2

SCENTED SMOKE CURLED about the mausoleum and the finger bells of the mourners broke the evening into a thousand tiny pieces of sound. Perched high on one of the more ornate tombs, safely out of sight, Aaron blocked his ears against the noise which threatened to shatter him as well.

Faharra's granddaughter had spared no expense and the procession from the house to the temple crematorium and then out into the necropolis had been a spectacle worthy of the best gem cutter Ischia had known.

“And yet while she lived,” Aaron growled softly from his vantage point, “you couldn't spare an hour to sit with her, nor any kindness to lighten her day.”

Her thickening figure nearly hidden beneath her funeral draperies, the granddaughter appeared the picture of bereavement as hired dancers carried the brass urn into the squat marble building that held fifteen generations of her family's remains. When they emerged, when the wailers had sent a last chorus to the gods, she turned and, tenderly supported by two of her closest friends, led the procession back to the city.

Aaron watched the tottering figure leave and his lip curled. If that fat sow felt anything at all, it was pleasure at being the center of attention. Not for a moment did he believe that the red and yellow veils hid sorrow.

When he could no longer hear the maddening chimes of the finger bells and the heavy scent of sandalwood had been swept clean by the evening breeze, he dropped silently to the ground.

The door to the mausoleum was locked and the lock wound tightly about with red and yellow ribbons.

A violent twist tore the ribbons loose and a heartbeat later Aaron dropped the lock on the ground beside them. The door, well oiled, swung silently open. He stepped inside.

He worked and lived in shadow, but this darkness felt different, a part of the mausoleum like the brass fittings or the carved friezes. It etched a boundary about the light spilling in through the open door, cutting it into a rectangle of gray on the floor and barely allowing it to spread beyond. At the edge of the dim illumination, almost in the center of the tomb, stood an altar; the Nine Above grouped about the One Below who cradled a brass urn in marble arms. Faharra. She would stay in the deity's embrace until another of her family died and then her urn would be moved back to the shelves that lined the walls.

Aaron couldn't see the shelves—behind the altar the darkness thickened into a solid black wall—but he could feel the weight of the dead and was thankful he had no need to pierce their sanctuary. He had come for what lay with the One Below. The gods of Ischia held no terror far him, for without belief a god is nothing and Aaron believed only in death.

At the edge of the rectangle of light, he paused and stretched an arm out into shadow. No, not quite. His hand groped at air. He would have to take one, maybe two steps past the boundary.

He suppressed a shudder. Crossing into the darkness, even the less well defined darkness by the altar, felt like crossing into the realm of the dead, into their world not just their resting place, and the demons of his childhood flickered for an instant around the perimeter of his sight. Then his hands lay on the urn and he could ignore the darkness and the dead now that he held what he wanted.

Quickly working the stopper free, he dipped a tiny gold vial into the coarse ash. Until this morning it had held Faharra's favorite perfume and the smell of jasmine still lingered. He'd stolen it while the funeral director worked not twenty feet away. Once filled and sealed with a bit of wax, he hung the vial about his neck on a piece of silk cord, tucking it safely under his shirt. As he pushed the stopper back into place, he frowned. The granddaughter had been true to the end; the urn was plain brass, embossed but not jeweled. An insult to the greatest gem cutter Ischia had known.

The greatest gem cutter Ischia had known …

An idea crept into the back of his mind.

He straightened and raised one foot to turn and leave. Without really knowing why, he put it down again. Just barely visible, the face of the One Below gazed out at him with serene compassion.

“She hated to be left alone in the dark,” he whispered, the voice barely recognized as his own. He pressed the vial against his chest. “Now she won't be. Not entirely.” He tried to stop the cry of anguish that was rising up from the place where it had lain hidden for the last two days, but it proved too strong. It rose and built and when it crested it caught him up and dashed him down and he was lost within it.

A SHRIEK OF horror brought Aaron back to himself and he gazed stupidly about, wondering where he was. The white blob of the fleeing, and still shrieking, acolyte told him only that he remained on temple grounds. Vague memories of a run through darkness, slamming into stone, falling and rising and running again, were of little help. The fig tree beside him said more for the number of tombs had long since crowded any trees out of the necropolis. He looked up to see a hawk-nosed woman glaring down at him and after a moment of terror realized she was stone.

The Nobles' Garden.

The bodies of the nobility were given to the volcano, their likenesses then carved in anything from granite to obsidian and placed in the section of the temple grounds reserved for such monuments.

The acolyte, walking alone among life-sized statues of the dead, had seen coming at him out of the darkness a face apparently unsupported, for Aaron's clothes were dark. Assuming the obvious, he screamed and ran.

With a brief bow to the lady's memorial, Aaron headed for the temple wall at a quick trot. He strongly suspected the acolyte's report would be investigated by a less impressionable mind and he had no wish to tangle with the temple guards.

A broad scrape across the back of one hand oozed blood, but his wild flight seemed to have done no more damage than that. Although his throat was dry and sore, he felt calm, almost serene. During the remaining hours of the night he would repay the friendship of the best gem cutter Ischia had known.

Her final resting place deserved to hold a sample of her art.

He would return to her the emerald from the top of the royal staff.

*      *      *

“Although I hesitate to ask and you may tell me it's none of my business …” The fat man ran stained fingers lightly down the heavy gold chain until they rested on the medallion that hung from it. “… how did you come to acquire this?”

“You're right, Herrak. It's none of your business.” Aaron stood motionless in the shadow of a heavily overladen bookcase, blending with the clutter of the room, his eyes never leaving the enormous man behind the desk. “Will it pay for what I need?”

“A man in your line of work should learn more patience,” Herrak chided, the smoke-stick bobbing on his lower lip. He hefted the chain in his left hand and with the right dusted ash from the protruding shelf of his stomach. Almost nonexistent brows drew down in concentration and a slow chuckle escaped with the next lungful of smoke. “However you managed it,” he said at last, “His Grace is not going to be pleased to find it missing.”

“Forget His Grace,” Aaron growled. “Get on with it.” He'd stolen the chain just after leaving the Nobles' Garden; to get to the royal staff he would have to get onto the palace grounds, but only Herrak had the means for that and Herrak's price was high. The fat man had no need for further wealth, he desired the different, the dangerous, the unique to shuffle into the rat's nest of his townhouse never to be seen again by any eyes but his. Aaron had not dealt with Herrak before but knew he was the only man in Ischia who had what he needed tonight.

And if the chain and its medallion were too little? Aaron beat the thought back. They couldn't be. Not enough night remained for him to find something else and get the emerald as well. His Grace's security system had already cost him too much valuable time.

“The charm you need, my friend, is costly,” the fat man murmured more to himself than to the young thief. He hefted the chain once more and smiled, his eyes almost lost behind the bulges of his cheeks. “But I think this will meet my price. The irritation its loss will cause His Grace is almost worth the price alone. Almost,” he repeated hurriedly in case Aaron should get ideas. “Yes, this will get you your charm.”

“And a grappling iron.”

Herrak's nearly buried eyes beamed with anticipation. Almost as much as the treasures it brought, he loved the bargaining, the give and take, the jockeying for position, the power of words. He spoke the first phrase of the ritual; “Do you haggle with me, then?”

Aaron's lips thinned and the demon wings of his brows drew down over his eyes. “No. The charm is useless alone. I get both, or no deal. I can put the chain back as easily as I took it.”

For a moment there was no sound except the soft beat of a moth's wings against the glass chimney of the lamp. Herrak couldn't believe his ears. An ultimatum? Had this, this thief just given him an ultimatum?

“Make your choice,” the thief continued. “I haven't much time.”

It could be a bluff, but Herrak didn't like the young man's tone. He fingered the medallion, and chose. “And a grappling iron,” he agreed. Stretching out an arm, he snagged a small wooden box off a pile of precariously balanced bric-a-brac, opened it and plucked out a tiny twist of silver. “This will not stop magical attacks, but it will get you through the wards.”

Leaning out of the shadows, Aaron snatched it from him. “And the iron.”

A pudgy finger pointed.

Both the charm and the folded hooks disappeared within one voluminous trouser leg, and the young thief jerked his head once in Herrak's direction.

“You're welcome,” Herrak said dryly to the space where Aaron had been. He stroked the chain and imagined His Grace's expression when he awoke and found it missing. Rumor had it that the chief magistrate slept with his chain of office draped over his bedpost; the only time he took it off. A pretty bit of thievery that.

Spitting the wet end of the smoke-stick from his mouth, Herrak settled the chain about his neck. Definitely worth what he'd paid for it. He almost wished he could see the young thief's face as the weakened hook broke free and he plummeted to the ground. “Never mind,” he comforted himself for missing the treat, “if he survives the fall, I shall enjoy hearing about his execution.”

THE STONE OF the gargoyle he clung to began to warm under Aaron's body heat and of the two, the gargoyle looked more likely to move. Behind him, Ischia lay as quiet as it ever got. Before him, the palace sprawled to the very lip of the volcano, a counterbalance to the massive bulk of the temple that loomed out of the darkness on the far side, the reflected fire from the crater staining its walls. The wall around the palace rose no more than seven feet high, a symbol rather than an active deterrent. Stretching above it, invisible and easily forgotten, were twined the wards of the court wizards.

Aaron had studied the stories of those thieves who had attempted the palace as an artisan would study his craft. One of two things always happened. Either the charm they had purchased failed, in which case the wards destroyed them, or the beasts that watched the grounds at night tore them apart. There were legends, of course, of thieves who had blithely walked in and blithely walked out with treasure enough to build palaces of their own, but the truth lay with the broken bodies hanging lifeless on the gate at dawn, a grisly reminder to others who might try their luck.

For the wards, Aaron had to rely on the charm Herrak had sold him. He didn't like it, it gave the control to another, but he had no choice. If he was to get Faharra's emerald, he had to go over the wall. As for the beasts, Aaron preferred to take his chances with the two-legged kind, for their senses were easier to manipulate.

An errant breeze wandered up from the town, bringing a scent of baked fish and apricots. Aaron's stomach tightened. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. Time enough for food when he had the emerald.

“You don't take care of yourself, boy. You're too skinny by far.”

Too well trained to start, his hands tightened involuntarily around the stone throat of the gargoyle. The voice of memory had been growing louder since he'd left the fat man's.

“Be quiet, old woman,” he told it. “I'm doing this for you.”

He dropped his gaze to the sentry post almost directly across from his perch on the top of the single storied addition to the Duce of Lourence's townhouse. By royal decree no residence might look out upon the palace, but the Duce who had built the addition had been an ambitious man and attempted to bend the rule by cutting no windows in the wall on the palace side while leaving the flat roof as a terraced patio with a direct line of sight. The Duce had not survived his first garden party. His successors were less ambitious and longer lived. Aaron was the first creature larger than a gull to walk the terrace in three generations.

As Aaron watched, the sentry's jaw tensed, stifling a yawn, and she shifted the crossbow slightly in the crook of her arm.

Soon.

He began to work his muscles, readying himself for the run on the palace wall.

The heavy slap of leather-soled sandals against the cobblestones jerked him to full awareness and he leaned slightly forward, the pale gray of his eyes gleaming between narrowed lids.

Now.

As the sentry stepped out to greet her relief, Aaron moved. Shadow silent, he swarmed down the ornate stonework of the Duce's Folly, sped across the cobblestones and leapt for the top of the palace wall. The soft toes of his boots found an easy purchase against the rough stone and he propelled himself up and over, dropping lightly on the balls of his feet into a small courtyard. The whole thing had taken under a minute, just less than the time it took for the sentry to be relieved, the only time when all attention was not on the wall.

He listened for the alarm, but all he could hear was the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears.

Crouched in shadow, he stripped the leather bindings from below his knees and replaced his boots with sandals. He rearranged his small pack so that the straps were hidden and made his way cautiously along the courtyard wall to the covered walk running the length of one side. Following the faint indentation worn in the marble by other, more legitimate feet, he came to an open arch that led to the main courtyard just inside the palace gates, checked the position of the inner sentry, then stepped boldly out into the light.

“Half the trick of thieving,” he'd told Faharra, “is to behave as though you have every right to do what you're doing.”

“And the other half,” Faharra had snorted, “is having more balls than the Nine Above.”

The demon wings had flown in broad astonishment. “All Nine?” he'd asked and been rewarded by the old woman's laughter.

He wore the dark green livery of the chief magistrate, liberated earlier in the evening when he'd taken the chain. It would blend with the shadows as well as the black he normally wore but better still, it would hide him in the light. Even at this time of night, it would not be unusual for messages to move between the chief magistrate and the palace.

The sentry at the inner arch watched Aaron approach with a minimum of interest. Anyone who came by him had already passed the gate, had already been recognized, had already been declared safe. His time could be better spent burying his face between the soft mountains of his Lia's breasts. As Aaron came closer, into the light of the torches that flanked the sentry post, he did wonder briefly why the chief magistrate had taken an outlander into his employ but it was none of his concern after all …

“State your business,” he droned, dropping the point of his pike.

“Package for their Royal Highnesses.”

The twins were always referred to thus, as a single unit. Aaron had no idea why he had chosen them as his silent accomplices, but he remembered the thief inching feet first into the volcano… .

The pike snapped up, the guard's fingers moving restlessly along the haft, itching to make the sign of the Nine and One. To come between the twins and their toys was never healthy. “Straight ahead to the first cross corridor, make a left, pass four corridors, make a right, give it to the guard at the end of the long gallery.”

A nod, the barest bending of his neck, and Aaron passed into the palace.

The sentry shivered as the outlander went by. The eyes in the pale-skinned face had been flat and dead and empty of all emotion, like chips of silver-gray stone. He'd seen corpses with more life in their eyes.

May he and their Royal Highnesses have the joy of each other, he thought and tried to lose the chill in the memory of Lia's flesh.

The corridors, built wide and high to catch the breezes, were, for the most part, empty. The few who moved about at this hour—servants tending the lamps that broke the palace into bars of light and shadow, a drunken noble on her way to the Nobles' Quarters, a pair of yawning ink-stained clerks scurrying home to bed—paid him no mind for the livery of the chief magistrate was well known and if he walked in the palace, he'd passed the gate.

The dim and the quiet settled over Aaron like a cloak, wrapping him in a feeling of safety both false and dangerous. Aaron recognized it, but didn't seem to have the energy to deal with it. He felt as though he were dreaming and the further he walked, the stronger the feeling grew. At the end of the long gallery, he almost trusted the dream enough to let it carry him forward into the sight of the guards.

And then he remembered that trust meant betrayal.

He faded into the darkness caught in the deep bay of a shuttered window and froze. The louvers had been left open to allow the air to circulate, but fortunately they had been angled in such a way he would not be seen from the gardens. The livery would not carry him past the two guards at the door leading to the royal apartments and that one small door was the only exit deeper into the palace.

“He keeps it in an anteroom off his bedchamber.”

Aaron rested his forehead against the polished wood and waited for Faharra to finish. He couldn't work when she was so close.

“Perhaps he fondles it before he sleeps. There's more life in a well cut gem than in many a well born woman.”

His eyes on the distant guards and his other senses spread about the gallery, he slipped the latch from the shutters and opened one just enough to ease through. The hinges sighed faintly. He froze and listened to the silence, then risked an alarm once more as he pushed the shutter closed and secured it with a bit of wax.

“You're too good a thief, Aaron my lad.”

“Yes,” he agreed silently, watching his hands as though they belonged to someone else. “I am.”

Moving quickly, for the air smelled of dawn and the servants would be stirring soon, he changed back to his boots and rescued the baggy bottoms of his trousers, working by touch while his eyes grew reaccustomed to the dark and his ears sifted the night for any sound of an alarm.

If the dogs were close… .

Halfway down the length of the gallery there was a wall; the barrier to the private gardens of the royal family.

Aaron had no idea if it was warded.

If it was, he didn't know if Herrak's charm would work again.

“It isn't easy to cut an emerald that big, let me tell you.”

“You've told me, Faharra,” he responded softly, and leapt for the top of the wall.

He crouched there for a heartbeat, balanced against the night, weighing his next move, then he flung himself through the air a body length and more and into the arms of a honey locust. He'd take the high road when he could.

The snap of a broken branch.

A low grunt of pain.

The royal garden stirred as the hunters came to see what had made the sound.

Aaron, his back tight against the slender trunk of the tree, pressed his hand against his hip and breathed shallowly through his nose. The smell of jasmine was almost overpowering, but keeping his teeth clenched prevented the pain from escaping. The branch he'd snagged had not been able to bear his weight and as he'd fallen the broken end of another had slammed into his hip. His fingers were sticky.

He shifted, precariously balanced on a branch not much larger than the one that had broken, and shrugged out of his pack. He didn't have time to give in to pain. The blood would bring the hunters and he had to be ready.

“The Clan Heir fights through pain!”

“Shut up, Father,” he spat. “I'm not doing this for you.”

From around the dark bulk of a hedge, belly low to the ground and tail lashing, came the first of the hunters. The other two quickly followed, drawn by the blood scent. They were larger than the mountain cats of Aaron's childhood, bulkier, less sleekly muscled. They grouped around his tree and one reared, claws spread wider than Aaron's hand, ripping deep gouges in the bark.

While other thieves had made the sign of the Nine and avoided their comrades hung on the palace gates in fear that the luck of the dead would rub off on them, Aaron had learned the lessons they offered. The great cats had declared their presence on more than one of the bodies. He broke the seal on the package he carried, careful not to touch any of the pungent herb with his hands.

The blood scent became suddenly of secondary importance. Rounded ears snapped forward and slitted eyes opened wide. Curiosity joined forces with this new and enticing smell and together they won. When the herb package crashed down behind a hedge, the hunters followed.

Aaron slid to the ground, keeping his weight on his arms as long as possible, then he hurried along the garden paths toward the bulk of the palace. He didn't know how long the herb would hold the hunters so he moved as quickly as he could, ignoring the pain because he had to, ignoring the warm wetness that slowly molded the thin cotton trousers to his leg. For the same reason he had gone over the wall at the sentry post, he now headed toward the one rectangle of light looking down onto the garden; an enemy seen could be avoided. Bypassing the windows on the lower floor—they would lead only to confrontations with guards patrolling the corridors—he pulled free the grappling iron and a soft length of silk rope.

In all of Ischia, only the temple and the palace were free of the ornate stonework that provided ladders for the city's thieves.

The thin metal hooks of the grapple were padded, but when it struck the tiled edge of the roof it rang dangerously loud. Aaron paused, sagging against the cool stone, but no new lamps were lit and no one appeared against the light on the balcony his rope ran so close beside. Stretching until his hip blossomed freshly with blood and pain, he grabbed the rope, braced his feet, and forced his body up the wall.

Just past the balcony, where he carefully kept his eyes from the spill of light lest he lose the dark, Aaron felt the rope tremble in his hands. Then it jerked. Then he slid sideways a few feet. Then he fell.

If the slide had moved him another hand's span …

If his injured leg had obeyed his will for a few heartbeats more… .

The edge of the balcony railing caught the back of his calves. It spun him round, clipping his forehead against the stone, and slammed him down on his back on the balcony tiles.

He thought for a moment that the green lights exploding in his head were the emerald he sought, shattered now beyond retrieval, shattered beyond even Faharra's ability to repair.

The emerald… .

He had to get the emerald for Faharra. He tried to rise.

The face bending over him drew back, and tossed an obstructing shock of deep black hair away from pale blue eyes.

Aaron forgot how to breathe, forgot how to move …

Ruth. His cousin had tossed her black hair so and often teased him to cut it for her, short like a man's, so it would no longer fall in front of her eyes. Her pale, winter blue eyes.

… forgot the pain of the present as the pain of the past tightened its grip. And, lost in the past, he didn't see the sword descending.