Tales From the Kingdom of the Red Sun
The Cat Who Dreamed in Opal and Diamond
Eisa watched the sand dribble down through the neck of the hourglass, sweat beading up across the palms of her hands. The leopard behind the desk continued to clean his nails with the tip of his dagger as he waited for her to speak.
According to common logic, there were two generally excepted ways of getting out of a situation in which one found themselves caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar. One involved running as one might try to do from a mudslide-- usually with the same result-- and then there was the other method, the one Eisa was fondest of, if only because it bought precious time to plan, organize and make arrangements. That method was lying. Lying so hard and prolifically even she had a hard time keeping things straight.
Of course, the trick to a good lie, like the one she was constructing, revolved around believability, impugnable character, and maybe just a little luck. Eisa had one of those going for her, two if Urda threw the dice her way. “So, the foreigner is going to be here in a couple days, I just need time to set it up! They think this is some kind of business deal where they're going to make out rich in the end.” She glanced at the hourglass. Almost empty. “It's a ship from Taichao! A small, two sail runner with a cargo of processed iron for the Duchess.”
“Mmhmmmm. . .” Daxton finished cleaning his claws, his gaze flicked towards the hourglass and then to Eisa. “Was that all?” He said softly. His voice was casual, confident and friendly but she knew she heard doubt. A cat her size didn't get by being the biggest thing on the block, she got by with wits and perception. The true hallmarks of any professional.
Eisa drew in a half breath through her nose. She wasn't going to win this one. He knew her too well, he expected exactly what she was giving him, probably line for line. That also meant she could turn it into an advantage. But how?
When she was younger, Michelle had taken her in even though she knew that the Thieves' Guild was after Eisa. Michelle hadn't owed her anything and yet she had still gone to the Guild on Eisa's behalf and negotiated a peace with Daxton. Eisa had never known the details but she knew that it wasn't just her that whispered the woman's name in reverent tones. “Urda forgive me. . .”
“I--” could she do this? “Do you want to die?”
“Yes?” Daxton set the blade down as the last grains of sand trickled through the neck of the hourglass.
“Michelle set it up.” Eisa breathed the words. “I'm just the organizer.”
The leopard leaned back in his chair with an appraising look, his left ear turned back slightly and curiosity flicked in his eyes. There were easier ways to light a candle at both ends, but not many. You didn't drop the name of the most prolific thief in the entire city and not expect some kind of backlash.
“That right?” The chair creaked with his weight. “All right, say I'm convinced. . . Just for a second. Why're you going to throw her under the wagon to save your own skin?”
Eisa fidgeted. He knew more than she expected. The leopard smirked.
“What, have a little tiff? Or were you just using her too, hm? Maybe that's it, oh, you're a cold one kitten. Even I wouldn't play someone's feelings like that. . .
“I- It's not like that.”
“If you say so.” He shrugged indifferently.
Her voice came smoothly, so smoothly she hardly recognized it as her own. More like some part of her had died but kept trying to be her. “I just. . . Look, ahm, its a good job, Michelle won't know and we don't have the labor to move that kind of weight but I know you do. You can hire some labor group by proxy or something, Michelle and I don't have that leverage.”
“Heh, so this is what it's come to.”
“Don't you disgrace her. Don't you dare.”
“You're lucky.” The tall male stood up over her, scooped up the dagger and threw it with a careless flick of the wrist. It slammed, point first, into a support pillar. “Ten years ago, I'd have slit your throat for using her name. But, things've changed.” He slid up to half sit on his desk and leaned into her space. He sniffed. “I loved her, you know.” He whispered. “Not quite like I cared for you, but that's life, isn't it? Just be careful that when you bury the blade in someone it hits something vital.”
“So, you're going to let me go?”
“Mmmm?” He looked at her, surprised.
“I hadn't planned on it, no. Bunni?”
At once a pair of arms grabbed her from behind. Eisa flailed. Kicked out against the desk. The squirrel woman tightened her grip, pressing down on her chest. It was impossible to breathe. “Daxton!” she choked out. “Michelle won't like-- gak!” A hand wrapped around her throat. Panic surged. She tried to push off. She dug her toes into the tips of her boots and let her claws come out, trying to get purchase. Can't. Breathe!
Daxton stepped around the desk. “Just messing with you. Let her go, Bunni.”
The girl looked at him and then Eisa. Abruptly she yanked herself away and snorted.
“I've wanted to see that face for years,” he smirked. “Thank you for that.” As Eisa coughed and hacked the leopard leaned against the desk, watching her. When he was sure she was paying attention, he spoke again. “Now, I'm going to say this once and only once. If you try to weasel your way out of this--”
“I won't!” She sputtered.
“Good girl, Bunni. Go with her. . . keep her company, hm?”
The squirrel groaned. “Fine.”
Daxton leaned in, covering his mouth with his palm. “I wouldn't even think about crossing her, the girl's quick and strong.” He patted her shoulder. “You did good, kid. I'm sure that sting between her shoulders will go away in a few years. Don't let it keep you up at night.”
Eisa opened her mouth but the words wouldn't come. She looked down and away.
“Blindfold her and take her to the street, if she resists or tries anything funny, you have my permission to kill her.” Daxton pushed off the desk and stepped around Eisa.
As the she applied the blindfold, Eisa felt a surge of confidence. She had mastered the situation, she had won. Now she could focus on the first part of her plan. Outrunning the mudslide.“All the trademarks of a good novel and no scribe in sight.”
It wasn't until they got to street level that Eisa had a sense of where they were. A tangy scent of spices dusted the air and market calls assaulted her ears hocking one-- probably fake-- exotic treasure or another. They were in the lower east bazaar, a place of interspecies mingling where metals flowed from hand to hand like water. It was a good place for a thief to make a living, if they were brave enough to risk the watchful eyes of the Duchess's elite Lionars.
The perfect place for a thieves' guild.
Eisa was tugged, signaling she needed to stop. She turned to face her escorts knowing that the first things she saw after the blindfold came off would tell her about her position and make the place easier to find when-- if-- she could get away. It was always good to know what places you needed to avoid. If they were smart, they would turn her around before removing the blindfold. If not. . .
“So you really. . .” the squirrel behind her slipped the blindfold off. A solid brick wall was in front of Eisa. She searched the wall for any signs of a trap door, of which there were none.
“So much for that idea.”
It was still night, at least, which meant she hadn't been down there long. It also meant Michelle was probably still lingering in the shadows, maybe even watching now. Eisa looked over her shoulder as the large rabbit stepped off, shooting Bunni a surreptitious look before he disappeared into the crowd.
The squirrel turned her around and faced her towards the market. “You really. . . with her?”
“So?” Eisa rolled her shoulders, collecting her bearings.
“Isn't she a dog or something? That's just. . . wrong. On so many levels. You sick--”
“Hey, what's that?” Eisa pointed over the woman's shoulder.
She started to turn then, faster than Eisa had ever seen anyone move, she backhanded Eisa right in the mouth. Eisa jerked to the side, surprised by the force of the blow. “Cute, but no.”
As Eisa rubbed her jaw she turned away. She couldn't show weakness, now now. She had to keep her wits about her. Yes, wits and talent. “I was going to say something about your tail but if you've got no sense of humor, I can't help you with that!”
“So. . .” she stalled. Where was she going to go-- she had to get away from Bunni and find a way out of the city. Even if the iron was real, the Guild never would have let her live with that kind of blackmail material. Stealing from a merchant was one thing but stealing from the kingdom's sovereign? That a guaranteed, all expenses paid trip to the gallows. Daxton was probably already planning her death in minute detail.
There was no future left for her in Exter, Michelle would get by without her and she would be alive. It would be Vesper all over again but the alternative was a shallow unmarked grave along some road-- if she was really lucky.
Eisa exhaled deeply until she had no air in her lungs. “Right, let's go find this contact.”
“I thought it was gonna be a couple days? I got no rush.”
“We still don't know where the warehouse is, it'd make the move easier, you know?”
Bunni considered it for a second and Eisa motioned her along. “Guess that makes sense.” She followed.
Along the way they stopped at a stand where Eisa convinced the squirrel to buy her an ale. She needed the liquid courage. From there, Eisa put on her best drunk face and stumbled through the crowd knocking into people along the way. Bunni didn't realize what was going on until they got to the edge of the crowd and someone shouted. “Thief!”
Eisa turned and someone shoved her, she bumped into Bunni and slipped the 'liberated' purse around her belt. It was small enough that she wouldn't have noticed unless she was more skilled. Eisa slipped her arm around the woman's shoulders and lead her out of the crowd. “Come on,” she whispered.
A group of Lionars in full mail and wearing the crest of the city strolled up in a semi-circle around the crowd, already pinning them in. They hardly noticed the two 'drunks' that slipped into the shadow near the edge of the market.
Not until they were a few dozen steps away, at least.
“Run,” Eisa whispered sharply. “We'll meet up near South docks if we split up.” It sounded right, professional. She deliberately pushed the woman away and ran the opposite direction of the docks. Having no idea what to make of it, the squirrel bounded after her at a full run.
Situationally speaking, things could have been worse. The lions were wearing heavy mail and despite their endurance, they wouldn't last long at a sprint. They did force and they did it well. Eisa and Bunni on the other hand had plenty of generations of running from things larger than themselves and so they had the advantage. The real trick was going to be robbing someone of that advantage.
Eisa pumped her arms for extra speed, sprinting full tilt for a few dozen feet and then slowing to a jog. The trick to foot pursuits, according to any number of professionals was to know where you planned to go and how to get there and, above all, never to mix that order up. For Eisa it was simple, the docks were half a dozen blocks away through winding roads leading down a gently sloped hill to the warehouse district.
She could almost see the pylons that kept the buildings off the ground from where she stood. Pearl street was one of three roads that lead down to the docks making the path incredibly dangerous for the pursued simply because there was no question of where they would be heading.
Bunni didn't know what was happening yet, but she would. Eisa panted as she vaulted over some old woman selling candles on a rug near the entry to the bazaar, mumbling an apology as she did so.
“Stop!” one of the lions shouted.
Bunni shouted after Eisa but she wasn't listening.
She pumped her arms harder, aiming for the warehouses with the squirrel and the guards following her like a kite tail. The lanterns that lined the causeway cast awkward shadows over cargo cranes and boxes while painting the opposite sides along the buildings with deep shadows. Standing at the lip of an alley was a familiar coyote.
The woman had her arms crossed, watching her with her muzzle pointed slightly downward, her eyes tracking Eisa. When Eisa tried to say something, to defend herself, to apologize, Michelle stepped back into the shadow. With only a second to decide, Eisa did the only thing she could do.
She ran faster. Sprinted for the warehouse.
Problem with the docks was that the warehouses had no markings unless they belonged to a noble house, it also meant that one never knew what kind of guards were going to be in them, if any. As luck would have it, a prominent blue and gold seal of the Diqune family marked the door to one of the nearest ones. A couple hundred heads on any given side, it looked like the kind of thing someone would stuff full of spices or maybe clothes. Simple things. It also meant there would be professional guards.
Eisa dug into her leathers and pulled out her climbing claws.
Professional guards didn't beat and rape their captives.
She ran around the back and avoided the ramp. It was ten heads off the ground held up by pylons of solid oak that had been carved into statues. Eisa fitted her claws on, snapped her boot claws out and jumped.
“Off the ground, catch the pillar with the foot. Jump off the face. Hook the wall, then in the vent.”
This was going to be easy.
She hit the statue with a tock, grabbed the ear of the badger, swung around and hooked her foot off the snout. She jumped up, caught the edge of the wall with one set of claws. Triumphant, Eisa jammed her foot into the wood and scampered up the wall to the main vent hole built into the corner of the building. She looked down just as Bunni was making her own jump. The guards were coming down the road. Just a bit behind.
Bunni didn't need climbing claws. She bounded up the statue and circled around it like a snake, moving so quickly Eisa almost lost track of her. In another second she was climbing up the corner using her natural claws. Somewhere along the way she had taken off her boots.
“That's one talented squirrel.” Eisa ducked into the vent hole and caught the edge, flipping over the mouth of it and using her climbing claws to keep from falling into the warehouse. Crates arrayed in neat rows with spears of moonlight highlighting alleys between them leading towards the front of the building. It was going to be easy for the guards to find them.
Clatter, clatter. Bunni was muttering darkly as she emerged from the vent. “--gonna kill that little bitch.”
The cat burglar hung there holding her breath. The squirrel looked around, edged closer to the lip of the vent to get a better view, and coiled her body in preparation to jump to the top of the nearest crate. Just before she jumped Eisa shoved off and bent upward.
The squirrel jumped. Eisa wrapped her legs around the woman's waist. Carried by the momentum, the claws broke loose and they went tumbling forward. They slammed into the ground with Bunni crashing into the crate and then the floor. Eisa straddled her back, panting. “W- Woo. What a rush.” She huffed.
The woman groaned.
“For this,” she frisked the woman quickly and found a dagger in the squirrel's belt line. With practiced hands she undid the buckles on her leathers, ripped them off and cut the arms off of them. The sharp blade made short work of the stitching and a twinge of guilt ripped through Eisa. It was a damn shame to ruin good workmanship but this wasn't a normal situation.
After making the top look like a vest, she got rid of all her picks and tools, shoving them into Bunni's pouches. Finally she eyed the blade and inhaled sharply. This part was going to hurt.
She grabbed up and bit down on one of her sleeves before she dragged the knife across her shoulder. The main door to the building opened a second later just as the metal bit into her flesh. Eisa mewled into her leather, grinding her canines into it to keep from screaming.
“Spread out,” one of the Lionars said.
“Deep breath. Keep it together.”
Eisa ripped her gloves off and balled them up into her sleeves, throwing the whole mess out through the vent hole. She put the blade in Bunni's grip and sucked in shaky breath, put on her best 'don't kill me, I'm innocent' face and wandered into the center isle. “Help!” She mewled. “She's back here!”
“Stop where you are!”
“P- Please! She took me hostage and said that if I didn't give her my money, she'd kill me! I-- I need a healer!”
The massive lion approached her cautiously but never sped up past his other guards. They swept through the warehouse in a neat line that left nowhere to hide or run. A man was behind him, too, she noticed. It was the human who's purse she'd lifted.
“Oh thank Urda,” Eisa slumped against the crate beside her. “It's the guard! I tried to signal but she told me if I screamed, she'd--”
One of the other guards said, “Sir! Found her!”
“You, cat, over there.”
Eisa wandered to the back of the warehouse. The guards were looking Bunni over who was still trying to make sense of what happened. She looked just about ready to black out again when the human pointed at the coin purse. “That's mine!”
“How can you be so sure?”
“The inside lip, there's a family seal there.”
“So there is.”
The leader of the guard looked to Eisa. “She took you hostage, you say?” His tone softened a bit and Eisa nodded. In seconds she had a story fabricated which she easily and confidently delivered about how she had been wanting to see the market, that she was traveling back to Vesper to be married and had been coaxed into an alley by the woman. When everything was said and done, even she felt sorry for herself. The human, some type of noble by his dress, even gave her five tin chips to get treated by a real healer and the guard let her go.
Once outside, Eisa packed her wound with an herbal salve and wrapped it with some black cloth to keep it clean as she jogged for the docks. She wouldn't have much time, maybe a couple hours, maybe a day before Daxton sent someone to find his little minion and she still needed some something to book passage on a ship or cart.
Eisa blended into the night easily enough, no one paid much attention to the shadows at night unless they belonged in them. She found her way to pier ten, it was originally meant for the largest of cargo ships but no one knew it like Eisa did. She was just about to climb down under it when she saw a ship sailing towards one of the smaller docks. It was flying Heperon colors and had a distinctly eastern design.
She squatted down on the edge of the dock, considering. It wasn't large but Heperon ships usually meant Star Iron. And Star Iron meant wealth. She looked back at her dark, cold spot under the pier and then back to the ship. It seemed her night wasn't over.
It couldn't get any worse, at least.
This installment of Tales From the Kingdom of the Red Sun is part of an ongoing serial. If you're reading it out of order and would like to see how it begins, check out my website at http://johnenright.info where you can find other links to my writing, including this and other works.
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Thank you very much for reading, I sincerely hope you enjoyed it as much as I did have. If you would like to check out some of my other works, including those set in this world and others, you can find them at http://johnenright.info