Honey and Oil
The princess, the prisoner, and their horse hastened away from the palace. With pained expression and some difficulty, Brand got on the steed, sparing his leg. He pulled Jana up behind him, and they rode away. Few were on the streets at night in the north-western part around the Kabir’s palace; they passed through what seemed an empty and eerie city.
Once they had distance between themselves and any possible pursuers, Brand steered the horse away from the main streets and into the medinas near the maswar. Shielded from most eyes by tall buildings, Brand gestured for Jana to dismount. Once she had, he followed suit.
“What happens now?” she asked.
Leaning against the horse, Brand wiped cold sweat from his brow. “We need to escape the city, but that is not possible for a while.” His words came tripping over each other, and his breathing was laboured. “First, I need several things.”
“You need to rest,” Jana told him. “Maybe we can find you a bed.”
“Too suspicious. Help me to sit.” He reached out to her, and she took hold of him by the shoulder, gently guiding him to sit against a house wall. “How long until sunrise, do you think?”
“Most of the night has passed. Some hours, maybe. Are you thinking of when the gates open?”
He shook his head. “The marketplace. You need to buy some things for me.”
“What do you need?”
“Wait. First, get me the jewels you brought,” he bade her, speaking with heavy breaths.
She obliged quickly, retrieving the pouch from the saddle bag.
“Thanks.” He opened it and chose a necklace; the pendant was laid with a few gems. He took the knife from his belt.
“What are you doing?” Jana asked, sounding a little aghast.
“Your jewels will look stolen. You try to sell them on the market, the guards will be called,” Brand explained. He inserted the tip of the knife into the socket, prying the gems out. “But travelling merchants often carry gems, sewn into their clothes. Much easier to hide and to transport than coins.” He wheezed the final words.
“Brand, you are not well.” She used her sleeve to wipe his forehead.
“You need to know. Listen carefully.”
“Yes, I am. Tell me.”
“There are jewellers at the small market. They buy and sell gems like these.” Brand placed the small rubies in her hand. “You are a merchant’s wife, exchanging these gems to coin for him. Make sure to dispute the price, or they will be suspicious. Demand more.”
Brand raised one hand with a feeble gesture. “There is more.”
“Yes, tell me, but sparingly. Do not exert yourself.”
“Use the coin to buy some things. Most importantly, honey and a small bolt of linen.” Brand stared at her with eyes that had a feverish shine.
“Honey and linen? Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes. Also water, food for the journey. A cloak of my height. Clothes for you to travel in. Understood?”
“Repeat it all to me.” Brand coughed.
“Honey, bolt of linen. Food, water, cloak, clothes,” Jana told him, staring at his face with concern.
“Good. Take the horse and this.” His hand trembling slightly, Brand gave her Salim’s knife.
“But you may need both! What if they find you while I am gone?”
“A beggar raises no suspicion, but a beggar with a horse…” Brand waved his hand in the air, letting the gesture conclude his sentence. “Leave me my sword. I can protect myself with that,” he claimed.
Although she looked doubtful, Jana rose and collected his sword from the saddle bag, leaving it by his side against the wall. He took it, placing the scabbard to rest alongside his leg. “Less obvious,” he remarked, causing another cough.
“Brand, I cannot leave you in this state.”
“You must. Else I will not make it.”
“Take my cloak at least, for warmth.” She began to unclasp it.
“No, no.” He raised his hand, fumbling against hers to make her stop. “Your clothes are conspicuous. Hide them under the cloak. Avoid riding, too. Walk.”
“Is there nothing I can do for you?”
“Get the things.”
“Very well. I shall return as soon as I can,” Jana promised.
“Wait.” He took hold of her wrist. “If I am not here upon your return, wait for me in the maswar. Southern end.”
“I shall.” She bit her lip. “What if you do not show?”
“Go back to the palace. Say I took you hostage. Know that you did all you could for me,” Brand told her in between short breaths. He leaned his head against the wall, closing his eyes.
She stood, staring down at his pale figure. Seeing him at something resembling rest, she grabbed the reins of the horse and left the alley.
East, the sun began to rise, and its light awakened the city. The hojon marched in through the southern gate from Almudaina, dispersing to the harbours and warehouses that relied on their labour. Vendors opened their stalls, taverns and serais served breakfast and drink, and the cold streets grew warm and bustling.
With one hand on her knife, the other tightly gripping the reins of her horse, Jana traversed the city of Alcázar. The further south she went, the busier it was, and the crowd became more diverse. Merchants with armed guards, servants of high and low status, slaves, day-labourers carrying great packs of goods, she encountered all of these. It was the first time she was outside the palace on her own.
Having walked an hour, Jana stopped outside a tavern, where a few men sat, eating the first meal of the day. “Forgive my intrusion. Could either of you point me towards the market?”
“I’m guessing you want the small market, yeah? Not the big one,” one of them said with a kind voice. His companion on the other hand sent Jana a leering look.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Continue down this street a good while. You’ll see a stream of people crossing. Just follow them, they’re all headed to the market too.”
“Thank you kindly, good master.”
“No trouble, child. Take care, you hear.”
She inclined her head to him, took a new hold on the reins in her hand, and hurried away.
She walked against the current of people; most moved towards the maswar to continue along the other major thoroughfares of the city. Pressing herself against her horse, Jana kept her head down and let the mare split the oncoming crowd to carve a path forward.
When the people in front no longer came towards her, but across, she turned and followed them. Going with the stream rather than against, her progress was easier. Soon, a host of coloured canopies met her eye, each covering a stall. Countless voices meshed together in disharmony. Food, cloth, all manner of tools, pottery, and more, all of this was yelled towards Jana. Pulling her hood closer around her face, she continued.
Asking around, she received directions to the gem traders. They all sat on the same long bench, with one table in front of them and one canopy above. Each had scales and tools; armed guards surrounded the tables.
Jana approached one who sat idle. Looking up, the trader smiled at her. “Please, come. You have precious stones to buy or sell?” He gestured for her to come closer.
“I do,” Jana confirmed.
He waved one of the guards forward. “Make yourself useful, take the mistress’ horse.” With a snort, the armed man did as told, taking the reins from Jana. It took her a moment to let go, but she finally stepped close to the table. “Let’s see, what do you have for me?”
Jana took out her rubies. With apprehension, she let them fall onto the black cloth in front of the trader. He smiled and struck each of the gems with a small hammer. Apparently satisfied, he took a thin knife and tried to scratch each of them. This accomplished, he leaned forward while stretching his hand out to hold them into the sun one by one, watching them reflect the light.
“Will this take long?” asked Jana, her voice a little unsteady.
“Not at all, good mistress. But you must appreciate that I must be certain of quality,” the gem merchant told her with a cordial voice. He placed the rubies on his scale, weighing them. “Didn’t your husband teach you to never to seem in a hurry? It puts you in a poor bargaining position.”
Jana gave a nervous smile. “He has, many times. I forget.”
“Very well, they all seem in order. I can pay you fifty silver for each.” He looked at her expectantly.
“That will be –” Jana interrupted herself. “My husband said to get sixty.”
“I could not possibly pay that. Fifty-five at most.”
“Fine. That will be one hundred and sixty-five,” Jana told him, holding out her hand.
“At least she can add numbers,” the trader muttered to himself, sticking a hand under the table to pull out a bag of silver. He added five to the purse and handed it over. “You may count them, of course.”
“I trust you,” Jana mumbled, accepting the coin. She turned around, nearly bumping into the guard holding her horse. With a faint apology, she took the reins and left.
“You can tell that the husband married her for looks,” the trader jested, prompting another snort from the guard.
It took Jana more than an hour to move across the market, buying everything that Brand had requested. Once her saddle bags were full, she wiped her forehead with her sleeve. It was not necessarily anxiety causing her to perspire; the sun was growing hot, and she still wore her hooded cloak.
Unlike in the morning, traffic along the main streets was less uniform at this hour. People moved in every direction, often carrying burdens on their backs or leading donkeys. More than once, people pushed into Jana, and at times, she practically stood still before she felt confident enough to move forward.
The pressure was relieved as she reached the maswar; the great square opened up before her, allowing people to spread out as they crossed it before streaming together down another congested road. With a grip so tight on the reins that her nails bit into her hand, Jana walked along the edge of the maswar until she reached a small alley.
It lay in darkness; the tall buildings did not allow sunlight to reach except around noon. Jana moved down the narrow street, finding it empty. She continued further along until other alleys crossed through, peering down either way. Not a soul was in sight.
The horse stamped its hoof against the cobbled street, mirroring the distress written on Jana’s face. “Brand,” she called out, but so quietly, the sound seemed to vanish in the air like smoke. “Brand,” she repeated. There was nothing but empty stonework to reply.
Grabbing the reins, she turned the horse around and went back to the maswar. Stepping into the sunlight, she pulled the hood tighter over her head and walked towards the southern end. Halfway there, standing in the middle of the square, she paused and looked over her shoulder.
In the northern end, the Tower of Justice rose in dark stone. Jana’s eyes, starting at the tall structure, followed the edge of the maswar. She glanced over the larger streets and the smaller, each of them feeding traffic into the maswar like rivers into the sea. Frowning, she began to walk back.
Reaching the alley she had just left, she continued to its neighbour. Finding only children laughing and yelling at her, she moved to the next. She pulled her hood down, narrowing her eyes as she walked from sunlight into darkness.
She let out a deep sigh. “I was so afraid,” she admitted, hurrying forward to kneel next to Brand. “How are you?”
“Alive. You have it all?”
“I do.” She stood up, patting the saddle bag on the horse. “Everything you asked for.”
“Good. Get out the water and the honey.” Jana dug out the aforementioned items, placing them on the ground. “Get me the linen.” She found the bolt of fabric and placed it in his hand. “Your knife.” She gave him that as well and watched as he cut some of the cloth. “Douse the cloth with water.” She did so. “I need you to clean my wound.”
“Oh. Of course.” She sat down by his leg. Even with sparse light, a dark-red colour could be seen, making her shiver. She took the wet rag from Brand and did her best cleaning dried blood and dirt away. “It is done.”
He took the jar of honey and handed it to her. “Put this on.”
“You mean – on the wound?”
He nodded. “It will prevent infection.”
“The things I learn today,” she mumbled, causing a faint smile to appear on Brand’s face. He was still pale, but he did not sweat or shiver. Carefully, she applied the honey like a paste upon his wound. “There.”
Brand cut a long piece from the bolt. “Bandage it with this. Careful it does not get dirty from the ground.”
“Of course. I – I need to move your leg up, though.”
He nodded in acceptance, wincing only a bit. Soon, his wound was treated and bandaged. “Thank you.”
“I am glad to help.” She gave him a joyless smile, standing up.
“Put this back, please.” He handed her the remaining linen, and she returned it to the saddle bag.
“I should put – wait.” She patted the inner pocket of her cloak. “The silver! I had a purse! Someone stole it!”
“That is Alcázar for you.” Brand still spoke slowly, but his breathing no longer sounded like the bellow of a forge.
“At least I got everything. This is for you.” She grabbed a cloak from the other saddle bag, unfolding it to place it like a blanket over him.
Sinking down to sit next to him, back against the wall, she blew out her cheeks. “What a morning.”
“What happens now?”
“They will be watching all the gates,” Brand considered. “We wait until it gets dark. Try to escape just before nightfall. If they discover us, we can lose them in the dark.”
“That makes sense. Do you think we are safe here until then?”
“No. The horse makes us look strange. Do you have any coin left?”
He nodded a little, leaving his head bent forward like a drunk. “We stable the horse at a serai for the day. Eat somewhere. Move around a bit. Avoid staying in one place. Avoid suspicion.”
“Brand, you are breathing heavier, and you sound worse again,” Jana told him, sounding worried.
He waved one hand in front of him, trying to make a dismissive gesture. “It will be fine. I rest a little. Then we leave.”
“If you say so,” she assented, though her demeanour was suffused with concern.
“You can still go back.”
“What? Go back where?”
“To the palace. Say I took you hostage. Do not throw everything away for me.”
She shook her head fervently. “If I leave you – if you get caught…” She cleared her throat. “It will all be for nothing. Salim will have… he…” Her voice began to quiver.
“I know. I know. I understand,” he told her in between his troubled breathing. “I will not say it again. For now, I rest. Just for a moment.”
She adjusted herself, letting him lean his head against her shoulder. As he closed his eyes, she used hers to keep watch; although she saw nothing to cause concern, her expression remained fearful.
Once Brand felt strong enough, they abandoned the alley and followed his plan. The horse was stabled for the remainder of the day, and their last silver was spent on a warm meal. Despite Brand’s injured leg, they did not stay long in one place but moved around the medinas near the serai that stabled their horse. Neither spoke much, and both kept their cloaks close around them.
As sunset approached, the pair fetched their horse and saddled it. Leading it by the reins, they moved east towards the Purple Gate. Getting close, they saw the road leading out of the city was blocked. Scores of people stood, waiting to leave Alcázar. Peasants on their wagons, ordinary travellers, and a caravan of camels and carts crowded the gate, none of them able to move forward. The guards inspected everything and everyone, taking their time.
“This will be a problem,” Brand muttered. “If they look closely at us, we are sure to raise their suspicion. I doubt we can bribe them either. Not when they are searching for the murderer of a prince.”
“Perhaps we should stay in the city?” Jana suggested. “If we give it a few weeks, maybe they will ease their vigilance, and we can slip out unnoticed.”
“Without coin, I am not sure how well we can hide ourselves. Besides, I need to reach Adalmearc before winter closes the paths. I must warn them of the invasion,” Brand told her quietly. They were trying to push their forward, without luck; they were surrounded by beasts, wagons, and the men driving both.
“But how can we get through?” Jana stood on her toes, looking at the gate. She could spot around ten soldiers. Most examined the travellers seeking to leave the city, while the rest kept watch of the crowd.
“We need a diversion.”
“Like you did at the docks. You lit a fire to draw attention.”
“Something like that,” Brand confirmed.
“These barrels…” Jana looked at the many different goods stacked around them. “Wait here. I have an idea.”
Before Brand could object, she disappeared in between camels and travellers, weaving her way around the crowd. As Brand tried to look in every direction while also keeping his face covered by his hood, Jana moved from cart to cart, exchanging a few pleasant words here and there.
Soon, she returned to him. “I have an idea,” she repeated.
“Nothing with running, I hope.” He shifted his weight away from his bad leg.
“There is a barrel of lamp oil on that wagon over there.” She nodded with her head to indicate the direction.
“All we need –”
“Let me handle that.” Jana gave what resembled a confident smile.
“Jana, be careful!” Brand urged her. “A panic in this crowd could cause a stampede.”
“Given our situation, everything we do involves great risk,” she pointed out. “Will you be ready?” She sent a look towards his injured leg.
“I will.” He straightened up to get a better look at the barrel in question. “I am just worried.”
She squeezed his arm. “Wait for me.” Once more, she moved through the throng of people, leaving him.
By the gate, a merchant argued loudly with one of the guards. “Sidi, please! My caravan must leave today!”
“I don’t see how that’s my problem,” came the reply. “Now move aside.”
“Sidi, if we’re not allowed to leave right now, I’ll have to find stables for the night for all my animals! It’ll cost me a fortune,” the merchant whined. He glanced towards the west, as if he could see the setting sun beyond the city.
“My heart bleeds. Look, you’re simply too many. It’ll take us ages to search your entire party, and we’re closing the gate soon. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Sidi, you don’t understand. It’ll cost me at least thirty silver.” The merchant lowered his voice while glancing around.
The guard sent him a look. “Thirty silver?”
“At least.” The trader hefted the heavy coin purse by his waist.
“Too bad!” The guard gave a sneer. “Now get back, and get your caravan out of here! Come back tomorrow.”
Commotion spread among the packed crowd hoping to pass through the gate. Most were unable to see the reason and could only discern the ripples moving through the people. Only those close by witnessed the curious sight.
A young woman entered a serai and stole a lamp, running out while being chased. Once among the host of travellers, she escaped her pursuers. As her next act, she threw the lit lamp straight onto a cart and its load. It broke, spilling oil and flames over the barrels on the wagon.
“Run!” screamed the driver, jumping down. “That’s lamp oil!”
A pillar of fire erupted, spitting flames in every direction. Shouts and shrieks could be heard as people fled. The square turned to chaos. Animals reared and ran away, some with carts hitched to them. In the ensuing panic and stampede, people were trampled and injured. Blood was in the air, and those standing in safety could do nothing but watch.
Through the noise and dust, a man came riding on a horse. He bent down to pick up a woman, slinging her onto the back of his steed. Spurring the beast onwards, they rode straight through the gate, shielded by the disruption. By the time the guards realised what was happening, the horse and riders had already passed them, galloping away from Alcázar.