An Orchard Meeting
At night, the palace was quiet, but not empty. Guards patrolled the corridors. The Kabir and the hāgib might both work late, either together or apart. Sometimes, men or women would sneak from one chamber to another, carrying out activities best hidden from the light of day.
Tonight, Salim was among those walking the hallways. He made no attempt to hide himself; he walked, calm and casual, progressing through the palace. Wearing the Kabir’s falcon-crested uniform, none questioned his presence; to others, he was simply another guard.
Reaching the dungeons, the sentinel by the door sent him a bored look. “They got you working the moonlight hours too?” he asked.
Salim raised his right hand, making gestures with it. The guard frowned, not understanding. Meanwhile, Salim’s left hand grasped his knife. Distracted, the guard was too late to notice the blade thrust into his throat, cutting his windpipe. Gasping for breath that would never come, unable to raise the alarm, he sank to the floor; Salim caught him, opening the door beyond to drag him inside the dungeons.
Closing the door behind, Salim pulled the body into an open cell. Returning to the central chamber, he saw Imad appear from his private room. “What’s all this noise?” asked the warden, rubbing his eyes. The area lay in darkness; only the faint light of glowing embers from coals gave any illumination.
Salim’s fist came like the kick of a horse, sending Imad back to sleep. Stepping over his body, Salim found the keys in his room. He crossed the dungeon and unlocked Brand’s cell.
The latter got on his feet swiftly, bowing his head in gratitude as he walked out. Salim placed a hand on his arm, gaining his attention, and drew his knife. He gestured to where Imad lay unconscious before pointing at himself or Brand, back and forth.
“Let me,” Brand said quietly. “I should shoulder the responsibility.” He took the knife from Salim and walked over to Imad.
Already, the torturer was waking up. Seeing Brand approach with steel in hand, he began crawling backwards. “No, please, no! I won’t tell a soul, I swear! Trust Imad, he won’t tell! No, please!”
He could not crawl fast enough. Brand stood above him, staring down without pity. The knife blinked as it moved quickly, slashing Imad’s throat open. Placing the knife into the rope serving as his belt, Brand grabbed the dying man with both hands and placed him in his bed, leaving him to bleed out.
Returning to the central chamber, Brand offered the knife back to Salim, who shook his head in refusal. He patted the sword by his side and pointed at Brand’s empty hand.
“Very well. Thank you, Master Salim,” Brand told him. “I will see you in the orchard.”
Salim nodded in confirmation and moved to the door. Signalling for Brand to stay back, he opened to peer into the corridor. Finding it empty, he stepped into it, waving for Brand to follow him.
A slender, female figure also moved through the palace. Within the harem, the few guards paid her little heed. Their numbers increased as she approached Prince Saif’s chamber, but being his favoured sister, none saw reason to bar Jana’s progress.
She entered her brother’s rooms, much larger than her own. Besides being richly furnished, they also held statues and other works of art. The walls wore paintings, while maps of foreign places lay on one of the tables. Cautiously, Jana moved further in. The outer chamber had several doors; one of them led to Saif’s bedchamber. Seeing no weapon rack or armoire, Jana entered where her brother lay sleeping.
The bedroom had several wardrobes; one contained clothes, the other contained arms. Jana examined both and found the latter, letting her hands move inside to feel the metal of Saif’s armour; the darkness did not allow her eyes to see much. With careful motions, she moved her hand until she felt the hilt of a sword. She pulled it free from its rack and brought it close to her face. Her expression turned to disappointment; it was clearly a native blade. She returned the sword and tried the next, finding only a long dagger.
On her third attempt, she retrieved a sword with an emerald laid in the pommel. On the cross-guard, strange marks were inscribed. Straightening up, Jana cautiously removed the sword entirely from the armoire.
“Who – Jana? What are you doing?” Blinking repeatedly, Saif sat up in his bed.
“Forgive me, Brother. I did not mean to disturb your sleep.” Jana moved, trying to slip the sword behind her back.
“Why are you here at this hour? Is something wrong?”
“No, not at all. I am sorry. I should not have come here. I will leave you to your sleep.” She took a step backwards towards the door.
“Why do you have a sword behind you? What do you need a sword for?” Saif pulled his covers away to sit on the edge of his bed. “Jana, what is going on?”
“I – simply wished to see it, but I was embarrassed to admit it to you. Silly of me, I know.” Jana gave a nervous laughter.
“That is the prisoner’s sword.” Saif frowned. “My mother heard a rumour he had been sent to the harem… Jana, what is happening?”
“Nothing, Brother. I am simply being silly. I just wanted to see it.”
Saif stood up. “Jana, I have never known you to be silly for one moment. Is the prisoner back in the harem? Are you taking the sword to him? Jana, you know he is a skilled warrior, this could be dangerous!” He advanced upon her, taking hold of her shoulders.
“No, Brother, not at all! I have no idea where the prisoner is,” Jana claimed. She stepped back to escape his grip. “I was just being foolish. Please, could you forget you saw me and return to sleep? We will never speak of this again.”
Saif stared at her. “Are you helping him escape? Bringing him his weapon to fight his way out?”
“No, Saif, nothing of the sort! I just wanted to see what Father gave you.”
“Jana, that sword was Father’s gift to me.”
“Saif, I need you to forget about me and return to sleep.”
“Give me the sword first.”
“Saif, do not betray me the way you betrayed Dalia.”
He stared at her with a hurt expression. “How can you say that to me? I chose you! I saved you!”
“I did not ask for that. But I am asking for this. If you truly care about me, this is what I want. Forget I was here tonight,” she impressed upon him.
“I cannot fathom why you would do this, but if it involves the prisoner – his escape will humiliate Jalil further.” He returned to his bed. “If Father finds out about your involvement, I cannot and will not protect you.” Saif did not look at his sister as he spoke his final words.
Jana gave no reply, but turned around and hurried away.
Armed with only a knife, Brand moved silently through the palace. He often had to hide or move into smaller corridors, aided by his knowledge of the premises. Although it took him a long time, he was able to leave the main building without causing alarm. Under the cover of night, he moved along walls to reach the stables.
Inside, the finest horses in Alcázar could be found. Brand chose a mare that seemed gentle of mood, allowing him to approach and caress its mane. He looked around in the dark until he saw saddles and other equipment for riding a horse.
“A horse thief as well?” exclaimed a voice. Brand spun around, knife in hand. Jalil stood in the stable, blocking the exit. The prince already had his sword in hand. “I should not be surprised,” he sneered. “Why Jana is helping you, I cannot understand. That foolish girl will be punished, but rest assured, so will you.”
“How did you know?” asked Brand while his eyes glanced around in search.
“You were not nearly as careful as you thought,” Jalil told him with obvious delight. He advanced on Brand, sword raised and ready. “This palace has countless ears and tongues. But do not worry. I will not kill you now.” He gave a cruel smile, whipping his blade back and forth in the air. “Just hurt you as payment for your insults. And then we will have another duel in front of the court, and everyone can watch as I kill you.”
This time, the prince fought without pretence of any kind. He struck, swiftly and cleanly. With the short reach of his knife, Brand could not retaliate. He had to retreat, step by step. Jalil’s eyes glowed with malice; he took his time, watching Brand grow desperate.
Pressed into a corner, Brand ran out of room. He reached for a horse blanket with his free hand; at the same time, Jalil made a deep thrust into Brand’s leg, stabbing him below the knee. There was an outburst born of pain, and Jalil smiled as he pulled his sword back; he did not do so fast enough. Brand threw the horse blanket over Jalil’s sword hand, weighing it down while covering the blade. Ignoring his wound, Brand launched himself against the prince, and they both landed on the ground. Brand thrust his knife into Jalil’s chest repeatedly, until it was a mire of blood and rags.
Gasping for breath, Brand ceased his movements. The prince stared with dead eyes at the ceiling. Pain and exhaustion upon his face, Brand got on his feet. He wiped his knife clean on Jalil’s sleeve and carved away a strip of the prince’s trousers, using it to bind his own wound.
Limping, Brand dragged the prince’s corpse into an empty stall and covered it with the blanket. This accomplished, he returned to the mare he had originally chosen. The sounds of fighting and the smell of blood had upset the beast; with gentle words and comforting touch, he calmed the creature until he was able to saddle it. Taking hold of the reins, he led the horse out of the stable towards the orchard.
Jana moved among the fruit trees and their shadows in the moonlight. She had a cloak around her, dark in colour. The place was deserted at night, and many of the trees were in full blossom this time in the year; their full foliage made her invisible to anybody inside staring out of windows. The ripe scent of countless fruits surrounded her, but she did not seem to take notice; with an anxious look, clutching a sword to her chest, she hurried forward.
Ahead, she spotted the orchard door; she gave a sigh of relief seeing Salim by it. He was dragging the body of a guard through the doorway. No wounds were upon the slain, only finger marks upon his throat; Salim had strangled him with his bare hands.
“Salim!” Jana said softly. The mamluk raised his head hearing her voice; he finished pulling the body away, leaving the orchard clear of evidence, and went through the doorway again.
He sent a few gestures, asking a question.
Jana nodded. “I am fine. Where is Brand?”
Salim pointed at a pale figure, leading a horse towards them. Even from a distance, his hobbled walk was evident.
“You have my sword.” Brand smiled weakly. “Put it inside the saddlebag.”
“Brand, is everything well?” Jana asked concerned while she did as he requested.
“Jalil followed me. He cornered me in the stable. I had to kill him,” Brand confessed. “He must have spied on us. I only hope your involvement can remain secret now.”
“Brand, are you badly hurt? You look pale as a ghost.”
“Just my leg.” He grimaced for a moment, contorting his smile into a mask of pain. “I lost some blood, but I can walk. I can ride. I can escape.”
Salim slapped his fist against his open hand repeatedly, making his impatience clear.
“Here,” Jana told Brand, retrieving a pouch from her garments. She placed it in the saddlebag as well. “This is all my jewellery. In case you need to buy your way out.”
Brand’s smile returned. “Thank you, Jana, for everything. I owe you my life. Both of you.” He looked at Salim. “I should go.” He took a step, wincing, and had to grasp the mane of his horse for support.
“I am fine. Just – the blood loss. Little more than I thought.” He took another step forward, slowly leading his horse towards the orchard door and his freedom.
“To arms! A murderer is loose! To arms!” The cry came in the distant, by the stables.
“They found the prince,” Brand mumbled. He hastened forward, but misjudged his own strength, and his wounded leg twisted under him. Acting quickly, Salim reached out to steady him.
“Salim, he will never make it on his own,” Jana told the mamluk. “He needs our help.”
“I am fine,” Brand mumbled. He renewed his grip on the reins of the horse, continuing.
“Salim, please, we cannot abandon him now.” The princess looked at her protector with pleading eyes.
“Spread out! Search the grounds!” Around them, torches appeared in the darkness, encircling them.
Salim looked from Jana to Brand, trying to pull the horse towards the orchard door; the opening was so low, the mare could barely fit through. The mamluk looked back at the young woman he was sworn to defend.
Taking a deep breath, Salim nodded to Jana and pushed her in Brand’s direction. She slipped ahead of the horse, grabbing its reins to help Brand lead the beast forward. Within moments, the two were outside the palace.
The yells of a guard reached them even there. “Over here! The small door!”
“Go back,” Brand urged her. “Before they find you here!”
Jana shook her head. “You can barely walk, let alone ride. You will not get far on your own.”
“Jana, you have done enough!”
“Salim and I will –” She was interrupted by the sound of the orchard door being shut and bolted. “Salim?” From the outside, she hammered her fists against the wood. “Salim!” It was of no use. The door had no bolt or handle on the outside; it could only be opened from within the orchard. “Salim!”
On the other side of the wall, they heard weapons clashing and cries of death. Salim was performing his final duty for his mistress.
“Salim!” Jana cried out in despair.
“Jana!” Brand grabbed hold of her, forcing her to look at him. “He is buying us time to escape! We cannot waste it!” One hand on the reins of the horse, the other holding Jana, Brand began to hobble away. Tears falling from her face, Jana abandoned the door and followed him.