In the house of Hanno, the new fighters were becoming accustomed to their routine, especially as they found their place among the veterans, and fewer arguments broke out. When such happened, it was settled in the training yard, and few held grudges afterwards. An exception was the mamluk, who stared with ill intent upon Garrick whether they were bathing, eating, or training.
“Ignore him,” Majid suggested. They were taking a break from this morning’s practice, refreshing themselves with cool water. “You have the respect of the rest, which is more than I expected from one of the ajam.”
“Having many friends is good, but it only takes one enemy to bring you down,” Garrick muttered, splashing water onto his face.
“Yet it’s your friends that betray you, never your enemies. You can’t defend against the blade you never see coming,” Majid countered.
“You’re so cheerful. I’m glad we’re not friends,” Garrick retorted, softening the remark with a grin.
“As you should be! Was I your friend, I’d hide the truth about your pitiful performance. Luckily, I am happy to tell you that you might improve.”
“You still hesitate before you strike. It must be instinct, Ajama, instinct!”
“I’m going to do my best that we might win on Evenday,” Garrick promised. “Since that seems my best chance to be rid of you.”
“Whatever motivates you,” Majid replied; his grin appeared behind the rag he was wiping sweat and water from his face with. “Who knows? In years’ time, you may be the champion winning freedom and fame on Evenday.”
“Years,” Garrick scoffed. “I’ll play this game for now, but I’m not sticking around that long.”
“You wish so badly to return to your northern lands? Is someone waiting for you?”
“No, nothing like that,” he admitted. “Well, at one point, there was a girl back home.”
Majid grinned. “There always is in these stories.”
“I joined the Order for a campaign. Get some silver, enough to start a new life somewhere. It was just meant to be for a summer or two.”
“I take it that wasn’t what happened.”
Garrick shook his head. “Campaign dragged on for years. Letters stopped arriving from home. I never went back – stayed with the Order for a full seven years and became a temple guard after that.”
“All I hear,” Majid began to say, “is that you have nothing waiting for you at home. That in fact, here on the sands you may for the first time in your life accomplish something of worth.” Before Garrick could reply, the veteran fighter put his helmet back on. “Back to training! Words won’t win us any fights.”
In the parlour of their private wing, Jana sat reading a book. It was slightly worn, as she had brought it with her from Alcázar and read it many times over the years. In the vicinity, Dalia was pacing around. At the door leading out of the wing, Salim stood watch.
“Perhaps I should retire to my chamber,” Jana considered, closing her book.
“Dalia, have you ever tried reading with someone circling you?”
“Do not be silly, dearest, you know I never read.”
“That was foolish of me,” Jana admitted, standing up.
“No, do not leave me!” Dalia moved to block her path. “If you leave me alone, I shall go mad!”
“It seems too late for that,” her sister remarked.
“I need your company to distract me! Besides, you have read those boring old poems time and time again. It is no harm for you to lay those aside and comfort me in my time in need. Some might even say it is your duty,” Dalia sniffed.
“I shall overlook your comment on al-Tayir,” Jana told her pointedly. “And while I will regret asking, I accept my fate. What has you in such a state?”
“It has been more than an hour since Maharbal came to visit, and he is still with Lord Hiram!” Exasperation filled Dalia’s face. “Salim, will you please go and find out if they have finished their discussion?”
“My dear, I am sure Maharbal will come here the moment they are done. There is no need to inconvenience Salim,” Jana pointed out. By the door, Salim waved his hands in front of him, indicating that he was only too happy to leave. “Very well. Go on,” Jana told him. “Traitor,” she mouthed at him; with a relieved expression, Salim left the chamber.
“I simply cannot understand what would take them so long!” Dalia exclaimed in frustration.
“They are both Elders of the Council with an important decision coming up. Of course they have matters to discuss,” Jana reminded her.
“I thought it was a simple matter. Why would the Council be opposed to cordial relations between Labdah and Alcázar? You and I will marry two of the Elders, it seems a formality by now.” Dalia sat down on a sofa, looking perplexed.
“Two of the Elders out of twelve. That is very far from securing our father the alliance he wants.”
“Alliance? I thought this was simply about putting the wars of the past behind us,” Dalia said with confusion.
“You do not know our father very well, do you.”
“I never spent much time with him.” Dalia gave a shrug.
“As long as I can remember, Father has been obsessed with Adalmearc.”
“Those wild men from the north?” Laughter issued from Dalia.
Annoyance moved across Jana’s face, disappearing again. “Those ‘wild men’ have the best steel in the world, and their knights are a match for our mamluks in war.”
“Surely that cannot be a problem. I would wager Salim could handle any of these knights in a fight.”
“Maybe,” Jana granted, “but for each Salim, the Realms have ten knights. Anyway, that is beside the point.”
“Does this lecture have a point, then?” asked Dalia.
“Their ships control the trade between their lands and our city. Furthermore, most goods in our city must be sold to Adalmearc – they are far more numerous than the cities around the Inner Sea. If the northerners wanted, they could extinguish all trade and starve us of coin,” Jana explained patiently.
“But they would hurt themselves as well!” Dalia pointed out eagerly. “They would not receive any of the goods we sell to them!”
“True, but those are luxuries. Silk, cotton, spices, and the like – the Realms would survive without such trade. Left without the coin from northern trade, not to mention northern timber and iron, Alcázar would languish.”
“You say luxuries, but really, can you imagine living through summer without wearing silk?” Dalia assumed a superior expression. “Or imagine having food without spices! People would riot, I am sure.”
Jana took a deep breath. “I think I hear Maharbal in the hallway. You should go and see.” Without hesitation, her sister leapt from the sofa and hurried to look.
Hiram sat in a soft chair, leaning back. A slave appeared, serving a cooled drink on a tray. “There is no need for this excitement,” Hiram declared, taking a sip from the glass offered to him.
“How can you be so calm?” asked Maharbal. “The Council is meeting soon, and at least half of them are opposed to our proposal!” He was too agitated to sit down or even stand still, walking around the luxurious chambers where Hiram received visitors.
“We only need the other half,” Hiram declared calmly.
“We need more than that! I sincerely doubt that Elder Mago would decide a tie in our favour, given he is among those opposing us,” Maharbal complained.
“Of course, I simply meant it matters not if some oppose us,” the other nobleman clarified with slight irritation. “We have the support we need.”
“How can that be? I have discussed the meeting with several of the Elders, and they all seem staunchly opposed.”
“As I instructed them to be,” Hiram explained patiently, “else Mago would find out and pressure them to support him instead. I do not intend to show my ledger beforehand. Better to keep the old man in the dark.”
“You are certain it is Elder Mago and not you who are being deceived?”
“Yes,” Hiram declared confidently. “Now calm yourself. I have the matter well in hand.”
“Our future depends on this. Neither of us can expect the Kabir to let us wed his daughters if we cannot secure this for him.”
“In that case, I suggest you trust me,” Hiram told him brusquely. “Would that be all? I do have preparations to make before the meeting.”
Maharbal swallowed before inclining his head. “Very well. I trust you, Lord Hiram.”
“Good. May I suggest you go and visit your betrothed? I am sure she would be delighted.”
“I shall follow your suggestion.” With a slight bow, Maharbal turned to leave. Outside in the hallway, Jawad removed his ear from the door and resumed his pretence as an unremarkable servant to Maharbal.
In one of the courtyards, the princes of Alcázar were exchanging blows. As the blades were blunted, there was little danger involved; the worst that either received was a few bruises. At length, Saif raised his hand. “Enough,” he called out, catching his breath.
“Have you had enough?” While his breathing was also belaboured, Jalil had the energy to smile.
“No need to over-exert ourselves, little brother,” Saif replied, speaking the familial term with gentle mocking. “We have important days ahead of us.”
“I am hardly exerted,” Jalil bragged, swinging his sword in a few circles. “But as you wish.” They both handed their weapons over for one slave to stash away, while others approached with cloth and cups of wine. “I am glad this is soon over. This city has little excitement compared to Alcázar.”
“What city can compare with Alcázar?” asked Saif, wiping his sweat away. He gave the cloth back to the slave and took the cup of wine. “Though we may be unfair. The games at Evenday promise a spectacle to remember, I am sure.”
His brother mirrored Saif’s movements, wiping himself dry before letting the cloth fall to the ground, where the slave immediately removed it. “I suppose. I will admit, the thought is exciting, but I am unsure if it will truly satisfy. From what I hear, they do not fight to the death.” He emptied his goblet of wine in one draught, holding it out again that it might be refilled. “I imagine that dulls the affair. You cannot expect the fighters to truly give their best if their lives are not at stake.”
“I am not sure about that,” Saif considered. “At Lord Hiram’s feast, the fighters gave us a splendid spectacle, and that was merely for our benefit. Imagine when they actually fight on the sands in front of the entire city.”
“I did not expect to learn anything from these poison peddlers,” Jalil admitted, sipping from his wine again, “but perhaps we should consider hosting games in Alcázar.”
“If you think you can persuade Father. I imagine he has other things on his minds.”
“I can be persuasive,” Jalil claimed. “Not to mention, Father will not be the Kabir forever. I do not doubt his successor will see the wisdom of my ideas.” His self-satisfied smile left no doubt as to whom he imagined the Kabir’s heir would be.
“Do not sail before the ship is built, little brother,” Saif warned, turning on his heel to leave the yard.
“At least I am building mine,” Jalil muttered, staring at his brother’s back.
At the end of another training day, Garrick returned to his cell after he had washed and bathed. He knelt by the cot serving as his bed, clasping the pendant he wore around his neck.
“Rihimil,” he prayed, clutching the wooden carving of the god, “I have always revered you above all others. Grant me victory, I beg of you. See me through the trials ahead. Keep your wing over me through this Evenday, and I shall bring you tribute on that day all my years. Let me have a second chance, and I shall cherish it. Give me the opportunity to atone.”
“Keep praying,” sneered a voice by the door. It was the mamluk, staring down on Garrick with malice.
“Even a dog can learn to speak, I see,” Garrick retorted, standing up quickly and balling his fists.
“I am no ignorant ajama like you,” the mamluk spat. “You are a lamb among wolves, and you will be devoured. On the sands or elsewhere, it does not matter.”
“Keep barking. You’re nothing but a thrall,” the northerner spoke in contempt. “You were born in chains, and you will die in chains.”
The mamluk smiled with disdain. “The rats of the street are also born free. I was trained by the finest warriors in Dār al-Imāra while you suckled on your mother’s teat! I despise you, Ajama, as I despise all the ajam. You will not leave this house alive, this I swear to you.”
“What’s going on?” yelled a voice in Suthspeech. A guard came walking down the hallway, raising his staff in warning. “Get to your cell!”
The mamluk inclined his head with a subservient smile. He had time to send a final sneer towards the northerner before disappearing to his own room. The guard appeared in the doorway, speaking brusque words to Garrick.
“Yeah, I’ll go to sleep,” he replied with weariness, sitting down on his cot. The guard continued on his round; lying down on his bed, Garrick let his fingers run over the smooth wood that hung around his neck.
When midnight had barely passed, guards and slaves crossed the city, bringing Elder Mago to the Emerald Tower once more. As always, a necklace filled with green gemstones rested on his chest, signalling his rank as leader of the Council and Eldest of the Elders. Wearing it, none barred his entry into the Tower, and he ascended its inner staircase; two slaves, each carrying a small chest, followed him.
After passing the many levels indecipherable sounds and smells emitting from behind every door, Mago reached the top chamber. He knocked.
“I hail you, sage of the tower,” Mago spoke as he stepped inside, followed by his servants.
“Hail, Eldest. I have finished examining the gifts sent to you.” The alchemist gestured towards the various items given to Mago by the princes of Alcázar. “But you have come for another purpose.”
“I have.” Mago gestured for his servants to place the chests in their arms on the ground. “Leave us.” While their tongues had been cut out and they were forbidden from learning how to write, all to ensure they could not reveal their master’s secrets, Mago had not become Eldest of the city by being careless. He waited until he had seen the slaves go down the stairs before he closed the door and turned to face the sage again.
“What is this?” The aged man nodded towards the small chests.
Mago opened one of them, revealing various objects of great value. Various items of clothing and jewellery, a dagger in a sheath set with gems, and flasks of spirits. “Once the Council rejects the proposal from Alcázar, the visiting princes will each be given a chest of gifts to soften the blow.”
The alchemist raised an eyebrow. “I hope you don’t intend for me to poison the brew. Any novice could do that.”
“Far too obvious,” Mago smiled. “Besides, I do not want the princes dead. It would be too easy to deduce our involvement, and the Kabir can hardly overlook the death of his sons. I wish to send a warning, not a declaration of war.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Some manner of concoction to make them violently ill. A reminder that we could have done far worse, and the Kabir should look elsewhere than Labdah.”
The alchemist approached the gifts. He leaned down to inspect them, though avoided touching any. “Something absorbed through the skin,” he considered, looking at the clothes and jewels. “That should be simple.”
“Excellent. The Council will make its decision on Evenday. Afterwards, I imagine the princes will be kindly asked to return to Alcázar.” Mago gave another smile. “I will require it ready by then.”
“As you wish, Eldest.” The sage straightened his back as much as his advanced age allowed. “You are certain the Council will vote with you, then?”
“It is guaranteed. Hiram believes he has swayed some, but he is an upstart,” Mago sneered. “His schemes are laughable and easy to see through. Half the Council has promised to support him, yet they are in my pocket.” He patted his robe as if the Elders were hiding inside.
“As you say, Eldest.”
“You doubt me.”
The alchemist gave a cough. “I would never, Eldest. I am no Councillor, merely a sage. As I have been for many, many years.” His voice came so crisp, it sounded like a chain rusted with age.
“Longer than I have been the Eldest, you mean.”
“Longer than you have been on the Council,” the sage added. “Longer than you would care to know.”
Mago stared at the alchemist, surrounded by the countless trophies of his arts and hidden knowledge. “I need it by Evenday,” he reiterated, turning around to leave.
Outside, hearing the conversation reaching its end, Jawad retreated from the door and made his escape from the Emerald Tower.
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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.