A Pehov Duet

The Chronicles of Siala

Alexey Pehov

Tor Books

A PEHOV DUET (Chapter 1)

The Snake

An original story from Alexey Pehov

"Well, what do you think, Harold?" asked Gozmo.

I looked around the empty inn, bored, and said what I'd thought from the moment he proposed the job.

"I don't like it."

"Come on!" said the outraged old man. "It's an easy job, you won't have to do a thing."

"That's what I'm worried about." My mood was somber, and I considered it my duty to impart this to others. "When it looks too easy....expect trouble."

"Did I ever once give you a rotten job?"

"Yes." I was relentless. "In the last adventure there were the very large, fierce dogs; before that, there were the extra guards you neglected to tell me about..."

"Things happen unexpectedly," he dismissed me with a wave of his hand. "We have to put up with that kind of uncertainty in this business."

"Your proposal reminds me of banana bread. It looks smooth and round from the outside, but if you cut into it there are solid walnuts...and I hate walnuts."

"Let's be businesslike about this." Gozmo pursed his lips and squinted at me knowingly. "Are you snuffing this because of the pay?"

I shrugged. The innkeeper was wasting my time and he knew quite well how much my time mattered.

"So I'll get someone else. There are plenty of other thieves in Avendoom."

"Come on, I said. "Most of them are as stupid as Doralissians and the rest are barely able to steal an old lady's purse."

"I am talking about the master thieves," he sniffed.

"Hmmm let's think, who you can invite to this party? Shnyg and Nightingale don't freelance any more, last week they became members of the Guild. Neik is resting in the Gray Stones, and unless he gets out before his ten years are up, you can't count on him. Who else is available? Arlis? She isn't very fond of you--and you know why--so you're unlikely to make a deal with her. Shlok got in a fight with Urgez--very short-sighted in my opinion, since Urgez is the head of the Guild of Murderers. Now the poor man swims somewhere under the Piers. So apart from them you have no one else except me."

"I can apply to the Guild," he said, though he himself did not believe it.

"If you enjoy working with Markun, and you're ready to put forty percent of the revenue in his greasy paws, then go ahead." I took a sip of beer.

Gozmo tapped his fingers on the tabletop. He did not want to go to the Guild and its greedy leader. That was clear from the onset, otherwise he wouldn't have sought the assistance of a freelance thief like me.

"You're greedy, Harold. This is robbery."

"No, old chap. This is a business relationship."

"I offered you fifteen gold coins!"

Sure, I'd get fifteen, then he would demand that I kick back two gold coins. Plus how does this rapscallion Gozmo suspect to receive payment from the employer? Sometimes I think I should have become a middleman; there's minimal risk and decent money drips into your pocket. I said nothing to the innkeeper but sent him the most contemptuous look from my bottomless reserves.

"How much?" he surrendered.

"Thirty."

"Thief!"

"Exactly." I saluted him with a mug of dark beer.

"Okay, it's a deal."

I had no doubt that I would make this mutually beneficial for me and the old man.

"For such a trifling matter you ask for a lot of money. What kind of times do we live in?" grumbled Gozmo.

"Hard," I immediately said back.

He looked at me and sighed, "Do you understand what you have to do?"

"I pick up the goods, bring them to you and get my money."

"Something like that. But you must do it tonight. The customer will be waiting for you here in the morning. Finish your beer and leave. I have to open the inn soon."

"Not so fast, my friend. I haven't heard the most important detail--what kind of goods will be in my bag?"

"The employer did not say."

"Really...?" It was my turn to frown. Immediately I felt a returned sense of foreboding. "Why so secretive?"

"It's not our business. We get paid by doing the job."

"Well, suppose something goes wrong?" I didn't like Gozmo's cavalier attitude. "The danger of being put behind bars is entirely my own. Captain Fragh Lanten and the city guards would like nothing better than to put me in the same cell with Neik. So from your side, it's extremely shortsighted to not gather information. Or what if I carry the goods and it ends up being the size of a temple bell, and weighs a ton?

"It's a simple pick up," the middleman hastened to assure me. "If there were complications, the employer would have said so."

There was something about this job, and this employer, that just didn't smell right. But I had to face facts, I wanted the money. "Is this mysterious employer even human?"

"He's not a Doralissian, if that's what you mean."

"Thank the Lord Sagot. On the day I'm hired by a man-goat I'll drown myself in the sea, or hang myself."

"No one would cry for you," Gonzo reassured me. "So, the caravan isn't guarded, there's nothing magical about the lock and the goods are inside."

"Uh-huh. Hopefully, this caravan isn't filled to the roof with rubbish, and I'll know what I should take along with me."

I put the empty mug on the table and, without saying goodbye, I left the tavern.

In fact, the old man was right about one thing. The job didn't seem to be complicated. It didn't compare to stealing money from Baron Lanten's house, who--spiteful man--put a bounty on the head of yours truly.

But I was concerned about the lack of clear information about the goods, the fact that the job seemed too simple and, especially, about how easily the innkeeper had raised my fees. This could only mean one thing-I had made a bad bargain.

Why did I agree? Good people say I'm greedy as the Podgornoy Tribe, and curious as a goblin from Zagraba. Maybe so, but I had the opportunity, once again, to beat Markun. He is really the one person I cannot stand. It is unclear how this fat bastard ever managed to become head of the Guild of Thieves. I would even work for free in order to deprive my enemy of gold coins. But fortunately, Gozmo didn't know this.

Of course, I should have used my head and discussed the job with my old teacher, For, but laziness and lack of time killed the idea right away. So, I moaned about how unfair my life was, and I began to prepare for the enterprise to come.

I took the standard set of materials any self-respecting thief would take, plus a crossbow made by dwarves that fit in one hand, a heavy knife at my hip, a canvas bag on my back and a large pile of feelings of self-importance. This was all that was required in order to emerge victoriously from any adventure. Well, almost everything...but I will politely keep silent about this. It's important to be modest as a girl of marriageable age about such things as long-standing practice, skill, agility, cunning, caution, and state of mind.

I snorted. Time to stop thinking greedy thoughts and hit the road with sparks flying. In this part of Avendoom there are magic shops, which sell all sorts of goods, including some that might be useful for such a profession as mine. But if I paid Honhelyu, the greedy dwarf who ran the shop, the loss would be greater than the profit. So I decided to act without magical assistance.

At two o'clock in the morning I was near the Southern Wall of the inner city. A large area bordered off from the rich district served Avendoom as a market area, and also as a place of the execution. Also, twice a year, during the autumn and springtime, wandering circuses and theater troupes used this area for performances. The area is known as Cherry Square. It was mid April, which meant that in two days the clowns, jugglers, knife-throwers, exorcists, half-educated sorcerers with spotlight shows (people should be kept as far away as possible from these figures), trainers of exotic animals, puppeteers and colorful crowds would plunge into the city for a week of feast and fun.

The first circus troupe had arrived and settled methodically on a free space by taking over half of the area. There were two-dozen wagons, one huge tent and many smaller ones, and cages full of wild beasts. A small town had formed in the heart of a huge capital. And within that town was my goal.

That was the most amazing and ridiculous point in the job. I do not understand what could be so valuable among forever poor entertainers who could barely make ends meet. And to plunder the valuables of such people was embarrassing. In addition to being like stealing from a blind person, there was seldom fun in that kind of work.

My target was hidden somewhere among sleeping stage actors. Now I needed to find a blue wagon with red wheels...

It wasn't difficult to slip inside the yard. Of course, the city authorities placed two guards out front, but they, as always, served the city poorly. One guard was asleep while the second shamelessly picked his nose, hoping, apparently, to discover the treasures of the Crown. If a thousand drunken dwarves stomped past him, singing battle hymns, he wouldn't have noticed. So I effortlessly slipped into the vagrant town of the actors.

I wouldn't enter the areas lit by torches and moved cautiously from shadow to shadow. Even after all this I nearly collided with a man who was walking silently, carrying a large python on his shoulders. It was necessary to dive into one of the carts. No more adventures, I thought to myself. I scoped almost the entire territory, but didn't find the wagon with red wheels. Did Gozmo get the whereabouts wrong? No--there it was, left unchecked in the northern part of the camp, which was filled with cages of many kinds of wild beasts.

Wooly, fanged creatures were far more sensitive to the presence of others than humans. One beast followed me with a look and then went back to sleep, but then another animal started running around in its cage. At my back a hugely overgrown, wooly mammoth grunted with disapproval. A damned red baboon broke out in anger, drawing attention to my whereabouts, and then threw a banana peel at me. I hurried away in order to avoid meeting guards who might check what had disturbed the animals.

I suddenly saw the right wagon and then bounced back behind a cage with a sultan's tiger inside. I took a breath and swore to myself. Ah yes, Gozmo! I still remember your claim that you wouldn't give me rotten jobs. I suspected that there was something wrong about this job, and now I had a terrible feeling that the whole business was even worse than I'd feared. The area around the van was brightly lit with sets of torches, and not far from me was a yellow-eyed man with grey hair and dark skin. I easily recognized him as a Dark Elf from the Zagraba Forest. At first I couldn't believe my eyes--they're rarely seen, even in their own land. So to meet one in this place was puzzling.

Just in case, I looked out from my hiding place to make sure that my eyes didn't deceive me. Take me for a H'san'kor! There was the elf, with fangs sticking out from under his lower lip and upon his back a curved sword called a s'kash, a sword that couldn't be confused with anything else.

The guard luckily didn't notice me. I cursed again, when a second Dark Elf appeared near the wagon. He had a bow and I groaned with disappointment. There is no way to compete when it comes to an elf's arrows. And this is what Gozmo meant when he said the caravan didn't have any security?

I couldn't enter through the door-that was for certain. Not even if I got cheeky and asked the guards to let me in for a minute, especially since the Dark Elves have a very bad sense of humor.

And I couldn't even make a run for it, they were sure to spot me...but that wasn't what really kept me. No, it was curiosity. I began mumbling to myself about the stubbornness and the pride of thieves. Take me out of the darkness, if I can't beat two yellow-eyed elves. I had to know what the Dark Elves guarded; this treasure should truly be of great value.

The door wasn't possible...so what else was there...? Correct, a sunroof. Most wagons had a sunroof. The problem was how to get close to it.

I decided to improvise...and my eye caught the sultan tiger's tail lying between the bars. You should have heard how that cat wailed in surprise when I pulled hard on its tail! The beast violently attacked the bars, but I was already gone. I ran around the cage and found myself at the back of the wagon. It worked perfectly; the tiger roared, the baboons screamed, the mammoth trumpeted...and the elves' attention was totally focused on the animals.

While my new friends were watching in the opposite direction, I tried not to make any noise, climbed onto the roof and sprawled on it like a dwarf on a pile of gold. One of the elves held an arrow taut in his bow's string, covering his comrade who had gone to check out what happened. The important thing for now was that the Dark Elf did not think to look up.

The latch to the wagon's sunroof was a bit tricky but it popped open after a minute of hard work. I listened, but apparently no one was inside. After waiting a few moments, I jumped down but held the crossbow at the ready while looking around.

A thick, heavy curtain divided the room in two parts. There didn't seem to be anything of value where I was, so I drew the curtain back toward the wall and was left standing with my mouth agape.

An elfess was sitting on the floor, pulling her knees to her chin while her thin hands clasped her legs. Her hair was trimmed short, which was unusual for elves. She had a thin, gaunt face, very dark skin and large yellow eyes. Her clothes didn't look like they belonged to an elf: a white linen shirt without sleeves and pants--badly stained with blood. Her arms--from her shoulders to her wrists--were painted with a complex pattern of tattoos in the form of silvery snakes bathing in flames. The drawings were masterful; it seemed as though the snakes were alive.

The girl's fangs were quite small, even though she looked a little older than seventeen. Her lips were broken, she had a bruise under one eye, and there were multiple lesions on each wrist. Her hands were tied together in front of her. The elfess was sitting in the center of a painted pattern on the floor. Perhaps I was mistaken to think of her as harmless; they were using magic to restrain her. I had no desire to fall under the blows of the Dark's shamanism.

Thank you, Gozmo! If I make it out alive, you'll get what you deserve!

I looked at the elfess and she looked at me. What a situation! It looked like this would be my first kidnapping. This stranger did not move and did not try to scream, which would have attracted the attention of the guards outside. Suddenly, the ceiling door locked and clicked shut.

I didn't hesitate and dove behind the back curtain next to the wall, which was the only place in the wagon where one could hide, or at least try to hide. I could not be seen from the entrance. I pointed the crossbow at the elfess to let her know what would happen if she made a sound. She didn't show that she understood my hint to be quiet; she didn't even move. All her attention was focused on the door.

The door opened and I heard footsteps. My heart sank and became entangled in my intestines. Did they see me or not? I tensed, expecting at any moment to be struck by a s'kash. Give me mercy, dear Lord Sagot! Two elves passed me by and stopped next to "the goods." Now I saw their backs and was surprised to realize that their clothes and hair were different from those who were on watch outside. Was this perhaps another House of elves? Did I miss another set of guards?

Apparently the strangers had no desire to start a conversation with the little elf. One of them drew a s'kash. Anyone would be smart enough to figure out what would happen next. The girl, I must say, did not even blink.

In my childhood, my teacher For drilled a very simple but important life-long rule in my stupid head: don't get caught up in other people's business...but he also taught me to finish what I started. So now I had to intervene in this intimate scene, or a pair of yellow-eyed creatures would spoil "the goods". I couldn't let them keep me from the thirty gold coins...or from finishing the job.

Alright, alright, I lied! I just can't stand it when somebody kills helpless women right in front me. Can't I get sentimental once in a while?

My crossbow issued a soft dumm and one of the elves fell to the floor with a bolt in his neck. Before his friend realized what had happened I held a knife to his throat.

"We don't want any trouble, isn't that right, my friend?" I growled in his ear.

"Who are you?" he whispered, barely opening his mouth. The deadly blade tickled his skin.

"Why do you need names? I'm the only one who stands behind your back."

"You won't kill me, foolish human."

"Tell it to your friend. At least you still have a chance to see the Dark Forest."

He decided it was better to remain silent.

"Come on," I said to the girl, who was looking around intently, "we're leaving."

I kicked the elf behind the knee, forcing him to the floor, and struck a heavy blow to his head with my fist.

Assessing my work, I went to the motionless girl and following my instinct, cut the rope tied around her wrists. The pattern that had been drawn on the floor leapt up for a moment then suddenly disappeared. She sighed with relief, held her tongue over her lips, suddenly smiled and said, "I was beginning to think that you weren't smart enough to do it."

"Do what?" I wanted to ask, but one of the snakes from her tattoos stirred and turned its head in my direction. I bit my tongue, wondering whether it was a trick of the light. It probably was. I truly hoped it was.

While I clapped my hands over my eyes like a fool, the elfess slipped past and took the crooked dagger of the stunned Dark Elf. She stuck the blade into the chest of her enemy and then spat on the corpse's face.

"You should see your work through to the end, you know. You want to know who's behind your back. Wow, they killed Estom and Elg. I'm not very fond of my father's soldiers, but they are still of my House. Sorry that this happened."

"How do you know that the guards are dead?"

"Don't be stupid, human! They wouldn't be here if Estom and Elg were alive."

Despite this, I walked to the door, opened it and looked outside, while trying not to turn my back on my newfound friend. Immediately I saw five Dark archers and two dead guards. I jumped back in the wagon as the elves raised their bows, about to turn me into a hedgehog full of arrows.

"There are five more!" I cried, wondering what would bolt the door shut. I'd gotten into trouble again! Now there was no way out.

"They'll be coming for us in a moment." The elf girl's voice was calm, as if I'd just announced that breakfast was served. "Get out of the way. Oh, I never caught your name."

"Your Savior," I cynically muttered, not wanting to give her my real name. Her yellow eyes flashed with amusement. "Not bad, human, not bad at all. You can call me Snake."

The elves were not in a hurry to attack us, it seemed. This fact was somewhat surprising to me. I constantly glanced at the door while keeping the crossbow ready in my hand. Meanwhile, Snake returned to the dead bodies and bent over them. She did not look like the elfess I had met earlier; she now seemed tall and perfect where before she was petite and fragile. If she did not have such smooth and snake-like movements, I could easily mistake her for a boy.

"I told you to step aside," she said, but did not take her eyes from the elf she'd killed.

I dutifully stood next to the wall. I liked the situation less and less with every passing second. One thing I realized was that those moving tattoos were not just the fruit of my imagination. Now the snakes crawled over her hands, writhing, hissing, bathed in painted flames, then expelled poison from their fangs, and flashed their yellow eyes like the elves. I immediately began to sweat. I hate magic, especially Dark Magic. What else can I say?

A few moments later the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Frankly, I almost cried with fear, though I can't say the same about Snake. Directly out of the shadows, cast by a lantern hanging from the ceiling, were two pitch-dark silhouettes weaving in and out of one another. Were they ghosts or demons? They were three heads taller than the elfess, and they were holding blades in their hands that resembled swords. Before I could remember the name of the God of thieves, these specters rushed to the door and tore it down, removing it as though it were never there.

I raised a questioning glance at Snake. She remained unruffled and, unlike the serpents on her hands, did not even budge. We listened for sounds from the street, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't hear anything.

"Come on," she said a few moments later.

I stared at her in disbelief and got a smirk in response.

"Move your feet, human." Snake had no doubt that I would follow and she walked out of the wagon.

I wanted to say something nasty but I restrained myself. With this type of woman it was always best to be polite. It would be better for my health, anyway.

The alarmed tiger smelled blood and growled. I, unlike him, did not growl but cursed. The five elves were shredded like cabbage.

"Breathe the air, Savior. Do you feel it? It smells of freedom."

"The manure stinks."

She laughed gaily, then looked at me with respect. "And you're not a coward. Another member of your tribe would have run away without looking back."

I shrugged my shoulders.

"Well, I have to be going." She shook her head. "I don't know who you are and why you have come, but your help was welcome. Good luck."

"Not so fast. There's one more thing."

"Really?" She raised her brow. "I am immensely grateful to you, but I don't make a habit of sleeping with humans."

"Nor I with elves," I angrily retorted. "I was asked to take you somewhere."

"By who?" Her golden eyes were cold as ice.

"You'll find out when we arrive."

"What if I don't want to go?"

"Then I'll force you."

"Are you certain?" she asked mockingly. She looked at me. A snake on her right hand hissed and displayed its fangs.

I chose to hold my ground. "If you don't come I'll make trouble for you."

"I'm sorry but it's your problem. I'll tell you what, if somebody wants very much to meet me, they can come find me."

"And where do I tell them to find you?" I asked. "The city is big."

She thought for a moment and said, "Stark's Stables, next to the Forbidden Territory. Tomorrow at midnight, if they're not afraid. Tell them exactly what I said."

She knew the city well! "Am I to play the messenger?" I was outraged. The honest thief was now working for the goods and that's not funny.

"Do you want me to repay you?"

"It never hurts."

In an instant she was there before me, standing on her tiptoes; she placed her hands on my neck and kissed me on the lips. The kiss lasted for what felt like an eternity. Her--now charming--tattoo blissfully hissed. Finally she let me go and chuckled, "This is your down payment. See you." Before I could find my voice Snake was gone.

The Knife & Axe Inn was completely full. I went straight to the counter, without looking at the thugs at the door. Gozmo saw my face and nearly dropped his mug of beer.

"Harold! I'm glad to see you!" he said, though his smile showed no happiness.

"I can't say the same about you. Can we talk?"

The middleman sighed and nodded, inviting me into the private room of the inn.

"Where are the goods? I've been waiting for you all morning!"

"The goods?" I roared like a wounded bear. "The goods are gone!"

"What do you mean gone?"

"You are an old, rotten lizard, Gozmo! What have you involved me in? An elf's kidnapping! How did this come into your head in the first place? I almost gave my soul to Sagot!"

He realized that I was not going to hit him so he calmed down a bit. Gozmo already knew what a screaming Harold was like, and he knew things weren't bad until I reached for my crossbow.

"Tell me everything, you son of a gun," he sighed and gave me a bottle of Amber Tears. This was very generous on his part.

I told him everything without leaving out any details.

"I'm in trouble now," Gozmo sighed when I finished my story. "I've gotten us into a terrible mess."

"You should be ashamed," I said with obvious glee.

"I didn't know," he tried to excuse himself. "Nice money and--"

"Speaking of paying--"

"Don't even think about it!" he snapped. "The job isn't finished. The employer won't pay."

"Is he here?"

Gozmo hesitated before reluctantly nodding.

"Excellent, bring me to him." I already had a plan.

"Normally you prefer to keep a low profile in regards to the employer."

"Today I'll make an exception. Take me to him."

"It's not a very good idea."

"Now!"

"Well," the innkeeper surrendered, "you can't say I didn't warn you."

The moment after I saw the employer I regretted my decision but it was too late to run away. The door was closed and Gozmo and I were face to face with dozens of Dark Elves. They crammed into the room like goblins in a candy store.

"Ah, bravo, my friend!" I muttered, aware of the severity of the situation. "They certainly aren't Doralissians and they aren't human. And where were my brains when I accepted this mission?"

"You didn't want to hear who the employer was," he grimly replied. "Don't you remember?"

"Old fool!" I desperately searched for a way out of this predicament but nothing clever came to mind. This always happens when elves aim their bows at me. I stopped thinking about my crossbow and knife since the elves would cut my throat the second I made a move for them. I hear that they were quick about such details in the Tribe of Second Born.

One of the Dark Elves in the room stood out because of his rich clothing. He was no longer young, but was tall and resembled a tree--dried-up but still clinging to the ground. He was sitting at the table and studied my face with suspicious interest. Judging by the sign embroidered in gold on his jacket, he belonged to the House of Black Water. They're real toads. The House of Black Water descends from one of the worst elven families. When these elves weren't fighting one another for the crown, they shred to pieces anyone who turned up under their tanned paws. Today that was me.

The elf sitting at the table turned to Gozmo and asked, "Who is this man? Didn't I say that no one should be aware of my presence in the city?"

"Sorry, Elessa, but I thought you should hear his story."

"Where is she?" The elf didn't waste time.

I was happy to spoil the mood of this self-important elf. "I think she ran away." I expected to see some kind of reaction, but I must say that he didn't flinch a single muscle on his face.

"She escaped?" he asked, and I began to think that this yellow-eyed elf suffered from deafness.

"Well, it seemed so to me." I smiled charmingly. "So I consider it my duty to personally present you with an apology."

"I'm flattered," he answered dryly. "Tell me what happened."

"Perhaps another day would be better?" The elves with bows began to make me nervous. "Right now doesn't seem the best time to--"

 One of the Dark Elves pronged me in the back with his bow so I had to shut up.

"I am very upset, Gozmo," Elessa said, and the innkeeper hiccupped from fright.

Finally, Gozmo seemed to realize that we were in deadly serious trouble. Why did the fool let me talk him into coming here in the first place? Did he completely forget his common sense of fear? Maybe I should try jumping out of the window? No way. Their arrows would be faster. I had to improvise. Sagot, help me!

"Well, if you insist that we recapture the goods..." I approached the table and sat down without invitation. "But it will cost you one-hundred gold coins."

Gozmo looked like he was going to faint.

One of the Dark Elves growled after hearing my words, clearly intending to take off my skin for such disrespect, but Elessa made a barely perceptible gesture, and the attacker remained in place, his evil eyes flashing at me.

"Do you really think that I'll pay you, boy?" The employer bowed his head to one side, examining me as if I was a remarkable little animal...or just mentally-retarded.

"You don't just pay me, but you also let me out alive." At critical moments I could remain calm.

"I would be glad to hear your reasoning." The corners of his lips formed a smile. "You couldn't finish the job. You must know what we do with those who fail to deliver?"

I knew very well and by all means was trying to avoid this.

"You pay me one-hundred gold coins, and I'll tell you what happened and how you can acquire your goods."

He leaned back in his chair, carefully examined me and nodded. "Okay, tell me."

"Not so fast. Fifty coins upfront."

"Erg," Elessa said quietly, "pay this...gentleman." Five gold bars spilled out in front of me, worth ten gold coins each.

"You'll get the rest...later."

"I don't doubt your honesty, Elessa." I told him what happened. The room was silent.

"Okay, I believe you," said the employer softly. "And how can I find the girl?"

"She allowed me to tell you only if you gave me her real name." This was a lie.

After some hesitation he replied, "Mila." Now he was lying. I was willing to bet my hand on it.

"I'm afraid that you're hiding an important detail from me."

He smiled. "Why hide something from the dead? This is how we refer to her in our family. Her full name is Milaissa, daughter of the Head of the House of Black Water, if it pleases you."

I nearly fell off my chair. Wow, my Snake was not as simple as I had thought! Glory to Sagot. I didn't show my surprise, or Elessa might understand that this was a setup.

"Remarkable," I said, sliding the gold into my bag. "Now I think we'll take a little walk around the city."

"Can you give me more details?" He frowned suspiciously, but suffered my rudeness and didn't give the order for his men to shoot.

"It's very simple. She scheduled a meeting for us. I'll take you with me. First, know that I will take you on the shortest path. Secondly, have confidence that I am not lying, and third, Sna...Milaissa will not appear if she doesn't see me."

This time Elessa thought for a while. I really hoped that the elf didn't see that I was sweating. If I made it out of this alive, I promised myself that I'd rip Gozmo's head off.

"I'm persuaded. We'll go with you. Don't think of escaping."

"How could I?" I was genuinely outraged. "You owe me another fifty coins." Though, I admit frankly, I was thinking about escaping.

To my deep regret, my escape plan failed. The yellow-eyed elves squeezed around me so I couldn't break free. They also confiscated my weapons. Of course I had a knife in my boot but good luck trying to reach it.

The elves also took Gozmo with them who looked miserable. He, like me, realized that this could be the last moments of his life.

"What were you thinking?" I hissed at him. "You made a deal with Dark Elves."

"I didn't think it would get so complicated...or go so wrong," he replied.

"Didn't your parents teach you not to do business with the devil?"

"Obviously not. Do you have a plan?"

"Sure, scream for the guards," I answered sarcastically.

Of course I didn't have any ideas. At first I planned to escape on our way to the stables, but then I realized that this was impossible, so my mind floated downstream, hoping for a miracle. I prayed that when Elessa met Snake he would forget about us. Or maybe some other miracle would occur. For example a bunch of mammoths could fall from the sky on the elves; then with good conscience I'd go to bed. I knew there was something fishy about this job from the beginning and cursed my greed and curiosity that got us into this mess of a situation.

We finally reached the Stark's Stables. This was not the best area of Avendoom; it would be more accurate to say it was worse than you could imagine. It was dangerous to come here in the daytime and at night it was advisable to be escorted by Royal Guards. Characters living in this part of the city's port eat even the toughest of visitors from the Knife & Axe for breakfast. Even representatives from the Guild of Murderers avoided this place if possible. Located not too far from here was an impressive wall, dividing the residential area from the area known as the Forbidden Territory (or Stain as it is also called). This wall was built by mages a few centuries ago to keep the evil from that cursed place from spreading. What existed behind this wall, no one knew since no one was willing to go there. I wouldn't climb over the wall for all the gold in the world.

"Here we are," I said.

To his credit, Gozmo wasn't shaking. He stayed close to me and closely watched our captors. Like me, he still hoped to get out of this pit of a situation.

"So, where is she?" Elessa looked around with suspicion.

BO-OO-MMM-MM! The magic bell of the Cathedral answered in my place. It was now midnight.

"She's waiting for you to pay me the rest." I started thinking, what if Snake doesn't come? Then the elves would wind my guts around my own neck.

"Erg, give him the rest." The famous Harold's bag immediately became heavier and I had to set it down.

Then Snake appeared. She walked slowly, holding her hands in sight. The elves noticed her at the same moment, but they reacted differently than I had expected. "Dulle!" snarled Elessa in their language, and the yellow-eyed elves raised their bows. I screamed, try alerting her of the danger, but she didn't even think to run. Twong! You could hear the sounds of bowstrings, and arrows flew towards the girl who suddenly disappeared in a light violet flame. The yellow-eyed elves didn't give up, shooting arrow after arrow, completely forgetting about Gozmo and me. The innkeeper immediately took advantage of the situation and took off; like a fool I stood and stared at what was happening.

Snake raised her hands and a silvery light shone from them. Suddenly, two familiar dark silhouettes appeared. Elessa brandished his s'kash, then shouted something guttural, making the blade of his sword flash to a poisonous green color. In the next moment he fought with one of the ghostly warriors while the other creature was slicing away at his archers. Elves were scattered in all directions, shooting arrows at these spirits, but to no avail.

I was about to follow Gozmo's example, but I noticed that one of the yellow-eyed elves hastily drew a complicated pattern on the ground. It was an exact copy of what I saw in the wagon where Milaissa was kept. Unlike these vermin, I had nothing against the girl, despite the fact that she used Dark magic. Oddly enough, even though they were from the same House, they were enemies of this girl. I decided to show my generosity and help Snake once again. I ran over to the kneeling fanged elf and with all my strength gave him a kick to his snout.

It must have helped. The pattern immediately stopped glowing. The elf was on the ground, covering his bleeding face with his hands while I had an opportunity to look around. To my surprise, Elessa was still fending off one of the ghosts. He was an excellent swordsman. In addition to the fallen elf, I slammed into another archer. The archer tried once more to get Milaissa but was unsuccessful. She clapped her hands and launched a fiery skull at the archer. With the skull followed a strong blast of thunder, which made me to fall to the ground and cover my ears with my hands. It seemed as though the sky had fallen on Avendoom.

I was still on the ground when I heard a mocking voice. "Good, Savior."

I ventured to raise my head. I was pleased to see Milaissa looking down at me, while the snakes on her arms were hissing with pleasure. It was only she and I left near the old stables. All of the other participants were dead. Someone or something had torn Elessa's head off.

"Let's get out of here," she said. "In no less than fifteen minutes this entire area will be swarming with Magicians.

"Well," I said, getting up from the ground, "now can you explain to me what just happened?"

"If you want me to," she sighed, while we sat on the bank of the Cold Sea.

It was still dark and quite cool, but Milaissa and I didn't care. The snake tattoos on her arms coiled up in rings and fell asleep.

"This job stank from the beginning. And I still don't understand why the elves of Black Water ordered me to steal you from them."

"Well...Elessa is my favorite uncle....well, was my favorite uncle. He's been vying for my father's throne for a long time. And I'm the only heir. If he removed me, then he could eliminate my father and become the head of the House."

"M-m-mm I see, so who put you in the wagon in the first place?"

"Father."

"Because Elessa could not easily get to you that way?"

She laughed. "Oh, sorry, but you really said a funny thing. You have it wrong, though. You know that all our children are taught magic by our shamans?"

"Indeed."

"Well, that's where I was taught. Dear Elessa, may he burn in the Abyss, tossed me a banned book. Well, I think he might have. There is no direct evidence, but when I saw him today, everything fell into place. If I was caught with the book, Elessa could have condemned me and had me killed. So, about the book...I foolishly took it and read it. My uncle was hoping that he could clear the road to the throne, but I was lucky. The demons, which I just released, didn't kill me, but instead moved into me." One of the snakes opened her eyes, showed me her tongue, than fell asleep again. "So your father decided to hide you for your own safety?" I fully understood the elf. Anyone possessed by a demon, who was also able to rule and control the demons of the underworld, would be extremely dangerous.

"I'm the one and only direct descendant of the family branch. Yes, and my father always loved me. So he figured that I wasn't hopeless. Instead of having me killed, he decided to help me. Our shamans, unlike humans, have no knowledge of Demonology, so in order to save me from these silvery snakes, he asked the Order for help. Though no one asked me."

"Don't tell me that you went along with their manipulative plans."

"Exactly, I tried to fool them into thinking I wanted to get rid of the snakes. But I couldn't do that. You just don't know how it feels to be become independent of everyone and quite so powerful. I can't live without them. It would be like cutting off my own hand. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

I understood, though I had nothing to say in reply to this line of reasoning. "Unfortunately, I didn't fool anyone. When they came for me I destroyed half of the palace, but five shamans tied my hands and feet with magic. Those rope bracelets and patterns you saw earlier can restrain demons so they are stronger than steel chains. That's how I came to Avendoom, bound and helpless. Two paternal bodyguards went with me for my protection. Elg paid the owner of the circus and bought the wagon. This way we attracted less attention. We reached your capital without any trouble. Who knew that Elessa would stop at nothing to finish the job? He somehow found out where I was, and--"

"Then hired me." I finished her sentence without any further delay. "Exactly."

"But I still don't understand why he was hoping that I'd steal you out from under the noses of your father's bodyguards, and then why would he attack the wagon?"

"And who said that the attackers were his men?" she angrily grunted. "Then where else could they have come from?"

"I have no idea. I have a lot of enemies and there are many claimants to the throne. Someone decided to take advantage of the favorable situation, that's all."

"Then, all things considered, you're very lucky to be alive, do you know that?"

"I'm not complaining. But that night when you came upon me, I was quite desperate. I even tried to escape, but Elg and Estom vividly taught me not to do stupid things." She tenderly rubbed the collection of dark bruises on the sides of her face and forehead. These Dark Elves must really be crazy, if they decided to beat their own princess. "You came just in time. Otherwise, this morning those people would come and..."

"Your dead body would be far below at the Piers, floating among the fish."

"Yes, but as you said I'm lucky to be alive and well again." I couldn't help but chuckle. "Everything happened as it was meant to. The killers went to feed the worms and I found freedom. When you said that you were supposed to lead me away from the wagon, I realized that I had to do something to stop some of those who were hungry for my blood."

"And you decided to use me to set them up."

"Don't complain. You weren't left with empty pockets. Did my uncle give you gold?"

"Your uncle almost cut my throat in the process of giving me all that gold."

"Oh, don't exaggerate. You're a clever guy, so I knew that you would find a way out. Besides, I wouldn't have let them hurt you."

"Thanks."

"Not at all. Now that we have been through that would you tell me your real name?"

"Harold. Your enemy is dead but what do you plan to do with your power now?"

"If you're worried about your wellbeing, you have nothing to fear. I'm not going to harm you in any way. Frankly, Harold, I enjoy your company a lot." Even though I was flattered, I cleared my throat. "I don't think so. Look, Elessa is dead. Now you can safely return to the Zagraba."

"My native forest can wait," she said after some hesitation. "First of all, there are still a number of volunteers who want to pull off my skin. Remember those strangers who killed my bodyguards? Secondly, if I go back to the native forest now, I have to go through a demonology process once more. Father wouldn't be too pleased with the snakes on my hands. And my friends and I have absolutely no desire to rekindle that relationship. So I'll stay in town for a while."

"Doesn't the Crown of the House Black Water attract you?"

"I'm not attracted by the idea of my own death or the loss of my newfound power. Do you think you could help me get to know this unfamiliar environment?" I scowled darkly. The snake-demons that settled on her hands, looked at me inquiringly.

"I'll pay you for your services," continued Milaissa rather anxiously.

"Hmm, I wonder how much you would be willing to pay me?"

Her eyes looked at me seriously. "Friendship."

I gave some thought to her kind and delicate offer and nodded in acceptance.

A PEHOV DUET Copyright 2002 by Alexey Pehov