An Even Table
Morning was announced in the dungeon by a bowl of cold gruel pushed through the hatch into Brand’s cell. He had no spoon and had to use his fingers instead.
“He has a fine new coat of fur, but the mouse is back in his cage,” squealed Imad from the other side of the door. He was standing on his toes, peering through the barred window. “Eat, eat and grow fat, my little mouse.”
Brand finished his meal, ignoring the torturer peeping at him. When he was done, he pushed the bowl back.
“Not a squeak, little mouse? Afraid you’ll be fed to the cat?” Imad giggled to himself, pressing his face against the window of the door.
Brand smashed his hand against the bars, sending a start through his jailer, who tumbled backwards. “The crow is loud while the eagle sleeps,” he said from within the cell, settling back against the wall. “You should not disturb my sleep.”
Imad hissed, getting on his feet. “When they take your head, I will be in the crowd, jeering and cheering!”
Brand lay down, turning his back to the door.
Salim waited outside Jana’s chamber. He did this each morning while a slave helped Jana dress and set her hair. Once the slave left to assist the next lady in the harem, Salim entered, announcing his presence by clearing his throat.
“Good morning, Salim.” Jana turned her head quickly, sending him a smile.
He scowled at her.
“Yes, I understand your hesitation.”
He crossed his arms.
“Fine, your scepticism. But I am only going to talk to my brother. Surely that is harmless.”
He frowned, gesturing at her.
“I have an idea that I will mention to him, that is all. Nothing that will reflect poorly on me,” she promised him.
He asked a question with a raised eyebrow.
“I understand that to you, he is nothing more than a prisoner, and a dangerous one at that. But while he lived in Alcázar, Brand was my only friend in this palace.” Jana walked over to place her hand on his shoulder. “If I can help him, I believe that I should. If I am to spend the rest of my life in this chamber, at least let me do some good when the opportunity arises.” She looked up at him with the pleading eyes of a child.
He gave a sigh and asked another question.
“Nothing complicated. I will take the morning meal with Rana and her family, and then I will ask Saif to walk with me in the garden. If I can sway him to help me, everything will be fine, and you can rest easy.”
Salim shook his head.
“Always so full of doubt.” She patted his arm. “I am not even involving you. Why not take the opportunity to see your old comrades in the city? I know you did not go last time I suggested.” She had a sly look on her face as she spoke.
He raised his hands in defeat.
“I will see you later.” She smiled at him and left for the dining hall.
In his library, the Kabir was served a light meal consisting mostly of steamed vegetables. A slave squeezed a lemon on top of the plate and salted the food as well, after which the ruler waved his hand to send him away. As the slave departed, the hāgib entered, bowing his head deeply.
“What do you have for me?” asked the Kabir.
“Two dispatches of note, my lord. The first will please you greatly.”
“Meaning the second will not, and you want to give me the good news first, you rascal.”
The hāgib gave a guilty smile. “You know me too well.”
“Let us hear it.”
“We have the final tally of all the ships that Labdah may send us. It is more than we estimated, and they will finish any repairs over the winter. In other words, they are ready when we need them,” the hāgib informed his master.
“It would have been better if they were ready now,” the Kabir muttered. “Very well. At least something is going right. What is the other news that have you trembling?”
“Nothing quite as terrible, sidi. Simply reports from our garrisons up the coast. Our increased troop movements have put pressure on the sources of water,” the hāgib explained.
“We have not even sent a thousand in total,” the Kabir exclaimed. “They cannot seriously lack water.”
“They do not, sidi, forgive my clumsy explanation.” The hāgib bowed his head reflexively. “But once we move reinforcements towards Maleth, the pressure will increase. Already our soldiers clash with the desert dwellers, and our lieutenants wish to know how to respond.”
“The desert dwellers,” snorted the ruler. “Those primitives. If they cannot find water, they should go elsewhere. Inform the troops to do what is necessary. I will not tolerate anything to impede their march north.”
“Very well, sidi, I shall do so without delay.” The hāgib gave a bow and retreated, walking backwards until he left the room. Alone, the Kabir took a fork and began eating his meal.
After the midday meal, Jana took a stroll in the Kabir’s extensive gardens accompanied by her brother Saif. It was a popular place for the courtiers to spend their leisure time, though few did so during the noon heat. While the time of the day forced the pair to move from shade to shade, it also afforded them solitude.
Regardless of the heat, Saif walked with confidence, a smile, and one hand casually on the pommel of his sword. By his side, Jana seemed equally carefree and relaxed. “Your mother has always been a cheerful person, but these days she seems to burst with it,” Jana remarked.
“She is rather pleased,” Saif agreed. “I think my sisters are exhausted just trying to keep up.”
“Well, she has good cause to be. Rumour is around the palace that you are undisputed Father’s favourite.”
“The rumour is true,” Saif confirmed with satisfaction. “He gifted me a sword and his confidence. This very sword, in fact.” He clapped the pommel by his side.
“I was wondering why you felt the need to walk armed,” she considered with gentle laughter. “I thought maybe Jalil’s defeat in the hall had made you wary.”
He laughed. “Hardly.”
“It was quite a spectacle. Better than anything I ever saw in Labdah.”
Saif gave a grin. “I should be thankful to the northerner. He gave me not only this sword, but also Father’s favour.”
“Oh, is it his?”
“It was,” Saif corrected with a smug expression. “A strange blade, but strong metal, I am sure. Father thinks the same.”
“Fascinating.” Jana cleared her throat. “Watching the fight in the hall gave me an idea, actually.”
“I suppose it was Jalil’s idea first, but for once, his thought might have merit,” she added with a wry smile. “You should arrange for fights like those in Labdah. It would make you popular without doubt, and since you have Father’s ear, I am certain he will allow it.”
“I suppose I could,” Saif considered. “Every fight would remind us all of Jalil’s defeat, which is quite the extra grape on the stem,” he laughed.
“Very true,” Jana smiled. “And you already have an excellent fighter you could name your champion.”
“Of whom are you thinking?”
“The prisoner, of course, who so handily defeated Jalil. Imagine how incensed he would be!”
Saif laughed again. “A capital idea. I almost wish it could be so.”
“What prevents you?”
He glanced at her as they walked side by side. “He is a spy. Regardless of his rank, he must die. There can be no leniency in his case.”
“You are the future Kabir. Surely such is for you to decide?”
He shook his head with an overbearing smile. “Father would never allow it, and I see no reason to ask him. Considering what this spy and his companions have cost us, he should be grateful for a swift execution.”
“It seems so harsh. Do you not owe him a debt? Because of him, Jalil has lost the favour now bestowed upon you,” Jana argued.
“That seems contrived,” Saif laughed. “He is an enemy of our city. Death is the only suitable fate for him.”
At his side, Jana turned her head away, biting her lip.
Imad bowed his head low. “Forgive me, sidi, I can’t say. I have no knowledge of where the prisoner was taken.”
Jalil stared down at him with cold eyes. “Then tell me what you do know!”
“Only that yesterday, a mamluk fetched the prisoner. He took him away for many hours and returned him in the evening,” Imad explained.
“And you simply allowed this without question?”
“Forgive me, sidi. When a mamluk wearing the livery of the Kabir gives me an order, I obey.”
“Simpering fool.” Jalil shot a look towards the door behind which Brand was imprisoned. “How did the mamluk look?”
Imad’s tongue moved around his mouth, searching for words. “Like a mamluk, sidi. Tall and strong, sword by his side. Short hair.”
“That describes all of them, you decrepit vermin!”
“Yes, sidi, because they look the same. All mamluks do.” Imad bowed his head low again, hiding his expression.
“Did he wear the livery of the Kabir’s personal guards?”
“I couldn’t tell you the difference, sidi, they all look like falcons to me.”
Jalil exhaled in frustration. “They all wear falcons, you moron, we are the House of al-Saqr! But the insignia is different whether it is a servant to the Kabir, to the harem, or elsewhere in the palace.”
“Forgive me, sidi, I rarely see them. They have little reason to enter my home, and I do not seek them out.”
Jalil muttered a curse. “Did the prisoner reveal nothing about where he had gone?”
“He is not very talkative, sidi, and I am not allowed to make him talk.”
“It must be that old hag Rana in her harem chamber, like a spider in her web,” Jalil spat. “Tell me exactly what the mamluk told you. How did he convince you to release the prisoner?”
“He said nothing to me, sidi.”
Jalil frowned. “I thought he came alone.”
“Oh yes, sidi, he was most assuredly alone, but he did not speak.”
Jalil balled his hands into fists. “I swear, if you do not make sense soon, I will strangle you.”
“I think he was mute, sidi, he could not speak.”
“But how did he tell you to release the prisoner?” Jalil nearly shouted in frustration.
“A written message, sidi. I did not question it. After all, he was a –”
“A bloody mamluk in the Kabir’s livery, yes, I got it.” Jalil gritted his teeth. “Wait! Where is that message?”
“Oh, I think I used it to light a fire.”
“You burned it?”
“My coals had gone out, you see, and it gets very cold down here,” Imad explained. “Or maybe that was the letter from my brother… he doesn’t write interesting letters, sidi. Burning them is the best use of the paper.”
“I will stuff those coals down your throat, while they are burning, if you do not find that note!”
“Of course, sidi, let me look.” Imad cleared his throat and walked away. He rummaged through his tools, opened drawers, looked under pillows, and anywhere else. “Ah!” He hurried into the chamber where days before, he had tortured Majid and Brand. He bent down next to the table with his tools. “One leg is a little uneven, you see,” Imad called out to the prince, standing in the central chamber of the dungeons. “It has annoyed me for years, but you know how it is, you always put off dealing with it.” He pulled out a folded note underneath one of the table legs. “But yesterday, with all my prisoners gone and paper in my hand, I finally took care of it.”
“Shut up and bring it to me!”
“Of course, sidi, at once.” Imad hurried back to Jalil, handing him the note. “But now my table is uneven again.”
Jalil grabbed the paper from the torturer’s hand. “If you say one more word, I will feed you your own tongue.” Imad clamped his lips together. “Do not speak of any to this, either.” The prince turned around and walked away with hasty steps, leaving the torturer to sigh.
From his cell, Brand looked out between the bars of his window. Seeing Jalil leave, he retreated back into the darkness of his cell.