Seeing Brand disarm himself, several things happened at once. The crowd reacted with a multitude of emotions. The guards swarmed forward to seize Brand. Jalil got on his feet, staring at the prisoner with undisguised hatred.
“Prince Jalil!” The voice of the Kabir cut through the noise, and the courtiers became silent. “Prince Saif,” the ruler added. “With me. Guards, take the prisoner to a cell where he may rest.” The Kabir rose from his seat and left the hall through his private doorway; his sons hurried to follow him.
As they walked through the corridor, all three men were silent, though the brothers wore vastly different expressions; the Kabir’s face was blank. He continued until he reached his library, finally turning around to look at his sons. “Do you understand what you have done?” he asked Jalil.
“He took me by surprise! I can fight him again –”
“Silence.” The Kabir’s voice was calm but with an unmistakeable edge. “First of all, you allowed the prisoner to declare himself a knight to everyone present. If he is of noble blood, it will be dishonourable to torture him. You have deprived yourself of your remaining opportunity to find the other spies.”
Jalil looked pale. “I did - I did not –”
“Silence,” the Kabir repeated. “Yes, you did not think. The entire court saw you bested by a ragged prisoner.” A measure of disgust flowed into his voice. “You have dealt a blow to our own forces, making them doubt House al-Saqr. How are they to face the northern armies with confidence after this display? Certainly not under your command.”
This time, Jalil remained quiet. By his side, Saif looked increasingly satisfied.
“Remove yourself from my presence. Do not go near the prisoner. You have failed me, and I will not tolerate further failings on your part.” The Kabir stared at his son with harsh eyes. Swallowing, Jalil bowed his head and retreated from the room. Once he was gone, the ruler looked at his other son. “This is yours.” He walked over to open a cabinet containing trophies of past conquests and took out Brand’s sword.
Saif accepted it with a bow. “I shall not disappoint, Father.”
“No. You shall not.” The Kabir turned towards a map that hung upon his wall, great enough to show both the South Cities and much of Adalmearc. “Come. We must discuss the future.”
Once more in iron, Brand was led by guards through the palace. They returned him to the dungeons, but not the torture chamber as before. Instead, he was led to a small cell nearby, barely large enough that he could lie down in it. Its only redeeming feature was a coarse blanket lying on the floor, shielding him from the worst of the cold stonework beneath. The door was solid wood. Near the top, it had a window with bars, allowing light to enter and any occupants to be observed; a hatch was cut into it at the bottom, which could only be opened from the outside. Chains removed, the guards pushed him inside.
Shortly after Brand’s arrival to the cell, the small hatch was unbolted, and a bowl of food pushed through. “You may be behind this door, but you’re still in my kingdom,” Imad told him through the barrier. “You’re a mouse in a cage. Rest while you can, little mouse.”
Brand did not reply; he took the bowl, sat up against the wall, and began eating.
In the harem, Jalil stood with his head hanging before his mother. Her eyes regarded him under their heavy lids. “I cannot even look at you,” she muttered, turning her head.
“It was your idea,” he said in defence.
“I thought you would win against a filthy prisoner. My son, I thought, would at least be capable of that,” she exclaimed with venom in her voice.
“I did not expect him to react the way he did!”
“Spare me your excuses,” his mother hissed. “While I am disgusted by your performance, this is not the time for chastisement. We have until winter ends to remedy this situation before your wretched brother goes north with the fleet, along with your future.”
“Tell me everything you know about this prisoner. Other than his superior swordsmanship, of course.”
The insult made Jalil’s face twist for a moment. “I do not know. I only interrogated him a little, and he did not reveal anything. That foolish torturer did poorly,” the prince claimed. “He did not know how to break him.”
“That in itself says something. He is not some pawn, eager to buy his freedom. He may very well be a knight, though he speaks our language well, which is strange,” his mother considered.
“He had an unusual sword when he was captured. It seemed far more valuable than a common knight would possess,” Jalil explained.
“He could have important relatives in the Seven Realms,” she contemplated. “Relatives that might be exploited. A father commanding a castle, or a mother knowing secrets. Some mothers will do the most foolish things for the sake of their sons,” she added.
“Yes, Mother,” Jalil mumbled.
“We will have to watch this prisoner. That old witch, Rana, is sure to think along the same lines. Meanwhile, you will stay far away from him.”
“But Mother, he insulted my honour! I must have satisfaction somehow!”
“No, you must not! Your failure is your burden to bear. Now be gone! You have tired me.” She lay back on her divan, waving her hand in dismissal.
“Yes, Mother.” He skulked away.
Elsewhere in the harem, a conversation around the same topic played out between another mother and her son. In contrast, both were smiling and laughing. “I will never forget Jalil’s face, lying flat on his back!” Saif exclaimed.
“The dirty northerner should have pushed that blade just a few inches down,” Rana remarked. “Losing an eye would have taught Jalil some humility.”
“I think the humiliation will serve that purpose,” Saif told her, sounding less vicious. “Always priding himself on his swordsmanship,” he continued. “Jalil will not be able to show his face for weeks!”
“Is that the sword your father gave you?” Rana asked. They were sitting on a sofa together, and she extended a hand to touch the pommel of the sword by his side.
“It is,” Saif said, satisfied. “A blade like no other, thus fitting. I shall take great joy wielding it against the northerners when the time comes.”
Rana moved her fingers down the hilt and over the runes inscribed on the cross-guard. “You should not wear this, my son. Who knows what evil power lies in these markings?”
“Mother,” he spoke with teasing admonition. “If they hold any strength, surely that will only make the blade better.”
She shuddered a little. “Their gods are not ours. Far from their lands, you may be safe, but who knows once you travel hence? You may have given yourself into their power.”
“This is a sign of Father’s favour,” Saif reminded her. “I must wear it, else he might think I scorn his gift.”
“Very well, but leave it behind in camp when you ride to battle,” his mother demanded. “Do not give their primitive gods any power over you.”
“If that will make you feel better, I promise to do so.”
“Thank you, my son. It is the same sword that was taken from the prisoner?”
“It was,” Saif nodded. “Clearly, he knows how to use it.”
“There is much about him that seems strange,” Rana considered. “Not only this sword, but his claim to be a knight. I have met a few in my time at court, and they are not spies.”
“Perhaps they are, and we simply never knew before.”
“Perhaps… Regardless, you should keep an eye on this northerner. Ask your father what he intends to do with him. I have an ill feeling about him!”
“Be at ease, Mother. I already spoke to Father, and he intends for the prisoner to be executed at the next day of judgement. Beheading, as befits his status.”
“Good, good.” Looking relaxed, Rana smiled at her son. “Everything is falling into place.”
Brand had only been in his new lodgings for a few hours when the door opened. He shielded his eyes against the sudden light, weak as it was, and heard Imad’s voice. “You’re to follow this guard. Don’t ask questions, and don’t try to run. If you do, you’ll end up back here with your ankles slit.”
Still keeping his eyes squinted, Brand got on his feet. He pushed his way past Imad, who growled, but did nothing else. With a heavy hand on Brand’s shoulder, the mamluk guard led him out of the dungeons. They walked through corridors intended for the servants to move quickly through the palace without being seen, often staying below ground.
At length, they reached a small room with a pool and a few basic necessities for cleaning. An old woman and a male slave were already present. “Remove your clothes,” said the former, while the latter filled water in the pool.
Brand hesitated, looking at the guard, who stared back with one hand on his sword hilt. Clearing his throat, Brand complied, removing the rags on his body.
The woman ran her fingers over Brand’s torso. “Already healing,” she mumbled. “As long as they’re kept clean and don’t open again, they’ll be fine. Now about this…” She took hold of Brand’s left hand, making him wince in pain. “Not good, but not too late, I think.” She gently pressed against Brand’s fingers, feeling the damage underneath the purple skin. “Steel yourself, boy. This will hurt.”
She twisted one of his broken fingers, making Brand’s entire body tense. “One more.” She repeated the procedure, which Brand accepted with gritted teeth. “There. Healing will be slow, but at least they’ll heal properly.” She took out a roll of bandages from a pouch and placed it around the broken fingers. “Best you don’t use it for at least a month, probably two.”
“That’s all, I take it,” the old woman said to the guard, who nodded. He stood in the doorway, blocking it; now he stepped back, letting her leave.
“In here, if you please,” the slave told Brand, gesturing towards the pool. He had finished preparing the bath.
Eyes darting between the servant and the warrior, Brand stepped into the pool. “What is this?”
“You’re to be washed. With good reason,” the slave added and began to scrub the filth from Brand’s body. “This is hardly worth keeping either.” He touched the leather string around Brand’s neck.
A hand shot up to grab hold of the slave’s. “No.”
Offended, the servant wrestled his hand free. “Only trying to make you presentable. Gods, some people.” He continued his duty, adding oils to Brand’s hair. Little by little, the signs of Brand’s imprisonment were removed from him.
When he was finally presentable, Brand once more moved through the palace. He wore a clean if simple robe of linen, same as most servants. The mamluk was by his side as before, leading him by the shoulder with a firm grip. They left the servants’ quarters to enter the harem, still using the passages that kept them invisible to courtiers and nobility.
At length, they entered one of the many chambers housing the women of the Kabir’s family. A curious sight spread before Brand’s eyes. On the floor, a meal had been placed with meats, fruits, and bread. A pillow lay alone on one side; a woman sat on another pillow opposite. She was dressed as to be expected by a wife or daughter of the Kabir. Her hair was covered with a veil clasped across her face, hiding her features. Only her dark eyes were visible, looking at Brand.
“Please, enter and have a seat.” She extended one hand in invitation. The guard led Brand forward, hand on his shoulder as before, and pressed him to sit down. This accomplished, he took position right behind the prisoner, hand ready on his sword hilt. “Forgive my companion if he seems discourteous. He is merely zealous in his duties.” Brand made no reply. “I imagine you have not eaten well lately. Please, do not hesitate.”
Brand turned his eyes from his companion to the meal before him. “Will you eat?”
“You need not worry. This is not Labdah,” the woman told him, and her smile could be sensed underneath her veil. “But I can if it will put you at ease.”
“If you wanted to cause me outright harm, you would not have to resort to poison.” Brand glanced over his shoulder at the armed warrior watching him. “But we are sitting on the floor, making me believe you respect the customs of Alcázar. Another custom holds that if you share a meal with any under your roof, they are your guest, and you have no ill intentions towards them.”
“Very true, sir knight. That is your rank, is it not?”
Brand cleared his throat. “It was. As you can see, my golden spurs are gone.”
She reached out with delicate fingers, picked a grape from the stem, and guided it under her veil to eat it. “There you are, sir knight. If you will eat or drink as well, the custom is satisfied.”
Brand filled his goblet with what turned out to be cider made from apples. He took a sip and placed the cup on the ground. “Very well then.”
“You are curious, no doubt, as to what is happening.”
“I am told your true name is not known. Is this so?”
He hesitated. “Yes, that would be the case. In the spirit of hospitality, I would ask that continues.”
“As you wish. Please, you should eat.” She gestured towards the food, and he took some bread. “I only wondered because if you had revealed your rank as a knight and your name, surely you would have been much better treated.”
Brand swallowed the bread. “If they had believed me. Besides, I do not wish my name known. Let my family think I have disappeared rather than receive word of my ignominious end.” He pulled the meat of a fowl into pieces, small enough to chew.
“I respect your position. I should warn you that some might be able to piece together your story nonetheless. You are rather unique.”
Brand raised his head to stare at her eyes, framed by veil and cloth. “There is little to distinguish me.”
“You are a knight, by your own admission.”
“One out of thousands.”
“You know our customs. You speak our tongue as if you were born in this city,” she pointed out.
“Both can be learned,” he argued.
“But it takes time. You seem young, sir knight. Your childhood must have been spent in this city for you to acquire such fluency to pass as a native of Alcázar.”
He cleared his throat. “A city such as this has many travellers.”
“But few knights who live in the Kabir’s palace. The manner of your speech reveals you learned our tongue in marble halls, not on the street.”
Brand’s shoulders tensed. Behind him, the guard shifted his position a little. “There are no knights in this palace, as far as I know.”
“Not anymore. There used to be, years ago. Sir Athelstan, his name was. He had a squire named Adalbrand,” she explained, her gaze wandering while recounting her memories. “Before I left for Labdah, on the last day I saw him, I gave him a knotted leather string as is our custom. I believe I see it around your neck in this very moment.” She locked her eyes on him.
Brand’s hand flew to his neck. His fingertips moved across the leather as it lay twisted against his skin. “Jana?” he whispered.
She moved one hand to unclasp her veil and reveal her face. “Forgive me for acting coy. I thought it best to make sure it was truly you.” A cautious smile played on her lips.
“How can this be?” He extended one hand towards her; it shook in the air. Behind Brand, the mamluk growled until he pulled his hand back.
“Peace, Salim. Brand can be trusted.” The mamluk’s face expressed his doubt better than any gestures could.
“You were sent away. I thought you were to marry,” Brand told her.
“I was. It turned out to be unnecessary. I only returned earlier this year. Waiting until the next time my father needs an alliance,” Jana explained.
Brand exhaled slowly. “The gods are kind, after all, to comfort me with this meeting. Perhaps – perhaps you can send word to my sister. Do not explain my fate in detail, simply that I met my end trying to do good.”
“I asked, but I could not find out why you are even here. All I learned was that you, or your companions, set fire to the city, which does not sound like anything you would ever do.”
Brand looked apprehensive. “I am far different from the boy you knew. It is true,” he admitted. “I burned the stores of sailcloth at your father’s shipyard. My hope was to damage his fleet and ruin his ability to wage war against Adalmearc.”
She gave a mournful smile. “That does sound like the Brand I knew.”
“I did what I could, what I thought right.” His expression mirrored hers. “I tried.”
“I cannot fathom what you have been through, what strange story has brought you back to Alcázar,” she admitted. “But maybe I can help.”
He frowned. “How? My crime is clear. There can be no judgement upon me but execution.”
“Maybe not. Your fight in the hall has given me an idea,” she told him.
“You think your father will listen to you?”
“I doubt he would even recognise my face,” she confessed. “But others hold influence in this palace as well. Have courage, Brand. You are not without friends.” Salim gave a growl, making Jana nod. “I think Salim is worried should any notice our meeting. I am sorry, but you will have to return to the cells.”
“I have suffered worse,” he told her with a rueful smile.
“I think I can tell. Your brow is heavy, Brand, with many burdens,” Jana told him. Salim placed his hand on Brand’s shoulder, interrupting their conversation. “Yes, very well, Salim. Forgive me. You will have to follow him back. But we will meet again when we can.”
Brand rose to his feet. “When we can,” he repeated. He inclined his head. “Thank you, Jana.”
“It is my pleasure. You should go.” She watched as he walked out, followed by Salim.