Maple kept her footsteps soft as she followed the swaggering merchant toward the pleasure district. A fat priest of the High God talked with one of the more wealthy wives of the merchants of Refuge, both of them wearing clothes more light, airy, and suitable for late-summer than Maple’s elven cloak and both of them moved so that they were in her way. Not that they knew it. She hoped. If the man who had sold her the cloak was right, no one would be able to see her, as long as she kept the hood up.
But the streets of Refuge were narrow as well as dusty. Her lithe frame, at sixteen years, had a few more curves than when she was younger. Handlee had also noticed, so he’d given her a deadline and today was it. The merchants were turning in, the crowds were going to their various places for the evening, and the streets were mostly empty. This was her last chance.
She gathered the cloak around her and somehow managed to ease her way between the priest and the mud brick apartments behind him.
The priest murmured flirtatious pleasantries that Maple heard as a vague hum. Her sights were still on the merchant, who had just turned into the street that would lead to the best known brothel in Refuge.
She had to get to him before he spent his money there. Anyone heading that way, dressed like he was in robes of purple and red with embroidered birds on the cuffs and hem, had to have some money on him. Losing him this late in the day, she would never have the chance to buy back her freedom.
The fat priest leaned toward the wealthy wife and Maple finished squeezing through. Quickly leaving them behind, she clutched the cloak tightly around her, hoping the magic worked.
No risk. That’s what she’d thought when she’d bought it. She’d more than make up for the lost money before the deadline with a cloak like this.
But fewer merchants had arrived today than she’d hoped for and those who actually lived in Refuge weren’t easy marks. And good as she was at locks, she’d never really enjoyed breaking into someone’s house to steal. Especially since Marrish the Mouse had been disembowled in the public square for it ten years ago.
So she’d stuck with pickpocketing, a lesser skill of hers, and look where it’d gotten her. Following a swaggering merchant to a place she might end up if she didn’t get to him before the whores did.
Running as best she could while holding the cloak so the hood didn’t fall and the sides didn’t flap open, she breathed a sigh of relief as the merchant stopped to talk to one of the whores that walked the streets. She hadn’t tested the cloak, too afraid one of the other members of the guild would tell Handlee. Elven cloaks were rare enough in the Southlands that he might want it for himself.
But she’d never been sure if the cloak worked, or if she was just a better pickpocket when she wore it, and it was with this in mind that she hurried past, letting go of the cloak only long enough to reach out with knife and hand. With one swift cut, she relieved the merchant of his heavy burden hidden under a fold of his robe and spun away, racing toward the streets that would lead to her hiding place.
He noticed, but didn’t see her. “Where—?”
She didn’t look behind her to see if he was following. There were no footsteps, no shouts.
And she realized, even in the middle of her jubilation at her good fortune, that that was odd.
Someone slammed into her, knocking her into a side alley between two abandoned apartments. Before she knew what had happened, she was on the ground, a strong hand gripping her wrist, twisting her arm behind her back. She ground her teeth against the pain. She’d had worse. But whoever it was took the money bag she’d just stolen.
Panicked at the loss, she struggled. “Give it back!”
“You mean, the thing that isn’t yours? If I thought you’d face any justice in this city, I’d give you to the authorities.” There was a pause. “Who are you?”
Someone stupid enough not to look for hidden bodyguards, she almost snapped. But she’d learned long ago that moments like this weren’t the best time for speaking her mind. “Let me go.”
“Who are your parents?”
“If you don’t let me go I’ll–”
“Scream? Go ahead. It’ll only answer my questions faster.”
She didn’t like his casual tone. It spoke of someone who’d done this more often than once, someone who wasn’t intimidated by anything. She quit her struggle, looking inward for that sense of knowing that, if she used it right, had a tendency to get her out of anything that kept her bound. She realized that even though he was strong, his hands weren’t the thick, muscular ones she would have expected from the more intimidating bodyguards the merchants tended to hire. I guess you don’t get that rich by looking at appearances, she decided. “If you don’t let me go, you’ll be in trouble with the Patron himself.”
Whoever held her laughed. “What are you implying?”
She tried to sound indignant, like the snotty rich kids she would sometimes hear in the market. “I think you know exactly what I’m implying.”
“That you’re related somehow?” She heard the sound of a dagger being drawn. “I don’t take well to liars. Try again.”
She was running out of options if he’d decided to use a blade. “Look, I’m sorry I took the money. I got desperate. If you let me go–”
“You’ll find another target. You still haven’t answered my questions.”
And I’m not going to, she wanted to say. Why did it matter? She relaxed, as if she’d given up. “All right. But only if you let me up.”
She’d expected him to say no, that she hadn’t answered his questions yet, at which point, given she wasn’t struggling, he might relax his grip enough for her to run. Maybe. Or she really would scream and see if the other members of the guild would come to her rescue. Not likely, but it was worth a shot.
Instead, he didn’t say anything for several moments. For an instant, she thought she heard a melody she’d once heard very long ago. But she couldn’t place when or where she had ever heard it. Or even if she heard it now.
His grip loosened. She stood, but whoever held her was gone, along with the money she’d tried to steal.
When she went back into the empty street, nary a merchant, priest, or wealthy wife in sight, she decided to give up. Maybe Handlee would take the elven cloak in trade, whether it worked or not. She’d been hoping she could keep it, but there was no time left. The sunlight was fading and she didn’t have enough money. Better to lose the cloak than all hope of freedom.
Slowly, she made her way toward the guild’s den.
Doriel watched the girl from the shadowed corner of the alley.
There was no mistaking what he’d felt, no matter how little sense it made. He’d felt odd all day and found himself wanting to stroll the dusty streets of a town he’d rather never see again. Refuge reminded him too much of the past, not in its surface appearance, but in its heart.
Callio had wanted to visit the pleasure district and Doriel, bound by his promise and a genuine concern for the man, had followed him. More than this, he’d wanted to walk. Motion kept him from feeling as if something wasn’t as it should be, as if he were supposed to be somewhere other than where he was. His place, that feeling said, was not near Callio.
That feeling had died twelve years ago. Along with his promise to a house that had ceased to exist for twelve long, purposeless years.
The moment he’d seen the figure in the elven cloak, he hadn’t thought of oaths he’d rather not remember. Instead, he’d seen a cloak of his own people misused and had thought of nothing more than stopping that misuse while getting his traveling companion’s money back.
However, the moment he’d knocked her into the alley, he’d known. His purpose was there, right in front of him. Part of him hoped it wasn’t true. It had been so long since he’d felt the song that reminded him of his hated oath that he’d asked her who her parents were as much to give himself a reason to ignore what he felt as to confirm it.
No matter what he’d thought of her then.
But there was a part of him that had added the years and knew better. As impossible as it may appear, there had been one reason he hadn’t entirely hated his oath, and that reason may very well be in front of him now.
He watched her scan the street. When she moved out of range, he slipped through the cockeyed open window of the empty apartment he’d hidden within and soundlessly followed her, a gift of his heritage.
Callio would begin to wonder if Doriel was going to return with his money, part of him reminded himself. But that didn’t matter. He had to know for certain. The Song never lied. It was as true as the sun in the sky and if he turned away he would face an agony only matched by the horrors of Shale itself.
He also wore a cloak, though his was not elven. He no longer had anything from his people beyond the reminder around his neck, and winced each time he saw her finger the material, as if weighing its worth as she hurried along the street. She planned to sell it. He could tell from the way she touched it.
Too little respect. Magical items, he knew, should never be underestimated.
He followed her into a part of Refuge with walls so rotten he wondered what kept these buildings up. Few people walked these streets. Those who did eyed each other warily, obviously armed if a person knew what to look for. Beggars sat here and there, calling out or tinkling a little bell to catch the compassion of the innocent. He felt eyes peering at him, and he knew no matter how careful he was, he was being watched. The only comfort he had was that those of the Southlands had little dealing with elves. Unless he was careless, they would give him no more attention than any other exotic stranger wearing a cloak in the early evening’s heat. Not the best of circumstances certainly, but things could be far worse.
She disappeared into a crack in the side of a wall. Doriel noted the guard, knowing that a guild would not stay long in this house unless it was well established. Which meant this would be more difficult than he thought. That was all right. It would give him more time to consider his next step.
Doriel turned to leave, and found himself face-to-face with the second largest human he had ever seen.
Maple descended into the suffocating darkness, the cloak wrapped in a bundle tucked under her arm, and fought against the terror that always enveloped her as the spell’s song wrapped its tendrils around her. Be strong, she whispered to herself, it won’t last. You’re one of them. She finally stepped out of the warding and entered the outer perimeter of the guild’s den, leaving both noise and darkness behind.
Around her, thieves were either sneaking off to work, to a little fun (as they called it) for the ones who were allowed use of the whores in exchange for a good haul, or a different kind of sneaking: trying to trick each other out of their money in a game of Bones. The clatter of dice on the floor, the flirtatious murmurs and distant cries of pleasure, the fellow thieves who brushed past on their way to the promise of treasure and the scent of excitement and sweaty fear, all of it barely registered.
She didn’t want to be here.
If she’d gotten the money, she could have wrapped it up and left it in front of Handlee’s door in the warded collection box. But if she used the cloak, she’d have to talk to him. And she didn’t want to talk to him. Not again. Each time had left her with an oily coating on her soul that no amount of washing had taken away.
Handlee could be merciful and fair. He could also follow her no matter where she went. She’d tried once before to escape, once when she was very young. The pain of what had happened after she’d been caught (hadn’t she been told she’d be caught no matter where she went?) lingered even now, coiled like greasy sludge in the pit of her stomach, when she thought about the things he’d done to her. That wasn’t often. And she hadn’t tried to escape again, not as long as she was in this city where Handlee’s love of magic kept her in place.
If the cloak had worked, she thought as she arrived at the hallway juncture of the den, she might have used it to escape. If it worked, maybe it would have helped her get beyond whatever he had in place that allowed him to see where she was at all times.
If it had worked. Given what had happened, it obviously didn’t.
At the end of the hallway, Maple studied her current options. There were two ways she could go. The way she was expected to go, and the way she should go. The way she wanted to go was behind her, and she put it out of her mind as a more immediate choice to her survival presented itself. To the right were the thieves’ chambers, the rooms where the thieves slept in a large barracks, with a smaller room where the younger pickpockets were locked in at night. To the left was Master Handlee’s room. If she went to the right, Handlee might forget about her day’s report and the fact that her time was up as a pickpocket. That wasn’t her talent. They both knew it. And if she didn’t pay back the debt she’d supposedly incurred when she’d been sold to the guild, she would have to work it off in ways that brought back that feeling of greasy slime. To be sent to the whorehouse would mean reliving that punishment over and over, possibly for years.
If she went to the left, she was sure to face some sort of consequence, but she had the cloak. It had to have some magic in it, just enough perhaps to fool Handlee. If only she knew how that man had seen her, then she’d know for sure what she had. But something, she decided, was better than nothing.
She went to the left.
All the jewels Handlee had accumulated over the years were set in the walls, graded so that the sparkling light they cast grew brighter the closer a visitor got to his door. Rumor had it the spell that made them glow also told Handlee whenever one disappeared. Which none, of course, ever did.
With this depressing thought in mind, Maple stood in front of a large, oak door, trimmed with gold. She turned the handle and walked into the room of her owner.
Handlee sat at a desk in the far end of the room, going over his books. No one who saw him would have thought he was a thief. He looked too much like a local priest, spectacles sliding down his nose constantly, large eyes looking mournfully at the dusty sinners who stood before him, ready to give him penance with their very lives.
He looked up and gave her a rare, truly warm smile, as if he’d heard her thought and was pleased. “Maple. So good of you to voluntarily give me your report. Good day, or bad?” He dipped his pen in the ink, ready to write the number.
He looked at her, and stood. Much taller than she was, even now that she’d grown several inches, he towered above her. In the corner, Handlee’s tiger purred.
Handlee looked from her to the cloak and back again. Studying her, he took the cloak and walked a few paces away, enough for Maple to feel like she could breathe again without losing the contents of her stomach. “Where did you get this?”
So, he didn’t know everything. That thought gave her an inward smile. “A merchant from the Northlands. He said–”
“Which part?” He unrolled the cloak and held it in front of him, looking it over.
Maple shrugged. “Someplace I’d never heard of. Waterside, I think?”
“That’s on the West Coast.” He turned the cloak around and examined the collar.
“Must be his lie. You would have come up with something better.”
“Thank you.” She watched him study the fibers of the hood and decided to try a bluff. “It’s genuine, though. It got me through days when I didn’t think I’d get anything at all.”
“Genuine enough. Are you saying you want to trade this for your freedom?”
He kept looking at the cloak as if it were one of his jewels. The longer he examined it, the more Maple wanted to keep it. “It’s valuable enough,” she said, guessing it from both the amount she’d paid for it and the way Handlee couldn’t seem to leave it alone, lifting one side now to examine the cut. “All I want is the freedom to leave this city.”
“Maple, Maple.” Handlee began to carefully fold the cloak. “What you’ve given me is beyond price. Whoever sold this to you must not have believed it was real. I’ll show you what I mean.” He waved her closer and, with great reluctance, she came close enough to stand next to him.
“This,” he pointed to the clasp, plain leather, but engraved with the image of a tree, “is a common elven symbol. The stitching is unique to the elves that remain in the forests of the Northlands, and the fabric itself is made of ordinary wool, but listen when you hold it close.”
He brought it up to her ear, then wrapped it around her head. She tried to grab his hands, terrified and angry and not thinking of anything but escape.
He yanked her head down, holding onto the cloak, his voice on the edge of a shout above her. “Did you really think I’d let you go? Let you wander with the secrets I’ve taught you? You offer me a priceless cloak you paraded around the city as if it were nothing! No one can see through these when they’re being used, not unless they’re elven themselves. And you didn’t care. A stupid thing like you doesn’t deserve freedom.”
She couldn’t breathe. She clawed at his hands but they wouldn’t loosen. He began to drag her by the cloak to the wall where he had sometimes manacled her for her punishments. “No!” she screamed.
A loud knock stopped him and Maple held back the relief that threatened to flood her.
The cloak left her head and she quickly got her feet under her, ready for whatever might hit next.
Handlee watched her, the cloak still in his hands. “What is it?”
Handlee stared at Maple. Something was wrong. His face was pale.
“You will sit,” Handlee said, his voice soft enough that no one could hear beyond the door. “You will be quiet, and you will wait until I’m done with whatever this is. Then, we’ll resume our conversation.”
She’d almost managed to escape. If it hadn’t been for whoever it was that had stopped her from robbing the merchant, she wouldn’t be here. The anger that fueled those thoughts made her tongue more loose than it usually was. “And if I don’t?”
Handlee slapped her across the cheek. That wasn’t a surprise. She had expected it the moment the words had left her mouth. What surprised her was the tearing fire that burned where his hand had struck.
She did her best not to flinch and managed it somehow. Handlee watched her close for any sign he’d hurt her, and she noticed the small, glowing gem set into a thin band of gold on his finger. He leaned in. “You will because I wish it. Even if you manage to leave this room, you can’t escape my guards or spies. You will find yourself right back in the same place I know you hate because there is no way out, and fighting that will only puts scars on your pretty face.”
A small bit of fear began to grow beside the disgust. Scars marked a thief. Scars meant she would only be fit for housebreaking and other jobs that happened in the dead of night. Jobs that might get her torn to pieces in the square.
Handlee grinned. “The whorehouse is sounding better and better, isn’t it?”
And she knew in that moment that if she didn’t choose what Handlee wanted, that she’d end up wherever Handlee wanted her to be, whether that was the whorehouse or the town square, being torn to pieces on charges that may or may not be true.
She sat, feeling numb, in spite of the burning pain in her cheek.
Handlee opened the door and a man burst through.
Not a man. Elf.
She had never seen anything more beautiful in her life. His hair–dark as night, thick, and matted with blood–extended well past his shoulders to his waist in a loose braid and was matted slightly with blood. His face was swelling under one eye, and his lip was torn, but his thin form was lithe and still full of strength. But it was the elf’s eyes that held her. Bright green, they seemed to sparkle with the life of forests and grass; things she’d only overheard in conversations among merchants. In the brief glance he gave her, they looked at her as if he’d known her all his life. However, although there was the feeling that she should know, she couldn’t say the same.
It wasn’t possible for a creature like that to know her.
To her great shock, his swollen face looked as if it had already begun to heal.
To Handlee, he said, “Where did you find her?”
That voice. The one who’d seen through the cloak.
Handlee, for once, seemed to be speechless.
“Perhaps, I’m wrong,” the elf continued, and she noticed he held a drawn sword.
“Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me she’s not who I think she is.”
Handlee shook his head.
Nothing frightened Handlee. Nothing set him on edge, let alone make his hands shake, but Maple watched that happen as he felt backwards along his desks.
“Hands up,” the elf ordered.
Maple knew very little about elves. They weren’t often seen in the Southlands, let alone a city as far south as Refuge. What little she knew had been overheard in conversations between merchants from the forested Northlands. But she couldn’t remember, in those few stories, if elves were as good at tracking as they were at slipping away from the ones who hunted them. But why would one come after Handlee? And what did any of this have to do with her?
“I swear,” Handlee stammered, searching his desk for something, “I never knew. Not even a passing thought.” He grabbed a vial full of a thick, red liquid. The elf raced toward him. “I didn’t know,” he repeated and downed the contents of the vial.
The elf grabbed him by the front of his robes. “Where did you find her?” he demanded.
Handlee gasped once, twice, his face turned blue, then pale, and then he was gone.
The elf stood and turned toward her. “Is there a way out of here without anyone noticing?”
“Can’t you just use the cloak?”
“The spell isn’t big enough to cover two.”
“Then, no, there isn’t.” An awful fury, irrational and strong, overtook her. “Not for you, anyway.”
She wrapped herself in the cloak and dashed through the door and toward the barracks. She heard the growl of Handlee’s tiger behind her, and was shocked to see it dashing ahead of her. With a wild cry, it burst into the main hall, evoking shrieks and cries as everyone scrambled to get away or kill it, one of the two.
Glad for her brief detour, she hurried into the barracks where she found a small group of thieves getting ready for a break-in attempt. Passing them, she went straight for the door where the children were locked in for the night.
Deep in the back of her mind, she remembered darkness. And shouts. Seeing the elf had somehow brought that closer to the surface, close enough that the thought of any of these children staying here, close enough for Handlee’s successor to use as he wished, made her ill. Whipping out her tools, she began to work on the lock.
“Hey,” one of the thieves behind her called out. “What are you doing?”
“Handlee’s dead. The tiger’s loose.” The lock clicked and she yanked the door open. “This way!” she called out.
The children stared at her as if she was crazy.
“Come on! Before the tiger comes and eats you!”
That got them moving. Running behind her, she led them out into the hall, which had become a mass of people with crossbows trying to hit the tiger as it deftly moved around the furniture, as terrified of the thieves as they were of it.
Charging past, she picked up a sword, for the first time in her life, amazed that it felt natural to hold it. “Go!” she yelled to the children, shoving the eldest toward the exit.
The darkness in her memories faded, along with something she couldn’t define, something that was tied to the sword and to pain. Endless pain.
The tiger turned toward her, growling low in its throat.
But no matter how natural it felt to hold a sword, it was another thing entirely to use it. The tiger swatted at her and she had to thank Handlee for declawing the creature because the paw hit the sword out of her hands instead of tearing it off. The tiger’s head swiveled to the side with a roar, a crossbow bolt embedded in its cheek, and it became a ball of fury as it tried to get the bolt out.
A strong hand grabbed her arm and before she knew what had happened, she was behind the elf, who still had a drawn sword in his hand and was facing the tiger.
Remembering the few stories she’d heard, Maple said, “Can’t you talk to it?”
“Does he look like he wants to talk? Get out while you still have a chance.”
The tiger swiped at both of them, his bulk pushing them back toward the wall as he spun after the bolts.
“Love to,” she muttered, trying to figure out a way to get to the door without taking a chance of the tiger biting a sizeable chunk out of her on the way. More bolts hit the tiger and it charged toward the thieves who were now either running or drawing their own swords, shouting to each other commands and curses.
Maple raced for the door, the elf behind her. A nearby whimper caught her ear. She stopped so fast the elf ran into her, pushing her forward.
One of the smaller children watched the tiger with frozen fascination, unaware of the tears falling down her cheeks. Maple grabbed her hand, tugging her out of her stupor and into the street. Fire tore through her foot, now pinned to the floor. She looked and saw an arrow, red-tipped with black fletchings, sticking out of her foot.
The elf bent down and lifted her foot enough to cut the arrow from the floor with his sword. Sweeping her into his arms, they became part of a tide of people rushing out of the thieves’ den into the barely-lit street. A memory of one of the thieves dipping those particular arrowheads in poison went through her mind as she looked at the emerging stars.
The shouts from the thieves grew, and she realized there were more than thieves in the street now. Should the evening be this hot? The elf pushed past the growing crowd and she heard shouts from the children she had just freed. “Are they okay?” Her voice sounded funny.
The elf said nothing, but in the dim light of the torch burning on the street corner, she thought she saw him frown. “How are you feeling?” He kept his voice low. She barely heard him.
“They need to be okay.” She tried to get out of his arms and then they were Handlee’s arms, trying to hold her down. She kicked, but Handlee only gripped her more fiercely. It wouldn’t make any difference if she shouted, but fighting, that was something she could do. She was almost free.
“Maple.” That wasn’t Handlee’s voice.
She looked into the face of the elf, obviously concerned, and thought she heard herself saying, “Take care of them,” before the world went dark.
Copyright © 2016 by Amy Keeley