Honor Among Thieves: Part One
Everything on Marlos's desk was just the way he liked it. His brass lamp was polished mirror-bright, his case of colored inks was set out with each color in order from the ones he used most to the ones he used least, his carved box of blotting sand had been dusted, the main surface of the smooth wood was clean and ready, and his quill pens...
The Desert Draik sighed, and called, "Who took half my quill pens?" He folded his arms and waited.
It wasn't too much longer before one of the new junior scribes, a little Acara with fur as black as the ink they used, shuffled up to the door of Marlos's office. "'M sorry, sir. Someone told me the Horus-feather quills worked better, and..."
Marlos accepted the handful of quills that the scribe held out to him. "You don't need to worry about that. You aren't working on anything where a blot or two will mean the downfall of Sakhmet. But I'm working on the invitations for the nobles for the Solstice Celebration, and if any of them feel slighted..."
"Sorry, sir." The boy walked back to his desk out among the bustle of the Scribes' Hall. Marlos watched for a minute. He'd worked out there, as well, until he'd gotten enough seniority and enough of a reputation for neat, thorough work to be given his own office along the western wall. He and the other senior scribes handled the important documents, those that necessitated both meticulous work and an element of artistry – formal invitations from King Coltzan III to his nobles, treaties, copies of fine scrolls, and on and on. Out there were the proclamations, the taxes, the warrants – important work, certainly, but not as rewarding as what Marlos now did.
He turned back to his work, removing the black ink for the bulk of the lettering, then the blue, the red, and the gold for the calligraphy. He set the original copy of the invitation to one side, with the guest list below it – he winced at the length of that particular list. He could probably finish this today, but only if he worked until moonrise or later. With the Solstice Celebration less than a week away, they'd left these until the last minute. Marlos wondered what his superiors had been thinking – they'd done this project a month in advance last year. Of course, there had been all those scrolls to copy these last two weeks after Princess Amira had sent word from Shenkuu that there was to be a library exchange...
He carefully penned the first invitation, to Senator Palpus, including that there was to be a feast, a play written for the occasion by Sakhmet's leading dramatists, music, and a ceremony honoring Lady Marcia for her valor in the battles in the south last winter.
Marlos paused to wipe the sweat off his brow – this office normally stayed fairly cool, but this close to midsummer nobody was able to escape the crushing heat. He'd seen Lady Marcia a few times as he went about his business in the palace, a tall royal Lupe with long black hair. She was elegant, graceful, always dressed perfectly – and was never seen without her sword at her hip. She clearly intended to always remind people that she was equally a knight of renown and a lady of one of the oldest noble houses in Sakhmet.
But all of that was for people besides Marlos to worry about. Others would decide what history would report, or what proclamations would state – Marlos's job was merely to copy them well, making them beautiful as well as functional. He did hope, however, as a casual observer, that this was the beginning of an illustrious career for her. She'd never been unkind to the servants or the apprentice scribes that he'd heard of, and most everything that happened in the palace ended up being discussed by the water jugs in the corner of the Scribes' Hall farthest from the door.
Marlos enjoyed those conversations, but only when he had time for them, and he most certainly did not today. He painstakingly detailed a blue-and-gold border around the edges of the lettering, added a few red highlights, and then put sand over it so it could dry while he took another piece of creamy parchment for the next invitation.
Absorbed in his work, Marlos lost all sense of the passing of time – he didn't even remember looking up until he blinked his bleary eyes and realized that all was quiet. It was also dark, except for the lamplight – he must have lit his lamp, though he didn't remember when – and he'd covered all of his drying tables with the invitations.
He stood up and stretched sore muscles, flicking his tail back and forth. He was hungry, too, now that he realized it, but at least the work had been completed. He had some money – he'd stop and buy food at a stall on the way back to the room he rented. He walked quietly into the hall – he was the only one there. Instinctively, he curled his tail close about himself and went up onto the tips of his toes. Being alone in this normally bustling place made him feel as though he were trespassing somewhere he oughtn't to be.
He crept down the halls toward the closest gate – he knew there was a good vendor who kept a shop not too far from that door. Then he remembered that this would take him through the wing of the palace devoted to the Mages' College. He shuddered. Mages and their nonsense – he'd never liked it, and if he'd been thinking clearly he'd never have come this way after dark. But he'd come too far to turn around now. But he walked even more carefully, ready to duck if fireballs or monsters or whatever foolishness the mages were toying with this time came down the passage toward him.
He was listening for tell-tale blasts or any cries of "Uh-oh!", and so the whispers drew his attention.
A man's voice, which sounded elderly, said, "Of course I'll be able to do it, milady. There's only the matter of my fee..."
A woman replied, "Once he's dead, you'll be able to name your price."
Marlos winced. He knew the law of Sakhmet very well. He'd copied out most of it. But he didn't need to know as much as he did to understand that talking about paying someone to kill someone else in a deserted wing of the palace at night was about as illegal as it got.
"Your plan still leaves much to chance, milady."
"Oh, sweet Fyora! Amira's in Shenkuu, and Vyssa's bounded up to me like an overeager Anubis pup every time she sees me. Once she's on the throne, all I'll have to do is suggest and I'll have all the lands and money at my disposal that any woman could wish. By the time Amira gets back, it'll be too late for her to do a thing."
"It will be ready by the solstice, then. But I will require gold by tomorrow as... proof of your sincerity."
"Can't gold be traced?"
"Not when my spells are through with it. Just as the spell which takes King Coltzan's life will not be traced."
Marlos couldn't believe what he'd just heard. Before he could stop himself, he gasped in shock.
Oh, sweet Fyora! Marlos stepped back quickly as lantern light shone around the corner in front of him – he looked up and down the corridor frantically, but there was nowhere close to hide.
And then he froze in shock as Lady Marcia came into view. She wore plain clothes and a dark cloak, but Marlos could see that she still had her sword – it looked a great deal sharper than it ever had before. Behind her was a mage whom Marlos thought was a Krawk, though the dark robe and cowl he wore made it difficult to tell in the dimness. He took a few more quick steps – it was hard to fly in an enclosed space, and he didn't want to unless he absolutely had to. "Uh, good evening, milady. Good evening, sir."
The mage said, "You know he heard."
Lady Marcia nodded. "Obviously. I recognize him – he's one of the scribes."
Marlos took another few steps backward.
And then the mage held up his hands, gathering green-glowing fire in between them. Marlos turned and ran back down the hall – he wouldn't have enough maneuverability in here to dodge whatever nastiness that horrid mage had in store. Marcia shouted, "After him! We can't let him escape!"
The mage hissed, "I know, Lady – not so loud!"
But Marlos could hear the heavy footsteps of the tall lady knight – taller and stronger than he was, that was certain – pounding along behind him. He had to get out of here. He had to get somewhere where he could take to the air. He knew precious little about escaping, besides the prices on the heads of escaped criminals that he'd seen copied onto their wanted posters, but that would be critical if he wanted to see the dawn.
A plot to assassinate the king. Lady Marcia was plotting to assassinate the king.
Oh, how had he ended up in the middle of this?
Marlos found the spiral stair and practically threw himself down the steep steps, taking them three and four at a time, spreading his wings – and whacking the tips painfully on the stone walls – to help keep his balance. He kept running down the hall at the bottom, though his legs felt like stone and his side ached sharply. He wasn't used to this at all – though he was naturally inclined to be skinny, he hadn't run more than a block in years.
There! A little door that he knew servants used to dump garbage. He typically avoided anything to do with trash after he'd disposed of it himself, but as fastidious as he was about neatness, he was far more concerned with staying alive than staying clean. He fumbled with the doorknob, considered the horrifying possibility that it might be locked, found it unlocked, and ran outside into where the trash was gathered before being taken outside the city. The stench was foul, but that was when Marlos remembered his second problem – the Lupe's nose.
He cringed as he did it, but he jumped into one of the bins, trying hard not to guess what was in there with him. He let the lid fall – it didn't quite come to, so he was still able to see out.
It wasn't much more than a minute, but Marcia and the mage came out the same door. Marcia grimaced. "Well, there goes the trail. Between the garbage and his wings, he'll be far away from here by now, and I can't trace him. Why don't you do something?"
The mage responded, "I've nothing that's his. We don't even know his name."
Marcia's smile was positively vicious. "Oh, we will. When you help me claim that a Desert Draik scribe stole my ring and my purse." She removed the ring from her finger and the purse from her sash. "Can you help me make that happen?"
The mage nodded. "Ah. Discredit him."
Marcia nodded as well. "By this time tomorrow every guard in the city will be on the lookout for our nosy friend. He'll end up sitting in a dungeon cell or hiding among the thieves and street rats. And there's no honor among thieves. No tales that could be believed."
The mage opened the door. "We have much to do. Bring the items."
The door shut, and Marlos scrambled out of the trash bin as quickly as he could. He was filthy, he was hungry, he was alone, and he was shortly to be a wanted criminal.
He was in serious, serious trouble.
To be continued...