Clayton Emery

Star of Cursrah


The Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR)

'Here he comes.'

'Reiver… what's-hey!'

Amber and Hakiim jumped back as their friend dashed by. Bony elbows and knees jutted from Reiver's ragged clothes, and bare feet slapped the tar-dappled, salt-streaked planks of the wharf. Pouches on his belt flopped, and a bundle tied with cod line thumped against his back. Red-faced, short of breath, he nevertheless grinned as he passed his two friends.

'Things to do…' he said. 'Meet me back here.'

'Hoy, you lot,' bellowed someone down the docks. 'Stop that thief!'

Amber and Hakiim hopped onto a pyramid of cotton bales to see over the sailors, dockhands, and porters' mules that crowded the wharf. 'He's done it again,' Hakiim laughed. 'Come on, let's catch him.'

Laughing, Amber held the jeweled jambiya in her crimson sash and streaked after Hakiim. She flicked her kaffiyeh aside. To catch Reiver, she'd need breath to run, and the headscarf was blowing in her face.

Memnon, also called the Gateway to the Desert, the Scarlet City, and the City of Soldiers, was a jumble of contrasts. Squat buildings of brilliant glazed bricks were surmounted by tall, thin towers with domes of gold leaf. Walls were thick, gates high and solid, streets narrow and crowded, yet everywhere stretched arches and fluted pillars and stone-cut fretwork that gave an airy effect, as if the city might take wing. Every flat surface was decorated with a painting or mosaic, and every pocket that could hold dirt sprouted roses or sunflowers or honeysuckle vines coiling toward a sky of molten gold.

The city was a living tribute to its creator, the Great Pasha Memnon, a monstrous, fire-breathing genie hunter. Memnon's efreet armies had burned down forests so Shanatar's dwarves might build a city in his name, and in that city, genies were painted and etched everywhere. Efreet statues supported iron braziers where crabs boiled and peppers sizzled, oathbinder genies frowned from building-spanning mosaics overlooking the market's transactions, marids clung to high corners as gargoyle waterspouts, harim servant genies glared from doorknockers, even noble djinn swung as string puppets from the kiosks of toymakers.

Memnon was busy and crowded, but Reiver was as tall as he was skinny, and his kaffiyeh a twist of rags every color of the rainbow, so Amber and Hakiim could spot him bobbing amidst the market day crowd. Accustomed to pursuit, Reiver cut into the first cross street and dashed into the maze of the city bazaar, the Khanduq of the Coin-mother, that sprawled for five blocks and twisted upward two and three stories. Zigzagging nimbly as a goat on a mountainside, the thief cut around a rug merchant and ducked into an alley.

Hakiim gasped, 'We'll never catch him now. He knows the alleys better than any cat.'

'No, look,' laughed Amber. 'He's flying!'

Their ragged friend suddenly stumbled backward from an alley and upset a lampseller's stall. Brass oil lamps pinged and ponged as they scattered. Charging from the alley like a bull rushed a huge man with a barrel chest and arms like smoked hams. He was a professional bodyguard to judge by the family crest embroidered on his blue vest, and the brute's furious face was dappled with lip paint. Behind him fluttered the beribboned houri who'd so adorned him.

'He must've banged right into them,' Hakiim hooted with laughter. 'Let's see him duck this bloke!'

Reiver might have dodged the angry bodyguard, but the lampseller, an old woman surprisingly spry, thrust her malacca xane between the thief's legs. Reiver's foot rolled on a lamp and he sprawled in a tangle of pipestem arms and dirty legs. The bodyguard pounced with great hairy paws and snagged Reiver by one leg, hoisting him like a chicken. The elder hauled back her knobby cane to knock Reiver's inverted head off.

Hakiim yelled, jumped, and caught the bodyguard's brawny arm, which drooped so Reiver's head thumped on the cobblestones. Amber thrust herself between her friend and the old lampseller's cane.

Baggy trousers and embroidered vest whipping, Amber blocked the old woman's cane. 'Grandmother,' she said breathlessly, 'spare him, please!'

'You hussy!' The woman's crooked hand jabbed at Amber's face and she said, 'Ras'lmal'

Amber saw a magic flash, like a tiny sun, explode in midair, and the world turned blue-black. 'My eyes!' she cried.

Blinded, Amber rubbed her eyes frantically-a mistake, for she heard the cane whistle for her head. Helpless, she ducked, felt it whiff across her kaffiyeh-and smack Reiver's rump. The thief yelped.

'Amber, help!' Hakiim said as he tugged on the bodyguard's arm, still trying to shake Reiver loose.

The bodyguard planted his huge hand over Hakiim's face to shove him away, but the houri behind jabbered, 'Watch out!'

As the giant turned, Hakiim saw a blur and dropped to earth. The old woman's cane whistled over Hakiim's head and smacked the giant square between the eyes. Howling, the bodyguard dropped Reiver and clutched his bloody nose. Reiver spun in midair like a cat, touched the ground, and scrambled up to run. The giant roared, the houri shrilled, the old woman cursed, and Amber rubbed her streaming eyes.

Hakiim caught his friend's sleeve and said, 'Let's go!'

'I can't see!' Amber shrieked.

'Here… I'll lead you!'

Hakiim spun Amber on her heels to run and slammed her straight into a pole supporting the lampseller's awning. A cloud of dusty, sun-faded canvas flopped while slippery lamps rolled underfoot. Sprawled under billowing canvas, Amber and Hakiim crawled toward sunlight, for Amber was gradually able to see around the big blue spot in her vision. Cursing, she rammed her head free of canvas into sunlight and market noise and hissed as someone yanked her hair.

The painted houri, reeking of stale wine and cheap perfume, wrenched Amber's dark, glossy locks. 'You broke Maryn's nose!' she said. 'His looks are ruined…' A hand with long blue fingernails made to slap Amber.

'Get-off]' Amber shot her left arm up, then hooked down viciously. The wrestling move broke the houri's hold, though Amber lost a hank of hair. Bowling the houri backward to tumble on more spilled lamps, Amber looked for Hakiim but saw only his headscarf and sandals. The rest was obscured by flickering blue spots.

'We've lost Reiver!' Hakiim wailed.

'Never mind him,' Amber carped. 'We must-'

A roar like a volcano stopped her. At the top edge of her limited vision she saw the bodyguard's face charging. Lipstick smeared his chin, blood painted his mouth and teeth, and his eyes threatened murder. Amber squeaked.

A fat, wall-eyed trifin fish banged the giant's brow. Another fish, a flapping flatfish this time, whizzed over their heads. It struck the giant's chest and hung a moment before flopping to the ground. Amber wondered if this was some Calishite miracle, like the rains of frogs and blood she'd read about in Mulak's Tales to Be Remembered.

Hakiim knew better and screamed, 'Eeiver!'

Vision clearing, Amber saw her bony friend teetering atop a wagon piled with baskets of wet, shiny fish. With two hands the thief snatched up fish big and small and chucked them at the giant bodyguard. Amber laughed with glee-until a bewhiskered talam smacked her ear.

'Hey,' she complained, 'watch it!'

'Make way,' bellowed a voice commanding authority. 'Make way for the Nallojal.'

'Sword of Starlight!' yelped Hakiim. 'We forgot the sailors.'

A dozen sailors and marines shouted and shoved through the marketplace. All wore the caleph's bright pinks and yellows. Sailors wore fork-tailed fish badges pinned to their headscarves, while the marines bore fierce waxed mustaches and turban-wrapped helmets of white cork with brass bills. Urging them on was a red-faced rysal, a

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