Despite all appearances to the contrary and the proliferation of warrants for his arrest, Lor was not a bad thief.
In fact, if it weren't for his damnable curiosity, Lor might have been the best thief in all of Kreel and perhaps even all of Vaxar itself. He was small for his age and quick. He was smart and had a remarkable ability to charm his way out of most kinds of trouble. He wasn't greedy and was more than willing to scuttle a job if problems or the threat of violence arose. And he was, after all, currently sifting through collected treasures of the Vax Cryosaf, a feat to which no other thief in the city could lay claim.
Not that any other thief in the city would dare to violate the sanctity of the Vax's stronghold, but that was another matter altogether.
And if it weren't for his curiosity, he might have been able to ignore the silk curtains shrouding a large area in the middle of the room. If it weren't for his curiosity, he might have been able to slip the bag of raw glosstones into his pocket and get out of the house with no one the wiser until morning at the earliest.
As he glanced around the room to make sure he had left no traces of his presence behind, Lor tried to resist the temptation to peek behind the shimmering copper-colored silk, but it was truly too mysterious for him to ignore. Besides, he reasoned, what harm could come from one peek?
The curtains were hung from hooks imbedded in the curved ceiling and they pooled on the shiny stone of the floor in the middle of the chamber. Normally, Lor wouldn't have stepped so far into the middle of the room, nor so far into the circle of light surrounding the curtained off area, but he still had over a cycle before the drama the Vax was attending for the evening drew to a close. He felt exposed and strangely vulnerable as he crossed the room and he double-checked to make sure the curtains screened him from immediate view of the room's only door. The silk was smooth and cool in his hand as he slid his fingers into the overlap and carefully pulled one side back enough to expose whatever was hiding behind it.
Oh, sweet Lintha and Stryea above.
Lor had always suspected the Vax was involved in more criminal activities than were commonly attributed to him, but he never would have guessed the exalted Vax was little more than a flesh peddler.
While slaving was not exactly outlawed in Vaxar, it was not commonly accepted either. Most people having the designation of 'slave' in the past six generations had been little more than children fostered between warring families to secure the peace. To see someone actually caged was shocking and horrifying to Lor.
The boy in the cage was either deeply asleep or heavily drugged and, from the complete stillness of the boy's limbs, Lor was pretty sure he was drugged. The floor of the cage was heaped with enough pillows, cushions and blankets to please even the most cold blooded of the Vax's concubines, but the boy had pushed them all aside and was wound in the plainest blanket from the pile. He had managed to wrap the dark brown, loosely knitted blanket around himself from head to feet, with only one arm and the side of his face showing.
Lor slipped inside the gap between the curtains and the bars of the cage to get a closer look at the boy. His hair was dark and glossy and the bits escaping from the blanket appeared to be longish and curly. His skin was olive-y and still showed a touch of the sun and Lor thought that maybe he hadn't been held captive very long. He seemed to be about Lor's age and was just ... beautiful. Very beautiful.
The caged boy notwithstanding, something was wrong here. Lor had spent weeks learning every weakness the Vax Cryosaf hid in the dark reaches of his heart and never was there the least hint that he was attracted to anyone but the most sophisticated of women.
There was no reason for this boy to be here.
Lor shuffled around the corner of the cage, trying to get a better look at the other boy. Lor wasn't sure if the drugs were beginning to wear off or not, but the boy shifted in his sleep, enough to loosen the blanket enough that it slipped off his head and Lor's breath caught in his throat as he dropped to his knees.
The Grahlen's pointed, furred ears peeked out of the riotous brown curls of hair that fell across his features and, now that he had shifted, Lor could see his long, sleek tail tangled in the folds of the blanket. Lor closed his eyes and resisted the urge to batter his head against the bars of the cage. For most Vaxarians, the Grahlen were practically mythical creatures, rarely spoken of and never glimpsed. There were many rumors surrounding the Grahlen; that they were great magicians, that they were more animal than human, that capturing one would insure wealth and prosperity.
Lor knew the truth, though. And, just as he knew his own eyes were a blue never before seen on these shores, he knew he couldn't leave this Grahlen caged and, sweet Lintha, collared. The tolling of the cityclock broke Lor's reverie and reminded him that the Vax would be returning in half a cycle.
"Damn. Damn damn damn." Lor lurched to his feet gracelessly and followed the perimeter of the cage until he reached the bolted door. He dropped back down to his knees and studied the lock. It seemed to be a standard locking mechanism and the Vax was not known for employing extraordinary measures to keep his treasures safe; he generally depended upon his reputation to take care of most threats before they even appeared. The Grahlen was more important than a sack of glosstones or a block of refined crize, though, so Lor took extra precautions as he convinced the lock to open without the benefit of its key.
The lock finally slid open with a metallic clang just as the cityclock chimed the quarter cycle. Lor was never sure if it was the sound of the lock opening, the tolling of the clock, or if the drugs had simply worn off, but as the cage door swung open, the other boy rolled to a crouch and managed a credible growl despite his obvious wooziness. Lor slid forward a few inches on his knees with his hands out to his sides, but stopped when the Grahlen tensed, then wavered in his crouch.
Lor wasn't quite sure how to convince a half drugged and cornered Grahlen he meant no harm, but he was desperately aware he only had a few rotes to do so. "Look, I know you don't believe me, but I'm not going to hurt you. We've only got about ten rotes before the Vax returns and I don't think either one of us want to be here. I know you're confused from whatever he dosed you with, but we have to leave now. Please."
Lor held out his hand, counting off microtes in his head as the Grahlen obviously tried to fight through the fog in his head. The other boy raised his hand, but before Lor could breathe a sigh of relief, it detoured to the metal and leather binding his throat.
"You can remove this collar?" The Grahlen's voice was light and rich and carried an accent Lor had never heard before.
"Not here and not now; we don't have enough time, but I will try as soon as we're safe." Lor beckoned the other boy towards him with a small gesture and nearly collapsed with relief when he shuffled towards him. "Excellent. We have to hurry. The Vax will be returning very soon."
As soon as the Grahlen was within touching distance, Lor grabbed his arm and wrestled them both to their feet. Lor wasn't surprised to find the other boy was several inches taller than he was - most people were - but he was surprised by the wiry strength in the arm around his shoulders. The taller boy clung to him for a moment, his tail swinging lazily for a moment before wrapping around Lor's ankle. Lor let him steady himself before propping him against the side of the cage.
Lor hurried back to the center of the cage and quickly fashioned a makeshift dummy from the abandoned brown blanket to take the other boy's place among the nest of blankets. He knew that every moment they avoided detection would help them escape from the city. Lor considered it a gift from Stryea that he had been planning to leave Kreel after this job anyway.
When he was satisfied with the mannequin, Lor closed the cage door behind them, led the shaky boy through the curtains, into the outer chamber, and over to the door. "When I was planning my escape route, I didn't think I would be joined by a dosed Grahlen. Do you think you can manage a stealthy escape?"
The other boy drew himself out of his exhausted slouch and gave Lor a disgusted look. "I am a Grahlen. I could be half dead and still display more stealth than you."
Lor grinned in delight at the life that was slowly filtering back into the other boy's dark eyes. "I'm certainly glad to here that, Twinkles. Let's get moving."
An angry hiss followed Lor down the darkened hallway as he retraced his steps to the unsecured window in the hallway in the Concubine's wing. The house was still dark and quiet, but Lor was beginning to fear they had waited too long to leave. The clatter of the front doors being thrown open to welcome the master home while they were sliding open the window confirmed his fear.
Lor pulled the Grahlen down to whisper into his twitching ear, "Get on the windowsill and jump down to the third peak from the left. Move forward as much as you can, then jump to the peak just to your right. Wait for me there, ok?"
The other boy nodded and jumped onto the windowsill, balancing easily for a moment before launching himself towards the target rooftop. Lor waited a few seconds, then scrambled much less gracefully onto the sill. He swung himself out onto the narrow ledge and pulled the window closed behind him before sending up a brief prayer to the merciful Lintha and Stryea and flinging himself towards the other roof.
Lor landed with a dull thud and nearly overbalanced when he twisted to avoid toppling over. He managed to right himself, though, and took a running leap to the next rooftop. He landed cleanly this time and motioned to his companion.
"We need to get further away. Follow me."
Lor rooftop hopped through the route he had painstakingly plotted out, always aware of his nearly silent shadow following a few paces behind him. When he had originally planned his escape, Lor had estimated that fifteen houses would put him at a safe enough initial distance from the Vax's stronghold. Now that he had helped the Grahlen escape, though, he wasn't sure if that was going to be far enough.
He stumbled to a halt on the roof of the fifteenth house and immediately a strong arm caught him around the waist to prevent a rather nasty spill onto the ground. The body behind his was warm in the cool night air and Lor found himself rather more breathless than he thought he should have been. "Thank you."
The Grahlen released him and waved off his thanks, dropping into tired crouch in the deep shadows of the roof. Lor could almost see that exhaustion creeping back up on him as he relaxed a little and he began reevaluating his departure scenario. His original plan had been to conceal himself among the faceless masses of the city for the night before heading to Eventyne and then, hopefully, across the great sea and home. He was tempted to stick to the first part of that plan after seeing how drained the other boy was by their brief sprint to freedom, but the chances of being caught in a city crawling with the Vax's spies were too great to risk
They did need a plan, though, and much depended on his companion. Lor's own plans were based on a wish and a half-remembered dream and he didn't consider them to be set in stone. He felt the first faint stirrings of excitement as he contemplated the wondrous things he could see if the other boy was going to return home and wanted a companion. Either way, he supposed they would just have to improvise a plan.
First things first, though.
"What's your name?"
The Grahlen was instantly suspicious and looked up from absentmindedly grooming his tail with the tips of his fingers, "Why do you want to know?"
Lor rolled his eyes and shimmied down the rain gutter to the street several feet below, his quiet voice carrying in the still night. "Because I'm pretty sure you don't want me to keep calling you 'Twinkles.'"
The other boy growled a little at the nickname and jumped off the roof, landing lightly next to Lor. "You can call me Kai."
Lor grinned and sketched a bow at Kai, "I am Loran'asha. Lor for short."
Kai nodded his acknowledgement and looked around the deserted street. "Where are we?"
"We're about fifteen houses south of the Vax's house." Lor began poking at seemingly random bricks in the exposed chimney of the house.
"No, I meant, where are we?" Kai gestured broadly as if to encompass more than just their immediate vicinity.
Lor stopped his explorations of the masonry. "You don't know where we are?"
Kai turned to face Lor and his eyes flashed greenish-gold in the low light of the alley. "I wouldn't have asked if I knew."
Lor felt his hackles begin to rise at the tone of Kai's voice, but reminded himself the other boy had been through quite the ordeal already. "We're in Kreel. The Second City of Vaxar."
"Kreel." Kai seemed to be testing how the word felt in his mouth. "I am a long way from Grahle?"
"Yes, you are. Do you need to get back to Grahle?" Lor pulled away a loose bit of masonry on the chimney of the abandoned building and pulled out his traveling pack.
Kai nodded slowly. "I...My family will be missing me."
"Then we need to get out of the city as soon possible." Lor pulled open his pack and began to dig around in the contents.
Kai looked up from where he was slouched against the crumbling chimney. "Why are you helping me?"
Lor hesitated before simply shrugging. "I dislike seeing anyone in a cage."
The other boy's eyes narrowed as if he could sense that Lor wasn't telling him the entire truth, but Lor cut off whatever he was going to say by shoving a traveling cloak into his hands. "Put this on and make sure your ears and tail stay covered."
"You want me to cover my ears and tail with a ratty cloak?" The aforementioned tail began to puff up in indignation as Kai tried to push the cloak back into Lor's hands.
Lor shot a worried glance back towards the house they had just escaped from. It was still quiet, but they really didn't have time to be arguing about any of this. "It's either that or I pin your ears to your head and tie your tail in a knot and shove it in your pants."
Looking mutinous, Kai brought his tail in and wrapped it around his own waist before shaking the cloak out, settling it on his shoulders and pulling up the hood. "Happy?"
"Simply thrilled. Now let's get moving." Lor shouldered his pack, turned in a quick circle to get his bearings, and tucked Kai's hand into the crook of his elbow. "And remember to keep your head down. Vaxarian eyes don't reflect in the dark."
Kai lowered his head and fought the urge to rip his hand away from Lor's arm. How dare that puny excuse for a...a...a human tell him to cover his ears and tail? Even though the cloak was not heavy, it muffled his hearing enough to make Kai feel as though he were missing important sounds just outside his diminished range of hearing. He felt the tip of his tail twitch in agitation against his stomach and consciously tried to relax. He knew Lor was right, that his appearance would draw attention they absolutely could not afford, but it still rankled.
Lor set a pace that was fast, but seemed casual. Normally, Kai would not have found it challenging in the least to keep up with Lor, but since waking up in that damn cage last week, he hadn't slept unless he was drugged. He wasn't sure what that fat bastard had drugged him with either, but it always left him feeling like back end of a Nepeta ale binge and even maintaining the moderate pace Lor set was taxing his already depleted reserves. He was Grahlen, though, and he forced himself to ignore the minute shaking of his limbs and the lingering blurriness of his vision and straightened his back as much as he could while keeping his head down.
The sky lightened with the first signs of dawn and Kai wondered idly what time they had fled the Vax's house. He walked beside Lor without protest for what felt like cycles. In truth, he was too tired to give voice to the almost constant litany of complaints circling in his thoughts. My feet hurt. I'm hungry. This cloak is itchy. My tail is cramping up. I'm thirsty. I'm dizzy. I need a nap.
He found the repetition helpful, though. It kept his mind from focusing on the more substantial problems he knew were waiting for him once he was clearheaded enough to pay them proper attention. Such as, how he was going to get this damned collar off and how was he going to get back to Grahle? And who exactly was Loran'asha and why was he helping him? And why did Kai trust him when everything he'd seen of Vaxar and its inhabitants had left a decidedly bad taste in his mouth? And...
When Kai's head began to spin a little from the questions, he closed his eyes to regain his equilibrium and almost immediately stumbled on a piece of broken cobblestone. Lor caught him around the waist and held him steady until he could find his feet again. It took him longer than he would have liked to regain his balance, but Lor simply tightened his arms and took more of his weight. When he finally pulled himself upright, he stepped away from Lor's support and rolled his head on his shoulders to relieve some of the tension that had built up.
"Is there a foreseeable end to this forced march?"
"I know you must be tired, but we've only got another couple of blocks before we're in the marketplace. From there, it's not far to the border of the Caerkull. Once we're inside the treeline, we can set up camp for the next couple of days." Lor smiled sympathetically and Kai would have sworn his already startlingly eyes glowed a deeper shade of blue for a moment.
Kai felt his second wind kick in and straightened the hood of the cloak. "I'll be fine. It's nearly full dawn, we should get moving."
Lor held out his arm and Kai sighed before latching on and ducking his head back down. Another half a block and he could hear and smell the marketplace. Stretched as thinly as he was, the sights and sounds of the booths and shops played havoc with Kai's perceptions. He tightened his grip on Lor's arm and followed him into the melee. From what Kai could see under the edge of the hood, it was early enough in the morning that the market wasn't completely full, but there were enough people milling about that he and Lor didn't stand out.
They seemed to be circling the market in a certain pattern, but Kai just couldn't decipher exactly what it was. Exhaustion was creeping up on him again and it was all he could do to keep his eyes open. The solid muscle of the arm under his hand was rapidly becoming his one link to reality. As they wound their way through the stalls and crowd, he found that he could tell which way Lor was going to move simply by the tensing of his muscles. Kai was concentrating so deeply on trying to predict Lor's movements that he didn't notice when the shorter boy pulled him out of the flow of traffic and into a dim alcove.
"Here, eat this." Lor pushed warm, paper-wrapped package into his hand and Kai's stomach growled at the smell of the fresh bread and crushed fruit. He made quick work of his meal and of the small bladder of water Lor offered him. The sustenance revived him a little and he risked a quick look around marketplace as he waited for Lor to finish his own breakfast.
"How far - " Kai's question was cut off by a strident bell chiming in the distance and his heart fell when he saw Lor pale.
"The Vax's men will be here any minute, you have to hurry." Lor dropped the remains of his meal on the ground and shoved his travel pack into Kai's hands. "If you skirt behind this row of stalls, you can sneak out into the alley to the east of here. Once you're in the alley, head south out of the city and hide in the first green barn on your left until you hear that bell again. The Caerkull is due south from that barn and Grahle is on the other side of the forest."
The sheer audacity of Lor's plan left Kai speechless for a long moment. A thousand questions battered at his tired mind, not the least of which was how was he supposed to traverse the impenetrable Caerkull forest, but when he opened his mouth, the only question he found he needed an answer to, was a question he didn't even know he had. "What about you?"
Lor grinned. "I'm going to create a distraction. If I don't meet you in the barn before the second tolling of the Vax's warning bell, head for the forest without me. I'll catch up."
"You'll catch up?" Kai slid the pack onto his back underneath the cloak without thinking. "Are you completely mad?"
Lor shrugged and pushed him behind the stall. "Hurry."
Turning around and leaving Kai standing all alone behind the ale vendor's booth was considerably more difficult than Lor thought it would be. Though he knew creating a distraction for the Vax's men was their best hope - their only hope, really - for escape, he still felt as though he were abandoning the other boy. There was nothing he could do about it, though, and Lor tucked the image of Kai standing in the shadows, nervously playing with the end of his tail into the back of his mind as he melted into the crowd.
He knew he only had about ten rotes before the market was teeming with the Vax's hired army and a quick reconnaissance of his immediate surroundings showed a multitude of opportunities for mischief. It was easy to transfer Majan-Jur's money purse to a visible location in Huert's basket. He repeated the same trick on the other side of the market and the outraged shrieks of Iona Schil drew quite the crowd.
Satisfied with the number of raised voices in that area, Lor hooked his ankle around Big Maky's knee and sent him careening into quick-tempered Gerd. Despite being only half the size of Maky, Gerd shoved the larger man, letting loose a string of truly inspired obscenity and Maky, though slow to anger, was not one to take insults aimed at his exalted mother lightly.
Three more relocated money pouches, two collapsed melon stands, and a freed monkey later, Lor had managed to pin the Vax's mercenaries on the opposite side of the market and he was positive Kai was free of the alley and on his way to the barn. He scooped up two of the smaller escaped melons and stowed them in his satchel before skirting around the crowd making bets on whether Fandret would survive his thrashing from Big Maky's sister, Neni. He was tempted to use the alley shortcut, but he didn't want to draw any attention to Kai's escape route, so he turned towards the main exit of the market.
He was within sight of the arched entranceway when a heavy hand settled on his shoulder. Lor jumped in surprise and knocked the hand off of his shoulder as he spun around to face his assailant.
The head of the unofficial marketplace security force held up his hands as if in surrender. "Easy, boy."
Lor relaxed, but kept part of his attention on the Vax's men slowly working their way through the crowd. "Rekken, what can I do for you?"
Rekken Val was not a large man, but he held the respect of everyone in the lower echelons of Kreelian society, from merchant to street urchin, and Lor was no exception. His offer was truly that, an offer of whatever assistance to the older man.
His words were waved off, though. "I'm afraid it's you that requires my assistance, Loran'asha. The Vas is on the warpath. There's a rumor someone stole something infinitely precious from him last night and you know all the unexplained thefts in the city are eventually blamed on you."
Lor made a little face of rueful acknowledgement, "I do seem to attract trouble, don't I?"
Where Rekken would have normally laughed and, perhaps, ruffled Lor's hair, he remained in earnest. "It isn't a joking matter, Lor. The Vax wants his property back and he wants someone's head on a pike."
Lor felt his grin soften into a smile at the obvious concern. "You don't need to worry, Rekken. I'm leaving Kreel today. For good."
Rekken nodded slowly, as if Lor's decision was not unexpected. "You'll be careful?"
"As much as I ever am." Lor held out his hand to Rekken, but was swept into a tight hug instead. When he would have struggled out of the uncharacteristic embrace, a fierce whisper stopped him.
"No one should live in a cage, Loran'asha. We will make sure the Vax is kept quite busy in the city for the next several days."
Lor swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat and returned the embrace with equal strength. Rekken released him after a few moments, but Lor reached up and gently touched the other man's temples. "May the blessings and grace of Lintha and Stryea surround and support you."
Rekken raised his hands to Lor's temples and completed the ancient exchange. "May the blessings and grace of Lintha and Stryea surround and support you."
Lor stepped back and raised his hand in a gesture of leave-taking. "Be well, Rekken."
"Be well, Lor."
Despite the noise and rush he could sense just beyond the thin wall of the market stall, Kai suddenly felt very alone. It was a shock to him to realize how much he had come to depend on Lor's presence in a few short hours. An aggravated shout from the marketplace caught his attention and he began to skirt the clutter in the narrow passageway to head towards the alley. He didn't necessarily agree with Lor's plan, but there was nothing to do about it now. If the other boy was determined to sacrifice himself as a distraction, Kai would do his best to make sure it was not in vain.
There was about five paces worth of open ground between the passageway and the entrance to the alley and it took more courage than Kai would have thought possible to step from the shadows and into the small patch of sunlight. A marked increase of the furor in the marketplace seemed to coincide with his first step into the light and Kai had to admire Lor's timing and skill. From what he could see out of the corner of his eye, the marketplace seemed to be completely awash in chaos, but it had not yet erupted into violence.
Kai breathed a sigh of relief as he crossed the threshold of the alley and resisted the urge to look back for Lor. It simply wouldn't do to get caught now. The alley was long and merchants observing the melee leaned against its mouth. Kai murmured apologies as he shouldered through their ranks and strolled as casually as he could manage away from the market.
The alley was obviously not meant for heavy traffic; the only outlets were where it spilled onto the streets at either end. The tall buildings on either side of the alleyway made the passage seem much more narrow than it actually was. After the days spent in a cage, even the vague impression of being closed in made Kai feel anxious and quickened his pace until he was very nearly running as he approached the end of the alley.
Kai retained enough sense not to run blindly out of the alley and he skidded to a stop just before he stumbled into the street. He guessed he had been in the alley for nearly half of a cycle and was unsurprised when he saw it ended near the outskirts of the city. He pulled the hood of the cloak forward from where it had slipped back a little and stepped into the street, striding confidently out of town and towards the green barn he could see in the distance.
As he moved further and further away from the bustle of Kreel, Kai found himself endlessly twisting the end of his tail. It was a nervous habit he had as a kindle, but he hadn't done it in years. He tried to force himself let go, but he had a feeling the gentle, familiar motion of the tip of his tail moving through his fingers was the only thing keeping him calm at the moment.
Sooner than he would have liked, Kai reached the green barn. The barn, as well as the farmhouse next to it, was obviously abandoned, but that was probably for the best. Kai ducked into the decrepit structure and took advantage of the relative privacy to remove the cloak and unwind his tail from around his waist. He sighed with relief and rotated his ears back and forth until they no longer felt pinned down by the heavy hood.
With little to do except wait, Kai picked a spot on the floor with a good view of the road, spread the cloak on the ground, and sat down to rest. His attempt to lean back against the barn wall was thwarted by the pack he had forgotten he was wearing. He shrugged out of it and nestled it on the ground between his knees.
The pack was oddly shaped and seemed to be held together by little more than hope and clumsily sewn patches, but the fabric was soft between his fingers and worked well enough as a substitute for his poor, abused tail. The contents of the pack shifted as he wound the straps around his fingers and he suddenly, desperately needed to know what Lor had in the pack. His hands hovered for a moment over the ties keeping the top closed. He was aware opening the pack would be dreadful invasion of Lor's privacy, but he had given Kai the pack and there was no guarantee he would be returning. Besides, it only made sense for Kai to know what he had to work with for his journey home.
Satisfied with his unassailable logic, Kai indulged his curiosity and opened the pack, mentally cataloguing the items he carefully removed. Shirt, pants, tattered baby blanket? glosstones, socks, under -
Kai picked up the smaller bag again and tipped its contents out onto the cloak covering the ground. He found himself staring down at two dozen of the largest glosstones he had ever seen. He picked up one and held it up to a shaft of light. It was flawless and Kai was willing to bet the rest of the collection was as well. He tried to calculate how much the stones would be worth, but the amount was, frankly, too staggering to contemplate.
Lor had some explaining to do.
Created and maintained by carleton97.