She looked through the slats onto the dark street below. Careful, as she had been taught, that no light shone behind her, and no movement would be noticed should one of them look up.
She could hear them speaking in that odd manner they had- a language comprised of purring consonants and deep chested pronouncements. Shaidara had no idea what they were saying, but she heard the dreaded thickness of alcohol affecting their speech and the age-old hatred they seemed to hold for those that lived on these streets. They were hunting alright. Hoping for an unwary stray.
She shivered despite herself, the deep-seated terror of the Leuians below pricking at her nerve endings and shadowing her delicate featured face for a moment before she managed to hide it. She had seen what became of anyone they would catch. Anyone they considered a thief. Even a youngster with a Setite godmark was fair game. In this city, the Serpant's mark on His followers could be a death sentence. Only when protected by a guild and trained in survival skills did most openly dedicate to Set.
She kept watch still, staying motionless at her post, knowing that other eyes and ears were watching the threat from every darkened shadow in the ghetto. The group of Leuian sailors reluctantly moved on. The sound of rough laughter and splintering wood reaching her as one vented his aggression on a random doorway, one careless swipe of a massive clawed hand reducing it to kindling.
She could feel the unnatural quiet in the ghetto ease, and somewhere a baby cried. Voices once again filtered through the night air, somewhere the sound of music again picked up its interrupted wheeze. The threat of outside danger had passed. For now.
Dark eyes watched down the streets as she hunched against the weathered sill. It was a game between them, her watching to see if she could find his shadow slide along the street as he made his way home. Rarely would she spy him, not seeing a trace of her father until his hand landed on her shoulder from behind, startling her from her sentry, laughing and teasing her when she pouted.
But tonight she watched in earnest, as she had the night before, and the night before that. Miteanas Tangolandrah had not come home to his daughter.
She watched unmoving until the sun opened its eye somewhere below the dark line of the Southern Deeps, the ruddy glow tinting the shadows and picking out shapes along the street. She watched as doors opened and men and women began the day's pursuits, the smells of cooking mixing with the unceasing dankness of the alley. It occurred to her then. She was 14 today.
They hadn't lived here forever. She still had memories of another place, beautiful and cold even to the recollection of a child. She remembered elegant ladies and richly dressed men, the smells of exotic perfumes and a sense of being safe. She remembered her father far different than he had become, bold and obvious in his powers, unassailable by any foe. She held the image of a woman in her mind, more beautiful than a goddess, whose laughter still remained in the memory of her daughter.
She remembered a night of fire, screams of the dying, desperation and grief on her fathers face as he took her bundled form swiftly through ravaged streets to a ship waiting to sail somewhere on the dark waters below. She still remembered leaving Muldavia.
She leaned against the wall of the room that had been their home for the past month. They moved a lot, never staying long in one location, though they never went far from the harbor city of Maldraas. Instead they moved from room to hovel to tent, and periodically into one of the hotels that dotted the city. She loved those times, pretending to be the spoiled daughter of a rich Sanene gentleman, pampered and doted upon, silks and rich brocade clothing her instead of the subtle, simple dresses she otherwise wore.
It was a game; one her father played well, one he promised wouldn't be necessary anymore, after this meeting.
A week passed. Not once did she give up her watch, or her faith in her father's return. She buried the rising panic and fear deep inside as she had been taught, refusing to acknowledge it. The landlord came, wanting his fee, eyeing her appraisingly as she stood back from him explaining her father would be back any moment. She didn't like the way he looked at her, and she knew her father would have slit the man's throat had he seen it.
Her food ran out, and she ventured into the ghetto to purchase more with the emergency coin that was always left to her. Coin she had never before needed. She headed straight to the large gray stoned structure that seemed to anchor the sprawl of the ghetto in place. It was here her father had told her to come if anything ever happened. She huddled against the cool stone near an entry gate, her cloak's hood pulled up as she watched those who came and went. The desperation and poverty seemed to lose its hold on those that gathered at this place, the smells of food wafted from a building within the compound, and a group of mixed raced children laughed under the supervision of a smiling Psycian teacher.
She stiffened as something poked her in the back, turning quickly to find a greenish skinned go-blin-al staring at her suspiciously.
"Whaz you doinz juz standinz der?" it asked as she stepped back.
"I am supposed to go in," she answered in Common, aware of the awkwardness of her response.
The gobbie squinted at her and scratched under his armpit, eyeing her a moment.
"Den youz come wif me."
He pulled her along by the hem of her cloak, and she followed, too scared to do otherwise, entering the ornate serpent adorned iron gates, then passing the two enormous black marble jackals that stood watch at either side of the entrance to the temple grounds.
The gobbie talked to himself, grumbling and muttering as he led her through the crowd, grunting or screeching at various Setites they passed. Several eyed her and she knew there was whispering and more heads turning to gaze at her as they made their way to a quieter part of the grounds.
A man in simple black robes stood with his back to them, surveying the city below, his hands clasped behind him, though she was certain he had been aware of them before she had even spied him.
The gobbie paused, releasing her cloak, then stood blinking at the priest, fidgeting a bit, suddenly ceasing the accompaniment of indecipherable commentary altogether.
The priest turned, nodding at her companion, smiling with genuine warmth as he regarded her.
"Shaidara Tango, I presume?"
She didn't correct him, she knew it was her fathers guild name. She nodded once, a flush warming her cheeks, for some reason uncomfortable with even this minor deception. There was something about this small statured man that invited her total confidence, a perception in his blue eyes that assured her he would understand anything she told him.
His smile remained, reflected in his remarkable eyes and he patted the gobbie on the head then placed his arm around her shoulders. He smelled of fresh bread, incense, and honed metal.
He walked with her, the gobbie leaving them and scampering off, taking her to a cool shadowed grotto where beautifully carved fountains cascaded sparkling water into deep basins, drowning out the sound of distant voices.
He bade her to sit on a stone bench, hesitating, gently slipping off the hood that hid her features. What she saw in his face was her undoing, the compassion there and the regret, telling her in an instant what she had already known in her heart.
He held her as she cried, murmuring soothingly, her cheek cushioned by his soft dark robes from the hard plates of metal beneath it. She wept with the despair of a child, until her grief was a hollow burned out place deep in her heart. She listened as he explained what had happened to her father, taking in his softly spoken words, each one filling that burned out place inside her with the seeds of hatred and anger and a new emotion: a growing need for vengeance.
When he was done speaking they sat together, his hand wiping a last tear from her cheek, smoothing back her long dark hair, fingers callused from the hilt of a sword gentle against her cool, dusky skin.
"You are not alone. There is family here should you chose to embrace it."
His eyes were kind, his voice the same quiet balm on her wounds as she sat there, at a loss for direction, certain only of one thing. She would payback what had been done to her father. What had been done to her.
He continued, taking in every flicker of emotion on her dark skinned, elven features.
"You are young yet to be on your own. There is a club in town that would give you work and a roof over your head...feed you. I have already made arrangements if you would like."
She didn't remember agreeing, more truthfully, she didn't really care. She was taken from the temple to the lower city, away from the slums to what her father had always termed a "Gilded House". She was given work there as a maid, cleaning and working in the sculleries.
It was well kept, discreet, frequented by a rich clientele. For the first time she was surrounded by women. Exotic, beautiful, sensual ladies of different races and backgrounds, some who instantly tried to mother her, others that ignored her altogether.
She shared a room with a human girl, several years older than she was, named Madeline. It was she that first breached the reserve Shaidara had cloaked herself in since her arrival. Long whispered conversations after their chores were done for the day, sharing the gossip that was so prevalent in the House. Almost a ritual, Madeline would sit nightly with Shai, brushing her friend's long dark hair as they spoke.
Madeline was in love, she confided, and the wealthy nobleman's son promised to marry her and take her to live in one of his family's estates. She was going to take Shaidara with her and they would dance at balls and dine with handsome lords.
Shai would laugh, shaking her head, amused at the wild dreams, but happy for her friend nonetheless.
It was Shaidara that found Madeline hanging from a rope in the cellar. It seems her young gentleman had married some lady from another city, and wasn't about to be burdened with a farm girl carrying his bastard.
Shaidara kept this lesson in her heart along with all the others.
Years passed, and soon it was impractical for the lovely Sanene girl to work in the capacity of house help. She was offered a position as courtesan, assured excellent wages and a regular clientele. She refused, taking her hoarded coin and the lessons she had learned from the women of the house on using her exotic beauty to get what she needed to survive. Every man scammed was a reprisal for her girlhood friend, every coin she got with a winsome smile and fluttering lashes a step to settle an endless tab. Yet still she needed to learn more.
It became prudent for her to leave the city, and without a second glance she did so. She took only her fathers tool kit, stuffed full of his lock picking tools and makeup kit, a sharp dagger, and changes of clothing. She was off to Spur and a promised education in the guild her father had been a part of.
On a delicate chain around her neck hung a gold ring: a serpent embracing an opal in its scales. It was a final gift from the cleric who had found her and helped her as a girl.
"Take this in remembrance of an old priest. When you are ready, He will be there. Your Family will be waiting."
Copyright 2007 The Dragon's Gate Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.