The stink of the slave hold hit him the moment he stepped onto the ladder.

It was a far too familiar stench – sweat, blood, fear and despair, mingled together with the lingering smell of urine, shit and spoiled food – and Gabriel barely managed to keep from grimacing. He kept Misericordia held at the ready as he descended the small steps and kept his eyes on the burly slavemaster who stood as far away as he could manage while still being aboard this boat. The man slowly and very visibly lowered his bloody whip to the deck before holding up his hands.

“In the name of the Allah the Merciful and the Prophet – Peace Be Upon Him,” the man said in rapid Arabic, “I beg for my life, Dread Master.” He knelt and promptly prostrated himself on the deck, much to the wide-eyed surprise – and dawning hope – on the faces of the slaves. Of them, there were a good two dozen, all stripped to a loincloth and with backs dripping from recent scourging. None looked to be particularly strong or well-fed, and Gabriel wanted to recoil from their expressions.

“Don’t kill him,” Dane said. He was crouching at the top of the stairs. “Get him onto the deck and let Mags interrogate him.” Gabriel grunted.

“Get up,” he ordered harshly, his accented Arabic rough and likely hard to understand. He stepped closer to the man, placed the sharpened edge of Misericordia against the man’s neck. “Get up now,” he repeated, “or you will not be able to get up.” The man rose, hesitantly, but advanced toward the ladder, his body taut with terror.

“Does he have any keys, Brother Gabriel?” Mendel asked as he stomped down the stairs. “Let us free these poor wretches for I see that they are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” The clamor from the slaves grew rapidly as they suddenly understood that freedom was at hand and it chased Gabriel out of the hold.

On the deck, he found Merasiël gulping in air and trying to look as though she was firmly in control of herself – she’d fled the hold almost as soon as she entered it – while Rainald was scowling at the tail of the rapidly escaping other slave ship. Brisk, clean air caught Gabriel’s cloak and flicked it back, but the smell … he could not forget that smell.

He would never forget that smell.


Fourteen Years Ago

Gabriel had a very bad feeling about this.

His employer was striding along the rows of shackled men as their owner tried very hard to convince Sayyid Taimur bin Faakhir bin Taayib to accept slaves in lieu of hard coin. To his credit, the merchant was not budging and, if Gabriel was not mistaken, was on the verge of saying or doing something that might be construed as an insult. When Sayyid Taimur – Fat Tom to all of them, despite the fact that he was not truly stout – had announced his intent to return to Shaniyabad in order to replenish his wares, Gabriel had thought it would be an interesting diversion. He had grown to appreciate Tom’s descriptions of his homeland and, for a heretic who adhered to a false religion, the man wasn’t all bad. And, indeed, from the moment they’d come into view of Shaniyabad, it had seemed like something out of a dream. The soaring minarets, the exotic smells, the gleaming towers of gold and silver … it was everything the bards made such a place out to be. For a moment, he was actually able to believe Tom’s insistence that Megalos would be happier if only they embraced the true words of the Prophet.

And then, they docked and Fat Tom led his expedition – twelve men, all of whom were of al-Wazif birth save Gabriel, though most spoke Megalan as fluently as he did – into the dark heart of the city where the wonders were exchanged for nightmares. Whores and cutpurses lurked in every corner, sometimes being more subtle about their intent (as in the case of the former) while at other times, being far more belligerent about it. The slave markets here were just as cruel and vile as those in Megalos, though here they sold men and women who might have once been Gabriel’s neighbors in a former life. There was no shame in what was done – Gabriel saw one man stripped completely nude so he could be properly appraised, and then the same was done with a young girl barely into womanhood – and he felt his blood pounding in his ears. Only his father’s lessons with the flame and the void kept his thoughts from showing on his face as he was struck by a wall of sound and scents he wished very much to flee. The noise was bad enough – the wails of pain and broken dreams – but the stench … until now, he’d never thought that despair could have a smell.

“I have no need for a man such as these,” Tom said abruptly. He gestured in the direction of Gabriel and the others. “I already have strong arms and swift blades.” The scowl he gave the slavemaster was unexpectedly effective. “What I require is the coin that you promised me for these Caithness honeyroots.” Under his hood – a necessity with this sun – Gabriel frowned tightly. He still did not understand why these al-Wazifis were so obsessed with honeyroot, but every person that Tom had spoken to had been extremely eager to get their hands on them.

“I have women if you are uninterested in the men,” the slavemaster said. His smile grew feral. “Some of them are quite capable at eliciting the proper reactions.” Tom said nothing, though the thunderhead building on his face was not pleasant. “One or two of them are quite young,” the slaver added.

Gabriel tensed. He felt the others around him do so as well and wondered how many they would lose while cutting their way out of Shaniyabad. It had taken most of six months, but he’d managed to learn that talk of children slaves was never wise. Among the caravan, it was whispered that Tom’s primary reason for becoming a merchant within Megalos was to discover the fate of a long-lost daughter, stolen from him by Megalan slavers a decade earlier.

“Step away,” Tom hissed, his eyes narrowed as he glared at the slavemaster, “lest I unleash my tame infidel upon you.” Recognizing his cue, Gabriel advanced, dropping one hand to the hilt of his father’s rapier. He grinned ferociously, automatically sliding into the arrogant saunter that was the Cat Crosses the Courtyard. The slaver glanced once in his direction and then again, this time with a frown.

“A boy?” he asked. Tom’s expression barely changed.

“Do not be deceived by his appearance,” he said. “He has looked thus since he traveled with my father and his father’s father.” Open disbelief was stamped on the slavemaster’s face but Tom embraced his nonsensical story. “My father believed he is the get of a jann and when he Dances … men die.” Tom held up a hand to arrest Gabriel’s approach. “He is a water dancer and death cultist who dines upon the souls of those he slays.” The large merchant shivered, as if suddenly chilled despite the heat, and Gabriel stared intently at the slavemaster, still smiling.

“I will wager my fine new knife he takes him in a four-count,” one of Tom’s men – Fuad, it sounded like – said in a stage-whisper perfectly pitched to sound as if he meant it only for the man he was speaking to.

“But enough of this,” Tom said loudly. He gestured – it was the alert signal, the one that meant they were to stand ready for violence but not to instigate it – and scowled again. “If you have not the coin for my wares,” he said, “then our business is concluded.” He turned away.

The slavemaster lunged forward, lightning fast, his knife appearing as if summoned.

But Gabriel was faster.

His father’s sword flashed free from its scabbard and Gabriel struck without thinking – Black Lance’s Last Strike was a dangerous one as it left him wide-open to counterattack and sacrificed defense for aggression, but in this case, the gamble paid off. Recognizing the danger he was in, the slavemaster aborted his attempt at murder and tried to dodge Gabriel’s thrust, but was simply too slow. A shower of crimson rain splattered across the sun-baked stone around them and the man staggered back, dropping his knife as he desperately tried to stem the flow of blood from his neck. He gasped once, twice, then again before collapsing to a half-seated position. Tom looked down at him.

And then crouched to pick up the knife.

“If you had not tried to murder me, friend,” he said softly, “I would have summoned a healer.” The smile he gave the man was wintry cold. “Instead, I shall let you die – may Allah forgive me for my lack of mercy – and work instead with your replacement.” He straightened and looked to one of the slavemaster’s guards, none of whom had even budged from where they stood. “Have we a deal, my new friend?”

“We do, good master,” the man said. He approached, glanced down at the dying man who had slumped back, and then stepped over him.

“Walk quickly,” Tom said once their business was concluded and they were back in the streets. “I mistrust that man and suspect he will summon the guard at first opportunity.”

“Fear of the half-jann death cultist is not enough to freeze his tongue then?” Gabriel asked softly in Megalan. His comprehension of Arabic was tolerably decent, but actually speaking it? That was still beyond him at the moment. Tom gave him a wry half-smile.

“Cutting down Tahir as you did likely gave them more cause than you might think,” he said. “Now they must decide if any part of what I told them was the truth.”

“All of this over a crate of honeyroot.” Gabriel started to comment further but the snickers from the other men as well as Tom’s grin gave him pause. What had he missed? He cast his memory back over the proceedings … no, nothing stood out. Was this a jest on the fool Megalan then? Some part of his irritation must have shown on his face because Tom threw up his hands.

“Peace, my friend!” the merchant said quickly. “For such a deadly lad, you are blind to some of the strangest things.” Gabriel frowned again, then blew out a sharp breath.

“Sterling Gold,” he guessed. Tom grinned again and tapped his nose, causing Gabriel to shake his head. Of course. It all made sense now. Al-Wazif’s prohibition on all things alcoholic – or, more probably, Islam’s – would inevitably lead to a black market seeking such things and Caithness’ reputation for beer was well known. A complete lie, in Gabriel’s opinion, but well known nonetheless.

“Just so,” Tom said. His smile fell away as their path brought them to another slave market, this one evidently exclusively for captured Megalan (and, in many cases, al-Wazifi as well) women and young girls. “But now,” he murmured darkly, angrily, “enjoy what ye took in war, lawful and good.” From the bitter tone and the way his other men glanced at him in discomfort, Gabriel suspected Tom was quoting from the Qur’an.

“Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters,” Gabriel replied softly in an equally cynical tone, “and to please them well in all things.” Tom gave him a look, grunted and began pushing his way through the throng. For his part, Gabriel gave one more look at the slave auction – that girl there … his sister would have been that age had she lived – and then turned away to follow his employer.

And behind him, men continued to be men, foul wretches and low scum that they were.