Many settlements encircled the Mydlonde Sea; together, they were known to the Mearcians as the South Cities. Alcázar was familiar to most; in part because it was the largest and most prosperous, in part because it lay closest to Adalmearc. Gadir was famous for its incense, Surru for its pearls and purple dye. Labdah did not have the wealth or size of its rivals, but it was considered the oldest of them all. When Alcázar was little more than a trading post, the jewellers of Labdah were renowned for their work with gems. Before Gadir was named, ships from Labdah crossed the seas to reach Adalmearc. At a time when only birds settled where Surru stood today, the alchemists of the Emerald Tower had long perfected their knowledge for creating elixirs and potions to cure or cause any ailment.
Even if Labdah had been surpassed by its rivals in terms of trade, the harbour remained the heart of the city. The rest of its districts lay spread out like a semi-circle surrounding the docks. This included the bustling marketplaces with a thriving slave trade. Nearly daily, ships arrived to disgorge the unfortunate souls from their holds. From the docks, they were trotted in chains along one of the great avenues that cut through the various districts until they reached the vendors at the marketplace. Here, guards herded them together in pens to be inspected by prospective buyers.
Sitting in chains with his fellow sufferers, Garrick stared emptily ahead of him. He was surrounded by words he did not understand in a foreign city. On occasion, the other slaves he was shackled with stood up to be examined, and he simply followed their movements, standing up and sitting down as they did. Men and women, usually in expensive clothing, would move down the rows while letting their eyes run over the goods for sale. They would feel the muscles, tap the teeth with their fingernails, stare them in the eyes, and abruptly move on to the next one. Now and then, heavy purses of silver would be exchanged while shackles were unlocked, letting someone leave the row.
“Hanno!” exclaimed one of the slave traders with a broad smile; the Suthspeech from his tongue came harsher and slower than it was spoken in Alcázar. “I have saved the finest for you.”
“I never heard you use that line before,” his customer muttered as his eyes swept over the slaves for sale. “You can spare me the honeyed words. I’m not looking for a champion today, just some meat to fill the ranks.”
“For the games, yes, yes, but you don’t want to serve the audience a carcass, do you?” The slave trader beamed a smile. “Look at this!” He gestured towards one of his items for sale. “Captured near Surru aboard a pirate vessel. He’s sure to be a fighting man!”
Hanno shook his head. “No honour among pirates. He can’t be trained.”
“This one, a mamluk from Alcázar. He’s worth three times as much as I’ll ask of you.”
Hanno gave the slave soldier a scrutinising look. “How much?”
“Two hundred, good master, and that’s a bargain.”
“I’ll give you one hundred and fifty.”
“Hanno,” the trader protested. “I paid that much myself! One hundred and eighty.”
“One hundred and sixty, you dog, and it’ll be twice as much as you paid, I’m sure.”
“You are merciless, but I accept.”
“Any other decent prospects?” asked Hanno, eyeing the remaining slaves.
“I have a man who was in the royal bodyguard in Gadir. Or perhaps someone younger? A child that you can mould as you see fit.”
“What about him?” Hanno gestured towards Garrick. “What’s his profession?”
“You have an excellent eye,” the trader declared. “He doesn’t speak the civilised tongue, but he is one of the fearsome knights from the far north, trained from birth to be a warrior!”
Hanno took in the sight of the various scars that adorned Garrick’s body. “You,” he spoke in the Mearcian tongue, “what’s your name?”
The northerner blinked. “I’m Garrick.”
“Are you a warrior?” asked Hanno while the slave trader looked on anxiously.
“I am. Seven years in the Order, and more than that as a temple guard for the blackrobes. In fact, if you send word to them in Alcázar –”
Hanno turned towards the merchant. “He’s no more a knight than my grandmother. I’ll give you a hundred silver for him, despite your lies. If you try to haggle, it’ll be eighty.”
The trader licked his lips. “He is yours for a hundred, good master.” He nodded to his helpers, who began unshackling Garrick from the other slaves. Shortly after, he and the other purchases were pushed along to follow their new master.
Life at the harbour of Labdah paused briefly when a galley, grander than most, made berth by the docks. It was built for speed, not cargo; it had two rows of oars and lay high in the water rather than being burdened down. It also possessed a mast to catch the wind when beneficial, and above the sail unfurled the falcon banner of Alcázar. Everyone watched as a princely procession left the ship, led by two men; a hefty number of blue-clad soldiers followed them. They were greeted on the pier itself by a delegation from Labdah, offering them a welcome and horses. The young noblemen returned the greetings and mounted the horses, beginning their entry into the city itself; around them, the dockworkers and slaves resumed their tasks.
“Father thinks this town is worth an alliance?” remarked one of the lords leading the column with poorly concealed contempt.
“Father thinks their ships are worth an alliance,” the other corrected him. “So should you, Jalil.”
“I understand the situation perfectly,” Jalil retorted. “But Surru would have been an infinitely better choice for an ally. Even Gadir could offer more than Labdah.”
“It is not as if we have free choice,” his brother argued. “Labdah has what we need, and they are more amenable to our influence.”
“I am surprised. It has not been more than some five years since our fleet thrashed them on the waves. You would think the Elder Council would have more pride than to enter dealings with Alcázar,” Jalil considered.
“Undoubtedly, many of its members do. Fortunately, we only need one.”
Riding down the street, the Emerald Tower rose to their left. It lay at the centre of the city, visible from nearly anywhere thanks to its location and height. In the sun, its green stonework shone clearly. “You think the snails will let us inside their precious tower?” asked Jalil.
“I doubt it, and do not refer to the men of Labdah in that manner,” his brother reproached him. “We are their guests and must conduct ourselves accordingly.”
“Calm down, Saif,” came the casual response. “I know what to do. And Father told me he expected me to see this through. You should have as much faith in me as he does.”
Saif gave a hearty laughter. “Did he now?”
“What is so amusing?” asked Jalil with a scowl.
“Father told me to make sure you would not ruin our plans,” Saif grinned.
“As if I would believe that,” sneered his brother.
“Why not? It sounds exactly like him, pitting us against each other.”
They passed a row of shackled slaves, barely affording them a glance as they trotted down the street on the way to their destination. The princes of Alcázar were the guests of one of the twelve members of the Elder Council, and his palace would be their home during their stay.
As the procession reached the estate, the host himself stood upon the steps to bid them welcome. “My lords, I greet you most cordially.”
“And fair greetings to you, Lord Hiram,” Saif replied as he dismounted.
“Yes, well met,” Jalil hurried to say.
Their host was dressed almost entirely in green. While his words were warm, his voice was cold; his mouth smiled, but his eyes did not. “Please, enter and seek shade. We shall take bread and salt, and there will be drinks cooled with ice from the mountains.”
“Most gracious,” Saif spoke.
“Indeed,” Jalil added.
“We have much to discuss before the Evenday, but there shall be time for that, of course,” Hiram continued as he led his guests inside the reception hall of his palace; the attendants accompanying the princes, all of them armed, dispersed to the chambers prepared for them.
“Have our sisters been told of our arrival?” asked Saif.
“They have. They will join us for the meal,” Hiram promised. “But you have had a long journey. Please, chambers and baths are available. Once you are refreshed, we shall eat.”
On bare feet and in chains, Garrick marched across the city to enter the estate of a merchant. Its size was modest, suggesting an owner enjoying prosperity within limits. It had several curious features to set it apart from the dwelling of a typical merchant, such as being placed far from the docks, where most other traders had their homes and warehouses. The walls surrounding this place were higher and the gate better guarded; there was an open stretch of land on the inside of the walls, suggesting their purpose was as much to keep people in as to keep them out.
Reaching the open courtyard, orders were barked to make the newly arrived slaves stand still. Their chains were removed, and Hanno, their owner, addressed them. Garrick, unable to understand a single word, glanced around instead. Wooden men meant for practising weaponry stood near one of the walls with weapon racks close by. Other instruments for training could be found as well. A guard stepped forward to hit Garrick in the back of the head, presumably for being inattentive; growling, the northerner returned his eyes to Hanno.
One of the newly acquired slaves made some remark. Upon a simple gesture made by Hanno, two guards seized him. With an expedience born of routine, they strapped him to the wall and tore the clothes from his back, leaving it exposed. One of them grabbed a whip with obvious, cruel delight, and upon a nod from Hanno began administering lashes.
While the slave cried out in pain, Hanno turned to address his new purchases again. After ten lashes, the punishment stopped, and the guards untied the wounded man to bring him inside.
The other slaves broke away from the line, moving towards a large trough of water. Before Garrick could follow suit, he was intercepted by Hanno. “How much do you understand of our language?” he asked the northerner.
“Nothing,” Garrick admitted.
“Ajama,” Hanno uttered with annoyance.
“My name is Garrick.”
Hanno gave him a lazy slap across the cheek. “Your name is what I say it is. In fact, being ajama, that is a fitting name for you. It will save me explaining your situation over and over.” He looked at Garrick touching the reddened skin on his cheek. “You are not the first defiant slave to walk into this house, and you will not be the last. Do not entertain any foolish notions of escape or disobedience, and you will do well. Now go and wash yourself with the others.” Hanno gestured towards where the other slaves were crowded around the trough and turned on his heel, walking inside.
Like most palaces in Labdah, Hiram’s estate was built like a hollow square. In this way, the central courtyard with its gardens was shielded from the dust and noise of the city, and large sails could be raised across the open space to provide temporary shade. Where the shadows fell, a table rose with offerings from across the Mydlonde Sea and beyond. Fruits of any kind, meats from many birds, and cooled wine stood prepared for the guests of Lord Hiram.
At the end of the table, the master of the palace awaited the arrival of his guests. The princes of Alcázar greeted him as they entered the courtyard, wearing exquisite attire and sweet fragrances after the baths. “Please, my lords,” Hiram said in invitation, gesturing for the seats on either side of him. Jalil moved to stand at the right side while Saif took the left, leaving two seats remaining.
Three more people arrived. Two were young women of obvious standing; the third was a mamluk, following them with one hand upon the hilt of his sword.
“Lady Dalia, Lady Jana,” Hiram greeted them. “Please, be seated.”
“Sisters,” Saif spoke with a smile. “Salim,” he added in a nod to their guardian, who responded mutely in the same manner.
“Saif, dearest,” one of the women said to him, kissing his cheek and taking the seat by his side.
“It is good to see you,” said the other, sitting down next to Jalil. Once the women had taken their seats, the men sat down as well, and attendants began serving the meal.
“This is my taster,” Hiram told the princes while gesturing to a well-dressed slave standing behind him. “He has been trained at the Emerald Tower, naturally, and he guarantees the safety of everything upon this table, whether it is the wine, the fowl, or even the smallest grape.” The taster inclined his head in response. “Please, eat,” Hiram bade them. They all took a few pinches of salt, scattered it on a piece of bread, and ate it at the same time.
With the ritual observed, general conversation ensued. “You both look well,” remarked Saif, looking at his sisters. “I see our host has taken excellent care of you.”
“We have lacked for nothing,” declared Jana, sitting opposite.
“Except for company,” complained Dalia. She had an obvious beauty that left none unaffected; it was only marred by the childish tone in her voice. “We are so close to Alcázar, yet you are the first visitors we have had from home in years!”
“We have been very well, both of us,” Jana said sharply with a look at her sister.
“When may we meet the Elder Council?” asked Jalil of Hiram, ignoring the other conversation.
“Soon, my lord. In a few days’ time. Before the Evenday and all its – activities.” Hiram cleared his throat.
“Our father expects the matter resolved by Evenday at the latest,” Jalil stressed.
“I will argue in favour of a reply being given by then,” Hiram promised, “but surely if we must delay a day or two, it will not cause any problems.”
“A day lost here and there may unsettle other plans, causing even further delay,” Jalil claimed, pulling the meat of a bird apart on his plate. “The exalted Kabir has certain expectations for Labdah that must be met.”
“I can assure both you and your father, my lord, that I shall not fail to deliver on my end,” Hiram replied pointedly, turning his attention to the remainder of his guests.
After a coarse scrubbing and receiving a worn tunic made of linen, the new slaves at Hanno’s compound were treated to a meal. They were not alone; at least a score of others marched out of the main buildings to line up. They each received a plate of vegetables and a bowl of lentil porridge; for those first in line, there was also a ration of freshly baked bread. The hierarchy was clear, even to an outsider; the new slaves waited until last, and they had to settle for just the smell of the wheat bread pervading the area.
There was not enough room either on the benches for all of the slaves; some, like Garrick, resorted to eating standing up, while a few of the newcomers tried to grab a seat. This caused shoves and angry words to be exchanged. When it was on the verge of escalating, several guards stepped in and dealt out blows on arms and legs with the staves they wielded. It quelled the fighting, forcing the newly arrived slaves to give up any hope of sitting down, and the meal continued.
Afterwards, the slaves filed out to take positions by the training equipment scattered around the courtyard. Some laughed and jested, others seemed dour in disposition. Garrick wavered, moving towards the others before halting himself, standing indecisively under the roof where the meal had been taken. “Ajama!” Hanno called out. It took a moment for Garrick to react. “That’s him,” Hanno remarked to his companion and disappeared.
The man left behind sized Garrick up. They were about the same in height and build; both of them stood out from the rest of the slaves by virtue of their skin; one was paler, the other was darker. “You’re the northerner,” remarked the latter in Mearcspeech. “I hardly needed Master Hanno to point you out.”
“You know how to speak my tongue,” Garrick stated with surprise.
“We are not all witless snails from Labdah here,” came the reply loaded with disdain. “I am from Alcázar, and my name is Majid.”
“You’re Ajama,” corrected Majid. “A foreigner, one who does not understand. You will carry that name until Master Hanno feels you have proven otherwise, which I suspect will be never.”
“I’ll prove you wrong.”
“You’ll get the chance now. Tell me, Ajama, do you know the reason you have been brought here?”
Garrick looked around at the other men training weaponry. “To practise fighting, obviously.”
“To practise fighting on the sands,” Majid stressed. “Master Hanno trains warriors of the sand. You are to fight in the arena in the games held at Evenday.”
“It is. Master Hanno does not expect much of you, either. See, in Labdah, the rules for fighting on the sands are complex. We are not savages like in the pits of Gadir,” Majid explained with disdain. “There are many different games, and the most prestigious of them all demands that warriors fight in pairs. One of these warriors must be unproven and unknown to the sands. You see your part.”
“You and I are to pair up, I take it.”
Majid nodded. “In this particular tournament, I will be the champion representing Master Hanno and his patron, Lord Hiram. Your task is to avoid dying or getting in my way while I bring us victory.”
“I can’t wait to risk my life with you by my side,” Garrick snorted.
“You think you are the first man with fighting experience to think himself ready for the sands?” Majid’s disdain was obvious on his face. “Nothing compares. Do not presume to think you’ll be prepared.”
Garrick looked at guards scattered around the courtyard, ready to reward any gestures of disobedience with the lash. “Keep underestimating me.”
Majid grinned. “Did I mention that we will be fighting chained together?”
“What in Hel’s name for?”
“One of many things you will learn. Let me begin with this lesson.” The tall southerner leaned forward to stare down at Garrick’s face. “I am not your friend. I am not responsible for you. On the sands, we fight together, but in this place, you stand alone. If you cannot do this, you will be pushed down, never to stand again. Learn this quickly.”
“Himil, you’re a friendly sort,” Garrick muttered. Majid only responded with a contemptuous smile.
A man with harsh features and what seemed an ill temper shouted at them in Suthspeech; from his lean body, he looked like a warrior of the sands, but his clothing marked him as above them in status. Majid responded quickly, bowing his head, and turned to look at Garrick again. “Our weapons master. Enough talk! We are to begin practising. Come, Ajama! It is time you prove me right.” He beckoned towards the training equipment and walked onto the courtyard. They spent the rest of the afternoon practising.