With the games completed, the theatre became empty and the streets full. Soon, Labdah was a maelstrom of drunken revelry. Music was played everywhere by anyone with the slightest skill, and countless songs filled the air in honour of this mystical time where night and day was even.
Few places celebrated with more fervour than Hanno’s house; the presence of a champion ensured that. With strong wine in their cups, all were certain to enjoy the evening. Everyone in Hanno’s household wanted to offer their congratulations to Majid; one after the other, slaves and servants, the other fighters and the old physician, and even the guards passed by the courtyard to hail the champion, now a free man.
Majid received their praise calmly, expressing his gratitude; he drank sparsely. As the last, Hanno appeared as well, greeting his former slave with a small purse of silver. “Thank you, Master Hanno,” Majid said.
“You’re welcome, Master Majid,” Hanno replied before moving back into his house.
The former slave was quiet for a moment before he stood up and poured some of his wine onto the ground. “Hail to you, Garrick,” he said. “May your god bring you home.” Around him, the celebration continued undisturbed.
One place in Labdah remained outside the grasp of festivity. In the gathering hall for the Elder Council, there was a slow trickle of people arriving. With the games concluded, the twelve Elders made their way to cast their vote and decide whether Labdah and Alcázar should be on friendly terms. Most of them were accompanied by a servant and a few guards; one Elder had his taster present as well, handing him grapes. The mood was light; mostly, people were eager to return home and join the celebration.
Mago, leader of the Council and recognisable by the emerald pendant around his neck, was quietly talking with everyone present. He moved from one person to the next, measuring their intentions and exchanging thoughts, opinions, and promises. When Hiram arrived as the last, accompanied by the princes of Alcázar, Mago welcomed him with a satisfied look. “We are all here. Let us take our seats and begin.” The twelve Elders sat down. Hiram took his place at the end of the row, near Maharbal; Mago sat in the centre. “Welcome back, my lords of Alcázar,” he told Saif and Jalil.
The princes had appeared with several guards in tow; they inclined their heads towards Mago. “Our thanks.”
“I will continue straight to the point,” Mago spoke loudly. “We will take a vote as to whether Labdah should begin trade negotiations with Alcázar. If this esteemed Council deems it so, we will appoint three Elders to negotiate on behalf of the city, as is custom.” The other members nodded and mumbled their assent. “Let us begin.” Mago extended his right hand in invitation.
The Elder seated to the far right spoke up. “I am against.”
The next Elder continued. “As am I. I vote against.” More and more of the councillors joined them. In the end, only two on the council were in favour of the proposal.
“Our decision is obvious,” Mago declared. “I thank the Council for having performed its duty. On behalf of the Elders of Labdah, I must decline the proposition put forth by our guests from Alcázar.” Hearing this, Hiram left his seat and walked down to stand next to the princes. This evoked questioning glances and mutterings from the other Elders; even Maharbal sent him a confused look. “Lord Hiram, it is not our custom for any Elder to abandon their seat while the Council is assembled,” Mago chastised him sternly.
“Today is not a day for customs,” Hiram replied. Behind him, the doors to the hall swung open. More than a score of blue-clad warriors burst inside, drawing steel.
“What is this?” demanded Mago to know.
The soldiers made short work of the guards present. Some of the Elders tried to run; they were caught immediately and put to the sword. A few fought back with predictable result. Maharbal rose from his chair and tried to call out to the princes; he was run through before he could finish. Stunned, Mago did not move; a blade to the stomach left him dead soon after, still in his seat.
Just as swiftly as it had begun, the assault was over. More than a dozen bodies lay scattered across the hall, servants and masters alike. An eerie silence descended upon the building; the soldiers cleaned and sheathed their weapons before gathering outside.
Surrounded by the carnage, neither Saif nor Jalil spoke or moved. Hiram, on the other hand, walked up to Mago’s corpse and took the emerald pendant to hang it around his own neck. Exhaling, he turned with a smile to face the men from Alcázar.
A blue-clad warrior, dressed in better armour than most, entered. “We are prepared, milords,” he told the princes.
“Captain, this is Lord Hiram,” Saif explained, gesturing to the man in question. “Once we depart, you will take orders from him.”
“Milord,” the captain spoke.
“This is the captain of the Sapphire Sons,” Saif continued to Hiram. “Captain, you may proceed.”
“At once. I leave the contingent here to escort you home. I must warn you that until the remainder of my company arrives, I will not have enough men to patrol the streets.”
“When will they arrive?” asked Hiram.
“The ships should be in harbour within the next days. Until then, we will seize the gates, the docks, and the estates of the Elders.” The captain glanced at the dead men. “There should be no significant opposition beyond that.”
“Good. Proceed, captain,” Saif reiterated. The mercenary leader saluted them and departed.
“With the festivities, I doubt our men will meet much resistance. The city is yours,” Jalil told Hiram. “As you can see, Alcázar delivers upon its promises.”
“In full,” Hiram assented. “I do have one further request not previously mentioned in our negotiations.”
Jalil frowned. “More conditions? Do not forget whose gold is paying these mercenaries.”
Saif raised one hand to calm his brother. “What is it?”
Hiram looked back upon the corpse of Maharbal. “Since your sister is no longer engaged, I should wish to amend my alliance with your father. We will proceed with the marriage as intended, but let it be between me and the lady Dalia. I find her – more to my taste.”
Jalil shrugged. “I care not.”
“Agreed,” Saif expressed.
Hiram smiled broadly. “Excellent. Let us return to my home. The next days will be pregnant with fate.”
Screams filled the streets. Warriors in blue stalked through Labdah, killing any opposition. The city guards, only used to fighting drunks and thieves, were slaughtered. The same happened to any ordinary citizens that dared resist until bodies piled up.
The estates of Labdah’s elite were not exempt from the mayhem. While built with garden walls and reinforced gates, the palaces were intended to protect against thieves or brigands. The Sapphire Sons, accustomed to besieging fortresses, had little trouble forcing their way in. Harder fighting ensued, but numbers won out, and the blue-clad warriors put many to the sword while also helping themselves to plunder, getting their pay in advance.
The only palace untouched belonged to Hiram, but even here, the sounds of battle reached into the marble halls. In one wing, Dalia was clutching Jana around the waist, hiding her face. In front of the sisters stood Salim with his sword drawn and mute fury in his eyes. They were otherwise alone; any servants were hiding, while the guards patrolled the outer grounds.
Commotion could be heard in the hallway beyond the chamber; Salim shifted his stance, raising his weapon. The doors burst open to reveal Hiram; behind him, several warriors wearing blue cloaks could be seen. “Forgive me the intrusion and that I have not come to see you sooner,” he spoke. “I only just arrived home. You must be unnerved by all that is happening, but I assure you as my guests, you are safe.” Despite Hiram’s words, Salim kept his sword in position.
“Lord Hiram,” Jana began to speak as she extricated herself from Dalia’s arms. “Can you tell us what is going on? It sounds as if the very city is under assault!”
“There is fighting going on,” the nobleman confirmed. “Nothing for you to be concerned with. As said, you are both safe. I have brought extra guards to keep the palace secure, and in any case, we are not under threat.”
“Why not?” asked Jana.
“Please remain in this chamber until I say otherwise. For your own safety,” Hiram instructed them. He turned to leave.
“What about Maharbal?” Dalia added suddenly. “He went with you to the Council. Where is he?” Hiram paused briefly, but did not turn back; he continued his departure. “Maharbal!” Dalia called out like an animal in distress. She received no response except that the warriors in blue shut the doors behind Hiram.
As night and festivities ended, Labdah woke to a changed world. The stains of spilled wine mixed with spilled blood upon the streets. Fearsome, unforgiving warriors in blue surcoats locked the city and permitted no entry or exit for days. Ships could not depart or make berth, the marketplace lay deserted, and cries of woe were heard for the slain.
For three days, Labdah held its breath, waiting for any opposition to materialise. It never did; there were no leaders or citizens of prominence left to take charge, and the city guard was either disarmed or cut down. Many looked towards the Emerald Tower, but its doors were shut; it was impossible to say if the sages even knew of what had transpired.
On the fourth day, after a ship had arrived carrying nothing but blue-clad warriors, something resembling normalcy returned. The gates were opened, ships were allowed to leave, and the most daring or desperate peddlers began hawking their wares. The common inhabitants began appearing on the streets again, which the Sapphire Sons now patrolled.
From Hanno’s house, Majid appeared. As a free man, he had no further place in Hanno’s household; with his small bag of silver and nothing else, he wandered down the street. He saw few others; when he did, they hurried past him without making eye contact. The Sapphire Sons scrutinised him, on the other hand, but as he was not even armed, they saw little reason to stop him.
Reaching the harbour, Majid found a spot to sit and observe the ships. Normally the busiest part of the city, the docks seemed quiet; the hundreds of slaves and workers that otherwise would be busy loading and unloading goods stayed away.
“Well met, Master Majid.”
He turned to find a short, slender man in his fifties, who without a sound had taken seat next to him. “Are we acquainted?”
“Not yet. My name is Jawad.” He sent the former fighter a smile. “Like you, a native of Alcázar. I am quite eager to return, given the events of the last few days. As are you, I imagine.”
“Alcázar abandoned me to slavery, and part of me despises the city for it,” Majid muttered, “but there is nothing for me in Labdah either. It makes no difference whether I go or stay.”
“I saw you fight on the sands. You clearly have skills worth selling,” Jawad considered.
“I have no interest in fighting for coin ever again,” Majid declared forcefully. “Besides, what is it to you? Who are you to appear by my side, whispering these things?”
Jawad raised his empty hands before him. “A simple servant sent on an errand to Labdah. I failed, unfortunately, and do not wish to return with nothing. I have a task back in Alcázar that requires a clever man, able to take care of himself.”
“That sounds dubious,” Majid snorted.
“It does not involve hurting anyone or breaking any laws,” Jawad claimed. “I have gained passage on a ship departing soon to Alcázar. I can easily arrange for another passenger. All I ask in return is that you listen to my proposal, and you can make your decision once we are ashore again.”
Majid turned his stare from Jawad to the harbour and the city that lay behind it. “I don’t know…”
“Unless you prefer to stay in a city where mercenaries from Alcázar just slaughtered all its leaders,” Jawad remarked casually. “They may not take too kindly to people with our origin.”
Majid swallowed, keeping his hand on his small purse of silver. “When does the ship leave?”
In the spirit of returning home, the Kabir’s galley had set sail as well. It carried three passengers of noble blood and their retinue. Jalil had gone below deck immediately, seeking sleep in a cabin. Jana had remained on the deck, staring at Labdah, her home for the past several years, as it dwindled in the distance.
Saif had moved around the ship at first, but after discovering that the crew had everything in hand and there was nothing accomplished by his intervention, he had gone to stand by Jana’s side. “You have been quiet for days.”
Salim stood nearby, silent but watchful as always; he sent Jana an inquisitive look, to which she shook her head. “That cannot surprise you,” Jana told her brother.
“I understand this is a sudden change, but I thought you would welcome returning home to Alcázar.”
Jana glanced at him with incredulity. “You think that is what bothers me?”
“Saif, you and Jalil conspired with Hiram to murder half a score of people, including Dalia’s betrothed. We shared a table with Maharbal, and you had him killed.”
“It was necessary,” Saif claimed. “Father knew the Council would never deal with us. We would never convince twelve men, but one man was possible. We needed Labdah in the hands of someone compliant.”
“We have everything in Alcázar,” Jana exclaimed. “All the trade in the world flows through our city. What does Labdah have to warrant this bloodshed?”
“Ships,” Saif replied quietly. “In exchange for our aid, Lord Hiram will let us make use of Labdah’s ships to transport our troops.”
A question was on Jana’s face, but it disappeared as the answer came by its own accord. “We are going to war with Adalmearc. Or rather, Father is, and he will drag all of us with him.”
“Yes.” Saif nodded. “We have no choice. Like you mentioned, we have had everything thanks to trade, but no more. Adalmearc has banned all sales of timber and iron ore to us. We cannot build ships or forge weapons. Eventually, we will be too weak to defend ourselves. We must strike now while we have the strength.”
“We are planning war because Adalmearc refuses to sell us wood and iron,” Jana reiterated. “Or are they refusing to sell to us because we are planning war?”
Saif stared down upon his hands clutching the railing. “Father has planned this for years. We cannot alter the course now. It is why you and Dalia were sent to Labdah. Father knew this day would come.”
“Was this always the plan?” Jana asked, staring at him. “Killing all the Elders but one? Or did Father decide to hasten his schemes, regardless of the cost?”
“I do not know,” Saif admitted, avoiding her gaze. “We have accomplished many things in Labdah, more than just the fleet. Father considered all of this, I am sure.”
“Accomplished? What are all these great accomplishments?”
“Eleven of Labdah’s greatest merchant houses are destroyed. Trade will dwindle to a trickle, and Labdah will become poor. Especially as Lord Hiram will soon have to impose punitive taxes on all to afford the mercenaries keeping him in power, once we no longer pay for them. Labdah will never again be a rival to Alcázar. In fact, I foresee further strife in its future. I would be surprised if the rule of Lord Hiram has a peaceful end,” Saif speculated.
“And it only cost Father some gold and one daughter. You realise that if Hiram falls, his wife will fare no better?”
“I am aware,” Saif replied curtly. “I take no pleasure in it. Be grateful it is not you.”
“Why is it not me? Why was Dalia sacrificed in my place?”
Saif hesitated. “Lord Hiram desired it, and I granted it. I think he found her more pliant.”
“She was always the prettiest of us all,” Jana considered. “Poor Dalia. Now it became her downfall.” Saif made no remark, so Jana spoke again, staring at him once more. “You are a changed man, Saif. You were not this callous when I knew you.”
“You were a child,” Saif retorted. “Now your eyes are opened. You think Jalil would have hesitated to carry out this plan? If I show any weakness, Father will know, and our dear brother will take advantage of it. If I do not stand ready to do what I must, we would end up with Jalil as the next Kabir.”
“Would it make any difference?” Jana did not wait for a reply but went to her cabin. She remained there for the duration of the voyage to Alcázar.