Pulp and Dagger Fiction webzine presents

the return of Neekin

in

The RULES of The FESTIVAL

by

D.K. Latta



PART 1 (of 2) - Creatures in the Shadows, Gold in the Night


Neekin woke suddenly in darkness.

For a moment, her mind, her senses, were fuzzy, then they cleared instantly. She felt the heat, still laying claim to the narrow avenues of the desert city of Khaothrusha; but the sounds of revelry drifting in from outside had ceased. The hour was late.

Something rustled in her rented room. In the faint moonlight sneaking through the wicker-barred window, a blackness shifted by the door. She heard the rasp of a bolt being drawn back, and saw the door open quietly, dim hall light silhouetting the forms of men as they slipped stealthily into her room like phantoms. Her hand dropped to the floor...and felt only carpet. Her fingers clawed across the ground, but her dirk and hunting knife were not where she had lain them.

The shadows were almost upon her!

Adapting instantly, she rolled off the bed and kicked out, catching one shadow in his stomach. Someone cursed, not expecting her to be awake. She gained her feet as a bulky shape came at her. Twisting her supple body, she felt him whisk past, coarse garments scraping her naked belly. She had slept nude, as was her custom, and the lack of fettering apparel lent her limbs a nimbleness her assailants did not have.

She jumped into the air and lashed out again, putting all her force into the heels of her feet. She took one man in the face, breaking a nose. Her other foot merely grazed a shoulder. Her mysterious adversaries were grunting and crying out now, panicked by the speed of her attack. She bolted for the barred window and leapt, hoping her momentum would carry her through the wicker bars.

It did not.

She reeled back dizzily, a hint of blood flashing in her sandy locks, just as another man came at her. She ducked instantly and elbowed him in the ribs. Momentarily the path to the hallway was clear. She ran, vaguely aware that making it to the street completely naked and unarmed was not the most secure of circumstances a woman could hope for -- certainly not the week of the festival, when only drunken stragglers were likely to be about at this late an hour. The ramifications need not have troubled her. Something struck her across the face before she could even reach the door.

She staggered back, then gawked. There was no one there!

Suddenly a thick arm curled about her waist from behind and the owner vented a cry of satisfaction. In seconds, a torrent of heavy, sweaty bodies dragged her to the floor.

She struggled, writhing and biting, but she was well aware that, for the moment, they had her. Callused hands, the hands of professional fighting men, bound her wrists. Her attackers had no doubt glimpsed her nakedness in the darkness. Grimly, she awaited cruel hands yanking apart her thighs.

She grunted in surprise, though, as she was dragged to her feet. A blanket was whipped off her bed and she gasped instinctively as she espied something past the hulking shoulders of the men surrounding her. Then the blanket was thrown over her head and she was dragged, unseeing, toward the door.

But in that moment she had glimpsed a figure -- or the impression of one at least -- in the shadows by the far wall, barely visible. A gangly, man-like beast, with filed teeth and skin like emerald stone.

And eyes glowing like burning embers.

*     *     *

They ushered her silently out the rear exit of the inn and onto the still and empty streets. She did not bother crying out. It was unlikely any would come to the aid of stranger.

From what she had glimpsed in the darkness, her captors were dusky-skinned and dressed in local garb, yet she knew of no enemies she might have in Khaothrusha.

After a time of moving through the silent, sand-strewn streets, they halted and she heard the rasp of a bolt being drawn back. Then she was pushed forward and her bare feet touched flagstones. A path, she realized, before a house, and a wealthy one if it had a courtyard.

She was ushered wordlessly inside, still blind to her surroundings. Her feet told her the floor was smooth; not dirt, nor even wood. Marble more than likely. From somewhere the lingering smell of cooking spices graced her nose. She mounted a flight of wide steps, then was guided down a hall. Finally she was stopped in what the echoes of footsteps told her was a large room. Hands on her shoulders pushed her roughly to her knees. With no fanfare, the blanket was yanked away, to drop beside her. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the torch light.

She was in an opulent audience chamber. The square pillars were of black marble etched with silver in vaguely G'Natian-style, the walls patterned with designs limned by glimmering garnets, blue zircons and yellow citrines. Heavy orange and grey tapestries depended from the ceiling while a gold chandelier flickered with smouldering flame. Before her was a wide dais upon which was a scarlet, high-backed chair.

The dusky-skinned man seated there was lean and of middle age, dressed in an orange robe, black at the shoulders. He was bald while his black beard glistened with oils. Behind his left shoulder stood a very tall, but thin, black man, his hair braided into dangling cornrows. For a moment, Neekin took him to be a leper; his left nostril was missing and much of his cheek. Then she frowned as she realized the wounds were mortifications in the way of certain cults in sorcerous Manoori. He was evidently an exile from that mysterious land.

The seated man's eyes grew wide as he took in her nude body. Then he laughed. "You are called Neekin?" he asked in a soft, low voice.

"I am," she answered defiantly, belying her situation.

"I had heard tales of a woman with the spirit of a lioness and the body of a goddess...and I see that that part, at least, is true." His eyes lingered on the tuft of soft hair between her thighs, her heavy breasts, before rising to a face framed by unkempt sandy hair. Her strange eyes glared at him; one orb blue, the other green. "I trust you were not harmed? Your clothes...?"

"I was naked when kidnapped."

"Not kidnapped, please." He smiled silkily. "Merely...conveyed. You are a mercenary of sorts, true?"

She hesitated, then nodded.

"But you're finding pickings poor in our fair city, yes? For a woman? I'm afraid most of the locals still worship Achinen'neon, a rather patriarchal god. Your purse is light and the desert daunting to cross without money to secure supplies. Fortunately, I am more enlightened than my brethren. I have gold. Yours if you want it."

She gawked. "You drag me naked from my room in the middle of the night to offer me work? You have strange ways, you Khaothrushans."

He shrugged. "A covert matter. Tell me: what do you know of this, the time of the festival?"

"It's a noisy one. I haven't slept well for three days."

He smiled indulgently. "The festival lasts eight days and seven nights. It had, I believe, some sort of religious significance under the occupying G'Natians when they ruled this city two hundred years ago, but it has become more secular over the years. During the festival many things are permissible: a woman may divorce her husband; a convict is pardoned for each day of the festival; and certain crimes may be committed with impunity. Yes, crimes. Robbery, vandalism...even murder. But only if you're clever about it. A crime may only be committed in the victim's own home, and only then if you have been invited in. Sneak in, break in, and the shroud of immunity the festival lends you unravels."

"A strange custom," she remarked. But then, that was the way of civilized nations, she had come to realize in her travels.

He shrugged. "No stranger than some I'll wager. But that is where you come in."

"I'm no assassin, nor a thief." At least, not generally, she might have added, but did not.

"If all goes well, no blood need be spilled. As for thieving...it is hardly a crime if the law allows it."

"If you're offering me a position, these can be removed I take it?" Neekin shook her tied hands. "Or are you not through ogling me?" she said dryly.

He laughed. "You do yourself a disservice to think any man could tire of viewing you, but you are well within your rights." He snapped long fingers and one of his men stepped forward, drawing a curved knife from his crimson sash, and sliced the ropes.

Neekin stood, pulling the blanket about her nakedness.

"I am Huleth ben Talehmud," said the seated man. "For many years I and the house of Bela-ti have been...at odds." He smiled humourlessly. "We are both dealers in fine silk and dislike competition. That makes both sides petty. Within the house of Bela-ti is a gold dagger, purely ceremonial in purpose. It was recently purchased by them for a princely sum and its acquisition has been a source of no little pride for the house." He gestured vaguely behind him. "I would see it hanging on my wall instead. But because we have been too long at this game, the house of Bela-ti would be suspicious of most visitors during the festival, thinking them men in my employ. Yes, men." This time, the curl to his lips was sly. "As I said, women are not associated with certain professions in Khaothrusha. That is why I had you taken in secret. If word circulated that I had hired a female mercenary, well, my scheme would be obvious."

"And that scheme is what?"

"The house of Bela-ti is headed by a brother and sister, Tanneh and Serria. He keeps a harem of beautiful women to which he is constantly adding. Recently he has paid an old shepherd handsomely for his daughter -- a woman he has never seen, but of northhern stock; white-skinned, like you. The girl and her entourage has been...detoured by agents acting on my behalf. You will arrive at Tanneh Bela-ti's door in her stead -- which is why I needed a woman as beautiful as she is brave."

Neekin's upper lip curled. "My skills are for sale, not my body. I'll not sleep with anyone just to win you a trophy."

"If that's true, that must be the only reason you won't."

Neekin's eyes flashed with anger.

"Forgive me," he said quickly. "The man who told me of you mentioned that you -- so the stories go -- are rarely without a lover. A common trait in the reckless men who live and die by the sword, but for a woman?" He coughed. "As I said, we are...provincial here. Even me, though I try to broaden my outlook. I meant no disrespect. Responding to your concern, you probably won't even see Tanneh for the first few days. And if you aren't out of there by then, the festival will be over and my plan in shambles anyway. Besides, it is common knowledge that any man with that many wives is, shall we say, covering up certain inadequacies." Huleth leaned forward. "A pouch of gold is yours if you bring me the dagger."

"I like more forthright work than what you propose..." she said, her tongue working inside her lips. But she knew Huleth was right in his assessment of the opportunities in this desert city. "Just tell me this: how did your men enter my room, and what was that thing I saw, like a jade corpse?"

"Both questions have but a single answer," he said and gestured to the Manoori necromancer. The tall man clapped his hands and muttered something in a coarse tongue.

Neekin gasped as the wall behind Huleth moved, seeming to pull away from itself, and then stood in the shape of a man beside the head of the house. Slowly, the colours of the wall slithered and dissipated, transforming into an emerald body, and the creature she had seen before grinned at her with its evil, sharp teeth.

"A chameleon of sorts, from the darkest interior of far-off Manoori, and a pet of my advisor, Kahlmod. He was already in your room when you arrived this evening, and waited till you slept soundly before allowing my men in. A most useful agent, as you can imagine."

Neekin's cheeks flushed. When she had returned to her room earlier tonight, tired and frustrated by her failure to secure employment, she had relaxed by lying on her bed and idyly pleasuring herself with her hands. And that thing had been there, the whole time. Trying not to eye the thing too closely, Neekin said, "Why can he not steal your precious knife?"

"He could, most certainly. But then it really would be stolen and a matter for the magistrate. As I said, the festival has its rules."

Once Neekin's remaing questions had been answered she was escorted from the room to be properly outfitted. Watching her depart, Kahlmod said, "You still intend that she dies?"

Huleth ben Talehmud shrugged. "Whoever slays the thief instantly inherits her bounty -- that is, the knife. Such are the rules of the festival. I would gladly let her go once she brings me my prize, but if Serria or Tanneh get their hands on her, the dagger must be returned. However, if I slay her first..."

"The weird-eyed girl was right in one respect: your festival has strange customs."

"Yes, my festival," said the master of the house. "You are as much a foreigner in Khaothrusha as that white-breasted slut. Your vaunted position here is incumbent on my good will." He rose, side-stepping the grinning chameleonoid with an air of distaste, and then turned back. "You would do well to remember that...sorcerer."

*      *      *

The next morning Neekin stood proudly, shoulders back, chin raised arrogantly. She was, after all, to be the odalisque of one of the city's wealthiest merchants. The man looking her over with hungry eyes was but a lowly guard in his employ.

Silver bands in the shape of serpents were about her biceps and an ivory choker encircled her neck. Rubies studded the twinkling gold anklets at her naked feet. She wore a white silk loin cloth descending almost to the marble floor, of such a delicate weave to be largely transparent. That was her only garment. Her bare breasts jutted forward haughtily.

"You were not expected for another day or two," he said, scratching absently at his crotch. He glanced behind her at the house guards who had ushered her from the main entrance. "You know why your escort was not allowed inside the house gates, don't you?"

Neekin hesitated, then shook her head.

"You know nothing of the festival and its customs?" he asked suspiciously.

"Is that the noise we heard from the city's centre?" she asked guilelessly. "A celebration?"

He breathed out, seeming convinced. "Aye. No matter, though. This way." He stepped aside and gestured down the long hall...

Next..."Lips so Soft, Knife so Deadly" (the Conclusion)


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This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for commercial purposes without his permission.