The rain was very wet, as rain always was, but not the driving, stinging, wind-plagued rain of Tarna; it was an almost pleasant, cheerful storm. Her velvet cloak at first repelled the huge, fat drops, but before she reached the arena she was soaked through, and glad to shake her cape from her shoulders and look about her. “Good evening,” she said to the guard, studying him. With another glance around to determine that he was the only obvious fighter in the room (no need to make a fool out of herself, after all), she said, “You are Kokeeno…?” She had forgotten the surname.
“I am Kokeeno Pookameeso,” he replied, “of the Silmarian Guard.” He spoke as if he did not like the fine quality of his voice and wished to roughen it, which was a shame, for his tone was lovely. This was one of those people she would stand and speak with for hours just to hear his voice.
“I am Dazah,” she said.
He examined her, with what thoughts she could not guess as his stance did not change and his face was invisible. “I look forward to this combat,” he said at last. “May the best warrior win.” She decided then that she liked him: from what she had heard lately, a woman who fought was held in contempt. And strange-looking she was!
The fist after-effect she had noticed of the transportation device was that it reverted her body to a more or less original state, though still matured to her 19-years’ age. All her scars were gone (mixed emotions had come with that revelation), as was her hair besides a fine, reddish, downy sort of baby-fluff coating her head. Her skin was soft — too soft for her liking, for she found that she bruised and scratched rather too easily — and had regressed to its Aryan paleness as if she had never spent seventeen years in the Shapierian desert. She worried for the first time in her life about sunburn. And more to the point, she was wearing a strange purple mask she’d found in Erasmus’ castle — she couldn’t count on any hood to stay down over her face during a fight, and she wanted to test her skills after that farce in the other layer without revealing herself. All in all, she would not have blamed Kokeeno for laughing at her.
“My greetings to all of you,” Ferarri said from his high stand over the audience as they prepared to fight. He obviously had some spell or other augmenting his voice, for even from down in the arena doorway En Shevil could hear it. “Welcome to the arena, and tonight’s spectacle of deadly combat. Tonight, the champion of this contest is someone most of you know. He has served the city of Silmaria for many years as a guard. He has proved himself to be both valiant and brave. Ladies and gentlemen, I call to battle Kokeeno Pookameeso!”
The man in question stepped forward from the opposite side. “I, Kokeeno Pookameso, shall defend the honor of the guards of Silmaria.” The crowd cheered.
“Tonight’s challenger,” Ferarri continued, “is a ninja of mysterious powers. I call to battle Dazah!” En Shevil stepped forward and nodded to Ferrari, then to Kokeeno as the crowd booed her. She had decided not to speak (though she had been instructed to introduce herself) in case Achim were watching. Ferarri obviously noted this (it fit with her pseudonym, after all). “Let the contest begin!”
Rather regretting she had to harm such an apparently nice person, she went to. Her first move was to flip over him, landing on her hands behind him to strike the small of his back with her feet. This both threw him of balance and most certainly bruised her (armor on one’s opponent was thoroughly disagreeable). She realized she would have to use her katana, much as she had wanted to avoid it, if she was ever to get anywhere against his armor. Sweeping it free in a graceful arc, she brought it around with her right hand to strike him (she hoped; her back was to him) in the stomach.
She spun, barely in time to block the spearhead that came swinging around as he mirrored her movement. They were facing each other again, and the guard suddenly surprised her by aiming a kick at her stomach. She blocked it with her knee — he was only wearing sandals, after all — and brought her katana down towards the leather-covered spot on his lower left bicep. Naturally he jerked his shield up to block the sword, but in doing so he threw himself off balance, being already on one foot and now forced backwards from the top. As he teetered, she kicked him in the head, getting a screaming spear-wound in her thigh for it. He fell, however. Jumping back with a grimace, she waited for him to rise, then darted to his left and gave the elbow of his shield-arm a hard crack with her left hand. His arm stiffened and he let go the shield, crouching back and stabbing at her with his spear. She sprang again out of the way, then did a triple flip to land behind him a second time.
He was not to be fooled by the same trick twice, and threw himself aside before she could knock him in the back again. But she instead darted after him and stabbed the back of his right knee, kicking his left. He thrust his spear-butt backwards into her stomach, momentarily fazing her. As she stumbled backwards he limped around to face her, jabbing at her chest. She knocked the blow away with her katana, nicking the wood of his weapon near the head. Then unexpectedly she went from crouching in pain to aiming a high kick at his right shoulder. Momentarily he dropped his spear, but regained it before her next blow, which was a kick at his other shoulder.
Kokeeno was beginning to wobble. She ducked his next, uncertain thrust and put her weight on her hands as she struck out with her feet at his right ankle, knocking his legs out from under him. Wrenching the spear from his hand, she eased the point up into his helmet and placed the sharp tip under his chin. She wondered if she would have to force him to yield or something silly like that, but was reassured when Ferarri cried, “Tonight’s victory belongs to Dazah!” The assembled Silmarians cheered, and she released the unsteady Kokeeno. The two of them were led into a back room that held, apparently, only a closet with no door. Into this they were instructed to go, and Kokeeno stepped in without question. En Shevil, wondering, walked slowly under the archway. Magic flashed around her, and she felt her wounds healed. But when she came out she was shaking, just a bit, from the startlement of the thing. She wondered what such an enchanted device must have cost Ferarri. She was given a prize purse of 250 drachma, at which point she joined the dispersing crowd outside the arena and headed for the Dead Parrot.
It was but the day after next that she learned to her surprise of Kokeeno Pookameeso’s murder. Little specific grief followed the revelation, but any such death must make her sorry. To her happiness, however, she read the following message on the news board:
“The fishing village of Naxos has been freed from the mercenaries by Achim, Prince of Shapier.”
Disappointingly, it said nothing of the next Rite; for that she had to wait until the next day — but she whiled away her time comfortably by visiting another world. “Competitors must find the location of the Hesperian Mercenaries’ fortress and defeat their general. The person that returns with the general’s shield shall be deemed the winner of this quest.” She worried a bit about Achim, but was fairly sure (hoped she was fairly sure) that he could take care of himself. After ascertaining that checking the news board was all she wanted to do in the city, she returned to the transporter and Erasmus’ castle.
“I think we have determined how to solve the hair problem,” Rawn said as she entered. “We have woven a new spell over the device that should make your hair its usual length and color when you return this time.”
En Shevil had an amusing idea. “Could you do anything to keep it red?” she asked. “It would be convenient for my disguise.”
Erasmus shrugged. “I see no reason why not,” he said. This being only her third world, he, Rawnmé and Fenris still felt the need to gather in the octagonal room to watch her go and return. “Rawn, let’s…” he launched into a long magical tirade that En Shevil ignored.
Eventually, after some magic, they were apparently ready, and En Shevil stepped through. The sensations were still so new to her as to be wholly engrossing, and she was dwelling on them even after she had rematerialized at her destination. Thus, it took her a moment before she began to gape.
The fine houses of Nob Hill were gone, and had been replaced by a long row of boxy structures with identical doors and windows. No sign was there of the arena, but instead stood a large building of florescent colors with a bright yellow, rounded letter M over the door. From it wafted the scents of baked potatoes and… pizza?
The ground had been paved as far as her eye could see, and nearly all the foliage was gone. What little remained was strangely twisted and mutated, as if it had long been exposed to unhealthy soil or other conditions. And the most bizarre sight of all was the Hall of Kings, or what should have been: massive, many-storeyed, rising up into thin, strange towers around a great dome, the whole thing had an artificial, metallic look to it, and lightning danced from one tower to the next. Where the gate in her world was flanked by the proud Silmarian Guard, here was an eight-foot box of black metal with a door in its face. She could not resist. She had to enter.
In darkness she found herself, for she was quickly shut in. Feeling a bit worried, she pawed her way forward until she found the opposite wall not five feet away. Suddenly something flashed to life at her right, making her jump. It was a square, green-glowing and eerily hovering on the wall. As she approached she found that there were words written on it in white: “Welcome to the Hall of Kings. You, too, can witness the genius at work within these walls. Please take the simple Entry Quiz to prove your worth. Do Serious Research!”
“Ah… all right,” she said, not knowing quite how this magical-looking square worked.
And it began to ask her questions. She couldn’t be quite sure, but she felt they were rather silly — “What does every ruling figure need?” with the following choices offered: “To be able to spell Betelgeuse,” “To be able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw,” “A diploma from the Academy of Science in Silmaria,” “A perpetual motion machine.” If she answered three wrong the thing would tell her, “That was your third wrong answer. I’m sorry, but you are not qualified to enter our presence.”
“This is so stupid,” she grumbled, giving yet another incorrect response. Still, determined to get past, she activated the test sequence for the third time and tried again. She was beginning to remember the first few answers very well (“B — to discover the true meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, not to mention gain rulership in major countries,” “A — without science, the world would be destroyed by ignorance and superstition!” “D — all of the above”), and after much trial and error she made it. The screen flashed and read, “Congratulations! It is probable that you have the makings of a scientist! Go to the Academy today to find out!” A door opened before her. She jumped as a metallic voice spoke out of nowhere:
“You may enter the Hall of Kings now.”
“It’s about time,” she snorted, much more frustrated than she felt she should be. Unable to find whoever had just spoken, she shrugged and stepped forward into the light. The box closed up again behind, and she looked around. The lawn that should have been to her left and right was not there. Instead, a field of odorous, wide-leafed plants stood several feet high on either side of the path. Many seemed to be the subject of botanical experiments, for they sat in small circles of water or under miniature, clear domes. She bent and examined one. Its smell was not pleasant, but reminded her vaguely of something she had once eaten a great deal of. Garlic, perhaps, but she could not be quite sure. She headed on towards the great doors.
These were twenty-foot slabs of metal with large, exaggerated-looking rivets. At about face-level was a flat panel, interrupting the bumps on the rest of the surface, that seemed to be thinner than the surrounding material. Seeing no handles or other marks, and not know what else to do, En Shevil knocked on the smooth rectangle. It opened inwards, showing a pair of huge glowing eyes and otherwise darkness. These eyes were pressed startlingly close to the door, and she took a step back in wonder. “Who seeks to enter?” said a voice suspiciously like the metallic one she had heard moments earlier.
“My name is En Shevil,” she said. “I’m a traveler, and I’d like to see the Hall of Kings.”
“Whom do you recognize as King of Silmaria?” the creature continued. The eyes never blinked, and their glow was strangely steady.
She sucked in a breath. “Um, I just got here today,” she said. “I don’t know who the king is.” Not a lie, truly.
There was a whirring sound. “We have no record of your arrival. We must contact the harbormaster.”
“I didn’t come by boat,” she said. “I came by magic.”
There was a very long silence, and the eyes never moved. But the whirring sound continued. “Please, enter,” the voice finally said, and the doors swung open with an extended (and undue, En Shevil thought) sound of multiple gears. Someone’s been bored around here, she was thinking. It’s a door, not a clock.
She had no cause to be suspicious of the ease of her admittance until, halfway down the boxy metal hallway, two guards fell silently into place just behind her, keeping her pace. She did not turn to look at them, but felt that neither their uniforms nor their drawn weapons were anything similar to what she’d seen in her own world.
The great hall that gave the building its name was not far ahead, and murmuring voices could be heard from within. Upon her entrance, one of the guards took her right arm and whispered in her ear, “You will stand here with us.” En Shevil did not think of resisting, especially since she was almost too busy looking around to hear him.
The place looked normal enough at first glance, but on closer examination she decided that whoever was ruling this Silmaria was decidedly weird. The round, domed room was hung with a myriad of fine banners, most of them bearing pictures of books and other symbols of wisdom. But they were all in dark colors, blacks and greys. Next, the pillars around the inner circle, separating the arena-like seating from the main floor, were square — and spiked! Staring at them skeptically, she almost felt she had seen similar pillars somewhere in her world. The strangest sight of all, however, was the tile beneath her feet, for across the floor of the room’s inner circle stretched a huge marble pizza. Half of it was topped with red circles and yellow triangles, the rest with green circles and grey fish. She blinked a few times, telling herself that she was not seeing a giant pizza on the floor of the ruler’s main audience hall. Confident at last that it was, in fact, actually there, she raised her eyes to try and ascertain the identity of said ruler.
There was a fanfare, although the sound had a very metallic quality to it and seemed to come, instead of from living trumpeters, from somewhere near the top of the wall just before the dome began. From this same area a voice spoke. “All make obeisance before his high majesty — genius of science, champion of logic, scourge of superstition — Academy graduate, Rite conqueror, King of Silmaria and someday of the whole world….. Gort!”
En Shevil stifled a giggle. “’King Gort?’” she murmured, feeling with the words a tightening of the guard’s hand on her arm.
The Silmarians were all making some sort of weird salute towards the platform at the head of the room, and En Shevil watched curiously as the king emerged. She giggled again at the sight of the massive, boxy, green-skinned man in royal attire — complete with bushy cape. “Infidel,” hissed the guard into her ear, and something hard and metallic pressed warningly to her back. This almost increased her desire to laugh, for she could not imagine loyalty to this moronic-looking “king.” But then, perhaps when he spoke she would be surprised.
He did not speak. Instead, a short and nearly bald man to his right greeted the people in what sounded like a ritual beginning to the audience or whatever it was. “Your loyalty does credit to your intelligence. Some of you may have the makings of true scientists.” He nodded graciously to them. “If the Speaker would please bring up the first item of business for today’s council?”
A young, somewhat nervous-looking man stood forward with a long scroll. “Um, the first — um, item — is the accusation of citizen Ionestra, for deception and the practice of High Trickery.”
“Let her be brought forward,” the bald man said, and En Shevil did not miss the sly poke he gave to the King — who then gestured to accompany the statement. Are these people stupid? En Shevil wondered, to follow this ridiculous mockery of a puppet?
Two guards dragged a ragged brown-haired girl up to stand just before the king’s dais, she fighting them all the way, and stood holding her in anticipation of her sentence. She struggled for a few moments, then straightened and regarded the king and his minister proudly. “Citizen Ionestra,” the bald man began with a disdainful curl of his lip, “you have been caught in the act of that practice which is most detrimental to our society: the deceit which your type calls ‘magic.’” He said the word with ultimate derision, but En Shevil saw very clearly that emotion to which she was by painful experience most attuned: fear. This man was a thousand times more afraid of magic than En Shevil was, and she wondered why. “Everyone knows that this ‘magic’ of yours does not exist, but that by your High Trickery you have made it seem like you have a power greater than that of Science, the only true power in the universe. Do you deny this?”
The girl’s voice was steady as she responded — loudly — but held an audible undertone of fear and despair; she knew what her fate was to be. En Shevil was by this time so curious as to what was going on that she was almost jumping, straining to hear all she could over the soft sounds of the council. “I will never deny,” the girl was saying, “that I practice magic — and that MAGIC IS REAL!” Her voice rose to a sudden, startling scream. “AND YOU CAN’T CHANGE THAT!”
The following silence was alive with expectancy, eager in a horrifying sort of way as the bald man stared wordlessly at the poor Ionestra. Finally he shook his head in mock pity. “You have sealed your doom. Your punishment is death.”
En Shevil was surprised into loud and angry speech. “What?!” Heads turned to regard her, even that of the king and his minister.
“All citizens of and visitors to Silmaria are aware of the law,” the latter commented in her direction.
“You can’t execute her just for practicing magic!” En Shevil shrieked, and with a twist flipped her annoying guard to the floor. She ran to Ionestra’s side and disarmed the girl’s guards in a few swift kicks.
Meanwhile the bald man was wailing. “Guards! Stop her! She is of the deceivers — those who would convince innocents that such things as ‘magic’ really exist!”
“Magic does exist!” En Shevil cried, though her voice was strained by the uncanny weariness she was again beginning to feel. “That’s how I’m even here!” Guards were converging on them, and someone had run up to the platform and was whispering in the ear of the bald man. En Shevil began to fight off the guards, shouting all the while. “How can you people follow a king that doesn’t even talk? How can you put up with this stupid law about magic? What kind of doormat kingdom is this?”
That was as far as she got. She might have been able to fend off the weak guards indefinitely, despite her combat inhibitions, but at that moment something odd happened: she was suddenly surrounded by a bright light, and spasms of cramp-like pain cracked through every muscle in her body. With a cry she fell to the floor, aching and in terrible fear of another such blow. If these people don’t allow magic, what in Tartarus was that?
Several guards surrounded her, steadily pointing their strange-looking weapons at her as she was hauled to her feet. She noticed she had been separated from Ionestra, who was now crying.
“So you are the intruder,” the minister said when she was looking at him again: “you are the one who infiltrated our kingdom in order to spread your lies about magic to the good people of Silmaria. Whoever hired you must have been a person of sufficient intelligence, for it is apparent you are not: our records show you could not even pass the simple entry test in less than seven tries.”
Laughter filled the gallery, and En Shevil was becoming angry. It took some effort to move her jaw and tongue in order to speak coherently, and the council was forced to quiet in order to hear her almost-whispered words. “Your test is hardly proof of intelligence.”
“Nor are any of your actions,” was the bald man’s smooth and obviously spontaneous response. More laughter followed both statements. “You mindless warrior! Doesn’t it ever disturb you not to be among the smaller circle of humanity that has been gifted with reasonably-sized cognitive abilities?”
En Shevil puzzled through this briefly and snorted. “How could you possible know?”
“Imbecile! You blunder in here with your great physical powers without any contemplation as to our powers of security. See how easily you were outwitted and captured! Mind over matter!” The maruroha was now slightly confused, and it must have been evident on her face, for the minister smirked. “For espionage, High Trickery, and aiding a traitor to the country, not to mention several other minor charges that do not need to be listed, you are sentenced to death along with this citizen, with his majesty’s blessing.”
Ionestra’s weeping became audible. “Please don’t kill me!” she cried. “I’ll never use magic again! I’ll leave the country and never come back! Please!”
“Science is not cruel,” the minister consoled her. “The drug is quick and painless and even somewhat pleasant; you will sleep peacefully until you die.”
En Shevil struggled, but her body was sluggish and hurt, and would not move without jerking. So she resorted to her only option. “You’re the stupid one!” she cried in the loudest tone her fumbling organs could command. “You’re the one who’s afraid of something you can’t use!” Someone was approaching her through the ranks of guards, and she knew her time was short. “Maybe I can’t win your stupid test at your stupid door, but at least I’m trying to do something good with what I’ve got — not trying to use a bunch of lies and a stupid monster figurehead to take over the world!”
At that moment she was conscious of many pairs of hands on her, particularly on her right arm; someone pinched her, and a tiny sharp stab prickled in her elbow. The mass of guards began to blur, and her entire frame relaxed. She fell forward into darkness.
Her first word upon awakening back in Erasmus’ octagonal tower room was not polite. “I just had two weeks of the most bizarre dreams I’ve ever had in my life,” she groaned.
“Do not forget your are fighting in the arena tonight,” Rawn remarked from nearby. “You asked me to remind you.”
Not having witnessed the previous evening’s tournament, (she’d spent the time easily in the Dead Parrot with her fellow ex-harem-girls), En Shevil was totally unprepared for what she found upon meeting Magnum Opus
So ugly a man she had not expected, but that was hardly his fault — although with less deliberate muscle and more attention to hygiene he might have been more attractive. His faults of appearance were complicated by his stance, which was so completely beyond arrogance as to be almost amusing. But this was nothing to his address upon her greeting him.
“So,” he began, “you dare to challenge me, Magnum Opus? Poor, overconfident fool, your defeat will come swiftly. Had you been a man, I might have hoped for some exercise from the fight. But a woman? Ha!” He tossed his head with a deep, contemptuous laugh. Then he looked more closely at her and gave a wide, toothy smile with his overlarge mouth. “Perhaps you would prefer to skip this battle entirely and return to my room at the inn?”
He looked at her expectantly, and En Shevil stared at him a moment before she realized that he was in earnest. She tried to speak but dissolved rather into laughter, leaning on the wall for support as her stomach cramped with the force of her mirth. She could do nothing but laugh at such a man who, on top of everything he already was, tried to be taken seriously. “I think…” she said between gasps for breath, “…I think that… I will enjoy… beating you…”
Magnum glared at her as the door beside them was opened from within and they were allowed to enter.
“Tonight’s champion has more than proven himself in battle. He has the reputation as a leader of warriors, and tireless student of the marshal arts. From the city-state of Nova Roma, I summon to battle Magnum Opus!” From her position in the challenger’s doorway, En Shevil giggled.
Magnum stepped forward, his face holding all the expectancy of a warm welcome that such a disposition as his must. He spoke, loudly and without even the appearance of deference towards the supervisor of the event. “I, Magnum Opus, brilliant tactician and strategist, shall demonstrate to all in Silmaria that I am unsurpassed in my combat skills. I shall defeat all who challenge me. Ave, Ferarri. I, who shall make my opponent die, salute you.”
Oh, honestly, En Shevil thought, with a prodigious roll of eyes. She was then introduced, and the battle began.
Taking automatically to the offensive, she rolled forward and spun on her hands to knock Magnum’s legs out from under him with her own. He clattered to the ground and did a backwards roll to his feet again. More agile than I thought in that armor. Magnum took a powerful swipe at her with his massive sword as she sprang up, and she leaned her upper body back to avoid it, kicking out at his left knee with her right foot at the same moment. He stumbled forward a step, sword driving wildly past En Shevil’s left shoulder. She turned ninety degrees to the right and drove her left forearm up into his right armpit, then ducked and backed out under his outstretched arm.
Magnum dropped his sword. This is too easy, En Shevil thought; for as Magnum bent to recover it, she kicked him hard in the face. Despite this he managed to close his hand on the hilt before her blow knocked him back, and his growl of rage as he charged evidenced just how much she’d hurt him. She flipped tightly to her left, missing the Hesperian’s blade so narrowly that had her hair not been pulled back in a braid-crown (Rawn had done that) it might have been shorn. Immediately she landed she jumped to avoid the diagonally-downward left-to-right stroke Magnum had reversed into. As she hit the ground again she barely twisted out of the way as a third swift slice threatened to take her left arm off. He wants swordplay, she thought. Wonderful.
Deciding to go dramatic, she did a high jump into the air, flipped thrice and dove with newly-drawn katana bearing down on Magnum’s helmeted head. As she had expected, he raised his own sword to repel her, and she allowed herself to be thrown from him in a controlled flight, landing crouched with blade at the ready before her. He was beginning to circle her with defenses high, looking for an opening. She straightened and watched him for a brief moment before flying into motion again.
The next few seconds flashed in the light of ringing swords, uncountable blows levied and repelled until En Shevil ended the sequence and the fight with the same move she’d used to begin her bout with Kokeeno: after twisting his sword away from her midsection and as he was preparing, lightning-fast, for another stab, she flipped over him, landed head-down on her left hand, and slammed her feet into his back. At that same moment she pushed off with the hand that bore her weight to put her upright once more, and whirled to face the off-balance warrior. Remembering the healing closet and knowing that mercy was not necessary, she stabbed his leg; he fell twisting to the ground, sword beneath him. She put a foot on his rear and the tip of her sword to his neck.
“The winner of this bloody battle –“ Didn’t Ferarri get a kick out of saying that! “– is Dazah!”
En Shevil could have sworn that Magnum was blushing as she allowed him to rise, but it was difficult to tell for the lowness of his hanging head. As they entered the outer healing chamber, En Shevil sighed, “Had you been a man, I might have hoped for some exercise from this fight.”
The next day, on her way out to check the notice board, she saw a familiar golden-white figure basking in the sub-tropical sunlight on a great rock just across the bridge from the transporter. With a smile she quickened her pace.
“Rakeesh,” she greeted him from behind. The liontaur turned and looked at her for a long time.
“So,” he said at last, slowly, “Silence speaks.” She nodded. “Why are you here?”
“I’m helping Erasmus and Rawnmé with some experiments.”
He gestured to her hair, which was still in that adorable braid-crown. “Why do you conceal yourself?”
“I don’t want Achim to know I’m alive,” she said with a shrug that did not speak how she truly felt. “And actually the hair isn’t so much a concealment thing; it’s a magic thing.”
“Why do you act thus?”
“Achim’s gotten over me; he has new… friends, now. It would only shock and disturb him if I came back into his life.”
“Your reasoning is wise: a Paladin tries to avoid harming others at all times. But that must to a reasonable extent include yourself — and you still love him.”
She looked away. “It doesn’t matter,” she said finally. “I don’t deserve him anyway.”
“What you are determines what you deserve,” said Rakeesh, “and you will always be strong of heart and pure of intent. And he still loves you.”
“Excuse me,” she said, and, crouching, slipped into the shrubbery behind Rakeesh’s rock. Observing the approaching Prince of Shapier, Rakeesh knew why.
En Shevil slipped back to the transporter as she heard Achim begin to speak. “I think I know where mercenaries are hiding out!”
I can check the messages when I get back, she thought. Now she was growing excited for whatever the magical transporter would hold for her today. Fenris was not present, and En Shevil took this as a sign of the increasing normality of her ventures. However, nothing could accustom her to the acutely bizarre sensations associated with her travel. And the feeling that filled her upon transition was something she’d never even felt before: free-falling.
In the first instant she screamed, but immediately her lungs stopped their function and the sound ceased. Freezing moisture bit into her agonizingly as clouds rushed past, but she barely had time to wonder what was happening before she was in the clear air, head downwards, and moving increasingly swiftly towards a vast and terrifying expanse of ocean below. She did not pause to wonder where Marete was; she did not think to prepare herself for the pain of the approaching impact; she did not consider how she might somehow swim to safety if she survived the fall — she merely gave in to terror.
It was mute, it was blind, it was cold and piercing, and it was momentary. She had expected it to drag out, seem to last forever, but her descent was by now too rapid. As she slammed into the stony surface of the water with all the force of a hundred foot fall she blacked out. It was but for a moment, and at her return she was conscious of raging, enveloping pain — she felt every bone in her body must be broken, her eyes were broken, and her teeth seemed to be leaning inwards; consuming, intolerable cold — she was still plunging deeper into the clinging water; terrible, burning fluctuation of internal organs — struggling against the increasing pressure, empty lungs in desperate need of air; and lastly, saturating, clawing fear — a child of fire and earth suddenly immersed in a hostile world of water.
Without thinking she tried to draw breath. Agony clawed at her lungs and black slashes of oblivion flashed across her consciousness. In panic she struggled, thrashing her mangled limbs slowly and clumsily. Everything seemed on fire, and jolts of incredible pain shot through her with every movement. But she was fading rapidly, and soon the void of death swallowed her, water rushing in like a whirlpool as her body vanished.
She fell to the floor, screaming. Rawn was at her side, arms about her shoulders, in an instant. She spoke no words, but radiated calm. Slowly the image of endless, gluttonous water and its sadistic desires fell away from her eyes, and the room came gradually into view. She knelt, hands pressed against the comforting surface beneath her, and gasped for almost a full minute. Finally she climbed to her feet, and fainted.
Achim’s experience the next day was similar. Returning in acute exhaustion from an unimportant and overlooked island called Sifnos, he stood in his bedroom doorway at Gnome Ann’s Land staring blankly at the distant wall for some time. Her questions fell unanswered, for his weariness and grief were deafening. The previous sleepless night had held many times its fair share of sneaking and fighting, and the last, highly personal battle, had been so taxing as to drain him more than entirely.
His plan was to eat before falling into bed, but after standing silently at the door for almost a full minute, he closed his eyes and slumped to the floor.
“It took the entire kitchen staff to get him into bed,” Nawar reported later at the Dead Parrot. “I wonder what their secret is,” she added with a laugh. I’ve got to find a new source for gossip, En Shevil thought with an aching heart. Or maybe I should just explain the whole thing to her. That thought was almost amusing.
“I guess they can cook,” Budar put in — she always heard what Nawar was saying — “Why do you think Ferarri likes me?”
“You two deserve each other,” Nawar said.
“So, what else have you heard about the Rite?” En Shevil asked, lest the conversation degenerate into one of the harem girls’ typical banterfests.
Nawar shrugged. “I don’t care much about it. The prince won, that’s all I know. Oh — and Magnum Opus was murdered out in the woods somewhere.”
“Magnum murdered?” En Shevil echoed, more than a bit surprised. “I can’t say I’ll miss him, as little contact as I even had with him. But he was one of the most interesting swordfighters I’ve ever fought.” She gave a sighing laugh. “I’m really starting to wonder what’s going on around here.”
“There is another contest I care about more,” Nawar said with a dreamy look, ignoring En Shevil’s words. “I hope he wins.”
“And what contest would that be?” inquired the stony voice of Elsa von Spielburg from behind Nawar. She had descended the stairs and now stood in all her aloof glory beside the stage.
Nawar’s eyes narrowed, and her body went rigid. En Shevil had never before seen a meeting between these two women, but she could easily have guessed at the tension that might exist between them. “I’m sure you know what I mean,” Nawar replied at last.
“He may win,” Elsa replied, with cutting derision: she could not stomach Nawar’s superficiality, “but not because such as you wishes it.”
En Shevil had made her way to the thieves’ guild the night before, and knew exactly what they were talking about. She had not realized, however, that Elsa was involved in the Chief Thief contest.
“Ferarri might be very interested to hear your speculations about who’s really going to win that contest,” Nawar spat back.
Elsa snorted. “Ferarri can’t touch me.”
“Only because you’re hiding behind Minos.”
“I wonder who’s fighting now that Magnum’s dead?” En Shevil spoke over whatever Elsa said next and strode purposefully towards the stairs, pulling her hood farther down over her face.
Reeshaka’s was the latest name under ‘This week’s Champion’ — as a matter of fact, this was already her second day. Ferarri certainly didn’t lose any time between news-of-death and appointment-of-successor. En Shevil tapped the board on the next and pointed to herself. “You know the price,” the bookie said, flipping a page in his log and marking her down to fight on the liontaur’s third day. En Shevil counted out the drachma for him.
Before long she was joined by Elsa. “That woman belongs in a harem.”
En Shevil put a hand to her mouth in symbol of laughter and drew Elsa away. The bookie laughed as they went. “I wasn’t about to get between you,” En Shevil murmured when they were nearing the door. “I had enough of that in school.”
“I do not see what you see in her,” Elsa commented darkly.
“I don’t see what Achim sees in her,” En Shevil replied and added with an amused sidelong glance, “but as for me — well, we’re fellow ex-harem girls.”
Elsa stopped and looked at her friend askance, disbelieving. She saw the laughter in En Shevil’s eyes and blushed. “My comment was meant…”
The Shapierian laughed again and waved the half-apology away. “It’s an embarrassing detail I don’t mention often.”
“I would be glad to hear it at another time. But tonight I came to speak to you about a more serious matter.”
By this time they were exiting the Parrot, and Elsa looked around them carefully before heading up the beach and continuing with an explanation. “I did intend to win the Chief Thief contest. When I am the Queen of Silmaria, I want to make sure I have the thieves, especially Ferarri, under my thumb.” She stopped outside the Adventurers’ Guild and gave a significant glance towards the Thieves’ Guild below. “But I have been pondering on this, and I feel that it is not perhaps the wisest course of action for me. Tell me, my friend, where will you go from here?”
En Shevil was surprised at this question, and was not yet beginning to link the two topics of the conversation. “I don’t know,” she said, confused. “I’m here because I wanted to see Achim again, and see what he’s going to do. I guess it depends on him.”
“Then I wish to make you an offer: that you become the Chief Thief of Silmaria, and I will make you a counselor when I am Queen. We will keep law and order in the land, yet still allow those of our secret profession limited freedom.”
Taken completely aback, En Shevil could only stutter for a moment and then fall silent in thought. She really didn’t have any idea what would be the next step in her life, but she felt suddenly that to be basing her future on the actions of someone else would be beyond ridiculous. This was a definite and pleasant-sounding failsafe in case things didn’t work out between her and Achim. And at the rate I’m going, she was thinking, I’m heading for Chief Thiefdom. “Wonderful,” she said aloud. “Great idea. It’s a choice, anyway. If I decide not to follow Achim wherever he goes next, I’ll stay here and do that.”
Elsa smiled. “I thank you,” she said sincerely. “I would be glad to have you by my side.”
“How do I get into the contest?” En Shevil asked.
“You will have to put a substantial amount of money down,” Elsa replied. “And the one sure way of winning the contest is to present the Blackbird.”
En Shevil grinned. “Which is…?”
Elsa’s eyes narrowed. “Minos took it from me, under the guise of protecting it. I believe he does not intend to return it.”
The Shapierian looked worried for a moment. “It is yours, though…”
“It is a gift I would gladly give you, my friend.”
“Wonderful. How do I get there?”
“First you must enter,” Elsa said. “The fee must be up to nearly a thousand drachma by this time; do you have enough?”
En Shevil shrugged. “I’ve beat some people in the arena, and Rawn lent me some — I should be good.”
“I will await you here.”
As it came out, the fee was only 882 drachma (which was hefty enough), and then they were off to Minos Island. Elsa returned to the large private boat first, alone, to give the appearance of normality; En Shevil slipped aboard just as it silently cast off. It was a frightening moment — the dark water hissing beneath her as she leapt, a possibly hostile goon manning the helm, her whole body swaying with the rocking of the sea as her feet touched down with a slight thud and she crouched warily on the deck — but at last she found her way safely to the small hold, sitting very still and keeping all her courage about her for the brief sea voyage.
Elsa had warned her on the way to the boat about the large number of guards Minos employed, and yet En Shevil was surprised. The man was very, very paranoid who stationed half a dozen goons outside his mansion — which was itself more like a fortress, snuggled into the rock cleft as it was, accessible on the fourth side only by sea. The maruroha crouched in the shadows out of sight for some time after Elsa and her escort entered the house. She was deep in thought. The Blackbird was an obvious motive, but there had to be some other reason for Minos to have such an impressive contingent on his payroll. And no respectable Silmarian-style guards these — every one was a goon, though the smaller shapes stationed on the towers of the outer wall seemed human. She peered at them, squinting and trying to make out their strange forms. Definitely helmeted, but she could not determine anything more since she’d wrapped the tie of her robe-like shirt low about her brow to shade her eyes and hide any light that might reflect off of them. They glowed like a katta’s when she was employing her dark-seeing talent, and she didn’t want to give herself away by something so obvious. Of course that meant she was standing in the chilly night air in only a tight undershirt and her baggy white pants — but such things mattered little on this sort of expedition. She did wish, however, that she’d worn a different color tonight. Ah, well, she thought a bit apprehensively. A thief in white is more talented than a thief in black.
She began to creep forward, clinging to the rock wall on her right and staying low. Her slow-bending feet made not a sound, her hands equally silent as they touched the stone now and then to get the feel of it. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms and shoulders as she drew coldness from the island around her as if ingesting it. A thief must be one with the land around her, she was thinking. They always said at home that only healers and nature magicians were “one with the desert;” but I think they were wrong. Her body seemed like liquid as she melded with her surroundings, moving almost magically through bushes without a rustle. Silence enveloped her, awareness heightened — both of her own body, the pull and slack of every muscle and tendon; and her enemies, so that she could nearly identify in feet and inches where each one stood and how deeply he breathed. Though she did not realize it, she had reached an ineffable level of skill as a thief. She felt strangely warm.
Finally she was close enough to discern detail on the bodies of the helmeted tower-guards. Their armor was undoubtedly of Hesperian style, and their helmets were the type she had sometimes seen while wandering Marete: skull-like and all-concealing. What is Minos up to? she wondered. Surely he’s not responsible for the mercenaries’ attack! She shrugged the thought away; mercenaries were… mercenary, after all.
So far it looked easy, but she needed to see more. The stone surfaces around her were sheer, and to prevent grapnel-style scaling the walls had been regularly adorned with sloping, flat-sided protrusions. Unfortunately for the good name of the architect, one of these at the far eastern side was positioned close enough to the cliff that someone (En Shevil at least) could shimmy up between them with not too much difficulty and catch on to the top of the overhanging lip at the wall’s head. Vaulting over the crenellated edge, she crouched on the narrow parapet beyond and continued to plot.
Elsa had not exaggerated the number of guards. She had already seen five or six goons outside the front gate, and beyond there were perhaps ten more — not to mention at least four mercenaries. She stayed where she was for some time, planning in detail each further step. Between the corner of the mansion and the cliff wall, where a narrow alley led towards the back yards, a goon stood squarely. That one she would have to walk straight past, only a few yards away; but goons were not the most intelligent of all cheap labor, nor the most brilliantly night-sighted. The white pants might be a problem, though; she must remember to minimize her legs.
he entire east end of the house seemed to be a standardized living area, probably a type of barracks for all these guards. It would be easy to climb, and the windows were wide and gaping, but this wasn’t much help: given the mistrustful nature of this whole setup, she thought, there was not likely to be an entrance from the barracks to the inner house; so she shifted her gaze to the front door. No good — two goons stood directly in front of it. But above… a fairly low balcony without rails seemed to hold, in the deep shadows behind its pillars, two doors that probably led where she wanted to go. Lined up with each door was a mercenary, but they stood at the very edge, peering out over the gate with ready bows, leaving a good three feet for her to slip behind them and enter the house.
After briefly plotting her exact climbing route, she turned and jumped from the wall, catching the ledge to shorten the fall and dropping softly to the ground. In a stooping run she crossed the yard, eliciting not so much as blink from the corner goon despite her ivory attire. Up the barrack wall and onto the balcony in a split second, and she was ready to enter.
Frustrated, she found the door locked. Not funny, she thought as she withdrew her lockpick from her undershirt. Oh, for those good old days when she’d had a lot of hair! But that might have gotten in the way here, since (if she recalled correctly) her bulky ponytail had stuck out three inches from the back of her head. She could practically feel the body warmth of the man standing directly behind her; fortunately he would not feel hers, nor any slight movement of air caused by her passing, nor would he see her — his well-padded armor and restrictive helmet would ensure that. And if she could manage this, the near-silent click of the lock giving would also be dimmed in his well-protected ears. She grinned, aware of the irony of such thoughts from the mind of a warrior.
The lock was more difficult than she’d been expecting, and by the time she felt its oiled tumblers align in satisfying quietness, a thin sheen of sweat had formed on her previously cold skin. So far, however, she congratulated herself on having alerted not a single guard. The next moment she bit her lip and the bright mood dissipated as she realized that if the house was lit within, the ensuing luminance from the door’s opening would give her away. She turned slowly, estimating the exact width she would need to slip through, the exact path of the light’s ray, and the exact dimensions of the left guard’s helmet. Could she enter in time that the small amount of light falling onto it would not cause him to turn his head? She knew that, at times, someone who could not see in the dark (or someone who could and was not currently employing the technique), staring straight ahead into darkness for a extended period, would imagine all manner of distracting things: nonexistent auras of light, pulsating blobs of color, movement where there was none. If she could time it correctly, he would discount it as a trick of the brain.
A thought came to her all of a sudden — Why don’t I just charge in, fight them all off, grab the bird, and run? A myriad of answers shouted her idea down, the most prominent being, What would that prove? I can’t be Chief Thief by maruroharyu skill!
It’s wonderful, she told herself, concentrating on the door again. I can do it. She forced these mental statements of confidence, for in all honesty she was not nearly as sure of her thiefly abilities as she was of her warrior prowess. She took a deep, silent breath and opened the door.
Light fell for an instant, her slim body slid through, the guard turned his head — but the door was closed, and En Shevil was already pressed against the inside wall, hidden by the thick marble doorframe. There, she tried frantically to calm her racing heart while she stared at the staff-bearing centaur posted immediately to the left of the ingress she’d just employed. Great Iblis, she was thinking, how did it happen that he was looking over there right as I came in? She forced her eyes to narrow, practically dragged her pulse down to a normal rate, and scanned the huge chamber. She was on the second level, a balustraded walkway off of which several doors opened. Based on what Elsa had told her, the Blackbird was located in a storage room at the far end; its doors were flanked by goons. Her nervousness faded as she studied these, and she knew she could easily use the same trick by which she’d attained entry to the house: the goons stood at least two feet out from the wall. But their position at the end of an exposed walkway, and the possibility of turning heads anywhere else in the room presented a massive problem.
She let her eyes run up the gold pillar at the meeting of the balcony railings. It connected to an outcropping in the ceiling where the flat part met an upward sloping gold skylight of immense size. With a great deal of effort and probably some noise she could climb the pillar and slide, clinging, along the rectangular outcropping. Then she could swing to the top of the storage room door’s bulky frame, lean down, pick the lock, and swing inside without the goons noticing. Then jackalmen will fly me home, she thought with a nervous mental giggle. As if there’s any way they wouldn’t see me swinging from the ceiling!
All right… but keep thinking along the same lines… She smiled as she saw a plausible path and mapped it out in detail. Observing the centaur to her left, she waited for the perfect moment and darted to the corner of the pillar’s base, then crawled around like a spider to the underside of the balcony — ceiling to the lower level. Clinging to the beveled edgeboard, she made her way along towards the far end of the walkway. The only problem she encountered was when she reached a great hanging tapestry hooked into the very gilded molding on which she relied. Her response to this dilemma was to move exceptionally slowly so as not to cause any unusual ripples of movement in the fabric. By the time she turned the corner and traversed the short end of the balcony, she was sickeningly dizzy; her head throbbed; her clayish arms were beginning to sting. Yet a few more exertions were required: haul herself up over the railing, pressed against the wall behind the goon, and jump silently to catch the top of the doorframe and spring up with trembling limbs. The goon beneath her turned slowly to regard the wall, probably alerted by the breeze of her passing but too stupid to investigate further. As he stared at the shadowy corner, she dropped backwards into the door’s recess where she hoped the other goon could not see her, and tried the knob.
She frowned; it was unlocked. Though six inches thick like the previous door she’d opened, it swung silently outward for her use. With a shrug she went inside, easing the latch into place behind her. There, she slumped in relief that the room was empty. No sound from outside suggested she’d been detected; Minos really should look into some kind of magical thief barrier.
Her critical eye swept the treasure chamber. I should take all of this junk, as long as I’m here, she thought, for the room was quite stuffed with wonderful things: bags and bags of money; large, fine Shapierian rugs of muted colors; tall ornate jars of perfumed oils and shorter ones of unknown content; masterful paintings of mythological characters; the walls were lined with shelf-filled, grate-covered alcoves obviously stocked to the brim with an assortment of smaller things. There were potions of all kinds, weapons glowing with magic, similarly-endowed armor, a great deal of money in neatly organized pouches, jewelry of both the decorative and functional types, and — the Blackbird! She grinned and headed for the first alcove on her left. The trap on its lock brought her up short, and she snorted softly. I hate traps, she reflected, for they were not her area of thiefly expertise.
Nevertheless she managed this one, which involved a swiftly-spinning disk and sliding plates that must never all be in the same position; she saw signs to indicate that an explosion might occur if her fingers were not sufficiently nimble. And the lock that followed was no game either. Again she found sweat on her back and brow by the time she finished. But at that moment her triumph was sweet enough to make up for all previous discomfort as she lifted the heavy statue off the shelf and hefted it. She let out the long, slow breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and a great load of tension fled her body.
The pouched money was the only other thing she eventually decided to take; the rest was too bulky for her to drag out to Elsa’s boat — and there was no way in Tartarus she was making more than one trip. Though objects always interested her more than pure currency, she felt that due to the significance of this particular robbery she should take all she could carry. So she stuffed her pockets with leather-clad drachma, strapped the Blackbird to her back with the tie of her shirt, and looked around for a quick escape.
The one window was set in the far wall, high up, small and barred — and, judging by the rest of this place, was likely to be well-maintained. But it couldn’t hurt her to check it out. She hauled the largest rolled rug over and propped it up against the wall, where its top was still four feet from the recession of the window. It was a test of balance to climb, as its inclination was to slide and bend, but eventually she made it to the top and jumped for the window as the rug fell away and came half-undone, its remaining roll ending up nearly where it had been before, next to the others. She smiled as she realized she might be able to leave the room almost exactly the way she’d entered it, minus a few details.
She turned her attention to the window and rolled her eyes. It was trapped even more elaborately than the Blackbird’s alcove had been. The good news was that it would swing open, bars attached to a stone frame on a heavy metal hinge, when the trap was disarmed and the padlock undone. She would then be on the eastern cliff side of the house in the narrow lane she’d noticed earlier. A swift kick to the base of the goon guard’s skull would allow her access to the front yard, which she could exit in the same way she had entered (she hoped; the wall was probably less scaleable on the inside). Then the last step was to stow away a second time on Elsa’s boat until her friend left Minos Island for Marete and the announcement of the next Rite of Rulership in the morning. Just a quick walk around the plaza.
But she could not sleep on the small, yacht-like ship. A few rays of pale, diluted light slanted down from the grate covering the hold, and to amuse herself she held the Blackbird under them to admire its fine craftsmanship. It was a beautiful thing, one she and every other thief in Glorianna had coveted for years. Its weight made her exhausted arms tremble, and she could not hold it long. So she tied it to her back again and curled up in an attempt to get some rest; she had to fight Reeshaka in seven or eight hours. But the silver-tinged glint of her ebony prize had burned its way into her eyes, and she shook — not from the exertions of the night or even the overcool sea air, but because what the glitter of the statue symbolized was so very momentous. It was a future, a stability she was reaching towards and perhaps had been for all the past year: an end to her life on the run for whatever reason.
But was it the future she wanted?