As Labdah had no single ruler, there was not a royal palace either. And while the members of the Elder Council each tried to outdo their peers in displays of opulence and luxury, their meetings were held in a small, unassuming building. Its only virtue was that it lay in the middle of the city. Besides that, it was one of its oldest buildings, second only to the Emerald Tower. It was in fact nothing more than a single, large hall, serving as a gathering place. It held no furniture other than a twelve chairs lined up next to each other. Upon them sat the Elders of Labdah.
Despite what the name suggested, there was no age requirement to be among their number; only wealth and inheritance mattered. The Elders received their seat when their fathers died and retained it for life as long as they could pay a yearly sum, ensuring that Labdah would not suffer the indignity of having a pauper sitting on the Council.
The Council did not meet regularly, but instead when matters required their attention. Summoned by Hiram, he and the other members sat on the twelve seats, staring at the great doors being opened.
“My lords, I present to you Prince Saif and Prince Jalil of Alcázar,” a herald announced, and the young noblemen entered. They were flanked by mamluk guards and many slaves carrying twelve chests.
“Be welcome to our city,” spoke one of the councillors. He wore a golden chain upon his chest with a great emerald as its pendant, surrounded by many smaller green gems.
“Thank you, Lord Mago,” Saif responded. “We have come to show Alcázar’s respect to all the twelve lords of Labdah with these gifts.” He gestured towards the chests.
“You will find delightful wine from the far north in each of them,” Jalil added. “That is, if your tasters will leave any of it to you.” A few of the councillors smiled at the jest, including Hiram and Maharbal, whereas others looked upon the princes with barely concealed hostility.
“You can rest assured each of your gifts will be given scrutiny,” Mago told them with a sardonic smile. “As we have gathered at the request of Lord Hiram, is he to explain the purpose of this audience?”
“We shall do so ourselves, honourable Lord Mago,” Saif explained. “On behalf of our father, the exalted Kabir of Alcázar, we wish to begin negotiations to open trade between our cities.”
“Trade that has been closed since your city declared war upon ours,” Mago said pointedly.
“Five years has passed,” Saif declared. “We believe it is time to bury the past.”
“As we had to bury our dead,” sneered one of the councillors.
“War will always bring casualties. Peace may bring prosperity,” Jalil interjected. “It is that which we now offer.”
“Labdah has always been prosperous,” argued another Elder. “We have no need of Alcázar.”
“Perhaps we should allow the princes to explain their proposal,” suggested Maharbal. “I would like to hear their offer.”
“You would,” came a sneering response.
“My lords, this is an audience. We will hear the emissaries,” declared Mago, gesturing towards the princes.
“The exalted Kabir is prepared to give concessions on purple dye, gemstones, and perfumes. Every trader from Labdah will be given permission to buy and sell these goods, paying nothing but the same tariffs that our own merchants must pay,” Saif explained. A few of the Elders stuck their heads together to exchange whispers.
“And what does the Kabir expect in return?” asked Mago.
“The exalted Kabir has certain wishes regarding the purchase of timber, ships, and related materials,” Saif replied. “All at a reasonable price, of course.”
“All that can be discussed in detail later,” Jalil inserted. “You will find our proposal impossible to refuse, I assure you, my lords.”
“The Council will consider and discuss your proposal,” Mago informed them. “We shall convene again to give you an answer whether Labdah is willing to open trade negotiations with Alcázar.”
“May I request we meet on the eve of Evenday? It would be an auspicious day. After the games are concluded, naturally,” proposed Hiram.
“That is unusual,” objected another councillor.
“Having the vote will take only a brief time, and knowing the result will give me peace of mind, allowing me to make future plans. I would be in your debt,” Hiram continued, directed at Mago.
“Very well, I shall grant it,” Mago replied. “We convene after the games of Evenday.”
“Our thanks,” Saif expressed with a bow before he and Jalil left, leaving twelve chests behind.
At the morning meal, Garrick looked towards the few empty seats on the benches. One of them was next to Majid. Glancing at the other fighters standing up while eating, Garrick took a deep breath, straightened his back, and walked over to the benches with determined steps, sitting down next to Majid. The veterans looked at both of them; when Majid did not react, neither did they.
Having conquered his seat, Garrick eagerly dug into his food with a firm grip on both bowl and spoon; seeing him shovel the porridge into his mouth caused a few smiles. He was halfway through his portion when someone grabbed him by the neck of his clothes and yanked him backwards. He fell to the ground, landing on his back with porridge scattered all over him. Dispersed laughter could be heard. Looking up, Garrick saw the mamluk calmly take his seat.
Everyone watched in anticipation as Garrick stood up. He picked up his now empty bowl and moved to stand next to the mamluk. “Hey, fellow.”
The mamluk slowly turned his head to stare at Garrick and spoke in Suthspeech.
“I don’t understand you,” Garrick told him. “I just wanted your attention. I don’t hit a man from behind.” His fist struck the mamluk on the throat, and the man collapsed, gasping for air.
This sparked all manner of reactions, most of all amusement and excitement. One fighter, a compatriot of the mamluk, jumped forward with clenched fists.
“Come at me,” Garrick roared. With his own fist inside the bowl like a primitive glove, he used its wood to strengthen his punch on the other man’s chin. Both man and bowl fell to the ground.
The guards intervened; some carried the mamluk to the physician, while others restrained Garrick. They had little need; his point made, Garrick willingly followed them.
They took him to a small room without windows and left him, bolting the door from the outside. He needed only wait a brief while before it was opened again to admit Hanno inside. “Hitting a man on the throat can kill him.”
“Not the first time I’ve done that. If I wanted him dead, I’d have hit harder.”
Hanno looked at him with scrutiny. “Regardless, if you ever kill or maim one of my fighters, I’ll have you whipped bloody. Bear that in mind next time you consider how hard to hit.”
“Of course,” Garrick promised with a blank expression.
“Since you were provoked, we’ll let that be the end of it. See the physician and make sure your hand is not damaged. Then back to training,” Hanno commanded him.
“Very well.” Garrick stood up.
Without warning, Hanno’s hand struck him across his face, harder than he had done so on Garrick’s first day. “I am your master, and you will address me as so. The sooner you get accustomed to your new life, the better.”
Garrick licked his lips; one of them was bleeding. “Yes, master,” he uttered with reluctance, leaving for the sickhouse.
Moving from her personal chambers, Jana passed through the parlour, where Salim sat. Upon seeing his charge, he straightened up and sent her a questioning look.
“I am merely going for a walk in the gardens before the dinner tonight,” she told him.
He pointed towards himself with another question in his eyes.
“Why not. I would not mind the company.”
He got up and joined her. Together, they passed through corridors and reached the gardens that extended around the estate. The ground was mostly barren, but a few stubborn flowers bloomed early. Walking at a leisurely pace, they kept mostly to the trees that offered shade from the afternoon sun.
Salim made a few gestures.
“I know, Salim. I do not want you to leave either.”
“It is hardly your fault. You belong to my father. The decision is his.”
The apology was repeated, followed by a question.
“I do not know. I think my father wants to wait until the Elder Council has agreed to open negotiations. Once that is done, I imagine the wedding will be soon after.”
A reassuring remark.
“Thank you. Who knows? Perhaps I could ask that you be my father’s wedding gift,” she suggested with a mournful smile.
Salim grinned and gestured again.
“You flatter yourself,” she told him. “Though I will admit you are a good listener. You never interrupt.”
Barking laughter emitted from Salim’s mouth until Jana joined in.
Abruptly, she turned to hug him tightly. “Thank you, Salim. You have made Labdah bearable.”
With her head against his chest, he could not speak further to her, so he simply responded by stroking her hair.
Returning from the physician, Garrick found Majid waiting for him, wearing a smile and carrying shackles in his arms. “I don’t know what frightens me most, those chains or that grin,” Garrick muttered.
“A few days ago, you were born anew as a fighter of the sands. Today, we get to watch you stumble as a newborn,” Majid laughed. “It’s time you learned how to fight in chains.”
“I can’t wait.”
Manacles were locked around his and Majid’s ankles. Between them ran about ten feet of chains. Opposite stood two others of Hanno’s fighters, armed with spears. The weapons master called out, and they began.
To the side, Garrick could glimpse movement and hear the chain on the ground move. Ahead, a spear was thrust against him. He hurried to block with his shield. Seeing an opening, he readied his sword and stepped forward – only to stumble as the chain pulled him backwards.
With laughter resounding around him, Garrick steadied himself, defending against another spear assault. Each time he attempted an attack of his own, the chain hindered his movements. His opponent, wielding the longer reach, did not suffer the same problem. Sneering, Garrick tried another futile blow, lunging forward only to miss again. His reward was a blow to the head with the blunt end of the spear; if not for his helmet, he would have been unconscious on the ground.
The weapons master barked an order, and combat ceased. Majid turned towards his companion in chains. “You did what we all did the first time. Frustration builds, and you attack without thought.”
“He’s got a bloody spear!” Garrick yelled. “Why can’t I have one?”
“There are rules, Ajama. Master Hanno has chosen, quite sensibly, the northern style for you. You fight with their long blades and round shields, with their markings on your face and skin,” Majid explained.
“What, like some damn islander? I’m not even from Thusund!”
“It makes no difference to the crowd. They expect certain things, certain ways. It would have been best if you were blond, but it’ll do. Not many fight in the northern style on the sands, and the crowd will be thrilled to see you.”
“I bet the rest get to fight in the style with spears,” Garrick grumbled.
Majid gave him a grin. “Back to it, Ajama! And learn fast. Tonight you will be put to the test.”
To celebrate the auspicious moment of ties between Alcázar and Labdah being renewed, a feast was held at Hiram’s estate. Apart from his foreign guests, several of Elders were invited, including Maharbal, and many of the merchants that Hiram conducted business with.
For a celebration of this size, three things were required. Entertainment, copious amounts of food and drink, and sufficient people to serve it. Additional guards had been hired as well, ensuring the safety of Hiram’s high-ranking guests. All in all, the corridors of his palace were swarming with people.
“You!” a guard called out. Down the hallway, a servant turned around slowly. “What are you doing here?”
“Just bringing this wine to the hall before the banquet,” came the reply. He gestured with the small barrel in his arms.
“I haven’t seen you before,” the guard continued, narrowing his eyes.
“I’m a nephew to old Tylos. He said you needed more servants for tonight.”
The guard scrutinised him once more. “You’re going the wrong way,” he said. “Hall’s that way.”
“And keep out of here!” the guard warned him.
“I certainly shall,” Jawad promised, leaving with his barrel.
The largest hall in Hiram’s palace was packed with dignitaries, all of them sumptuously dressed. Countless tables stood filled to the brim with all manner of dishes, the goblet of every guest overflowed with wine, and a troupe of dancers and musicians in the middle of the hall provided amusement for all.
The guests of honour, the sons and daughters of the Kabir, were seated on sofas near their host along with the few Elders who had come. Saif was engrossed in discussions with another guest while Jalil entertained several with tales from Alcázar. Dalia had only eyes for her betrothed, Maharbal; Jana made polite conversation. Like the queen of a beehive, Hiram was at the centre of all this activity, exchanging gestures and smiles, raising his cup of wine in acknowledgement, and everything else required of a host.
When the musicians stilled their instruments and the dancers rested their feet, Hiram finally rose and raised his hands for silence. “Good people of Labdah, honourable guests from Alcázar, I bid you all welcome to my halls!” Everyone responded with various noisemaking. “Evenday approaches, and true to custom, it shall be celebrated with games!” Cheers issued from the crowd. “To do my part ensuring the games are worthy of our great city, I have chosen to patronise several warriors to fight on the sands. To give you all a taste tonight, my client, Master Hanno, has brought his best fighters to perform for you. Good men and women of Labdah, please enjoy the spectacle I bring you!”
Confident and at ease, Majid walked with self-assured steps into the space vacated by the dancers; chained to him, Garrick followed suit with less certainty in his gait. Patterns were painted upon his face, and the head of a horse adorned his round shield; his helmet had guard for both nose and eyes in the islander fashion. From the other side, another pair stepped into the circle to face them. Garrick gave a slight groan at seeing the spear aimed at him.
“Of all the games, this is the most ancient custom,” Hiram declared. “Champion and beginner, veteran and squire, bound in chains! Let the brotherhood of the sands be tested and see who has the stronger bond. Fight!”
As the crowd cheered, the warriors fell into position opposite each other. In an instant, any conceit or attention towards the spectators was gone; all four focused on their counterpart. The tension lasted for a moment before it was shattered at the sound of spears and swords against shields.
The confined space and their shackles kept their four men close to each other; Garrick’s frustration at fighting a spearman was mirrored by said opponent, who did not have the room to make full use of his reach. This resulted in a stalemate; neither could launch an effective assault on the other.
Garrick risked a glance towards Majid and found him locked in close combat with a flurry of blows being exchanged; his opponent immediately sought to punish his moment of inattention. Wielding the spear like a staff, the blunt end came against his head, and Garrick barely had time to raise his shield in deflection. He struck out with his sword, more on instinct than anything else; the shorter reach of his blade posed no threat to his foe.
The spearman made further jabs against Garrick, seeking to strike at his legs, arms, temples, or anywhere the shield would not protect. Forced to defend, the northerner danced a merry pattern to avoid being struck, causing laughter among the onlookers.
With his situation looking futile, Garrick changed strategy. As the tip of the spear came against him, Garrick dropped his shield while evading, using his now free hand to grab the shaft of his enemy’s weapon. He pulled it closer, aided by his opponent’s momentum from the strike forward. With sudden despair on his face, the spearman found himself up close against Garrick, who aimed a kick against his stomach. Already out of balance, Garrick’s opponent fell backwards and looked up to see a blade pointed at his chest. From every corner of the hall, the cheers of the crowd flooded towards the centre.
Garrick turned to find Majid with a grin, having vanquished his own enemy. “You couldn’t have helped?” he shouted over the noise.
“This was your first fight, Ajama. I wouldn’t dream of interfering,” his partner told him with a smile. “Now raise your weapon and salute the audience! Without them, we are nothing.”
“A magnificent spectacle!” Jalil declared.
“Agreed,” Saif added.
Hiram nodded to them both, graciously accepting their praise. “I am pleased you think so. You shall see even better at the games.”
“What do you think, my darling?” Maharbal asked of Dalia. “Should I do as Lord Hiram and become patron of fighters such as these?”
“Only the interesting ones. Like that northerner! Or someone from the south. Those from the Inner Sea are boring,” she declared.
“What do you think, Sister?” asked Saif.
“I think the spearman was a fool who squandered his advantage against the ajama. He will not fare well at the games,” Jana replied.
“This is so typical,” Dalia interjected. “You can never show or tell anything to Jana. She is incapable of simply enjoying it. She always looks for something to criticise.”
“It depends on the company,” Jana muttered.
“I have never seen men fighting while chained together,” Jalil said loudly. “What custom is this?”
“It is our oldest tradition when it comes to the games,” Maharbal explained. Behind him, Jawad came up to fill his cup, scrutinising the nobleman as he did so. None seemed to notice his presence.
“Born of an old legend,” Hiram elaborated. “Our people came to Labdah, it is said, fleeing another tribe. Reaching the sea, they could flee no further and had to fight. They chained their warriors together, to remind every man that there could be no further flight. We honour our ancestors each year through our games in this manner.”
“Most exciting,” Jalil stated. “I cannot wait to see the fights!”
“It is undoubtedly the finest of the games,” Maharbal spoke. “The shackles change everything.”
“Lord Maharbal is correct,” Hiram assented. “The chains impose a physical bond between the fighters, much like the bond they must build in order to fight side by side effectively. It has always left me to wonder one thing.”
“What is that?” asked Saif.
“What would happen if such two were to fight each other.”
After their performance, the fighters were led to the servants’ quarters. Baths and cloth for cleaning were prepared, letting them recover after their fight.
“You fought well, Ajama,” Majid acknowledged, wiping sweat from his body. “You fought smart. That’s how you win on the sands.”
“I didn’t serve seven years in the Order for nothing,” Garrick grinned. “Though it was quite different than this.”
“Something we all have to learn. Fighting on the sands is not like anything you have known before.”
“Right now, my thoughts are on water, not sand,” Garrick jested, submerging himself into a bathtub with a sigh of satisfaction.
“You’ve earned it this night, so enjoy. Tomorrow, we must earn it all anew,” Majid told him and focused on his own efforts to be clean.
“Who is this man that he summoned us for his amusement?” Garrick asked.
“Lord Hiram. He is patron of our master and sits on the Elder Council. He is both rich and powerful,” Majid explained.
“Never heard of patrons before in this sense.”
“Lord Hiram helps Master Hanno gain influence. In return, the victories and glory won by Master Hanno’s fighters reflect upon Lord Hiram,” Majid elaborated patiently.
“So he is like a nobleman, and Hanno is his vassal,” Garrick contemplated.
“Master Hanno,” Majid corrected him. “Yes.” He lowered his voice. “Between you and me, Lord Hiram has need of polishing his reputation.”
Garrick sat up in his bathtub with piqued interest. “Oh?”
“Many years ago, Lord Hiram was not an Elder, but he had close dealings with one of them. Nobody knows the details, but this Elder began to suffer ill luck in his trades. As his partner, you would expect Lord Hiram to suffer alongside him, but instead, he prospered to the point that when the Elder was found dead by his own hand, Lord Hiram had the coin to buy his debts and his seat on the Council,” Majid spoke quietly.
“So that’s why he’s throwing coin at someone like Hanno,” Garrick considered.
Majid nodded. “There is no faster way to earn the people’s favour than through the games.” Rising from his bathwater, Majid moved away and began to dry himself while humming a tune.
A servant entered with a bucket of hot water and began to slowly pour it into Garrick’s bath. “Don’t be startled.”
Despite the request, that is exactly what happened to Garrick upon hearing Mearcspeech. “You –”
“Quiet,” Jawad mumbled, glancing at Majid. “I must be brief. I am a friend of the blackrobes. I aim to free you.”
“Gods be praised,” Garrick whispered.
“At the night of the Evenday celebrations,” Jawad instructed him. “When people are distracted. Be ready. Draw no suspicion until then. Just survive. Understood?”
“Yes,” Garrick assented. Jawad emptied the rest of the bucket and left.
“Did you say something?” Majid asked loudly from the other side of the room.
“Nothing at all.”
The hour was late when Hiram’s guests began to retire. They were not expected to return home; naturally, his palace had luxurious guest rooms to accommodate all. Among them was Maharbal, Elder of the city and Dalia’s betrothed. Stumbling into his poorly lit room, a servant waited to help him remove his clothes.
Swaying slightly from drink, Maharbal stretched out his arms to let the servant do his work. “Lord Maharbal, I presume. My master wished for me to convey a message.”
“Really? I just left him,” Maharbal mentioned, blinking with his eyes. “He could have just told me.”
“Forgive me, I serve another than Lord Hiram. My master is an associate of yours, or rather, your illustrious father. After his sad passing, you have continued your dealings with my master, thereby retaining the same profits – and debts.”
Maharbal squinted in the dark. A lamp oil burned on the nearby drawer, which was not enough to illuminate the man before him. “This is hardly appropriate. A written message or a messenger sent to me in my own home would be the correct way,” he sniffed. “Who is your master?”
“He keeps to the shadows, but he hopes you would know him nonetheless, sidi. When war broke out between Alcázar and Labdah, your father was quick to see the benefit of maintaining trade despite hostilities.”
“You are talking about smuggling,” Maharbal declared before clamping his lips together. “Hardly a topic for civil conversation,” he added with a hiss.
“Hence my appearance at this hour,” the servant pointed out.
“So, your master is – him? The Prince of Cats?”
“He is. I have come to remind you of debts owed to him, sidi.”
“What debts? Goods and coin are sent both ways in equal measure. He is owed nothing,” Maharbal claimed.
“In terms of that arrangement, this is true,” the servant admitted. “Recall, sidi, some years ago when the Kabir was looking for allies among the Elders of Labdah. With the aid of my master, strings were pulled, and you were chosen to be the intended husband for Lady Dalia.”
Maharbal swallowed. “There is no need to involve her in this.”
“I agree. I simply require your help, sidi, as repayment of the help my master gave you years ago.”
“And what manner of aid might a master such as yours demand?” The question was spoken nearly with a sneer, but Maharbal’s expression did not match the confidence in his voice.
“Access, sidi. You will provide me with letters of introduction, marked with your seal, and you will bring me along to certain places.”
Maharbal glanced over the man in front of him. In the dark, he could discern little; only the voice told him that the servant was some fifty or sixty years of age. “How do I know you are not lying?”
“Who but the Prince and his servants would know of your arrangement? Besides, those who claim to serve the Prince are rarely given time to regret their mistake.”
Maharbal bit into his lip. “Fine. I will do as your master wants.”
“Excellent. I shall seek you out in your own palace soon. Do not be alarmed if I arrive unannounced. I prefer the shadows.” With a barely visible smile, Jawad retreated out of sight.
As night descended upon Labdah, six men carried a litter through the streets towards the very centre of the city. Another six guards kept the way clear, allowing for easy progress all the way unto the Emerald Tower. The green stones reflected the pale moonlight, colouring it and drawing attention to the building. Outside its grand doors, the litter stopped, and the bearers lowered their burden to allow Elder Mago to leave. Once on his feet, he adjusted his clothing along with the great emerald necklace on his chest and took a bundle from his litter. Nodding to his guards, he proceeded alone into the Tower.
Inside, he walked up the spiral staircase that lay in the middle of the structure. On every floor, he passed by doors guarding knowledge forbidden for outsiders. Each of them had symbols of alchemy upon them. At times, sounds reached him. Voices spoke incantations, yelled in arguments, or at times gave screams. Every now and then, strong smells would assault his nose, ranging from sulphur to perfume. Despite these signs of others, Mago saw none upon his progress.
Near the top, he knocked softly upon one of the many doors of the Tower. “Enter,” came a voice so soft, it was barely audible.
Mago did as bid. “I hail you, sage of the tower.”
“Hail, Eldest.” The other man was so advanced in age, his skin seemed like leather upon his bones. His head appeared as little more than a skull with a long beard. The only sign of vitality from him was his eyes that glistened in the candlelight.
Mago extended the bundle in his arms. “I would ask you to examine this for poison.”
Putting on a pair of gloves, the alchemist received the bundle and unpacked it. Inside lay jewellery and small flasks with different liquids. “Gifts for you?”
Mago nodded. “From Alcázar.”
“Poison is far too subtle for those peacocks,” scoffed the sage. “If they wanted you dead, they would use a blade, I’m quite sure.” He picked up one of the bottles and brought it to his worktable. The walls were lined with shelves upon which stood countless liquids, powders, and jars containing everything imaginable. Eyeballs, shrivelled hearts, claws and fangs, and many other things that could not be identified.
“That is no reason to be careless,” countered Mago. The Elder of the city took seat upon one of the few pieces of furniture in the room.
“Nor was there a reason for you to come in person,” the alchemist pointed out, pouring different liquids together.
“I want you to read the gold,” Mago admitted.
The old sage sent him a look. “You are really worried.”
“There is more at stake than merely opening trade between our cities,” the Elder considered. “They have need of us, it seems, but I do not understand the urgency. I want to know if their offer can be trusted.”
“Let us read the gold first. I can finish the examination later,” the sage suggested, gesturing for Mago to approach while he prepared a few things. “You have a coin?”
“Of course.” Mago took out a gold coin stamped with the falcon of Alcázar.
The alchemist took out a needle and a small flask. “Payment first.” Obliging, Mago stretched out his hand and let one of his fingertips be pricked. Blood began to drip, which the alchemist caught with the flask. Sealing it and putting it away, he took the coin from Mago and placed it in a bowl, letting more of Mago’s blood drip onto the gold. He found a jar containing paste and used a bit of its content to put on the small wound, stemming the flow of blood.
Releasing his hold on Mago’s hand, the alchemist opened another bottle and carefully let a few drops spill onto the bloodied gold coin. It hissed and began to melt the metal. Soon after, the coin was nothing but liquid, and the sage swirled it around the wooden bowl with his hand. He stared intently before looking up at Mago. “The omen is bad.”
“That is all I needed to know,” the Elder replied. “I will convince the Council to deny Alcázar.”
“Will it be that easy?”
“Hardly, but I am not Eldest without reason,” Mago declared. “They have Maharbal and Hiram in their pockets. Hiram has always desired this,” he continued, touching the emerald pendant on his chest. “He cannot have been hard to convince. But the rest of the Council will not bend so easily to this upstart Kabir and his sons.”
“As you say,” the alchemist assented, putting his jars and bottles into order. “And if the princes will not accept a refusal?”
“I will be back to purchase your skills once again. All men must eat and drink, after all, even princes.”