The servant shuddered before the great black door that, from all the tales he’d heard in the slaves’ quarters, may well have been the very Gate of Hell itself. The wood for the door had been harvested from a great Gloom Banyan felled by a lightning bolt during the worst storm in living memory and the planks had been oiled with fat rendered from the corpses of murderers. Terrible figures danced across the dark wood, cavorting fiends and blasphemous monsters that intertwined with the arcane letters of a long dead language. And it was no mere whim or perverse artistry that had caused that strange door to be hung there in that distant wing of the merchant Amantias’s vast mansion, for it guarded the chamber of his most terrible servant – a cruel sorcerer, steeped in dark wisdom. And now Amantias had need of his wizard.
The servant’s hand shook as he softly tapped a fearful knock against the cold wood that left an unclean, almost slimy sensation on his hastily withdrawn knuckles. The silence of the hall coiled around him like a snake, and then there was the grinding of metal and the groaning of wood as the lock was undone and the door opened.
The wizard, pale as a grub, his great bloodshot eyes bulging with the hot gleam of madness, stared down the long line of his thin pointed nose at the shaking man before him.
“Please, O Wizard,” the servant stammered. “Our master requires your presence.”
“He requires my presence,” seethed the wizard through yellow fangs. “I, Marahd the Dreaming, Adept of the Crimson Circle, Initiate in the Mysteries of Set, Master of the Seven Cryptical Sigils, am required by Amantias, base merchant, inveterate idler, scheming parasite?” His stooped shoulders shook with rage, his jaws worked, and a fleck of foam dribbled from the corner of his mouth to hang on his heavy jutting chin. He gripped the doorframe, his long nails scoring deep, ragged gashes into the wood. “I who walked unafraid beneath the Black Ziggurat, who spoke with the nameless things that creep and gibber in the dark corners of the Earth, am summoned by that fat, indolent fool?” He struck his fist against the door, red sparks erupting from the impact and sizzling against cold stone.
“He awaits you in the lofts!” said the servant, fleeing down the corridor, running as hard as he could.
The wizard Marahd smiled grimly. Ensnared and impotent as he was, at least he could still terrify the peasantry. He closed the door behind him and stalked down the hallway, answering the hated summon.
Amantias was one of the ten richest men in all of Uliq-Vhorl, the vast metropolis straddling the great river Pnar, a merchant city where many great roads much favored by the caravans converged. Gold flowed into Uliq-Vhorl, and some of it had found its way into the hands of Amantias, a round fat little man who had only two great pleasures in life: ruining his enemies, and doting on his pigeons. It was with the latter that he now occupied himself, much to the distaste of Marahd who, entering again the breezy loft on the roof of the great mansion, wrinkled his nose at the ammoniac stink of the assembled poultry.
No amount of cleaning would ever efface that smell, just as no amount of music lilting from behind a delicate screen (hiding the uncouth musicians from Amantias’s sight) could drown out the rumbling noise of five hundred pigeons. There were sleek racers, fan-tailed fancies, jolly rollers, collared preeners, crested dandies, slim prancers, all in a riot of colors and patterns, the glorious fruit of the breeders’ art. Amantias was a pigeon fancier, and he spent more on his pets in a day than a family needed to survive for a year. Marahd sneered at them – pretty toy animals, worthless for anything practical. He’d have fed them to the temple serpents, or bled them dry over the altars of the Lesser Gods.
“Ah, Marahd,” purred Amantias, turning to face the wizard. He held a demur little Hyberborean Mist Pigeon, pearl-colored all over save for a splash of deep, rich purple on its wide, soft breast. He stroked the animal’s head, listening to its gentle cooing, and then tossed it into a nearby cage. He squinted up through the intricate latticed roof, noting the position of the sun. “And so prompt, too. I’m glad you aren’t dragging your feet anymore.” He smiled broadly at the Wizard, whose eyes flashed with subdued rage.
“Merely the respect due to a host,” rasped Marahd, raising his voice to be heard over the cooing cacophony, “from his guest.”
“Guest! Ha! Yes! Guest indeed,” laughed Amantias. He nodded towards the bird cages around them. “As much as these little darlings are my guests, locked in their golden cages.” The smile vanished from his round face, and he scowled at the tall wizard before him. “And like them, Marahd, you must never forget that the hand that locks the cage also holds life and death in its palm. A word from me, a whisper, a hint, and those whom you betrayed, your one-time brothers of the Black Arts, will learn that you live yet, yes, that you escaped their vengeance and fled across the wastes to Uliq-Vhorl. I am sure, Marahd, that they would then work quickly to rectify their mistake, yes?”
“I am aware of our arrangement, Amantias,” said Marahd, shivering. His evil knowledge was great, and so the imaginings of what would happen to him were that much more terrible. “I dared much, and failed, and now am yours. I know that it is only through your protection that I live.” He bowed his head.
“Good!” said Amantias, the smile blooming again on his wide face. “Just so we understand one another. Now, follow me.” He clapped his hands, and the music stopped. He waddled briskly away from the loft, removing the rich silk robe, now spotted with bird droppings, and tossing it aside. A silent slave hurried up to drape another length of gauzy material over his shoulders then, bowing deeply, disappeared back into his alcove. Marahd followed the merchant through a door and down the stairs into a round tall room, heady with clouds of incense and the silver tinkling of a fountain. Amantias settled himself onto a couch and gestured graciously towards another near him. Mahard pulled up a stool and crouched on it instead. More slaves scurried out from behind curtains, bearing wine and trays of fruit. There was a scuffling sound from the corner as the musicians, scrambling down the hidden servants’ stair from above, settled into their new seats and struck up more music behind yet another screen. Amantias sipped his chilled wine, and smacked his lips.
“I have need of your skills, Marahd.”
“Whom shall I blast from the earth for you, Amantias?” asked the wizard, reaching for a date.
“No, nothing so dramatic,” laughed the merchant. “I have need of your far-seeing eyes. There is a pretty I would see, a jewel that the King of Uliq-Vhorl would keep for himself, hidden from all others.”
“A simple scrying,” shrugged the wizard. “Novice’s work.” Marahd reached for a golden goblet and filled it to the brim with pale, crystalline wine. “What do I seek?”
“In the middle of the Pnar,” said Amantias, dreamily, “is an island, and on the island is the pleasure palace of the King himself.”
“His seraglio,” sneered Marahd. A Lord of Wizards, he thought, reduced to this, helping a fat slovenly fool peep on the King’s harem! But Amantias shook his head.
“In the walled garden is the seraglio,” he continued. “But atop the seraglio, built of silver and alabaster, pale and bright as the moon, is the King’s own loft.”
“A loft!” laughed Marahd. “More damned birds, is it? I didn’t know that the King’s vices extended as far as yours! It’s a pigeon you want to see?”
“Not just any pigeon, wizard,” panted Amantias. “It is the veritable King of Pigeons, the crowning gem of a thousand years of breeding! It’s like has not been seen in the world for hundreds of years. The old books speak of it, whisper its name like a prayer! And now the King of Uliq-Vhorl has been given one, a cock, by a foreign delegation seeking to curry favor and win access to the Pass of Ulzar in the Western Mountains.”
“A loft atop a tower in a garden on an island in the river,” muttered Marahd. He peered into the wine goblet, with furrowed brow and a frown creasing his severe face. He lifted his hand and drove the nail of his thumb into the tip of his finger until blood beaded from the wound. He squeezed a few drops into the goblet and watched the scarlet drops swirl in the clear wine. The liquid in the cup jittered, then was still. “Look, Amantias,” he said. “Is that the tower?”
“Yes, yes, by the Gods of Hell,” hissed the merchant, staring down into the goblet. “And there is the loft, atop it!” He jabbed a finger at the watery image dancing in the cup.
“Do not touch the wine,” barked the wizard. “I will draw us closer.” Again, the surface of the wine shivered. When it stilled, they saw the delicate cages of an aviary, silver and pearl and alabaster. “Where is this bird?” he asked.
“It will be in the pride of place, in the center!” The image drifted across the tiles and by cages where the assembled birds, sensing the occult intrusion, ruffled their feathers or flapped their wings. “There, there!” In the middle of the huge loft was a wide, strange pool, and in the center of the pool was a raised dais and a huge golden cage. A potted pear tree sat in the cage’s center, and on one of its branches perched a magnificent pigeon, tall and slim, with dazzling, iridescent black feathers. It held its head very erect, and on its neck quivered a huge heavy pouch. Amantias groaned as the bird came into focus. “That is it!”
“I feel I’ve seen a bird like it before,” mumbled Marahd.
“Impossible! That is the Stygian Pouter, rarest of all pigeon breeds! It is bred and kept only in one place in all the world, by the Priestesses of Djehd in the Garden of Night.”
“The Garden of Night?” gasped Marahd, nearly toppling the goblet in his excitement. “The Necropolis of the Sorcerer-Kings of Khem? Hidden in the desert, its location a secret known only to the Stygian Royal Family?”
“It was from the Stygian Emperor that this wonder was sent – they desire the favor of Uliq-Vhorl, and safe passage through the mountains so they may secretly send an army to destroy their neighbors. Knowing that the King is, like all men of breeding, a lover of the art of Pigeon Keeping, they sent him this prize, this perfection, this King of the Birds!”
“Then that is where I saw it,” mused Marahd. “In the scrolls of Achates, wherein he wrote of the treasures buried there…”
“His name is Muzaffar,” said Amantias, ignoring the wizard, ears only for the gentle coo of the bird he imagined he heard. “I pay some of the King’s slaves to keep me informed of developments at court, and that is how I learned of this marvel! Ah! Muzzaffar! Beautiful bird!” He looked up, his eyes sparkling. “I must have this bird, Marahd! You will get him for me!”
“What?” said the Wizard, coming out of his own dark reverie. “I cannot steal a pigeon from a King.” He shook his head, and the image dissolved into nothing.
“You will do as I command, Marahd,” thundered Amantias. “Or have you already forgotten? I will –” Marahd waved his hand scornfully, stopping him mid-tirade. The merchant gawped at the audacity of anyone, wizard or not, to dismiss the threats of Amantias so cavalierly.
“You do not understand,” he said. “The sorcery that I would have to weave to enter, unseen, into the King’s Pleasure Palace, to bypass the guardians and the traps there, and then escape with this bird? Such exertion of my skill would alert my enemies as surely as if you betrayed me to them yourself. Worse even, for they would know of me the very moment I worked such powerful magic. No, my wizardry cannot get you this prize, Amantias.”
“But I must have it!” said Amantias, pounding his fists against the couch. “That bird! To own Muzaffar would be the pinnacle of pigeon fancying! To breed him into my lineages would be a triumph unequaled! I would be the greatest pigeon breeder in the world!” The wizard narrowed his eyes and peered at his raving benefactor.
“Listen, Amantias,” said Marahd, his voice low. “I can help you get this bird. You keep spies in the courts of kings? Well, I too keep spies, though mine skulk in the courts of Uliq-Vhorl’s criminals. What cannot be done by sorcery can be accomplished by theft!”
“A thief?” asked the merchant, doubtfully. “But who could accomplish a job such as this! Entering the seraglio of the King to steal his prized bird?”
“It is a bit daunting,” conceded Marahd. “And it will require an exceptional thief. Luckily for you, O Lover of Birds, I know of just the man, though it will require gold, and cunning, to bring him here.”
“Whatever the cost!” said Amantias. “Gold is nothing; there is plenty of gold in the world, there for the taking. But there is only one Muzaffar, and I must own him. Where is this greatest of all thieves hid, Marahd?”
“Right now?” said the wizard, swigging the divinatory wine. “In prison, awaiting execution.”
Something huge and with far too many legs crawled over his foot, but he ignored it, focusing instead on the steady repetitive task at hand. He was honing a brass spoon against the coarse stone floor of his cell, sharpening the eating tool into a crude, wide-bladed stabbing weapon. He wouldn’t dignify it with the term “knife,” but it was getting sharper, one side of the bowl thinned and wicked, the other getting there. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and it kept him occupied.
The heavy chains on his arms and legs rattled with each scrape, the clink of iron and the hiss of brass and his own breath sighing between his teeth filling his dark little world with something else beside damp and scurrying vermin. He had been in the prison for three days, or at least so he reckoned; the only measure of time there beneath the earth were the three meals of thin soup he had been given since they’d locked him away in the dungeon. He didn’t know how much longer he would be there, but he was in no particular hurry to leave – after all, there was a cross waiting for him in the Grand Plaza. His only hope lay in his sharpened spoon and a mad struggle in the dark once they removed his chains. At best, he could only hope to provoke them into killing him outright in a fight, but that would be better than the days he would spend nailed to a Tree of Woe as a warning: thus does the King of Uliq-Vhorl deal with thieves.
The makeshift blade hovered in the air as he strained his ears. Had he heard something?
The drip of water on stone, the scuttling rasp of some living thing wriggling through his cell on business, and then –
The muffled tread of footsteps on the stairs. The grinding complaint of the rusted outer door on the upper landing as it swung open. More footsteps, drawing nearer.
It was too soon for another meal. He grit his teeth and hid the weapon behind his back. This was it, then. They were coming for him. He swallowed. How many would they send to collect him? Two at least, three more likely. One with a lantern, one with a weapon, and the prison guard with the keys. He’d have to move fast. He took a deep breath, tried to still the nervous tension that roiled in his guts.
The dim light of the lantern dazzled his eyes. The glow grew as they came nearer, and he strained his ears to listen to their footsteps. He recognized the limping clomp of the guard and his heavy boots, but the footfalls of the others that came with him were different. Light, scuffling, steeps, like the tread of slippered feet and a whisper of…silk?
“This is yer man,” said the Guard, spitting. He stepped into view, lifting the lantern high and peering through the bars. He grinned evilly down at the chained man before him. “Still here, lad? Got some visitors fer ya! Ain’t never seen a Master Thief, wanted a quick gawk!” He stepped aside. Two other figures crowded close, one tall and thin, the other round and short. The short man shivered in the damp and pulled his robe tight around his soft shoulders.
“You’re sure?” he asked, his voice cultured, the vowels extended with the studied affectation of the wealthy.
“Ah!” laughed the guard. “Don’t let him fool ya, he’s just a little bedraggled is all. The accommodations ain’t up to his usual standards, I’ll warrant.” The tall man leaned close, pressing his face to the bars. His eyes seemed to glow of their own accord, flashing with a deep and unclean light. The man in chains shivered.
“You are Yhaat?” the tall man asked. “That men name ‘the Nimble?’”
Yhaat met the strange stare of the tall man. There was grim hunger in his voice, and a tense eagerness in the way he held his body. These weren’t nobs coming down for a peek at a famous criminal, nor were they here to satisfy a natural sadism by hurling abuse on a doomed man. They wanted something.
Yhaat nodded, and the tall man smiled terribly.
“Well,” said the guard. “You’ve seen him. Now, where’s that silver I was promised?”
“Marahd,” said the short man. “Pay the fellow.” The tall man nodded and stepped back. He reached for his belt, and withdrew a shiny disc of silver that glittered warmly in the lamp light. The tall man dropped it into the guard’s hand, who held it up and stared lovingly at the metal. Lost to his greed, he didn’t notice the tall man make a sudden move with his right hand, a swift sharp caress of the palm against the guard’s neck. A ring glittered coldly on Marahd’s finger, an iron snake with tiny ruby eyes that shone red in the lamplight.
“Ow!” barked the guard. “You’ve pricked me!” He raised a hand to the wound. Then his eyes bulged in their sockets, and a vein in his forehead stood out blue against his suddenly livid skin. A convulsion wracked his body, and then he crumpled to the floor with a whimper, dead, the silver coin still gripped in his hand. The tall man stooped and took the key ring from the dead guard’s belt. He opened the door and, raising the lantern, the two men entered the cell. Yhaat squinted up at them.
“Gods of Hell! He’s a Cushite,” said the short man. “A barbarian!”
“Yes,” nodded the tall man, impatiently, “and therefore all the better informed about civilized dealings such as ours.” He crouched down and looked Yhaat in the eye. “We would engage your talents, Yhaat the Nimble.”
“And miss my crucifixion?” said Yhaat, grinning up at the men.
“He jokes,” drawled the short man.
“We will pay you,” said the tall man.
“Like him?” Yhaat said, nodding towards the dead man just beyond the bars. The tall man shook his head.
“He thought he was merely bringing us to stare. He had to die. But we offer you life, and gold.”
“One thousand Imperial Marks,” said the tall man, simply. Yhaat whistled.
“For that much I’d steal the Moon from the Vault of Heaven for you,” he laughed.
“This job,” said the tall man, unlocking the fetters around Yhaat’s right wrist, “will be considerably more challenging than that, I assure you.” Yhaat took the key ring and undid the rest of his chains, rubbing the raw skin where the metal had cut into his ankles and wrists. He stood stiffly, tucking the makeshift knife into his belt as he rose.
“As for our names –” began the short man.
“No need for introductions,” said Yhaat simply, stretching his arms. “I heard you call him Marahd earlier, and no one except the man that name belongs to would dare claim it. And since Marahd the Dreaming works for you, that makes you Amantias the Merchant.” Amantias looked a little put out; he had been rehearsing a dramatic reveal.
“Hmph,” pouted the merchant. “Well, anyway, let’s get out of this plague pit. My chariot is waiting, around the corner.” He turned and flounced out of the cell. Marahd tossed the newly freed thief a heavy hooded robe.
As they climbed the stairs, Yhaat turned, briefly to look back at the dead, bloated face of the murdered guard, and the shining silver coin still clutched in his stiff fingers.
“Well,” said Yhaat, looking over the scroll laid out before them on a gold-trimmed mahogany table in Amantias’s study. “You weren’t kidding – this will be harder than robbing the gods.” In sharp black ink the Royal Architect had drawn the plans for the King of Uliq-Vhorl’s pleasure palace. A wall forty feet high surrounded a wide garden a hundred feet across, separated from the fanciful fluted minarets and huge mullioned windows of the seraglio itself by an inner wall of equal height. The central tower of the palace was six stories tall, the lowermost tier full of kitchens and cellars and staff quarters, while the next four floors above it were given over to baths, feasting halls, theaters, and themed bed chambers. The topmost floor was actually a huge maze, a twisting and knotted labyrinth of amazing complexity and devious design. Yhaat, eyes narrow, was busy tracing a way through it in bright red ink. He glanced up at Amantias, who stood across from him, his hands behind his back and looking bored, while Marahd sat off to the side in a chair, fingers tented, eyes hooded, watching. “And all this, for a bird?”
“Not just any bird!” breathed Amantias, dreamily. “The King of Pigeons! Grace, beauty, perfection of form! Why –”
“Yes, yes,” said Marahd, rising suddenly. “A bird of unparalleled marvelousness, fit for the gods, etcetera, etcetera. But can you do it, Yhaat?” The thief set the silver pen down and straightened himself up, rubbing the bandages over his wrists, still stinging from the healing ointment the wizard had given him.
“From what you told me, it’s nigh impregnable,” he answered. He pointed at the garden. “I’ve heard before that the King keeps some terrible beast in there, a monster that devours all who dared enter the grounds, and these plans seem to suggest that the rumors are true. This alleyway of steel cage work here,” he traced the fortified line of metal indicated on the plans, running from the outer wall to the inner wall, sealed on both ends by iron gates. “The one way in and out of the palace, protecting all who enter or leave from the fierce thing that lives in the garden. And you’ve no idea what kind of monster it is?” Marahd shook his head. “Well, it must be bad. Though the steel passage is open to the sky above, so it must not be able to climb very well. That’s something. Hm.” He tapped his chin. “I’ve seen the island from the shore – there are never any torches on the outer wall. No patrols. They must have great confidence in their beast to keep unwanted visitors away. That’s good for us! Overconfidence is often an opening just wide-enough for a clever thief to squeeze through.
“If I can get across the garden safely, I’ll have no trouble scaling the walls up to these windows. Look at all the fiddly ornamentation they’ve put on here. Climb that in my sleep! I’ll have to enter the Palace here, somewhere on the third floor, through one of these outer wings, sneak my way up to the sixth floor, make my way through the maze with these plans (and dealing with whatever devil the King is keeping there), then up to the roof, and this fancy bird is as good as yours, Amantias.”
“When can you do it?” asked the merchant, his eyes bright and eager.
“As soon as possible,” nodded Yhaat. “But I’ll need some gear, and it’s going to be expensive.” Amantias waved his hand.
“Money is no object,” he scoffed. He clapped his hand, and a tall, rat-faced servant slinked out from one of the many hidden alcoves in the room. “Tell Bargam here what you need, and he will see to it.” Bargam smiled ingratiatingly and bowed towards Yhaat.
“Well Bargam, I’ll need a crossbow, a real one, army grade, not one of these dainty guard bows the police use. Three-hundred-pound draw weight, no less. There’s a man, Valmish the One-Eyed, in the souq of the armorers who can sell you one. Tell him it’s for me, and that I’m on the job – he knows the special bolts I’ll need, too. Then I’ll want a rope, say a hundred and twenty-five feet long. For that you’ll go to the Laughing Cat Tavern, just north of the Temple of Bast, and ask for Gamm Bluetooth. He weaves the kind of rope I’m after. That’ll be very expensive, a hundred silver at least. And whatever you do, do NOT let it slip that you’re buying it for me.” Yhaat paused, and thought. “Lockpick tools. And I’ll need a pole, ten foot long. A boat, two oars, on the north docks.” He sucked a tooth. “I reckon that’s it.”
“A sword, Master?” suggested Bargam, looking up from the list he was scribbling. Yhaat shrugged.
“Yeah, get me a sword,” he said. “I could use it to cut my own throat if the King’s Guards find me sneaking around his seraglio in the middle of the night.”
He pulled hard on the oars and the boat slipped smoothly down the course of the Pnar. The lights of the city glittered in the water, mingling with the glow of the moon to touch every ripple on the dark river’s surface with pale fire. At his feet lay the results of Bargram’s shopping spree: a wicked looking crossbow, a coil of rope, the long pole, and small collapsible cage resting in a velvet bag. Everything he needed to raid the forbidden seraglio of a King. He grinned out into the dark. Just a day had passed since he had escaped certain death in the dungeons of Uliq-Vhorl, and now here he was, Yhaat the Nimble, back on the job. The cool night air caressed his straining back, and he laughed with pleasure.
He approached the island from the eastern side. There was a fortified dock on the southwestern tip of the island, forbidden to all save the King’s own pleasure crafts, and he wanted to stay as far from that as possible. Just as he had never seen any lights on the walls, so too had the island’s edge always been dark at night. He doubted they patrolled the shore, but just in case he was aiming for a copse of tamarisk that sprouted on the rocky upstream edge of the island, a good place to hide his little rowboat.
He rested a moment, letting the current carry him for a while. He adjusted the sword at his side, a slimly murderous scimitar, razor sharp and well-oiled, ready to spring out of the sheath at the lightest touch. He also had the ridiculous knife he’d carved from a spoon still tucked into the belt behind his back. He touched it and grinned; for a thief he wasn’t very superstitious, but now he thought of it as a good luck charm, a talisman promising that, if he applied himself diligently, he’d get out of trouble all right in the end. He looked up from the surface of the running Pnar into the river of stars overhead, the broad current of the Milky Way down which ever dead soul must travel, eventually. He picked up the oars and got paddling.
The tamarisk was thick, their long branches drooping lovingly towards the river. The water slapped hard against the prow of the boat as he slipped into the shallows and behind their leafy wall. Stepping carefully out into the cold water, he dragged the boat halfway up the sandy shore and crouched, listening. Nightjars hummed and chattered in the dark overhead, the river gurgled, and the wind hissed through the tamarisk. All else was silence. He grabbed his gear and crested the edge of the beach, eyes wide, ears straining.
The island was only a half a mile across at its widest, so he spotted the palace immediately, the hulking structure rising from the rocky island before him. The dark mass of the outer wall was limned by a faint lambent glow, presumably from torches and lanterns in the inner courtyard, while a handful of windows in the whimsically built palace within shone warm and bright. It was an hour to midnight. Without the King here, there would be no revelries, just the quiet end to another day.
He hurried through the open country, senses sharp for any evidence of patrols or watchers, but he reached the base of the outer wall unchallenged. He ran his hand over its rough surface and smiled. It was built entirely from raw stone. He had once scaled the polished and sheer face of the Basilica of Ctensh; this was almost too easy! They had truly put all their faith in the guardian behind the wall, whatever it was. He rested the crossbow against the ground and stuck his sandal into the heavy iron foot loop. Straining silently he cocked the weapon, though, for now, left the special bolt hanging from his belt unloaded. He slung the readied crossbow over his shoulder, looped the rope around his waist, and hopped lightly up onto the wall, his skilled fingers easily finding purchase on the coarse stone. Moving swiftly and silently, he scaled the forty feet in a matter of minutes, pulling himself easily up onto the top of the wall.
There were no battlements, not even a walkway, simply a thick circle of stonework. He sat cross legged, peering ahead. He didn’t want to be exposed for too long, but he needed a chance to get his bearings and, specifically, see what type of watchdog the King kept in his deadly garden.
The moon has hidden behind a cloud, so he couldn’t see much at first. A few very tall trees dominated the garden, huge gnarled almonds, great hulking redbarks, and vast umbrella-like banyans, none younger than a hundred years, at least. The rest of the landscape was an indistinct woolly tangle of greenery, smaller trees and bushes running riot, while thick banks of whispering feather grass, as tall as a man, waved in the open spaces. There was also some other kind of plant there, strange growths with dark lumpish bases that sprouted a strange, narrow fan of upright fronds, some unusual kind of palm perhaps. They were a prominent landscape feature indeed, very numerous, and almost all the same size, scattered at random through the garden, seemingly perfectly happy to grow anywhere; some squatted by bushes or among rocky outcrops, some crouched under the shade of the big trees, and he even saw some peeking through the tall, delicate, fluffy grasses, their fanning leaves darkly solid against the softer vegetation. He noticed that they were curiously spaced too – never less than fifteen feet from one another, and always alone, never clumped together.
He listened, heard the murmur of water, leaves, wind. He stared hard into the garden. There was movement, or so he thought, but he couldn’t tell whether it was the breeze or something living that stirred the grass. Then the moon came out from behind a cloud, and he nearly gasped.
What he had thought were low, long, lumpish clusters of rigid palm fronds were, in fact, fan-like sails rising proudly along the spines of great reptilian beasts. The largest of these looked to be twelve feet in length, half of that taken up by a long muscular tail. Their heads were curiously unlizard like; blunt, heavy, long white teeth prominent in mouths perpetually quirked with cruel mirth. Their sails were mottled and patterned – in full light, they must have been spectacularly colored.
“God’s teeth,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “Dimetrodons!”
He knew of them only through travelers’ tales. They were the terror of the western steppes, voracious killing machines that made travel in that part of the world almost impossible. Voracious hunters, they were known to pursue prey for miles and miles, tireless, merciless, seemingly driven by some deep instinctual need to kill. They were so aggressive in fact that often they would slay and consume one another. That, Yhaat reckoned, accounted for the near uniformity in the beasts’ sizes, as well as their carefully maintained personal space.
He scanned the garden, counting quickly. There were at least ten dimetrodons in sight, and that was only in the relatively narrow segment before him. How many more were there outside of his immediate view? No wonder they posted no guards along the outer wall. Anything trying to move through that garden of death would be ripped to pieces by those powerful, evilly grinning jaws. Even wrapped in full plate, the monsters could batter a man to death with their thick limbs and heavy heads. There were stories of a rogue prince who tried marching his army through the steppes. They were never seen again, and only the bellowing of the dimetrodons marked their passage into death.
But, he smiled, not for nothing was he called Yhaat the Nimble.
He carefully piled the soft rope in gentle loops at his side, making a loose heap. It was, as all of Bluetooth’s work, a remarkable example of the ropetwister’s art. He had learned the secret of it in the Temple of Atlach-Nacha on the far shore of the inner sea, and there was some magic in it, for it was thin as Yhaat’s little finger, but stronger than steel.
He took the strange crossbow bolt from his belt and examined it. Shaft and head were all of iron, and in place of a deadly arrowhead there perched four cruel hooks, bent back in wide arcs. On the other end of the grappling hook, an inch from the base, was a raised hoop, and through this Yhaat passed one end of the rope, tying it off in a tight knot. He loaded the bolt into the crossbow and waited for the moon to dim behind a cloud. As that deeper darkness fell around him, he sprang to his feet, took careful aim, and with a sharp snap, sent the bolt flying through the air in a high arc, the rope trailing behind it, unwinding easily from the coil at his side.
The bolt flew over the garden and its deadly inhabitants, vanishing behind the far side of the inner wall. He tossed the crossbow down, gripped the remaining length of rope, and began pulling as hard and as fast as he could. This was, in many ways, the most delicate part of the operation. He had had to overshoot the far wall, and if anyone had been nearby, they would certainly have seen the hook and rope fall from the sky. Further bad luck could mean that the hook didn’t catch on anything, and he’d have to haul the rope all the way back through the garden, a grim prospect with the dimetrodons in the way. His arms pumping, the rope piling around his feet, he gave a small prayer to the God of Thieves.
Suddenly there was tension in the line, his body rocking against a suddenly intractable rope. He paused, listened, and gave another quick tug. It held firm, and there were no shouts or sounds of alarm. He sighed a quick thanks to the stars overhead, and ran the remaining length of rope through the loop of a second grappling hook. When the line was stretched taut and he could just get the second hook to reach the edge of the wall, he tied it off in a quick box knot and sunk the steel into the stone. He plucked the rope, making it hum. He grinned.
He took off his sandals and hung them around his neck. He undid his sword belt and strapped it straight up and down against his left shoulder, and then looped the velvet bag tight against the middle of his stomach. He lifted the long pole, took a few deep breaths, and stepped out over the garden.
As taut as the rope had looked, there was more slack in it than he would have preferred. But he couldn’t afford the noise of hammering a pin into the wall, so he’d simply have to cope. It sagged a bit under him as he slowly put one foot in front of the other. He felt the interplay of the rope with his weight, the levering of the pole in his hands, the wind that buffeted his body, the friction of the rope against the stone behind him. He bent his knees, lowering his center of gravity, felt the old familiar tension in his muscles, in his nerves. It was a pleasant night for a bit of tightrope walking.
He had often done this before, nimbly stepping from rooftop to rooftop in a way that had baffled many of his victims – doors and windows locked, no sign of forced entry or breaking in, but riches gone, treasures looted. But he had never done a walk this long, a hundred feet, wall to wall.
It was like sword fighting, really, learning to feel how your body occupied space, discovering the best way to move through it without getting killed. The tips of the balancing pole danced, small little adjustments that kept the rope under his feet from rolling away from him. Slow and steady, calm breathing, stay low near the rope, and don’t look –
He was fifteen feet out when he heard the low rumble of a dimetrodon below him. Involuntarily he glanced down, his body swaying as his head moved. The animal was directly beneath him, straining on its short but powerful limbs, its huge head canting one way, then the other, watching him with glittering black eyes. A deep growl thrummed in the beast’s barrel chest, and its heavy tail lashed with frustration. And it wasn’t the only one. Its agitation roused its neighbors, each grumbling with hunger, snapping their jaws and flashing their long teeth up at the prey strolling along above them. They pawed the ground, hissed and grumbled and snarled at him, at one another, at the cruelty of a world that would dangle so tantalizing a morsel out of their reach.
Cold sweat beaded on his skin. They were getting upset. At least the fall would kill him before he felt the bite of those terrible teeth. But he hadn’t reckoned on the noise of their frustration. Would it be enough to draw the attention of the guards?
He set his teeth and willed himself onward, moving as fast as he could. The pole bobbed and weaved, his muscles ached, but he was making progress. He had to focus to stay on the rope, and that at least distracted him from the slavering jaws that gnashed hungrily beneath him. He was half way across. That was the worst part for his nerves, as his path through the air took him near a particularly huge almond tree, almost thirty-five feet high, and several of the more aggressive dimetrodons, seeing him disappear from view behind the tree’s crown, stood tall against the trunk, grunting in anger and tearing great chunks of bark from the tree with their mighty claws, all while making a terrible racket.
He kept his back straight and his gaze high. The domes and minarets of the pleasure palace loomed in front of him. He was two-thirds of the way there. He kept going, the beasts lined up beneath him, hissing into the air. He wobbled, the rope swayed beneath his unsteady feet and then finally, blessedly, he stepped off the rope and onto the cool stone of the inner wall. He sat heavily down, breathing hard.
The garden behind him seethed with dimetrodons, sails cutting through the tall grass like shark fins as more of them came to investigate the noise and activity, eager for their share of the slaughter. They hissed and grumbled and, in their eagerness, pressed closer together than they would normally have tolerated, snapping and biting each other in fury when they bumped flanks or trod on one another’s tail. Yhaat grinned, but figured he ought to get out sight before he inspired them to even noisier rages. He crawled forward, out of sight, and peering into the inner yard of the Seraglio.
More gardens, though these were manicured and obviously meant for enjoyment rather than defense. The smell of jasmine and roses wafted through the air, and pale night-blooming moon flowers bobbed in the fragrant breeze. He swung down over the lip of the wall and quickly scaled down the stone, dropping into a crouch behind the thick trunk of an ancient apple tree, twisted with age. There was a luxurious silence in the garden, and the noise of the beasts was muffled by the thick stone of the inner wall. A few hundred yards to his left there were lights from lanterns hanging on iron posts near the inner gate. He knew from the architectural plans that guard house was situated there. He put his sandals back on, strapped his sword on his hip, set the velvet satchel on his shoulder, and then stalked silently off, heading to the right, north, away from the gate.
The Palace sprouted balustrades and towers and domes and balconies wherever the whim had taken the architect, all centered around a central, six-story tower. His target, the pigeon loft, lay on the roof, and so he needed to eventually enter the central massif itself. The huge windows of the first three stories were all heavily barred, while those higher up were filled with tiny diamond panes trapped in a latticework of gold and silver. He needed an alternate way in, and he had found one on the plans: on the third floor at the rear of the palace, like an errant branch newly grown from a tree in an abandoned orchard, the current King had added a slim, spiraling tower with its top open to the heavens, perfect for starlit dalliances.
Or for a particularly bold thief.
An ivy-covered trellis made for a quick ascent up to the second story, where a series of conveniently protuberant obscene carvings allowed Yhaat to practically run up the side of the wall. Reaching the base of the starlight tower was a problem largely of physical strength, and Yhaat had more than enough of that to swing away from the wall and pull himself up onto the outward curve of its first balcony. Hand over hand, he made a rapid ascent, and he was soon on the top of the tower, his breath even and unhurried. He briefly admired the view, Uliq-Vhorl after midnight glittering away beyond the river’s edge, then he turned to the task at hand.
The door in the floor of the tower was locked from the other side, but the steel prybar in his lockpick’s kit was more than enough. The thin wood cracked easily, exposing just enough of a gap that he could knock the bolt loose. He lifted the door and dropped into the forbidden interior of the King’s seraglio.
He smiled in the dark. If he had been worried about crucifixion for simple thievery, what would they do to him now that he’d committed the ultimate transgression? He loosened the sword in its sheath and felt his way down the hallway in the dark.
The portal that stood between him and the main building was, actually, more of a challenge, a good lock sunk in a well-made and very sturdy door. It took him ten minutes to trip the tumbler, but when he finally did, he pressed his ear against the slightly opened door and listened. More silence, but there was light, a dim steady glow. He waited, hearing nothing, and when the light neither grew nor dimmed, he decided to chance it. He oiled the hinges, just to be sure, and then, very carefully, opened the door wide.
A thick carpeted hall stretched out in either direction from him. He stuck his head out, looking both ways, and saw nothing but a lantern hanging from a ring in the ceiling farther down. He stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind him and, taking the path to his right, moved quickly but silently onwards.
Quiet as a cat, he came upon the main stairway that would take him up, past the fourth floor and to the fifth, where he would have to sneak through a wide hall studded with doors that led to the personal rooms of the King’s harem. He knew that beyond that forbidden hall lay a door that led up the stairs to the sixth floor, where the labyrinth and whatever horror it housed awaited him. He’d brave the maze, then find the stair leading to the roof and his prize, Muzzaffar the Pigeon.
And then, of course, he’d have to do it all in reverse.
He paused at a wide gilded archway, flanked by statuary. He peeked around the stone hips of an unearthly beauty and into the Great Stair, all in marble and gold, a wide passage that served as the main thoroughfare for travelling up and down in this part of the palace. It was quiet on the stairs, but much brighter, light pouring from numerous flickering lamps gripped by golden sconces cast in the likeness of the disembodied arms of particularly fat babies. The floor of the landing was dominated by an enormous erotic mosaic, and this one made even Yhaat stop and stare. He was a man of the world, of course, and liked to think he knew his way around, but even he was somewhat taken aback.
He climbed the stairs soundlessly, his soft leather sandals silent on the cool marble steps. He heard voices at the landing for the fourth floor, but they were distant and indistinct, and so he hurried on to the fifth-floor.
Here he had to stop. An ornate gilded folding grate stood in his way, a heavy gold chain and substantial lock keeping closed. Luckily both of these were on his side of the grate. Its presence was, he reflected, good news, despite that fact that it slowed him down. The fifth floor housed all the King’s concubines, and so as to not have to rely on the honor and chastity of soldiers, they chose to sequester them behind a gate. Meaning, once he got by the lock there was no danger of running into any guards on the fifth floor.
He crouched to examine the lock and chain. Beneath the gold plating, they were hard cold iron, each link half-an-inch thick. Out came the lockpicking tools, each crueler looking than the last. Straining to keep his nerves in check and his hand steady, he carefully inserted pick after pick until it looked like he was trying to open the lock through acupuncture. Finally, he felt the pins give under his torsion wrench, and the whole assembly clicked open. He held his breath; the sound of that release had seemed like the clash of arms in the silence of the Great Stair, but there were no shouts or pounding feet or ringing bells. He breathed again, repackaged his tools, and then quickly withdrew the chain, each clink and rattle making his heart leap to his throat.
He hadn’t nearly enough hinge oil for the whole grille, so he applied most of it to the runners and a few drops to the spots nearest the side he’d be opening. Even so, it whined mightily as it concertinaed open. He cursed, pushed a bit more, cursed again, and then with a final effort of will, pushed it open just enough for him to step through sideways.
Then he was confronted with another problem – should he close it? There was more work ahead of him still. It’d be an hour at least before he’d be back here again. Did he dare keep it open? Simply hope that they never checked the grate before unlocking in the morning? No, he’d have to chance it. Grimacing in agony at every squeak and groan of the metal grille, he slid it shut and then, very carefully, looped the chain back in place, the shank just resting in the lock’s body without actually snapping closed. To a cursory observer, it certainly looked like everything was in order.
He turned and stared down the long hallway. On either side stretched door after door, each made of beautifully striped rosewood, the names of each tenant painted in golden calligraphy on every door. Everything was still, and quiet. He took a step.
The door on his left creaked open. He turned, the sword sliding easily into his hand. A round face was framed in the crack of the door, and a pair of enormous black eyes that danced with incredulity met his own. The woman’s mouth framed a silent, shocked “O” and she darted her head back into the safety of her room. He leapt forward, putting the fingers of his left hand between the door and the frame, catching it just in time to keep it from slamming shut. He grunted with the pain on his knuckles, and pushed forward, hard, knocking the door open and sending the woman inside tumbling back. He shut the door behind him and pointed the edge of his scimitar at the woman, who was scrambling backwards towards an ornate rope that hung from the ceiling.
“Stop,” Yhaat said, putting as much force as he could into the whispered command. “If you want to live, don’t touch that rope!”
She halted, her eyes trapped by the terrible gleam of steel in his hand.
“Are you an assassin?” she whispered. “Sent by my rivals to kill me, jealous of the sway I have over the King?”
“What? No,” said Yhaat, lowering the sword a little. He looked around. She was alone with him in an enormous room. Every surface seemed draped in silk or wrapped in delicate cloth-of-gold, every corner full of fat, impossibly soft pillows and cushions. “I’m not here to kill anyone.”
“Then you’re a kidnapper!” she hissed, striking her open palm with her hand. “Here to abduct His Majesty’s favorite concubine! You realize he would ransom his whole kingdom to have his beloved Barshasta back, safe and sound!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Yhaat, looking at her strangely. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, a goddess in both face and figure. Even sprawled on the ground, her silks disheveled and her hair in her eyes, she was enchantingly poised and prepossessed. But all this talk of murder and kidnapping? He began to suspect that the brightness of her wide eyes was born of madness. “I’m no stealer of women though, admittedly, I am a thief. My name is Yhaat.”
“Pshaw!” she scoffed, disappointed. “A common thief.” She rose and began to walk towards the rope.
“Damn it all, woman,” he said, grabbing her roughly by the arm and spinning her around. “What did I say about staying away from that rope!” He waved the scimitar in her face. She was startled, gasping at the deadly weapon that she seemed to have forgotten he held.
“What’s a common thief doing with a sword like that?” she said, watching it carefully.
“I use it to skin stupid girls alive,” said Yhaat, looking around for something to tie her up with. “And, by the way, there’s nothing common about my thieving. Any fool can sneak in and steal jewels and gold and art. But I’m here for the greatest treasure in the King of Uliq-Vhorl’s pleasure palace!”
“What’s that?” she asked, genuinely intrigued, cocking her head prettily to one side, the foamy tangle of her long black hair cascading alluring around her shoulders. Yhaat coughed and looked away.
“The King of Pigeons,” he tried to sound nonchalant, realizing as he reached the word ‘pigeon’ that, unprepared, she might find him and his mission a trifle ridiculous. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her begin to shake. “Don’t laugh –” he said crossly, but then realized that it wasn’t mirth that shook her. Rather, she was gripped in a volcanic fit of rage.
“That bird!” she seethed. “That devil-cursed,” her voice began to rise, “goddamned,” she was almost shouting, “fucking bird!” He clamped his free hand over her mouth, and she bit his fingers.
“Ow, goddammit, shut up!” he said, waving his crushed and now bleeding fingers in the air. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“That bird!” she hissed. “That bird is what’s wrong with me! Ever since he’s gotten that cursed thing, Azlascar has been ignoring me. Me! Barshasta! A living goddess, first in beauty, wit, charm, cast aside for some ridiculous fucking pigeon!” She shook her head furiously. “I had Azlascar wrapped around my little finger! Fulfilling my merest whim was his deepest desire! And now he ignores me! I, who helped him negotiate the alliance with the Kingdom of Ghoramsh! I, who told him how to trick the Queen of Mulsipher into ceding us the rights to the Jacinth River Valley! I, who had all of Uliq-Vholm by the balls!” She waved her clenched fist in Yhaat’s face, and the fury in her voice made the thief step back in awe. “And it was I,” she continued, ruefully, “who convinced him to see the Stygian ambassador, the thrice-damned bald-pated serpent in the shape of a man who gave him that fucking bird! And now he now longer visits me, no longer visits any of his concubines even, spending all his time preening and petting and praising that goddamn pigeon! The viziers grumble, the soldiers laugh, the nobles plot. That pigeon is going to cause a coup!” Then, suddenly, the rage fell from her face, replaced with a devious look of cunning. “Did you say you were here to steal the pigeon?” she asked.
“That’s right,” Yhaat said. She looked him over, admiring the muscles of his arms, the swell of his chest. He stood a little straighter.
“And then what?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “You’ll demand a ransom?” Her voice was sharp and deadly again.
“No,” Yhaat said. “The bird is coveted by another. He wants it for himself.”
“But that’s perfect!” she said, dancing a mad, undulating jig through the room. “You get rid of the bird and poor, sad, distraught Azlascar will come back to me, needing solace and comfort and counsel! Then he’ll be mine again! We’ll cut the heads off those whining viziers, lead the Stygian army into a trap in the mountains, and rule over everything between here and the outer sea! Ha!” She hugged herself tightly, and sighed happily. “Thief, you are a gift from the gods!” He watched her as she rotated slowly in place, smiling beatifically, her eyes closed.
“If that’s so, then it’s your duty to help me in my sacred mission,” Yhaat said.
“Oh, of course,” she answered, imperiously. “How may Barshasta, future Empress, assist you?” Shaking his head, he withdrew the architectural plans from the velvet bag. Unfurling them, he pointed to the labyrinth.
“What manner of monster dwells within this maze?” he asked.
“What?” she blinked up at him. “There’s no – what? There’s no monster there.”
“Traps then,” he asked, uncertainly. “Meant to kill or main?”
“No,” she shook her head.
“Well then,” he looked down at the plans. “Why the fuck is there a goddamn maze on the sixth floor of this palace?”
“Mostly,” she said, “we get all oiled up and chase the King naked through the labyrinth, armed with feathers.” Yhaat stared at her. “He seems to like it,” she said, shrugging. She leaned over, looked at the map, and pointed to the line of red ink he’d made to guide him through the maze. “Is this the route you’re planning on taking?” He nodded. “Well, that’s a waste of time. You should just use the janitorial passages. Panels in the wall slide away. You can get across it in minutes rather than hours.”
“Janitorial…” he said.
“Like I said, we run around covered in oil. Someone has to mop up that mess. But, actually,” she paused and nodded. “There is a trap up on the roof that I can show you. C’mon,” she turned and flung a long cape around her bare shoulders. “Let’s get that bird.”
Barshasta led the way, a sinuous robed shadow the danced lightly down the hall while Yhaat stalked quietly behind her, casting several glances over his shoulder, ears twitching for the sound of opening doors, although he kept finding himself distracted. The décor here made the previous examples he’d seen in the Palace seem downright prudish – here, between the deep scarlet of thick curtains and the heavy glitter of gold pillars, hung expertly executed studies of the pornographer’s art, startlingly realistic representations of tangled limbs, contorted bodies, sly, smiling debauchery, all realized with profound realism from the brush of a master painter. Each had, clearly, been painted from life; the man in many of them was very familiar to Yhaat, since his profile was stamped on all the coins minted in Uliq-Vhorl. Though, the thief reflected, his usual stolidly imperial expression was nowhere to be seen in any of these paintings.
They reached the far end of the hall and stood before a silver door guarded on either side by golden Minotaurs who, by the look of them, had also been enjoying the portraiture in the gallery. Barshasta pushed the door open and they stepped into a pitch-dark room. The door clicked shut behind them, and then the woman lit the small oil lamp she’d brought, revealing a wide semi-circular foyer, the walls painted with naked nymphs laughingly falling into the arms of priapic satyrs. She turned, and followed Yhaat’s gaze to the frescoes.
“You know,” she said contemplatively, “there are times when I’d kill for a nice, boring still life of some fruit or something.” She nodded towards the steps on the other side of the room. “Those lead up to labyrinth.” She cocked an eyebrow and looked at the sword he still held in his hand. “You really thought there was a monster in the maze?” she asked. “And you were just going to go in and what? Stab it to death?”
“It’s worked for me in the past,” he shrugged, and followed her up the stairs and into the maze.
He was somewhat relieved to see the walls of the labyrinth were painted a simple white with red trim. He sheathed his sword and held the lamp while Barshasta felt around the edges of a panel, then he heard a click.
“There we are!” she said, pleased. The wall swung around a central pillar, opening onto another segment of the maze. “These panels are all through here. Like I said, after a party, it can take days to properly clean the Labyrinth of Love. Follow me!” She clicked another panel open, and led the way.
They went through several more panels, skipping the tedious tangled maze and finding themselves quickly on the far side of the sixth-floor, near a simple door with a dove painted on it, its wings outstretched. Barshasta spat.
“Through here,” she said, disgust dripping from her voice. A narrow stair led up to a trap door in the roof. Yhaat cracked it open and peered through the narrow slit out onto the roof. “Come on, come on,” she said, pushing past him and opening the door fully. “There’s no one here, and no one can see onto the roof. Get going!”
The King’s Pigeon menagerie was impressive, dozens of silver and gold cages, each holding a hundred roosting pigeons of all kinds and colors and plumage. Embroidered cloth tarps sheltered the lofts, raised high on poles where they stirred lazily in the open air, while clean-swept tile paths meandered sedately from cage to cage. Some of the birds cooed or trilled as they walked by, but many of them slept, heads tucked beneath their wings, dreaming of millet and open skies. Barshasta hurried on, dragging Yhaat after her by his hand. They turned a corner around a particularly packed cage, full of pigeons the size of very healthy chickens, and she pointed.
“There he is!” she hissed.
Ahead of them was a raised dais, ten feet high and at least thirty feet wide, steps leading up. When they reached the top, Yhaat saw that much of it was taken up by a pool that surrounded, moat-like, a small island with a huge alabaster cage that glimmered eerily in the moonlight. Inside the cage there was a potted tree, and on one of its branches, just visible through the cage’s delicate filigree, was a bird. There was no bridge spanning the pool; the bird waited, isolated on its little island.
Yhaat walked to the edge of the pool. He crouched, and looked into the water, or whatever filled the basin, for as he drew closer he saw that it was like no fluid he had ever seen. Pale and opaque, its surface seemed soft and milky and was utterly, perfectly still. Despite the breeze, no ripple or current disturbed the impossibly immobile pool.
“What could dwell in a pond like that?”
“Nothing,” said Barshasta, crouching next to him. “Save death! Watch!” She dipped her finger into the liquid. It sank easily up to the knuckle, then all the way to the rest of her hand. She withdrew it, and the fluid streamed down her finger. It flowed readily, though as Yhaat watched, the drops that fell from her fingertip seemed to plop thickly down onto the surface of the pool, sitting still and raised, nearly solid, before suddenly flowing back into the rest of the liquid.
“Odd,” said Yhaat, “but what –”
“Now watch,” she said. She raised her hand and, with sudden vigor, slapped the flat of her palm down hard into the water. Yhaat flinched away, expecting to be splashed, but then stared in wonder.
There had been no splash; not even a ripple disturbed the stillness of the pond. There had been a sharp sound, the noise of her hand slapping not water, but rather a solid surface that did not yield to her palm at all. It was as if she had struck the earth itself for all the effect it had had. She raised her hand for him to examine. Not a single drop of the strange pale liquid rested there, and the skin was dry. “Try,” she said, nodding to the water.
With only a little hesitation, he replicated her experiment. His finger slid easily into the fluid, but with any sudden movement, it was as if the fluid froze solid, though it remained merely cool to the touch. He slapped the surface, the punched it, hard. It was like hitting a wall; there was no give to it, and he knew he’d bruised his knuckles.
“So long as you move slowly and gently, it flows like water,” she said, watching as he pressed his whole hand knife-like into the pool. “But move with vigor, and it immediately becomes hard as stone!” He tried to sweep his open hand to the left and right, nearly knocking himself off balance in his crouch. His hand would not move through the fluid at all. Then, stopping his struggles, he felt it soften and flow back between his fingers, cool and wet. He withdrew his hand, and examined the drops.
“This is sorcery indeed,” he said. He felt the prickle of his scalp, and knew sweat beaded on the back of his neck. Magic was always unpleasant, and very dangerous.
“It is the Water of Ubbo-Sathla,” she said, nodding. “Only a few Sages, deep in the arts, know the secret of its manufacture. This much of it cost the King a roomful of diamonds, but it is a grim trap! The pool is deep, but any who tried to swim would find themselves seized by the suddenly solid water. Then, growing still, thinking to escape, they would sink more! And in their panic they thrash so, sealing themselves in Ubbo-Sathla’s embrace!” She shivered. “It is a terrible way to die!”
“How does the king cross, when he wishes to admire Muzzaffar?”
“They bring a stout plank and make a bridge. See the grooves, here, where it fits in place?” She rose from her crouch. “How will you cross it?”
He looked around. There were no benches, no furniture of any sort to make a bridge for himself.
“You know of no secret?” he asked. She shook her head.
“I’ve shown you all I know of this damnable stuff,” she said, sadly. “Perhaps you could simply kill the bird from here? With fire, maybe? Here, throw this at it!” She pressed the clay lamp into his hands.
“I told you,” he said, thrusting the lamp away. “I need that bird alive! Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”
He walked the circumference of the pool, occasionally stopping to crouch and strike its strange surface again, or stare across its deadly distance at the prize waiting for him, just beyond his grasp. He made a full circuit and rejoined Barshasta.
“Well?” she asked impatiently. The wind was cold, and she shivered in her robes.
“About twenty feet to the island, I’d say,” said Yhaat, looking down at the edge of the pool where he stood. He scratched his chin, then raised a foot over the water.
“You’ll die!” she shrieked, grabbing his arm. He grinned and stamped his foot down hard against the pool. He felt it grow suddenly and briefly firm beneath his foot, then soften under his stilled heel. He raised his foot, and kicked again. And again.
“No need to swim,” he said, “if I can just run across it.”
“Blood of the Goddess!” she cried. “Run across it?”
“Solid as a rock when you slap it,” he said. “I’ll have to break my habit of walking lightly, but if I step hard and move fast, it should be like running across paving stones.”
“You’re mad to try it! Let’s just throw rocks at the bird until we kill it!”
“Give me some space,” he said, waving her away. “I’ll need a running start.”
“You’ll die!” she said. He laughed, stretching and trying to calm himself.
“You should’ve seen how I got into the Palace!” he said, lifting his legs and shaking out his arms. “I walked through the air on a rope over the dimetrodons in the garden. Slow work, and nervy, but that’s all anything really takes: nerves. Same thing here,” he said. He took a deep breath, and ran.
He was painfully aware of leaving the familiar and permanent solidity of the tiles behind as he darted off the edge of the pool. Having nothing but the unnatural water of Ubbo-Sathla beneath his sandal made his gasp – he felt it begin to give, the fluid rolling and flowing under his left foot, growing soft and slippery. Then his right foot struck ahead; he felt the impact in his leg, hard and jarring, and the pool was suddenly firm. And he felt the sucking softness flowing beneath his left foot as he lifted it free.
But even as he rejoiced in a successful stride, he felt a subtle change in the firmness beneath him. The solid hardness shivered, began to jiggle and loosen like a delicate Pnimphalian flan left too long on the board. He grit his teeth and pumped his legs. The unusual substrate beneath his feet engaged different muscles in his legs, stomach, and back, an unfamiliar strain on top of the simple difficulty of running full tilt.
With each step he felt the pool’s kiss of death, a murderous quiver lurking under each step, eager to engulf and smother and kill. He was running as fast as he could, but still each shuddering footfall seemed only just ahead of the shivering, sinking collapse that followed in his wake. Any slower, and he knew he’d sink to the ankle before he could take the next step, and that meant certain death.
He was nearly there! The island and the cage were six feet away, a full stride, two more steps, he thought, and the slap of his footfalls on the water of Ubbo-Sathla echoed in his ears.
Then his sandal broke, the strap over his right foot snapping loose from the leather sole. He felt it flop uselessly, then, at the next step, the broken sandal hit the water before his foot, folding in on itself beneath his heel, and he stumbled, arms flailing wildly. He felt the fluid beneath him shiver and splash.
Grunting with one final titanic burst of exertion, Yhaat pushed hard, ramming his left foot into the fluid, straining with every ounce of effort in his body, and he leapt, the broken sandal tearing away from his foot. He cleared the last five feet in a single bound, landing on the solid edge of the island. He came down in a crouch, and felt like kissing the blessed, faithful permeance of the tiled surface. With a sigh of relief gusting from his lungs, he turned to see the broken sandal sink thickly beneath the surface of the rapidly thinning water of Ubbo-Sathla.
He stood and smiled across the pool at Barshasta, standing by the far stairs with fists clenched by her side. He kicked his remaining sandal into the pool, watched it balance on the surface briefly before foundering beneath the still surface, and then he turned towards the ten-foot tall cage that dominated the island. There was no lock, just a dainty silver latch, and he slipped in and closed the door quickly behind him. On the left was a wide, shallow bowl of hammered gold, full of seeds and bits of fruit. On the right stood a silver basin full of crystal water. In the center of the cage was a huge potted pear tree, seven feet tall and carefully manicured. Tiny blushing pears hung from the boughs. And on one of the branches, watching him with eyes that sparkled like the tourmalines in the King’s own crown, sat Muzzaffar the Stygian Pouter.
“So,” he said, “that’s what a bird worth a thousand Imperial marks looks like, hey?”
He was, Yhaat had to admit, a handsome bird. His feathers were blackly and dizzyingly iridescent; the moonlight scattered like soft rain across his wings and back, purples becoming red, red shimmering into green, green sinking into a blue as deep as the night sky overhead. He was the usual size most pigeons attained, though the breeding of his kind had resulted in an unusual posture. He was very tall, with long legs and a slim body, and he held his neck nearly erect to accommodate an enormous crop. This he inflated as Yhaat approach, his throat swelling vastly, two, three times as large again and, quivering gently, he made a sound like a ghost chuckling sadly over the memory of the vain struggles of the living.
He expanded the collapsible cage, screwing the posts into place and checking to make sure it would hold solid. Then, just as Amantias had shown him using his own birds, he carefully but firmly gripped Muzzaffar from behind, holding the wings down against his sides. The bird was warm, and he felt its rapid heartbeat against the tips of his fingers. It bobbed its head, and made a series of rapid, surprised coos as he gently dropped it into the cage. Muzzaffar found the low little perch and got comfortable, a lower tone returning to his birdish mutterings. Yhaat latched the lid of the cage and returned it, and its new tenant, to the dark interior of the velvet bag. According to Amantias, in the dark, the bird would quietly slumber away the rest of the evening’s travels.
The sprint back across the pool wasn’t as nerve-wracking as the first time, though he was still very happy when he reached solid ground. Barshasta shook her head in amazement as he found firm footing again.
“For a thief,” she said, “you’re pretty brave.”
“Riches make a man do strange things, sometimes,” he laughed. He had yet to make his escape, but he felt free and happy already. The deed seemed more than half-finished.
Barshasta pursed her lips and studied him. Then, shaking her hair free, she leaned forward, arms clasped at her waist and her eyes wide and shining, a dazzling, pleading smile spreading across her face.
“If it’s riches you want,” she said, batting her eyelashes, “I’m sure I could pay you whatever it is you’ve been promised, and more perhaps,” she added with a wink, “if you’d only just let me wring that wretched bird’s neck right here.” She stepped in, very close, and gazed longingly up into Yhaat’s face, a fingertip tracing a meandering line across his chest.
“God’s teeth, lady,” he laughed, stepping around her. “You really hate this bird, don’t you?” She stamped her feet and sneered in frustration. “Any other time, I’d listen to your offer,” he said, shrugging sadly. “But in addition to the coins, my employers saved my life, so I feel like I should try and see this one to the end, okay? Besides, it’s all the same to you – dead here or alive elsewhere, Muzzaffar will be out of your life for good after tonight.”
Barshasta led him back through the sliding panels of the maze and down the stairs to the foyer. As they’d walked he’d listened hard and, after a few tense minutes cooing busily to himself within the cage, Muzzaffar had fallen quiet and remained silent. Yhaat was relieved to see that, so long as he didn’t jostle him to much, he wouldn’t have to worry about being betrayed by the noise of the bird.
In the foyer of the nymphs Yhaat touched the woman on the shoulder, halting her hand on the door. She raised an eyebrow, but stepped aside as he motioned for silence. He pressed his ear to door, and heard nothing; peeked through the barest edge of an opening, and saw only the quiet hallway stretching ahead of them, the golden grate at the far end glittering serenely, still closed and in place. He sighed, and smiled. She blew out the lamp, and he stepped out into the hall.
The gasp sent a terrible chill up his spine.
To his left, ten feet down the adjoining hallway, stood another palace beauty, similar in form and figure to Barshasta. She was wrapped in a gauzy gown and bore a fluted glass cup in her hand. She stared at Yhaat, her black eyes wide and shocked. Yhaat, surprised, took an involuntary step towards her.
She threw the glass at him. He ducked, and it shattered against the golden minotaur statue behind him. He rose in time to see her in full flight, back down the side hall.
“What was that!?” hissed Barshasta, poking her head out of the foyer, glancing at the glass shards sparkling on the carpeting. As she did, the fleeing girl reached her room, slamming the door and throwing the bolt behind her.
“I’ve been seen,” growled Yhaat. He hovered, indecisive. Suddenly, the harsh clangor of a bell peeled from the girl’s room.
“She’s ringed for the guards!” said Barshasta, seething. “Quick!” she grabbed Yhaat by the arm. “Kill the bird!”
“Goddammit lady,” he said, staring at her in disbelief.
“You’re already dead, fool! You must kill the bird!” She grabbed for the bag at his back, scrabbling against his chest and reaching over his shoulder for it. “Give it to me! Now!”
“I said cut it out,” he pushed her off of him and she shrieked with rage. Her hand darted beneath her robe, and then a dagger glittered coldly in her hand. She lunged at him, the hard steel point seeking his heart. He stepped back, but she charged in, slashing at his face. He caught her arm and crushed her wrist in an iron grip but, grinding her teeth against the pain, she held on to the weapon, her eyes flashing with mad hate. Finally, he was forced to simply shove her back, as hard as he could, through the open door and into the foyer, where she fell hard and slid backwards.
He didn’t wait for her to get up. He turned and ran down the hall. He heard doors opening, muffled shrieks and outraged gasps coming from all sides as he dashed madly by the rooms. He slung the golden grille wide and leapt down the stairs, taking them three at a time, but as he reached the landing for the fourth floor, he heard the crash of heavy steel boots on the stairs below, the rattle of weapons and the ringing of armor sounding up the Grand Stair. He leaned over the railing and looked down the stairwell, and cursed.
A body of guards, ten men in burnished armor with swords drawn, were already at the third floor, cutting off his route of escape. The he heard a shriek above him on the fifth-floor landing. He glanced up and saw the rage-contorted face of Barshasta, jabbing a finger at him from above.
“There he is!” she screamed, and the guards stopped and stared up the stairwell. “He’s a devil in disguise! Slay him quickly, and then burn his body with everything he carries, immediately! It’s the only way to be sure!” The guards roared a battle cry and charged up the stairs.
With no other choice, Yhaat ran out of the stairwell and onto the fourth floor, immediately turning right so as to at least stay on the side of the Palace nearest the wall where, he hoped, his rope still waited for him. The hallway here was wider than the others he’d seen, lined with milk-white marble statues of an apparently theatrical bent, cloaked and masked and with arms outstretched for dramatic effect. Passages yawned on either side of him as he ran, doorless archways leading to domed amphitheaters lined with low-benches, moonlight pouring in from round skylights overhead. Glancing as he ran, he saw a distant doorway at the rear of one of these, with more rooms visible beyond. He dove in, just as he heard the pounding steps of the guards reach the fourth-floor landing.
He heard their shouts of confusion, the bark of an officer, and yet more ringing bells. The whole palace would soon be alive with guards. He had minutes to make his escape.
But how? He was sure he could climb down if only he could find a window that he could actually use. But he knew he was in trouble there – he’d chosen to enter through the third floor for precisely that reason; all the windows above there were made from tiny diamond panes soldered into heavy metal frameworks. He’d avoided them coming up because breaking through them was both noisy and time-consuming.
He leapt over the benches in the amphitheater, running over the stage sunk in the center of the room, flashing through a beam of moonlight before leaping back into the shadows and running up an aisle towards the far door.
He had to keep his head now, too. He was running through interior rooms, with no external frame of reference to check his bearings. He needed to put distance between him and the guards, but he also had to keep on the correct side of the building.
He dashed through the far door and into a backstage space lined with mirrors and desks and wardrobes then, tearing through a curtain, he found himself in yet another low, domed amphitheater with two archways. Now he had to pick another direction: left or right? He cursed, tried to gauge his position from the shaft of moonlight overhead, and chose left, emerging into another hallway that stretched off in either direction. There were no windows here, either, just wooden doors leading, presumably, to more rooms. Breathing hard, he ran right, then snarled a curse and drew his sword.
Three guards had stepped around the corner. They were tall and powerfully built with heavy beards and scowling faces. No mere levies, these were picked men, veterans of the border wars, practiced and deadly killers. They were encased in mail coats and bore heavy round shields and short, wide-bladed swords, all polished and gleaming cruelly in the light of the lantern borne aloft by the leading man. They bellowed when they saw him and charged, the two in the rear moving forward, shields lowered and swords out, while the man with the lantern hung back, raising a whistle to his lips.
They closed, and the clash of steel rang out beneath the piercing scream of the whistle. Yhaat, unprotected and in the confined space of the hallway, was at a distinct disadvantage against the two armored men. But if they hoped to simply bull their way through the fight, they were sorely disappointed. Yhaat’s curving scimitar lashed out suddenly; he was on the attack, striking blue sparks against the weapons of the others. He slashed and parried expertly, first knocking aside the swing of one, then the other, gauging their reach in the dim hall. And at any opening, no matter how small, the point of his blade would stab over the tops of their shields with shocking speed. Surprised at the furiousness of his defense, the two guards had halted their reckless rush forward, crouching behind their shields and stabbing half-blindly at the furious raking arc of steel that faced them.
A few seconds of that, and Yhaat was ready. He stepped suddenly to his right, his sword licking low to slash the exposed ankle of his nearest enemy. It wasn’t much of a wound, but it did what it was meant to do; yelping in pain at the unexpected attack, the man shuffled back. At the same time his comrade, seeing an opening, lunged at Yhaat and, stabbing at an angle across his shield, sought to pin his man to the wall.
But the opening had been a feint. A backhanded slash laid open his jaw, and a moment later the point of Yhaat’s scimitar had split the man’s face.
With a shout the second guard swung his sword, but Yhaat dodged lightly out of the way. Against one opponent, his superior mobility came back into play, and he danced to the attack, stabbing and slashing, now driving the guard back. Every third strike he aimed for the man’s shins, and after a few of these, the guard’s shield remained a half-an-inch lower than it should have. That was enough. Smiling savagely, Yhaat’s blade flit up and across the man’s exposed throat. There was a gout of blood and then, with a gurgle, the guard fell, dead.
Ten seconds, no more than fifteen since the combat had started, and the two soldiers were dead. The third man, ten feet away, spat out his whistle, turned, and ran, the lantern bobbing madly as he fled. But already from behind Yhaat could hear the answering whistles of another group echoing closely in the palace. Breathing hard, he ran to the nearest wooden door and swung it wide.
He was in a library – shelves with books, a heavy desk, chairs, all illuminated by thin, pale moonlight streaming in through three finely-paned windows.
Laughing with relief, Yhaat stepped into the room. There was no lock on the door, but he wedged a heavy chair against the handle, and tipped a bookshelf over onto that. It would buy him a few seconds, at least.
He sheathed his sword and ran to the windows. They didn’t open, of course, and the glass was thick, each pane a hexagon about the size of his palm, hundreds of them, sunk into a heavy metal frame. He lifted a stout wooden chair and with a shout, flung it against the glass.
It bounced back, but some of the glass was cracked, and the metal seemed slightly warped.
He heard noise in the hall, another blast of an alarm whistle and shouting voices. He lifted the chair again, set his feet wide, and then swung with all his strength, crashing the chair against the window again and again. More glass cracked and splintered, and the metalwork bulged out, farther and farther with each blow.
The door to the library rattled. They banged on it, then began to hack it to pieces with their heavy swords.
Yhaat kept swinging. The chair fell apart in his hands and he tossed it away. Behind him, the door cracked and shivered under the soldier’s blows. The window hung loose and many of the small panes had either shattered or popped free entirely. He was close.
A sword blade sheared through the wood of the door, and he heard their voices clear and distinct now. “He’s in here! I can see him! C’mon lads!” He had no more time.
The muscles of his arms and back and legs bulging, Yhaat lifted the heavy wooden desk up and over his head. Straining, the breath wheezing out of his lunges, he hurled it full against the window. The metal frame screamed in protest and gave way, tearing out of the casement, glass and iron raining down into the night below. Yhaat leapt to the sill and looked out. A shear drop, fifty feet, but the stone wall of the palace was jointed here. He wiped his sweating hands against his pants, gripped the stone, and climbed, not down, but up. As he did, he heard his barricade at the door fail, and men poured into the room. He scrambled up, surmounting the sharp peaked roof, and vanished from view just as a guard stuck his head out the window, scanning the scene below.
Panting, he scrambled up the roof, knocking tiles off, hearing shouts and whistles from the library. Ahead of him rose the dome of one of the amphitheaters. He reached the top, standing on the flat surface of the skylight, hands on his knees as he caught his breath and got his bearings.
He was on top of an eastern wing of the palace, jutting out from the main body of the building. A hundred yards to his left, across a second row of domes, rose the rest of it; every window in the fifth floor burned brightly with lights, the harem doubtless in a whirlwind of activity. Above that rose the windowless mass of the sixth floor with its maze, and atop that, hidden from view, was the loft. He wiped the sweat from his eyes.
He had kept his head while running, at least. He turned and faced east and saw the garden of death stretching out before him. Then the dark river, rolling eternally, and beyond that shone the city of Uliq-Vhorl, bright and beckoning. He took a deep breath. He could still make it. He tapped the velvet bag on his back.
“Still alive, Muzzaffar?” he asked and the bird cooed sadly in answer.
He slid down the far side of the dome, scrambled up and over the next, and then came to the end of that wing of the palace. He heard more whistles directly below him as they searched the grounds. He hurried as best he could; if they didn’t find him soon, he was sure they’d spread a cordon over the whole island, and he’d be easy pickings in the open. He reached a corner, where the wing rejoined the central building. Gripping an ornamental merlon, he swung himself handily over onto another narrow ledge and began his descent. He was climbing recklessly, courting death with a wild rapid pace where he was often unsure of his footing or unsteady in his grip. There were a few breathless moments of pure terror, the ground spinning wildly beneath him as the building seeming to try and shrug him off, but then he was down, landing hard on shaky feet against the gravel. There across the way, separated from him by a delicate tea garden, was the gnarled apple tree he had hidden behind when he first entered the palace grounds.
Lanterns bobbed like fireflies in the night. Most of them clustered to the left, soldiers peering up into the dark, fingering their weapons and waiting to see him. He scowled to see a few bearing short bows and quivers packed with arrows.
He decided to chance it and run, holding his breath until he was under the shadow of the apple tree. There were no shouts or whistles erupting suddenly around him – he hadn’t been seen. Without pausing he scrambled up the wall, grimacing at the bloody handprints he was leaving behind. His fingertips had been torn and his palms rubbed raw from his unexpected climb down the walls of the palace. If they realized he wasn’t up on the roof anymore and decided to search the gardens, he couldn’t have left them a clearer sign if he’d wanted to.
He rolled onto the wall and grabbed the pole he’d left there. He looked down into the garden, grinning madly at the murderous sail-backed monsters rumbling hungrily up at him as he stepped out onto the rope. He was surprisingly calm, though he was certain his body was, as usual, saving it all up for a complete collapse later. Still, he felt the electric thrill pouring through his veins and knew he had to pay attention. A jittery hand or quaking limb out on the rope was not something he could afford. One foot in front of the other. Below him, he heard the hateful hissing of the dimetrodons. He focused on his breathing.
He was halfway across when he heard the shout, a voice that mingled rage with disbelief. They had spotted him. A moment later there was a twang, followed by the whistle of an arrow off to his left. He chanced a glance back. A figure was leaning against the edge of the inner wall, nocking an array as he watched Yhaat on the rope. Soon, a second figure scrambled into position, leaning against the wall, unslinging a bow from their back. They’d seen his handprints and gotten ladders, but instead of the dimetrodons tearing him apart, they’d been confronted with Yhaat’s tightrope escape. A second arrow hissed through the night, somewhere to his right. A third flew overhead.
Again he tempted death with his recklessness. His back crawled with the expectation of an arrow sinking into it at any moment. He wobbled and wavered, the balancing poll swinging wildly up and down. He crouched as low as he could, his muscles screaming. Another volley of arrows, two to his left, and a third to his right. At least the moon was down. In the dark, he was only an indistinct shape, hard to hit, though a clever archer could’ve gauged his distance by the way the dimetrodons clustered close together, slowly tracking him as he traversed the width of the garden.
Then the rope shivered and bounced under his feet. He tottered, his toes splayed, shifted his feet and dropped into an immobilizing crouch. It bounced again, and then there was a rhythmic ripple in the line, a wave that travelled in quick steady pulses down the rope and into his feet. He glanced back.
A guard was sawing lustily at the tightrope.
Yhaat felt it begin to sag. He swallowed, and threw the balancing pole behind him. He was dimly aware of the scuffling feet of the two dozen or so dimetrodons forty feet below him, scrambling to investigate whatever it was that fell down among them. They snapped their jaws and roared. The rope shuddered. He leapt into space, heard the rope snap, saw it sink slackly to the ground. He fell.
And crashed into the crown of a big almond tree, six feet directly below him.
Branches whipped against his body, slashing the forearms covering his face, tearing his clothes and lashing his body, cracking and braking around him as he careened through the treetop. Finally, he crunched into a limb thick enough to hold his flailing weight. He wheezed, gulping air for a while, and then delicately took stock.
His head spun, his ribs ached, and his left shoulder seemed to be on fire where a particularly sturdy branch had torn into him, but he appeared to be all in one piece with nothing broken. He lay for a moment across his branch, feeling its rough bark against his stomach, and looked down at the ground below. A dimetrodon swaggered into view, growling and sniffing the base of the tree.
Oh, right, he thought. But other than that, he was doing okay.
He pulled himself into a sitting position, scattering twigs and sending a fall of leaves to the ground that drove the dimetrodons into a fury. Three of them had staked out the immediate circumference of the big almond, their mouths hanging wide, teeth shining up at him. They lashed their tails and stood tall against the tree trunk, growling up at him.
“Hey, thief!” shouted a guard from the wall. Yhaat peeked through the leaves and saw ten or twelve figures clinging to its top, laughing and pointing at him. “How’s that escape working out?”
“Shouldn’t you be cleaning up on the fourth floor?” Yhaat shouted back. “I left a couple of your buddies there, or most of ‘em, at least.”
“Get fucked!” the guard shouted back.
“You’re gonna die, motherfucker!” shouted another.
He didn’t respond, because the sound of his voice so near had sent the dimetrodons into a frenzy. They bit they trunk of the tree, raked the ground with their feet, stomped and scraped and writhed in anger, all while a deep reptilian growl rumbled in their wide chests. Some of those patrolling the outer perimeter of their circle became so enraged that they would charge the tree, trying to push aside one of the monsters already in position. They would snap and snarl at one another, and more than once two of them would roll together in tremendous combat, biting and slashing each other. Sometimes it would turn into a scrum of three or four, all of them savaging one another indiscriminately. He was driving them mad with bloodlust.
“Just jump man,” one of guards shouted.
“No, don’t do it, you can hold out!”
“Yeah, I got ten crowns on you lasting a day, come on! Stay strong!” another added, eliciting more laughter.
Yhaat leaned back against the trunk and thought. He could see the rope, fifteen feet or so away, lying on the ground. If he could only get it up here, he could tie it off to the tree and walk or climb to safety. But that fifteen feet was as good as fifteen miles with the dimetrodons between him and it.
How long could he last, he wondered. He had a feeling that the beasts below him wouldn’t simply give up and wander off. He might sit in that tree until he starved.
“I could always eat you, Muzzaffar,” he said, tapping the cage in its velvet bag. The pigeon flapped its wings angrily in response.
Below him, another fight erupted, this one the largest yet. One of the pushy ones had finally annoyed a dimetrodon by the trunk to an apparently intolerable degree. Without even a warning roar, it had sunk its teeth deep into the meaty shoulder of its neighbor, eliciting a scream of rage and pain from the victim, who had hurled itself back, trying to get away from the attacker. Gore glistening on its teeth, the second dimetrodon pursued its fleeing comrade, leaving the tree and Yhaat behind. Maddened by the taste of blood, its jaws were wide in earnest pursuit of a meal now, and it soon leapt on the limping form of the other animal, tearing its throat open with a single bite. Others, particularly those nearest the fight, flared their nostrils to drink in the scent of fresh blood, and then two of these dove in and began to tear at the corpse, all while the first monster tried to drag its kill away. Soon there was a tremendous melee between the three of them, with several others circling hungrily, their tails whipping in agitation. Finally, the dead body split apart, spilling its innards all over the sward. One animal drug the front half away, another hauled the back half into the grass, and the rest of them darted in to jostle over the gore and entrails left behind, lapping at the earth with great scarlet tongues. And the remaining animals seemed to grow even more restless at the sight and smell of the violence.
Yhaat looked towards the outer wall. Fifty feet, he reckoned, and a pretty clear path. A couple of big trees whose shade had kept the growth clear, then a long undulating patch of feathery grass, and then the wall, the rope draping maddeningly down its inside surface. But it was his best chance.
He carefully clambered down the tree, testing the branches before trusting his weight to them, eventually ending up a scant ten feet off the ground. He was facing the inner wall; still the guards watched, waiting for the gory end. With their prey in plain view now, the animals took up a deep and almost continuous roar. The two on the far sides of the tree crowded around to the other side, leaving the back unoccupied, while the one nearest him reared up, stretching itself mightily, nearly eight feet tall. Yhaat began shouting at them, insults at first, then just noises, sounds, inarticulate shrieks that drove the animals wild.
“Hey! Don’t play with ‘em, man!” “You’re pissing them off!” “Just jump already!” “No! Ten crowns, c’mon!” He ignored the guards, and unsheathed his sword. The nearest dimetrodon’s maw was stretched wide, yawning like the end of the world, red and wet and full of terrible teeth. The stink of its breath blew out, fetid as the garbage heap outside the city on a hot summer’s day. He hefted the sword, took careful aim, and hurled it straight through the air and into the muscular neck of the animals.
It screamed and fell back, a full foot of the blade protruding from its side. Hissing, it pawed clumsily at its throat, gashing itself more with the blade before it finally dislodged it. But in knocking it free it opened the wound. Blood poured out, pulsing in thick black spurts to the rhythm of the beast’s dark heart. The injured monster roared in fury and took a step back towards the tree, full of the desire to tear and rip and kill.
But it limped and stumbled as it moved, and that was all the others, who had been watching it so closely, needed.
They rushed it, first one, then another. Teeth and claws flashed, they growled and screamed and tore each other, and the smell of blood filled the air. The wounded dimetrodon went down under the jaws of three others, but as it died it inflicted terrible wounds on an attacker, who was soon fighting for its life against more of the animals who rushed in. A chaotic maelstrom of gore and rage and flashing teeth swirled beneath the almond’s shadow, and their sails were splashed with blood.
Yhaat swung around to the back of the tree, sliding down the trunk and dropping into a run at the base of the tree. The rope was too close to the murderous mayhem he had created, so instead he ran for the far wall, his lungs burning and the blood roaring in his ears, oblivious to everything else, including the shocked shouting of the guards on the wall. For him, the wall and the fifty feet of ground he must cover to reach it were the only things in the world, in the whole universe, that truly existed. He passed out of the shadow of a wide banyan and into the blind rustling jungle of tall grass. He could see nothing ahead of him, nothing to the sides, nothing except the far wall rising up black against the stars.
He was almost there. He could see the rope hanging lank against the stones. He tasted copper in his throat as he dug deep for the last few feet.
It was luck alone that saved him in the end. Rushing through the grasses a dimetrodon had charged in from his left. It had been far from the original disturbance, in fact had only just roused itself to activity, when it had heard him running. Following the ancient programming buried deep in its brain, it had hurtled itself blind towards the sound, misjudging the speed of its prey and emerged just behind its target. Its jaws snapped shut on empty air, and its momentum kept it plowing forward, even as its powerful legs dug into the earth and its trunk bent and contorted in an attempt to change direction, to turn for another bite.
Yhaat grabbed the rope and climbed as he had never climbed before, feet against the stone, hands a blur, flying up the wall. He heard the animal heave itself up against the stone, scratching at the rocks, pawing at the wall, and he laughed as he reached the top, laughed maniacally, screaming an affirmation of life to the night sky overhead.
Sucking air and standing on wobbling legs, he looked back across the garden. The dimetrodons were beginning to scatter, some dragging prey, others hustling away from the fight as quickly as possible to avoid becoming a meal. Directly below him, the old animal surrendered to fate, wondering why it even bothered anymore, disappearing back into the grass, only its sail visible as it returned to its favorite sleeping spot. And across the whole expanse of the garden, over the far wall, floated the oval face of the guards, shocked and silent and staring. Yhaat laughed, lifted his arms high above his head and, fingers extended, flashed the prongs towards them. He took a huge breath.
“Get fucked!” he shouted, long and loud and with deep sincerity. They disappeared behind their wall and he followed suit, scrambling down the rough blocks and landing heavily on the earth below, and then jogging across the open ground towards the distant clump of tamarisk trees that hid his boat.
The air was soon filled with the far off shrill piping of guard whistles. He saw torches, far down the shore, a mile or more but held high, too high for men on foot. Horsemen, galloping on the relatively smooth beach, hunting the nimble thief who, doubtless, must nearly have used up the last of the luck he’d been given in this life. He put on a final burst of speed, reached his boat, pushed it into the water and leapt in, working the oars as hard as he could, groaning with the strain.
He was a little more than a hundred yards out when the horsemen reached his scrape. They launched a few desultory arrows, but their small bows lacked the power to reach him. He laughed and kept rowing, and they mounted and galloped back to the gate, blowing short, sharp blasts on their whistles.
Yhaat slumped forward against the oars. His body shivered with exhaustion, and he rested briefly, letting the current pull him south. Achingly, he loosened his belt and tossed the empty sheath overboard. Then he leaned back and undid the velvet bag.
“You better be alive, bird,” he murmured, and a weary coo answered him. “Gods Above and Below,” he swore in relief. “We’re actually going to make it.”
Then he caught sight of the ship rounding the south tip of the island. He couldn’t see much at that distance, but he didn’t need to see to know what it was: a war barge.
A line of twelve torches stood burning on its deck, and two huge lanterns swung out on booms over the prow. He thought he could even hear the splash of the oars, fifteen on each side, as they dipped into the water, following the pounding rhythm of a drum that beat time on deck. With that many backs, they could easily outstrip him on the water.
He wasted no time. They were far off, but he could imagine the men peering into the water ahead, sharp-eyed sailors on the lookout for any sign of a boat cutting the waters of the Pnar. Yhaat stripped his shirt off and, as quietly as possible, slipped into the cold water of the Pnar, gripping the side of the boat. He reached in and grabbed the velvet bag, holding it as high as he could while treading water. It would be hard work, but he’d have to do it. He pushed off from the boat, sending it with the current down the river, towards the war barge. Then, on his back, he swam towards shore, holding the bag with its precious cargo overhead, switching arms as they tired.
Ten minutes later, he heard a horn in the distance, and what sounded like a man shouting. He raised his head, spitting water, and saw the barge coming to away from him in the river. They’d spotted his boat, and were in pursuit. He kicked his feet, and kept swimming.
He pulled himself ashore onto a bar that had accumulated beneath a long wooden pier, laying there in the stinking silt, trying to will himself to stand. He felt like a drowned rat, but he had to get back to Amantias’s mansion as soon as possible. It wouldn’t take long for news of his escape to reach the King, and when it did, Yhaat hoped to find himself outside the city with his money, safely on his way.
He winced and sat up. His limbs were leaden, and everything ached. He looked into the velvet bag. He’d kept it mostly dry, only a few times letting the base hit the water, and the pigeon inside looked up at him, annoyed but alive. He crawled along towards solid ground. As he raised himself up onto the creaking wooden pier, he saw the dawn star growing brighter on the far edge of the sky. He had an hour before dawn.
It took him all of that hour to make his way to Amantias’s. It wasn’t far, but he took only back streets, and twice had to avoid a patrol. They were strolling along, not searching for anyone in particular, but a wet, shirtless fellow covered in bruises and hauling a sack through the road at night would have been bound to raise some questions. Sneaking along, sticking to the shadows, he wound his way through the city, finally reaching the back door of the mansion just as dawn bled into the sky to stain the east red. Yhaat pounded on the door. Bargam, Amantias’s rat-faced major domo, answered the door, a look of shocked but delighted surprise on his face.
“By the Snows of Hell!” he stammered. “You’re back! And I just sent the boy down to the Pillar of Kites to see if any new heads had been added overnight!” He ushered him inside. “Come along now, Amantias said to bring you to him immediately if you returned.”
Much like the back-alley skulking he’d employed to get there, Bargam led Yhaat through the servants’ passages to his Master’s quarters, high up in the mansion. He signaled Yhaat to wait, then knocked gently before letting himself in. A moment passed, which Yhaat spent leaning sleepily against the wall. Then Bargam emerged.
“Go in, he’ll see you know,” then he turned and hurried off, traveling in a different direction from the way he’d come.
Amantias was swaddled in a thick, fluffy robe, huge soft house slippers on his feet. He was pacing the carpet in front of a bright fireplace that glowed with warmth. He turned and stared at Yhaat as he entered, his eyes wide and hungry.
“Did you get it,” he said, his voice thick. “Did you get Muzzaffar?”
Yhaat walked to a table that stood nearby and removed the cage from the velvet bag. The dark shimmering bird within blinked stupidly in the room, crouching low on its perch. It looked a bit disheveled, and more than a few feathers seemed out of place, but its strange, elegant beauty remained, and the dreamy murmur of its call still sent a thrill up the spine of those who heard it.
“Gods of Hell,” whispered Amantias, eyes sparkling. He rushed to the table and stuck a trembling finger through the bars of the cramped cage, stroking the bird’s proud head. “Gods of Hell,” he repeated. “It’s more beautiful than I even dreamt!”
The door behind them opened and Marahd stalked into the room, thin as a wraith in his night clothes. His chest was heaving, and his eyes glimmered with their own baleful light.
“You did it,” he hissed. A long pale tongue licked out over his lower lip. He looked at neither Yhaat nor Amantias. He had eyes only for the bird in its cage on the table.
“Look, look Marahd, he did it! He got Muzzaffar!” Amantias clapped his hands with boyish glee. His cheeks had grown rosy, and he was shaking with happiness. The wizard oozed like smoke across the room, slipping behind the table and crouching low to stare at the bird, which met his gaze with a bored bob of the head.
“It wasn’t easy,” Yhaat said, running a hand over his wounded shoulder. “And there’ll be hell to pay shortly – I had guards on my tail at the end. So,” he said, hitching his hands in his belt. “If possible, I’d like my payment now, please, and maybe a horse and some clothes. I can make Matzrival if I ride hard, and that’ll be a good start to putting a few hundred miles between me and Uliq-Vhorl.”
Amantias twiddled his fingers at the bird in the cage, and then rose, sedately, hiding the manic joy on his face behind the usual mask he reserved for business.
“Yes indeed,” he said, a vague smile drifting over his jowls. “A job well done, and a reward well earned. Now then,” he turned to look at Yhaat. “Marahd, pay the man.” The wizard rose behind Amantias, his eyes swimming with grim glee. His hand rose, and the serpent ring stood out darkly against his pale palm. The ruby eyes glittered, and Yhaat saw the small needle spring from the snake’s head, dripping with some terrible venom. The wizard smiled suddenly and then, with blinding speed, he seemed to stroke the back of Amantias’s neck.
The merchant squeaked. His mouth opened wide, and horror flooded his eyes. He turned to stare at the wizard, who grinned down at him, eyebrows raised mockingly. Amantias shuddered and took a step back, then fall hard. The wizard rushed to him, standing over his body, bending down to watch the man’s face as it grew red, then purple. Amantias gurgled, reaching for the wizard, who playfully batted his hands aside. Then, foaming at the mouth, Amantias gave a final, convulsive shiver, and collapsed, dead.
The wizard laughed, a thin, hacking cackle, and spit on the dead man’s face.
Yhaat, thumbs still hooked in his belt, watched him carefully.
“I send you to Hell, O Amantias the Fool, with a kiss of the Ghost Viper’s venom, as I once sent so many others screaming to the Lords of the Underworld! And so I shall again, very soon!” He rose up to his full height and turned towards the pigeon in its cage. He cocked an eyebrow and looked at Yhaat. “Look at this, thief, this thing, this folly. This mangled eidolon of man’s preening vanity. The mind boggles at the perversity it would take to breed something like this malformed little cretin. But!” He bent suddenly, peering into the cage. “Like all its kind, there still dwells within its tiny mind the urge to return to the nest of its birth! Yes, even within this unnatural travesty lies the instinct that will, invariably, lead it home. Home, to the Garden of Night, where it hatched among the Tombs of the Sorcerer-Kings of Khem!” He laughed again, shrill and wild and with furious exultation. “I will take this bird to the desert of Stygia and release it, and it will lead me to the hidden Necropolis of those Arch-Wizards! And within their tombs I will find such terrible treasures, such black wisdom, such fearsome power! I shall work such magic as has not been seen on the earth for a hundred thousand years! My enemies will tremble again at the whisper of my name borne on the Red Wind of Hate!” His voice rose to a shrieking devilish scream, his words giving way to inarticulate, mad cackling.
Yhaat coughed, and the wizard, regaining some semblance of sanity, turned towards him.
“So, are you going to pay me then?” Yhaat asked. The wizard sneered. He gazed at the ring on his hand.
“You have no sword, thief. But I have a single dose of the Ghost Viper’s gift left,” he said, smiling. “Enough to kill you, fool. All must be done in secret, none must know what I plan!” Marahd stepped over the body of Amantias and then, with a scream of hate, rushed Yhaat, his hand with the deadly ring outstretched, reaching for his heart.
Yhaat leapt forward to meet him, his left hand darting out to seize the deadly right hand of Marahd the Dreaming in an iron grip. Yhaat gasped to feel the supernatural strength in the cadaverous wizard’s thin arm. Powerfully built as he was, he couldn’t bend the wizard’s arm back, nor could he check its descent towards his exposed skin, slowly, inch by inch, pressing down, the needle bright and terrible. Marahd grinned at Yhaat, a death’s head made flesh.
Then Yhaat reached behind him and under his belt, gripping the handle of the brass spoon he’d ground into a knife in the cold dungeon of Uliq-Vhorl, the metal now warm with the heat of his own body. With a sudden, furious thrust, he stabbed the ragged blade into Marahd’s stomach. The wizard’s eyes bulged, and a thin, hateful hiss seeped through his yellow fangs. Yhaat twisted the knife, and then raked it across his belly. He felt the strength seep from the man’s arms, saw his eyes roll back in pain and fear, and then, with a final slash, he spilled Marahd’s entrails out onto the floor.
He threw the dead man aside, breathing heavily. He limped over to the dead merchant and, with quick, practiced hands, searched his body. There was no purse, not even a single coin in any of the pockets.
“Damned liar,” he said, shaking his head, unbelievingly. “You weren’t even going to pretend like you were going to pay me.” He lifted the fat man’s hands and pulled the rings from his pudgy fingers, admiring the emeralds and diamonds sparkling on them. He tossed these into the velvet bag, and then looked at the pigeon, who watched him calmly from within the cage.
“Well, Muzzaffar,” he said. “We’ve had a right old time of it, hey?” The bird inflated his crop and cooed his agreement. Yhaat peered at the bird. He stroked its head through the cage, and it pecked lovingly at his rough finger. The poor thing looked cramped in its little prison. Yhaat knew the feeling.
He lifted the bird out of the cage and hugged it close to his chest, feeling again the warmth and the rapid little hear beat pounding in rhythm with his own. He opened the window and breathed the fresh air blowing in from the river.
“Good luck!” He said, releasing the bird who, with a strong sudden flapping, rose quickly above the roof of the mansion, circled once, and then vanished into the city. Yhaat turned and began to fill his bag as quickly as he could with whatever he found that sparkled in the room.
For many years after, Uliq-Vhorl was famous among visitors for the beautiful pigeons that flocked its fountains and plazas, strange and wonderful pigeons with feathers as black and lustrous as sin, and whose voices murmured like the wind that blew between the stars.