A Measure of Mercy
“How is your progress?” Jalil’s mother stared at him under her heavy eyelids.
“The prisoners are breaking,” he claimed. “They will lead me to the remaining spies soon enough.”
“In other words, you have made no progress.” There was a steel edge in her voice.
“I am sure Saif is no further along than me! This takes time,” he complained.
“You should aim at being better than Saif, not his equal,” she told him pointedly. “Your father will not be impressed by a son trudging along, doing the bare necessary and nothing more.”
“What do you expect from me? That I spend my days in the dungeons, wielding the knife myself?”
“If that is necessary.” She rose from her divan and approached her son. She placed her hand on his cheek, seemingly with affection, but her long nails scratched into his skin. “We have been working towards this your entire life, my son. Do not stumble so close to the end of the journey.”
He swallowed. “Of course not, Mother. I will do anything I must.”
“There is the boy I raised.” She smiled without warmth.
Going to the dungeons, Jalil found Imad preparing his tools and the prisoners. They were once more forced to stand with their limbs spread out, unable to move. Seeing the prince, Imad bowed low and picked up a pair of thongs.
“Is he ready?” Jalil asked coldly.
“Yes, sidi. Ask your questions.” Imad moved to stand next to Majid, while Jalil kept some distance.
“Tell me the names of every spy in the city.”
“I took my orders from a man named Jawad,” Majid admitted. Imad quickly pushed a piece of dirty cloth into Majid’s mouth, grabbed one of his fingers, applied the thongs, and pulled the fingernail out. Distaste ran across Jalil’s face upon hearing Majid’s veiled scream; Brand’s face was turned the other way, hiding his expression.
Letting the bloody nail fall to the floor, Imad removed the gag. “Ask again, sidi.”
“Tell me all the names of every spy, you traitorous scum.”
“Jawad,” mumbled Majid. “His name was Jawad. And the black-robed priests.”
Jalil looked at Imad, who nodded. “He tells it true, sidi.”
“Tell me of this Jawad. Who is he? Where can he be found?”
“He is a thief. I have no idea where to find him.” The dirty cloth was returned to Majid’s mouth, and Imad pulled another nail. “I swear it!” Majid exclaimed once the rag was taken away. “I don’t know his home.”
“Where did you meet?”
“He came to my home when he needed me.”
“What was your task?”
“I took messages from him to the black-clothed priests,” Majid explained. “That is all.”
“What did those messages contain?”
“I don’t know.” Jalil nodded to Imad. Another finger lost its crown. “I don’t know, I swear!”
“I believe he is honest, sidi,” the torturer interjected.
“Make sure.” The thongs made their pull.
“I don’t know!”
Jalil watched Majid with a dissatisfied face. “You are of no help.” He turned his eyes on Brand. “Maybe he can answer some questions.”
“Sidi, with apologies, I think it’s too early,” Imad intervened.
“How?” exclaimed Jalil with anger. “Your task is simply to hurt them! Hurt them until they tell the truth!” He drew a dagger from his sheath and made a quick cut across Brand’s stomach, prompting a small gasp of pain. “See? Like this!”
“With all respect, sidi, simply applying pain will not yield good results. The prisoner will say anything to make it stop. It becomes very hard to know whether they are being honest, which is why I must take time, build up the pain and learn their reaction,” Imad explained.
Jalil watched the little man with disdain. “You are testing my patience.”
“I beg your forgiveness, sidi.”
“I will return tonight,” the prince declared with a sneer. “I expect the northern bastard to provide me with answers.”
“Very well, sidi.”
Naturally, the Kabir had an entire wing of the palace at his sole disposal. Here, he slept, ruled, and occasionally ate his meals. This had especially been the case during the wars with Labdah when poisoning was considered a probable threat. Whether attending to matters of state or desiring solitude, the Kabir preferred to sit in his library, surrounded by a wealth of books, coincidentally a reminder of his own wealth. Only a few trusted slaves were allowed to disturb the ruler in his library. The same privilege extended to the highest ranking of his servants, the hāgib.
Serving as the veil between the Kabir and his people, the hāgib was given more responsibility and authority than any other in Alcázar. Once a day, before the evening meal, he would inform his master of all pertinent matters and news, providing counsel and receiving instructions.
“At the very best, the fleet may be at full strength in two months’ time,” said the hāgib.
The Kabir received these news with a clenched jaw, but when he spoke, his voice was calm. “See to it.”
“What of my sons?”
“Prince Saif has taken many for questioning, but most have been released again. Nothing of substance so far, I fear.”
“The prince Jalil fares similarly. His interrogation of the first prisoner seems to have yielded little. It is my understanding he will question the northerner soon.”
The Kabir took a heavy draught from a golden goblet of wine. “Do you consider their failure a sign of incompetence or simply that their pursuit is barren?”
“I fear the latter, my lord. This spy ring has always been organised with many layers. Like an onion, we peel away only to find another. Whoever sits at the core, they are too wily to be caught. Perhaps they have already fled the city.”
The Kabir stroked his oiled beard in contemplation. “Should I close the ports? It may be time we stop the flow of information.”
“With respect, sidi, that will send a certain signal to the island kingdom that our invasion is imminent. The longer they are kept in uncertainty, the better. Especially as our own spies report they are descending into chaos – news of our attack would make them unite against us. And should Your Eminence close the ports, we will be cut off from our spies as well.”
“You have convinced me,” the Kabir told him, waving his hand. “Just make sure the fleet is ready as soon as the winter storms end. This delay will put my plans under pressure.”
“Of course, sidi.”
“Any news from the Council of Ten?”
“Nothing since my last report, sidi.”
“Those old fools,” muttered the Kabir. “Fine. Enough for tonight. The evening meal beckons me.”
“Very good, sidi.” The hāgib bowed his head. “Shall I have food brought to you?”
“Let me dine with my sons for once. They may need the reminder of what is at stake.” The Kabir emptied his goblet and rose to his feet, striding past the hāgib, who retreated while bowing low.
The dining hall of the palace distinguished itself in one aspect; it had no furniture of any kind. Instead, the Kabir’s court ate their meals sitting on the floor. It was an ancient custom, mostly eradicated by northern influence and northern lumber for chairs and tables, but it was still observed in full by the Kabir and all his courtiers. At least, this was the case in public.
Mealtimes were informal; unlike in the North, they were not announced by bells, nor did a water clock anywhere keep time. Instead, courtiers simply arrived within a certain span of hours, and there was a continuous stream of slaves bringing food to the hall. Those eating sat in semicircles, aimed towards a small dais intended for the Kabir; this ensured none ever sat with their backs towards the ruler of the city.
Around sunset, the hall was mostly full. Only the dais was out of bounds; the courtiers could sit where they pleased in the rest of the hall, though the closer to the ruler’s seat, the better. The hāgib always took his meal near it, often surrounded by people seeking his influence and approval. The same was the case for a few of the Kabir’s wives, who chose to eat here rather than in the harem; both Saif’s and Jalil’s mothers were among them, each having their own semicircle of attendants.
Jana entered the hall, quickly glancing around. Once her eyes found Saif, she moved to join him, his mother, and a few younger daughters. “Sayidaty,” she spoke.
“Jana, dearest, I am so glad you came,” said Saif’s mother. “Come, sit by my side! Make room,” she added to one of her children, who obliged.
“You are kind to desire my presence, Lady Rana,” Jana told the older woman, sitting down next to her.
“Nonsense. I always tell my daughters to look towards you as an example,” Rana replied. “Is that not true? I always tell you girls that Lady Jana is the very picture of a princess of Alcázar.”
“Yes, Mother,” the daughters mumbled.
“Besides, Saif has always prized your company, is that not so, Saif?”
“Very true, Mother,” replied her son with a smile, helping himself to fruit and roasted pigeon.
“And I have hardly seen much of you, even though your return was almost half a year ago. You must be happy to be back in Alcázar,” continued Rana.
“I am,” Jana confirmed. “Labdah is very different.”
“Saif told me all about it. Those alchemists in their tower.” She gave a visible shudder. “What a relief we do not have them in Alcázar, or I should positively never dare to put a fig in my mouth.”
“None would ever dare tamper with your food, Mother,” Saif declared with a wry look. “They are all much too afraid of you.”
“Silly boy,” she admonished him. “Hear how he talks to his own mother?” she added, directed at Jana.
“Even the best of trees may at times yield poor fruit,” Jana replied, making Rana laugh.
“How very right you are, my dear! Hear that, Saif? You are a rotten fig.”
“And you are a blossoming fig tree, dear mother,” her son told her.
Conversation became hushed all throughout the hall. From a door behind the dais, the Kabir appeared. He walked forward with slow steps, sitting down on a rug amidst pillows. There was frantic movement around him as servants hurried to bring him his preferred dishes and pour his wine.
The Kabir gestured for a slave to bow down and spoke a few quiet words into his ear. The slave quickly moved towards Saif and his companions. “The exalted Kabir commands the presence of his son.”
“Go, boy, do not keep your father waiting!” Rana exclaimed, ushering him away with her hands.
“If you will pardon me,” Saif told the others and got up. As he walked towards his father, he saw the slave continue to deliver the same message to Jalil. Moments later, the brothers stood before the Kabir.
“Sit,” he told them, and they complied, taking a seat on each side. “Saif,” he continued, “how goes your investigation?”
“I have interrogated many, which has given me further roads to follow.”
“You have nothing at present, in other words,” the Kabir pointed out, making Jalil smile.
“Not as such,” Saif admitted.
“Jalil!” Hearing his own name wiped Jalil’s smile away. “What of you?”
“I have done as you instructed, Father,” Jalil hurried to say. “I have thoroughly questioned the helper, and he yielded a name. I will question the northern savage tonight. I expect the spies will be known to me soon.”
“A name? Have you acted upon this?”
“Not yet,” Jalil mumbled. “I have not been able to find the person behind the name.”
“You are as far along as your brother, it seems,” the Kabir declared. This time, Saif had cause the smile.
“I will see this through,” Jalil claimed, gritting his teeth.
“Perhaps I need to think of other ways you can prove your worthiness. Both of you,” the Kabir remarked, letting his eyes move from one son to the other. Both of them looked down, avoiding his gaze.
In the dungeons, Imad was busy cleaning Brand’s wounds on his chest when Jalil entered the cell. Already, the prince’s face was red. “It is time to continue. I want the northerner to tell me everything.”
Imad swallowed. “Yes, sidi. If I may, he has not spoken a single word yet. He is not an easy man to break –”
Jalil’s hand across Imad’s face interrupted his speech. “Get him ready!”
Imad rubbed his cheek but made no further interjection. He fetched a tool from his table. It was an iron ring with a long handle. Moving over to the prisoner, he pulled out a long needle from Brand’s little finger and stuck it into the prisoner’s wrist. The iron ring was pressed down on Brand’s finger, and Imad turned his face towards the prince. “Ask, sidi.”
“Tell me all the names of every spy in the city,” Jalil said in the northern tongue.
Brand did not make the slightest inclination of hearing the question.
Slowly pulling the handle of his tool, Imad began to bend Brand’s finger backwards. Brand clenched his jaw. The sickening sound of flesh ripping could be heard. Finally, Brand released an outcry of agony, and Imad released his grip.
“Tell me all their names.” Jalil walked over to grab Brand by the chin, sneering the words into his face. “Tell me!”
Brand responded only with a stare, and Imad began to pull his tool backwards again. This time he continued until the bone snapped and Brand roared with pain.
“Tell me!” shouted Jalil, grabbing hold of Brand’s hair. “Tell me everything!”
“I have nine more fingers. Keep going,” Brand told him in Mearcspeech.
Flushed with anger, Jalil relinquished his grip and turned towards Imad. “I thought you were breaking him! You have had days, and still he is defiant!”
“I beg your forgiveness, sidi, but you must understand the difference.” He pointed at Majid. “Him, he was motivated by coin. This one,” he continued, pulling out the needle from Brand’s wrist, “is fuelled by loyalty. He believes in his cause. That makes him harder to break, more delicate. I need more time.”
“More time,” Jalil sneered. “What use are you!”
The prince turned back to Majid. “What of you?”
“I know nothing more,” the prisoner mumbled.
“Then you can only serve one purpose. You will die, painfully, as an example to your companion.” Jalil turned his head towards Brand. “Do you hear? He will die with the utmost agony! And once I am done with him, you will follow.”
Brand only stared ahead.
“Take his next finger,” Jalil commanded with a malicious voice. Complying, Imad applied his tool upon Brand’s ring finger and pulled until bone broke. “Talk!” he added in Mearcspeech.
“Eight left,” Brand replied.
Exhaling, Jalil turned towards Imad. “You will break him, and you will do so soon.”
“Please, sidi, you must understand. If I proceed too swiftly, the prisoner will say anything to make the pain stop. It becomes very unreliable –”
Jalil interrupted the torturer with another slap. “Tomorrow.”
“As for him…” Jalil turned towards Majid. “Listen to me, you faithless coward. I give you this respite until tomorrow to rack your mind for any knowledge, any name, any place. If you cannot provide me with anything, you will be tormented hour after hour, kept alive at the brink of death, until you remember.”
The prince left with swift steps. Imad watched him leave, sighing. “He’s going to undo days of work for me. It’s very difficult to do my task with all this interference,” he mumbled to himself. He glanced at Majid. “I suppose there is no need to work further on you. You’re a lost cause.” He reached out to grab the wooden pendant hanging around Majid’s neck. With a swift pull, Imad tore it off and threw it into the nearby brazier. The fire hissed and began consuming the wood. “A pity. I had hoped for more from you.” He turned his attention on Brand. “You, on the other hand…”
Hours later, it was night, even in the dungeons. Imad had gone to sleep; the prisoners sat on the floor, allowed some manner of rest. “Harun,” muttered Majid.
It took a while for Brand to respond. “Yes?”
“I can’t anymore.”
Brand raised his head, glancing at the other man. The faint shimmer from the coals in the brazier was all that illuminated their space, casting an eerie glow the colour of a sunset. Their clothes were reduced to rags. Sweat and grime covered their skin along with streaks of dried blood. “I am not keeping you here.”
“But you can set me free.”
“What do you mean?”
Majid slowly turned his head to look at Brand. “Please. Kill me.”
His fellow prisoner raised his hands, showing the irons upon them. “How?”
“If we stand. Now, while the chains are not tight. You have long arms, I’ve noticed.”
Brand coughed. “I have never killed a man in cold blood, or with my bare hands.”
“It is an act of mercy. Please,” Majid implored him. “I cannot face tomorrow.”
Brand stared ahead into the coals. “Very well.” He pulled his legs back and placed one hand on the wall, supporting himself. With some difficulty, hindered by his shackles, he managed to stand. His movements were still difficult, but the chains were sufficiently loose that he could extend his arms.
Majid had gotten on his feet as well and moved as far as he could towards Brand. “I have never paid much attention to the gods. Do you think it is too late?”
“If they will not accept you, they are not just and thus not worthy of you,” Brand replied.
“I wore your god around my neck, yet he seems to have brought only death. Is he worth your loyalty?”
“Yes,” Brand whispered. “He did his best to keep me safe. My own actions brought me here.”
Majid nodded. “Then I shall pray he will take pity on me, and that I will see you again in a better place.”
“In a better place.” Brand swallowed, blinking several times.
“Do it. Before I lose my nerve, before the day dawns, before I am damned.”
Brand reached out and placed his hands, one injured, around Majid’s throat. He squeezed. At first, Majid stood calmly with closed eyes. Suddenly, his eyes flew open. He gasped for air. He grabbed Brand’s wrists, trying to pry his hands away, to no avail. Finally, he simply clawed against Brand’s grip.
Tears crept down Brand’s cheeks, becoming dirty. Still, he held on until Majid no longer struggled. He continued to squeeze and squeeze until there could not be a mote of doubt that all life was extinguished in Majid’s body. When only dead eyes stared back at him, Brand finally let go. Majid fell forwards, hanging at an awkward angle in the chains like a lifeless doll. As for Brand, he sank to the floor, burying his head in his hands.
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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.