The harem was a vast, domed chamber, and a veritable shrine to sensuality.
The ceiling was ivory with black ribs, the walls carpeted with erotic tapestries woven in red, black and gold thread -- images of women in sexual scenes. More reflective of a man's fantasies, of course, but no doubt not without their effect upon the woman housed here. The chamber was kept very warm by the torches burning fragrant incense. Neekin felt sleepy and languid after only a few minutes. The lower level was strewn with large cushions of white and red silk, and a lush wading pond was the room's centrepiece. Up a few steps was the sleeping area, where soft cots were sometimes separated by flimsy, barely opaque curtains that twirled lazily in the warm gusts the torches breathed.
The women lying about on the cushions were all beautiful, both dark and light skinned. They laughed with each other, or rolled dice in games of rinsoo, or splashed playfully in the artificial pond. They had nothing else to do with their time, it seemed, save idle it away. Most, like her, were bare-breasted; some unselfconsciously wore no clothing at all. Some lay together contentedly in ways that seemed more than friendly.
Neekin sat upon the cot set aside for her, the satin crinkling softly beneath her nearly naked buttocks, and pondered her best course of action -- and the future. She did not, in truth, entirely trust her employer and knew she would have to be wary in her dealings with him.
"You're the new girl."
She turned quickly. A girl with skin like polished ebony stood a few paces away. She wore a purple skirt, slit up one side; her small breasts were uncovered and gleamed slightly. Neekin nodded.
"I am Alathia," said the dark girl pleasantly. "I've never seen eyes of different colour in the same head before. They're lovely." She sat on the cot opposite and added, "There's a wildness in them, though, not like someone used to sitting on cushions, playing endless rounds of rinsoo." She leaned forward and brushed Neekin's thigh. "And you don't get firm muscles like that lying about, eating grapes."
"I see no difference between us."
Alathia grinned and made an elaborate show of looking at Neekin's generous breasts, then touched a hand to her own, smaller bosom.
"I didn't mean in that way. Do you know this place well? The entire house?"
"Tell me about it." she said. She realized how awkward it sounded, but the festival would only be in effect for another few days and she must act quickly. "I've never, uh, been in so fine a place. I'm curious."
"But your father is the richest spice merchant in Olt, is he not?"
"Uh, true, but-"
"Or was it that you are the daughter of a shepherd?"
Alathia grinned, then got up and sat beside her. She looked around furtively, then whispered, "I'm right, aren't I? You're not what you say you are."
Neekin looked into her big eyes, trying to fathom the nature that lurked therein.
"Why are you here? What-" Alathia stopped, her mouth dropping open. "The Festival? You're not a harem girl at all! But what? An assassin?"
Inwardly cursing the whims of the Spirits, Neekin knew she had but two choices. Kill or confide. "I'm no assassin," she said quietly, seeing the former as not a genuine option. "I'm here for an ornamental dagger, and then I'm gone."
Alathia frowned. "Why would a woman be sent on such a mission? Surely you're outmatched by-"
"I can hold my own," she said, a little arrogantly. "I was trained at the temple of Hiotchri."
"You're one of the warrior-priestesses?"
Neekin hesitated, surprised the girl knew of the order this far south, then she shrugged. "Not exactly. The order and I had a parting of the ways before I was ordained. Will you help me?"
Alathia looked her up and down, then cocked her head. "I suppose. What do I care about a silly knife? But you can do little until the house sleeps." Then she smiled slyly and asked, "Is it true that the priestesses do not like men?"
"On the contrary, they are allied with the priests of Ghun who-"
Alathia shook her head. "I meant: they don't like men."
"Ah," she said, understanding. "Those at the temple are no different from any others. They take their pleasures each according to her own inclinations. Why?"
Alathia leaned closer. "And you?"
"Me? My passions are not...rigid," she said quietly, her eyes half-closed, feeling the warmth of the room and the heat of the other girl's presence.
Alathia kissed her lips.
"I barely know you," Neekin protested weakly, feeling a smouldering between her legs.
Smiling, Alathia cupped one of Neekin's breasts in her hand, her thumb tracing tight circles around the nipple. Neekin glanced down at the black fingers on her milk-white skin, her ruby point stiffening at the sure touch. She looked up again, then leaned forward instinctively, her tongue darting out to trace the fullness of the other girl's mouth. Then Neekin lay back on the cot, feeling warm fingers in the waist cord of her loin cloth. And in moments, sultry breath where fabric had been.
Her garment rustled to the floor.
Bare feet trod soundlessly on marble flooring. A lithe figure moved cat-like, preferring the shadows for company and darting quickly through the flickering light of the occasional torch. Neekin glided up to one stone wall and pressed her back to it, breathing steadily. She could detect no obvious sounds. If she was discovered wandering the house half-naked, more than likely she could pass herself off as a simple harem girl, too restless to sleep.
But she did not want to be discovered.
She slipped across the corridor to a bronze double-valve door, rich dragon engravings in its face. If Alathia was correct, beyond it was the audience chamber and the gold dagger. Taking one last look around, Neekin tried the doors. They opened effortlessly on silent hinges.
Skylights overhead spread pale moonlight upon the unlit interior, conjuring islands of light in an ocean of darkness. A maroon carpet ran from doorway to dais, upon which were two chairs. Beyond these chairs, and under a verdant banner, was mounted a dagger that, even in the faint light, glowed slightly with a golden aura. Letting the doors whisper shut behind her, Neekin crossed the room like a wraith until she stood beneath her goal. Reaching up, she unhooked it from its hanging nails.
She turned as torches sputtered to life. Armed men emerged instantly from behind the tapestries lining the walls; someone chuckled. Cursing, she launched herself through the air, seeing a gap to the doors not yet filled by guards. A noose settled about her head, tightened, then jerked her to a stop in mid-air. She hit the floor at the foot of the dais with a painful thump, the dagger falling from her fingers.
The rope was attached to a long wood pole, at the end of which was a burly man in a black apron. He grinned at her wickedly, showing ragged teeth. She clawed at the noose, but he twisted the pole savagely and she gasped, choking. He relented, his point made.
On her knees, helpless for the moment, Neekin watched as two figures emerged from behind the muscled torsos of the phalanx of fighting men. A young, dusky-skinned man and a woman, slightly his elder. The brother and sister, no doubt.
"So, Huleth ben Talehmud is up to his tricks again, is he?" demanded the woman. "You do work for Huleth, do you not?"
Neekin glared at her.
"Have you no tongue, wench?" She grabbed Neekin's face in one hand and squeezed her cheeks painfully, forcing her mouth open. She thrust two fingers exploringly into Neekin's mouth. "No, you have a tongue all right." Disdainfully, she released her and stepped back.
"Sending a whore to do a man's job," said the man, Tanneh, ruefully. "But I'll give that the beggar has taste." His fingertips brushed a bare breast; Neekin flinched. "Perhaps I-"
"Steady, brother," chided Serria. "Your lusts have already made this house vulnerable. Did Huleth tell you," she said, addressing Neekin once again, "that though it is permissible to attempt wrongs during the festival, it is equally permissible to punish those who would do so?"
Tanneh's sandaled foot came out of nowhere, leaving Neekin sprawled on the floor, the taste of blood in her mouth. Her eyes glimmered with rage as she looked up at the brother. Gingerly she touched a lip. If she could just get the noose from about her neck, then -- then -- the tide might be turned, just a little.
Tanneh kicked her viciously in the stomach and Neekin doubled over, retching. He stepped forward again, but she struck first. Her legs were long and shapely, deceptively hiding the iron hard muscles beneath her soft skin. It was these muscles that drove the heel of her foot into his groin with all the might she had. He collapsed with an anguished cry. Neekin had no time to savour her victory though, as her head was yanked back, the cord about her throat cutting off all breath. Her back arched and, gagging, she clawed futilely at the densely woven rope.
Through blurring eyes, Neekin saw Alathia burst through the doors. She threw something which skidded to a stop at Neekin's feet. It was a knife. Frantically, Neekin snatched it up and with a flick of her wrist the noose parted beneath its cutting edge.
"Get her!" shrieked Serria, crouched by her brother's side. "Kill her!"
Neekin rolled just as a scimitar bit into the floor where she had been. She jumped up, butting her head into the belly of one guard and kicking out at a second. She turned as another flung himself at her. In size and weight she was no equal of her male opponents, but at the temple they had taught that in combat, size was not always a benefit. She grabbed his outstretched hand and pulled, using his own momentum to swing him around and into two of his comrades.
Out of nowhere the stick that had lassoed her slammed into the side of her skull. She stumbled, then dizzily turned to face the man in the black apron. He swung again, but she ducked and, simultaneously, flung her knife. With a crunch, it buried itself between his eyes. He stood there for a moment, face blank, eyes uncomprehending, then tumbled over like a felled tree.
Neekin grabbed the golden dagger and slipped it into her waist cord. She ran for the entrance while Serria screamed, attempting to rally her disorganized men. Neekin grabbed Alathia's hand and together, the two ran from the room.
They made it to the street without interference, all of the house's fighting men seeming to have been present in the audience chamber. Neekin glanced back, Huleth having told her that under the rules of the festival, they would not be followed past the property line. She turned to Alathia.
"Serria didn't see you, but the guards did -- you won't be welcome there anymore."
The black girl shrugged. "I have relatives in the east I can go to." She looked at herself, then at Neekin. Both were still naked save for their flimsy hip cloths. "But I'm not sure the streets are safe for us, what with drunken men wandering about."
Neekin laughed. "Huleth's house isn't far. I'm to be paid, but some of that is yours for saving my life. You'll go home in style, girl."
Alathia grinned, but said nothing.
A curtain rustled and Huleth entered breathlessly, Kahlmod, his scarred Manoori wizard, at his back. "You are a wonder," Huleth said, grinning. "I'd not expected you so speedily. The dagger." He held out his hands, and winked subtly at one of his guards. The man laid a hand carefully on the pommel of his scimitar, ready to cut short the life of the woman who had just delivered his master's prize.
Before Neekin could hand the knife over, Alathia yanked it from Neekin's waist cord. Huleth's brow creased in confusion as the dark-skinned girl leapt at him and with a single, vicious sweep, slit open his throat. He gurgled, clutching futilely at his neck as blood spouted, then he collapsed at the foot of his own dais.
Alathia, taking advantage of the stunned disbelief of both Neekin and the guards, ran gracefully from the room. Neekin stared dumbly at her retreating back, then at the dead man. The rustle of steel on cloth made her look up as Huleth's men advanced upon her, blades drawn, to avenge their master's death. They looked in no mood to hear claims of innocence.
She yanked on the nearest tapestry and the heavy fabric came down upon their heads. Turning, she ran.
In the hall she slammed the doors shut and dropped the bar, then whirled. A cleaving scimitar narrowly missed separating her crown from her head. She blocked the guard's wrist with her forearm, then kicked him hard in the stomach. As he fell, retching, he swatted her blindly with the flat of the blade and she tumbled across the hall and through a tapestry...and sailed out over the courtyard below!
With a startled yelp, she caught the window sill,
her descent with a jerk. She dangled there for a moment, hearing
men throwing themselves against the barred door. Below, a thorn bush
the only thing to cushion her fall.
She was about to risk it when she felt thin fingers curl about her arm. She looked up.
There was no one there!
Neekin gasped as she was hoisted effortlessly up into the hall and dropped unceremoniously on the floor. She stared at the hall, empty save for herself and the guard still doubled over by the audience chamber doors. Then she heard a sound. Giggling -- like that of a madman. She rose, eyes wide, then stiffened. The noise was almost in her very ear. Something warm brushed her cheek; warm, like breath.
She shrieked as clawed fingers emerged from nothingness, raking across her shoulders. She punched out instinctively, and was rewarded with impact.
Suddenly the chameleonoid shimmered and materialized before her, grinning its maniacal grin. Another swipe of its talons left red streaks across her naked belly. Then it was upon her, unhuman skin against hers as it wrastled her to the ground, giggling madly. Though no larger than she, and lean, it was incredibly strong. A slick hand under her chin began forcing her head back, as though to break her spine. Neekin struggled, tendons standing out along her neck. With one hand she clawed at the thing's oily-smooth skin, with the other she fumbled for her loin cloth. Her fingers closed about a smooth handle. She instantly pulled free her knife and drove it into the thing's side. It barely seemed to notice, still straining to snap her neck. Again she drove it into him, again and again. Hot blood spilled over her hand, making slippery her grip, and still she drove it in.
Then, just as she was sure it was futile, just as her head was practically between her shoulder blades, the beast vomited green liquid. It shuddered convulsively for a moment, then lay still. Neekin hesitated, unsure, then rolled the corpse off of her.
Panting, she flew down the steps just as she heard the audience chamber door splintered behind her. She made the courtyard, the sound of Huleth's guards not far behind. But it was festival and, in accordance with the rules, the footfalls followed her not into the street.
There were, however, other ways to strike from the territory of the dead man. A guard perched in a second story window, aiming with his bow through a clear break in the trees in the courtyard. Waiting for a glimpse of pale, feminine flesh.
He turned, startled, as Kahlmod strode forward. Then he looked back in time to witness white limbs flash and then disappear. "You made me miss my shot, sorcerer!"
"Did I indeed?" drawled the disfigured Manoori.
The guard pursed his lips. "If your pet demon had slain either that white-skinned bitch or her accomplice, then under the rules of the festival, you could have claimed Huleth's property as his avenger. It failed. Now you have stopped me from claiming his fortune for myself, but that does not benefit you. Huleth dies unavenged, therefore-"
"Therefore, under your own festival's rules, the house must be maintained under the guardianship of the master's chief aide. Myself. Until the time of the next festival, of course, when efforts must again be made to avenge his death. However, I doubt either woman will be in Khaothrusha at that time. I would have preferred to have inherited his demesne outright, but this way suits me equally well." His misshapen lips grinned. "It seems you Khaothrushans do not study your own customs as well as you should."
Two alleys later, Neekin leaned against a wall,
sucking in gasps of air.
Something landed in the sand at her toes. Looking down, she saw gold glitter; gold smeared with red.
"Yours, I believe," said Alathia, emerging from the shadows, still naked save for her skirt. "Huleth certainly won't be needing it."
Neekin's lips pulled back in an almost animal snarl.
Alathia laughed. "You aren't the only female mercenary in Khaothrusha these days. I was hired by Serria of the House of Bela-ti to slay Huleth under the immunity of the festival; how I was to accomplish this was left to me. I knew the dagger was too tempting a prize for Huleth to pass on. I also knew of you by reputation, and that you were in town, and I figured if Serria thought a woman a clever agent, might not Huleth? Unknown even to my employer I masqueraded as one of Tanneh's harem, and sure enough, you arrived. I'd heard enough tales on the road of the Hiotchri-trained lioness with ill-matched eyes...who took not only men to her bed. I shared your sheets to gain your trust; snuck away and betrayed you to Tanneh while you dozed to imperil you; then saved your life...all so you would bring me, unthinking, to Huleth's house, and I would be invited in as your companion." She put her hands on her hips. "Sorry about your lost fee, but you can sell the dagger in the market come morning." She waited, then cocked her head. "Well? Have you nothing to say?"
Neekin stared darkly, silently. Then she took a step forward and drove her fist into Alathia's face. The other woman fell back into the sand with a bloody nose.
Alathia glared up at her, knuckling the blood on her face, as if considering retaliation. Then, slowly, she grinned.
Neekin used the bloody dagger to cut strips from her loin cloth so that she might cover her breasts. Then slipping the dagger back in her waist cord, she started grimly from the alley, not even looking back at the other woman.
"Don't be angry," Alathia called mockingly. "After all, you did get Huleth his dagger for him. And all was done according to the rules of the festival!"
Her laughter followed Neekin even onto the next street.
Back to...Part 1: Creatures in the Shadows, Gold in the Night
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This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for commercial purposes without his permission.