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Whispers of Fire

Chapter Text

Balbadd didn’t look any better the second time. Still the same few bedraggled fishing ships out in the harbor, one or two captains like Aden who’d decided to try their luck bringing in cargoes, Fan or no Fan-

And one ship Alibaba had never seen before, wood stained red-orange as lacquer, rails dark as ebony, and sails cut to a square that would founder in the wilder seas near Sindria.

Don’t think I have to guess where that one’s from.

Cassim slipped out of an alley like a shadow, fox eyes burning as he stared at the foreign sailors manning the rails. “Imperial merchant ship. Bringing in plenty of goods - if you’re a noble.”

“Is that what that ugly junk is.” Alibaba tapped one of the casks he’d offloaded, taking a whiff of the sweet raspberry scent. “So the court still has trade coming in while the rest of the city starves. That’s twisted.” He met that familiar gaze, hurting at the hate and pain lurking there. He’d just bet Cassim’s gang would try to torch that ship later tonight. Probably after robbing it down to the waterline. And damn it, he couldn’t blame them.

It’s wrong. But they’re hurting. They need anything they can get - legal or not.

If he could just give them a more legal option....“I brought some fruit off the islands,” Alibaba stated. “It doesn’t travel well, and it won’t last long. But it was cheap, and I figured if anyone knew where I could trade it fast for information....”

“Trade.” Yellow eyes narrowed.

“Trade,” Alibaba said firmly. Never mind how his gut twisted, or how much he wanted to say. He had to be strong, the way Cassim was. His brother would never listen if he wasn’t. “I know you’d rather steal than beg. I’m not offering either. You have information; I need it. I’ve got contacts with people willing to slip in here no matter what the laws say, and you need that.” He lowered his voice. “I don’t know if I can fix this, Cassim. But I’ve got an idea. And I know I can’t do it alone.”

“An idea.” Cassim was weighing him with a look, as if the gang-leader were utterly oblivious to Zainab’s dark scowl as she tapped fingers near her hidden knife.

“Kind of like when those thug bastards tried to move in on our alleys,” Alibaba nodded. “If it’s going to work, it’s got to be sneaky, nimble, and hit them from both sides.”

“Huh.” Cassim nodded at a few of the men to pick up the waiting casks. Turned, and waved a beckoning hand.

Pack on his shoulders, Alibaba followed.

Up and around and through; sunlit streets, dark alleys, and the choking reek of a tanner’s workshop. Even starving, Balbadd needed leather.

At least Cassim’s hideout is upwind of that, Alibaba thought gratefully, as they headed into a warren of wood and brick apartments. Damn, close quarters in here, and I don’t know a lot of the new guys Cassim’s picked up. If they’ve heard anything about Magic Tools, or if they just think I look weak enough to push around- they could be trouble. He took a breath of dust and the bones from old meals. If it comes down to a fight, I can take out a wall and run for it. I hope it doesn’t, I don’t want to start a fire. But I could.

And as long as he walked with that confidence, looking like he could get past any fight these guys could throw at him... maybe there wouldn’t be a fight.

There were eyes watching. Everywhere.

Another door, and Cassim slung himself into a wide chair; leaning back against one arm, cigar already out and ready to light. “So you think you have an idea that can fix... this.”

“Maybe.” Keep calm, Alibaba told himself. “I’ve been talking to a lot of merchants to find out what they see happening here. Now I want to listen to what you know. I’ve got a plan that might work, but I need a lot more information to pull it off. And you might know something that means I’ve got to scrap the whole thing and start over. Though if it’s that bad...” His throat felt dry already. How was he going to get through this? “If it’s that bad, we get everyone we care about together, steal a ship, and head for Sindria. Because no matter how bad things are right now, if what I’ve found out about the Kou Empire is right... things could get much, much worse.”

Hassan had stalked out of yet another doorway, standing behind Zainab so she could lean back against his muscled chest, if she wanted. “Worse than everyone starving, noble boy?”

They know. Alibaba refused to flinch. Fine, they know. Keep going. “Worse, as in all of Balbadd wiped off the map. The Empire has a Djinn.” We think. Never mind, worst case is they do, and Cassim needs to think of that. “Did you ever hear the story about how Sinbad took out part of the mountain range around the kingdom of Sasan?”

That raised a hiss of whispers, even as Cassim’s eyes widened.

Good, I’ve got his attention.

...Great. I’ve got his attention. Panicking now. Argh.

“And you think you’ve got a plan that can fight them,” Cassim said quietly.

“Head on, not a chance,” Alibaba admitted. “But so far, they’re not fighting head on. And I think... I think I know why.” Reaching into his sleeve, he pulled out a map.

The quirk of Cassim’s eyebrow had Hassan and a few others pull over a table to spread it out on. Alibaba hoped he’d hidden his grin. This might just work.

“About fifteen years ago, they were three kingdoms way east of here,” Alibaba stated, tapping that arc of rough-sketched harbors well to the east. “Then they started moving, and taking over. They’re gobbling up the Tenzan Plateau right now; it’s grasslands, their armies move through it like ships over water. They don’t seem to like deserts, they haven’t chopped up the Oasis Cities here, here, and here, and so far Kashugan in the Central Desert’s managed to throw out anybody trying to use the Fan on their ears.” He pointed to each. “But they can do ships - the Empire didn’t have them, but people they took over did - so we’re next on their plate.”

“What’s the Fan got to do with anything?” Zainab muttered.

“A lot,” Alibaba said practically. “I’ll get to that. First thing - Balbadd’s a trade hub. Reim, Partevia, Sindria, the Oasis Cities, the Dark Continent; if it goes anywhere, odds are it comes through here. That makes it the perfect place for Kou to take over if they plan to get bigger. But... that also means it’s a bad place for them to take over by force.” He glanced at Cassim. Come on, it’s just like the gangs back then, I know you can see it if you just look.

Cassim scowled at the map as if he’d like to force-feed it to a smirking noble. “Because if they jump in with swords, someone else might decide to come calling.”

“If Kou takes over Balbadd, trade routes get cut,” Alibaba stated. “You want just one thing to think about? Sasan steel would move into Sindria, and then stop. Which would mean Kou would have ticked off the whole Seven Seas Alliance and left them with a weapons-grade steel surplus. I’m betting that to Kou generals, that sounds like a really bad idea.”

From the curl of Cassim’s lips, he thought so too. “So... what? If they don’t want to just fry us, or come at with swords, but they’re still after Balbadd-” He stopped, hands curled into fists.

“They’re buying it,” Alibaba said darkly. “They’re buying things the king of Balbadd should never sell. Marine rights. If King Rashid were alive, he’d....”

Don’t think about it.

“And that’s where the Fan comes in,” Alibaba made himself go on. “They get people to use paper for money to trade with them. And then what happens? Sure, the Kou Empire trades with paper. No one else will. Which means the Empire can set the terms however they want. Silver and gold - unless someone finds new mines, you know how many coins are going to be out there. Paper? Who controls that? Except the Empire - and they want to take over other nations.” He took a Fan out of his belt, slapped it down on top of the map. “This? It might not be a sword, Cassim. But it’s going to kill Balbadd, just as sure. Only... slower.”

Cassim stared at the Fan, silent.

“We can stop them,” Alibaba said plainly. “It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be safe. But we can stop them. Long enough to get alliances they can’t ignore, and get them the hell out of Balbadd.” He swallowed. “It’ll probably mean Reim and other countries will start messing with us, too, but if they want to send armies they have to send ships. That makes it a lot harder for them than for the Kou. If we’re lucky, if we’re smart, we can keep the other nations glaring at each other over us while we skate out free and clear.”

I hope.

“You think we can stop them.” Cassim stared at him. “How?”

Alibaba gave him a sharp grin. “We set the value of the Fan. At zero.”

Cassim’s eyes narrowed.

“They say you’re the best thief in Balbadd,” Alibaba said shamelessly. “Want to steal a country?”

Alibaba let himself sigh, just a little, as Cassim led him out of the warren. I might get away with this.

Jahan was right, after all; being back in Balbadd was a risk. Though maybe not the way the older merchant thought.

This was home.

It hurt, seeing Balbadd suffering. He wanted to stay here and fix things with his own two hands-

But I can’t. If this is going to work, I can’t. I’ve got to talk to people; I’ve got to move between the islands, make contacts. Getting trade going is the only way Balbadd can survive - but I’m asking people to break the law. To put their lives on the line. I can’t just stay to fix these streets. Cassim... Cassim will do a better job of that than I ever could. He knows who needs help, and what will help them.

...Cassim’s not leading me out the same way I came in.

And the eyes were fading back into the shadows. Even Cassim’s lieutenants were out of sight.

Alibaba stopped on the edge of a wide sunlit space, where someone had torn down what might have been a bakery and no one had yet stolen the last few oven bricks. “So where are we headed?”

“Right here.” Cassim turned, a flash of dark metal now on his arm. “Funny you should mention the Kou have magic. We’ve found some of our own.”

Alibaba didn’t move, studying the steel Cassim must have had tucked away in his own cloak. That, is a very weird sword.

In a sense, it didn’t look like a sword at all. Not one meant for crossing steel with an enemy. It was a little like a katar, but with a solid hand-covering that went halfway up the forearm.

Thrust, punch, and slash, Alibaba thought, recalling Barkakk’s lessons on weaponry. That’s what you’d use it for. Good match for him; he’s still stronger than I am.

Though it was definitely not a sword for dueling. One solid clash with a heavier blade, and he had a feeling somebody would have a broken arm.

Would work fine for murder, though. If you’re not going to give your target a chance to fight back.

...No. Cassim wouldn’t do that. He’d said it was magic; maybe it wasn’t meant for an ordinary fight at all.

So why does he have it out now?

There was an obvious reason. But Alibaba was really hoping he was wrong.

“We have a name now, you know,” Cassim said casually, holding up dark steel. “We’re not just my gang anymore. We’re the Fog Troupe. And this... is the Black Bonds Fogblade.” Dark brows flicked up, interested. “So what’s the name of yours?”

Alibaba didn’t touch his knife. “I ended up with it by accident.”

Cassim snorted. “You killed an island whale by accident?”

“I was already in the water,” Alibaba admitted. “I didn’t have anything else left to try. So... yes. I did.”

That sparked a laugh, even if it had a wry edge. “Only you,” Cassim shook his head. “You know, with that map and everything, I was starting to think I didn’t know you anymore.”

Alibaba smiled, relieved. “You still know me. It’s not that different from the barter on the streets. I’ve just read a lot, and bounced around a few places.” One of which had been a dungeon. But the less said about that, the better. People thought Dungeon Capturers were supposed to be kings. And he wasn’t.

“A Magic Tool that summons fire,” Cassim mused. “That must have been some accident.”

Alibaba shrugged, trying not to show another sudden wave of relief. Cassim never saw me with this knife. He doesn’t know it was just steel a month ago. “I fell into a big mess of monsters and got lucky. When the dust cleared, I ended up with a little silver, and- this.” He just barely touched the hilt. Cassim was way too calm.

He’s getting ready for something.

“So....” Cassim turned side-on to him, a smile playing with white teeth. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a good fight, brother. Want to try fog versus fire?”

So he is after that. Alibaba shook his head. “How many people do you have betting on this?”

“No one.” Cassim’s eyelids lowered, shoulders stiff with hurt. “It’s just us.”

Alibaba swallowed. “This isn’t like a junk-heap brawl, Cassim. This is fire. If one of us screws up, you’re going to get burned.”

“Now, see, that’s what makes me wonder if I know you.” Cassim gave him a cool, level look. “You know the streets, Alibaba. A man has to stay sharp.”

“You mean you want a duel before you’ll let me leave,” Alibaba said quietly. “Cassim. Nobody’s here. None of us has to prove anything.”

“Yes you do.” Yellow eyes gleamed. “You’re asking me to risk my Troupe on your best guess. You owe me.”

“You’re right,” Alibaba admitted, shrugging off his pack so he could move. Because that was part of what this was about, he could see it. Cassim was in charge of the Fog Troupe. He couldn’t just follow an outsider’s plan and still keep his gang members in line. They had to know Cassim was still the toughest, meanest guy in the gang.

So they’re not watching. But they know we’re going to duel.

This is not going to be fun.

I am called!

Amon thrilled within steel, unleashing flames; but lightly, only a thread of power. His king had whispered to him, rukh ready to fight but not ready to kill.

A testing of power.

It seemed the most likely scenario, at least. The one Alibaba faced was a dark storm of magoi, lashing out with Gravity Magic again and again.

Dark, but not Fallen. Yet. Amon frowned. Be careful, my king. If you cannot pull him from the pit of despair, he will be a dangerous enemy.

His king’s rukh flinched at the thought. Not Cassim, came that whispered prayer. We’re friends.

“Hmph,” Amon muttered to himself. “Because all friends go after each other with steel and power.”

Well. He would lend his king power; tempered not to cause fatal harm, as Alibaba wished. And then they would see.

Black fog weighed down his left arm like iron chains. For a moment Alibaba wished he had Morgiana’s easy strength, that could flit across a room as if iron were light as silver ornaments-

He leapt and spun, flames lashing away another dark cloud.

“Not bad.” Cassim didn’t follow, pulling back the black fog with a wave of his sword. “Most guys are on their knees with just one hit.” He held up the dark blade, another black globe gathering at its tip. “You always were too stubborn to quit.”

They weren’t talking about just fighting, anymore. Alibaba kept his gaze on yellow eyes, not the fog; words were more important than magic. “How can I quit when my brothers and sisters need me?”

“Smuggling. Nails.” Cassim waved steel back and forth like a serpent, eyes hot with pent-up anger. “You think we can just melt trade away from the nobles, and they’ll let it happen? They’ll have the guards out to wipe us out, again, and you won’t be here to face it!”

“If they knew that much about trade, this wouldn’t have happened!” Alibaba dashed sideways, then skipped back, just over a leaden cloud of black. “It’s not just me, Cassim. Captain Aden, Jahan’s merchants, everyone they deal with - they know Balbadd’s in trouble. This is their country, too! They’re going to fight for it, just like you are.”

“You. Not we.” Fox eyes slitted, as Cassim brought darkness slashing down-

“Amol Berka!”

Fire snaked across the ground, splitting fog apart before slamming into enchanted steel-

Please don’t let that be too hard!

Cassim hit the bricks with an oof of breath lost. Shook dark hair, dazed, sword glinting like ordinary steel.

Breathing hard, Alibaba rose, feeling fog wisp off his arm as Cassim tried to blink his way back to the fight. Tired. And no fires here to pull off of....

Cassim got to his feet, breathing no harder than if he’d knocked two lieutenants’ heads together. Looked at the scorch mark on pale clothes, where steel hadn’t blocked all the flames. Glanced at Alibaba, where the blond stood weaving as if he’d taken the hit, not Cassim.

He could take me, Alibaba thought, tired and just a little heartsick. He’s stronger. And he knows it.

Which just went to show that Aladdin had had no idea what a magi was supposed to do for the world. Him, a king? What good was having a Djinn if someone with a Magical Tool could take him down?

Not Aladdin’s fault. He didn’t know.

Cassim shook off the last of his daze, and gave Alibaba a sidelong look. “And you killed an island whale with that?”

Alibaba sheathed his knife; Cassim already had what he wanted. “It didn’t think a puny human could be trouble.”

“Bad decision.” Cassim wriggled his fingers as he took the sword off his hand. “We’ve got to do that again sometime.”

He thinks I was holding back. Alibaba’s heart sank as he picked up his pack. No way do I want to do that again.

But he’d better practice for it anyway. If Cassim wasn’t the only one in the Fog Troupe with a Magic Tool, sooner or later the others would try to see if they could take the outsider with the funny knife. Just to prove who was really in charge.

And I can’t let them beat me, or it’ll all fall apart. Alibaba tried not to wince at the weight of his pack on his sore left shoulder. If they can beat me, they’ll try pushing the merchants next. If the one they push doesn’t know his way around a knife it’ll get ugly; if it’s one of Jahan’s warrior-merchants, someone will get dead. Either way, I can’t let that happen.

“That looks like more planning.” Cassim stalked nearer, sword vanishing into pale folds of cloth.

Alibaba gave him a tired grin. “We’re trying to snare an island whale with silk. Of course I’m planning.”

“You’d better.” Cassim clapped him on the shoulder. “So what’s this I hear about island whales luring guys in by looking like pretty girls?”

Alibaba winced, and started walking. “Well, it’s only part of the whale....”