Originally published at: https://gemsofwar.com/lorekeeper-i-chapter-2-the-desert-fox/
Everything has a price. The secret to a good life is making sure somebody else is paying.
Amira sat high on the walls of Leothasa, one leg dangling idly over the edge. She closed her eyes and let the nighttime sounds wash over her.
On one side was the desert - she could hear the chittering calls of insects as they crawled out of their burrows looking for food.
On the other side was the city, its inhabitants emerging into the cool night air, laughing and shouting, as they set about their evening’s business.
They weren’t so different really…
Apart from the smell. The desert smelt hot, dry, clean, and hungry. Leothasa, on the other hand smelt like food, sweat, toil, and 3-day-dead camels, all rolled into one cheap kebab - and, as far as smells went, today was a good day.
“Eep!” Some strange insect chirped in her ear. She casually swatted it away and heard a satisfying crack as it bounced off the guard tower nearby.
Which world was hers? The city? Or the open spaces? And what price lay in her choice? Picking either Cheap Kebabs or adventure might sound like an easy decision, but she’d been hungry before, and the only thing worse than a cheap kebab was no kebab at all… oh, and having your pants filled with scorpions. But that was another story.
Lately her story had all been about Emperor Khorvash… Well, the “late” Emperor Khorvash. Most people thought he was dead, but Amira knew better. She’d helped him stage his death so he could escape the rebellion. She’d done a mighty fine job of it too. The blood spatter was a morbid work of art. It looked like somebody took a half dozen pig’s bladders, filled them with blood, and then played kickball in spiked boots all over the throne room. That wasn’t too far from the truth. Who better to stage a death than an assassin, after all?
Killing him would certainly have been easier. Sometimes she regretted not following through on her mission, but the Emperor was a good man; you didn’t find those too often, particularly in her line of work. She’d never allowed a target to live before, and she hoped she’d never do so again - there was a price to disobedience. Had she actually killed Khorvash, she could have just walked away with a bag full of gold. Sparing his life tied her to him in some strange manner… Oh, not that manner - she liked her lovers with a lot more body hair, and much sharper teeth. Allowing the Emperor to live trapped her in the city for a number of reasons… and she didn’t know if he was even in the city any longer. She sighed. There were games being played in the Leonine court, and by virtue of the fact she held a secret, she’d become part of them.
And what had the rebellion achieved? Precisely nothing. A new regent sat upon the Lion Throne, but the smelly people below her still went about their smelly business, as they had done for centuries.
“EEEP!” The annoying insect came back, and she swatted at it two or three more times before she connected.
How did she even get here?
Amira was one of the Wargare, the wolf-folk of the northern woods. Like most females of her species ,she was more fox-like than wolf-like. Her mother and father had run with the Seadogs - a band of mercenaries and pirates based out of Blackhawk. It wasn’t exactly a conventional upbringing, but it gave her a unique set of skills, which included stabbing, hiding, stabbing, tying knots, and a little more stabbing. When both her parents were killed by a Sword’s Edge privateer, the stabbing and hiding parts had come in handy as she worked her way from place to place, eking out a living, until her skills had landed her a role in the Sisters of Shadow.
She was still trying to find a use for tying knots, but she’d learned to be patient.
After she joined the Sisterhood, it was all about the stabbing though. She gradually worked her way up to be the right hand of the Mother of Shadows. And now she wasn’t sure she could look the Mother in the face again. The Leonine Court might not know Amira had spared the Emperor’s life, but the Mother certainly would. It was another thing that kept her here.
“EEEEEEP!” The insect announced, louder this time.
Amira opened her eyes, and found herself looking right into the face of a tiny Daemon.
Quick as a flash, a dagger appeared in her hand and sliced the creature neatly in two. It let out a suddenly-truncated “Ee-”, followed by 2 short “Splots”, as it fell to the ground… twice.
A neatly-rolled and sealed letter fell softly down after it, and Amira reached out to pick it up.
It read: “To the Dragon That Will Be”.
Great. Now she was collecting mail for the “late” Emperor Khorvash too.--------- o ---------
A few hours later, Amira waited patiently in the shadows of a narrow alleyway. Nearby she could hear the thin reedy wail of a Snake Charmer softly coaxing his Sand Cobra out of small basket - it was all a ruse, she knew; the snake was reacting to the movement of flute, not the sound, and it probably had its mouth sewn shut anyway. It was a cruel practice. If she hadn’t been on important business, she might have stabbed the Snake Charmer somewhere soft just to teach him a lesson or two.
She turned her attention back to the alleyway. Slippered footsteps were approaching.
A man came into view, wearing a red jacket over expensive robes. He had a regal bearing, and was middle-aged - old enough to have a little gray peppered in his neatly-trimmed beard, but young enough to still be filled with ambition. He moved with a certain stealthy grace, like somebody accustomed to late night meetings such as this one. A jewelled turban bobbed on his head as he looked around, eyes shifting rapidly back and forth. Amira stepped into view.
“Amira!” he he said smoothly, eyes locking onto her, though she noted an edge to his voice. “You startled me!”
“Wazir,” Amira smiled. “Thank you for coming.”
“For you,” the man spread his hands. “Anything. You saved our mutual friend’s life, after all.”
Amira looked Wazir up and down. He was previously the Vizier to the Emperor, and was now the Vizier to the Regent. Somehow, he’d managed to keep his head on his shoulders ,when other heads were all rolling around the palace like drunken Dwarves at an Alefest. Honorable man, or sly politician? It was hard to tell in this city. He certainly knew Khorvash was alive, and seemed to have kept the secret, but few in Leothasa could be trusted; most of the nobles here would trade their mother for a free camel ride
“I need to find the Emp-… our mutual friend,” Amira finally spoke. “Do you know where he is?”
“Hmmm…” Wazier considered her request. “I know where he is not. He is not in this city.”
“Yes,” Wazir continued slowly, looking around. “I heard he traveled east. Why do you ask?”
“I have something of his,” Amira said carefully, noticing something had changed. The tune of the Snake Charmer had stopped.
“What is this thing?” Wazir asked. “Do you have it with you?”
Amira took a step backwards.
“Oh! My apologies,” Wazir said softly, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “I did not intend to alarm you. If I seem in a hurry, it is just… there is business I have early tomorrow… the Old Gods threaten the Kingdom’s western borders, and a Vizier’s work is never done.” He smiled, but he looked about as sincere as a rat promising to guard a cheese shop.
Amira began to step back into the shadows, and it was then that everything began to happen.
A gap-toothed man, wearing a Snake Charmer’s tunic, lunged from her right. She easily spun away from his curved dagger, and slipped behind him, her own dagger quickly jumping into her hand, and pressing against the man’s throat. Wazir let out a squawk like a frightened parrot, and stumbled backwards, tripping on his robe. His turban bounced away into the darkness.
“Call off your goons,” Amira said sharply, “Or Snake Eyes here gets it, and you’re next.”
“Amira,” Wazir pleaded. “I didn’t know… anything about this. It was not me, you must believe! Please”
Amira looked carefully at the Vizier. He appeared as startled as she was. That was the problem in this city. Everybody had an angle. You couldn’t know who to trust.
“Please, Amira, I just want to help,” Wazir pleaded. “Tell me what you have. Perhaps I can help you. I promise. On the life of my mother and father, I mean you no harm.”
Amira shook her head. “It’s just a letter. No big deal.”
And with that, she pushed the Snake Charmer away, jumped, caught hold of a ledge, swung up onto a roof and was gone.
Behind her, Wazir stood up. He retrieved his turban, dusted off his robes, then looked around.
“After her,” he said. “Get the letter.”
And three dark shapes moved off down the alleyway.--------- o ---------
Amira stood on the walls of Leothasa once again, looking out over the desert, towards the east where Wazir had said the Emperor might be. This time her eyes were open. It seemed as if her decision had been made for her.
Adventure it was.
Kebabs were overrated anyway.