DargonZine 28, Issue 1

Ol Tamboch Narhin, Thread 8: The Skipping Stone

Naia 29, 902


This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Ol Tamboch Narhin

Circles, loops, spirals, cycles — all of nature seems to love this shape, from the circle of the seasons to the very cycle of life itself. Curving, bending, swooping all seem more nature-like, more natural, if you will, than the straight, level lines of roads, and the hard barriers of walls.

Of course, there isn’t anything inherently unnatural about linearity or flatness: mountain cliffs are flat, and tree trunks grow straight up, after all. Perhaps the perception comes, then, from the ease with which people build rigid, straight things that makes such seem more an imposition upon nature, rather than an integral part of it.

Circles and cycles also have intangible meaning as well — the birth-life-death previously mentioned, for example. While each element is certainly tangible, the linking of them into a natural flow that cycles back on itself from death into life again is a more cerebral invention.

Yet even in this arena, people are more apt to see linearity — cause and effect, one following directly from the other — rather than cycles of happenstance within circular circumstance. Unless the very culture they live in is one that rejects linearity, of course.

One of our earlier threads split into two when the messenger Garven took leave of the sculptor Bowen during one of the sieges of Dargon during the Great Houses War. We know how Bowen’s thread ended, but what of Garven and his delivery?

 

***

 

The pirate known as Red Lhu lunged threateningly at the frightened young man standing on the deck of the wallowing merchanter her fellow freebooters had decided to plunder today. She laughed as the sandy-haired man cried out and sank to his knees, a dark stain growing at the crotch of his trews and running down his thigh. Lhu figured she could have just walked up to him and said “Boo” in a conversational tone and he would have collapsed in exactly the same way.

“Oh, please, please, please don’t kill me,” the man said. “My name is Garven, and I’m just a messenger, just taking a package south. I’m just a passenger here, not part of the crew. You let passengers live, right? I’m sure that the person I’m delivering my package to, the Socir Maenilun, will be willing to pay a high ransom for me and my package. Only, don’t kill me!”

Red Lhu let the man grovel for a while longer, reveling in the fear her presence — well, and that of her blood-coated sword as well — brought to people like him. Sailors at least had the pride to defend their ship, no matter the odds, and when they were defeated, they accepted it without debasing themselves. Land-huggers, though, had no such pride. They should just stay away from the water entirely …

The thought triggered a memory, and Red Lhu sucked in a startled breath. She knew this man! Well, she had actually only met him once, briefly, years ago back when she’d been a land-hugger herself, before Vlik and Port Shand. Back when she’d been a gypsy.

She normally didn’t think about her childhood, her upbringing among the Rhydd Pobl, and the mistake she’d made that had separated her from them forever. But the sandy hair and goofy ears of the man before her reminded her of the one night she’d spent being ‘Madame Zeena’ the fortune teller at one of the fairs her ban — her wagon-group, her family — had been helping with.

She’d been doing a favor for Anikor, who’d wanted to play in the woods with a local boy. Lhu, who’d had a different name then, hadn’t been ready for the job but had very much wanted Anikor to like her and so had substituted for her friend. The fairgoers had trooped into the tent, paid their coin, and gotten one of the several standard ‘fortunes’, regardless of what Lhu had seen in the cards or the crystals or the bones. Except for this man, young and handsome, nervous and earnest, who’d told her that he was setting out to find his future and hoped she’d be able to help him on his way.

Maybe it had been a brief desire to sneak off into the woods with this cute kid, not very much older than her, as Anikor had with her own local boy. Maybe it was the intensity of the vision she’d seen when she’d taken his coin. She remembered stumbling through an abbreviated card reading, giving him the ‘fair roads ahead’ fortune even though she’d botched laying the cards and they’d told her nothing. As he rose and thanked her, she’d said, “Stay away from the sea!” He’d looked startled at her vehemence, as was she, but she felt so much better once she’d blurted that out that she didn’t even watch him exit as she had the other cute boys who’d come in.

“Shut up!” Lhu said to the still-babbling messenger. The noise ceased, and watery eyes in the still-cute face looked up at her.

“Do you remember getting a fortune once?” she asked, her sword dipping to the deck, tip resting in the puddle of blood that had dripped from it. “A gypsy woman who told you to stay away from the sea?”

“Ah,” the messenger said, his eyes darting around and, finding no hope of rescue, or so Lhu thought, finally searching out the memory. “Well, ah, yes … now that you mention it, yes. Just as I left home. A fair. A tent, and a pretty girl telling fortunes. Yes, I remember it.”

“And?” Lhu asked, her sword tip beginning to rise again.

“Well, I mean, it was just a gypsy fortune, straight? Just one of those things they all say to get our coin.” The man laughed weakly, tentatively. “I mean, I did keep myself away from the docks and boats for a little bit, but it was easy — I found work in Wochok, and then Cynnyd, far away from the ocean. But then I became a messenger, and went where I was told. First time I boarded a ship, I’d forgotten all about that fortune. By the time I remembered, I’d been on and off a half-score ships, once for a whole month! Figured the fortune was about as trustworthy as any gypsy.”

Red Lhu turned the color of her nickname. She no longer thought of herself as one of the Rhydd Pobl, but she never let anyone bad-mouth them in her hearing. And to have her own fortune so routinely dismissed hurt, more so because it had come from her first flash-vision ever.

“In my experience, master messenger,” Lhu said as she drew back her arm and thrust it forward, “you should never discount a gypsy fortune. They’re bound to come true.” The messenger gasped in shock as Lhu’s sword ran him through, then slumped to the side as death claimed him. “Eventually.”

Lhu put her boot on the corpse to pull out her sword. She wiped the blade on the messenger’s shirt, and after sheathing it, she stooped down to go through the bag hanging from the man’s shoulder. She found no money, but she did find some parchment, which she threw overboard, and a beautiful, mostly-round stone, which she claimed as her share of the merchanter’s loot.

 

***

 

Vlik watched the tall redheaded woman walk into The Third Door, and felt his stomach drop to his feet. She was dressed like a leather shop display dummy that had been dipped in red paint which still hadn’t dried, and the sword hilt that stuck up over her left shoulder looked well worn. Everything about her said “mean”, but Vlik had a more personal reason to be afraid of her.

Vlik could tell from her walk, that rolling gait, that she was fresh off a ship, which wouldn’t have been a bad guess about anyone walking into The Third Door given that it was one of only three establishments on the docks of Miass, the other two being the dockmaster’s office and a bar called Fire ‘Ale (though you could still see the “s” under the cute worm on a hook that served as the apostrophe). Red Lhu the pirate was what she was called, though Vlik had known her by another name once. Red Lhu’s reputation was well known up and down the north coast of Cherisk, and Vlik had heard that some folks closed up shop and ran for home when the Blue Cow sailed into port. Miass couldn’t afford such luxury, though, not with the war going on. Beinison’s northern neighbors meant that their navy didn’t normally sail the Cirrangill Sea, but so much of Baranur had fallen to them that you couldn’t trust anything flying the local colors any more. Still, you could never trust pirates, war or not, and Miass knew how to handle them.

Vlik watched Red Lhu’s gaze sweep across the room, taking everything in. Though he would have liked to roll off his bed and hide, he had enough pride in his new vocation that he wasn’t going to let his past with the pirate keep him from earning his living. Lhu glanced at him in passing, giving nothing away, but as soon as she’d taken stock of the entire place (and there wasn’t much more than what could be seen upon first walking into The Third Door) she started walking toward him with a leer worthy of any sea-dog on her face.

“If it isn’t my old friend Vlik,” she said upon reaching his couch. “I see you’ve come up in the world!” Her laugh filled the room, but Vlik couldn’t detect anything but a little vindictive camaraderie from her, so he discretely signaled the brothel’s peace keeper that everything was all right, and smiled back up at the woman he had once sold to a press-gang.

“It’s good to see you too, Lhu,” Vlik said. “It’s been quite a while since Port Shand, but from what I hear, you’ve really made a name for yourself out there.”

Red Lhu sat on the stool situated next to his couch and said, “Yes I have, Vlik. I could, if I was so minded to, offer you thanks for the opportunity since I wouldn’t be where I am without your help, but I think it would be a much better idea to just leave the past behind, negotiate our business here, and move on. Straight?”

The fee was negotiated, and the appropriate coins were handed over to the till, who sat by the door along with the hulking peace keeper, doing double duty as money guard as well. Vlik had enough seniority at The Third Door that their business was conducted behind silken hangings, which provided an excellent illusion of privacy without letting much of anything happen in actual secret. Red Lhu was passionate, energetic, lusty, and accomplished, hardly requiring any participation from Vlik at all, which he didn’t mind. And when she fell asleep next to him for the few menes remaining in her two-bell contract, Vlik let himself remember.

They’d both been young when they first met. Melia, Lhu’s former name, had come to Vlik’s village with the fair, one of the Rhydd Pobl who helped put the event on with the traveling performers and vendors. She’d been instantly smitten with him, and they had spent as much time together as they could manage. For Vlik, it hadn’t been lust so much as a way to get out of his duties, though Melia had been good company even if she did take every opportunity she could dream up to get them both naked.

Then the fair ended and there were decisions to be made. Melia wanted to remain with Vlik, and she convinced him without too much effort to leave his village. Unfortunately, Melia’s wagon, both their conveyance and the family itself, had no room for an extra person. So infatuated was Melia that she chose to run away with Vlik from his village and her family.

Three months passed, and they ended up in Port Shand, which wasn’t much more prosperous than Miass, but which seemed better adjusted to the fact. Their time together hadn’t been difficult, what with his own outdoors skills and her abilities towards getting food and other necessities from the hamlets and villages they passed through. Even so, Vlik wasn’t as happy as he thought perhaps he should be. Melia, after all, didn’t seem to have any worries about the future. But Vlik thought perhaps he’d like to stop somewhere, settle in, make something of himself. Their only real argument before Port Shand had stemmed from just that: his desire to stop, and her desire to keep wandering.

Vlik met Arntah in Port Shand, and the handsome merchant had changed everything for Vlik. The slim, dark-haired, well-dressed man had done his best to charm both Melia and Vlik, though the gypsy girl had proven more resistant to that persuasion that had Vlik. More and more often, it was just to two of them, Melia having found other interests to pursue in Port Shand. Shand nightlife didn’t provide many choices, so after dinner and drinks, it was either walking on the beach, or, eventually, visiting Arntah’s rooms at the inn.

Everything that Melia found in Vlik, he found in Arntah, and it wasn’t long before Vlik and the merchant were inseparable. Melia fought for Vlik, trying to reclaim what she’d never really had, but she refused to do the one thing that Vlik wanted her to do: leave.

Vlik never regretted his relationship with Arntah, but he still felt shame about how it had all ended. He could recall that night on the docks with perfect clarity: the moon shimmering on the waters, the creaking of the boats, the dim hubbub from the bar at the other end of the quay, and the dark-cloaked man with a bag of coins in his hand standing over the crumpled figure of Melia. Vlik had taken the coins; the cloaked man had taken Melia, lured out to the docks with the promise of leaving Port Shand on the next tide. She had left, just without Vlik.

Arntah had been waiting for Vlik at their favorite restaurant (of the two eateries in the port). Vlik had walked slowly toward that establishment, and then passed right by it and just continued on. It had been Arntah’s suggestion to send Melia on her way, and his contacts that had let Vlik to the cloaked man. He hadn’t known at the time what her fate would end up being, nor had he cared. And that was the worst part of all.

Vlik slid off of his couch silently, without disturbing the sleeping pirate. Anyone could argue that Red Lhu, the famed pirate, was better off than the lone wandering gypsy Melia had been back then. In fact, it seemed as though Lhu herself bore no ill will toward Vlik. But pirates couldn’t be trusted, and moreover, they were vengeful. Lhu might wake up ready to get her revenge, perfectly willing to pay for the privilege of leaving a dead body behind to the till before she walked out. Vlik wasn’t going to take that chance.

He quickly searched Lhu’s garments, finding all of the hidden coin caches, as well as the shoulder sack she’d been carrying. Plenty of room in there for whatever she’d been carrying as well as all of her coins, and his. He checked inside and found, among other things, a strange round, shimmery stone that captured Vlik’s fancy as it must have hers. He slipped away quietly, taking her weapons with him but only to get them out of her reach temporarily. Moments later, he stood outside the back of The Third Door, wondering where his next port of call would be.

 

***

 

Arntah told himself that following Vlik with a pole in his hand did not constitute a plan to commit evil. Even when the young man sped up, glancing over his shoulder nervously, and Arntah neither hurried forward to reveal himself nor gave up the non-chase. Vlik darted around another corner, and as Arntah followed his quarry into the dead-end alley, he recalled his first meeting with the youth.

Arntah was a successful merchant with small warehouses and shipping connections, not to mention a girl or two, in every port on the north coast of Baranur. His company, Tawny Tiger Traders, was successful enough to make him reasonably wealthy, but not enough to draw the wrong kinds of attention.

He’d been in Port Shand for only a day when he’d first seen Vlik and Melia walk in from landward. They were both striking: Melia’s short red hair and athletic build; Vlik’s long brown hair, blue eyes, full, red lips, slim body, graceful, elegant hands, and long, strong legs. It had been easy to charm the pair, though Vlik had been more receptive than Melia. In truth, Arntah found himself far more attracted to the man which was not a familiar situation. But it was so easy, so natural to become close to Vlik even as Melia distanced herself from him. Very, very close.

The gypsy woman was their downfall, however. She refused to let go of Vlik, becoming a nuisance as she tried to get her friend back. Arntah eventually tired of the woman’s interference, and introduced Vlik to Lesdineh, a business acquaintance who dealt in many different types of contraband, including humans. The night that Vlik was supposed to turn Melia over to the slaver he was supposed to join Arntah for dinner afterward. He’d never turned up.

It had been surprisingly hard to get over the loss of Vlik, but Arntah had decided not to chase after the young man. His business continued to prosper, and though he went back to entertaining the ladies with as much gusto as before, he knew that there was something missing now. His life seemed to be lacking something, and he just couldn’t seem to find the same joy in everyday things that he had been able to before Vlik’s departure. The dreams weren’t any help either — always only vaguely remembered, alternating between bliss and terror, they haunted his nights and even, eventually, his days as well.

Arntah had left Baranur about a year before hostilities with Beinison had escalated into war. He’d moved east and south, setting up new locations for TTT, but never finding somewhere to call home. Until, that was, he’d arrived in Kimmeron.

The exotic country, so far from Baranur, had many new opportunities to exploit and pleasures to explore. Jaisent, Kimmeron’s largest city, proved a perfect place to call home, and if it didn’t entirely expel his memories of Vlik or his troubling dreams, it did provide some excellent diversions.

And then he’d caught a glimpse of a fall of hair, a slim back, the hint of a profile one day about a fortnight past. Never before had a passing stranger reminded him of Vlik, and that single glimpse brought back everything he had been trying to hide from more or less successfully for so many years.

That one brief sighting hadn’t been the last, either. Again and again, Arntah noticed Vlik just as he turned a corner out of sight, or entered a shop, or left a restaurant by another door as Arntah entered. Somehow, the young man was always too far away for Arntah to get more than a fleeting image which only made him want to see the lad again, a desire that grew to almost obsessive proportions.

He wasn’t sure when the need to see Vlik again turned into the need to make sure he never saw Vlik again. Perhaps it was the night with the blond council member, when he’d tossed and turned in the throes of a dream, waking up crying out Vlik’s name which had earned him a slap and a quick ejection from her bed. Or maybe the time he had been distracted by one of those eye-corner sightings in the middle of trying to negotiate a large sale with a very important warehouser. No slap had ensued, but the rejection had been just as final.

Convinced that there was only one way to cure himself of what had become a dangerous affliction, Arntah had begun seeking Vlik out. Chasing the glimpses, asking around about the man with long brown hair and full red lips. It wasn’t long before everyone Arntah knew in Jaisent was aware of his obsession with Vlik. Even so, he was turning into the dead-end alley after Vlik because of his own sleuthing, and a good helping of luck in catching sight of him when he was close enough to pursue.

Arntah rounded the corner just before the alley ended to find Vlik with his back against the wall. The young man stared at him, and then said, “Arntah? Is that you?”

Arntah nodded and kept walking forward. He didn’t trust himself to speak. He knew what had to happen, and didn’t want to weaken his own resolve by actually responding to the young man.

Vlik said, visibly relaxing, “It’s been quite a while since Port Shand, hasn’t it. Have you been doing well? I …” He seemed to realize at that point that something was wrong, and the nervousness returned. “I … ah, what are you … Arntah, could you say something? You’re scaring me. Maybe drop the pole, too? Arntah!”

Arntah clumsily lifted the pole and struck Vlik with it. The young man fell, and Arntah hit him again. A third hit cracked the pole when his awkward handling of it caught it against the wall. He continued his swing, and the sharp end of the broken pole impaled the limp Vlik. Blood spread out from the wound, and, with a final cough of blood, Vlik died.

Arntah stared at the corpse for a moment. His mind did not suddenly clear, there was no miraculous lifting of the weight on his shoulders. He had killed someone face to face — there was literally blood on his hands now! — but he felt no better now than he had upon entering the alley.

He searched Vlik’s body, finding nothing much more than some coins and a strange ball of shimmery stone. Standing again, he became aware of alarm whistles from the rooftops. Looking up, he saw the white and blue robes of one of the city watch. He reacted instinctively and began to run for his life.

 

***

 

Red Lhu was shocked to see a very bedraggled Arntah run onto the beach of the cove where she was doing some minor cosmetic repairs to her ship, the Magenta Magpie. She was getting ready to sail into Foralim for the first time, and, pirate or no, she wanted to make a good impression.

This beach in Kimmeron was so far from Port Shand both in time and distance, that at first she was sure she was hallucinating. But when Arntah, dirty, sweaty, desperation in his eyes, stopped in front of her and said, “Please, help me! They want to kill me!” she realized that somehow the man who had separated her from Vlik was not only here, but at her mercy.

Lhu had become captain five years ago, and was used to making quick decisions. She knew that it had been Arntah who’d convinced Vlik to turn her over to that snake Lesdineh, but she also knew that the merchant had good connections, having come across Tawny Tiger Traders merchandise more than once in her raiding. She didn’t much care who wanted to kill him or why — if she decided he needed to be dead for stealing Vlik away and then getting him to sell her into slavery, regardless of how well than had ended up, her sword was quite sharp enough to do the job.

“Come with me, Arntah,” she said, turning to the last longboat her second was holding on the beach for her.

“But how?” mumbled the merchant as he stumbled along behind her, and then after a gasp, “Melia? You’re Red Lhu the pirate! Ah, maybe you should know why …”

Lhu had reached the boat. She turned and interrupted Arntah by grabbing him and throwing him into the longboat. “If you want me to help you, shut up until we’re safely out to sea. Oh, and give me everything you own as payment for that help. Straight?”

The merchant fumbled his way onto one of the benches as Lhu and her second pushed the launch off of the beach and then climbed aboard themselves. Two crewmembers who had already been in the boat started rowing as Arntah lifted the satchel from his shoulder and shoved it at Lhu, a curiously hopeful yet fearful look on his face.

Lhu idly fished around in the bag as the boat moved quickly across the calm water and the cliff-like side of the Magenta Magpie grew before her. Her hand closed around a smooth, familiar sphere, and she drew out the shimmery stone that she’d last seen just before that time in Miass when she’d bedded Vlik in a brothel. She had been more angry when she’d thought he’d stolen her sword along with her other possessions, but upon finding the weapon behind the brothel, she’d just laughed.

She laughed again at having regained the stone, and looked over her shoulder at the merchant, wondering how he had come by it to return it to her.

 

***

 

Lesdineh tried never to get his hopes up too high when he went searching for stormwrack. When he rounded the headland and came to the oddly-shaped cove, he wasn’t sure whether to bless his luck or curse it at what he found, for all that lay on the blue-sand beach were two bodies and a single piece of wood.

Lesdineh ambled over to the bodies, sprawled out well above the waterline. Kneeling between them, he glanced at the faces. To his surprise, he knew both. He looked at the piece of wood next. It was large enough for both of them to have used it as a float during the storm last night, and it was quite probably why they were still alive as they lay beached on the shore of Duurom, so distant from their own home continent of Cherisk.

The wood bore the name of the ship they’d come from, bearing up the rumors Lesdineh had heard about the battle some of the local navy had had with a foreign pirate. The ship had been called the Magenta Magpie, though there were few on these shores who could have deciphered the script. The man, half naked and bloody from his ordeal, was Arntah, a merchant from Baranur with whom he’d had dealings in the past. In fact, one of those dealings, though second-hand, had been the woman lying there, somewhat less worse for wear than the man. Melia the gypsy girl, who even Lesdineh knew had become the famous pirate Red Lhu, though when he’d left Cherisk’s shores to return to his homeland she’d still been serving on the Blue Cow.

Lesdineh searched the bodies, surprised to find that the shoulder satchel that Red Lhu wore still contained a log book, some coin worth no more here than the weight of the metal in them, and a strange, round stone that shimmered and swirled in the bright sunlight. He debated whether to wake the two and help them to civilization, introduce them around, get them settled in their new home. Arntah had always been a fair merchant, paying the contract, abiding by the terms agreed to. Melia, on the other hand, had been a handful from the moment she’d awoken after her former boyfriend had sold her to Lesdineh. In fact, there might never have been a pirate named Red Lhu, so vexed had he become with her that he was ready to take the loss and just kill her outright. The brothers Ailef and Felia, who had paid good money for bad merchandise, were the only reason she was still alive.

Satchel in hand, Lesdineh stood, gazed at the storm-tossed pair, shrugged and turned away. They had survived the naval battle and the storm. Surely they could find their own futures on Duurom’s shores.

 

***

 

“You? You! Get out, this is my …”

The words came from two mouths in unison as Felia and Lesdineh saw each other in the middle of the huge sky-lit room. For Felia, this was the culmination of months of planning, wheeling, dealing, working his contacts, making his way into the confidences of the right people, all so that he could freely walk into the central room of Grazkor’s Tower unobserved, and walk back out with the prize of Grazkor’s collection, the Spiral of Light.

Parphinanom, the City of Glass, was known throughout this part of Duurom for its wealth, all predicated on their monopoly on a secret method of glass making. Glass was everywhere — massive windows, both decorated and plain; glass awnings; glass furniture; glass used for things that no one could have imagined it could be used for.

Grazkor’s Tower was a masterpiece among masterpieces, a huge tower the upper half of which seemed to be entirely made of glass. In fact, the walls were thin but strong ribs that supported amazingly decorated glass panels between them. The ribs supported a ring on which rested a dome of glass, and all to display to the world the collections of the richest man in Parphinanom, Grazkor himself.

While the walls seemed to be merely delicate glass, there were other protections that kept Grazkor’s collections secure. Felia had overcome them all, which was how he was here now. He had not, however, expected to see Lesdineh, a dealer in smuggled and contraband goods he knew from his days in Baranur, over on Cherisk. Felia had wondered about the barrels stowed against the walls when he entered the display chamber, only to find Lesdineh in the center of the room fiddling with a lamp.

Felia walked over to the pedestal displaying the fantastic sculpture known as the Spiral of Light, a glass confection so delicate and ethereal that it seemed to be made from light rather than anything solid. On his way, he stepped over raised tracks filled with a viscous fluid while Lesdineh sputtered and shouted at him incoherently. Ignoring the man, Felia lifted the sculpture from its shelf and stowed it in the bag over his shoulder, confident that it was far stronger than it appeared and was in no danger.

He had just finished when Lesdineh managed to become coherent. “What are you doing here, you dolt? You’ll ruin everything!”

Felia walked over to the man who had gone red-faced with anger. “I’m not here to stop whatever stupid thing it is you are doing here, Lesdineh. I’ve got my score, and now I’ll just leave you to yours. Farewell!”

“But … wait … did you … damnation, what if …” Lesdineh continued to sputter as Felia walked away. However, when Felia stumbled while stepping over one of those weird channels, Lesdineh shouted, “Watch it, you fool!”

Felia turned gracefully, without dislodging the channel, to see Lesdineh lunge toward him, dropping his lamp in the process. It fell into a small pool that either fed, or was fed by those channels. The thick fluid within caught fire, and the flames began to lick along the channels at a steady and equal rate.

Lesdineh went suddenly white with fear, and he said, “Run. Get out, Felia — the place is going to go up like an eastern firework!”

Felia grasped the import immediately, and as Lesdineh darted first one way, then another as if trying to remember where the stairs were, he calmly reached into his shoulder bag, around the sculpture, searching for what he knew was there, somewhere.

Before Lesdineh had even started moving in any one direction, Felia pulled a small rounded cone from his bag. He lifted his cap, placed the cone — truly, it looked more like a shell of some kind, but made of swirled bands of different types of stone — on his head, and replaced the cap. He hummed a few notes, feeling the tingle as the cone-shell was primed. Then, he waited.

The flames had traveled three-quarters of the way to the walls when Lesdineh finally seemed to remember where the stairs were. He darted in that direction, saw the flames’ progress, and collapsed to his knees, moaning in dread.

Felia took pity on him and said, “Get over here, Lesdineh.”

The other man looked up and moved over to Felia. “Why aren’t you running, Felia?” Lesdineh asked. “Not that you have time to any more.”

“I came prepared, not that I expected this much of a debacle or anything. I just like to have contingency plans, that’s all. And I believe that I can manage to save you as well, should you be able to compensate me for the decidedly rougher ride we’ll be taking if I add you to the protections.”

Lesdineh stared in incomprehension for a moment, then shrugged. “Either I’m going to die or I’m not, and if you can save me you can have it all!” He pulled his own bag from his shoulder and handed it over.

Felia checked the contents, including the strange stone sphere. He nodded, and said, “Get right up next to me here, Lesdineh, and hold on!” The other man grabbed him as Felia hummed a different note, and then the activation trill.

As the flames in the channels reached the barrels, a faint shell encased both Felia and Lesdineh. Moments later, the barrels exploded, each one shattering the base of one of the ribs holding up the walls and dome. The force of the explosion showered shards of glass across half of Parphinanom, not so incidentally scattering Grazkor’s collection to the six winds as well. Scattered along with everything else was the shell containing the two thieves, Felia and Lesdineh, who both survived the ordeal of being tossed out of Grazkor’s Tower and into a far corner of the City of Glass.

 

***

 

Ailef stepped into the greeting room of the temple and saw his brother Felia kneeling at the bench for supplicants. “You know you don’t have to follow the forms for me, brother,” Ailef said, smiling as he crossed the austere space, his hand extended.

Felia bowed his head to the mosaic on the wall, then stood up and took his brother’s hand. “I know I don’t have to, but this last job was not without its problems and I’ll make my peace with anyone who can keep me stocked with the luck that kept me alive.”

Ailef released his brother’s hand and led him to a padded bench in a corner. He didn’t exactly approve of what his brother did for a living now, and had, in fact, retired to be a lay brother in this temple in the mountains rather than remain at his side. Felia chose to share his gains with the temple, and Ailef was always glad to see him alive.

As Felia pulled things from his shoulder bag he told the story of the destruction of Grazkor’s Tower. Three bags of money were set on the floor in front of Ailef. One was the temple’s half of the fee for the theft of the Spiral of Light, one was half of the fee that had been paid for the Spiral by some noble or other named Socir Maenilun. The last had come from Felia’s own funds, intended to purchase another of the special power shells that had saved the life of him and Lesdineh.

Felia set a globe of swirly, opalescent stone on top of the last bag. “I got this from Lesdineh, and I knew that your Doravin friends would probably be very interested in it. Since it was their magic that saved us, I have no problem donating this to them.”

Ailef picked the sphere up as Felia continued the tales of escaping the chaos of Parphinanom and finally arriving at the temple. Looking into the strangely compelling depths of the stone, he was sure he could see the bands moving within the solid matter. Oh yes, the Doravin would certainly be interested in this specimen.

 

***

 

Chon watched the outsider not-priest called Ailef approach at exactly the time the message crystal had indicated. The trading position was not Chon’s favorite place to be, but he understood the necessity of enduring the outsider right angles and straight lines. Without the specific message from the one called Ailef, Chon would not be here at this place in the cycle of the year — it was not the Doravin’s normal time to present at the trading fair. The one called Ailef, however, brought money, which was useful when dealing with the outsiders, and had hinted at another treasure.

“I greet the Evad,” said Ailef at the proper moment in his approach. Chon responded, “I greet the Ailef,” knowing that his usage was incorrect but expected. Most outsiders did not realize how well the Doravin knew their ways, and it was advantageous to keep them ignorant.

“Before we proceed to our customary transactions, I have a gift for you from my brother. There are no obligations incurred by your accepting it, I assure you.”

The not-priest drew a miracle from his carryall. The sphere of stone in the one called Ailef’s hand glowed with swirling bands of mystical light that twisted and wove around each other, diving deep into the center of the ball but remaining just as clear to Chon’s sight. He couldn’t stop himself — he reached forward and snatched the globe out of the not-priest’s hands, and it immediately started to sing to him. And he was very glad indeed that he had agreed to meet with the one called Ailef.

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