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The Mystara Chronicles XXVIII: "A New Debt-Burden"

by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)

Alexander threw open the door to Forrestir's chamber and ran out into the large outer office. People were crowded around the windows of the tower, denying him a view outside; he headed straight for the exit. Alexander did not relish being trapped in this tower if something catastrophic were occurring. With Sarrah right on his heels, he threw open the door to the outside.

The courtyard was almost totally deserted. There were some mages and students still left at the furthest reaches of the yard but most had disappeared from sight entirely, leaving only two solitary figures facing each other. One, an attractive blonde-haired woman in an elegant green gown, was in the midst of spellcasting. The other figure was a man, older than his opponent, and dressed in the haphazard way of the career scholar. His clothing and brown hair were smouldering as he struggled to his feet, the pain on his face obvious to see.

The woman finished her incantation and pointed at the man. With a quickness no doubt born of pure panic, he threw himself to one side a moment before a bolt of lightning issued forth from the wizardess' hand. Narrowly missing him, the charge of electricity struck the wall of a building behind him and lanced into the gardens in the middle of the courtyard, leaving scorched flowers in its wake.

Now the man was chanting mystical syllables of his own, and moments later it was the woman who had to sidestep a crackling bolt of electricity. The man's attack nearly hit a pair of young students who were trying to slip through a door to get out of the courtyard.

"Thanrae, you worm!" The woman shouted at her opponent, her face distorted with anger. "Give me what I demand!"

"Beware, Yriss," the man replied, pointing a warning finger at her even though he swayed unsteadily on his feet. The two immediately began spellcasting again, and Alexander was beginning to think that perhaps it would be better to be inside after all when another figure charged directly between the two combatants, waving his hands in anger.

"Desist!" he cried in a loud voice. Both mages ceased their chanting and returned their hands to their sides. "As the Faculty Administrator of the Great School I command you to stop immediately or suffer the penalties! This is neither the time nor place for a spell-duel and you both know it!" The man was short, dark-skinned, and stout around the middle. His hair had all but fallen out and his face was flushed with anger. The crowd of people in the courtyard seemed to increase suddenly, and all were whispering amongst themselves and pointing at the two combatants.

"Yriss Ghuth," the man was saying to the woman in the green gown, "I'm so surprised at you."

"Forgive me, Master al'Aras," she said contritely.

"And Thanrae Sycloe, of all people you should be ashamed." He pointed an accusing figure at the male combatant.

"Sorry," he said, not seeming to mean it.

"You know the strict and honourable rules of engagement for a wizards' duel. If you wish to settle this...matter in the proper manner, file the proper challenges!" Despite the situation, Alexander could not help but smile to himself at the thought that one needed to consult the Glantrian bureaucracy even to have a duel.

"This shall not happen again, master," Yriss said, curtsying to the older man.

"Aye, I swear to that," Thanrae said in turn, nodding his head but avoiding all eye contact either with Yriss or with al'Aras.

"Just when it was getting good!" a young, acne-riddled man said near Alexander.

"All right, all right," said a wizened old mage, rapping his staff on the ground before the youth and beckoning to a group of students surrounding him. "The spectacle is over. Everyone back to class; higher learning beckons." His students, obviously upset that they would not get to see a display of advanced magic, gathered around him and followed him back inside. Their taste for blood is most Thyatian, Alexander thought, thinking about the great arenas, illegal in Karameikos, that riddled Thyatis, wherein men and beasts fought and died for the amusement of the spectators.

"Enough!" Alexander had been so caught up in the drama he did not notice that Master Forrestir, along with Sarala and Zacharel, had emerged from the admissions tower. "Enough diversion! Back to the tests."

Alexander decided to risk a question of Forrestir. "Excuse me, but who were those two who were fighting?" Looking towards the middle of the yard, he saw that they were now walking swiftly for different towers, the woman with her head held high, the man furtively and with glances askance.

The Master of Admissions shook his head disdainfully. "Yriss is one of our instructors and Thanrae is here doing research, I think. I have no idea what they were quarrelling about, but whatever it was, the courtyard is no place to be having a duel." He breathed deeply. "Well, let us get back to the tests, Master Dun. Do you think that I have nothing to do but to wait on you hand and foot all day? What are you waiting for? Let's go, let's go! No, over there, that way!" He pushed the nervous youth towards a corner of the courtyard.

"Master Forrestir," Sarala interjected. "Perhaps I shall call on you later to discuss that matter regarding Herr Henning? I have an engagement of my own to attend to."

"What? Oh, well, whatever you wish. I care not." He walked away, practically dragging Zacharel along with him.

"I must go." The shapechanger adjusted her shawl. "There are some people in the school whom I must visit. Zacharel should be done by, say noontime. Until then, perhaps you could tour the grounds. I'm sure that even you Mundaners will find it most interesting." She smiled. "I'm not sure if we will see each other again this day or not, so let us arrange to meet for dinner. Say, at sundown? The Red Drake? Splendid. I shall see you then." Sarala turned and headed away across the courtyard.

Alexander and Sarrah shared a look. "Well, what do you want to do?" he asked.

Sarrah shrugged. "Do you think they have any more of those pictures?"

The Karameikan nodded. "That's probably about the only thing here that we normal folk would appreciate," he said dryly. "Let's find out."

* * *

True to Sarala's word, Zacharel emerged from his rigorous testing around the sixth hour. He seemed tired, but was quite optimistic about the way that everything had gone. Forrestir had told him that the faculty had to consider his results before any decision could be made, but the Glantrian youth was very upbeat about his chances.

The morning's errands having thus been completed, and since Alexander and Sarrah were both quite stir-crazy from being cooped up in the school all morning (it turned out that even viewing the array of magical pictures in the school's museum grew old and stale after a while), the trio resolved to see the city a bit before their dinner engagement with Sarala. First, however, they made a quick trip back to the Red Drake so that Zacharel could retrieve his spell-casting license; the Glantrian youth was noticeably relieved to have the license in hand once again.

And so, having retrieved that all-important piece of paper, the three spent the afternoon exploring the strange city of Glantri, visiting markets, watching boats sail into the port, and cheering all manner of performers who tumbled and conjured illusions on the walkways. The West Side only they avoided, for Zacharel said that it had a fierce reputation and that he thought it best not to tempt the thieves who could be found there.

At sunset they returned to the Red Drake. There were still sights to be seen, of course, but it had begun to drizzle and they did not want to keep Sarala waiting. When they arrived at the inn, slightly damp but none the worse for wear, they found that the Flaem had already arrived. She sat holding a glass of wine in her hand and listening to a lute-playing minstrel.

Sarala's mood continued to be good, for she greeted the three with a smile and asked Zacharel detailed questions about his day and the testing that he had undergone. She also told the group that she had arranged a meeting for them tomorrow with Herr Henning, at which time the old alchemist would determine whether or not he wished to employ Alexander and Sarrah.

"So it is a happy day!" Zacharel cried, lifting his ale- Sarala's treat- high in the air.

"So it is," Sarala replied, smiling. "Shall we inquire about dinner, then? I am quite famished."

"As am I," said the Glantrian youth. "Let me just change my clothing and we can order. I've already spilled drink once today on this robe, and I don't want to look like a buffoon!"

"Little chance of that, my dear," Sarala said as Zacharel bowed politely and left the table. "He is just a darling little thing, isn't he?" she asked the others. "Just like a doting little brother." The shapechanger smiled wistfully as she watched Zacharel talking with the innkeeper at the base of the stairs. "You know, I have always wanted a little brother."

"Really?" Alexander blurted out.

"You think such a remark strange, coming from me? Perhaps you are right. I have, after all, never been one for company." Sarala leaned across the table. "It is the nature of the beast, you see. The cat has no time for family or friends. The cat is always alone." She sipped her wine thoughtfully as Zacharel disappeared upstairs. "Perhaps it is some type of motherly impulse. Sarrah, do you recognise this feeling?"

Sarrah shook her head. "I don't think so, Sarala," she said. "I never'd want to have anyone following me around, someone to take care of and all. I knew a couple of girls back in Specularum whose bellies got big from some rogue who'd been poking 'em, and they had the babies instead of drinking the brew. It totally changed their lives. I don't think that I'd be wanting that for myself."

Alexander was surprised at Sarrah's words, not so much because of what she had said but that she had spoken so much at all. So often taciturn, especially in public and doubly so around Sarala, around whom she nearly always kept a respectful silence for some reason, Sarrah now spoke openly about her feelings. Moreover, her words seemed to reopen a wound that he had tried many times before to suture shut. If Sarrah wished to live a life of wanderlust, of reckless abandon and radical selfishness, then fine; he did not begrudge her that. It was nothing that he did not also desire greatly for himself, at least in the past. Even now this impulse, or inclination, or whatever it was, was hard to resist. Need I resist it?

And then, all of a sudden, Zacharel was there, his face ashen. "You have to come upstairs." His voice was shaking almost as much as his hands.

"Why Zacharel, what is the matter?" Sarala said, rising to her feet.

"Just come upstairs." He was whispering. "Quietly. Don't act like anything is wrong."

The hair stood up on the back of Alexander's neck. He rose to his feet as well, too fast, he knew, but he was horrified and excited all at the same time. What in the world is going on?

* * *

"It was just like this when I found him," Zacharel said, arms crossed across his chest, rocking back and forth, chewing nervously on his lip. The man was dead and had clearly been for hours, a dagger through the heart the tool of his demise.

"He looks familiar," Sarrah said, peering at the dead man's face.

"He's Thanrae Sycloe," Sarala replied, moving to the open window and peering outside into the rain before drawing the curtains shut. "Did you open this window?"

"N-no," Zacharel stuttered. "I didn't touch it, I swear by Rad." The Glantrian youth's face was very pale. "But who's Thanrae? Oh, yes! From this morning!"

"Precisely." Sarala sat down in a swirl of skirts, her chin resting in her hand.

Alexander remembered now the man Sycloe, the wizard who had been involved in the unlicensed duel at the Great School of Magic. "We should call the town guard," he opined. "We didn't do this; we have nothing to fear."

"That dagger," Sarala said, pointing at the blade lodged deeply in the murdered man's ribs. "It looks familiar."

Zacharel emitted a low groan. "It's mine," he finally said quietly. "It's mine." He looked around at the others. "I left it behind, I didn't do it, I swear!"

"Of course you didn't," Sarala said with an impatient bite to her voice. "However, it rather looks like you did. Your knife, your room."

"But what was this Sycloe doing here at all?" Sarrah asked.

"There was a man, the innkeeper said," Zacharel told them. "He came by this afternoon and was asking about me."

"Who?" the shapechanger asked, her voice icy.

"He didn't leave his name. Could it have been Thanrae?"

Alexander could no longer think about reasons and patterns, about how or why. His initial rational response, that the guard should be informed, was chased away by speculative thoughts about how he, a Karameikan, a Mundaner, would be treated. This is my room too, he thought. Will they think that I am involved? Will I have a trial? Or will they simply feed me to something horrible? "Maybe we should go."

"He's right." Sarala stood up. "Collect your things. We're getting out of here."

* * *

They made their preparations in silence, hurriedly donning leather jerkins and caps, stuffing personal belongings into backpacks, girding blades about their waists. Alexander did his best to avoid even looking at the corpse in its circle of blood. How did this happen? he thought, not meaning the death of Thanrae Sycloe but rather his own involvement in the mystery. This was not the kind of adventure that he had left his father's house to find. The cooling body of the murdered wizard was frightening in a way that the beasts of Haradraith's Keep simply were not. That enemy was simpler because it was known. Whoever killed Sycloe lurked in the shadows. What was more, Alexander had the distinct sense that he was being manipulated somehow, that he was dancing on the strings of some unknown puppeteer. Not all is right here.

"You know," Zacharel said, "the man who came to visit me might have been my friend Darnalus Quint. He might have found out that I was here from the school and came to say hello. Maybe I should just ask the innkeeper-"

"You will do nothing of the sort," Sarala said, softly but imperiously. "All ready? Good. We are leaving this inn as quickly as possible and speaking to no one on the way out. We shall walk right out quietly and calmly. Once outside, we shall hail a boat-"

A sudden knocking on the door silenced the shapechanger as surely as a blade to her throat. "Open up! Open up I say!" came the call from beyond the door. Sarrah moved quickly and turned the bolt on the door, locking it.

"What do we do?" whispered Zacharel, full of panic.

The doorknob jiggled. "Let's break down the door!" was heard. And then, three bangs, each harder than the last. The companions backed away, slipping weapons from sheaths almost unconsciously. Then, the final blow, and the hinges gave way, snapping at last. Men poured into the room, holding short swords and black shields bearing the mark of a red eye. Another man, dressed in long robes and with a face not unlike a rodent, pushed his way to the front of them.

"Freeze in your tracks, assassins!" the man spit, pointing at them with his staff. "I arrest you for the murder of Thanrae Sycloe!"

"It's not true!" Alexander found himself blurting out before he could stop and think. "I know it's Zacharel's dagger but I can vouch for him, he couldn't possibly-"

"Oh, but of course you can, since you're all in this together!" The man's eyes gleamed with a strange anticipation. "Constables," he cried, "seize them!"

Sarrah moved before the city guard could even react to the order. Her two blades sliced quickly through the air, her sword battering away the guard's own, her trailing knife catching his exposed jugular. As the man's blood spurted into the air, it painted red a blade of Zacharel's which the youth, panicked, had cast into the group of constables, catching one in the face hilt-first. Before Alexander knew what had happened, he found himself in a melee with the Glantrian constabulary.

"Come here, you murderers!" cried a grizzled veteran who thrust at Alexander with a vicious, low strike that the Karameikan barely turned in time. Stumbling backwards, he somehow managed to climb atop a bed and hold the approaching guard at bay with stabs from his longer blade.

"Alex! The window!" Sneaking a look over his shoulder, he saw Zacharel leaping through the window, and Sarala beckoning to Sarrah- who was in the process of dropping another attacker- and to him to do the same.

"Don't let them escape!" cried one of the guards. At that precise moment, Sarrah sheathed her weapons with lightning speed and literally dove, headfirst, out of the open window.

Sarala unleashed a flash of spellpower, a few skewers of energy arcing from her fingertips to strike two of the advancing guards and their rat-faced leader. As they cursed from the unnatural sting, Alexander knew that he had his moment of opportunity. Kicking a pillow in the face of the closest guard, he leapt from the bed and ran to the window. Looking out into the rainy night, he saw that the roof of the Red Drake's kitchen was not far below. It barely mattered: so frightened was he and so perplexed by their sudden reversal of fortune that the Karameikan would have undoubtedly leapt from a window three times this height into a refuse heap. Out the window he went.

He landed on his feet on the gentle slant of the tile roof. He could see that Zacharel and Sarrah were on the street, wet from the rain, motioning for him to come down with panicked eyes. Just then, Sarala landed beside him, slipping a bit, caught up momentarily in her skirts, and grabbing on to him for stability.

"After them, men, quickly!" the rat-faced man screamed from the room above.

"Out the window? Surely you jest," said the men arrayed behind him.

"Oh, all right: use the stairs," the leader conceded, but Sarala and Alexander were already on the move, the shapechanger practically dragging the Karameikan to the edge of the roof and then dropping the short distance down to the alley below.

"Follow me!" Sarala cried, and was off through the rainy Glantrian night. The others followed her like her very shadow. The alley was tight and crowded with refuse but Sarala seemed to know her way unfailingly. The enormity of what was happening to them was starting to dawn on Alexander. They had engaged in combat with the Glantrian constabulary; there was a dead body in their room with one of Zacharel's daggers in his back. Why was Thanrae Sycloe in our room? Alexander thought, perplexed. How did he find us? To what purpose? For a brief moment he wondered if perhaps Zacharel had killed him after all, but quickly shrugged off that notion. The boy was too much of a naf for that to be possible.

Sarala led them through a narrow passage between two smaller alleys. As they squeezed through, Alexander began to realise that they had a problem: one could not go far in Glantri on foot. Eventually, and probably sooner rather than later, they were going to run out of alleys.

"We're going to have to get a boat," Sarala said, echoing Alexander's thoughts. "They are going to be expecting that, but I doubt that they can cut off all water traffic. We're going to get away." She stopped, cocked her head. Alexander heard it too: voices on the night breeze. "They're getting close. This way!"

Around a sharp corner the alley narrowed, darkest at their end but light at the other where it emerged to face the canals of the city. Sarala led them some way down the alley before she stopped and pulled open a filth-ridden door that was barely distinguishable from the surrounding walls. "Quickly, inside!" she whispered, motioning with her hand for the others to enter.

After they ducked inside, Sarala closed the door again sharply behind them, leaving the party in almost total dark: a few thin slivers of light slid through the boarded-up shutters of an old window. "They're coming," the shapechanger said. The companions were perfectly still.

Soon they could hear the rustling of feet and the sounds of men calling to each other. "This way, men!" said one. "Don't let those murderers escape!" cried another. In the dim light, Alexander saw that Sarala's eyes were gleaming in that vicious, feral way that they sometimes did. If they had to make their last stand in here, Alexander suspected that it would be Sarala the tiger who greeted their attackers.

But soon the footsteps and voices faded away, and they were left alone in silence. Alexander exhaled deeply, grateful. "It is a good thing that you knew about this place, Sarala."

"It is a place where I have done business before." She whirled to Sarrah. "What in the name of Rad was going through your mind when you attacked a Glantrian constable? You are a Mundaner; if you are caught, it will mean your death!"

Her voice was vicious and full of loathing, and Sarrah hung her head low. "I-I'm sorry," the thief whispered. "I didn't know what else to do."

"And you," Sarala turned to Zacharel. "I'm going to ask you once, and just once. If you lie to me your sopping remains will be strewn all about this filthy place: did you kill that man?"

"No!" Zacharel said, taking a step back. "Of course not!"

Sarala gazed at him with ire in her eyes. "What was he doing in that room? Can you think of any reason, any reason at all?"

"No," the youth responded again. "I really have no idea. It...it doesn't make any sense."

"I suppose that it doesn't." She sighed. "Just give me a moment to think. We can't stay here."

Sarala put her hands to her forehead and bowed her neck, a look of concentration visible on her face. Alexander looked around the room that they were in. It appeared to be some sort of abandoned storeroom. What kind of business could Sarala possibly have transacted in such a place? he wondered.

"How did the constables know that Sycloe was in your room?" The voice of Sarala cut into Alexander's wandering mind with a pronouncement that filled him with dread. The companions were stunned into silence. It was sort of obvious, in a way, but Alexander's overtaxed mind had not thought of this simple point.

"We are being set up," he said quietly. "Someone wants to pin the murder of Sycloe on us."

"What?" Zacharel asked, although the look in the Glantrian youth's eye told Alexander that he knew that he was right. "What motivation would we have to kill Sycloe? It doesn't make any sense!"

"He's right, Alexander," Sarala cut in. "Sycloe might have had dozens of enemies with reason to kill him but we are not included in that number. It makes no sense to try to frame us for the murder of Thanrae Sycloe unless we ourselves would seem like believable murderers."

"You know, the guard didn't seem to be asking too many questions," Alexander said. Judging by the reaction of the others, he thought that he had made a fine point. "It's the constabulary, isn't it. They killed Sycloe and were hoping to frame us for the murder."

"So it would seem," Sarala said. "But why us? More precisely, why you?" She turned to Zacharel. "An unknown man, perhaps Thanrae Sycloe himself, had been asking about you. It was your dagger that slew the mage." Her eyes narrowed to slits. "It occurs to me that I know very little about you, Zacharel Dun. If you have anything enlightening to say I suggest you say it now."

"Sarala, I promise, I'm not hiding anything!" Zacharel had never looked quite as much like a boy as he did now.

"Stay calm, Sarala," Alexander said, raising his hand in warning. He could not believe that the sweet, enthusiastic, elf-loving Zacharel had some diabolical past that explained this mystery. The answer had to lie elsewhere.

The shapechanger looked at Alexander furiously for a moment before her attention snapped back to Zacharel. "That's not what I mean, Zacharel dear," despite the fact that it obviously was. "What I mean is, did you see Thanrae Sycloe after the duel? You were alone for some time this morning and you might have spotted him, that is all."

"Oh," Zacharel said, softened by her purred explanation. "Let me think." The mage rolled his eyes upwards as Sarala and Alexander shared a glance full of strange tension. "No," said the youth. "I'm positive: I only saw him during the duel."

Sarala nodded her head. "Well, then, perhaps you were chosen to be framed because you have newly arrived in Braejr. If a prominent mage of the city were killed by some potential student recently arrived in town, people might be less inclined to ask questions if that young student were conveniently killed by the constabulary as he resisted arrest." She sighed. "Or perhaps they might be more inclined. I don't know." She threw up her hands in exasperation. Alexander closed his eyes. Sarala will get us out of this, he thought. She knows Glantri and is probably smarter than all of us put together. He now admitted openly to himself that which he had previously kept hidden.

"Okay." Sarala seemed to have regained her calm. "We did not kill Sycloe, so we have nothing to fear on that account. However, we did manage to kill two constables, so I fear that-"

"Three," Sarrah interrupted, sheepishly.

"Three?" Sarala said incredulously. "My, you are a busy little thing, aren't you?" She exhaled roughly. "It might be best to leave the city for a while." The shapechanger's eyes narrowed. "I finally get back to my home and I am forced to leave it again!" She pointed at Alexander and Sarrah. "Now there is a new debt-burden between us, do you understand?" The Karameikans nodded weakly.

"How can we get out of the city?" Zacharel said, weakly. "Won't the guards catch us at the gate?"

"There are many ways to get in and out of Braejr," Sarala replied. "It all depends on who you know. It won't be cheap, though. How much coin do we have? Quickly, count it up. Zacharel, we can sell your spellcaster's license if we don't have enough. Do you have it with you?"

Spurred on by the shapechanger's words, Alexander and Sarrah examined the contents of their purse, counting the Darokinian coins. Alexander was just about to announce a total when he heard the voice of Zacharel.

"What's this?" the young mage said, almost to himself.

"What's what?" Sarala drew near to the youth.

"This isn't mine!" In his hand, Zacharel had some kind of medallion that glinted golden in the dim light. "I've never seen this before!"

"Give it here." Sarala imperiously held out her hand and Zacharel handed it over as Alexander and Sarrah gathered around. The amulet was about two inches in diameter and simple in form, circular, apparently made of solid gold and attached to a golden chain. The head of a roaring lion was carved in relief upon its surface.

"It must be very valuable," Sarrah breathed.

"Undoubtedly," Sarala replied. "It is also extremely heavy!"

"I have been feeling weighed down," Zacharel said. "This must be why."

The shapechanger turned the medallion over in her hands, and the companions could see words engraved on the reverse. "'My power is great, so guard me from evil'," she read. "Well, this certainly might explain a lot." Sarala closed her eyes and murmured a few words, passing her hand over the amulet. It began to glow a gentle blue in her hand. "Magical," she said. "Although that is not much of a surprise."

"This parchment isn't mine either!" Zacharel produced a piece of paper from his pouch. He tilted it to catch the light. "There's writing on it!"

Sarala snatched it out of his hand. "'Safeguard this for me,'" she read. "'If I do not return in two days, take it to Angan Forrestir. He will...'" She stopped. "That's all it says."

"Did Sycloe write that?" Alexander asked.

Sarala shook her head. "I don't know the man's handwriting," she said condescendingly. "It looks to be written in charcoal, which probably half the wizards in the city carry with them."

"This just introduces more questions," the Karameikan said, his head beginning to throb. "What is this medallion? Is it Sycloe's or does it belong to someone else?"

"To that woman," Sarrah said, her eyes lighting up. "Do you remember? At the school?"

"Yriss." The name came to Alexander suddenly. "Yriss Ghuth. I remember thinking that it was a strange sort of name. Do you remember, Sarala? The woman who had the duel with Sycloe?"

"I remember," Sarala replied. "This may be what they were quarrelling over."

"But what was Sycloe doing in our room?" Zacharel said, his voice seeming strained.

"Well, he was hiding the medallion, obviously," Alexander said, thinking that things were beginning to fall into place. "He was interrupted by this Yriss character who killed him before he could leave."

"We don't know that Sycloe wrote the note," Sarala replied. "For all we know, Ghuth could have been hiding it when she was surprised by Sycloe. We also do not know to whom the medallion rightly belongs. Nor do we know what is so important about it in the first place!"

"That's a lot of questions," Alexander admitted.

"Yes," said Sarala. "And what is more, it remains unclear as to how the constabulary fits in to all of this. Is it the entire constabulary or just a rogue element of which we need to beware?"

Alexander snapped his fingers. "Here's a thought: are we sure that those men who attacked us were constables? Could they not just be dressed up in their uniforms? Their leader- the rat-faced one- wore no insignia."

Sarala drummed her fingers against her lips. "A fine question," she said. "But unfortunately it is one that we cannot ponder at this time. I think it would be best if we assumed that we cannot trust the constabulary, the entire constabulary." She nodded decisively. "I propose that we go visit Master Forrestir right now."

"Why?" Sarrah asked. "How do we know that we can trust him?

"If Angan Forrestir wanted us dead, we would be dead," Sarala said bluntly. "Any hope of safety we have is in him. The constabulary has means of finding people whom they are seeking. We must get the amulet to Forrestir before they have recourse to those methods."

"But how can we do that?" Zacharel asked. "The Great School is closed after dark. In fact, it is forbidden even to enter the Citadel Quarter while the sun is down. Surely the constabulary will find us before the morning!"

"True," she said. "We cannot wait here for them to find us. Do not worry: I believe I have a way." Sarala smiled. "Now let us go."

Alexander mentally resigned himself to the fact that if they were going to escape this predicament it was going to be through the leadership of Sarala, not his own. He realised that he had known for some time that this was the way that it was going to be, ultimately: that Sarala would either lead them or disassociate herself from them entirely. The strange thing was that Alexander finally felt comfortable playing that kind of a role.

The shapechanger eased back the door to the alley and peeked out. Then, waving with her hand, she motioned for the others to follow her out into the wet night. Alexander came last, hand on the hilt of his sheathed blade. The night was surprisingly still, although he could hear the sounds of activity coming from the waterfront not far off down the narrow passage. His heart was beating quickly, his palms sweating from the tension, the rain running down his face like tears. He held the door open, letting Sarrah and Zacharel slip out of the room. Pulling the door shut gently, he took a quick look around before going to follow his fellows.

Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Looking upwards, he saw a figure, cloaked, atop one of the adjoining buildings, the light from the waning crescent moon providing just enough illumination to draw Alexander's eyes to the slim wand he held in one hand, a wand that was pointed directly at the companions.

"Look out!" Alexander cried just as a tremendous bolt of lightning issued forth from the wand and struck the wall near Zacharel, ricocheting down the alley, kicking up bursts of smoke and blue sparks wherever it hit.

"Run!" Sarala shouted, but the others were already doing so, pumping their legs as fast and as hard as they could. In their desperate flight, Alexander and Sarrah passed Sarala, who was labouring with her long skirts, and even the youthful Zacharel. Alexander, reaching the end of the alley first, bowled into a man and nearly knocked him into the canal; Sarrah, who came second, struck him again and completed that which Alexander did not. The man fell with a curse and a splash into the waters.

Here, on the frequently travelled walkway, Alexander felt safer, but neither he nor any of his companions were taking any chances. They continued to run, weaving through the thin crowds, sneaking looks to the top of the roofs when they could, keeping an eye out for any sign of the constabulary. More than once, Alexander saw the eyes of passers-by arch in indignation at their rude passage or surprise at the sight of them armed so, but he did not care at all.

"This way!" Sarala called out. Alexander looked back. The Flaem, holding up her skirts with one hand, pointed down a side street. A far cry either from the bruised girl that we found in Haradraith's Keep or the tiger that she can become, Alexander thought as he skidded to a halt and turned to follow her.

The shapechanger led the group to a landing where several gondolas had been pulled to rest, awaiting customers. Because of the weather, the gondoliers had erected retractable canvas roofs over their boats to shelter their passengers from the rain, although they themselves remained exposed to the elements, undeterred in their wide-brimmed hats and leather smocks.

Sarala leapt lightly into one of the larger boats, the others following right on her heels. "The Metropolitan Theatre," she instructed the gondolier, who, despite his suspicious look at the companions' weapons and armour, promptly shoved off from the landing.

"Where are you taking us?" said Alexander, perhaps too loudly, but he was frantic and scared.

"To see a friend," Sarala replied, and that was all. Her eyes were fixed on the walkways of the city.

"I'm ruined," Zacharel said, running his hands through his wet hair. "I could have had a scholarship to the Great School. Now they'll never accept me."

"Will you please stop talking about your scholarship?" Sarrah's voice was low, but it was pointed and bitter. "Don't you think that we have more important things to worry about?"

Zacharel cast her a downright hateful glance in return. Seeing it, Alexander put his hand on the youth's shoulder. "Hey, Zach, relax. Let's not worry too much until after we've seen Forrestir, okay?" The youth nodded, reluctantly. "Good."

The Karameikan sighed and continued scanning the streets for any sign of their cloaked attacker. He imagined that their assailant, whoever he was, was probably long gone by now, but he also thought that it wouldn't hurt to be vigilant. He moved to the front of the large gondola, away from the driver as well as the others, and drew a deep, calming breath.

Sarala moved beside him. "Any thoughts?" he asked her quietly.

The shapechanger nodded. "I am beginning to think that Yriss Ghuth is the one who attacked us in the alley."

"I was just thinking that myself," he said, somewhat tentatively. "Did you notice that while Ghuth fought with Sycloe at the Great School of Magic, she used a lightning spell, just like what we were attacked with?"

"Every half-decent wizard in Glantri can conjure lightning," Sarala shrugged. "I would not put much stock in that. I just think that it makes the most sense that Sycloe was killed by a rival looking for the medallion,"- she patted one of her belt pouches- "and Ghuth is his only rival that I know. I am not certain, mind you, but I think it most probable that Ghuth is our adversary."

"But how did she find us?" Alexander asked.

"I'm not sure." The Karameikan saw a look in Sarala's eye, only there for a moment, that made him think that she was hiding something. "Nor do I know if she is in league with the constabulary or if they are working separately. I do wish Sarrah had not been quite as deadly." Both snuck a glance at the thief, who was sitting, her face twisted into a scowl, her fingers nervously drumming her knee. "She is terribly proficient with those blades of hers, but sometimes I think that her zeal might get the better of her wisdom. Even if it is just a rogue element that is involved in all of this, it will be hard for the constables to overlook the killing of three of their fellows, corrupt or not."

"She was just protecting us," Alexander said before he really thought about the words.

Sarala was quiet at first. Alexander looked at her, saw her staring out over the waters. He had never been this close to her before. Now, seeing her up close, he realised that if he disregarded her strange appearance, her bronze skin and almond eyes, her thick accent and majestic powers, her fearsome aspect and her quiet arrogance, she was very much like him, like him and Sarrah: young and ambitious, a restless wanderer and a seeker of adventure.

He was surprised that he had never thought of her in this way before. No doubt it was because he had never really felt close to her. That owed each other their lives- this was beyond question- but that did not necessarily translate into true closeness. Alexander hoped that what he felt now was not a figment of his imagination, but that he and Sarala had found something that bound them together, whatever that was, exactly.

Sarala spoke at last. "She was just protecting us. You speak rightly. That is what she does." Sarala smiled at Alexander. "Herr Henning is going to be most pleased with the both of you."

"Metropolitan Theatre!" cried the gondolier.

"Here we are," said the shapechanger, passing the boatman some coins. Their craft had pulled up at a massive building at the intersection of two canals. Archaic-looking columns supported a pyramidal roof. Marble steps led up to the main doors, colossal and shining with brass. Many luxurious gondolas were drawn up in a special area, and manservants waited on shore in finery better than Alexander could afford.

"What is this place?" Sarrah asked as they all stood looking at the building.

"The oldest and most famous theatre in all of Braejr," Sarala replied. "An acquaintance of mine often frequents this place. I believe he can help us."

Stepping out of the boat, Alexander suddenly realised that it had stopped raining. Then, looking out over the canals for a moment, he saw that it was raining only a few feet away! Surprised, he cast his gaze all around the theatre and found that no rain was falling on the theatre or the area directly around it.

"What..." Alexander struggled for the right words. He thought that the sight should not surprise him at all, considering where they were, but it did nevertheless.

"'What' what?" Sarala said. When she saw Alexander's confused look she smiled briefly. "Oh, it never rains over the Metropolitan Theatre."

"Why?"

"So people don't get their nice clothes wet. Ah!" She laid a hand on Alexander's arm. "We are in luck. There he is. Alexander, come with me. Sarrah, stay with Zacharel." Without waiting for anyone to question her commands, Sarala began striding off. Alexander took a quick glance at Sarrah, who seemed somewhat resentful. He smiled at her, hoping that that would make her feel better, but quickly turned and jogged off after Sarala. He was needed.

"Now Alexander," she said as soon as he caught up with her, "you must pay careful attention to me. Do not underestimate Giovanni. He may seem a dandy to you, but he enjoys the pleasure of men's company slightly less than he enjoys killing those who cross him. Be careful: he is dangerous and not to be mocked."

"Giovanni?" Alexander said, his head spinning, trying to stay out of the way of the elegantly dressed patrons of the theatre.

"Pay attention, will you?" Sarala stopped and whirled to face him. "This is an extremely important encounter that we are about to have. Don't say a word unless you must, and then always follow my lead. Do you understand?" Alexander nodded, unsure of what else he could do. Sarala's green eyes bored into him. At last she nodded. "Good. Now come, and mind your manners. Giovanni, darling!" Smiling, she waved her hand demurely and strode towards a nearby figure.

"Sarala, is that you?" The speaker was a well-dressed gentleman with olive skin, immaculately groomed hair, and a thin moustache. He was attired in something that reminded Alexander of a stylised Thyatian officer's uniform, all shiny buttons and unnecessary ornament. "It's been so long; we thought that you'd left us forever!"

"I was away on business. An alchemist's work is never through."

"Quite. And who is this?" Giovanni turned his gaze to Alexander. The man's look made the Karameikan uncomfortable. "It is not like you to be walking the streets with an armed escort."

"This is Alexander Kapital, one of Herr Henning's latest discoveries. He's from Thyatis, one of the deadliest swordsmen in the empire."

Giovanni smoothed his moustache. "A pleasure," he said in a way that obviously indicated that it wasn't. "Now Sarala darling, I really would love to chat with you but, you see, it's nearly intermission and I need to be ready. Sir Boris Gorevitch-Woszlany is inside, and when he comes out, I intend to extend to him a most delightful proposition. You see, last week, I happened to be at one of Sir Boris' soirees, and as soon as I saw him I said to myself-"

"We need to get inside the Great School of Magic," Sarala interrupted. "Tonight. Right now."

The fop's eyes turned steely. "It is a great thing that you are saying," he said quietly. "And it is most audacious of you to ask me in a place like this."

"That should tell you how serious I am." Sarala's voice too was low, with a feral edge.

"Serious or no, it is out of the question," Giovanni said, shaking his head. "It cannot be done."

"You owe me."

"Yes, but not that much." He pulled closer to the shapeshifter. "Signor Antonio may be very fond of you, but that does not mean that he would appreciate-"

"I would ride to Castelbianco myself and fetch him if I had the time, but I don't." Sarala stepped closer to Giovanni. "I know that you have a way in."

Giovanni drummed his fingers on his chest. "How many?"

"Four," Sarala said, seeming to breathe easier. "Myself, Alexander, two others."

"Such a thing is not done without great cost," Giovanni warned. "Even counting our debt to you and your master, the price is high."

"Name it."

"Fifteen hundred ducats."

Alexander almost laughed when he heard the enormous sum but thankfully caught himself. He had to do so again, a moment later, when he heard Sarala say: "Agreed. You know that I'm good for it, right darling?"

"But of course," Giovanni replied, smiling a greasy smile. "I should charge extra, seeing as I'm going to miss my chance with my delightful little Boldavian, but, as you say, I owe you. I need time to make the arrangements. Here is where you will meet me. Go to-"

"I know where to go."

Giovanni stopped, mouth open. "It is not good that you know where to go," he said, wagging his finger at Sarala. "Not good at all. We shall have a talk about this later, yes?" He exhaled roughly. "Very well. Meet me there in an hour's time, and make sure that you are not followed." He stopped, sucked in one cheek. "Doubtless Signor Antonio is going to be very curious about all of this."

"Doubtless," Sarala replied. "We shall see you in an hour. Goodbye, my dear."

"Goodbye, Sarala. Do try to stay out of the rain; it wrecks havoc on one's constitution. And goodbye, Master Swordsman. It is so good to meet Herr Henning's latest experiment." He gave a quick half bow and turned, walking away with a relaxed gait.

Sarala smiled briefly. "Excellent. You did well, Alex."

"I didn't do anything!" he replied, astounded. "What was that all about?"

"Giovanni is part of an organisation that can be very helpful at times like this."

"What organisation is that?"

Sarala shook her head. "You don't want to know. Come on: I don't want to stay in one place for too long. Don't forget that we are being hunted."

Once again, Alexander was forced to play catch up as the shapechanger headed for Sarrah and Zacharel. "Why did you have me come with you? And why did you call me 'Alexander Kapital'?"

"As I said, Giovanni enjoys the company of men. I thought having a handsome man with me might soften him up somewhat. And as for the 'Alexander Kapital' bit, you know that I can never pronounce your family name. Too many syllables, I think. Kant-pat-cal-i-tes." She sounded out the name comically. "It does have a certain barbarian attractiveness to it, though, to go with your barbarian hairiness."

"Sarala," Alexander said, tired of the shapechanger's little digs, "fuck you."

The Flaem turned to face him. Her green eyes were narrowed to slits, her teeth bared. "I have just indebted myself to the tune of fifteen hundred ducats to one of the most dangerous men in this city. A corrupt constabulary is looking for me because of my role in the killing of two- sorry, three- of its number. There is a powerful mage stalking us for Rad knows what. Not to mention that although I have just returned to my home after many months away, I may very well be forced to flee again if this situation is not resolved. And in the meantime, my blood is boiling and the cat is yearning to be free. So no, Alexander: fuck you."

Stunned beyond all measure, Alexander felt rooted to the ground as Sarala walked away. Suddenly, she stopped and marched right back up to him. "And if you don't think that it makes me jealous every time you and that stupid girl couple like savages you are very mistaken," she said through pressed lips, striking him on the chest for emphasis.

She turned on her heel and marched back towards Sarrah and Zacharel. Alexander was floored, struck by this sudden insight. He felt like he could do nothing, could not move, could not even believe his ears. Sarala? he thought incredulously. For me? Impossible! He thought about all of the times that she had glared at him or talked to him condescendingly, every time she and Sarrah had whispered amongst themselves, out of earshot. Does all of that make more sense now? Alexander thought. Or does it make less?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a constable of the watch, the red eye of his insignia visible on his shield through a crowd of diaphanous silks and polished leather. Alexander put his head down and walked casually towards the others, trying not to let his haste betray his fear. There was no time for him to think about women, he decided then and there, no time for Sarrah, or Sarala, or Tia, or Landaria, or any of half a hundred others. There were only two things with which he ought to occupy himself: staying alive and getting the hell out of Glantri.