A young boy learns the lesson of loyalty and truth behind apperances.
Lord Slaughter watched as two onyx panthers, Ketta and Koja, padded into the throne room. Two minutes of silence passed as the felines and their lord communicated telepathically. With a nod, the lord sent them away and summoned General Joan.
"Send the leopards and the wolves to the Northern Border. Apparently, rebels have been gathering outside the capital. And a new radical group has begun to emerge within the city walls, calling themselves the Huntsmen. Ketta has sent her patrols into the western district where rebel slogans have been appearing the most. But be prepared to send your troops into the city if things get…messy."
"As you wish your lordship."
The general carefully studied her leader's outfit: a suit of armor, a blade with a dragon entwined around the hilt, and a face-covering helmet that allowed only two piercing blue eyes to show through. The lord carefully studied everything in the room, occasionally drumming the iron clad fingers of the gauntlet on the red jade throne, or scrutinizing the maps of potential conquests.
The blue eyes found the general's, "Are you finished examining me? Or do I have to order the jaguars to rip your throat out?"
"No…I mean yes I am finished examining, my liege, and I shall leave thy presence without delay."
She could swear that as she left, a smile played in those eyes.
A blazing, red sun glared on the dusty roads of Endoril, capital of the Sovereignty. The loose dirt covered black, asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks, coating the sides of steel framed buildings. Large, telecast screens showed constant images of the Sovereignty's insignias, messages, and governmental leaders, except for the Warlord himself. Where rotating portals and bell chiming doors had been, sheer curtains replaced them, and where corporate business had once taken place, odd bazaars and marketplaces took their place. Children ran in the streets along with beggars, bargain hunters, and feline guards.
Tarin let his hand slip to his small blade, loosely held in his belt. An aristocrat, a lady wearing long, flowing robes and traveling with a lynx at her side, strolled with dignity as a purse of coins jingled merrily on her hip. With her nose so high in the air, she did not notice Tarin slip beside her and cut her purse, but as coins cascaded to the ground with a defining chime, she uttered a curse.
"Symbia, reprimand that boy!"
The lynx slinked around her mistress and bounded after the fleeing Tarin, whose trembling hand could barely keep hold of the clinking horde. While a lynx was defter at movement than a human, Tarin knew the alleys of the capital better than any feline in the city. He quickly found a ladder, and stuffing the coins in his mouth, he clambered the rungs. Symbia paws slipped on the black rungs, chipping paint, but soon regained a grip of ladder and began her ascent.
Tarin, standing on the iron-wrought ledge, climbed through a window into a home. A small girl, playing in the corner of the room, screamed at the intruder and fled in terror as the lynx soon followed. Tarin dashed through the room and into a hallway, curtain swishing behind him. He took the stairs three at a time, passing peeling wallpaper and discarded trash scattered everywhere. He smiled as he saw one of the few remaining doors in the city, barely still attached, but perfect for his plan. He opened the door and hurried to the other side, and as the lynx leapt towards Tarin, he slammed the door. A heavy thud echoed through the building, along with a moaning yowl.
Spitting the coins from his mouth, he tenderly placed the coins in his tattered, but still whole boot. Tarin was careful to walk without clinking too much.
The marketplace reeked of animal wastes and exotic oils. People shoved and rushed to the different stalls, bartering with coins, heirlooms, and random pieces of the old technologies that would still prove valuable, even if they were not used for their intended purposes.
"Come and look at the Mykrowauve! An amazing device that lights a house and warms anything that is frozen. Only twenty coins to the next lucky buyer."
A group of children played Huntsman, and the poor child that was the "Warlord" ran in mock terror as a group of children charged towards him with fists raised and shouts of freedom. Of course, the first person to catch the "Warlord", became the new king and won the game. As the successful child caught "Warlord", a jaguar skulked into the game. The child enthusiastically shouted, "Down with Lord Slaughter!" not knowing that the jaguar sentinel watched with disdain. The feline snarled at the child who froze.
Tarin's clinking boot was unheard by the boisterous crowd. He quickly stepped between the jaguar and the child, ushering the children away from the angry feline. While he agreed with the child's sentiment, he could not stand to see any violence that would come with the child's outburst.
The children scattered, and Tarin began browsing the wares of the merchants. Food was his first priority, and then clothes for his family. He bought three cans of beans and soup, as well as four packs of ramen. Then he slowly made his way to racks of clothes.
Before he could examine shirts, a portly boy situated himself in front of Tarin.
"Where's my payment, little man?" the boy squealed.
"I don't owe you anything, you pig!" Tarin exclaimed.
The boy's pudgy face squished into rage, "Pig eh? Well you’re a runt, and I can take everything you have."
Tarin fumbled with the knife at his belt, just as the boy brandished his own. They began to exchange blows.
A small crowd surrounded the two boys and cheered, making bets on who would win.
"Idiot, this could be so easy, if you'd just pay me. Then I wouldn't have to cut your pretty little face."
"I hope you rot!"
Tarin made wild blows at the chubby boy who easily avoided each predictable move, make small slashes here and there. Blood soon poured from his clothes and coins were falling from his boots each time he stumbled. People surrounding them eagerly grabbed the loot.
Suddenly, a woman stepped between them. She had dark blonde hair and wore a simple black robe. She stood with perfect composure.
The portly boy laughed, "A woman has come to save you?!"
Then it was the woman's turn to grin as she snatched the blade from his hand deftly, and threw the knife into the post of a nearby stall, the blade wedging into the wood. The boy in mid-laugh gulped and dashed through the crowd, which had begun to roar with jeering amusement at the coward.
Tarin himself tried to sneak from the scene, but was stopped by the woman's cerulean eyes boring into his own.
"Where are you going?" she raised a single eyebrow.
He stammered, "I need to go home. My family needs me."
The woman watched as Tarin rushed away, her eyes scrutinizing his path.
Home for Tarin was a dingy room with no windows. One corner of the room was covered in a mattress and several cushions, while the rest of the room was bare except for a pile of wood for fires to cook and heat, food, and a stuffed teddy bear that had been shared with all the siblings of the household. He had given it to his younger sister when he turned three.
His mother held a cast-iron pot over the fire and waited for the water to boil. She glanced at Tarin, her face sunken and pale.
"What happened?" motherly concern seemed to elude her question.
Tarin shrugged, "I got into a fight, no big deal."
She clawed her hair and snarled angrily, "You could have gotten really hurt, and then who would be left alone to take care of this family! Me."
"Father would have come back," Tarin retorted.
His mother's face turned red, "He abandoned us. Just accept it."
Tarin shouted, "No! He's a great leader in the rebel armies. He's trying to save us!"
"If he wanted to save us, he wouldn't have left," she was on the verge of tears.
Cold anger filled his heart as Tarin threw coins at his whimpering mother and dumped the newly bought food with the rest of their supplies. He walked away from his "home".
A cracked mirror sat in the deserted hallway. It was the only thing that allowed him to notice his growth. He still had the same copper-green eyes and fair hair. His baby fat was gone, not by age but by hunger for he was only ten, and he was the height of jaguar on all four legs. He wore leather boots a size too large, gloves that had holes for his fingers to be exposed, brown leggings, a bulky, white shirt that was covered in dust, and a belt that kept his shirt tucked loosely. His knife gleamed in the mirror
He gazed in the depths of the mirror for only a second more and walked outside. The sun had finally settled behind the once imposing structures of the twenty-first century. Lanterns and candles were the only lights of the city. Jaguars patrolled restlessly along the abandoned streets, as carriers took flight. They carted the aristocrats who conducted most of their activity at night, lounging in sky-high clubs and hotels, and spending lavishly on personal benefits. The only things they spent more money on, beside themselves, were their familiars.
A cold wind brushed his shoulders as he leaned against the doorframe, his arms crossed. Music lilted in the air, carrying the warmth of firelight and friendship. Awen sat on a stool by the lantern, playing the piccolo. Her hair was auburn, flowing down her shoulders, and her eyes were amethysts; she wore a white tunic and long, thick stockings that acted as her shoes. She was the only person he considered a friend.
"Did you write that?"
Awen smiled, "Perhaps…I could teach you how to play, you know."
Tarin sighed, "Playing music isn't exactly a paying gift."
"Only if you expect a reward of money."
Even the jaguars lay around her as she played her sweet melody.
He lay on the cushions with his mother and three sisters. Nina was curled into a ball, Nattie was stretched across the mattress beside her mother, and Niobe slept with her arms and legs sprawled across everyone's body. Tarin's mind was beyond sleep and dreams, alert to everything around him but subdued enough to think clearly.
He remembered the first flag of the Warlord his father had burned. The insignia on the flag was a black dragon on a red background with a silver blindfold. Soon his father was throwing stones at the telecast screens, making public speeches against the Sovereignty, and attacking the sentinels of the streets. Then he murdered an aristocrat.
Since then, his father had fled underground to amass followers who would rise with him against Lord Slaughter. Faint memories of stern man with a commanding voice filled his head. Tarin's father was everything Tarin envisioned in the perfect leader.
When he was old enough, Tarin would join the Huntsmen and help topple the Sovereignty. When he was old enough, he would rejoin his father.
A small group of boys huddled in the street corner. Tarin announced his presence by whistling three ominous notes. The smallest boy in the group, who had a thin scar on his cheek smiled, "I told ya'll he'd come!"
"Well," said the one with dark curly hair who was obviously the leader, "I figured he wouldn't show, with his father being who he is. Tarin wouldn't have time for us petty thieves." Sarcasm dripped from the leader's voice.
Anger erupted from Tarin, "At least my father isn't a filthy scum rat like yours!"
"Take that back!"
As the two boys were about to come to blows, a brutish boy with unnaturally thick muscles for an adolescent stepped between them. "Khaddar, let it go. Tarin, we mean you no harm. It's just that Zephyr's enthusiasm over you has been…well…insufferable," referring to the smallest boy.
Khaddar sighed regretfully, "Baldric is right. I apologize for my behavior…"
Tarin crossed his arms, and answered hastily, "I am as well, but what is this great plan you have."
Khaddar smiled, "We want to steal from the aristocrats."
The other boys grinned as Tarin's mouth gaped, "How?"
"We hide on a carrier and while they're out we steal the valuables."
"How do hide on a carrier? Someone's bound to notice six kids," Tarin asked skeptically.
"That is Taenia's job. She can find each of us one carrier to board, so we're spread out, it's easier to hide, and we can get more loot."
Taenia was a girl, her black hair chopped so closely to her head that she appeared to be a boy. She explained, "My father is a mechanic for carriers, so he knows who has one and where they live. Although he doesn't know about this plan so I have to be careful when I ask him."
Khaddar added, "By the way, this is Rya, who has a knack for handling knifes."
Rya had several cuts over his arms and face. He was gangly, but still shorter than Baldric.
"Meet us here tomorrow and we'll assign carriers." With that Khaddar slipped away, his group trailing him. Tarin scratched his head, overwhelmed by the daunting task ahead of him.
He traveled to the marketplace, his mind racing. Tarin barely noticed as he bumped into a black robe. He gazed up and saw the blonde haired woman from the other day.
"You're not here to cause anymore trouble, kid."
Tarin stammered a response, "I'm just here to buy clothes for my family."
She glowered, "If you cared so much about your family, you wouldn't throw coins at your mother."
The woman briskly walked away, leaving Tarin in shock for the second time that day.
His sister's made grabs for the dresses he set before them. Their mother lifted the robe she had been given, examining it. "Thank you, son," a weak smile appeared on her lips.
Awen sat outside and played her piccolo. The jaguars once again lay at her feet. She looked at Tarin as he approached her. "Why are you afraid?"
"I've been asked by the thieves to go on a…difficult mission," Tarin replied.
One of the jaguars nudged her leg, as if asking her to keep playing. "Why go then? Why put yourself in danger?"
He shrugged, "I don't want fear to control me…to provide for this family I must do something, even if it is dangerous."
She seemed pleased with his response, "At least you've matured a little. Now someone needs to temper your temper." She giggled at her play on words.
"I don't have a problem with anger!" he protested.
Awen doubled over, he melodious laugh echoing through the streets.
Khaddar drew a list from his pocket. He seemed slightly flustered as he glanced at the words on the paper.
"Hey, Taenia, read this to us."
She sniffed and took the list in hand. "And you said it be better in your hands," she muttered under her lips.
"I have six carriers, one for each of us. Knowing each of our strengths, we decided who should take each carrier." She paused to take a breath, "Rya, you have Lord Gelding's carrier, because of the guards. You'd be best to protect yourself in a fight, no offence Baldric. Zephyr, you will take Lady Lorida, who has a very cramped carrier. You’re the only one who'd fit well enough. Khaddar has Lord Brec, who always carries his goods in locked chests. Khaddar hasn't found a lock he couldn't pick. Baldric, you have Lord Olme. His carrier is spacious, but I'm sure it has traps so be on your guard. I myself shall take Lady Freya's carrier because I have a personal vendetta with that woman." Taenia hissed the last sentence.
Tarin asked, "And who shall I have?"
Khaddar smirked, "To prove your worth, I want you to take Lord Caulding's carrier."
Tarin knew the infamy of Lord Caulding. The man was a paranoid miser, always keeping his money firmly on his belt or in his pocket. Instead of one familiar, he kept three, a monkey, an owl, and a snake, all of which he made to keep a close eye on his gold. Tarin was a gifted pickpocket, but not a professional thief. Stealing from Caulding was a fool's errand especially for a kid.
"If you don't do it, I'm sure you could still keep your reputation." Khaddar's smirk deepened. Tarin clenched his fists.
Taenia intervened, "Well, besides, you’re the only one who's willing to steal aristocrats with their familiars around. In fact, you're probably the only thief to survive encounters with the familiars. You'll do well."
Tarin lowered his eyes in flattery, "Well…I guess. As long as I can leave if my life is endangered. Right?"
"But if you're good enough, your life shouldn't be endangered," Khaddar quipped.
Tarin glared, but tried to ignore Khaddar, "I'll do it then; where's his carrier?"
Baldric grunted, "I'll show you the way. Lord Olme's place is along the way to Caulding's. We have to get there before nightfall, so if you need anything you should get it now."
Rya and Zephyr stole away into the alleyways, obviously knowledgeable of their aristocrats' whereabouts. Taenia strolled to the marketplace, Khaddar sliding beside her and then brushing ahead. Baldric watched Tarin.
"I brought everything I needed with me."
"Good, and ignore Khaddar. He thinks he'll be an aristocrat one day because of his 'superior skills'. We'll see though."
Baldric trudged through the streets, his slothfulness unbecoming of a thief. Tarin struggled to hold his pace with the sluggish boy, sometimes having to stop and wait. His patience for Baldric wore thin.
"You're very slow," Tarin commented.
Baldric kept his grim countenance, "When you've run all your life, you'll enjoy every moment you can walk."
After a moment Baldric began to instruct, "All these nobles will be going to the Gold Tower for a party. We will stow away on the carrier, steal what we can, and meet on the Tower's docks. Then Taenia says she can hijack, hot-wire, and drive one of the carriers down to our hideout. After that we'll split the goods evenly and head home."
Tarin grinned, "What about the carrier we'll steal?"
"Oh…I think we can put it to good use. Or at least pawn the parts," Baldric chuckled at the last sentence.
Finally, as the sun stood on the tops of the buildings ready to sink behind them, Tarin and Baldric found Caulding's place.
Baldric grunted, "A miser's palace, eh?"
The building had once been a bank, with large stone columns and marble walls. Stone lions perched on their ledges, as if waiting for an unsuspecting visitor. Four sentries carefully protected the glass, rotating door, dressed in black tunics and leather leggings with swords and guns draped on their belts. Their bodies only shifted when they transferred their weight to the other foot.
Baldric clapped his hand on Tarin's shoulder. "Good luck," he offered and strolled towards Lord Olme's abode.
Tarin stared at the guards for a few seconds and surveyed for the carrier. On a terrace, added to the third floor of the building, a substantial bulk hid under a tarp. Tarin assumed that this was the carrier. As he began to formulate a plan to reach the third floor undetected, a hand slipped over his mouth, and a voice whispered.
"I can secure your reputation."
Tarin struggled against the arm clenching his head.
"Stop squirming. I'm not going to hurt you."
Tarin was shocked that he recognized the voice, and became still. The speaker took her hand from his mouth and turned him around.
"You’re the lady from the market," he said astutely, studying her black robe.
A quizzical look came to her face, "Few call me a 'lady'…or call me 'ma'am' for that matter. At least your polite, I guess."
Annoyance washed over Tarin, "I need to be going, so if you would-"
"I have a proposition," she interrupted. "I can get you on that terrace if you take me to the Gold Tower."
He argued, "Can't you get there yourself?"
She smirked, "I can see your courtesy is short-lived. But I'm sure with your scrawny arms and bony legs that you can reach the carrier undetected."
Tarin kicked the dirt, "What's your idea?"
"So you'll take me to the Gold Tower?"
"Maybe is not good enough."
"What!? Alright. Fine. I'll take you." He brooded.
She grinned, "Good, then let me just show you the easy way."
Her hand stretched towards the carrier while her other hand seemed to be making wild gestures. Suddenly the tarp on the carrier fell over the terrace and onto the four guards. None of them noticed the cascading canvas until they were enshrouded in its folds. They began to scuffle with the heavy cover as five jaguar sentinels pounced on the tarp.
"Now for the hard part," she grimaced.
She ran towards the building, Tarin following closely. At the wall, her hand stretched upward, her sleeve falling and revealing a metal glove that left the fingers exposed. In the center was a glowing green light, and the light glowed brighter as she concentrated. She grabbed Tarin around the waist, and as by an invisible rope, they floated toward the terrace.
As they reached the top, the first guard escaped the tarp and the jaguar pinning him down. He aimed his gun at the suspended pair. The guard fired, and notch of brick crumbled to the ground. The woman made more gestures with her other hand, and the jaguar leaped on the man. She grabbed the railing of the terrace and hoisted Tarin over the railing. Another shoot fired coming from another man, and this shoot barely missed her feet.
The carrier was metallic, cylindrical dome, with gold wire etching the individual steel panels of the aircraft, and the whole craft was about twelve yards long. The duo clambered inside, and Tarin glancing amazed at the interior. Cream white, silk sheets acted as a wallpaper and the floor was covered in a blood red carpet. At the helm, two padded seats acted as chairs for the drivers. Buttons and levers lined the wall of the helm. In the hull, a white couch occupied one wall, while stationary seats and tables filled the other wall. At the back, a small room, probably intended for storage, hid.
"Stop gaping, you need to hid us!" the woman hissed.
He gasped, "What?! Why me?!"
"That was the deal, now hurry!"
The ideal place was the storage room, but that was the most obvious place too. Hiding under furniture seemed obvious until he noticed the couch.
"There are luggage compartments under the couch. We'll hide at the far end."
He pulled open the one closest to the storage room. "Get in this one. I'll get take the next one."
She looked at him with perplexity, "Will we really fit in those tiny boxes."
"They're bigger than they look. Try it."
She stepped inside and curled up. He slid the compartment closed, and climbed into the on beside hers. He rolled, slamming his body into the back of the compartment, closing the compartment, and leaving him in darkness, except for the rim of light at the top of the compartment. Then he waited.
After what seemed like an eternity, Tarin heard the shuffling of guards, and the grunt of a monkey. A commanding voice echoed in the room, "Check the storage room and the furniture. I want this trip to be…uneventful."
Tarin heard furniture shuffling and doors opening. "Nothing here, sire. I daresay they would hid on the ship. Too obvious."
"Well, check the luggage compartments, too."
Another guard answered him, "I doubt anyone could fit in the luggage compartments, and besides we'll be here to protect you, Lord Caulding."
The monkey grunted again and the commanding voice resounded, "Very well. We go to the Gold Tower."
The darkness was suffocating. The vessel hummed as the carrier departed from the ground. The monkey's chitter drowned the buzz. After a period of time, Lord Caulding sighed, "These social gatherings are so humdrum, so vapid and listless. You would think these nobles would try to pique my interest instead of my wallet."
"You mean the League? But don't they share your same concerns, sire?
"Of course the League, and yes we are in accord with our ideas of…personal gain."
A silence settled again.
An hour had passed when the incessant drone stilled. The passengers unloaded, Tarin knew by the clicking of heels. When the metal doors of the carrier whooshed shut, Tarin rolled against the luggage compartment, forcing the drawer open. The woman by now stood poised as she surveyed the interior.
"Darn, he didn't leave you anything," she smiled sarcastically.
Tarin growled, "We'll you didn't check the other compartments."
"Well, we would have heard them being opened anyway."
Tarin sighed, "I guess I'll have to go to the party to get the goods."
She grinned, "Or perhaps not."
Suddenly the metal doors screeched open. The monkey hobbled toward them, its grubby paws holding three pouches that clinked melodically as the monkey moved.
Tarin's despair became shock, "What is this?!"
The woman laughed. "No animal can resist my charms," she said, patting her metal gauntlet.
Tarin asked for no explanation and snatched the gold from the monkey paws. He looked vaguely at her, "Who are you?"
The monkey clambered up the woman's arm. "I am rebel, like yourself. A wanderer off the beaten path, a drummer of a different beat, a red banner among white flags-"
"Stop speaking in riddles!" he shouted, "What is your name? Why did you follow me? If you're a rebel, do you know my father? Do you fight the Sovereignty and Lord Slaughter?"
A coy smile played on her lips, "I will only answer two question. My name is Leona. I am impatient with the squanderings of these nobles, who only have their own needs in their hearts. That is why I followed you, and now I must go."
Tarin felt like an ignorant and helpless child, something he had only felt in his earlier days of youth. This woman was beyond his comprehension, naive and sophisticated at the same time.
"Will I see you again?"
"Hopefully, if I don't suffer a freak accident," her laugh echoing as she dashed toward the Gold Tower.
Tarin slinked through the shadows, waiting to see one of the boys (or Taenia) to appear on the docks. Rya emerged first followed by Khaddar and Baldric. Tarin strolled towards them.
Khaddar spat towards the Gold Tower, "A plague on you all."
The Gold Tower was a gilded pyramid on top of a skyscraper. The golden panels glittered with majestic beauty during the day, but at night when the artificial, multicolored lights beamed on its surface, the pyramid seemed to become one of the ghosts of Babylon full of indulgence and extravagance. Even the fountains surrounding the exterior did not dampen its shady aura.
Baldric stretched his arms, popping his shoulders in the process. "Were you successful?" he directed the question to Tarin.
Tarin patted the three pouches that hung from his belt, letting them jingle. Baldric grinned revealing bejeweled dagger and several coins from his vest. Rya and Khaddar both produced coins they had stuffed in their sleeves and pockets. Khaddar laughed, "I guess the ladies decided to be fashionably late."
Tarin agreed, "I wondered where the others were."
After about an hour Zephyr emerged, frolicking like a colt. He opened his small jacket, which poured with gems and jewelry.
"Be careful with the goods, little man," Khaddar warned.
Suddenly a carrier landed in the outskirts of the docks. Lady Freya materialized from her esteemed carrier and sauntered towards the entrance. She merely glanced at the huddled group and muttered, "Filthy urchins, how did they get up here…"
Tarin grimaced, "Same to you, lady."
After a moment, Taenia bounded towards the boys. A white cat followed behind her.
Khaddar spoke with apprehension, "What is that?"
Taenia scooped the cat into her arms, "Lady Freya's cat. I stole the medallion used to control it."
"Don't they only wear that around their neck!"
"She wears hers on her wrist actually. Unlike you sneaks, I went with the more practical approach. I told Freya that my father had sent me to make sure the carrier ran smoothly. And she believed me! So when I bid her good night, I shook her hand, and took the bracelet! She never noticed a thing. And the cat has been telling me all her dirty little secrets."
Khaddar smirked, "Did you get any gold."
Taenia rolled her eyes, "Of course. I can see you don't understand the significance of this cat."
"What?" he asked as she produced some jewels.
"The cat can lead us to her treasure in her house, telling us where to avoid traps and guards."
Khaddar's eyes widened, "Are you serious?! We can get her g-gold?!"
"Of course, but right now we need to leave. She's bound to notice her 'precious' cat is gone."
Baldric nodded, "What ship shall we use."
Taenia sighed, "I can't arouse Freya's suspicion anymore, so we'll have to try someone else's."
The gang made their way towards the end of the docks, and found an old carrier that took Baldric only two tugs to open the corroded door. Taenia quickly took the controls while Khaddar, Baldric, and Tarin took guard of the doors. Rya as usual kept silent and began fiddling with one of his knives. Zephyr gazed out the window with wonder, "We're so high up…"
The carrier lurched suddenly and everyone made an involuntary gasp. Khaddar yelled, "What's going on?!"
Taenia scowled from the cockpit, "This thing's in bad shape. Really touchy. I hope I can get it to the ground safely."
Tarin glanced at the white cat purring beside Taenia's seat. Despite his dislike for the sentinels of the city, he had a slight fondness for animals. Unconsciously he reached down to pet the cat.
"She doesn't want you to touch her. She thinks your hands will make her dirty."
Tarin jerked his hand away, "How do you know that, Taenia."
"The bracelet lets me here what she's thinking. It's how we communicate. Here we go!" Taenia pulled a lever and soon the machine was slowly pulling away from the docks.
Zephyr gasped, "I see the banner."
"What?" Khaddar queried.
"The blind dragon. It's getting closer."
Khaddar, Baldric, and Tarin stared out the window. Two peregrine falcons soared through the air, holding the red flag between their talons. This meant the Sovereignty had won a battle.
The carrier moved away from the banner, and dipped into the city below. The engine growled weakly, and the vessel shuddered violently at sudden updrafts. Taenia flew the carrier into an abandoned building and landed among garbage and broken glass. She released a sigh of relief, "Glad that's over."
Khaddar cheered, "This is it boys, we finally stole from the aristocrats!"
"Ahem," Taenia crossed her arms.
"And girl," submitted Khaddar, "now lay out your treasures."
They counted altogether 125 gold coins along with ten pieces of jewelry and Baldric's dagger.
Rya spoke for the first time, his voice thin and raspy, "If you give me the dagger, ya'll can split the rest."
Baldric relinquished the dagger, and everyone else received 25 gold pieces and two pieces of jewelry. Taenia grinned at the elaborate brooch hanging around her neck, "It suits me doesn't it? I think I may keep it."
His mother took the coins without question, and Tarin pawned the jewelry for more gold coins, making the total amount of coins to 45. As he came to his mother with the rest of the gold, he cast his eyes down and shuffled his feet.
"May I buy something for Awen?"
She glanced at him, "Why?"
Tarin sniffed, "I just think she would like something nice."
His mother's face seemed impassive, but her eyes glittered like stars, "What will you get her?"
"A barrette; she's always wanted something for her hair."
The smallest of smiles passed his mother's lips, "It is your money. Do as you please."
The marketplace was sparse. People were at jobs, leaving the prices affordable and the goods plenty. He browsed the jewelry stand, looking for the perfect barrette. Suddenly he noticed a barrette set in white, pink, and green stones to form the shape of a white flower with a pink center and leaves. He turned to the merchant of the shop, "How much is this one?"
He studied the barrette, "Twenty-five gold, not a penny less."
Tarin had always wondered what a penny was, but apparently, the phrase meant he could not haggle a price.
"That's very expensive…maybe I'll just look for something else."
Suddenly a shower of coins hit the jewelry stands glass countertop, "I believe that should cover the expenses."
Tarin turned to see Leona smirking at the merchant, whose mouth was agape.
"Why are you doing this for me?
"Yeah," the merchant commented pleasantly, "why do that for him?"
Her jovial face grew grave, "Do not question me."
"Yes, ma'am! I apologize, please accept my sincere gratitude for purchasing such a fine piece of jewelry from my humble shop," his words dripped like sour honey.
Leona turned to Tarin and smiled, "Actually I want a favor to ask. Well…it's more of a long-standing arrangement. I want you to be…my apprentice!"
"What?" Tarin's eyes widened. "The apprentice of a true rebe-"
"Shh…I am wanted."
Tarin blushed, "Oh yeah. Oops…"
"So you'll do it. And of course I'd send your family money in return for allowing me to pass on my teachings. What do you say?"
The corners of his mouth could not extend farther from his cheeks, "Yes!!!"
She folded her arms, "Good, now I must speak with your mother, and you must give that gift to Awen."
He no longer questioned Leona's ability to know everything about himself. With barrette in hand, he dashed to Awen.
During the day, Awen was a seamstress in the cloth shops. His hands shook as he wandered among the other young women in the shop. Suddenly a familiar voice fluttered over the drone of sowing machines, "Tarin! What are you doing here?"
He spotted Awen towards the back of the shop, who was waving her arms. The other women snickered calling him, "Beau" and "Her secret admirer". Tarin blushed as he handed her the barrette, "My mission was successful."
Her eyes sparkled with delight as she cradled the barrette, "It is beautiful." She placed it in her hair and smiled, "I must play you a special song tonight."
The other women cooed at them saying, "Aww, such young love."
"Shut up!" he growled, but that only enticed them more.
Leona conversed with Tarin's mother on agreeable terms for his apprenticeship. After a few minutes both were smiling, pleased with the outcome.
Tarin's mother waited for Tarin to come home to tell him the conditions of the arrangement. "You will visit her everyday when the sun rises till the sun sets. She says she will teach you things most people only learn in school, along with instruction in her 'craft'. I want you to be a good apprentice for her, and be loyal. Watch your tongue…"
"…Or else it might get cut off, I know."
His mother smiled regretfully, "I love you, son."
Tarin had never heard those words from his mother.
Following the instructions of a roughly drawn map, Tarin came to a ruined apartment complex. The top half of the building was burnt rubble, walls rising from one side and crumbling on another side. The lower half had large holes covered by curtains and a broken revolving glass door, which led only to more rubble. Leona emerged from one of the curtains that covered a hole touching the ground.
"In here, Tarin. Hope you found everything okay."
He replied as he followed Leona, "Yeah, I found it alright. I just wish I had a better ma-"
Tarin gasped at the inside of the room. The floor was enveloped with dozens of oriental rugs, and weapons of all kinds and Japanese scroll paintings obscured the walls. One side of the room was covered with psychedelic cushions and pillows of all shapes and sizes.
A dog of unknown heritage lay on the cushions and bared a ferocious grin. The dog suddenly leaped from its seat and crashed into Tarin, sending the boy sprawling on the rugs as the dog licked his face.
"I think Nattie likes you. But you can't lay around all day, you have chores to do."
"Chores?! I though I was your apprentice."
She laughed, "Your also my lackey, now I want you to take all these rugs outside and beat the dust out of them. Understood?"
Tarin bit back a complaint, "Yes, ma'am."
He tied a rope to two poles hanging outside and one by one, beat each rug with a broom she provided. He counted 27 rugs in all.
"What now?" he dared to inquire.
"I want you to polish the weapons, all of them. And when you finish, we'll get started with lessons."
Tarin at first was somewhat excited with this chore, until the tedium of cleaning each blade overwhelmed him. After a while, Leona brought him some lunch, a strange, but delicious stew of noodles and beef. "This is really good, I've never had food this fresh."
She beamed, "Good, you can be my guinea pig for all my dishes."
Finally, when the sun had was nearing the horizon. He had stopped counting the weapons when he had reached the number 50.
Leona looked over her weapons, "They look decent. I guess we'll start with reading."
For two more hours, Tarin and Leona poured over the letters of the alphabet, connecting them with the words he spoke. He was finally able to write all the letters when Leona glanced outside.
"Time to go home young grasshopper. Take this to your mother, " she said, handing him a bag of coins, "and don't tarry in the night. Get some good night sleep, and I'll see you in the morning."
Tarin left, his muscles aching and his mind completely wiped out.
Nattie pummeled into Tarin when he came the next day. His back painfully popped as he collided with the floor. He knew a bruise was forming the moment his back hit the rugs.
Leona handed him a sword with an ivory handle. She herself grabbed a wooden staff from her wall. Her black cloak swished as she pointed the tip of the staff towards Tarin, "Try and hit me."
He stammered, "What do you mean? You only have a staff."
"Just try and hit me," she snickered.
A little vexed, Tarin made a swipe. The blade was heavy and clumsy, causing him to make a sloppy move that Leona easily avoided. He grabbed the hilt with both of his hands and made a headlong slash. She sidestepped him, causing the blade to slice a rug and stick to the ground. She planted her staff into his gut, and Tarin doubled over.
"Please, don't destroy my things. Lack of skill is no excuse for damage in my house. Anything you break, dent, or scratch will reward you with a whack from me."
Tarin panted, getting his wind back, and tugged the sword from the ground. They fought until midday, Tarin unable to even graze Leona's staff. Leona was laughing as Tarin practically crawled to the pillows and cushions. From a sack she pulled some fruits, a hunk of cheese, and a loaf of bread. "We will eat light today, so you won't be encumbered by the weight in your stomach."
She handed him a banana and a slice of cheese and bread. "Why'd you give me a banana?"
"It provides plenty of energy for an athlete."
Tarin was confused, "What's an athlete?"
Leona froze, and for a moment a strange look passed over her face before she busted with laughter. "And athlete is a person who competes in games like races, sports, and sometimes even in dangerous stuff like mountain climbing, sky diving, and rugby."
Tarin took a bite of the banana, "What's rugby?"
She chuckled, "I'll tell you later. Think of an athlete as a modern warrior in training."
He tilted his head, "So…what's your next plan?"
She raised an eyebrow, "For…"
"For the aristocrats. Are you going to raid the Golden Tower? And what did you do there the last time?"
"So many questions, so little time! First off, the last time I went there was for surveillance. Next I'm going to give them quite a scare. But I cannot reveal to you my master plan until the time comes."
"Do you plan to go against Lord Slaughter?"
"Maybe, or maybe I'll just send you."
Tarin gasped, nearly choking on the slice of bread, "Me?!"
"Don't you wonder why I'm training you, my little minion?"
She scrunched her face, "Don't call me a butt, or I'll hit you with my staff."
"I'm sorry! Please don't hurt me!"
She winked and pointed upward, "And gullible is written on the ceiling."
"Huh?" Tarin said as he gazed upward, not understanding the meaning of the word gullible.
Leona clasped her hand on her head, "You are in great need of training."
Leona took a mammoth book from her collection and blew the dust from its cover. "This," she proclaimed, "is the History of Mankind I from the beginning of time to the Renaissance. Every time we spar, afterwards we will study from this book until you have absorbed everything in it, and then we will move onto the next book History of Mankind II. I know you must be excited," she joked.
He gave an eager look, "Maybe then I can understand the weird sayings everyone says."
She chortled, "Yes, that is the purpose of this study."
She began with the Mesopotamians, discussing their culture, religion, art, general history, and contributions to the future. Tarin's eyes drooped as she seemed to drone on. As the sun set, Tarin had laid his head on Nattie's body, and both seemed sound asleep. Leona had to poor water on the boy's head to even awake him. Tarin then bid goodbye and traveled home.