Jarek sat at the tea stand and studied the two-story house just down the street, waiting for the coin he spent to pay off. He slid his gray head scarf over his blonde hair to shield him from the chilly night air. At least the Kormian tea was hot enough to keep him warm and strong enough to make him forget the fishy smell of the harbor carried in by the ocean wind. The steel armor and spears of the guards glinted in the light of torches set around the house as they stood at the gate in front of the house. Jarek wouldn’t risk making his move until the guards were preoccupied.
From where he was sitting, Jarek could barely see the balcony on the second story of the house. It was closest to the wall and farthest from the gate, the best place to break into the house according to the information he got from his new patron. At least, where it will be once the guards were out of the way. Somewhere in the distance, women merrily laughed in anticipation of their own nightly adventures.
Jarek enjoyed the tea more than he had the sour wine at the Drowned Maiden, the dockside tavern where he met Iphata, the acolyte of Set who started him on this path. He rubbed his chin as he revisited the conversation in his head, certain that there was something that he overlooked.
“So you see, it is a simple matter. I don’t imagine that would be difficult for a man of your…background,” Iphata intoned, her lilting voice rising effortlessly over the noise of the dock workers in the crowded tavern.
Jarek sipped the cheap wine and appraised her, ignoring the subtle dismissal of his status. The dusty leather boots and cotton pants he wore said ‘vagabond’, which is exactly what he intended. Iphata’s emerald green silken gown and golden serpentine circlet, however, distinguished her as an acolyte of Set.
“Desert nightshade?”, Jarek doubted. “Is that all?”
“Yes. To you, it will seem like nothing more than dried flowers and herbs,” she waved her hand away dismissively before brushing her black curly hair away from her face. “But, I must have them before the Red Moon of Rajab.”
Jarek took another drink of the wine and tried not to grimace at the taste as he made a quick calculation in his mind, “That’s only three days from now.”
Iphata raised an eyebrow, “You are familiar with the months of Set? I’m impressed.” This time it was her eyes appraising him. “Yes, Temun has stolen them from me and I will not stand for this insult.”
“Why not just get them yourself? Or go to the city watch?”, watching the fine features of her face for a reaction.
Iphata sipped the wine, apparently immune to its taste, “I have no way of proving that they are mine. But, I went to great expense and difficulty to acquire them and I want them back. You will return them to me, yes?”
Jarek finished the cheap wine so he wouldn’t have to taste it again and set the cup down. He looked her over again. She was young and beautiful with rich, dark skin and even darker hair and eyes. Then he nodded, “I can get you your dried flowers. And, I can get them in time for the Ritual of the Lidless Eye, which must be performed by the Red Moon of Rajab, if I recall correctly.” Nodding with a smirk, “Yes, I am quite familiar with the Temple of Set.”
Her eyes narrowed as she realized that Jarek was no simple thief. Whispering with a slight hiss, “Quite impressed.”
“I imagine that the high priest will look quite fondly on any acolyte who provided such an important ingredient to the ritual. So fondly, that he is likely to appoint that acolyte to the position of apprentice, maybe even scribe.”
Iphata fidgeted in her chair and straightened her back in annoyance that this thief could see through her better than she could see through him. “How much silver do you want to return my property to me?”, her voice took on a more imperious tone.
Jarek shook his head. “No silver. I have all that I need.”
She smiled that smile that young women use to manipulate weak men, “Well then. What would you like?”
“The writings of Decaris Arestus. I need to see them and I know that the Temple has a copy. At least one.”
Her smile faded and was replaced with a sideways look of suspicion. “Why do you want those?”
“That’s my business. Your business is telling me everything you know about Temun and your ‘dried flowers’ before the sun sets and we lose another day.”
Jarek finished his tea when he saw the three women approaching from down the street. They were dressed in loose, silken gowns which teased at revealing their curves with each brush of the wind. “Finally,” he muttered as he gathered up his dusty leather bag and stood up. He paused for a moment to see if his distraction would work. Judging by the giggles from the women and the smiles on the faces of the guards, the whores he paid to keep the guards preoccupied were well worth their money.
He crossed the street and looked up at the balcony which would be his entry point. He could just see its outline in the half moonlight, just enough light to let him see what he was doing, but not enough to give him away easily. Once he was around the side of the house, he slipped out a length of hemp rope. It was knotted at regular intervals and attached with a large iron hook on the other end. Then, carefully, he tossed the hook up so that it fastened to the edge of the wall. He paused for a moment and waited until he was sure that the guards were distracted. When he heard one of the women remark on the length of a man’s spear, Jarek used the knots in the rope to help him climb over the wall.
Though Jarek was a man of the north, he was educated by men of the east in many things, moving quietly being one of them. So, when he landed in the yard, he made no more noise than a bird lighting onto the ground.
“Oi! What is going on here!” Jarek froze, afraid that he had been seen, though he was assured that there were no guards in the yard. He relaxed when he realized that the voices were coming from outside the wall near the gate.
“Oh! Another one…”, purred one of the prostitutes. Good girl, thought Jarek. He would have to remember to hire them again in the future.
“Get these harlots away from the gate! You are both on duty and you do not want master Temun to see this when he returns.”
Jarek gathered up the rope and wrapped it up as he heard the other guards grumble with begrudging ascension to the first guard’s order. Hearing the voices of the girls fade away as they continued down the street, Jarek knew that his distraction had played itself out. He moved quickly and silently to the bottom of the stone balcony and looked up to judge the distance.
He lightly tossed the hook up and missed the balcony completely. He caught the hook before it could land and make a sound on an errant stone in the yard. He paused and tried again, this time the hook glanced off of the railing and made a slight clank of metal on stone. Jarek caught the hook again and paused again. This time, he felt a subtle shift in the tension of the area. Though he didn’t know how he was certain that someone had noticed him.
He tossed the hook up again and this time it caught. He could hear the sounds of footsteps, many footsteps approaching. He scrambled up the rope as fast as his lean muscles would pull him. When he was half way up, he risked a glance down and saw a large dog rounding the corner of the house. Unhindered by darkness, the dog easily saw him and immediately jumped up to bite at him. Jarek jerked his feet up just in time to avoid getting one of them ripped off by the dog’s powerful jaws. Though the dog tried, it did not bark.
Jarek climbed over the stone railing of the balcony and looked down at the dog while he gathered up his rope. He realized that the dog’s vocal cords were cut to prevent it from barking. A deadly dog as it has been trained to kill, not to alert. This explained why there were no guards inside the yard. Getting out was going to be difficult, but that was a problem to be solved later.
He tried the door on the balcony and found that it was unlocked just as Iphata had said it would be. At least her information is accurate, thought Jarek. He slipped open the door, which led into a medium-sized bedroom. A single oil lamp was burning on a night stand next to the bed, which had been made and turned down. Across from him, he could see the door into the bedroom was standing open, leading out onto a short hallway that ended with stairs coming up from the first floor.
A wide rug, woven in a pattern reminiscent of reeds growing along a river, softened his foot steps as he moved around the room. Tapestries hung on each wall depicting desert scenes of snakes winding through rocks. A wooden chest with ornate carvings of cranes sat at the foot of the bed. He checked the night stand in hopes of finding a key, but only found a half-finished letter, which was written in a broad curling script that Jarek could not read.
A sound coming from out of the balcony door broke Jarek’s investigation and reminded him why he was here. He had a tendency to get lost in little mysteries. He then knelt down in front of the chest and slipped out a set of lock picks from a leather sheath he wore on his right wrist. Leaning in close, he set the small hook and needle into the lock and began to work, feeling the mechanism move and slip around inside the lock. The lock was of an above average quality, intended to stop casual searches rather than experienced thieves. Within a few moments, Jarek had the lock open.
Putting away his tools, he then slid his fingers around the edge of the lid as he opened slowly, carefully feeling inside as he did. When he felt the thin thread, he stopped and lowered the lid back down. The thread indicated a trap was set inside to go off if anyone opened the chest without disabling it first.
Knowing that Temun wouldn’t want to have his own hands blown off every time he opened the chest, Jarek deduced that it must be disabled before opening the lid somehow. I moved his fingers over the ornate carvings on the lid of the chest, searching for anything that stood out. Eventually, he found it. The bill of a crane carved into the wooden surface moved slightly when touched. Jarek pushed the bill upward and heard the satisfying click of a mechanism inside the lid.
He then carefully opened the lid and saw what Temun was carefully hiding from others. The first was a pale green linen robe, the style worn by priests of Set. Under that was a variety of scrolls which interested Jarek, but did not have the time to read them to see if they had any value. There was a small pouch of rubies, which he did put into his bag. And, there was a larger sack containing dried purple flowers emitting a heavy, narcotic scent, desert nightshade. He put the sack inside his bag, which revealed the trap that had he had disabled.
It was a small vial containing a cloudy amber liquid. The thread that had alerted Jarek was attached to a cork that when pulled would have opened the vial. Jarek wasn’t sure what would happen when he opened the cork, but he carefully took out the vial and put it in his bag as well. This sort of thing was a treasure that one doesn’t find every day.
Just as he was closing the lid of the chest, he heard voices coming from down the hall. He had been so preoccupied with the chest and the trap, that he didn’t hear anyone coming up the stairs. He couldn’t go out the way he came in as he would have to cross the open door in the bedroom and would be seen. So, he quickly jumped behind a tapestry and pressed himself against the wall. All he could do was wait.
From his precarious position, Jarek could make out two voices. The first was a man’s voice, his words slightly slurred from slight inebriation and telling a bawdy joke. The second voice was a woman’s and quite pleasant sounding.
“And that is what the Thandusian paid!”, giving the punchline to his joke.
Her laughter sounded like crystal beads cascading down a glass plane. “Oh, Temun! I love your sense of humor. You have kept me laughing all night.”
“And now let me keep you moaning all night.”, the man replied.
Jarek rolled his eyes. If he wasn’t in such a dangerous situation, he likely would have gagged. Though the woman giggled appropriately. The two of them became silent for a few moments except the sounds of kissing and fabrics sliding off of skin. There was a slight creak of the bed as the two of them got onto it. Jarek dared to peek one eye from behind the tapestry.
Laying on his back was Temun, at least that is who Jarek assumed him to be. A paunchy man with the softness of one who has never had to lift anything heavier than a goblet of wine to his lips. And it appeared that he did so often. He was naked from the waist up though the woman, kneeling between his open legs, was sliding her hands up under his green skirt.
She was amazing. Her sapphire linen gown was crumpled on the floor next to bed and her naked body was exposed for Jarek to see. He could feel a twitch in his pants as he looked her over. The curves of her rear were firm enough to show youth without losing any femininity. Her round breasts swayed slightly under her as she looked up at Temun, her face eventually disappearing under his skirt leaving nothing but her long blonde hair peeking from underneath. What was most striking was her skin, it was a perfect, pale white flesh without a single blemish.
Jarek had to break his gaze and return to hiding behind the tapestry. All he could do was wait until they had finished and fall asleep. Then he could sneak out. Perhaps, it would still be early enough that he could find those three prostitutes and relieve himself of the excitement that this couple had brought.
He waited there for a few more moments, trying not to focus too much on the sounds of their moans and soft giggles. He closed his eyes and tried to think of something else while he heard the unmistakable sounds of rhythmic creaks from the bed. But then he snapped his eyes open at the sound of metal into flesh, cracking off of bone. The man’s voice carried out a surprised gasp and grunt, but there were no cries of pain. Jarek realized he was in a different kind of trouble now.
“Come out from behind that tapestry, Jarek.” It was a woman’s voice, but not the same. Instead of the youthful girlish voice, it was something deeper, more sultry. It was familiar. While Jarek was still trying to remember that voice, he was stepping out from his hiding place without realizing it.
Once he was in plain view, he could see the scene. Temun was still on his back, but with a silver-handled dagger standing out of the center of his chest. Blood spread across his chest, ran down his torso, and was staining the white linen sheets a bright red. Straddling his waist was a woman, but rather than the pale blonde girl he had seen just moments before, there was the dark-haired, bronze-skinned body of Iphata.
“I hope you enjoyed the show. It was just a little something for you before you die. Come here and take the dagger in your hand.”
Jarek started walking before he even realized it. He tried to stop himself, but that only made his feet shuffle instead of stop. His hand felt heavy like a weight was on it and yet it still moved to reach out and clasp the silver handle of the dagger standing out of Temun’s lifeless chest. With some effort, he complied and pulled the wavy blade of the dagger out of the corpse and held it at his side while the blood dripped down from the tip and onto his dusty leather boot.
“That’s right, Jarek. Very good.” Her voice sounded like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day. It was the most beautiful and terrible thing he had ever heard. Somehow, it was able to make him act against his own will.
She slipped off of the bed, her movement causing Temun’s body to rock side to side and spill more of his blood onto the sheets. Only Jarek’s eyes could move to watch as she knelt down and slipped the blue dress back on. Then he held his breath as he watched her throat shimmer like heat rising off of hot desert sands. Her head flung back and she cried out with a voice that sounded perfectly like Temun’s, “Guards! Help! Intruder!”
Her throat shimmered again and she spoke to him in her usual musical voice, “Your father sends his regards.” Then she smiled and turned to run towards the balcony. She leaped from the railing and down into the yard below. Frozen in place, Jarek could hear the sounds of guards running and barking orders. They were coming right towards where he stood.
But, soon after, he could hear Iphata, if that was really her name, cry out in pain followed by a muffled yelp of a large dog. Whatever the cause, Jarek could feel the hold of her voice leave him. At first, he could only drag his feet a bit, but the sounds of heavy boots charging up the stairs and coming down the hallway gave him the focus to run.
He followed her out of the room and over the railing, the tips of spears chasing behind him and almost catching. He landed and rolled forward to slow the momentum of the fall. When he rose, he almost fell over the corpse of the guard dog, its throat ripped out by the jagged claws of some animal.
No time to climb the wall as he had earlier, Jarek just charged at the gate. Fortunately, most of the guards had gone into the house after Iphata’s call for help. But, one stood between him and the open gate, the sharp tip of his spear pointed right at Jarek.
Remembering the vial from the trap, Jarek pulled it from his bag and threw it at the guard’s chest. The vial broke on the iron breastplate, sending a puff of toxic gas up into the guard’s face. Jarek pulled his head scarf over his mouth as he ran past the guard and the green cloud. The guard just collapsed where he stood.
Freedom! Jarek burst through the gate door and ran into the dark streets, hoping that either guard nor woman was following him. He ran until he felt his lungs and legs burned. Only then did he dare to pause in a darkened alley to listen and look for pursuers. Waiting in his hiding spot long enough to catch his breath, reflected on what she said ‘your father sends his regards’. Was this all just a set up by his father? He knew that his family still resented him leaving the way he did, but did they really want him dead?
Unable to answer those questions in a dark alley, Jarek walked as calmly as he could back onto the street before he was found by the guards or someone with even more nefarious plans for him. As casually as he could muster under the circumstances, Jarek returned to his room at the inn.
The High Priest of Set drummed his fingers on the small sack of desert nightshade, the golden rings on his fingers dancing in the bright sunlight. “The temple thanks you for this contribution. I had set one of my scribes with the task of procuring the herbs for the ritual. Unfortunately, he was assassinated last night.”
“Yes, I know. I was to deliver it to him this morning. But, when I found out what happened, I thought I would bring it straight to you.”
The high priest held Jarek’s gaze for a heartbeat as he tried to assess the truth. But whether he found no deception or just didn’t care, he looked back at the sack and sighed. “Yes, quite unfortunate. So, how can the temple repay you for this generous donation?”
“I would like to see the writings of Decaris Arestus and have them long enough to make some notes.”
The high priest nodding slightly, not in agreement, but in acknowledgment that Jarek was no mere thief or smuggler. “It is done. You will have them in the scriptorium for as long as you need.”
Jarek feeling a bit bolder, probed the priest a bit further, “I suppose you will have to promote Iphata to the position of scribe now?”
The high priest’s eyebrows furled slightly. “Iphata? I do not know this name. Who is she?”
“Isn’t she one of the acolytes of Set?”
The high priest smiled slightly, “All of my acolytes are men.”