Pride of her Parents chapter 2 – Shapierian No More! (1/2)

In the chilly morning she mounted the family saurus, given her willingly as it had only cost them five dinars, and rode away from Shapier. She did not look back. Not physically, at any rate.

“Hello, effenda,” said the young woman next to her as the caravan set out. “My father asked me to find you. He’s the leader, you know.” En Shevil looked at her. The girl did not ride a horse as she had originally thought; she was a centaur. “My name is Sahkirah. You’re blonde.” Sahkirah was brunette, and seemed Egyptian in feature, dress, and accent. “I don’t know any blondes,” she went on happily. “But someday I’m going to travel and go to Surria and Spielburg and every place I’ve heard of. I’ve been all over Shapier with my father, you know, and of course I live in Egypt. I don’t always come with my father in the caravan; I have to go to school sometimes too and be with my mother. She doesn’t ever come with the caravan; she hates it. But I’ve been to Tarna and Awehara, but never anywhere that people have golden hair and — oh, yes! I forgot about this.” She twisted to where her lower back was laden with two large packs and drew out a dagger. With a bright smile she handed it to En Shevil. “A man at the inn gave this to father last night to give to you, but he was so busy that he gave it to me, you know, to give to you. I remembered it thinking of golden hair.”

“Was there any message with it?” asked En Shevil loudly, overriding whatever Sahkirah started to say next.

“Message? Why, yes, there was. He said, ‘Because you shouldn’t travel in the desert unarmed.’ Which is true, of course; even I have a sword, and I know how to use it, too, though I’m not much of a warrior.” Her words faded as En Shevil remembered Achim patting the hilt of this very dagger and saying, ‘I’m the Hero!’ She wasn’t sure whether to smile or cry. Either way, Sahkirah’s words punctured her reverie. “…t’s a drawback, of course, because it means we have to stop at Rasier a lot so Khaveen can come see him. He’s father’s childhood friend, and I’m not sure if he really likes him, you know — that is, if my father really likes Khaveen, though I suppose I should wonder if Khaveen really likes my father as well, but anyhow he’s powerful — Khaveen, I mean — so father keeps up the friendship.”

Sahkirah took a deep breath, and En Shevil seized the opportunity to speak. “Who is Khaveen?”

Sahkirah let out her breath loudly. “Who is Khaveen? He pretty much runs things now in Rasier, you know, and he always comes out when we stop there to stay with us a night or three and drink with father and get news, but I really don’t like him, especially the way he looks at me. By the by, what’s your name?”

Taken aback by this sudden stint, En Shevil did not immediately answer. After a moment she said, “EnShevilhowoldareyou?” running the words together in case Sahkirah tried to speak again.

“How old? Oh, I’m fifteen, and I bet you’re a lot more than that; they said you were old enough to take care of yourself. Ah, the sun is rising. All-hail Ra.” For one precious moment, she was silent, apparently for some kind of ritual. And then she started again. “You know, in Tarna you would not believe how young they get married; I mean, if I were Simbani, I would probably be a ‘wife,’ as they put it, right now. Imagine me having children at my age! Ridiculous! But it happens, and I think it’s just silly. There was one woman I met while I was there a few years ago — I’ve only been there once, of course, and not for very long — anyhow, she was a warrior, and from what I saw they didn’t have many woman warriors there, even though I think they were allowed to be that way. But the strange thing was, this one actually wanted a child. Can you imagine wanting to have a child?”

En Shevil would have said, at this point, that she had heard many mothers say the rewards were far greater than the disadvantages, but she did not have a chance.

“I can’t, but this one did, but to be a warrior she wasn’t allowed also to be a wife, so she couldn’t. I always wondered what happened to her, you know, but you see I had to leave since the caravan doesn’t usually go out into the savanna and we just did that once for — oh, I’ve forgotten why. Anyhow, we don’t usually go out there, and we didn’t stay long.”

En Shevil would have loved to tell her about Uhura’s fate, and Simba, but was not given the occasion.

“And then there’s Tarna — the city, I mean. Have you ever been to Tarna? It’s so beautiful there, almost like my home but not quite as grand, you know — but the pyramids and statues are pretty in their own way. They let me into the liontaur part of the city, just once, and it was spectacular! All the beautiful painted buildings and the carvings and everything. Even the human part was nice, but nothing compared to the other. But liontaurs scare me, somewhat, just instinctively, you know, but I love to look at them anyhow — their hair, I suppose, is golden like yours, but it really should be called fur, so never mind. And then in Awehara there was a man with very red hair, but that doesn’t really count either. Have you ever been to Awehara? It’s to the west of Tarna, you know, in that area where people debate whether it’s East Fricana or West. Another place I want to go is Ytsomo Kwai — you know, that archipelago in the southeast? I’ve heard you can learn the most amazing things there, and that they have cherry trees! How I would love to see a cherry tree, all pink and red and lovely! That sounds like the most fun a person could have, doesn’t it?”

En Shevil was too polite to admit that it did not, but she could have been as rude as anybody’s business and still acted the same way, for Sahkirah was off again.

They stopped at a few towns, and after many days they came to Rasier at sunset, where they made the most permanent camp so far, as they were to stay for two nights. Thence it would only be a few more days to Darun, En Shevil’s future home. And here she met Khaveen. He came out to their camp with a few of his choice soldier/guards, spiky and formidable in grey and black. They all sat on cushions (which reminded En Shevil most painfully of the last few days at home) around a bonfire, eating and drinking.

Khaveen was not difficult to dislike. With the emir missing and things reputedly so bad in Rasier, En Shevil guessed that what female entertainers there had been in the city were long gone, and Khaveen stared at all the women in a way that stated plainly what was on his mind, but at Sahkirah especially. This struck En Shevil as odd and a little disgusting, but there was no accounting for perversion. She also noted that there was a tent specifically set up for him and his guards.

The next day was spent resting (she had never imagined how well a saurus could live up to its name homophonically), and it was that night when the blow fell. At the fireside, En Shevil, who had gotten over the cushions, almost, sat next to Sahkirah, who sat next to Khaveen, on whose other side was Sahkirah’s father. They ate and drank and laughed as they had done the night before, but En Shevil was uneasy about something; something was subtly different in the air about Khaveen and his guards. It was worrisome, but also rather intriguing, this sense of tension that she wondered if anyone else had. Maybe she was aware of it because she was trained to detect changes of that sort in a room’s atmosphere, and she was translating the ability to people. She soon discovered what it was.

Khaveen gave Sahkirah a licentious glance and said to her father, in a casual, friendly sort of way, “You really ought to let me take your lovely daughter back to Rasier with me, Al Khettek. There’s a place for an attractive young girl in the palace harem.”

Sahkirah started, and her father looked surprised to say the least. “I hadn’t…” began he, but Khaveen interrupted him in a dangerously persuasive tone:

“She would have everything she wanted… a fine home, good food, many friends, complete safety.” He stressed the last benefit a little too loudly, and En Shevil feared this would be an offer difficult to refuse.

“We really…” began Al Khettek, but again Khaveen broke in.

“And, to make sure you’re happy with this arrangement, I will offer you fifty dinars.” He almost made it sound like a good agreement, as if he were offering Sahkirah the chance of a lifetime.

En Shevil now saw that Khaveen’s guards were all staring intently at Sahkirah’s father, waiting for his answer. A few others around the fire had marked the exchange and also listened, but most were involved in their own affairs. “Well, I…” said Al Khettek, looking at the shocked expression of disgust on his daughter’s face.

Suddenly En Shevil seemed to hear the echo of words in her mind: the last advice Rakeesh had given her, “May you leave the path of dishonor you have chosen;” the last thing Manta had said to her, “Live up to your name, En Shevil.” Well. She would be the pride of her parents if it killed her. She leaned forward and asked, “Would I do instead? You wouldn’t even have to pay.” Besides, she thought, she’s only fifteen, and she’s a centaur, you pervert!

A slight gasp came from the younger girl, accompanied by a whimper. She gazed at En Shevil in abhorrence and dismay.

Khaveen’s face, as he surveyed En Shevil leisurely, held quite a different expression. “Yes, I think you would do quite well,” he said.

“En Shevil, you don’t have to do that, you know,” said Sahkirah, but faltered and stopped speaking.

“Nonsense!” replied En Shevil with feigned cheer, though she was fighting the terror that came with the full force of Khaveen’s stare. “I want to! It’s not every day a girl gets a shot at a life like that — all the food I can eat, a good home, all the…” she deliberately paused, “…advantages of palace life.” Then she did the unthinkable: she smiled at Khaveen. A smile that was quite different from her usual girlish grin. A smile that was far less innocent, with which she knew she had won him over the moment it desecrated her lips. And the worst part was, he returned it, but his was a thousand times more practiced. “Effendi, would you like to buy a saurus?” she asked Al Khettek.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, as if awakening from a trance. “I suppose that would be wise.” With a brief sidelong glance at Khaveen, he continued, and she knew he was pulling an excuse from the air. “I’ll need to examine it, though.”

“Well, it would seem that I have little time left with you, so perhaps we could fix on a price immediately.”

“Of course,” said the centaur, climbing to his hooves. “If you’ll excuse me, effendi.” He nodded to Khaveen. En Shevil also stood, trying to control the trembling that had built up inside her. They went to the makeshift corral, where the caravan’s mounts were housed by lightweight, movable fences of sorts. The guard nodded to Al Khettek and moved away at his gesture. The centaur then turned to face En Shevil, putting his hands on her shoulders, streams of tears running down his face “Seth knows I can’t thank you enough!” he said fervently. “I always knew Khaveen would bring me trouble, but I never imagined this. I must take my caravan on — I have no other choice — but if there is ever anything I can do for you — specifically now — please, please ask.” He was still crying.

“Just pay me twenty dinars for my saurus and keep Sahkirah away from Khaveen. No — keep her away from Rasier. I’ll be fine.”

“Twenty? No, that won’t do. You must take fifty at the least. I would give you everything I had if you asked it.”

“Twenty is fine,” said En Shevil firmly, but in the end he persuaded her to take thirty. On anything above that she would not settle.

Khaveen, apparently growing impatient at their long absence, came to meet them, stopping En Shevil to speak as Al Khettek went on towards the fire. “Why don’t you come to my tent?” he said in a voice that made her shiver.

She thought quickly, struggling to keep smiling. “Not tonight,” she said. “I must get my things together and say goodbye to my friends in the caravan. I’ll join you tomorrow at dawn.”

He looked at her sharply for a split second, but his visage melted into an expression that disgusted her so much she was forced to look away, under the pretense of gazing at the stars. “Very well,” he said, the look still on his face. “In the morning, then, lahkir.”

This last was a Shapierian word for which there is no translation, a vocative term used primarily for women, implying loose ethics on the part of the addressee and desire on that of the speaker. Is that what I’m to become? wondered En Shevil glumly. She felt she had acted rightly by her friend, but the thought was not in the least reassuring.

“Oh, in the name of Isis!” cried Sahkirah, clasping En Shevil in her arms as the thief appeared. “Why did you do that? I could have gone, and been just fine, you know, and–”

En Shevil interrupted her gruffly, trying not to cry. There was no Achim here to comfort her. “You have parents and a home to return to. I’m just a wanderer. I’m older than you anyway, and friends don’t let friends…” She cut herself off abruptly, struck with the full repugnance of that to which she had doomed herself. She had known it before, but only with her logic. Now her emotions realized it, and she felt sick.

“I’ll… always remember you,” said Sahkirah awkwardly, for what did one say in the face of such heroism? This human girl had known her for so short a time, and yet was willing to give up everything for her.

I hope so, thought En Shevil most ungraciously. She was not feeling very heroic at that moment.

She lay on a sleeping cushion of her own stitching, watching the Dark Hand rise over Rasier and trying to puzzle out a way to escape Khaveen and still protect Sahkirah and Al Khettek. She fell asleep having thought of nothing.

Even before dawn, many of the others were rising to prepare for departure as she awoke. The glow of the morning was dim, the western mountains cold and invisible against the still dark sky. She stood, rolled and tied her cushion, and sat on it. Chin in hands, she brooded over her upcoming captivity. The light began to stretch to the mountaintops, separating them from the rest of the shadows with a pale outline. She knew her time was up. She must go to Khaveen and face her fate.

She had hardly noticed the bustle of the camp packing up around her, but now she stood as she saw one of the workers gathering up cushions. She turned and found Sahkirah looking at her with red eyes. The girl had been crying the night before, long after her cessation of talk had caused En Shevil to believe her asleep. “I must go to him,” the thief said gently.

“I know,” replied Sahkirah. She stepped up to En Shevil and hugged her. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then the older girl turned and headed over the dune to Khaveen’s tent.

The latter was already down, Khaveen and his guards milling about watching with little interest the caravan arrange things. Khaveen gave her a slit-eyed look as she took her place at his side. “So there you are. We have been awaiting you.”

“Your pardon, effendi,” she said with a smile. “I… slept late.”

Khaveen gave a hissing laugh. “Saying goodbye to friends, were you? Well, let us go.” He gestured to his guards, who formed a square around the two of them, and they all headed down the hill towards the dark city of Rasier. Almost immediately the caravan was out of sight.

The place was dirty, cold, and En Shevil soon saw why: the fountain was cracked and dry, barren of the life-giving magic that fed warmth and peace to the city. But they did not pause to let her examine it, walking briskly on towards the Palace Plaza. The lights being dim and the general surroundings so grey, En Shevil became increasingly nervous as she thought she saw moving shadows out the corners of her eyes at all times. But they encountered no other living creature.

The palace, though gloomy and grey as was all else, reminded En Shevil most acutely of her hometown, but she held back her tears admirably and rallied her spirits. The guards gave Khaveen a respectful nod, and the four around them dispersed as they entered the great double doors.

Despite her state, En Shevil could not help but stare about her in wonder, her thiefly instincts going wild. She was inside a palace, and everything she saw was valuable. But she was no longer a thief, she reminded herself, she was a harem girl. “You there! Eunuch!” called Khaveen to a fat, badly-dressed man on a staircase to their left.

He turned and bowed his head to Khaveen. “Yes, effendi?” he said with simpering deference.

“Take this girl to the harem,” said Khaveen shortly. “I have other things I must see to.”

“Yes, effendi,” said the eunuch with another head-bob. He held out his jiggling arm for En Shevil to come with him.

“I will most certainly be seeing you another time,” said Khaveen as they walked away. And then, to her utmost relief, he was gone.

The eunuch led her through various rich hallways after they had climbed the stairs, and into the harem.

Four girls were present, one asleep. Sounds of splashing, giggling, and shrieking came from another room, and En Shevil guessed that the rest were bathing. Those present smiled at her. “Oh, are you a new girl?” cried one, springing up and running to clasp hands with En Shevil. “My name is Khashal. You must have come with the caravan. Goodness, your clothes are awful! Have you got better?” Setting her bag down, a surprised En Shevil admitted that though she had other clothes, none were as fine as what the harem girls wore. “Aw,” said Khashal sympathetically. “We’ll fix that, for we have plenty of clothes.”

“Though we prefer to be without them,” said one of the others with a yawn.

“Nawar!” laughed a third, half-reproving.

“What would your name be?” asked Khashal.

“En Shevil,” said she, a little shyly.

“How lovely!” breathed one of the loungers. The other two voiced their agreement. It seemed they were so bored that the arrival of an addition to their numbers was a momentous event, so much as to procure their full attention. Khashal pulled En Shevil towards the back of the room, where a doorway led into what appeared to be a hallway-closet. From its other arch inside, steam came in wisps and small billows, smelling of something spicy and earthy.

The thief stood gaping at the suit that Khashal held up to her as a size test. “This will do, I think,” she said. “What a good color for you.” It truly was a beautiful outfit, but of so fine a material as En Shevil had not seen since her parents filled an order placed by a palace-dweller.

“It is lovely,” she agreed, and then looking down at herself added, “but I’d like to bathe before I put it on.”

“Oh, of course!” cried Khashal. “How could I have forgotten, with them making all that noise in there! Come!” She pulled En Shevil into the steam, out the other side of the closet into a bathing-room more spacious than any En Shevil had ever seen. She longed for a bath — she had not been in water for some time: in Shapier, such luxuries were expensive and rare, and she was used to cleaning herself with sponge and basin. Perhaps living in a harem would not be so bad. And perhaps Jackalmen can fly, she thought with a sigh.

Their entrance had caused immediate commotion. “Oh! Who’s that?”

“A new girl!”

“Goodness!”

“Hello!” These and various other exclamations not so distinct had flown across as the bathing girls saw her.

“Hah!” said Khashal. “They’ll help you to a bath — take your time, now, don’t let them rush you.”

“Thank you,” En Shevil murmured as Khashal patted her on the shoulder and left.

“Come in!” was then the general cry from the girls.

She looked at the shelves stacked with towels, dusting powders, perfumes, soaps, and scented oils, and finally undressed to bathe, careful that her lockpick should not be seen as she undid her hair.

The other girls crowded around her, introducing themselves and asking eager questions. She could not be quite sure, but she thought their number was five. Without being invited, they began to help her in scrubbing the layers of dirt from her skin and washing her hair. She was faintly amused by their exertions, as if she were a doll or a pet that had been left outside. She did manage to clean under her fingernails without their aid, and their numbers decreased as the time she spent in the bath lengthened.

Finally, she got out. They insisted that they help her to dry off, and further helped her to the use of oil and powder of matching scents. She was almost laughing by the time she faced the dazzling suit she was to wear. Contemplating it, she allowed her hair to be brushed and fastened, tucking her lockpick away when nobody was looking.

The cloth was opaque, brilliantly crimson, soft and smooth, all trimmed with gold and the shirt with a row of tiny bells. A golden veil and half-cape shimmered next to it. She was not allowed much more time to look at it, though, for the girls all wanted to help her into it. She was amazed to find herself such a novelty, and wondered if every new girl here got the same treatment. She looked at the shimmering veil and cape with confusion, and got a flurry of answers from all around her. “We have to wear veils outside the harem.”

“Isn’t that cape precious?”

“You don’t have to wear the veil in here.”

“I hate veils!”

“Oh, wear the cape!”

“Here, let me help you.” One of them came around behind her and fastened the gold clips of the thigh-length cape into the slits in the shoulders of her shirt. It fluttered to her legs and hung limp, hugging her back. “Now you must go show the others.” Several girls, dressed already, escorted her through the closet into the harem once more, where she was exclaimed at and fussed over to no end.

“Oh, this won’t do,” said someone behind her, just when she thought most of them had settled down. Before she had a chance to ask what wouldn’t do, the girl had opened the silver band in her hair, letting the latter tumble out down to her thighs.

It was as if an invisible string tied the color of her face and the warmth of her body to her lockpick as it clattered to the floor and bounced with the sound of dropped money, a noise that causes everyone in the plaza to look up. With a hasty movement made jerky by fear she clamped it down with her foot. She glanced at the others to see that everyone was watching her, and knew there was nothing for it but to pick the thing up and hope no one had recognized it. She bent, vaguely feeling the greater mass of her hair weighing down her airy cape and watching the bits that fell around her face. She took the lockpick in one hand and stood straight again, trying to compose her features.

If it were possible, it seemed to her that the friendly, almost sisterly looks she had been receiving from the start had heightened, or, rather, deepened, holding now more respect and openness than just companionable cheer. She caught someone’s eye inadvertently, and that one smiled. “We’re all friends here,” said another, quietly but with emphasis. The girl behind her laid a hand on her shoulder. For the first time since leaving Shapier, the thief suddenly felt happy.

“Now,” said the girl behind her in a light tone, “silver simply does not work with this outfit.” She began brushing En Shevil’s hair out once again, gathering it into a tail brusquely, briefly showing her the plain gold band she was using before she clipped it on. Then she stood back appraisingly while En Shevil, blushing, pushed her lockpick safely away where it belonged.

The rest of the day was spent getting to know the harem girls and their ways, and actually it was fairly dull. En Shevil, on a spur-of-the-moment decision, told them all about Sahkirah and Khaveen instead of the silly lie she had been contemplating. The account of her sacrifice was met by clapping, hugs, and promises to make her life here enjoyable, but En Shevil got the idea that none of them really felt what she had given up.

That evening a few girls left, and En Shevil was introduced to a lazy eunuch named Abu who escorted Nawar… somewhere. Nawar was really the only name En Shevil could remember, besides Khashal, this due to it being constantly said in reproof of the comments made by the former. She seemed gifted with the ability to add underhand connotations to everything that was said.

Folded blankets were brought out from under cushions and behind screens as the harem began, long past dusk, to settle down for the night. The girl nearest her (whose name the chagrinned thief struggled futilely to recall) suddenly turned to En Shevil and said, “Here — it will go well with your clothes,” handing over a delicate head-chain with a red drop-shaped jewel.

En Shevil found herself choking up as she looked at it, and she stammered, “I couldn’t…”

“I insist,” said the girl lightly, but with a firm undertone that suggested this was more than mere whim. It was a genuine overture of friendship that En Shevil found she could not refuse.

“Thank you,” she said, and there was the usual exchange of hugs that went with such things. She began to suspect that she had been completely wrong about the nature of harem girls, at least personally. She had never dreamed that she could feel so at home.

But though it grew darker and later, she could not sleep. Despite the fine, soft cushions, as neat as her own parents could have made them, and the silky blankets, she found no comfort, at last rising and jumping through the window onto the terrace above the palace gates, clutching her unclasped cape around her to silence the bells. She leaned out on the stone side and looked up at the stars.

She had been afraid that Khaveen would come for her, but by the time most of the others were asleep she had realized he probably would not. Having been away from the city for two days, he surely had important things to do.

Glancing down into the plaza once more, she quickly ducked beneath the level of the railing as a sinister-looking guard came in one doorway and went out the other. She guessed, without any desire to test her theory, that harem girls were not allowed on the balcony any time, and certainly not in the middle of the night.

She stood thinking in the cool night for so long that she was able to see a regular pattern in the guards’ coming and going, and she found the methodicism somewhat comical. Therefore, when a shadow of the wrong size appeared in the western doorway at an irregular interval to the last guard, En Shevil noticed immediately. The shadow did not move, and almost instinctively she looked through the darkness with her katta techniques, averse to the feeling of being watched by the unseen. What she saw was quite a surprise. She was leaning forward, gazing into the archway in disbelief when she realized that it was time for another guard to make his appearance.

She ducked again, looking over the stone as the darkly-clad man came into the plaza from the south. The shadow vanished, drawing back like a spider receding into a crack at a breath of air. The guard exited to the west as usual, and after a moment the shadow reappeared as if nothing had happened. En Shevil wondered how she had done it.

Emerging stealthily, the shadow blended with the night as only thieves and katta can, making her way with total silence to the pillars before the palace gates. En Shevil remained down, unwilling to attract attention, even when a padded hook latched onto the stone with a small thud and a dull click. And then, a moment later, they were face to face.

En Shevil had not wanted to believe her eyes, fearing that she was fooling herself and would only be disappointed. But here, silently drawing up the rope and slinging it at her side, was Thalanna. She was dressed in black that covered her from neck to ankles, giving barely a sight of her orange, red-streaked fur. She seemed thinner, more tense, stronger and colder. But her eyes were the same, except perhaps for a greater depth of feeling.

En Shevil did not know how to react, her wild, perfectly-balanced emotions seeming to cancel each other out and leave her calm. It was the katta who spoke first, or, rather, whispered. “I saw them bring you in, and followed to the palace before I could believe it was you. I’m glad to see you, but why are you here?” Her playful, indirect manner, which had so marked her conversation in the past, was gone.

“Protecting someone,” said En Shevil, wondering if her pin would help to keep her quiet.

“If you come with me, you’ll be safe,” said Thalanna, shifting her weight nervously and looking over her shoulder. “It’s why I came.”

“If I leave, Khaveen will…” En Shevil opted for the abridged condensed version, “make trouble.”

Thalanna looked darkly thoughtful for a moment, then suggested, “I could take you hostage.”

“Yes,” said En Shevil, suddenly giddy, “and you could ask for ransom.” She wondered for a moment why Thalanna’s talking of hostages should seem so natural to her. Probably, she reflected, because she knew logically that the katta must be a member of the underground; but she realized then that logic had nothing to do with it: the reason was that it felt so much like one of their old pranks crouching there and talking in whispers, changed as both of them were.

“I’ll need to write a note,” Thalanna said. En Shevil nodded and crept through the little hallway with the windows and went into the eunuchs’ room, grimacing in distaste at their fat, snoring forms. She found a pen and ink but no paper, so she picked her way across the sleeping harem girls to find her veil. Sneaking is much more difficult while holding a cape against one’s belly, and En Shevil was forced to go slowly. But at last she tucked the ink under her arm and hopped out of the window again.

“Can you write on this?” she asked, spreading the veil before her friend.

The old Thalanna would have commented on what a shame it was to ruin such pretty fabric, but now she merely nodded and wrote. “Have new harem girl. Return when convenient unless Ugarte is taken — then she dies. Ignore Ugarte.” Under this she drew a clawed hand. “Our sign,” she explained. “Give me some proof that we have you.”

En Shevil quickly unclasped the head-chain, sorry to part with it but unable to think of anything else, as Thalanna held up the veil to let the ink dry, rubbing with her foot the spot where it had bled through. With a wistful look the thief handed over the chain, and Thalanna disappeared for a brief moment into the palace. She then looked over the stone lip behind which they hid. After crouching once more as a guard passed, she whispered, “Can you jump without noise?”

En Shevil glanced down in her turn. “Not without considerable pain,” she responded.

“Will you survive?” asked the katta tersely. En Shevil glanced at her. She had changed.

“I think so,” the thief replied. Thalanna said nothing more, but pushed herself over the edge and landed without a sound. She looked up at En Shevil, the starlight seeming to catch and collect in her upturned eyes like moss on obstacles in a river. En Shevil breathed deeply, and jumped over. Concentrating on hitting the ground correctly, she managed to land fairly quietly, though a shock ran through her legs and prickles sparked in her feet. Thalanna gave her an approving glance and led her through the shadows to the western arch and onto the streets of Rasier.

“Who is Ugarte?” questioned the human quietly as they walked.

Thalanna slid to the corner and peered around, then walked on. “A water-smuggler unconnected with us, but he often supplies us.”

“I forgot to thank you for rescuing me,” said En Shevil.

“Think nothing of it,” said Thalanna shortly. “It was my pleasure, for it will inconvenience Khaveen.” She spoke the name with bitter hatred, her words spiny and metallic black. Suddenly she paused and glanced smoothly around with a calmness that belied her body language. Recoiling, she stepped quickly back towards En Shevil with serpentine grace and urgency. Pointing to a door, she hissed, “Pick this lock.”

The urgency in her voice overpowered En Shevil, and she found herself obeying without a thought for this shocking revelation. It did not actually hit her until they stood in complete darkness beyond the door a moment later: Thalanna knew she was a thief. She was so struck by this that she barely marked the passing footsteps in the street, had to tell herself several times that they had just escaped a guard before the idea actually took hold.

Thalanna took her arm, and En Shevil looked around for the first time. They stood in a large room in a typical house with only one doorway to another chamber. Thalanna moved silently with En Shevil in tow toward a changing-screen that stood in a corner. Behind it, the katta rolled a rug aside to expose the yellow floor. She looked at En Shevil and pointed at a chink. It took the thief a moment to realize that the tiny opening was a keyhole and Thalanna was asking her to pick the lock. She crouched and had it done in moments.

Thalanna put her paw into an indentation, a handle of some sort, and pulled. A square outline of blacker darkness, which En Shevil’s human eyes could barely distinguish, became increasingly visible. She watched in fascination, amazed at how well-camouflaged was this wooden door in a floor of stone. The katta held it open and moved spider-leggéd to one side, gesturing that En Shevil enter. The thief bit her lip and sat down with her legs in the hole, feeling already a chill draft that had never been warmed by the sun. She pushed forward and dropped.

Thalanna let herself halfway in, hanging with one forearm laid flat on the edge. With her free hand she pulled the trapdoor onto her head so it would close when she fell, pulled the rug over that, and joined En Shevil in the passage below. The door above them shut with a thack.

Then the katta sighed, and the human seemed to sense a release of tension in the air. “We’re safe here,” Thalanna said, her eyes gleaming inwardly in the complete darkness. “Let’s sit here for a while before we go back. To the Shelhar, I mean. They’ll have a new assignment for me immediately, and I want to talk.” Here was a shadow of the old Thalanna, a relaxing contrast to the serious, wary katta of the last few minutes. En Shevil took her place against the wall next to her friend. “It’s been so long since I saw you. And I never expected to see you with Khaveen. How did you come here, and why?”

“Well, I left… no, wait. Thalanna.” Somehow she felt awkward saying her friend’s name. “You knew I was a thief.” It was a question.

“I’ve always know,” said the other gently. “Even in Shapier. Go on.” So En Shevil gave her the entire story from her overhearing Dinarzaad and Issur’s argument to her arrival at the harem. She had expected Thalanna to laugh when she spoke of Achim finding her in the fountain with less than a full shirt, but the other girl only smiled wistfully. “So, we are both kept from our heart’s desire by our profession.”

“Why?”

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