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The Prince and the Atheling

Alcázar

A caravan approached Alcázar from the north. While not unheard of, these were rare; most goods entered the city through one of the harbours or else by caravan from the east. Its origin was the city of Maleth, which lay up the coast towards Adalmearc. Maleth served as a minor port for ships that for one reason or another did not wish to unload their goods in Alcázar; the same held true for passengers seeking to enter Alcázar over land rather than sea.

After braving the treacherous straits of the Teeth and joining the caravan in Maleth as a guard, Brand could now follow the camels through the gate to enter Alcázar. He had spent his youth as a squire to Athelstan in this city; only two years had passed since the pair had left Alcázar and returned to Adalmearc.

While the leader of the caravan paid toll, Brand took a deep breath. The air in Alcázar was a blend of dust and spice, tinging with the smell of animals in the sun. Leading one of the camels to water, Brand patted the beast on its neck while surveying his surroundings. His skin was tanned after his sojourn into the Reach, and the dark colour of his hair made him look like any other in the city. Only the blue of his eyes set him apart from most, though in a city of crossroads like Alcázar, not even that would raise eyebrows.

Once past the gate, the caravan continued to a nearby warehouse. All goods were unloaded from the camels, and both men and beasts made their final stop, reaching one of the serais clustered around the northern gate. The animals were placed in stables, while the drivers and guards could finally relax. The caravan master paid them their wage for the journey, making arrangements with those willing to work the return journey. Some sought food or sleep in the serai; others went into the city to spend their coin without delay.

Brand was among the latter group, though not for long. While the rest sought towards the marketplaces or docks, Brand went alone towards the centre of the city. He crossed the maswar, keeping a tight hold of his coin purse as he went through the crowd. To his left rose the Tower of Justice in dark stone as a warning to all who would break the Kabir’s law.

Continuing into the medinas nestled around the maswar, Brand’s path took him through narrow streets and alleys until he stood before a small building with a dragon sigil above its doorframe. He stepped inside and knelt by the altar, whispering a brief prayer and leaving a few coins in offering.

Getting on his feet again, he glanced around in the dark room. “Gods’ peace,” he called out.

A blackrobe appeared from an adjacent room. “Gods’ peace to you, traveller. You are welcome in Rihimil’s abode.”

Brand glanced towards the door opening. Seeing it empty, he withdrew a rune-stave and extended it. “This is for you.”

“With me.” The priest returned to the adjoining chamber, followed by Brand. By the light of a window, he examined the runes upon the wood. “What name is written here?”

“Harun,” Brand replied. “And you are Brother Cuthbert.”

The priest switched into Suthspeech. “You speak the tongue well enough that any will believe your name is Harun?”

“None questioned it on the journey here from Maleth,” Brand pointed out, speaking the same language.

Cuthbert nodded. “Good. You should not linger in this place. The Kabir’s men are watching the temple.”

“Very well. When should I contact you again?”

“You shouldn’t. Wear this.” The priest removed his own necklace and placed it in Brand’s hand. It was a smooth stone with the rune for Rihimil carved into it. “Our man will find you. Where are you staying?”

“At one of the serais near the Kabir’s Gate. I came with the caravan of Master al-Hossam.”

“Good. Make sure to spend tomorrow evening there, and keep this visible.”

“As you say,” Brand acquiesced. He removed the cloth wrapped around his head, revealing a knotted leather string already resting around his neck, to which he added the stone pendant. With a small adjustment, it came to rest upon his chest atop his clothes.

“Excellent. You should leave now. If you find yourself followed, do not react,” Cuthbert warned him. “And no matter what, do not return to this place. It will arouse suspicion.”

“Very well.” Brand walked out of the chamber. “You have no acolyte to help you keep the temple?” he asked, glancing around.

“No time for questions,” Cuthbert claimed with an unhappy look. “Go, before anybody suspects you are more than a simple traveller.”

Brand gave a nod in compliance. “Fare you well then, Brother Cuthbert.”

“Rihimil protect you,” the priest responded, watching Brand leave the small temple.

~~~~

Back on the streets, Brand did not return to the serai. Instead, he went deeper into the city, moving to the small marketplace. Its name came not from its size, but the goods being bartered; all manners of sundries were sold in this place. Standing at the edge, Brand saw, heard, and smelled it all. Colours of every kind could be seen in the garments or the canopies covering the booths. At every stall, vendors and buyers haggled, whether it was to buy yards of cloth or a small ribbon. As Brand moved forward, the scent of pepper was replaced by cinnamon before the smell of roasting chicken suddenly took hold. Unlike Garrick, who had observed it all with a look of wonder, Brand took it all in with an expression of contentment.

For a few copper coins, Brand bought himself a slice of chicken and a piece of freshly baked bread. Gnawing on his food, he left the marketplace and walked west, leading him to enter the southern medinas. These neighbourhoods lay with little space to spare, and every building was filled to the brim with occupants; furthermore, these streets had a reputation for being ruled by brigands, and the city guard made only a token effort to maintain peace.

If any harbouring ill intent watched Brand’s progress, they left him alone; the sword by his waist and the confidence in his steps set him aside from the easy mark that most rogues preferred to prey upon. At one point, he stopped in one of the medinas briefly to drink his fill from the well. The bucket had to go deep before it hit water; it would be a while before winter would come, bringing rain. Nearby, he heard the sound of poetry being recited in unison by a choir of young voices. Looking up, his eyes found the local madrasa and the score of children inside, repeating the words of al-Tayir and others. Brand stayed a brief while; on occasion, his lips found the right words and fell into the same rhythm as the children.

At length, with a smile, he moved onwards. Passing through one medina after the other, he eventually came close to the city walls and could follow them to the west gate and the harbour that lay beyond. As could be expected, this was the busiest part of the city; people and goods moved in countless numbers in and out.

Brand found one of the numerous establishments serving both locals and sailors, buying himself a cup of evening tea. Around him, young and old did the same. Whether rich or poor, tea in the evening was a custom observed by all in Alcázar. Conversation flowed around him like a river surrounding a solitary rock. Brand paid no heed, keeping his eyes west. The Outer Sea spread out before him. A few ships could be seen in the far distance; soon, the fires at the edges of the harbour would be lit, guiding them to safe port.

In the far horizon, the sun sank into the sea. It dyed the waters red and gold, and from this position, nothing obstructed Brand’s view. He sat close to where many years ago, al-Tayir had composed many of his famous poems; presumably, it was when exposed to this view, the poet had named Alcázar the City of Sunset.

His tea finished, Brand got up. Turning his back to the sea, he walked east, passing through the gate into the city before it was locked for the night.

~~~~

The following day, Brand took another stroll through the city. His serai lay close to the Kabir’s palace, and he went there early in the cool of the morning. Walls surrounded the estate, but only to keep out intruders; they were not wide enough to allow soldiers upon them. Instead, a few towers rose to allow guards a vantage point. Brand stood staring at the gate for a while; behind lay the place he had called home for seven years. Now, it was clear he would not be allowed inside. Neither Adalbrand the knight nor Harun the caravan guard would be welcome at the Kabir’s court.

When he had lingered long enough for the guards to notice him, Brand turned and left, walking south once more. This time, his path took him to the great market. Here, large quantities of materials were traded among merchants along with livestock and slaves. The latter two dominated the smell in the air; animals and human bodies were herded together in small confines, and despite canopies being raised to provide shade, the heat could be felt by all.

The traders ignored Brand as he walked between the pens and stalls; his sword and demeanour made it clear he was not a merchant nor the kind of servant sent to buy slaves or animals for the household. Sheep, goats, cattle, and horses were sold along with people from every corner of the world.

Brand did not linger, but walked through the great market to reach its other end. He kept moving until the sounds and smells had dissipated. Feeling the noon heat, he ducked into an eatery and was served wine along with steamed vegetables. Once his meal was done, he had a few more cups, passing the time while watching warehouse workers hauling goods to the great market. After an hour, Brand bade the tavern keeper farewell, receiving a blessing in return, and made his way back to the serai.

~~~~

When evening came, Brand stayed in the large common room that served as both sleeping and eating quarters for the serai. Around his neck he wore the blackrobe’s pendant. He had found a chair and sat in a corner, giving him a view of the room. In one hand, he held a cup of tea; he continued to sip from it even after it was empty.

At length, a man strode into the room. His height and muscular appearance drew some looks, but nothing more than that; his clothing was typical for a citizen of Alcázar, and all sorts of people could be found in a serai. Around his neck, he had a wooden pendant; it resembled a statue with a rune upon it.

As the newcomer moved through the room, he came close enough for Brand to see the necklace. He demonstratively touched his own, making sure the rune upon the stone was visible.

“Harun,” said the other man in greeting, and Brand rose to meet him. “It’s me, Majid.” He extended a hand, which Brand accepted. As they touched, a small, wooden rune-stave was passed from Majid’s grip into Brand’s. “We’re old friends,” he whispered.

“Majid, old friend,” Brand replied with a loud voice. He placed his hand inside his flowing garbs, allowing him to deposit the rune-stave into an inner pocket. “I am pleased to see you.”

“It saddens me I cannot stay. I must be going,” Majid told him, also speaking loudly.

“Surely you have time to stay for tea,” Brand enquired.

“Sadly, I must be going.” Majid began to turn, but his companion reached out to hold him by the shoulder.

“I insist – old friend.” Brand put particular emphasis on the final words. “We have not spoken in so long, there is much I wish to ask of you.”

Majid licked his lips, glancing around. Some of the other patrons looked at them. “Not here,” Majid declared quietly. “These people know you – you shouldn’t attract more attention.”

“Plenty of places that will serve us tea,” Brand pointed out placidly. “Follow me.”

They made their way out of the serai; one walked with casual confidence, the other with a wary look. Crossing a few streets to leave the area by the gate and enter the nearby medina, Brand settled them at a small table by a tavern. The proprietor, catching Brand’s eyes, raised two fingers in the air, to which Brand nodded. Shortly after, two cups were placed on their table.

All throughout this, Majid had been near scowling at his companion; seeing Brand raise the cup, blow the steam away, and take a sip did nothing to improve his mood.

“Old friend, with that look upon your face, people will get curious,” Brand admonished him.

Taking a deep breath, Majid adopted a blank expression and took his own cup of tea. “Why are we here?”

“Do you speak the northern tongue?” Brand asked.

“I do,” came the reply in Adalspeech.

“Excellent. I doubt anybody cares about our conversation, but just in case,” Brand explained, also speaking the Mearcian language.

“I ask again, why are we here? My task was simply to deliver to you what has been delivered.”

“I think there is much to gain if I can ask you a few questions. After all, our cause is the same,” Brand declared. “How long have you served the blackrobes?”

“My master does not wear black,” Majid replied confused.

“The priests,” Brand elaborated. He held the stone pendant around his neck with its divine rune. “You bear the mark of Rihimil, same as I.”

“This?” Majid mirrored Brand’s gesture. “It has nothing to do with gods. It is simply a token to remember a – a fallen friend.”

“You fought side by side with a northerner? I assume he was, given he worshipped a northern god.”

“We fought on the sands together. What of it?”

Brand leaned back, giving the other man an appraising look. “You are a champion of the sands. It was plain to see you are a warrior, but I did not expect that.”

“Does it matter? Why are you wasting my time?”

Brand raised his hands with the palms outwards in a calming gesture. “I simply wish to understand who I am dealing with. You speak like a native of Alcázar, yet you are a champion of Labdah, and now you run errands for northern priests.”

“I don’t see why any of this is important. I’ve done my task. Our business is concluded, and you have given me no reason to think otherwise.” Majid rose to his feet.

“I want to meet your master,” Brand quickly said. “If you are merely the messenger, I wish to speak with the man who stands behind you.”

“The whole reason I am being sent is to avoid that,” Majid pointed out. “He has no interest in meeting you.”

Brand rose as well. “Tell him that Khalid calls upon him.”

“That name means nothing to me.”

“It will to him. I will wait here tomorrow evening for your master.”

Majid smiled with a touch of contempt. “Wait all you want.” He turned and left. Brand left a few coins on the table and departed as well.

~~~~

On the second morning after his arrival to Alcázar, Brand ventured into the city once more. His path took him across the maswar once more to reach the eastern part. Rather than seek the small market as the other day, he went further east to pass through the gate and reach the eastern docks.

Compared to its western counterpart, this harbour received far fewer merchant vessels; as a consequence, it had less traffic of goods and people. Instead, ships built for war lay anchored at most piers. Many were galleys, swift, manoeuvrable, and well-suited for combat at sea along the shallow coastlines of the Mydlonde Sea. Ships of newer make could be found as well, with deeper keels and more masts, relying rather on wind than oars; ships that were built for the intent to traverse the deeper, dangerous seas between Alcázar and Adalmearc.

Even though less used for trade, the docks remained busy. Countless sailors crowded the harbour and nearby establishments that offered food, drink, and entertainment. Workers, both skilled and unskilled, were found everywhere occupied with tasks; a constant train of donkeys carrying materials and tools for ship-building passed through the gate, dispersing to various destinations. Lastly, scores of soldiers patrolled the docks, keeping the peace and guarding the ships of Alcázar.

Moving north along the city walls, Brand approached the wharf that supplied the city with its fleet and the merchants with their vessels. This area was a nest of ants frantic with activity. Men dragged timber from stockpiles to be sawed into planks. Large rocks were hewn into exact shape and placed in the bottom of the wooden skeletons taking shape, providing ballast for the ship-to-be. Endless coils of rope were ready to be run along railings and masts, connecting sails and ship like blood veins. Lastly, great sails made from cotton or linen were hauled to storehouses, waiting as the final piece to be added.

Apart from the shipwrights, their apprentices, and the workers, the wharf was also heavily guarded. Watching from a distance, Brand saw numerous spear tips above the crowd of labourers. As he stood, observing the ships being built, he was himself observed; a number of the aforementioned spear tips began moving in his direction. Turning on his heel, Brand made a hasty departure, leaving the docks entirely.

~~~~

When evening came, Brand sat in the same tavern as the day before. He did not hide his smile when he saw Majid approach.

“Follow me,” Majid instructed him, wearing a scowl as he had during their last conversation.

“Certainly.” Smiling more than ever, Brand finished his tea, left payment, and rose to follow Majid.

They walked for hours, crossing most of Alcázar until they reached one of the southern medinas, looking like any other neighbourhood. “Here,” Majid explained, approaching a building. It was the only word he had spoken during their journey through the city. He opened the door and entered; Brand followed. They stepped into an empty room with sparse furniture and little else. Majid pointed across the room to a door on the other side. “Through there.”

Moving past him, Brand did as instructed and walked into the back room. It contained four things. A table, a chair on either side of it, and a man sitting in one of them. Somewhere in his fifties, he was dressed modestly like a servant. Behind him was yet another door. “Pleasant surroundings,” Brand remarked, glancing at the bare walls.

“The walls and doors are thick. We will not be overheard,” his host explained with a smile. “Please, take a seat.” He motioned towards the empty chair in front of Brand.

“A convenient escape route,” Brand retorted, nodding towards the exit behind the other man. As he sat down, Majid closed the door to the other room, giving them privacy.

“One can never be too careful in my line of work.”

“Are you him?” asked Brand.

“Haktar, no, I am but a simple servant like Majid. My name is Jawad, and yours is Harun, I am told?” He leaned back in his chair.

Brand did the same, allowing him to inspect Jawad from head to toe despite the table between them. “It is. I must confess to some disappointment. I thought tonight I would meet the infamous Prince of Cats.”

Jawad smiled. “Not a name to be tossed around lightly. How do you know it?"

"Khalid told me who I would have dealings with."

"Were it not for Khalid, or should I call him Godfrey, for we know his true name, my master would have ignored you entirely or worse. Now explain the reason I am spending my night in this forsaken hole, meeting you.”

“Of course. The symbols that Majid delivered to me – do you know what they say?”

“I see no reason to reveal whether I do or not.” Jawad was still smiling, but his voice had an unmistaken edge to it.

“I cannot read the old runes,” Brand admitted,” except when they are used as numbers. And I saw two numbers on the wood. I believe one signifies ships and the other soldiers. Specifically, the Kabir’s fleet and his mercenaries.”

Jawad shrugged. “Perhaps. What is that to me or my master?”

“The other day, I went to the western docks and the great market. One thing struck me as curious. Hardly any timber was unloaded or sold. Similarly, iron ore, tools, and weapons were scarce to find.”

“Your point?”

“The Kabir’s shipwrights are frantically working, but their stockpiles are running low. Soon, the Kabir will not have lumber for more ships or iron for more weapons. I believe the Kabir plans to invade Adalmearc. The message delivered by Majid to me suggests the same. Without timber or steel, he will have no reason to delay further, as he cannot add more ships or troops.”

“I am a simple man – these are matters far beyond me,” Jawad claimed.

Ignoring his remark, Brand continued. “While unusual to invade this late in the harvest season, I believe that is exactly the Kabir’s intention. He will seize the fortress upon Fortönn in a lightning assault, gaining safe harbour for his fleet and unfettered access to the Eylonde Sea. He can spend winter transporting troops and supplies to the island while raiding Thusund, hindering their efforts to assemble their own fleet. Once spring arrives, he will have his full army ready to invade every island, every coast along the Eylonde Sea.”

“I wouldn’t claim to know the Kabir’s mind. Besides, I fail to see why this is significant for my master.”

“The Kabir cannot invade over land. If he marches up the coast, there will not be enough water for his army. Not to mention, the Mearcians will have advance warning and can defend the long wall.” Brand paused for a moment. “Without his fleet, the Kabir cannot invade.”

Jawad leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. “You want to destroy his ships.”

“That was my first thought. But setting ships aflame is difficult, given all the water they are surrounded with,” Brand pointed out. “We may torch one or two before the guards stop us and the fire.”

“We?” Jawad’s voice held equal parts disbelief and disdain.

“Most of the ships have not yet been fully outfitted, however,” Brand continued undeterred. “Their sails and rope are in storage. A much easier target to hit. Without sail or rope, a ship is just a floating piece of wood.”

A reluctant smile appeared on Jawad’s face. “You’re bold, I’ll give you that. If you want to run around setting fires, we won’t stop you.”

“I will need help. Someone to keep watch, at the very least.”

“The more people, the greater chance of discovery. Regardless, your plan may be for naught. After rather aggressively pursuing an alliance with Labdah, the Kabir now controls their fleet as well. Even if we carry out your plan, he will still have many ships at his disposal.”

“We do not need to destroy his fleet, merely cripple it,” Brand argued. “He cannot invade if he can only transport a few thousand troops at a time. Especially if Thusund is warned and their fleet is stronger than the Kabir’s.”

Jawad blew out his cheeks. “That may all be true, but I see no reason we should help you.”

“This could prevent war between Alcázar and Adalmearc,” Brand claimed.

“We are thieves, not soldiers. Why should we care?”

“Khalid would want you to help me,” Brand ventured to say.

“Khalid.” Jawad gave a sardonic smile. “Khalid is owed a debt, it is true. But he is demanding payment more and more often. I don’t think my master will care.”

“Should we ask him?”

“Rest assured, I will relay everything you say to the Prince.”

“Is that necessary? I suspect he has heard everything already,” Brand argued.

“I don’t follow.” Jawad wore an expression of genuine confusion.

“You are dressed like a simple servant, and you even dirtied your boots. Still, it is plain they are made from the finest leather. The stitching is perfect, a mark of excellent craftsmanship.” Brand leaned back to look under the table briefly. “If I were to guess, they are lined with lamb’s wool. It looks soft.” He straightened his back, looking at Jawad’s hand. “The skin on your finger has a pale band where you normally wear a ring. Strange for a servant to wear rings, even stranger to feel the need to disguise it.” He looked up at the rogue’s face. “You speak in a subservient manner, but your demeanour betrays confidence. Add to that, one of the most famous exploits of the Prince was the murder of al-Badawi deep inside the harāmlik of his own palace, which happened more than thirty years ago. Based on that, I would wager the Prince to be between fifty or sixty years old.”

Jawad returned the stare sent his way. Moments of silence passed. “Nobody ever looks at the boots.”

“As many miles as I have marched, I have learned to appreciate good footwear.”

A knowing smile appeared on Jawad’s face. “Whether for sneaking or fleeing, good boots are necessary for a thief.” The smile disappeared. “But you are not the only man with eyes, Harun. You speak the true tongue flawlessly, but your intentions betray you to be a northerner. Beyond that, you speak as one raised in marble halls. I’d wager good silver you were born among the nobility and came as a child to Alcázar, learning our speech.” He glanced at Brand’s neck. “Especially with that leather string you wear, knotted by a girl from Alcázar to show her affection for you. It looks old. The two of you must have parted ways years ago. Furthermore, you have the bearing of a mamluk, a warrior trained from birth. Along with your noble blood, that would make you a knight. One who spent his youth in Alcázar. There cannot be many of those.”

Brand adjusted the collar of his tunic, hiding the leather string around his neck. “Maybe not. It matters little to me – I have no interest in your identity. Only whether you will help me.”

Jawad’s smile returned briefly. “I suppose we can keep each other’s secrets.”

“More pertinently, will you help me prevent a war?”

The Prince of Cats scratched the stubbles on his cheek. “One condition. My debt to Khalid is paid in full – whether we succeed or not,” he stressed. “If I ever hear the name Khalid again, I will ignore it. If I hear it twice, I will consider it a threat and respond accordingly. Do we understand each other?”

Brand nodded with a smile. “Perfectly. We need to move fast. If the Kabir wishes to strike before winter, his fleet will set sail within a few weeks.”

“That should be plenty of time.”

“We have less. The ships must be prepared beforehand, meaning the sails will be removed from storage and fitted to the ships within the next days,” Brand pointed out.

“Good point. We will strike within the next few days.”

“Tomorrow night, preferably.”

Jawad raised an eyebrow. “And how many times have you broken into a guarded compound, committed theft, and escaped unnoticed?”

“I have conducted nightly raids before.”

Jawad laughed. “With much noise, no doubt. This is different. First, we must ascertain the placement of our mark – the sails, ropes, and what else we want to destroy. We must also determine patrol patterns, number of guards, blind spots where we may hide. Lastly, most importantly, we must deduce the safest way to enter and leave. Given that our act of arson will send a bright signal to every guard in the vicinity, alerting them to our location, that won’t be easy.”

Brand swallowed. “Fine. I leave the details to you.”

“Finally, some sense. I need all of tomorrow to scout the mark. Return to this building the day after tomorrow, at noon,” Jawad instructed him.

“At noon? That sounds early, but as you say.”

“We’ll need to get through the gate while it’s daylight and have time to get into position,” Jawad explained. “I’ll bring clothes for you, something that doesn’t jingle with every step.”

Brand inclined his head. “Very well. The day after tomorrow at noon.”

“Leave through the front door.”

“As you wish.” Brand rose and opened the door behind him. He passed by Majid, giving him a brief nod before he left the building.

“Long talk,” Majid remarked, stepping into the back room.

“Indeed. But fruitful, I think. Lock the front door,” Jawad commanded him, getting up to stand by the back door. “Let’s be off as well.”

“Very well.”

“I have a message for you to deliver, also, this very night.”

“Tonight?”

“Yes, to our friend by the great market. Tell him to get his hands on all the cotton and linen he can. There’s going to be a shortage in the city very soon.”

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About the author

Quill

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; certain 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.

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