Beyond the southern gate in Alcázar lay the slums known as Almudaina. Each morning, once the gates opened, the residents of this area shuffled into the city to beg, steal, or seek work as day-labourers. Like a caravan of poor and dirty people, usually dressed in little more than rags, they moved through the city, branching into different directions. Some sought the warehouse districts, others went to the harbours, selling the strength of their hands and backs for a few silvers.
They were so numerous, nobody noticed when a short, slim man in his fifties joined their march; his worn clothing and sandals made him look like any other of the hojon. He went with those walking to the eastern docks, waiting in large groups to be selected for work. Some went to unload the few merchant vessels allowed to moor in this harbour; Jawad kept away. Instead, he waited until overseers from the wharf appeared, needing workers to carry materials.
Several scores of the hojon were chosen, and they set off following the overseers. Only the sick, hurt, or otherwise unfit for hard labour remained, left with no recourse but to beg in the city for their meal.
The overseers led Jawad and the other day-labourers to a stockpile of timber, ushering them to pick up the logs and carry them to the shipwrights, who would cut them into shape. In pairs, they lifted the lumber and began the haul.
Stretching his neck, Jawad reached down and grabbed one end of a log. “I have not seen you before working here, jiddo,” said the young man who took the other end. Together, they began the walk towards the small sawmill.
“I usually try my luck on the other docks,” Jawad explained, his voice strained with effort. “But fewer and fewer ships every day, less and less work. I can go hungry for one day, maybe even two, but three? Rather the rats,” he added, quoting a typical saying in Almudaina.
“Hah, I know the feeling. This is better work, anyway,” claimed his companion. “Unloading ships, you have to carry each load by yourself until your back breaks.” He was leading their way, moving in and out to avoid obstacles on their path.
“Very true, my young friend, though these old hands will not last forever either,” Jawad admitted with a mournful voice.
“Don’t worry, jiddo, we take care of each other here. Take the smaller end next time, I’ll carry the heavier one. Are your hands properly wrapped?”
“You are good towards an old man. Yes, they are.”
“If the cloth breaks, let me know. The overseers have old rags they let us use.”
They continued in silence until they reached their destination, lowering the log next to its fellows. The smell of sawdust hung in the air along with the sounds of wood being shaped by serrated blade or hatchet. Jawad let his eyes wander across the area, but already an overseer was upon them, pushing them back. “Get the next, you lazy bastards!”
“We’re on our way, sidi,” Jawad’s young comrade claimed, and they began the walk back. “They talk tough, but they rarely hit us. It’s better than working in the warehouses.”
“I prefer being outside too,” Jawad chipped in. “Air is all stuffy inside those warehouses, and it’s always so dark because they’re too cheap to light any lamps, so every other day, some poor alhajin trips and breaks his leg. And the masters, they simply hire another.”
“You speak the truth, jiddo. Stick to the docks, I always say.”
“Do you only ever haul timber down here?”
“These days, yes. That’s all they need.”
They split for a moment to avoid other pairs of workers coming towards them, bringing logs for the pile. “Don’t ships need sails?” asked Jawad as they walked side by side again. “I hate hauling cotton, those bales are never comfortable.”
The young man laughed. “Of course, jiddo, but there are no sailmakers out here. They’re all inside the city.”
“I see, so you’re spared ever touching that damnable stuff.” They had reached the stockpile and bowed down to pick up another log; as promised, the younger alhajin took the heavier end. “Or do you ever have to carry the sails?”
“I did, months ago. This summer, it’s only been lumber, though.”
“It sounds like a long trip,” Jawad remarked. “I once hauled from the docks to warehouses in the northern district, what a sweat!”
“It wasn’t so bad. The sailmakers are not far from here, just inside the gate.”
“I suppose they knew it was smartest to place them there,” Jawad pointed out with a grin. “I don’t see any pile of sailcloth anywhere though,” he added.
His companion laughed. “Jiddo, they can’t just leave it on the ground for the rats to gnaw at.” He threw his head towards a cluster of small buildings built close to the city wall. “It’s all stored in there.”
“Of course, they’d have to store it somewhere,” Jawad assented, smiling.
They continued their work for a few hours before a break was called and water was distributed along with bread and figs. As the workers crowded together to eat and drink, Jawad stepped away, leaving unnoticed.
Leaving the docks, Jawad went to the building where yesterday he had met with Brand. Entering, he found Majid playing cards against himself; several piles of garments lay on the table as well. “Master,” he said in greeting, ceasing his play.
“You found clothes, I see. For the northerner as well?”
“I did. We’re roughly the same height, it should fit him well enough.”
“He’ll have to be satisfied,” Jawad remarked with a smile. He untied his sandals and removed them. “That’s all I need from you today. Be here tomorrow at noon.”
Despite the dismissal, Majid remained in place. “Master,” began hesitantly.
“Yes?” Jawad responded, busy removing his ragged clothing.
“So far, the work has been easy and the pay good. I couldn’t complain.”
Jawad pulled a tunic from one of the piles, putting it on. “Yet I get the sense you’re about to.”
“When you employed me, you told me we wouldn’t do anything unlawful. I’m no thief, master, and this business at the wharf… it seems very much like thieves’ work.”
“There’s truth in that. I won’t force you to take part, Majid, if you wish to sit this one out.”
“Thank you, master,” Majid spoke in relief.
“Of course, if you did join, you’d get your share of the spoils,” Jawad remarked casually as he sat down, putting on his boots.
“I was thinking a hundred birds for this. Yours alone.”
Majid licked his lips. “A hundred pieces of silver for one night’s work?”
Jawad rose, picking up a copper ring from the table to place it on his finger, which completed his transformation from alhajin of Almudaina to a respectable citizen of Alcázar. “But if you feel the work is beneath you –”
“I’m in,” Majid hastened to say.
A smile crept over Jawad’s face. “Good. Tomorrow at noon.”
Returning to the streets, Jawad moved at a leisurely pace. He had time to stop and eat a meal before going to the great market. He crossed through it, ignoring the hawkers seeking his attention. Noticing that most fabric had been sold already, he continued with a satisfied smile.
His path took him to a door that had a curious symbol carved into it, denoting that an alchemist lived inside. Taking a deep breath, Jawad knocked.
The door opened to reveal a bald, elderly man with a wild beard. He wore a robe with burn marks and plenty of stains. “You! I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“That’s because I haven’t needed your help in a long time.”
Confusion took a dance across the alchemist’s face before he lit up in a smile. “That makes sense. Come inside!”
Jawad followed the man inside. His abode was typical for his occupation. The main room of the building had a bed where patients might be examined or treated; a table stood with the tools of his trade, and shelves along the walls held the ingredients that made up the secrets of his craft.
“I need something that’ll light a fire quickly and reliably,” Jawad explained. “Small enough to carry in my pockets.”
The alchemist turned towards his shelves. He frowned in thought, crossed his eyes, took a deep sniff, ran his tongue across his teeth, and finally picked out two small flasks. He turned around to face Jawad, holding a flacon in each hand. “This,” he said, shaking one container, “is a cat. And this,” he continued, shaking the other, “is a dog.”
“You – you don’t mean that in a literal way, I hope.”
“Apart, they are friendly. You can pet them and play with them.”
Jawad coughed. “Yes?”
“Put them together, you have a fight! Within a moment, fire shall blossom that cannot die,” the alchemist promised.
“Excellent.” Jawad extended his hand, receiving the flasks. “You want payment, I presume?”
The old man glanced around his workshop. “Yes,” he replied with an absent mind.
Jawad’s hands made a circular motion, encouraging the other man to continue. “Yes? How much?”
“A cat is six silver, a dog is nine.” The alchemist wrinkled his forehead in contemplation. “Twelve falcons.”
Jawad stared for a moment. “Oh, twelve silvers. For a moment, I thought you wanted me to fetch you twelve actual birds.”
“This is not an aviary,” came the offended response.
Jawad counted out twelve silver pieces; some had the falcon symbol of Alcázar, others the eagle of Adalmearc. When done, he placed them in two stacks on the nearby table. “Pleasure as always.” He waited until he had left the building before letting his exasperation show. Once he had finished rolling his eyes, he went east.
It was afternoon when Jawad returned to the eastern docks. Dressed as a citizen rather than alhajin, nobody recognised that he had spent the morning working with the day-labourers. At a casual pace, he strolled along the piers, exchanging pleasantries with the sailors disembarking their ships. Every now and then, his path took him north towards the wharf, and each time, he took notice of the guards, constantly gathering in groups and scattering in pairs. Every time he had passed by, Jawad made sure to turn back and walk to the southern part of the harbour, waiting a while before he returned.
When the sun began to sink towards the horizon, he found something to eat in a tavern. The mood was good if rowdy, as was always the case where sailors congregated. Whether they had just returned ashore or enjoyed a last outing before embarking tomorrow, all of them made the most of their time on land. Jawad did not seem troubled, on the contrary; he made many a jest, played dice for coppers and lost with a smile. When one of his companions mysteriously seemed to have lost the silver in his pocket, Jawad graciously bought his next round.
As it grew dark outside, Jawad declared his intention to leave, much to the dismay of his newfound companions. They implored him to stay; the night was still young. After many exclamations of friendship and brotherhood, he finally managed to escape the tavern.
At this hour, all the hojon working as day-labourers were gone; the law commanded they returned to Almudaina before sunset. The merchants, their clerks, warehouse overseers, and other servants had likewise retreated for the night; the gate into the city would be shut soon.
This did not seem to trouble Jawad; he turned away from the gate towards the wharf. He was dressed in dark blue colours that matched the night sky; once he moved away from the fires and lamps burning here and there on the docks, he was near invisible.
The same could not be said for the guards, patrolling in pairs; a spear in one hand, they each had a torch in the other, illuminating their presence at all time. With a smile hidden by darkness, Jawad crouched low and let his eyes measure his path forward.
There was no clear separation where the wharf began. At some point, the piers and warehouses of the docks stopped, and the first signs of shipbuilding began. Piles of materials lay on the ground with the occasional box of smaller tools. Here and there stood machinery, too large to be moved around and thus built on the spot, helping shape the great planks of timber. Some buildings stood near the city walls, including a few lean-tos actually touching the stonework. Rain was scarce during the summer months, but come winter, certain materials and tools needed to be sheltered. Keeping his eyes on the flickering flames moving around in the night, Jawad began his approach.
He moved with slow steps and silent footfall. Sneaking forward, his first destination was the pile of timber that he had helped diminish earlier. Constantly, his eyes darted in every direction, keeping track of the guards. Once he reached his first stop, he lay down between some of the logs, hiding himself. Moments passed until he heard footsteps and saw the scattered light from a pair of torches. Words were exchanged as well, spoken by bored voices.
Patiently, Jawad waited until footsteps, lights, and voices were gone. When all was quiet, he slowly raised his body until he could survey his surroundings. Once his eyes gave the same message as his ears, he continued rising up, careful not to touch any of the surrounding wood. Having not made a sound, he crept forward.
In this manner, he moved from one hiding spot to another, always taking his time and waiting before continuing. At length, he reached the small buildings that housed the ship supplies. They had a lock, of course; Jawad smiled seeing this and pulled out a few lock picks. A dance followed where he spent a few moments working on the lock before noticing guards approaching, forcing him to hide; the city wall was accommodating to his needs, casting deep shadows where he could stay unseen. It took him several of these small trips back and forth before the lock clicked open and he could slip inside.
The interior was entirely black; the building had no windows, Jawad had not brought any light, and he had closed the door entirely behind him. Instead, he let his fingers do the seeing, fumbling his way through everything. His hands found a barrel first; opening the lid, he stuck one hand down only to pull it out with a hiss. It contained nothing but nails. He continued his investigation of the room; given its small size, it was quickly done. Taking a deep breath, he slowly opened the door and listened intently before creeping outside. Quickly, he locked the door again and disappeared into the shadows, moving to the next building.
He followed the same procedure for two more buildings until he found his target. Kept dry and safe from vermin, great bundles of sailcloth lay ready to be hoisted onto masts and carry ships forward. Jawad smiled briefly in the dark before leaving the small storehouse, leaving no trace of his presence.
Having found his quarry, Jawad did not return. Instead, he continued in the same direction as before, moving away from the piers and deeper into the wharf. His method did not change, hiding in a half-built ship or between hewn rocks intended as ballast. Step by step, he avoided the guards until he had passed through the entire wharf and reached the empty coastline that lay north.
With a satisfied expression, Jawad relaxed and continued. When he reached a solitary tree, he sat down with his back against its trunk and slept through the remaining hours of the night.
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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; 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.