The Kabir of Alcázar was lord of the city and its highest authority in all matters. His rule was undisputed, as long as trade flowed; when that was the case, all the merchant houses bent to his will, paid tribute, and supplied him with all he needed. Should the opposite ever happen, he would be in danger of being deposed; the very thing he had done to his own father, the previous Kabir, when Alcázar had been weakened by costly wars and dwindling trade. The greatest trading houses had thrown their support behind the ambitious young prince, letting him dethrone his father and consolidate his power. Their belief had not been unfounded; with rapid expansion of the fleet and decisive victories over Labdah, the Kabir had sealed Alcázar’s position as the dominant power of the Mydlonde Sea.
Now, he strode into the dungeons of his palace. His silken garbs and jewellery stood a stark contrast to the sinister surroundings, but the Kabir seemed at ease regardless. The scent of perfume followed him, fighting to banish the smell of sweat and blood that over centuries had bled into the walls. His two favourite sons were already present; as soon as they saw their father, both Saif and Jalil snapped to attention. The Kabir’s mamluk guards did not enter with him, taking position outside the doors.
“Leave.” The order was directed at the simpering Imad, who disappeared. The Kabir turned his attention on his sons instead. “Do you know of the fire last night?” Both of them shook their heads. “A warehouse on the docks. It turned out to be a ruse, allowing another fire to be set on our shipyard.”
“The ships?” asked Saif, the eldest.
“Untouched. They torched our stores of sailcloth.”
“A minor setback, but we have cloth to replace it, do we not?” asked Jalil. His fingers placed with the pommel of his sword; he was the only one who walked around armed.
“It will take a month at least, by which time, winter storms will have begun on the Outer Sea. My plans are severely disrupted, which is no coincidence.” Each word was spoken calmly, but with an icy tone. “These men are northern spies, and I want their entire ring stamped out.”
“Of course, Father,” Jalil bowed his head.
“How do you wish for us to proceed?” asked Saif.
“I want you to take charge of the black priests,” the Kabir declared, directed at Saif. “Figure out who act on their behalf and have them all rounded up. When nothing further can be gleaned, have the priests arrested as well.”
“What of my task, Father?” asked Jalil eagerly.
The Kabir nodded towards the cell where Brand and Majid stood chained. “These are the men who set the fire. I want to know all their accomplices. You are in charge of their interrogation.”
“I shall discern their every secret,” Jalil promised with a superior smile.
“The one with blue eyes is most likely the ringleader and a northern spy. The other seems to be a native who was hired for the task. Maybe others were hired as well. I want to learn the full extent of their activities,” the Kabir stressed.
“You shall, Father.”
“Deal swiftly with the henchman. He knows the least, and I doubt he is of much value. Be more careful with the northerner and make sure he lasts. He may have useful knowledge about many matters in the North,” the Kabir instructed.
“Very well, Father.”
The Kabir turned to a table upon which lay two swords. “These are their weapons. The shorter sword is ordinary, but this…” He picked up Brand’s sword, pulling away the leather strips that hid its pommel jewel. “This was taken from the northerner.” He pulled the blade a few inches, revealing the sea-steel. “Metal unlike any other. This is a weapon for a king, not a spy, which is further proof that he could be the leader of these spies that plague our city.”
Jalil extended a hand. “As I am interrogating the prisoners, I should hold on to this sword.”
“Father said it was a sword for a king. You are delusional if you think yourself worthy of it,” Saif remarked.
“At least I can wield it properly,” Jalil replied with a superior attitude.
The Kabir looked at each of his sons in turn. “Whoever handles this matter best may have the sword as a reward,” he told them. “The poets will smile seeing the commander of my armies fighting the northerners wielding this blade.” While his sons exchanged glances, the Kabir turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
Jalil turned his head to look at Saif. “You better hurry, Brother. You have a lot of threads to disentangle.”
“Yes, Father gave you the simpler task. Equal to your abilities,” Saif smirked. He left quickly as well.
From the doorway, the warden peered inside. “Sidi?”
“Get in here, you rat,” Jalil commanded, and the torturer scuttled inside. “Begin your work. Start with the black-skinned man, and break him quickly. Soften the blue-eyed bastard meanwhile. I will be back tonight.”
“Yes, sidi,” Imad replied subserviently. His eyes gleamed as he turned towards the prisoners.
Majid woke as someone gently clapped his cheek. Opening his eyes, he stared down into Imad’s face.
“It’s time to begin,” the shorter man announced cheerfully. “Let’s get you ready.” He used a knife to cut Majid’s tunic open, revealing the skin underneath with its scars. “Impressive!” Imad touched one of them tentatively. “You must be a warrior, maybe a mamluk? I imagine you can endure a lot.”
Majid spat at him. “Do your worst, fiend.”
Imad carefully wiped his face with a bloodied rag. “I intend to do my best. I am not a novice.” He stuffed the rag into Majid’s mouth. “For instance, this will keep you from hurting your tongue while I work on you.” He leaned closer. “It wouldn’t do if you had trouble speaking when my master returns,” he said with a quiet voice and a glimmer in his eyes.
Majid made a response, though it was not understandable.
Imad let his fingers run over the pendant hanging around Majid’s neck. “This is important to you, no doubt. You may keep this – for now.” He smiled. “See, I do not wish to start too harshly. You should have something to cling onto. You will be surprised how important it can be to have just a little piece, a little memory as a doorway to another time.” Imad ran his tongue over his teeth. “When that is all a prisoner has left, all they cling to, that is when I take it. The look of despair is exquisite. I am no novice, no. What is the purpose of all this pain but to break the mind?”
He looked towards his other prisoner. “You have one as well, I see.” Imad glanced at the knotted leather string around Brand’s neck. “I have seen such before. A token given by a woman’s hand – no doubt precious to you?” He gave a sly smile and turned around to face his tools. He had already lit the coals in the brazier, which was heating up the room.
Licking his lips slowly, Imad finally chose a knife and placed it in the brazier. He looked over his shoulder at Majid. “Normally I would go much slower,” he explained, sounding apologetic. “This is not something to be rushed. Alas, the masters want you ready soon, very soon.” He looked at Brand and gave a smile. “Don’t worry, I will take my time with you.” Brand did not acknowledge hearing him. With a careful motion, Imad picked up the heated knife and walked over to Majid. “I had a fun idea. Why make new scars when the old ones make such a beautiful pattern?”
He pressed the knife against Majid’s chest, and the red-hot metal seared his skin. The smell of burning flesh spread while Majid screamed through his gag. By his side, Brand averted his eyes.
The Kabir’s harem made up a sizeable part of his palace. Most of his wives were born to the greatest merchant houses of Alcázar or from the other South Cities, confirming alliances and ensuring peaceful relations. Many of them shared rooms; only his favourite wives had their own quarters. All of these chambers were luxuriously decorated, further demonstrating privilege and importance among the Kabir’s court.
In one room sat a woman near forty. Even in the privacy of her own chamber, she was exquisitely dressed and wore elaborate hair. She lay on a divan, a custom she had brought with her from her home. Her gaze was locked upon Jalil, standing in front of her. “Tell me exactly what your father said.”
Jalil cleared his throat. “He said that whoever found the spies would receive the sword and wield it while commanding his armies against the northerners.”
She watched him with half-closed eyelids. “There is no doubt in your mind this is what he meant?”
Her eyes strayed, staring into the empty air. “He must be furious to offer such a reward for the capture of these spies.”
“He seemed calm, under the circumstances,” Jalil remarked.
She snapped her head back to look at him again. “He always does, but he is most susceptible to frustration when his plans are disrupted. Trust me, the thought of his fleet being delayed fills him with gall.”
Jalil inclined his head. “You know best, Mother.”
She ran her eyes over him. “If you command his armies to victory in the North, you are guaranteed to become his successor. Who knows? Perhaps the succession will even come sooner than anticipated.”
His eyes shone upon hearing her words. “You think so?”
“I am not lying idle in this chamber,” she told him with gentle chastisement. “Your father is pushing his luck with these wars. They are expensive and disruptive for trade.”
“I have not heard any complaints?”
She gave an overbearing smile, showing the family resemblance. “Of course not. Never mind. You have your own task. You are already the better warrior compared to Saif – it is imperative you succeed in this and win your father’s approval. Once you lead his armies, you will bring victory, and everything shall fall into place.”
“I shall, Mother. The prisoners are being tortured as we speak. I will begin interrogation soon.”
“Do not tarry. The sooner you bring your father results, the better,” she instructed him with a stern voice.
In the dungeons, Majid hung forward from the wall. He was only upright because his chains kept him standing. Imad stood right in front of him, looking up at his face. “Too much for you?” Burns lay scattered across Majid’s skin. “Rest a little, my friend,” Imad told him cordially. He moved to a corner of the room, which held a curious contraption. Wheels were attached to pulleys holding chains. As Imad began turning the wheels, the shackles moved. Slowly, Majid’s chains around both ankles and wrists slackened, lowering him to the ground.
Imad walked over, adjusting Majid’s position to let him rest with his head against the wall and his legs stretched out rather than crossed underneath him. Finally, he removed the rag from Majid’s mouth. Standing up, he looked over at Brand. “It’s important to listen to the signals of the body,” Imad lectured him. “I am already pushing our friend hard. Now, his mind needs a little sleep. When he wakes up, he will be ready for more. Fortunately, that gives me time to show you some attention as well.”
Brand neither spoke nor looked at Imad.
Undeterred by the lack of a response, the short man went to his tools, selecting a number of long, thin needles. He placed them cautiously between his lips, leaving his hands free except for the rag taken from Majid. Returning to his prisoners, Imad grabbed hold of Brand’s chin with one hand. The latter turned his head, trying to break free, but for his stature, Imad was surprisingly strong and easily held onto his victim. He pressed on Brand’s cheeks to force his mouth open, pushing the gag inside.
Next, he grabbed Brand’s right hand. The manacles kept Brand so firmly in place, it was useless to struggle here as well. Imad closed his grip around one finger and cautiously pulled out one of the needles held between his lips. Slowly, he pushed the thin steel into Brand’s fingertip, just below the nail. An outburst of pain was heard from Brand, and he tried once more to tear his hand away. He had as little luck as before.
Imad continued with each finger on Brand’s hand, applying a needle to each. As he pulled the last from his mouth, he gave a small yelp. “Pricked my tongue,” he explained. “Of course it would happen with the last one. No trouble with five in my mouth, but one left and I hurt myself,” he giggled. He scraped his tongue against his teeth. “This hurts! You wouldn’t believe how painful such a small sting can be.” He looked at Brand’s hand. “I suppose you would.” He grabbed the remaining finger and pushed the needle in.
Most of the Kabir’s many children also lived in the harem. Until a certain age, they stayed with their mothers. After that, they shared rooms with their siblings. They would take their meals and be tutored here as well. As they approached adulthood, favoured daughters might receive their own chamber, whereas the sons would move to another part of the palace. They were still allowed access to the harem that they might visit their family, and it was common to see the Kabir’s sons entering or leaving.
The eldest of these, Saif, sat on a sofa next to Jana. Her constant protector, Salim, stood nearby, watchful if relaxed in his pose. The room itself was large, although more sparsely furnished compared to the chambers of the Kabir’s favourite wives.
“If this task is of such importance, I wonder you even have time to visit me,” Jana remarked.
Saif gave a shrug. “I am waiting to hear reports from my sentinels. I imagine that soon, we will be able to seize suspects and unravel the entire spy ring.”
“You sound confident, but you still came to me to unburden yourself.”
He gave a wry smile. “Perceptive. I am a little worried.”
“If the sentinels knew anything with certainty, they would have acted already. We know the black priests are involved, of course, but they are only one link in the chain, and watching them has given us limited success. I need to bring Father the remaining links, but I fear Jalil has the better position. Eventually, his captives will give him names. Time is limited.”
“This all sounds strange in my ears,” Jana admitted. Her fingers played with one of her golden earrings. “Your ability to find spies hardly determines whether either you or Jalil is a capable commander.” She swept a lock of black hair behind her ear, looking at her brother.
“Father would be sending other captains as well. But supreme command needs to rest with a member of House al-Saqr,” Saif explained. “Since he does not intend to go himself, the choice falls upon Jalil or I.”
“I wonder why he is staying behind.” Jana frowned in contemplation. “From what I remember, he has never shied away from going into war himself.”
Saif glanced towards Salim, who did not seem to pay them any attention. “I think he fears losing control if absent. The Council of Ten are not happy at the prospect of another war. It is they who have paid for many of our new ships being built. Of course, if we wrest control of trade from the Mearcians, it is also they who will profit,” he added with a contemptuous smile.
“Why is Father risking this?” asked Jana.
“Because he needs new victories to pay the debts of old wars,” her brother remarked.
“I fear we will all end up paying those debts.”
“The course has been set. We cannot turn this ship around anymore.” Saif touched her shoulder with a comforting gesture. “No matter what happens, you will be safe.”
“I know. Nobody has much interest in yet another daughter of the Kabir. At worst, my fate will be the same as Dalia’s, and I exchange my gilded chamber for another.”
At the mention of their sister left behind in Labdah, Saif’s hand fell away. “I better take my leave. Those reports must be arriving soon.”
“Of course. I hope your hunt goes well.”
Smiling with his mouth closed, Saif nodded to her and left. Once he was gone, Salim finally stirred. He caught Jana’s attention and gestured towards her.
“I am fine, thank you, but perhaps we can take a stroll tonight. You should relax until then, I will not have other visitors today, I imagine. Borrow my book with al-Tayir,” she suggested. “It would do you good, reading some poetry.”
The mamluk gave only a wry smile in response.
Evening had arrived when Jalil returned to the dungeons, stepping into chambers where night and day were erased. No light was possible but torches, lamps, and coals burning in the brazier. Holding scented cloth before his nose, Jalil approached Imad. “Is the prisoner ready?”
“Yes, sidi,” replied the torturer.
“You, scum,” Jalil spoke at Majid, who was awake and standing once more with his chains keeping him in place. “Tell me everything you know about the northern spies in the city.”
Majid hung forward, his jaw slack. “I’m just a messenger. I brought messages, that’s all.”
“From whom and to whom?”
“From the black-clothed priests. I brought them to Harun.”
“I know about the priests,” Jalil sneered. “Who is Harun?”
“He is hanging by my side.”
The prince walked over to stare into Brand’s face. “This is your leader?”
Majid coughed. “He’s just a messenger like me.”
Jalil’s mouth curled with contempt. “Then who is? Tell me, you pathetic traitor! Who do you take orders from?”
Something resembling a smile struggled to appear on Majid’s face. “Who knows? He hid his true nature. He could be the Prince of Cats for all I know.”
Jalil slapped him across the face. “Do not waste my time! I want another name!”
“Majid,” he whispered.
“Who is he?”
“Majid from Alcázar. He was a soldier,” the prisoner explained. “He fought against Labdah at the battle of the bay and was taken captive. He spent ten years as a slave, fighting on the sands.”
“Was it him who planned the destruction at the shipyard?”
“No, but he was present. He did it for silver and for revenge against the city that abandoned him after he served it loyally.”
“Where can he be found?” Jalil asked eagerly.
Majid raised his head with difficulty. “You are looking at him, sidi.” He hissed the final word.
Confusion was replaced by anger on Jalil’s face. He sent a knee into Majid’s groin, who gasped in pain and lost his footing; there was an unpleasant sound as the chains around his wrists kept him from falling down.
Jalil turned towards Imad. “Clearly, he is not ready for interrogation yet.”
“My apologies, sidi. I try to hurry, but this is a delicate art best progressed slowly. I can only guarantee the truth if I am given time to understand his body and mind, how far he can be pushed.”
“Understand this, you little creep,” Jalil spat. “I will return tomorrow, and I expect him to cooperate.”
“Of course, sidi.”
“Meanwhile, step up your work with him.” Jalil nodded towards Brand.
“The exalted Kabir told me to be careful –”
“I am telling you now! I want him to spill the truth, or you can take his place.”
“Yes, sidi.” Imad bowed low while Jalil left the dungeons. The torturer turned towards the prisoners. “I really do hate being so blunt about it. There’s just no art to it. I suppose it’s straight to the blade.” He sighed and walked over, placing a knife in the brazier.
Outside the palace, it was night; in the dungeons, it was the same flickering illumination, heavy with smoke. Imad had finished his work and gone to sleep in his own room nearby, but first he had lowered the chains on the prisoners, allowing them to sit against the wall.
“Harun. Tell me of the outside world.”
“Why?” Brand adjusted his uncomfortable seat. He had fresh wounds across his chest where his tunic was torn open.
“Help me remember.”
“There is… bread, freshly baked. You can smell it. And cool water on a warm day. Rain that falls… it calms you.” Brand swallowed, fumbling for words. “I do not know what to tell you.”
“Tell me your memories. I’ve seen the leather string around your neck. A woman of Alcázar made that for you, did she not? Tell me of her.”
Brand opened and closed his eyes again, slowly. “She is long gone. I do not recall her face. She left. Instead of memories, all I have left of her is this piece of leather. Until they take that away from me.”
“That as well.”
“Why do you not tell them about Jawad? He left you behind. You owe him no loyalty.”
“What little I would know, he has already taken steps to make irrelevant. That is how he works,” Majid explained with a strained voice. “Our only chance is to keep quiet, and perhaps the Prince may yet see us freed.”
“Do you truly have hope of that?”
“No.” Majid was quiet for a moment. “But my only other choice is to hope for death. The sooner, the better.”
“Do not despair yet. You are a champion of the sands,” Brand reminded him. “These men, our captors, will not get the better of you.”
Majid licked his lips with a dry tongue. “Yes, they will.” Neither of them spoke further.