Cari arrived at the audience chamber, which was empty except for one old clerk. There was no sign of the wali himself. Cari was prepared to materialize again and ask information of the clerk when an officer raced in breathlessly. “Urgent news for the wali,” he said.
“He’s not here,” the clerk replied in a high, wavering voice.
“Where is he, then?”
“He asked not to be disturbed.”
“We’ve caught the thief he seeks, and we bring him to the wali for interrogation,” the policeman stressed.
The clerk looked at him with narrowed eyes. “You have, have you? Well, well, perhaps he’d want to hear about that personally. Bring your prisoner to the third floor audience chamber in the north tower. The wali is in conference with Lady Shammara, so mind your manners.”
Confident she would soon receive some of the answers she needed, Cari flew up to the indicated room. She arrived well ahead of the policeman and his prisoner, and floated invisibly in an upper corner to await results.
The audience chamber would have seemed large in any ordinary house, but here in this magnificent palace it appeared small and intimate. The red-tiled floor was covered with luxurious carpets from far Sinjin, and the calligraphed designs on the walls were a mosaic of red, white, and black. Ebony pillars with inlays of coral supported the arched ceiling, and onyx candelabra standing on pieces of furniture about the room gave off their bright light. Braziers at the corners burned their incense, scenting the room with the refreshing fragrance of sandalwood.
With the exception of a eunuch who stood well to the back and out of sight, there were only two people in the room, a man and a woman. Cari inferred they must be the wali and Lady Shammara of whom the clerk had spoken. Shammara nibbled a piece of rahat lakhoum as she lounged comfortably on a diwan with lion-clawed feet; to Cari’s surprise, the woman had not bothered to wear her milfa, indicating this meeting might be more intimate than the clerk had hinted. She was dressed in lush, deep blue robes, perfectly arranged despite her deceptively casual pose.
The wali of police was a large, heavyset man who wore a silk embroidered vest trimmed with white fur over his richly brocaded kaftan. He had a thin mustache and a tiny, sharply pointed beard, and eyebrows that were thick black smudges against his forehead. He sat crosslegged on the carpet a few cubits in front of Shammara’s diwan.
“I only wish this search weren’t occupying so much of my time and manpower,” the wali was saying as Cari invisibly entered the room. “I was hoping to have some of my men available to help with the transition.”
“Still, it could very well be important,” Shammara said. “I’ve seldom seen that old bore of a priest so agitated. It won’t hurt us to be on the side of the priesthood now and then, particularly when it doesn’t cost us much. It would be nice to have their backing when we make our move, to help calm some of the inevitable complaints. If we do this favor for them, they’ll help us when the time comes.”
“But does it cost us so little?” the wali continued to worry. “With so many of my men out combing the city for this damned urn….”
Shammara languidly held up a many-ringed hand to brush aside his fears. “The transition has been meticulously planned for months. We know exactly who among the guard are supporters of Ahmad and who we ourselves can count on. Most of Ahmad’s men will probably go with him, making our job even easier. Even that fool Umar is going along; I’ve been trying to get rid of him for years. Within a few hours after the prince leaves the gates, his supporters in Ravan will have been neutralized. All will be done with such quiet and grace that no one will ever know. If by some miracle the prince escapes his forest ambush, he’ll never be allowed back in the city. Let him wander homeless as Prince of Nothing; it’s no more than the baseborn bastard deserves.”
Cari was growing bored with this discussion. Human politics interested her not at all, and she was sure it was of no concern to her master, either. She wished they would return to the matter of the lost article, which seemed to be an urn of some kind; that was a more promising avenue of information. Fortunately at that moment the police captain knocked at the door to the audience chamber. The eunuch who’d been standing behind Shammara walked quickly to the door and, after a moment’s interrogation, allowed the newcomers to enter.
The police captain strode proudly into the room, leading on a chain a tall, handsome man of middle years. The prisoner’s clothes were worn and frayed, but showed faded evidence of having once been respectable. His face was cut and bruised as though from a beating, but his bearing was nonetheless erect and proud.
The wali turned to his captain. “What is the meaning of this interruption?” he asked, and his tone made it clear he expected a very good explanation or the captain was not long for his position.
“O noble wali,” the captain said, kneeling on one knee, “I have brought before you the thief we have sought all this day.”
Shammara sat up a little straighter at this. Before she restored her face to its relaxed mask, Cari seemed to see a predatory flash in her eyes.
“Indeed?” The wali looked the prisoner over from top to bottom. “Well, thief, what have you to say for yourself?”
The man gave a deep salaam. “I send a prayer of thanks to Oromasd and the Bounteous Immortals for having brought me before the wali of police, a man noted throughout all Parsina for his fairness and generosity, for his mercy and his inborn sense of justice. With the wali himself hearing my case, I have no doubt….”
“Silence!” the wali bellowed. His eyes narrowed as he peered more intently at the prisoner. “I have a whole staff of fawners and flatterers; I don’t need it from a stranger. What is your name, thief?”
“I am called Jafar al-Sharif, the storyteller, the recounter of legends….”
“The liar,” suggested the wali.
“That’s being a little harsh,” Jafar said. “My stories are meant to amuse and instruct, never to harm. Lies are the province of Rimahn and his daevas….”
“Why did you steal the urn?” the wali interrupted.
“Ah, now we get to the crucial point, O merciful and clement wali,” said Jafar. “I did not steal anything. Until this moment I didn’t even know what it was I’d supposedly stolen.”
“My captain says you did steal it.”
“Hard as it is to believe of such a noble officer, I’m afraid he’s mistaken.”
The wali looked to his captain, who spoke up immediately. “The man lies, Your Eminence. We found the evidence in his room and he admitted ownership.”
“You recovered the urn, then?”
The captain hesitated. “No, Your Eminence; though we searched the entire caravanserai where the thief was staying we could not find it. We did, however, find the altar cloth that was stolen at the same time, and the thief admitted it was his.”
“I but found it in the street this morning, Your Eminence. Had I known it was stolen, I would have returned it immediately.”
Shammara deigned to comment for the first time. “Catching the thief is not nearly as important as recovering the urn,” she pointed out to the wali.
The captain spoke up again. “O noble wali, there was a young girl living in the caravanserai with him, and she escaped before we could question her. Perhaps she has the urn.”
The wali nodded as he considered this, his little beard seeming to point at his wobbling chins which multiplied as he nodded. “Very possibly,” he mused aloud. “I authorize a search for her, too, captain. When you find her, cut off one finger or toe a minute until she tells you where the urn is.”
Jafar’s whole expression changed suddenly. His eyes widened with fear and his lips trembled. He prostrated himself full length upon the ground and began pleading with the wali.
“O noble wali, the girl had nothing to do with it. She is guilty only of being my daughter, a grievous fault she’s borne nobly. I confess: I and I alone committed the robbery of which you speak. She was asleep the whole time and knew nothing of it. I didn’t even tell her about it afterward, for fear she’d want me to share the loot with her. She knows nothing of any of this, I swear it by Oromasd himself.”
The wali smiled—a greasy smile of triumph. “That’s more like it. Tell me the details of your crime.”
Jafar hesitated. “That may be a little difficult, Your Eminence.”
“Why should it be difficult, rascal? You were there, you just admitted it.”
Jafar got back up to his knees and looked plaintively at the wali. “Yes, but—uh, but you see, I have no idea which crime you’re alluding to.”
The wali drew back and looked at him. “Then you admit to committing several crimes?”
Jafar al-Sharif gulped loudly. “I seem to be slicing my veins deeper with each word I utter, but—well, who among us is perfect, O merciful wali? We all commit many minor transgressions every day against the laws of Oromasd, and it’s only through his divine forgiveness that any of us achieve the House of Song….”
“Quiet! You make my head ache,” the wali said. “I refer to the theft of the urn.”
“Ah, but which urn? I steal so many urns—big urns, small urns, tall, narrow, urns of glass and urns of pottery. They all blend together in my mind.”
“The reliquary urn that stood in the Royal Temple behind the Bahram fire,” the wali raged. “The golden urn half a cubit tall encrusted with diamonds and emeralds.”
“Oh, that urn,” Jafar said. He wanted to use his hands to gesticulate but, chained as he was, he could not. “Well, it’s funny you should mention it, there’s a very interesting story that goes along with it. I was walking down the street yesterday, feeling very hungry and thinking back to how much better things were before I came to this city. You see, I come from Durkhash originally, and I was known there as an expert storyteller. All the nobles would pay me a princely salary to entertain at their tables….”
“Enough!” bellowed the wali. “If you tell me this instant where the urn is I shall spare your life and send you away with merely the loss of both your hands.”
Jafar took a deep breath. “A very generous offer, I’m sure, Your Eminence, and well in keeping with your reputation—but I’m still afraid I can’t help you.”
“Because I can’t remember where I put it.”
Shammara smiled with wry amusement. “You can’t remember where you put a golden urn covered with jewels?”
Jafar turned to her. “That’s right, O beautiful princess. You see, I have this peculiar habit of burying all the urns I steal, each in a different place around the city. I never make any money from my thefts, it’s just sort of this peculiar thing I do. I like to steal urns and bury them. At this very moment Ravan is probably filled with buried urns. If you’ll give me time, I could try to find where I put this one. It’s probably in one of about a dozen places….”
“I have more efficient methods of refreshing stubborn memories,” the wali said. Turning to his captain, he continued, “Take this rogue down to the dungeon and have him questioned in depth. Tell Aswad to give the matter his personal attention. Just make sure the thief stays alive until we’ve confirmed the location of the urn; if he dies prematurely, we may never find it.”
“I hear and obey,” the captain said. He stood up and began dragging the protesting Jafar out of the room by his chain.
“Oh, and captain,” the wali added. “My order about the girl still stands. Spread her description throughout the city, and when she’s found her fingers and toes are to be cut off until we find the urn. And order the searches at the gates stepped up. That urn must not be allowed to escape.”
Jafar was shrieking and wailing as he was dragged from the room and down the corridor. The eunuch shut the door, cutting off the worst of the noise.
“He may very well be innocent,” Shammara said casually of the departed prisoner as she relaxed into her diwan.
“Anyone who lies that fluently must be guilty of something,” the wali reasoned.
Cari, meanwhile, decided she’d heard enough. This reliquary urn seemed to be the focus of all the activity she’d seen in Ravan this night—and the fact that it had been taken from behind the Bahram fire at the Temple of the Faith meant that it must have some powerful religious significance. It could well be that this theft was what caused the disturbance in the magical web. Her duty now was to tell her master what she’d heard and let him judge what should be done next.
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