It was mid afternoon. The sun beat down out of the cloudless sky and baked the city. The market was busy with the bustle of midweek shipments of fruits and vegetables from outside the city. All around were carts filled with fresh potatoes and corn and apples. Housekeepers and housewives and restratures alike, pushed their way through the crowd to dozens of stalls that lined the street, trying to get the pick of the crop before the heat of the day wilted the produce.
The market sat at a crossroad, where six streets came together. Guards stood at each of the six entrances to the market. Each guard was at least seven feet tall, dressed in leather armor and carried a long quarter staff and a short sword. One particular guard stood perched against his staff, as the heat began to put him to sleep. Suddenly from across the square someone shouted.
“Thief!” A man cried out.
The guard sprang to attention and looked across the crowd. At the other end of the market there was a commotion and one of the other guards started to lumber through the crowd. People moved lazily aside to let the guard through. Figuring the other guards had the situation well under control, the guard went back to sleep, propping himself up on his quarter staff. The guard had barely shut his eyes when a boy ran past. He could have been about fifteen, by the size of him, but his face was hidden by the hood of a dusty blue jerkin that was coming untucked from it’s cracked leather straps. He wore tan breaches and boots with holes in the toes. He clutched a small leather bag as if he were afraid something might fall out of it. He ran past without even a glance at the sleeping guard, through the gate heading down the road toward the river.
The face of the guard from across the market appeared over the heads of the people in the crowd.
“Oi, Ezio!” He shouted at the sleepy guard, “Stop him!” He pointed toward the boy. Ezio lurched into action and took up the pursuit along the cobbled street. By now the boy was quite far ahead, and as he was joined by his colleague and an elderly shop owner, Ezio was sure they would lose him in the crowd.
“Stop that thief!” Ezio shouted as the boy turned the corner onto a secondary street. He was sure that the boy was long gone now, but with the shop keeper right on his tail he dared not turn back.
There were far fewer people on the next street and the going was much easier. Ezio could easily see over the heads of most of the people and he scanned for the blue hood. He glanced behind to see where his partner was. The other guard had stayed at the market gate but the shop keeper was try keep pace about a dozen meters behind.
Ezio wound his way through the people. He came to a four way junction and stopped in the middle. He scanned down one street and then the other. He looked back the way he’d come. There was no sign anywhere of the boy. He could have gone anywhere.
“You lost him!” The shop keep caught up to Ezio. “You imbecile. “ He scolded, “I don’t know what we pay you guards for. You do nothing but sleep and eat free produce.”
“He stole from your shop?” Ezio asked.
“Yes, a dagger.” The shop keeper insisted.
“Can you be sure?”
“Are you calling me a liar?” The old man was tiny. He barely came up to Ezio’s chest. He was shriveled and he wore glasses, and there were only about six hairs left on his leathery brown head.
“Did you see him steal it?” Ezio continued.
“He was in my shop. One moment the blade was there the next he was gone and so was the blade.”
Ezio let out an exasperated sigh. He was sweaty from running in the afternoon heat and that was making his leathers chafe under his arm, and he was ready for his shift to end so he could go for a beer. “Can you describe him?” Ezio asked.
“He was pale. With yellow hair.” The shop keeper said.
“Yellow hair?” Ezio repeated.
“He looked like any other street urchin. “ The old man peered down the long street. All of the city streets were lined with two and three story buildings that were all built connected to each other so that each street was a long walled alley. “You should be pursuing the child instead of interrogating me.” The old man narrowed his eyes. Suddenly he pointed. “There!” He gasped. “That blue jerkin.”
Ezio turned his attention to where the man was pointing. About four hundred meters or so down the road he could see a figure in blue. The person appeared to be shopping. Ezio sighed. Taking long strides so as to hopefully lose the old man, he strode along the cobbled road.
As he approached the figure in blue didn’t turn around. The boy still had his hood up but he appeared to be looking through the wares of a vendor who had his trinkets spread out on a blanket on the ground. Ezio had failed to lose the shop keeper.
“Is this the boy who stole from you?” Ezio asked. He clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Yes.” The old man said defiantly. As he did the boy turned around and his hood fell away. Long chestnut locks fell out of the hood and cascaded down over delicate features and an adolescent figure that was clearly female. She had creamy freckled skin, large blue eyes fringed with thick eyelashes and soft pink lips. She stared up at Ezio and the look on her face told him she was terrified.
“What’s going on?” She asked. She looked as though she might cry.
“Is this the yellow haired boy who stole from you?” Ezio asked.
The shop keeper became flustered. “No of course not you imbecile. You let him get away.” He turned and stormed back toward the market place.
“While we’ve been chasing phantoms,” Ezio said to the girl, “Bandits have probably made off with his entire shop.” He laughed loudly and the girl grinned shyly.
Ezio headed back to his post and the girl turned the other way and headed along the road. When she’d turned the next corner she crouched down next to the wall and opened her pack. She took out a bodkin, about eight inches long with a jewel encrusted handle. Amongst the fine gems central on the handle was a small medallion made of some kind of blue metal. The design on the medallion was a series of crescents surrounding a circle with a lit candle at the centre. On the opposite side of the handle in the same position as the medallion, the handle was inlaid with strange foreign letters in the same blue metal. The blade was beautiful and the girl wanted to keep looking at it. She smiled then placing it back in her pack she straightened her posture and turned swiftly down the street.
The girl hurried down the street, which was flanked by a high wall of golden desert stone. The street was much narrower than the ones leading from the market place, but lesser merchants and artisans who couldn’t get a stall closer to the central market were set up along the walls. Every so often the walls would give way to deep doorways that led to residences and shops. Sometimes there would be a housewife sitting on the stoop smoking a cigar or tending to scrawny unkempt children with bare feet. The girl continued at a steady pace, careful not to go too fast. She was careful not to arouse suspicions. At last she came to a T junction. The street she had to turn onto was much narrower and there were few vendor’s stalls. It was almost quiet, and still flanked by the high walls, as was most of the city.
The girl paused for a moment to glance behind her before turning left. Now she slowed to a walk pulling the hood up around her face. Here the street was well clear of farmers and merchants. The people coming and going were dressed much more shabbily than those in the market. Some were scruffy and unwashed and the girl knew that some of the men here would not hesitate to steal a healthy young girl. So she kept her head down, clutching the rabbit skin pack that hung about her, and walked quickly.
After many twists and turns and a lot of walking, the girl came to a street leading to the Eastern gates of the city. At the far end of the street she could see the city guards, much larger and more disciplined than the guards in the market. As always there was a flurry of activity as a caravan prepared to set out on an expedition. Beyond, through the arched gate, she could see the dunes of the desert and the heat waves that rippled up off the sand. The girl came to a door set deep in the stone wall. The door was built of solid hardwood planks and had an iron handle that had begun to corrode from the salty desert air.
She stepped inside the threshold and leaned up against the wall as if suddenly needing its support. She breathed for a moment then raised a hand to lift the heavy iron knocker, clutching the rabbit skin pack to her chest. She knocked once and the door opened. Inside was dark. A small man stood in the doorway. He wore a plane grey gown that flowed down from his shoulders past his ankles. He was balding and had a thin face with a pointy nose that angled sharply from his forehead and a small white moustache that seemed to be losing its hair.
“Did you get it?” The man asked in a strong Desert accent. When he spoke the whiskers of his moustache twitched and his small deep set eyes stared at the girl like a fish. The girl nodded.
“It wasn’t easy Rafique.” She said in a voice less sweet than she had used on Ezio.
The man, Rafique, nodded knowingly and ushered her in. ON the other side of the door was a small entry way with no lights. There was a wicker shelf beside the door hung with spider plants. Past the entrance the room widened into a sitting room furnished with low cotton filled mats that were more like cushions. Each was made from a luscious patterned fabric from the market. A set of six or eight candles sat on a low table in the corner, each burning an amber flame, and a small statue of an elephant, its trunk raised toward the door, sat amid them. Beaded bamboo curtain separated the sitting room from another larger room with a low dining table and stools. This room had a large window that looked out into a courtyard and sunlight filtered in through half drawn wicker shades. Five men were seated at the table. Each dressed similarly to Rafique. The men sat sipping from small cups while incense burned on the table.
“Did she bring it, Rafique?” The man at the head of the table asked. He spoke in a similar accent to Rafique but with more clarity as though he had learned the common language in a city school. Here in the city, everyone spoke basic, but many spoke it badly, having picked it up on the street or learned it in house schools by desert teachers who had themselves learned on the street. Only those who could afford to attend a City school could read and write and speak it as clearly as this man.
“I brought it.” The girl said defiantly.
The educated man spoke again. “Let me see it.”
The girl stiffened her jaw. “I want to see the money first.” She said, not moving to enter the room.
“The dagger first!” The man snapped.
The girl reached into her bag and pulled the bodkin partway out so that the men could see the handle. The other men at the table, peering through the curtain, grinned greedily.
“Give it to Rafique.” The educated man said. He rolled his “r” exaggeratedly.
“I want my money.” She pushed the dagger back into her pouch, and planted her feet firmly.
The educated man waved a couple of fingers and Rafique went to a cabinet on the far side of the sitting room. He opened a drawer and pulled out a lacquered wooden box about the size of a loaf of bread. From the box he took a bundle of warn cloth bills.
“Here.” He said handing the money to the girl.
“Now the dagger.” The other man said.
“Wait, “She said, “I want to count it.” Quickly she unwrapped the thin string from the bundle and began counting. When she looked up her jaw was set, her lips pursed. “The deal was for a thousand.”
“We changed our minds.” The man said.
“A thousand or no deal.” The girl said. She was still standing in the narrow entryway by the door.
“Give us the dagger.” The men began to rise from the table. “That is my dagger. IT belongs to me.” The educated man said in a bizarrely hushed voice.
“You want it you pay for it.” She insisted. She knew that the value of the dagger was far more than she was asking, otherwise why steel it in the first place. “The job is done. The thief will never be seen again. There is no trail that can lead to you. That was the deal. For a thousand.”
“You will take what we offer you and be glad we don’t kill you.” The men started toward the girl but she was prepared. She reached for the door handle and turned it. bUt it didn’t budge. Somehow Rafique had managed to lock it behind her. She felt the panic trying to work its way up but she got hold of herself. She took the bodkin from her pack and stuck the blade between the door and the jam and giving it a little twist. The lock clicked and she pushed the door open. Rushing out she quickly glanced around her, but she was momentarily blinded by the blazing sun. Down the street the same caravan was beginning to move out. She started to run. With the men close behind her she pushed past the guards and customs officers. Most of the merchants were too busy with their own business to pay any attention to the girl. She swerved between camels and wagons and the moment she was out of sight of anybody she launched herself into the back of a desert bound wagon. Without looking around she buried herself under some bales of fabric and kept as quiet as she could.