…a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness…

A simple Shapierian thief finds herself become something she never wanted to be, and must embark on her own quest across Glorianna to redeem herself and reunite with the Hero she loves.


Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue



1
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
2
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
3-4
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
5-6
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
7
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
8
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
9
Chapter 9 - On the Road
10
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
11
Chapter 11 - New Quests
12
Chapter 12 - Silmaria
Chapter 13 - Looking Forward
Chapter 14 - Various Ends
Chapter 15 - Forms of Hell
Chapter 16 - Horror and Heartache
Chapter 17 - Dance of Destinies
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels


Chapter 2 – Shapierian No More!

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?”

“This Achim of yours — you had to leave him because you’re a thief.” En Shevil blushed. She had not mentioned her growing feelings for the Hero, but Thalanna, after all this time, could still see through her. “And he whom I love is also a resistance fighter, and we must wait until Rasier is free to have a proper ceremony.”

“Who is he? And what’s happened to you since you left Shapier?”

“His name is Sharaf. When the Emir vanished and the katta were driven out, my parents, Sashel, and I refused to go. There was no organized resistance then, and they were killed.” Her voice had grown hard, bitter, and En Shevil felt an emotional shock that was unchanged by her logic which had expected this news. She had not known Thalanna’s brother well, he being much closeted in study, but her friend’s parents had been close to hers and like a second family. After a harshly silent moment Thalanna continued. “It was by pure luck that I survived at all. Random chance chose me over them, so now I am here and they are not. Sharaf found me wandering and brought me to the Shelhar. That’s our word for the underground, of course, because it means ‘liberty.’

“Since then we’ve watched our city, the mirror of Shapier, turn into this horror. The fountain had stopped with the Emir gone, and it got worse from there. The guards slowly disappeared to be replaced by Khaveen’s men, who were soon posted everywhere. New laws courtesy of Khaveen were written on the walls. Streets were boarded off for no apparent reason until the entire eastern side of the city became inaccessible. New laws forbade people to walk the streets without a ‘Visa,’ anyone to be out at night, or more than one person to be in company outside their houses. So families were unable to leave the city, and at first those who tried were taken and not seen again. So we created distractions and assassinated guards to help get people out.

“We have spies in the palace and we’ve found that we can buy off the guards for the right price. But we need more money. All we had before was what the individual members brought, and had few channels through which to spend it. Now we are nearly without money all together, and when we have enough to bribe a large number of guards to look away, we’ll attack the palace.”

Throughout Thalanna’s story, a cold suspicion had been crystallizing in En Shevil’s heart. The katta gave her no real information — no names or places — and her tone of voice sounded more like a debriefing than the tale of her adventures told to a friend. “And that’s where I come in, isn’t it?” said the thief heavily, and her words were only half a question.

“I thought you would guess,” said Thalanna quietly. “To tell truth, your arrival was exactly in time. We need good thieves, but all those in the city are much too afraid of one Signor Ferrari, a very influential man who likes to pass himself off as chief thief around here, to help us. So we need you.”

“Those locks — the house and the trapdoor…”

Thalanna looked surprised. “Tests,” she said finally. “I had the keys all along. That I was not supposed to tell you, should you guess, but you are my friend.”

Am I? En Shevil wondered. Would you have rescued me at all if I had been only your friend, with no special talents? She looked away hastily, lest her perceptive friend should detect this question in her eyes, but it was too late, for Thalanna had guessed. She could always guess.

Her voice was unsteady, and miserably apologetic with an undertone of guilt as she hastily plunged on. “Ferarri is a foreigner from who-knows-where, and the only reason he stays in town at all is because he thinks the Blackbird is here.”

En Shevil’s head whipped around. “The Blackbird?

Thalanna nodded. “Not really. We have confirmed that the one he’s got his eye on is one of the fakes. Once we get it stolen, we’re paying a Silmarian collecter to take it, and make it appear that he has the real thing and is headed for home. Hopefully, Ferarri will leave in search of it and the thieves will be bribable again.”

“So where is it?” asked En Shevil coolly. The growing pain in her heart at Thalanna’s treatment of her compelled her to be businesslike. She was no part of their organization; they did her no favors and vise versa. “And how much are you willing to pay?”

Thalanna let out a deep breath, her sorrow tightening into resolve as it always did. She had known En Shevil would understand how it must be, and there was no use for regrets. They had been friends once, but no more. “We will give you fifty dinars. It’s not much, but we can barely afford even that. It’s in Khaveen’s house.”

Khaveen. En Shevil shuddered at the thought and was about to refuse when she remembered the Thalanna of Shapier, her wit and vivacity and her love of pranks and jokes. “I’ll do it,” she said, in tribute to what you once were.

They moved down the passageway to a door that Thalanna opened with a small key. Entering behind her former friend, En Shevil could see another katta waiting for them.

“Here is the thief,” said Thalanna to the man in the darkened room. He nodded, eyes narrow, and remarked that she looked more like a whore. En Shevil opened her mouth for an angry retort, but Thalanna broke in. “I rescued her from the harem, remember?”

“She’s probably a spy, then,” said the man darkly, still speaking to his fellow katta as if En Shevil were not there. A slight snort from Thalanna as they entered the black doorway in the underground passage told the thief all she needed to know. The door closed and a light appeared, blinding her for some time.

When she was able to look around she stared in amazement at the large, neat, full-sized apartment with normal doors heading to other chambers. Not only was it built like a typical above-ground house, it was furnished thus as well. “What is all this?” she asked in bewilderment. Thalanna looked away, apparently not desiring to answer, and the other katta did not seem to understand the question.

“Do you mean the rooms?” asked a human woman who appeared in a doorway. She was a bit past middle-aged with greying hair of dark brown, and very large eyes. “When we started the Shelhar, we found an extensive underground system like the city above. Apparently it had been used for many years as a thieves’ guild, and most citizens had forgotten about it. According to their log book, the thief activity was gradually taken over by crime lords and the small guilds were suffering. Finally these places were abandoned and forgotten. We also learned that such chambers were planned in the original design of both Shapier and Rasier, but the foundations of the first were inadequate. Rasier being settled on flatstone, they were able to build them here.” The woman smiled. “My name is Thaylish.”

At that moment, another human woman entered, opening the door to the hallway into Thalanna’s back. She was dressed in brown and wore a veil. “Rilahr — where is he?” she gasped, leaning against the doorframe.

“Here,” said a voice, and a male katta appeared next to Thaylish. “What is the matter?” The woman in brown looked at En Shevil as, after a moment, did Rilahr.

“She’s all right,” said Thalanna hastily, obviously anxious to hear the woman’s news. En Shevil wondered that Thalanna seemed so sure that she was trustworthy, then realized that the Shelhar would probably not let her out of their sight from that moment on.

“Khaveen is to marry Zayishah. It was just fixed with her father.”

Rilahr looked mildly concerned and said calmly, “We must get her out of the city.”

“Zayishah…” said En Shevil softly, losing track of the further conversation between Rilahr and the brown woman. The name sounded familiar. “Isn’t she…”

“The daughter of Ali Hasan,” supplied Thaylish. “Her mother, Rahn Tehral, died in childbirth when Zayishah was born, and she’s been brought up by Mayzun here,” indicating the brown woman “since her father’s always so busy helping his brother. We’ve been protecting her lately, as much as we can, but we can’t let her into the Shelhar because of who she is. If she were one of us and were caught, it would be disastrous — we can’t endanger the Sultan’s own niece that way. And also, being in the position she is, she would make a perfect spy for Khaveen. No matter how we may trust Mayzun, Zayishah’s another matter.”

En Shevil blinked, and realized suddenly that the room was silent. Mayzun was staring at her, Rilahr was looking her over as if to find something, and En Shevil recognized Thalanna’s carefully averted eyes, the look that stated she knew something which would soon become evident to all.

“I doubt she’s good enough,” said the sour katta whose name she had not yet heard.

Resentment welled up like a sudden windstorm inside her. “Good enough for what?” she snapped.

Mayzun answered in a tone of acid, though her anger was not directed at En Shevil. “To kill Khaveen.”

She was dumbstruck, horrified at the thought. All at once came back to her the image of the EOF warrior, blood gushing from a wound in his side — a wound of her infliction. She recalled the sick, shocked, disgusted feeling that had arisen as everything she was had revolted against what she had done. Could she — was she capable of taking life? She did not believe she could become a murderer and keep her sanity.

Rilahr had apparently interpreted her silence as an invitation to continue, and so he explained. “It would be simple,” he began, and Thalanna turned away with a snort. “When you go to get the Blackbird, take a dagger with you.”

“No,” said En Shevil.

“You’re right, of course. Such method might arouse his guards. We can provide you with a poison, if you’ll give us time.”

No.

“Of course, the method is up to you. We could bribe the guards. It would be expensive, but certainly worth it, and with the Blackbird…”

No!” she almost screamed, remembering the smell of blood, and could say no more.

Finally Thalanna broke in. “She won’t do it,” she said loudly. “She doesn’t kill. She’s just a thief.”

The words of her former friend echoed in her ears: She’s just a thief, she’s just a thief, just a thief. Just a thief. Just…

***

Alone she entered the plaza, unable to risk company. The window gaped in the wall, just as they’d told her, but her attention was dragged to the fountain at which she now had full time to look. Somehow its broken interior and cracked lining touched her, and she stood for a moment silent, gazing down at it while inexplicable tears seeped into her eyes. It was with an effort that she turned away.

Climbing was, of course, one of her primary talents, and with her pin she hypothesized that she would never fall. She pulled herself up onto the doorway, clinging to cracks in the wall, and leapt for Khaveen’s window. She tightened her body as her hands gripped the sill and jerked her up short. Ignoring the pain in her chest and stomach as her weight pressed them in turn against the window frame, she hauled herself up and over in a position like a crawl.

The bed in the chamber’s center immediately caught her attention for its radical proportions. She shuddered with the thought that she could have… and turned her gaze to the rest of the room. The motif seemed to be death, tastefully rendered in the display of causes thereof. Through an arch she saw a guard at attention, and uncomfortably near that same arch was a cabinet with a glass door. Approaching cautiously, she confirmed the bird’s presence. A hand on the hinges told her she would need to open the door exceptionally slowly to avoid noise, as she had no oil. She picked the lock.

The fake Blackbird was fairly heavy, for its size, and gleamed silver as she turned it in her hand. For several moments she crouched silently, staring at the beautiful, nugatory object. Finally she tucked it into the bag she’d brought, slung it over her shoulder, and closed the cabinet door.

On the way to the window she paused, looking through the gauzy, feminine curtains of the bed to where Khaveen lay sleeping. Asleep, he appeared almost appealingly vulnerable, and suddenly a completely alien desire overtook her — a strange urge to pull the dagger free from her ankle and cut the man’s throat. This lust was so strong that she actually took a step closer the bed before she became sick at the thought and dashed for the window. As she dropped to the plaza, the cool air calming her upset stomach, she realized that with practice she probably would be able to kill, just as she could accustom herself to anything else. The bloodthirsty feeling of a few moments before confirmed this. Running light-headed through the streets, she went back to the Shelhar.

***

Yawning, En Shevil pushed back the curtain that served as a door for the tiny room she had been given. She guessed that the underground only fed and housed her because she was Thalanna’s ‘hostage.’ She entered the common chamber of the five-room house, the one adjoining the passageway. Thaylish was just coming in as En Shevil entered and sat down. She stood up immediately she saw the woman’s face. “What’s happened?” she asked anxiously.

“It’s Sharaf,” said Thaylish. “He went to meet Taedocles’ party. Taedocles is that Silmarian collector, of course, and he has his own little caravan of hired guards that…”

En Shevil cut in. “What about Sharaf?” She had met Thalanna’s lover only briefly before she had gone last night to rob Khaveen, but they had not spoken.

“He was taking that Blackbird out to Taedocles and someone must have tipped someone off, for he was taken just as he came back into the city. For once, I don’t suspect Ferrari. My guess would be Taedocles himself, or one of his party. Where is Thalanna?”

“I don’t think she’s here,” murmured En Shevil, tears beginning to fall. “I just got up.” It was a bitter, detached sorrow — a sadness, not for her friend personally, but that such things must occur in the world… for now Sharaf would certainly be put to death. She hardly noticed as Thaylish took her leave to look for the katta.

En Shevil did not see Thalanna throughout the rest of that tedious day, and her dreams were clouded that night. She was a prisoner of war to her own allies, unable to go with or help them, but no more able to leave them or complain. She was better off here than the harem, at any rate.

After a day of complete boredom during which she did not stir from the house and rarely saw anyone, it was an indescribable relief when Thaylish invited the thief to her home for the day. “For,” she said, “the underground is only part of my life — I must take care of my children, too, of course. And I know how dull it can be down here during the day.”

Her dwelling was near Fountain Plaza, and had no connection to the underground passages. The closest house that did was down the street, and they ran from one house to the other. En Shevil had, out of some strange sense of rebellion, decided to keep the bells on her shirt. It may have been that, though her family had been relatively wealthy, she had never possessed any article of clothing so fine and was unwilling to spoil it. At any rate, outside the underground house she kept the cape tied around her midsection to quiet them.

At Thaylish’s dwelling she was introduced to the woman’s three children, playing busily and giving her hardly a glance, rushing about in serious pursuit of their charades as if neither water shortage nor tyranny were prevalent in the city around them. She also met Thaylish’s husband, working at a loom in a chamber almost empty of further thread or yarn for his project. He had a haunted look in his manner that suggested weaving was the only thing that kept his mind from dwelling on the fear that surrounded life in Rasier. En Shevil knew the feeling, but feared that this would be the man’s last rug for some time.

Thaylish said, “I need to make something for the kids, and you shall keep me company.”

“All right,” responded En Shevil, with a backward glance at the weaver as they departed the room. “I’d offer to help, but I’m a terrible cook.”

In the kitchen, Thaylish provided more information, as seemed to be her habit. “My children eat twice a day — breakfast or lunch, depending on when it gets made, and, of course, supper. We have a great deal in storage, but sometimes I still worry.” She shook her head as she unwrapped a loaf of bread and began slicing it. “And sometimes I can’t get Alin to eat at all.” Sighing, she fell silent for a moment. Then she smiled. “I must admit that my true reason for inviting you was somewhat selfish, but I think you’ll forgive me. Before the emir’s disappearance, I knew more about what was going on in this city that anyone. I could have told you each family’s genealogy, everyone’s former and current love interests, what price everyone’s wares were going for, and so on. It’s always been my passion to know exactly what’s going on. Well, I knew so much, and proved so good — forgive me if I brag — so good at finding out more, that the underground actually sought me out when they formed. I’ve been their chief information collector for some time.”

“And how can I help you?” asked En Shevil, puzzled but amused.

“Gossip! I want to hear all the news from Shapier.” Thaylish knew whence the thief had come, but En Shevil had told her little else. She did find her story a bit embarrassing.

She laughed. “Well, I’ll tell you what I can, but I’ve never really gossiped so I can’t claim to be an expert. The biggest news in the Hero, of course.” She related all she could remember of what Achim had told her that first night and the tale of the fire elemental, and answered Thaylish’s occasional questions as best she could.

Meanwhile, the children came in to eat sandwiches. Thaylish offered one to En Shevil, saying, “It’s the last of my pumpkin bread, I’m afraid: Mordavia’s been cut off by the swamp, since it’s rained so much there, and there is no pumpkin bread to match theirs.” En Shevil accepted the saurus cold-cut sandwich, having never tasted pumpkin bread before, and found it remarkably good. “Come tell me more while I do laundry,” said Thaylish as they finished eating, the older woman having devoured a sandwich in a blink.

“Now that I can help you with,” said En Shevil, not partial to laundry but glad of something constructive to do.

A basin full of tepid, greyish water greeted En Shevil’s distasteful look. “We’ve been reusing the same water for quite some time — since the fountain dried, actually, because, of course, you can’t get more. But we found a way to clean the water. We boil it, and let the steam rise into a blanket which we wring out into another basin while we scrub this one — all the dirt is left behind. We lose some water every time, but it works. Few others in the city have clean clothes,” she added proudly. En Shevil smiled.

As they worked, the thief told Thaylish all she could think of about Shapier. Oddly enough, Thaylish seemed less surprised at the news that poet Omar was sultan Harun Al-Rashid than that Dinarzaad and Issur had broken up. She had apparently been tracking their relationship. “So, did you and your Hero make any plans before you skipped out?” asked Thaylish, almost teasingly, as they spoke of the other couple. En Shevil looked shocked. Was she that easily-seen-through, or otherwise how did everyone know she liked Achim? The woman laughed merrily. “My dear, it’s my business to find things out. You do hide it fairly well, but I’m very practiced at that. If it’s meant to be a secret, I certainly won’t tell anyone. I just want to know if you made any plans.”

En Shevil shook her head, looking at the hole in the shirt she held up. “Oh, does that want mending? Put it aside, and I’ll tell Alin later. He does all that sort of thing — I can’t sew a stitch. But do tell me about you and this Achim. I’m so curious. Unless,” she added, “it’s too personal. Hard as it is to believe, I really don’t mean to pry. Will you marry him?”

“Goodness!” exclaimed the thief in response. “I barely know him! It’s rather silly for me to be… attracted to him at all!”

“But you just gave me his life history!”

“But I don’t know him personally. I don’t know his habits and such, I’m not even sure…”

“Then you ought to marry him at once!” said Thaylish decisively.

“What?”

“It’s always best to know as little as possible about the faults of the man you’re going to marry before you marry him. If you always watch, you’ll discover things that will keep you from marrying him, and you’ll eventually die an old maid. Best to get it over with and live with what you learn after the wedding. Anyhow, it worked for me. And about his character — he’s a Hero!”

Almost as if this conversation were a piece of prophecy, it was not long after that a shadow with Thalanna’s voice appeared in the doorway of En Shevil’s little chamber and said, “Achim is here.” The tone was curt. “Thought you might want to know.” She sounded bitter, and this was probably the longest string of words she had spoken to En Shevil since Sharaf’s capture. En Shevil stood slowly and entered the common room. Thalanna sat on a cushion eating dried lamb meat. “You can’t see him, of course,” said the katta softly. En Shevil nodded and accepted the strips of meat the other girl handed her. At times like this she felt an ache for the friendship they had once had, destroyed by the same tragedy that had ruined Thalanna’s life, turned her into a fugitive fighter, and now stolen her only solace in this lonely existence.

En Shevil was still treated like a prisoner here, given only one meal a day, but she understood that the Shelhar could not spare much food to those who were not actually members. “Perhaps he can help–” She cut herself short, unsure as to whether she should say ‘us’ or ‘you.’

“Yes,” said Thalanna absently. Her absence of mind was better than her controlled sorrow. “Our main task now is to get Zayishah out.” So they had not succeeded in that yet. En Shevil was annoyingly uninformed around here, and only the night before had been planning to see if they would allow her to leave with the next caravan. But now, with the news of Achim’s arrival, she knew she could not go until she had seen him.

But a few days later, all chances of that seemed to vanish when Thalanna again awakened her with surprising news from the doorway. “Your man’s been taken,” she said coldly. She and En Shevil had grown even farther apart in the short time the thief had been with the Shelhar. En Shevil sat up, a shiver running through her. Achim, in the hands of Khaveen? Now what? Should she attempt to persuade the underground to rescue him? They had not tried to rescue Sharaf. What about that attack on the palace that Thalanna had mentioned? When was that planned for? She did not know how long she sat there before Thalanna suddenly reappeared. “I’m sorry,” she said, and it was an apology for the katta’s lack of sympathy. “I know how you feel.” En Shevil said nothing and after a moment Thalanna left.

The girl lay in her bed for some time, unwilling to enter the bright, empty common room. The darkness was her consolation, her worries taking less material hold in the shadows. After a while she had an idea. She could not enter any of the other three rooms — Thalanna’s, Sharaf’s, and that shared by Rilahr and the other katta, whose name was Dalhin — so she left the house entirely. The cool, dark passage was an immediate relief. A man standing there, armed — a guard. She was a prisoner, then. She had never left the house alone before, only with Thaylish twice. She sighed as he laid a hand on her shoulder. Better a prisoner of justice than of decadence anyway.

“I only want to sit out here in the dark,” she said, realizing it sounded rather silly.

“I can’t let you be where I can’t see you,” he said. The door shut and she felt his grip tighten as all light disappeared.

“Can’t you see in the dark?” asked En Shevil, pitying him but also rather surprised.

“Most humans can’t,” he replied dryly.

“They could if they knew how,” said the thief. “I can teach you, if you like.”

“I don’t know…” said the guard, sounding a little suspicious.

“Oh, please,” begged En Shevil. “I’m terribly bored, and I need something to take my mind off some problems.”

“All right, then,” he said reluctantly.

The guard proved stubborn and fairly unteachable, and it took the better part of the afternoon to help him learn the technique at all. Then he could barely do it without En Shevil talking him through. So she began helping him hold onto the vision. The task was so grueling that it worked as a very effecting way to take her mind off Achim.

Suddenly, a small form darted past them, flung open the door, and raced into the house. The door bounced closed, evading En Shevil’s grasp as she reached for the handle. She eventually got it open and entered the room. “Sharaf!” she cried numbly. “How…”

“Where is Thalanna?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she began, but the girl in question came in at that moment, rushing to Sharaf and stopping short, only clasping hands with her lover. Knowing the katta aversion to physical displays of affection before others, she walked quickly past them to her bedroom and sat down. Still she could not help but mark a great deal of their rapid, rather broken conversation. She ignored the less interesting bits — the ‘I love you”s and the ‘I was so worried”s, until finally the subject of Sharaf’s escape came up.

“The human Hero was brought to my cell, but he was able to pick the lock with a nail he found. We used the passage to escape.” Silently En Shevil sat beaming, her heart rate increasing until her chest was pounding on the inside of her ears. She should have known there was no need to worry. “Is everything in place for the attack?”

“Yes — I only came back because Thaylish said she saw you.”

This came as a shock to the thief — the attack was underway? She scrambled up and under the door-hanging. “Let me come! I’ve caused you a lot of trouble. Now let me help.” Sharaf nodded shortly and went to the door with the two females behind.

On the way, En Shevil finally got some information. The Shelhar was assembled in the houses nearest the palace, and Thalanna had been on watch until Thaylish’s news. The attack was to commence at dawn. Now both Sharaf and Thalanna were to watch, from the eastern door to the Palace Plaza, as they would not be separated.

“In there,” ordered Thalanna when they got there, pointing to the nearest door. En Shevil nodded, pulling out her lockpick, and wondering at the same time what had possessed her just now. Why had she come? There was sure to be bloodshed, and how could she possibly help? To her right she heard Thalanna gasp in surprise, and turning she followed with her eyes the angle of the katta’s gaze. Sharaf had entered the plaza and stood talking to none other than Achim.

Her heart almost stopped beating. Such a welcome sight was he that she could not look away. Now she was glad she had come. Sharaf returned and spoke to Thalanna in a soft voice, but En Shevil did not listen, for she was too busy watching her Hero. He walked unfalteringly through the shadows to the pillars of the balcony, a rope in his hands.

That was all En Shevil saw, for at that moment something moved in the northern arch of the plaza. She frowned. There was no Shelhar guard there — it must be one of Khaveen’s men. Sharaf and Thalanna, having apparently forgotten her, had entered the house and shut the door. Achim must have requested something — a distraction, perhaps, while he infiltrated the palace? She realized that she would have to deal with whoever it was herself. With a deep breath she ran across the plaza and into the doorway.

It was not one of Khaveen’s men.

En Shevil, flabbergasted at the creature before her, simply stared while the other stared back. It was some time before she could even place the thing zoologically: djinn. She had never seen one, and now she was reluctantly fascinated by it, or, probably more appropriately, her. The djinn had the body of a child that tapered at the waist into a long coiling tail of smoke. Its skin, though, seemed to be covered with reddish scales, and its head bore two long, curving horns of black. It seemed very young, though En Shevil had no idea how djinni aged, and also appeared terrified and confused, its childish face holding a look of such innocent fear that En Shevil pitied it. The djinn murmured something the thief did not catch, and began to move past her towards the plaza. “No!” hissed En Shevil. She did not know what Sharaf was planning or when Achim needed his diversion, but she hypothesized that the arrival of a frightened djinn on the scene would not help either.

“He’s calling my father,” said the djinn in its childish voice. It did not stop moving. En Shevil then did something she had never dreamed she might have occasion to do: she seized upon the djinn’s arms and held it back. “Letgoletgoletgoletgoletgo!” said the child frantically, and of course En Shevil did not obey. She pulled the child closer to her, not knowing exactly what to do. And then, to her horror, her entire weight jerked her arms as they were abruptly airborne. Spinning out of the street and up into the sky above the plaza, the djinn tried to shake the human off, not knowing that it had become a matter of life and death for En Shevil to hold on. They were high above the city now, the djinn turning over and over in the dark sky, crying out in fear. Her exclamations alternated between “let go” and “he’s calling my father.”

En Shevil screamed, gripped by terror. She clutched at the poor child’s arms so tightly her fingers ached, while the djinn struggled beneath her. The devastating logic part of her mind told her calmly that were this a fully developed djinn, it would have been too strong for her. But her emotions only felt sickness and fear as the child twisted and writhed to rid itself of its unwanted passenger.

At first when the djinn turned its back to the ground, En Shevil dangled and usually screamed, but presently she began to be entangled with the creature’s tail, which was solid though it looked like smoke. Either this hampered the child’s ability to fly or it decided to try another tactic, for it suddenly plunged towards the narrow streets of the inner palace below. The wind tore at En Shevil’s face, and she felt sick. The djinn came to earth on the ground, in a lane of the palace between the high-rising expanses of two huge walls. Far above, light flashed. The thief found herself half-lying on the ground, still wrapped in the djinn’s tail, with the creature pulling frantically at her. “He’s calling my father!” Then more quietly, “My mother should help. Let go!”

Looking up into the sky as she was, En Shevil saw him as he fell: a man, his red turban flying off and his blue robes in flames as he plummeted towards them. She could hear his scream of despair as he fell to his death. She pushed at the ground to move away, but her arms did not reach the earth since she and the djinn were still struggling to separate themselves from each other, halfway in the air. Only her feet lightly touched.

Even the djinn screamed as the man landed beside them and there came a flash of darkness, like an implosion where all the light is sucked away; the world went dim with it, the shapes around them only shadows. Raging pain seared through En Shevil, there was a brilliant spark of white light, and it was the last thing she knew.


Leave a Reply