After the appearance of Jules and El Maestro the steady stream of people passing to and fro before our cell gradually slowed to a trickle. Either the seers were running out of suspects or the number of prisoners was now so large that newcomers had had to be diverted elsewhere. Before long the only person who remained to be seen was the square-jawed, broad-shouldered guard who marched by every fifteen minutes or so on his regular circuit, patrolling this section of the dungeon.
As the hours ticked by a combination of sheer boredom and a thirst for news drove me to make an effort to engage this guard in conversation. It was heavy going at first, the guard being rather a stickler for routine and suspicious of anything that might divert him from it, but eventually, once Michael had pitched in with his usual affable charm, he relented a little. Over the course of several brief pauses in his regular circuit we were able to learn that the guard’s name was Gerel, he had been employed in the palace guard for over ten years and that he had five children, at least four of which had proved something of a disappointment to him in one way or another.
The conversation stuttered a bit when we tried pressing Gerel for updates on the search for the Emperor’s missing dream though I suspect this was due more to the fact that Gerel wasn’t really privy to any details of the investigation than to any genuine reluctance to spill the beans. He could only tell us that the flow of suspects into the dungeons had finally dried up but that now the Emperor’s council of seers and wise men seemed to be locked in session, arguing over the motive and method of the theft. Gerel had heard that several prisoners had been taken up in turn to be examined by the council but he knew nothing of the outcome of these interrogations.
Finding that there was little more to be discovered on that subject I turned the conversation in the direction of the increasingly pressing matter of when lunch might be served. It was here that I was in for a shock.
“Lunch?” repeated Gerel with a perplexed shake of the head. “This is not a tavern, we serve no lunch here. You can hardly expect the Emperor to serve up banquets to his enemies.”
“But we’re not his enemy,” I protested.
“Then what are you doing languishing in his dungeons?” demanded Gerel.
“It’s all just a simple mistake,” said Michael.
“The Emperor does not make mistakes,” retorted Gerel.
“Well perhaps not usually,” conceded Michael diplomatically, “but in this case…”
“The Emperor does not make mistakes,” insisted Gerel stoutly.
“Alright, then explain this to me,” I irritably replied. “We are here because we have been accused of stealing the Emperor’s dream. Correct?” Gerel nodded warily. “Well, so have the occupants of every other cell in this dungeon. Now, we can’t all be guilty of stealing the same dream, can we?”
Gerel’s brow furrowed unhappily for a moment. “The Great Lord in the Sky will shine the light of truth upon the Emperor when he is ready,” he eventually declared.
“And in the meantime we’re left to starve, are we?” I complained. “That hardly seems fair.”
“The Emperor is not without his mercy,” returned Gerel. “The family or friends of prisoners may apply at the palace gates for permission to bring them food.”
“But we were only here for the festival,” pointed out Michael. “We have no friends or family in the city.”
Gerel shrugged. “Then you had better hope that the Great Lord in the Sky chooses to shine the light of truth sooner rather than later, hadn’t you?” he casually remarked before marching off on his rounds once again.
In the deep, daylight-free world of the dungeons it was difficult to keep track of time. Gerel continued to pass by on his regular patrols but in the wake of the devastating news about lunch I lost the will to make small-talk. Michael took to scratching idle doodles on the wall with a bit of stone to pass the time and I dozed fitfully. I seem to recall being in the midst of a delightfully tormenting dream about living in the shadow of a mountain made of shepherd’s pie beside a lake of beer when a jangle of keys brought me back to my senses. I looked up to find Gerel was unlocking the door to our cell. Standing beside him, bearing both a large brown sack and a peculiarly pensive expression, was Amak.
Michael was already on his feet and I quickly scrambled up alongside him. Having opened the door Gerel waved Amak inside. “You’ve got ten minutes,” he told him as he locked the door again behind him. Then he paused and looked at Michael and me. “Seems like you have some friends in Khotya after all,” he noted sharply before heading off down the corridor.
The three of us were left standing somewhat awkwardly in the middle of the cell. Amak waited until the sound of Gerel’s footsteps had faded completely before he finally nodded in greeting. “I hope you are well. I brought you some food,” he said, holding up the brown sack. He glanced uncertainly around for a moment before finally choosing to set it carefully down by the cell door. “It’s just a few simple things,” he added. “You can open it once I’ve gone.”
“Thank-you,” I said, trying not to look as though I was counting the minutes.
“We’re very grateful,” said Michael with feeling.
“It’s nothing,” insisted Amak with a light shrug. “Zia and I could not help but feel that as you were arrested upon our property a certain burden of hospitality lay with us.”
“And maybe also because we’ve been arrested for the very crime which your niece committed,” I pointedly threw back.
Amak shuffled uncomfortably. “Ah yes. So you do know all about it. We weren’t quite sure exactly how much you might have heard last night.”
“Enough to know that you’d have been in a whole heap of trouble if that search of The Twisted Tree had gone on for much longer,” I told him.
Amak shuffled again. “Yes, indeed. I can’t deny that.”
“I suppose you want to know just how much we might have told the palace guard since our incarceration,” said Michael, his markedly sad tone betraying a deep disappointment at discovering that Amak’s visit was not solely prompted by altruistic motives.
“Well, yes, I must admit that has been a matter of acute curiosity to both Zia and myself,” said Amak with a weak smile. “Am I right in deducing from the attitude of the guard who brought me here that you haven’t yet, er, spilled the beans?”
I nodded. “I suppose we felt a certain burden of hospitality ourselves after the way you and Zia put us up for the night,” I explained, not bothering to add that as we hadn’t yet been called upon to account for ourselves there hadn’t really been much opportunity to spill the beans anyway.
“Zia and I are most grateful for your discretion,” said Amak with a gracious bow.
“You can’t expect us to keep quiet forever though,” pointed out Michael. “I presume pressure will be brought to bear upon us sooner or later and we can’t promise what will happen then.”
“Of course,” said Amak resignedly. “You must understand that neither Zia nor I ever wanted to get mixed up in this business in the first place. I’ll admit that the prospect of an unexpected windfall proved tempting when it came along but by the Great Lord in the Sky I wish it had never fallen our way in the first place.”
“Then why not just hand the jar back to the Emperor’s men and be done with it?” suggested Michael reasonably.
“We would be executed on the spot!” exclaimed Amak. “And then there is Talia to think of. I dread to think what punishments may be dreamed up for her. Now she may have made some mistakes but really she is not such a bad girl…”
“You needn’t tell them where you got it from,” I told him. “Can’t you just say you found it on the street or something?”
“I wish it were that simple, I really do,” replied Amak sadly. “But I am afraid you do not understand the way things work in Khotya. The palace guard are the ones who are tasked with punishing the thieves and they are simple men. They say to themselves, now we look for the dream. Once we find the dream whoever is in possession of it must be the thief and should be executed. They will not listen to excuses or explanations. The Emperor’s seers and shamans may concern themselves with the how and the why but the palace guard do not bother with such matters. A man is in possession of a stolen dream, therefore he must be a thief. This is how empires are governed.”
“Couldn’t you just leave the dream somewhere for someone else to find?” suggested Michael.
“This we would very much like to do,” said Amak eagerly. “But it is not so easy as you might think. The city is still crowded with pilgrims unable to leave and everyone is on high alert. At the moment a man cannot drop so much as a turd in a toilet without somebody noticing.”
“Well, you’re going to have to think of something,” I responded impatiently. “The palace guard are going to keep on scouring the city until they find that dream.”
“This is true,” admitted Amak, “but we do have a plan of sorts. It was Zia’s idea in fact. She thinks there may be one place in the city that we can deposit the dream without attracting undue attention.”
Michael and I waited eagerly for further details but Amak grew strangely coy. After humming and hawing for a bit he finally contented himself with saying, “There is only a little patience needed now and I’m sure this whole business can be resolved. No doubt we will all be most relieved when it’s over.”
“I should certainly think so,” agreed Michael.
Amak nodded confidently but had nothing more to say.
“By the way, what has happened to your niece while all this is going on?” I asked curiously.
“Ah, Talia was outside the city walls, making her rendezvous with one of the Prince’s men, when the gates were closed,” explained Amak. “We assume that she is lying low somewhere in the mountains for the present.”
“Won’t her absence prove rather suspicious?” asked Michael. “Things might get awkward when someone notices she is missing.”
“Oh, her absence is already noted but there are no suspicions,” replied Amak calmly. “As I told you before the palace guard are simple men. They discover that a girl from the Emperor’s harem has gone missing on the same night that his precious dream has been stolen – naturally they put two and two together and conclude that whoever has taken his dream also stole his woman. They will not worry so much about the woman – he has plenty more to choose from.”
“Charming,” I muttered.
“Actually, Zia is still hopeful that when all this blows over Talia will be able to return to the harem without too much trouble,” continued Amak. “That really is a very good position she has for herself there – it would be a shame to throw it away on a silly mistake.”
I wasn’t entirely sure how far Talia might agree with him on that matter but further discussion of the topic was forestalled by the return of Gerel at just that moment. With a brusque, “Time’s up!” he unlocked the cell door and signalled for Amak to come out.
Amak threw an oddly furtive glance at the sack of provisions he’d left in the corner for us before he bowed deeply. “May the Great Lord in the Sky protect you and bless you in all your endeavours,” he said solemnly before turning to go.
Gerel locked the cell door behind him again and the pair of them marched away down the corridor without another glance back. I stood and watched them disappear, feeling rather moved, if a little discomfited, by Amak’s earnest farewell.
But then Michael said, “Let’s see what’s for dinner, shall we?” and I suddenly remembered how ravenous I was.
We settled ourselves down in the middle of the cell and Michael began to unpack the contents of the sack. The centrepiece was a large pot and the cell was infused with a delicious smell of delicately spiced rice as soon as the lid was removed.
“Oh Mama!” I murmured appreciatively, shutting my eyes for a moment as I let the delicious scent waft over me.
“There’s a jug of wine,” announced Michael excitedly as he continued to pull items out of the bag. “And bowls and spoons – they’ve really thought of everything!”
I took the bowls from him and began eagerly ladling out two portions of rice whilst Michael checked through the rest of the provisions.
“We’ve got bread here… and some kind of chutney,” he said. “I’m not quite sure what’s in this one. Some kind of sauce perhaps?”
I looked up to see Michael peering curiously at a small earthenware jar. With a startled gasp I threw out an arm just in time to stop him as he reached for the lid. “For heaven’s sake, don’t open that!” I cried out.
Michael paused with his hands frozen on the jar and regarded me with a puzzled frown. “Why? What’s the matter? Why on earth shouldn’t I open it?”
I looked again at the dragon painted carefully on the side, an image I had first seen in the moonlit courtyard of the Twisted Tree only the night before, and sighed. “Because I can tell you there’s no sauce inside there,” I said with a heavy heart. “That jar contains the Emperor’s last dream.”
To be continued…