leaving Faisal to care for his horse.
A city of trade, Alcázar was dominated by warehouses and mercantile buildings. Clerks with records, slaves carrying packs, and drivers leading camels or donkeys filled the surrounding streets, transporting goods in a constant flow between the harbours, the gates, and the countless storage rooms.
Along those employed in and by the wealth of the city, an odd pair walked. One was short and slender, the other big in every way. Walking empty-handed, they stood in stark contrast to the busy trains of barrels, packs, and crates being hauled by those around them.
“It was around here,” Walid muttered. Lumbering down the street with the grace and awareness of a blind elephant, he had already knocked several bearers to the ground; it seemed he preferred to go through obstacles rather than around. In contrast, Jawad was small and lithe, weaving in and out to avoid traffic, and few seemed to even notice his presence.
“You’ve said that four times this morning,” Jawad grumbled. “I thought Tahmid used this location repeatedly.”
“It looks different at night,” Walid complained.
“You’re not even looking at the warehouses we’re passing by.” Jawad dodged a donkey with baskets of fruit on its back.
“I won’t recognise it by looking at it.”
“Pray tell, how? Does it have a distinct odour? Will it whisper your name as you pass by?”
“No,” mumbled Walid. “I meant, it’s not the warehouse itself that I know.”
“I suppose knowledge is hardly your strongest suit,” Jawad conceded. “But in this case, it may be your saving grace.”
“How so?” Another bearer fell victim to Walid as the latter pushed forward.
“You’re clearly not a man of ambition. If you were, you would be sharing Tahmid’s fate as we speak.”
“I warned him,” Walid claimed. “I told him it wouldn’t go well.”
“Even a blind rabbit can smell the fox coming, it would seem.”
“There!” Walid raised his finger towards their left at a large building. “That’s where Tahmid delivered the weapons.”
“Don’t point,” Jawad said quickly, slapping his hand down. “Are you sure?”
“I remember that carcass,” Walid explained, now pointing to the ground at the remnants of a dead bird. By the look of it, the creature had been dead for days, crushed into the dirt by a cartwheel at some point.
“That explains your preoccupation with looking into the ground rather than ahead where you’re walking,” Jawad admitted. “Very well. Let’s go.” He began walking again. “You’re certain Tahmid’s buyers wore the falcon crest?”
“I think so. Not a lot of others wearing birds on their clothes.”
“Not much I can do about that,” Jawad conceded, mumbling to himself.
“Never mind. Your part is done.”
Walid shot his companion a glance. “This settles it, right? The Prince isn’t going to come after me.”
“Never fear. You’re too dumb to pose a threat, and too useful to simply discard. Go home, Walid.” Jawad disappeared between the rows of animals and men, invisible as he crawled along the strands of trade covering Alcázar like a spider’s web.
North of the maswar lay an alley, much the same as all the other alleys in this medina. It had a few shops selling hot food or cool water, a well-reputed shoemaker, children playing on the street, and neighbours leaning out of windows to exchange news. Its only object of curiosity was the shrine to Rihimil, occupied by a northern priest and occasionally attracting other northerners to visit. Thanks to this, one or two reeves employed by the Kabir sat in the aforementioned shops at all hours, keeping watch while pretending to be engaged in conversation.
At one end, Jawad stared down the length of the alley. His gaze moved from the shrine to the Kabir’s men, watching all entering or leaving the small temple. “Girl, come here,” he spoke softly to a nearby child playing with a handful of rags stuffed into the shape of a doll.
Aged around eight and more curious than afraid, the girl approached Jawad. “Who are you?”
He opened both his hands to show the child; each of his palms held a coin. One was a silver eagle, the other held the jagged blade of the Black Teeth. “Do you know these coins?”
She looked from one to the other. “Yes.” She took a step back.
“This coin is yours if you complete a task.” Jawad threw the eagle to her, and she dropped her doll on instinct to catch the valuable piece of silver. “This coin is a warning to you.” He held up the symbol of the Black Teeth.” Forget me as soon as it is done.”
“What’s the task?”
Jawad produced a rune-stave from his sleeve and extended it towards her. “Go to the temple where the ajama in the black robe lives. Give it to him.”
The girl eyed both the rogue and the rune-stave with suspicion. “That’s it? And I get to keep this silver?” She clutched the coin.
Hesitant, she reached out and grabbed the piece of wood, pulling her hand back instantly. Turning on her heel after picking up her doll, she walked quickly down the street. Jawad watched her from the corner until he saw her enter the shrine. Once the girl was out of sight, so was the rogue, just before the Kabir’s reeve turned his head.
Alcázar lay upon a great rock, protecting the southern tip of the city from any approach. Further north, sandy beaches allowed for the two harbours that earned Alcázar its trade, but beyond, the coast grew ragged once more. Reefs and sharp cliffs made the border between sea and land hostile to ships, which consequently kept a healthy distance upon their journey to the city.
A few enterprising locals provided the exception. With knowledge of how to sail the shallow waters, avoid the rocks, and reach coves hidden from sight, they had ample opportunity to smuggle goods into Alcázar. The harbourmasters made thorough inspections of all wares entering the city by ship, collecting fees and tolls to fill the Kabir’s coffers. In comparison, the guards at the gates paid little heed to peasants driving carts with what appeared to be wool, cotton, fish, grain, or the like.
One moonless night, a boat rowed towards the shore. The darkness did not hinder the helmsman; he steered with firm hand past rocks and reefs until the vessel nearly touched land. The oarsmen jumped onto the beach and pulled the boat the final feet ashore.
A few other men, clad in dark clothing, approached from between the cliffs. Some nods were exchanged in greeting before the men began hauling crates from the boat to a nearby cart.
A short figure entered the water as well, but not to perform manual labour. Avoiding the other men, he approached the helmsman instead.
“Jawad,” growled the smuggler. “What’s amiss to bring you here?”
The rogue threw a purse of silver to the other man. “Nothing’s amiss, but I need your services. That’s your coin for this run, and payment for bringing extra cargo with you back to Labdah.”
The sailor stowed the silver away inside his coat. “Well, I got room in the boat. What’s the cargo?”
“Me,” Jawad replied, climbing aboard.