A Prince in Peril
Debauchery; Prince Jasur-amar Ubar Umbajja loved it, revelled in it. In the heart of Yamfala Palace, in the midst of Heffum-Qazeer, capital of Zamphia, the Prince wallowed in hedonism like a hippo in a mud bath.
Every day, he woke to be cleaned and perfumed by servants. They would slick his long, black hair with oil and tie it up into intricate knots at his crown in the latest fashion. Also following the latest trends, he would then be dressed in gaudy silken pantaloons, frilly, billowing shirts, a carefully-wrapped turban and soft leather moccasins with pointed toes. All would be topped off by masses of jewellery and a doublet or damask robe, usually light in colour to contrast with his nut-brown complexion. The servants would even shave him daily, despite his having seen only sixteen summers and despite the lack of hair on his chubby face.
That done, Jasur would knock back a hearty breakfast and a golden chalice or two of wine, smoke a bowl-full of baui and then recline while his bloated gut gurgled. He may have seen only sixteen summers, but he knew the varied pleasures of wine, smoke, women and food better than most men twice his age. When he did venture forth, it usually took him several minutes just to leave his quarters; he had numerous rooms devoted to him and him alone.
Most days, he never made it out, distracted by some loveliness inside. Besides all the friezes, tapestries, sculptures, games, patterned curtains and rugs, statues and coffered ceilings with fanciful scrollwork, there were also other beauties in his chambers; his own personal harem awaited his pleasures and there were servants to fetch anything he desired. He rarely had duties to which to attend, save a little education and physical training, neither of which he was shy in shirking. So, most days, he lounged on a cushioned chair or finely-woven arabesque rug and had his every need tended to, while he ate, drank, smoke and bounced beautiful girls on his lap.
This day was no different to begin with. Jasur woke to be cleaned, perfumed and dressed in turquoise pantaloons, a cream shirt and turban and a purple damask robe held with a golden clasp in the shape of a crescent moon. He ate and smoked and drank and then visited his harem to sate his desires, and then decided it was time to eat and smoke and drink again. As usual, by evening he was almost comatose, quietly slurring his words with drooping eyelids. He passed out on the floor surrounded by spilled herbs and wine.
It was in the night that the change to the Prince’s routine came. He was awoken in the middle of the night by a creak, a scuffle and a thud. He sat upright in only his undergarments, clutching his downy duvet to his chest and staring into the absolute darkness that enveloped the room, imagining sinister shadow-monsters birthed at the dawn of time coming for him in the early hours. He shook like a flower in a storm.
He wanted to make demands of the darkness in a brave, bold voice, but when he tried, he only mewled, “Who’s there?” like a frightened child.
After a few seconds of waiting for a reply, he began to grow angry with himself; he was near soiling himself over nothing. He was just about to lie back down, berating himself, when an answer came in the form of a whisper.
“Shh, Prince, I’m here to help!”
He almost wet the bed, flinched like a bee had stung him.
“Who are you?” His voice was still annoyingly reedy in his ears. “What are you doing in my room at this hour? Elessa – is that you?” He thought it might be one of his more eager concubines.
“My name is Esfir Zumbarra, Prince, and I am here to help you, I swear it on all the Gods! Now, please, keep your voice down lest we be discovered. There is treachery afoot in the palace this night!”
Jasur’s eyes had adjusted to the dimness and had made out his bedside table in a thin ray of moonlight that knifed through the clouds, but he could not see the rest of the room or his unwelcome visitor. He reached for a candle, but there was a hissed intake of breath, a quick shuffle and then – as soon as he grabbed the little wax effigy – a feminine hand grasped his wrist in an unexpectedly strong grip and held it steady. He jumped at the contact.
“No!” Esfir whispered urgently. “No light! No one must know you are awake, Prince!”
Jasur frowned at her, his heart beating fast. He could see her in the silvery light now that she had come closer, and she was a pretty little thing, wiry and lean, with many a scar. She wore an expensive, yellow silk dress that made her dark skin glow, but it did not fool the Prince; the dress was not hers. Her face was made up of stern, hard planes, but her emerald eyes were round with fright. She looked only a little older than him, Jasur thought; he wondered how long she had been a servant. Years probably; he knew they started early.
“What is going on?” He finally managed to growl at her a little, but he could not abandon his falsetto, much to his eternal shame. He had always considered his voice embarrassingly high-pitched; the antithesis of his father’s booming tones. “You said there’s treachery afoot this night? What did you mean? Speak clearly!”
She took a deep breath, and he watched her bosom rise and fall with interest. “The Caliph’s first wife, Esmedrea, has hired assassins to kill you,” she said, panting slightly, meeting and then avoiding his eyes repeatedly. “They’ll be here any second now. I’ve come to warn you – you must flee at once!”
Jasur was flabbergasted. “Assassins? Come to kill me?” He almost laughed aloud at the foolishness of the notion, but then a cold, sinking feeling began in his gut like he had been frozen from the inside out. He remembered then what had happened only last month; Esmedrea had given birth to a baby boy, Hooshang, the first baby boy to be born to the Caliph since Jasur himself. Hooshang was the heir to the throne after Jasur, the heir to the throne if anything ever happened to Jasur.
“She – she wants me dead!” he spluttered in shock. “My father’s wife wants me dead so her son can be Crown Prince!”
Esfir bowed her head briefly. “Yes, Prince.”
He shook his head in amazement and wished his father had never remarried after his mother had died in childbirth. “We have to tell father at once! He can have that sow hung up by her nipples!”
Esfir glanced at him sharply. “No, Prince. I know what we must do. I am one of Esmedrea’s ladies-in-waiting, but I am also a spy for your father, the Caliph, and he told me long ago what I must do if ever anything like this should happen. He told me I am to take you to Kazim.”
Jasur stared at her, mouth hanging open like he had dislocated his jaw. “Kazim?” he repeated incredulously. “Farrokh Hisan Kazim? I’ve heard of him, the old fart. Once the most powerful Warlock in all of Zamphia, he fell out of favour around the time of my birth for a spell gone wrong, didn’t he? Those orders cannot be right!”
“Your father has given me my orders,” Esfir said stubbornly, “and I intend to follow them. I am to take you to the Warlock, Kazim.”
“Why can’t we go to father?”
“Because we do not know who we can trust. We can trust you, and we can trust me, and we can trust your father. But between us and him lie dozens or scores of people who could easily have been bought by Esmedrea. She has spent years lining the pockets of people in positions of power around the palace, until now half of them serve her more than they do the Caliph. Do you understand? It is not just assassins you have to worry about. Half the people in the palace would see you dead this night, Prince.”
Jasur felt like he was going to faint and was glad he was already in bed. “But … but Kazim’s not even in the palace anymore! Father tossed him out years ago! Does he even still live in Heffum-Qazeer? In Zamphia?”
“Keep your voice down, Prince. Yes, he still resides here in Heffum-Qazeer – just not in the palace, as you say. He is out in the city.”
“What are you saying?” asked Jasur, though he feared he well knew the answer.
“I am saying we must spirit you from the palace, Prince.”
Leave the palace? Jasur was appalled by the notion. There was nothing in the outside world for him; he rarely ventured there.
“How do I know any of this is true?” he asked. “How do I know you’re not leading me into a trap for Esmedrea? Why should I believe a word you say?”
Esfir shrugged. “What trap could be better than leaving you asleep in your own bed? Why would I wake you when I could have killed you? If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to stay here until the assassins come for you. If you choose to believe me, however, all we have to do is go for a little walk. That’s not so much to ask, is it? Can you trust me enough to walk with me, Prince?”
She made a good point, he thought; no trap was better than catching a man asleep. Plus, the more she said ‘assassins’, the more jittery Jasur became. He still wasn’t entirely convinced she was telling the truth, though. Then, he heard whispers outside his door and froze; he had not heard footsteps approaching. Whoever was outside his door was sneaking around in the middle of the night.
“They’re here,” said Esfir grimly, hearing them too. “We have to go now!”
“Where?” hissed Jasur, beginning to believe her. “They are outside the door!”
“Out on the balcony; we’re going to have to jump to the next one over.”
Jasur ogled her, aghast. “Jump between the balconies?” he squeaked.
She nodded. “No choice. Let’s go!”
“I need some clothes!”
“Well then, find some! And hurry!”
They could hear a faint, metallic scrabbling at the door now, like someone was trying to pick the lock. Fortunately, they were trying to do so slowly and silently. Jasur leapt out of bed, unmindful of his near nakedness – the servants had seen him nude many times – and hastily yanked the clothes he had worn earlier that day back on. He felt dishevelled and stinky, but at least he was not wearing only his undergarments anymore, he thought. Esfir was already at the balcony, quietly opening the double doors that led outside and beckoning to him urgently. A shaft of moonlight pierced the room, illuminating the balcony in crimson majesty. Like the rest of the palace’s main body, it was made of red granite.
Jasur took a step outside, swivelled his head to the right and immediately turned green at seeing the several feet of distance between the two balconies side by side. He was high up in the palace, and any fall would be one of almost a hundred feet. He felt sick. Esfir, on the other hand, climbed up onto the red rock railing ringing the balcony, swaying with the zephyr, but showing no signs of unwillingness.
Without turning back to look at him, she said, “Come on, Prince! Hurry!” and then leapt.
His heart throbbing in his mouth, his stomach an empty pit, Jasur watched her fly through the air for a moment that felt like a year, and then observed as she alighted easily on the next crimson balcony, touching down one foot on the rail and the next on the floor. As she did so, the door to the Prince’s room creaked open once more. Jasur cricked his neck, spinning to seek the source of the sound, but he forced himself to turn away and clamber onto the balcony rail; a feat Esfir had made look easy, but with which he struggled like a rhino trying to climb a wall. Eventually, he got his big belly on top and it helped balance the rest of him long enough for him to push himself to his feet, leaning on the wall and wobbling the entire time.
Men inside his rooms spotted him standing on the balcony, and the shouting began.
“There he is! Get him! Get him before he gets away! Kill him, you fools! Don’t let him escape!”
Jasur took a deep breath and leapt off the balcony, never knowing that several crossbow bolts pierced the air where he had been standing a heartbeat later. As it had when he had been watching Esfir, his interval hanging in the air seemed to stretch out like time itself had been sundered, the second in which he flew become an infinitesimal shard, a lasting transience. Then, his shins caught on the next balcony’s rail, he flipped over it, smacked his face and landed dazed on his back. He blinked up at the dark sky a moment before he realised he was still alive; the pain in his shins and nose confirmed it.
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