Sunday, 4 August 2013

In Which Saeed and Avan Have A Falling Out

Saeed had lived almost his whole life in the grandest cities of Faerie and beyond. He was used to tall buildings, narrow alleys, the rich and the poor living side by side. Noise, heat, bustle, secrets, these were as constant to Saeed as the air he breathed. Even during his time studying in Luminis he had found himself surrounded by crowded grey stone walkways and city people preoccupied with city problems.

City problems, or, to give them a more straightforward title: money problems. City people worried about profit and loss, about making ends meet, about taxes and thieves. In the landscape of a city Saeed was comfortable in the knowledge that he was one of the problems. If you were a problem it tended to be more difficult for you to have a problem. Saeed had worked hard to cultivate an attitude that problems belonged to other people.

When he had been a young boy, trailing after his mother along the streets of far away distant Afsana, Saeed had accepted his temperament on face value. As he had grown older, lost his mother, adventured, become a student, learned a little of the world, Saeed had learned that remaining open-minded and free from worry were two things you definitely had to work at.

Now he surveyed the Plaza of Diamonds, and beyond it the high walls surrounding the Diamond Treasure House and waited for night. He was a stranger in Dracopolis, wearing a hooded cloak, sat at a table outside an Inn, basking in shadow. He would have had a harder time of things if Dracopolis wasn't filled with strangers on a daily basis. Then he might have stood out. As it was he was comfortably invisible in the background noise of a normal day in Faerie's largest city.

Dracopolis was not a place that welcomed strangers, except insofar as it tolerated them, in the days before the great Vanishing tolerance and welcome were not separated by much. In days to come the world would learn better manners. As far as Saeed could tell that just meant you said please and thank you while you were twisting the knife.

Saeed was not bitter, he preferred to think of himself as careful. Saeed was no liar he preferred to think of himself as a victim of circumstance. A thief? Well, some things Saeed could not deny because he didn't want to think of himself as a liar.

The difference between young Saeed and old Saeed was a matter of degree and a matter of relationships. When he was a boy Saeed stole food to live, now he stole things he didn't care about in exchange for money he could use to buy the food he had once stolen. Saeed didn't care about the things he stole but he cared very deeply about who got hurt.

Saeed had made a vow never to lie, and, in the meanwhile, a second vow never to intentionally harm anyone. The first was a vow he had made to his dead mother. His mother, being dead, knew nothing of this. The second vow he had made before his teacher, in the room his teacher called dojo, within his master's house at Luminis. Saeed took the second vow very seriously, as seriously as he took the first, but for entirely different reasons.

The walls of the Diamond Treasure House reminded Saeed of the walls of Luminis. The Treasure House Walls were intended to be intimidating but they were no more than a shadow compared to the barrier that kept those who were not ready out of the city at the brink of forever.

As dusk gave way to night street lights made a declaration that Dracopolis did not intend to stop just because the sun had set. This, too, reminded Saeed of the city where he had learned so much. The similarities were slight, nothing could compare to the glowing heart of Luminis by night.

The Tavern on the Plaza of Diamonds, became louder as the darkness deepened. The pedestrian traffic slowed and thinned. Saeed became more visible as a result, that was never a comfort. Thankfully the people who remained were all preoccupied with each other, none of them were looking at him.

It was still some time from Midnight Bell but if Saeed waited then he risked becoming even more conspicuous. He stood and crossed the square to the Temple of Turan. He hoped that no one had discovered his cache or the preparations he had made to gain entry.

As he crossed the square a young woman, laughing, stumbled out of a party of merry makers and nearly collided with him. He saw her coming, stepped to one side and caught her before she could fall to the floor.

The young woman looked up into Saeed's face, Saeed shifted his head forward so that his features would remain obscured by shadow. They young woman did not appear afraid, she was still smiling.

"Thank you sir," she said. "I'm afraid I got carried away."

Saeed lifted the woman to her feet and gave her a small bow from the waist. He made sure that his hood kept his face from view.

"Don't you speak?" the young woman asked.

Saeed did not want to be remembered as any more than a man in a cloak. He looked at the party of people that the woman had emerged from. They were nearly over to the opposite edge of the square now. Saeed pointed after them.

The young woman looked.

"I don't even know if you have a handsome voice now," the young woman said. "But I felt that you were strong."

She smiled at him, her eyes sparkled in the light from the crystal lamps that lit the square. She was a young Draco, very beautiful. Saeed was not here to fraternise, he just stood waiting for her to move on, or at least to take her eyes off him. She studied him for a moment longer before saying:

"You really are no fun at all," then she turned and chased after her friends.

Out of habit Saeed checked his pockets, but the encounter had not felt like a pickpocket's attack of opportunity. Of course, the best attacks of that nature did not.

Satisfied that he still possessed everything that he needed to proceed Saeed carried on to a small trade entrance at the side of the temple building. From the inside of his cloak he drew a long wire with a hooked end.

He worked the wire in between the wood and the jamb at the hinge end and fished around for a moment. When he pulled the wire back a thin, strong cord was caught on the hook. Saeed picked up the cord and lifted it until he felt the tug of it coming free from the screw that he had wedged it behind on the opposite side. Then he pulled at it gently at about waist height, about where he remembered the bolt being earlier. He felt the bolt slide back. He undid the latch and opened the door, retrieving the cord and stowing it, along with the wire hook in his cloak.

From a pouch at his waist he took a small screwdriver and retrieved the screw he'd used to wedge the cord earlier. He put the screw and the screwdriver back into the pouch. Once he had closed the door, he shot the bolt again leaving no evidence that he had been here at all, except for the tiny hole left by the screw at the hinge end.

Saeed climbed the steps of the temple's offering tower. All Temples to sky gods had tall towers, the law of the city meant that it could not be as tall as the treasure house walls, but it was tall enough for Saeed.

The visitors to the temple had not found Saeed's means of entry, neither had they found the wooden box he had stored in the chimney of the offering room. The wood on the lower side was sooty, the priests had made an offering at some point after Saeed had stowed the box. Saeed's box was varnished with a flame-retardent, it had easily withstood the heat of the fire.

Saeed opened the box and pulled out a crossbow and an arrow with a hard, barbed tip. The head of the arrow trailed a thin cord of dark rope in which could be seen fine filaments of metal. Saeed mounted the arrow into the crossbow, went over to the window of the offering room that faced the treasure house, took careful aim and fired the arrow so that it stuck into the stone near the summit of the wall.

Saeed tested the arrow's hold and found it to be satisfactory. He tied the far end of his thin cord about the bracket of a sconce in the wall opposite the window. This done he hoisted himself off the floor onto the rope and used a clip on his belt to secure him to the cord. His feet pointed back towards the sconce, his head was oriented toward the wall of the treasure house. He began to climb along the rope over the square towards the Treasure House.

This was the riskiest part of the enterprise. He had no contingency for falling. Thankfully he could not be seen from the ground the light from the crystal lamps was reflected downwards by metallic hoods on the fittings. He edged swiftly over the space between the top of the tower and top of the treasure house wall.

He did not pull himself all the way over. Stopping about fifteen feet from the end of the rope. He rested at a point pre-marked in the rope where the silver filament running through the cord stopped. Saeed double checked that the absence of filament was not a trick of the light by sniffing the rope. The pungent aroma of the treatment of the last fifteen feet told him that he had stopped in the right place.

He reached carefully into his pocket for a preprepared alchemical tinderstick he had made. He brought his boot carefully to his waist by bending his knee and struck the tinderstick against a rough patch on the toe of the boot. Then he slowly turned the flaming spill and wedged into a hole drilled into the sole of the boot at the front.

Saeed lifted his toe up and touched the flame to the rope behind him, where the filament started. The rope burst into a fast burning bright red flame and vapourised instantly all the way back down to the tower.The light was intense but the red colour was not bright and lasted only for an instant. The rope, now effectively bissected, fell towards the treasure house wall.

Saeed twisted his body and swung his legs round, bracing for the impact. As he hit the wall a shock ran up his legs along with a little pain, but it was bearable. Once he had stabilised himself Saeed set about getting over the top of the wall. Wrapping the cord of the rope around his right arm for extra stability he began to run sideways along the wall using the rope to help him also run upwards. When he felt that momentum had taken him as far as he would go he spun his heel and ran the other way.

Several times he repeated this action, each time picking up speed, changing the motion from running to a kind of guided swinging. On the last pass he threw his weight up at the end of the spring and sailed over the top of the wall feet first. Bracing himself again he hit the wall on the other side. The impact on his feet was not as hard but the rope burned the skin on his right arm a little.

Hanging there, six hundred feet in the air above the courtyard of the treasure house Saeed took a moment to compose himself before reaching into his cloak and pulling out the slender silver spider cord that would take him to the ground. One end of the spider cord had a metal clip on it in the shape of a lily blossom. Saeed held the lily head to the end of the thicker rope he had fired from the bow. Working a catch on the underside of the clip the petals of the lily sprung shut binding the spider cord to the rope.

Saeed released the rest of the cord to fall into the dark shadowy canyon between the treasure house and the interior side of the wall. He tested that the clip was holding and then transferred his weight to the spider cord. Once he was sure that the spider cord was firm he clipped it through a sprung metal loop on his belt and slid down the cord in a number of jumps down the wall.

Once Saeed's feet had made contact with the ground again he twisted the spider cord in a clockwise direction and, with a few twists, the cord clip released. Saeed quickly regathered the length of spider cord together and placed it back in the knee pocket in his breeches.

Now he was ready to get inside the treasure house. Saeed looked about the thin strip of cobbled courtyard that ran around the base of the building. It was extremely dark down here, more shadow than light. Saeed had prepared for this as well. He took a vial of night's eye drops from a pouch on his belt. He dripped the drops onto the surface of his open eyes and, as the liquid spread across the surface his vision blurred and then cleared, bringing the shadows into focus.

Saeed had descended on the eastern side of the treasure house. There was no entrance to the main building here. He would have to go around to the south side, there would only be one entrance and exit. The disadvantage of this for thieves was that the entrance was bound to be heavily guarded. The advantage was that guard patrols were light, in many cases non-existent.

Taking a peek around the nearby corner Saeed could see a pair of trolls had been left on guard at the main entrance. This was all in line with the operation information he had bought from the goblin in Ferrowmarsh. Saeed had planned ahead for this eventuality.

Using his pocket knife Saeed prised a chunk of cobble out of the ground. Then he pulled the mirror brooch from his belt and clipped it to the outside of his cloak. Still out of sight behind the corner Saeed opened the metal shell that covered the top of the mirror crystal and a perfect copy of him appeared directly opposite him.

Using the angle setting controls embedded in the rim of the brooch Saeed offset his reflection to appear about six feet away from him and slightly off to the right. Then he covered the crystal again and the mirror image phantom disappeared.

Sticking close to the edge of the north wall Saeed crept up to the side of the entrance, remaining in shadow as much as he was able. As he drew within about half a dozen yards of the trolls he threw his rock into the shadows beyond the entrance to strike against the outside wall with a hard crack.

The trolls instantly leaned forward to examine the shadows, exchanging a puzzled glance. Saeed flipped the shell on the mirror brooch and his cloaked form appeared before the trolls. Saeed tried to look as if he was pausing, wondering if he'd been discovered, waiting for the trolls to see him.

One of the trolls pointed at the mirror phantom.

"You!" it cried out. "Stop there!"

Saeed turned, away, knowing the mirror phantom would do the same. He ran a few yards away and out from the walls. He looked back over his shoulder to see the trolls giving chase as the phantom appeared to melt into the shadows.

Saeed closed the brooch shell, spun on his heel and ducked in through the main entrance of the treasure house. He was not out of the wood, but the guard patrols within the vaults should not be as hard to evade as the sentries at the entrance. The warren of narrow corridors and shadowy alcoves was where Saeed felt most at home it didn't take him long to find vault number 425, the lock on the door was almost embarrassingly easy to pick.

For a moment or two Saeed considered the possibility that this had all been an elaborate trap but his fears quickly appeared groundless as he observed the target of his mission, the rainbow lattice, a magical device forged by a powerful druid, Cyrus September.

Wanting to be done with his work as quickly as possible Saeed stepped into the treasure room. Something in the corner of his field of vision caught his eye and he only just managed to raise the grieve protecting the underside of his left arm before a blow aimed at the side of his head made contact. The force of the blow left Saeed in no doubt that his assailant would have rendered him unconscious. The attacker had not reckoned with Saeed's sharp reflexes, born of much training in his master's dojo.

The fight began in a flurry of blocks, strikes and attempted grapples. Whoever this stranger was he had learned some of the unarmed combat techniques that Saeed had learned in Luminis. Saeed needed some time to work out the stranger's style of combat if he was to have any hope of turning it against his opponent.

Talking during a fight was not encouraged but Saeed believed that he might be able to apply the pressure of persuasion to the situation, so he broke the rule:

"Guards finding us fighting won't care that you're trying to stop me," Saeed said.

The opponents fist attempted to plant itself in Saeed's ribs. Saeed danced backwards, evading the hook. As he did so he got a chance to get a better look at his opponent. The man was male, a little older than Saeed, dark haired, full beard neatly trimmed. The man had designs shaved into the sides of the beard where they cut down to his jaw over his ears. The designs were intricate, probably symbolic of rank and also magical. The man wore several jewelled rings, which also indicated that he had some magical power.

Without responding the man stepped forward, planting his feet and raising his arms, adopting a fighting stance. The man had positioned himself between Saeed and the entrance to the treasure room. Saeed noted a sword hung at the man's waist. It became plain that the man could easily have killed Saeed, with metal or magic, but had chosen not to.

"You don't want to kill me," Saeed said. "Is there no agreement we can come to?"

"You leave now, without the lattice, we part, we don't see one another again," the man replied, his tone flat.

"You seem well equipped in every respect, my friend," Saeed replied. "Save that you packed no sense of humour."

"You think this situation is funny?" the stranger asked him.

"Any situation is what you make of it," Saeed replied. "There's no personal animosity between us, unless you are the owner of that artifact, which I do not believe you are."

"Regardless of who I am," the stranger said. "You have no right to the lattice. I will not allow you to take it."

"What does it matter to you?" Saeed asked. "I am just an agent, if I fail another will come."

"If you want to prove that there is more to you than thievery," the man said. "Tell me who sent you here."

"So you do want to threaten my life, no thief can be trusted with the name of their true master," Saeed said. "I am no more than an agent hired, in turn by an agent. The woman who retained my services in this task was a mercenary by the name of Miranda Felix. I do not know who retained her, it is entirely possible she doesn't know either. She knows enough to recognise information she doesn't want to hold."

"Felix?" the man said. "Don't tell me you took a job from her."

"I did some research, no one will be hurt as a result of this job," Saeed said. "This is something I am very particular about."

"I'm going to reach for my pack," the man said. "Do not attempt to escape."

Saeed could only honestly admit to the man that he would take any quarter that was given, so he didn't say anything at all. The man reached his hand behind him, not removing his eyes from Saeed. At the last moment, overtaken by urgency, the man looked away to his pack. Saeed ducked forward and grabbed the lattice before heading for the door.

"Don't-" the man said.

Then things began to go in a very strange direction. Saeed heard the tinkle of a small glass vial breaking in the doorway. In an instant he was surrounded in a choking grey-purple fog. Saeed fell to the floor and the next thing he knew he was looking up into the blurry face of the strange man from the treasure room.

"Are you awake?" the man demanded. "How do you feel?"

Saeed's head felt like it had been hit with a mallet. He groaned.

"What happened?" he asked.

"You'll be fine, stay away from the treasure room," the man said. "Stay here, don't try to move."

Then the man was gone, running off down the corridor, as if giving chase to someone.

Saeed couldn't work out what was happening. One moment he had been sailing through the air, the lattice tucked under one arm and the next he was here, without the lattice, lying on the floor.

It was all very well for the mysterious stranger to tell him to stay put, but what if a guard patrol came by? Then Saeed would be caught and imprisoned. No one should be in the Treasure House without authorisation, no exceptions.

Saeed struggled to sit up, but the pain in his head was accompanied by a weakness in his limbs. He managed to raise his head a little but his arms didn't seem to want to work.

"Well," a female voice said from somewhere over his head, out of view. "You appear to have screwed this up. I should leave you but, I must confess, you seem to strike at a soft spot I didn't even know I had."

A face appeared in the corner of his field of vision: Miranda Felix, smiling at the prospect of having Saeed under her control.

"Come on," she said. "I'll help you up. We'd better get out of here."

Miranda offered Saeed a hand, he forced his arm to reach up and accept it. Between the two of them they got Saeed to his feet.

"What are you doing here?" Saeed asked as they began to make their way, slowly, along the corridor. Miranda was supporting Saeed more than he would have liked.

"Call it an intuition," she said. "When I checked on you in the square before you entered the temple I got the impression that I may have asked too much of you."

"I would have been fine, except for the stranger," Saeed complained.

"What stranger?" Miranda asked.

"Don't move," the stranger said behind them.

"I've heard that voice before," Miranda said. She did not sound too concerned but she had stopped moving. "Prince Weatherstrong, what brings you to the heart of the Terra Draconis?"

"Passing through," the stranger, Saeed now recognised as Avan Weatherstrong, a hero in some tales that he had been told when he was a boy. "I saw your puppet here, and your exchange in the square. I decided that it couldn't be good news so, I followed. Good job too by the look of things, return the lattice."

"She doesn't have the lattice," Saeed said. "She was my contact remember, she paid me to retrieve it."

"She paid you to take the blame for its theft," Avan replied. "She always intended to leave you here to face the consequences of her actions."

"You always had such a dark view of me, Avan," Miranda said. "If you are going to insist on being such a bore then I have no real choice but to comply with your request."

"Slowly," Avan said as Miranda reached over her head to her back pack.

There was another of those confusing moments in which Saeed felt a sick twist of giddyness. He was flying through the air, he collided with something... someone... then he was on the floor again.

"She's getting away," Avan said from underneath Saeed.

Recovering a little more health by the second Saeed struggled to get off Prince Weatherstrong. Once free the prince leaped to his feet and ran off in pursuit of Miranda. Saeed, determined not to be left behind again, followed on afterwards.

It appeared that Prince Weatherstrong had no more right to be in the treasure house than Saeed, they had to pause a couple of times and reroute to avoid guard patrols. Avan lead Saeed down below the ground level of the treasure house and out through an entrance to the Dracopolis sewer system that hadn't been on any of the treasure house plans.

Saeed was too grateful to have got away alive and undetected to ask about that means of entry and escape right away. Avan didn't even really seem to acknowledge that Saeed was following him.

After a short run through the twists and turns of the sewer system Avan found a way up that surfaced below a grate in an alley adjacent to the Market Square. As soon as the two men climbed up onto the streets of Dracopolis it was clear that something was wrong. In the south the sky was orange-lit with flames and there was a tang of smoke upon the air.

"Felix," Avan muttered. "What have you done."

Saeed, tired of feeling out of his depth, plundered his study of the layout of Dracopolis for an answer to Avan's question.

"The jailhouse," Saeed said. "That's in the south. You don't think..."

"You don't know at all who you were working for," Avan replied. "That's exactly the kind of thing that she would do."

"I have spent a long time in a place where I learned much about my own nature," Saeed said. "I am afraid I do not know much of the nature of others. This is what I came out into the world to learn."

"Well, your first lesson is that some people enjoy bending chaos and destruction to suit their own ends," Avan said. "They leave others to help clean up their mess."

The prince turned away from Saeed and strode off towards the Market Square, Saeed could hear the sounds of terrified people screaming and shouting in the distance. His cheeks burned with shame that he had been played for such a fool. He hurried after Prince Weatherstrong once again.

"Please, Prince Weatherstrong," Saeed said. "I am a simple thief, but I have my own code. No harm should come to anyone as a result of my actions. As Melinda has unleashed the inhabitants of the jailhouse to cover her escape if I do not help to end this then I am, indeed, partially responsible. I will help."

"Do as you will," Avan replied. "It is none of my concern."

Saeed wanted to insist that if he could not win the respect of the prince then he would feel that he had faced a great and shaming failure. That was a personal issue, though, for which there may be time later. Saeed could hear his master's voice in his ear, telling him that, in the first instance, he should help to contain the problem that he had created. If he wanted Avan Weatherstrong's respect then that would have to come later.

And indeed it would; in fact, the two would work together to defeat Miranda Felix, and the person behind her actions. But that is a long story, for another time.

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