The clang of steel interrupted the afternoon post prandial stupors of all palace personnel. It was the Sultana training her children in sword fighting. Everyone stayed clear of the practice arena except designated personnel. The only designated personnel were the ancient Zaran, a sword master who had been teaching the royal family for two generations now, and a young lady Zoya who was his granddaughter and who was the only outsider allowed to spar with the royal children during practice sessions.
The practice arena was an open courtyard surrounded by the palatial quarters on all sides. Rose bushes that were imported from a far off land bordered the arena, creating a gentle, romantic perimeter to a place that saw combat and bloodshed on a daily basis. The Sultana's training of her children was fiercer than most parents would visit upon the children of their enemies. She wasn't shy about plenty of nicks and scratches and cuts even - so long as they learned their lessons. Not one of these wounds was even remotely life threatening, but they did reinforce in her children the value of proper timing and plenty of practice.
The seriousness with which the Sultana took this time with her children had been tested a few times. Most notably a sweeper had continued his chores in the practice arena even after the Sultana had announced session commencement. They retrieved his head from a stone urn that guarded one of the exits of the indoor arena.
Princess Mediha was good with sword fighting, but her younger sister, the princess Lubna was the best and the fiercest of the Sultanlings. At the tender age of twenty, she was matching her mother stroke for stroke, and offering as many scratches and nicks as she received. In the course of the next couple of years, it was clear that she would emerge the superior swordswoman. Her eerie resemblance to her mother was also noted by many.
The third princess, Yasmin, was also quite the tomcat, at eighteen. Her main rivalry was with her twin brother Osman. They looked similar in broad strokes, but had plenty of differences. Both had their father's gray eyes and their mother's olive skin, and jet black hair like their mother. They had lean physiques, much like panthers, and they had reflexes to match. They needed these, in order to measure up to their elder sisters' battle prowess.
The fact that she could perform as well as Osman, and even beat him on occasion, was the pride of Yasmin's life, much to her mother's disapproval. The Sultana was a liberated woman in every sense. She did not see it as the central role in a woman's life to measure up to men. She did not think that equality of men and women was even something that deserved discussion or mention. It was natural to her, and there were more pressing matters to focus on. While many in their opulent land did not share her views, and women were treated as chattel in corners of their kingdom even, she didn't approve of women treating equal status with men as an achievement. It was something that was a birthright. The absence of a disease is not health. So also, being equal to men, is not the same thing as any sort of real accomplishment. What comes next is what each woman, or man for that matter, accomplishes with the rights given to them.
They used scimitars that were similar to later Arab Muhaddab in their training. This was one of the few kingdoms that employed curved swords, something that was practically unknown in the ancient Arab world. The curve was the Sultana's specialty. Using that curved edge to convert near misses into fatal blows was something that she did with ease. In battle, she had torn out numberless jugulars with the curved tip, just as her adversary was sure that she had missed. With her children, she used the same curve to pull her punches, so that she could demonstrate that they could have been killed, while they only suffered a scratch.
Many wondered what this brutal training was for. Again, perhaps it had to do with the Sultana's mysterious and unknown past. Whatever it was, it was clear that the Sultana wasn't going to trust her children's safety to anyone but themselves. It stayed within the family.
Rawer knew he was being tailed. He had too much battle training to ever completely drop his guard, and this constant alertness made him constantly aware of threats, potential and real, in his vicinity. Now he knew that he was being tailed. He didn't sense immediate danger, but the idea of it was ever present.
Not many would mess with Rawer. He stood close to seven feet tall, which was tall even in his country. Here in the Arab world, he was a giant. Not a scrawny rack on which people hung their furs and animal skins - but seven feet of muscle and sinew and sheer battle ready reflexes. Still, someone had the gall to tail him.
The market in the kingdom reeked of lamb, beef, a melange of spices, perfumes, flowers and tobacco smoke. A camel could be heard barking in the distance, its bark interspersed with the barks of a multitude of dogs. It appeared that the camel was trying to keep the dogs at bay in some form or fashion.
Rawer passed a flower stall, manned by an ancient lady with parchment for skin, beads for eyes, and a plate of matted silver for hair. She reeked of hookah and jasmines. Rawer winked at her, and ducked next to her stall, hoping that his tail would come into sight. He paused with bated breath.
A young man, who looked like he had Hellenic origins, with olive skin and black curls, emerged from a crowd that perpetually blocked this busy concourse. His eyes were searching for someone, his quarry perhaps. Rawer knew it was him, the moment he saw his eyes. This man wanted something from him, and he wasn't sure what. He decided to take the plunge, and figure out what the problem was.
The young man walked in the direction of the flower stall. The owner of the flower stall was now trying to get the Nubian's attention from within the stall, and asking him to buy something or leave. He tossed her a coin to shut her up, and put a finger to his lips and a warning in his eyes to let her know that he had other business here. She winked conspiratorially and shut up thankfully.
The young man was confused, but as Rawer suspected, walked in the direction of the flower shop. He walked right by Rawer, who seized him from behind in a viselike grip and hauled him a foot off the ground. The young man struggled, as the Nubian cutoff his air supply and allowed him some time to become intimate with fear.
He hauled him away into an enclosure that was surrounded by thick foliage behind the shop, and dropped him on the floor. The man fell coughing and wheezing, and rolled at Rawer's feet clutching his throat. The Nubian stood poised for action, knowing that size and a surprise attack didn't mean that the young man wasn't capable of deadly violence - even to one such as himself. It was what distinguished those who returned from war from those that didn't. There were more that fought like Rawer in the Sultana's army than one would think possible, but most were overconfident. What kept him alive was his ability to stay alert even when some part of his mind told him that relaxing was okay, and that there was no apparent threat.
The young finally turned and looked up at Rawer, prompted liberally by the Nubian's boot. He winced, and cowered when they made eye contact. He started to say something and then shut up.
"Why were you following me, Hellene?" Rawer asked, kicking him in the ribs again.
The young man doubled down from the pain, and Rawer realized he had just broken one of his ribs without meaning to.
"I - I just wanted information," the young man managed to say.
"What information?" Rawer said.
He stopped the kicking for now. The young man was in no condition to take any more abuse from him.
"I heard in the royal kitchen that you have information about the royal family," the young man said, a very cautious and measured look sharing space with the fear in his eyes.
Rawer tensed. He knew that this young man would either lead to both their deaths, by pursuing this line of questioning, or that he sought some simple favor from the royal family, and was a fool in how he approached them. He prayed that it was the latter.
"What did you hear, Hellene?" he said, staying alert, and scanning the foliage for accomplices, and for eavesdroppers.
"You are close to the princess," the Hellene said in a measured voice, as though he were saying something that someone else had asked him to say.
Rawer knew that the young man was going to lead them both to their deaths, if they went much further. He backed away a pace.
"Choose your next words carefully, Hellene," he said. "Such statements can be misconstrued."
There were no Royal guards converging on them. He hadn't heard any rustles in the foliage. He knew that the old woman was chatting with some customer, and nothing in their voices indicated caution or alarm or anything that a person does when they see something that is a deviation from daily routine.
The young man must have been obtuse, or else he had been given lines to say. His next words were the exact ones Rawer had been dreading.
"The princess is sucking your cock, Nubian," he said, glee and triumph entering his eyes.
Rawer broke the Hellene's neck with one well aimed kick. There was no point in going through the information gathering process with this young man who was out of control. Now he had to dispose off his body.
The only possible witnesses were the shop keeper and her customer. He could hear them well enough, but he had very sensitive hearing. He wondered how much they had heard. He decided that he would hide the body in the foliage for now, and return at night to finish the task. He would have to dispose it off in a wadi or a well. The best option would be to take the body and leave it in the desert, but that would be akin to suicide. There were other dangers out there that were far worse than being found out in the kingdom.
As he went back the way he came, he looked at the shopkeeper and her customer. The shopkeeper didn't glance at him, and the customer, with her back turned to him, seemed to be a thin, waif like woman with black hair, and wearing a full length dress. He couldn't make out her face. He needed to find out who she was. He knew that he would strangle the shopkeeper at night. But he needed to know who his other future victim was.