A Worthy Spectacle
“Explain how you could be so careless to let a prisoner die.” Jalil’s voice was calm, but he spoke with a clenched jaw.
“There are marks from fingers around his neck,” Imad explained. He was sweating despite the room being cold. “The northerner must have strangled him.”
“Preventing him from talking,” Jalil sneered. He grabbed Majid’s hair, pulling his head up.
“With respect, sidi, I don’t believe he had anything more to say. I think the torments you threatened made him –”
“You dare blame me?”
Imad swallowed and bowed low. “Never, sidi.”
“This failure will cost you,” Jalil promised him, letting Majid’s head drop. “I will see you punished!”
“Yes, sidi.” Imad kept his head down.
“First of all, do not tell anyone. There is no need for my father to know.”
Imad cleared his throat. “My apologies, sidi.”
Jalil stared at him. “No. You did not.”
“It is my duty, sidi. These are the exalted Kabir’s prisoners.”
“They are my responsibility!” the prince shrieked.
“Alas, I am first and foremost the exalted Kabir’s humble servant.”
Jalil stared at the little torturer with a multitude of expressions running across his face. “Keep this one alive. Can you manage that, you despicable creep?”
“Of course, sidi. I will not be strangling him, after all.”
Jalil let his tongue run over his lips slowly. “You will pay when I have time to deal with you.” He turned on his heel and marched out of the room.
Imad let out a heavy breath. “I hope he doesn’t become the next Kabir. What a nightmare my work would become.” He looked at Brand. “Very cheeky, you. I’ve never had a prisoner die unintentionally before.” He ran his hand over the edge of the table containing his tools. “I can’t damage you, not without my master’s approval. Fortunately, much can be done leaving little trace.” Without having to look, he moved his hand to pick up an instrument.
Jalil went straight to the harem and his mother’s chamber. As he entered, she stared at him under heavy eyelids. “I heard.”
“That fool failed me!” Jalil complained.
She raised one hand to silence him. “The blame is irrelevant. The fact remains, your position is weakened.”
“He was not of much use, anyway,” Jalil mumbled. “He had not told me anything worthwhile.”
“It does not matter. In the eyes of your father, you have taken a loss. He will respect you less because of it.”
Jalil chewed on his lower lip. “You think so?”
“I know your father’s mind.” She sat up from her divan, straightening her back. “He will begin to favour Saif over you, unless something changes. Unless we change something.”
“What can we do?”
“What can you do,” his mother corrected him.
A small girl entered from a side corridor. “Mother?” she said tentatively.
“Not now!” came the reply, sending the child running. “You must prove yourself to your father another way,” she continued at Jalil.
“Of course, Mother, but in what way? This was the task he gave me.”
“We need to show him – and the court – that you are superior to your half-brother when it comes to war. After all, the soldiers will need a commander they can respect,” she considered.
“How can I do this?”
She leaned back on her divan. “You still have one prisoner left.”
Close by, another of the Kabir’s sons visited his mother in the harem as well. “You sent for me, Mother?”
“I did,” Rana confirmed. “I have received word. One of the two prisoners in the dungeons has died.”
Saif widened his eyes and broke into a smile. “Poor Jalil! He must be in a state trying to recover from this. Was it his own eagerness that went too far?”
Rana shook her head. “It happened during the night. I could not discern the reason, but either the torturer made a mistake, or the other prisoner decided to silence his companion.”
“I suppose either way, it leaves Jalil crippled.”
“Do not be too hasty. By all accounts, the truly valuable prisoner remains in Jalil’s hands. You still need to prove yourself, my son. Jalil’s mishap does not prove your worth. Should it come to it, your father has other sons.”
“Of course. I continue to pursue the spies with all means at my disposal,” Saif defended himself.
His mother regarded him with a curved eyebrow. “And has this yielded any result?”
“They remain elusive,” he admitted.
“With this development, Jalil, or should I say his mother, will be trying anything to make up for it. Be on your guard, my son!” she urged him. “Remain diligent in your duties and give none cause to doubt you.”
“I shall, Mother. I did not plan otherwise.”
“Do not underestimate that old hag or her odious son,” Rana continued. “I will be vigilant as well. Go, resume your duties. Let none accuse you of being lax in your duties.”
“Very well, Mother.” He inclined his head towards her and left.
Despite his mother’s command, Saif did not leave the harem. Instead, he walked through a few corridors to reach Jana’s chamber. He knocked and received no answer. Waiting a little while, he finally entered. “Sister? Are you present?” he asked, peering into the room.
A female voice reached him, coming from the corridor on the other side of the room. He waited until Jana came into sight, accompanied by Salim. She was talking, and both were smiling. The prince cleared his throat discreetly.
“Saif! You took me by surprise.” Jana’s smile faltered a little before returning. “I was just in the gardens with Salim.”
“Pleasant surroundings, but perhaps one-sided conversation,” Saif remarked with a wry expression.
“Salim has lots to say. You just have to listen,” she argued, sending the mamluk warrior a fond look. “What do I owe this unexpected visit?”
“Just had some news to share,” her brother explained with a satisfied smile. “One of Jalil’s prisoners died during the night. This will have thrown his plans into chaos.”
“I see.” While Salim took position by the wall, she sat on a sofa. “I see the reason for your joy.”
He remained standing, tripping in place. “If we are fortunate, our father will soon be done with him.”
“If we are fortunate,” Jana repeated. “It seems a pity a man had to die for this, though.”
“Your gentle heart speaks well of you, but you need not feel troubled. He was a traitor, helping the spies for the sake of coin. Not to mention, knowing Jalil, his death might have been a mercy.”
“I suppose there is that.”
“You should come sit with us at the evening meal again today,” Saif encouraged her. “My mother is always in a good mood when she has your company.”
“That is very kind of you to say.”
“I must go,” he continued. “I have matters requiring my attention before the meal. I will see you later,” he smiled, taking his leave.
Jana turned her head towards Salim. “Your tongue may be quiet, but I can hear your eyes speaking like a waterfall even without looking at you.”
He gave a wry smile and a few gestures.
“I know, I know. Alcázar is my home once more.” She looked pensive for a moment. “Is it strange that sometimes I miss our seclusion in Labdah? I felt alone and thought I wished a return to Alcázar, but now, this palace seems a more solitary place to me.”
Salim responded, adding an understanding expression to his mute motions.
“Very well. I will leave for the evening meal now. You should take some time for yourself,” she suggested. “You have barely left the palace since our return. There must be more thrilling entertainment in the city than standing in my chamber all day.”
He winked, inclined his head, and left her alone.
As the sun approached the horizon, the dining hall filled with courtiers. They spread out in natural patterns like birds across the sky, arranging themselves in semicircles as always. One difference was that today, fewer sat with Jalil and his mother than they had yesterday. After a while, the Kabir entered the hall from his private entrance, taking his seat upon the dais reserved for him. While plates and cups were brought to him, he had a servant summon one of his younger wives for company.
“He does not call for you or your brother,” Rana remarked quietly to her son. Jana had joined their circle, conversing lightly with one of Rana’s daughters.
“He wants to keep us on our toes,” Saif suggested. “That is always his habit.”
“An art he has perfected,” she said with a wry look. “And with the fleet preparations delayed, he has plenty of times to think of more ways.”
“It will be a long winter.” Saif gave a little sigh in mockery.
“What is this?” exclaimed Rana. Her eyes rested on Jalil, having risen from his seat to approach the Kabir. Granted permission to step close, the prince exchanged quiet words with his father. Soon after, a few servants were dispatched by Jalil, leaving the hall.
“I suspect we will find out,” Saif considered, watching his brother.
Standing by the dais, Jalil moved to the side that he might face the court without having his back turned to the Kabir. He raised one hand to demand silence, which came easily; he already had the attention of everyone present. “My lords and ladies,” he called out. “With the permission of the exalted Kabir, I wish to present a spectacle to you. As all know, earlier this year I returned from Labdah, having ensured that city’s allegiance towards our exalted Kabir.”
Saif rolled his eyes.
“In that savage city, I witnessed a display of skill and swordsmanship. A warrior of the North, gruesome and fierce, fought on the sands against a champion born of Alcázar. The northern savage was fearsome in his fury, killing all in his rage. Against him, our champion stood as a tower of skill and strength. In the end, our warrior proved superior, as was to be expected, and he struck the northerner with ruin.”
“He killed an inexperienced fighter who had never been on the sands before,” Saif whispered to his mother.
“I do not like this,” Rana admitted. “I do not like this at all.”
Jalil continued. “As Alcázar is greater than Labdah in all respects, the exalted Kabir has granted me leave to present a better spectacle to you all. In our dungeons, we have a prisoner from the North. A devious villain, he was discovered setting fires in the city!” Gasps were heard. “It took ten guards to subdue him, and many wounds he gave them. Some would fear to face this creature, more beast than man, but the sons of Alcázar fear none!” A few cheered; most remained silent in anticipation. “As evidence of this, I will face this savage before your very eyes! I will wear no armour, no protection save a sword and my skill.”
“I will bet you the poor soul probably has broken hands and cannot even hold a blade,” Saif muttered.
“Surely your father cannot be impressed by this,” his mother declared. “Such posture and vanity!”
“I would ask you all to make room in the middle of the hall,” Jalil said. “Before the exalted Kabir’s eyes, and yours, I shall battle this dog and punish him for his misdeeds!”
The Kabir gave a nod in acknowledgement of this command, and the courtiers rose from the ground, moving to the sides until the centre was clear. Jalil stepped into the open space with a smile. “We all know that the North is home to countless savages. In older times, they would appear in their ships, plundering our coasts and disappear before we could strike back. Because they know that one of our mamluk warriors is worth ten of theirs. Skill has heavier weight than numbers, and none can stand against the sons of Alcázar!”
There was commotion at the far end of the hall; two guards entered with Brand in chains between them. The prisoner stared around with a wild look. His clothing was torn open, revealing his neck and chest along with the wounds upon them. Dirt covered both his tunic and skin, and two fingers on his left hand were swollen. His right hand lay on his throat, covering the leather string surrounding it.
“Behold the villain!” Jalil cried out. “Even now, murder is in his eyes, but fear not. We shall fight with blunted swords, and the guards will keep his murderous intent in check.” The courtiers mumbled, and several pressed backwards to put distance between themselves and Brand. Meanwhile, more guards appeared, taking position along the edge of the cleared space where Jalil stood. “Remove his chains,” the prince commanded. While Brand was freed, a servant appeared with two dull swords, meant for sparring. He gave them both to Jalil with a bow and hurried away.
“I hope he trips and impales himself,” Rana muttered, watching Jalil holding the two swords.
“I think the blade is too dull to impale anything,” Saif told her.
“Good. It will hurt more.”
The prince, meanwhile, had approached Brand. “Fight me or die,” he told the prisoner in Mearcspeech, throwing one blade onto the ground. Retreating two steps, Jalil swung his own sword around a few times before he turned to face his father. “At your pleasure, my lord.”
From his seat, the Kabir gave a nod in signal. Jalil whirled around, raising his sword and assuming a fighting position.
Brand stared around the hall, at the courtiers, the prince in front of him, and the blade on the ground. Slowly, he leaned down to pick up the weapon with his uninjured hand.
With an expression between a smile and a sneer, Jalil stepped forward to make a quick stab at Brand, like baiting an animal. In response, Brand jerked backwards, and he finally raised his sword. Seeing his opponent ready, Jalil advanced more carefully, striking several blows from different angles and forcing Brand to parry and retreat. With flourishes and wide swings, Jalil was entertaining the crowd as much as he was fighting.
He attacked, Brand defended.
Jalil was a prince of Alcázar with an aptitude for sword-fighting trained since childhood.
Another blow, another parry.
Brand was a knight, likewise skilled and trained.
A deep thrust from Jalil, a step backwards from Brand.
Had they met on the battlefield, the fight would have been equal.
Avoiding another thrust, Brand circled around Jalil.
Brand was wounded, starved, and had not seen sunlight in days.
A rapid succession of strikes, a quick defensive manoeuvre.
Jalil was fighting to adore the spectators rather than to win.
The prince raised his sword in a wide strike, looking impressive. Having plenty of time to react, Brand did not parry, but simply stepped to the side. He struck his blade down against Jalil’s sword hand. With an outburst, the prince dropped his weapon. Brand followed up by striking the pommel of his sword into Jalil’s chest, sending his opponent sprawling to the ground.
The court looked in shock, but none dared interfere. Brand’s sword hovered over Jalil’s face; although blunt, it could easily take an eye out. The guards stood frozen as well, looking at each other or the Kabir. As for him, the ruler sat with a stone face, not revealing any emotion.
Brand let his eyes run over the crowd. “I am a knight of Adal,” he proclaimed in Suthspeech. “Go north, and you shall face ten thousand like me!” He threw his blade to the ground in a contemptuous manner, stepping away from the prince.
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