Michael opened his eyes to utter blackness. At first he experienced fear and disorientation, and then his brain caught up with his environment. He was sleeping on a low cot in a room at Master Hohkan’s house above the shop where they had met that afternoon. As the darkness began to resolve itself into shadowy shapes, he wondered what had awakened him. Everything was silent, even the street outside. It must be very far into the night.
Gradually he relaxed, and just as gradually realized that the night was not as silent as he had thought. Someone was moving about downstairs. He could hear items moving around. At first he thought perhaps it was not late at night but early in the morning, and Hohkan or a servant was getting an early start on the day. He lay still and listened carefully, identifying through the wooden walls the sounds of people breathing evenly in deep sleep. He had fallen asleep to those sounds, noting how many there were. He had learned not to fall asleep until all of the others in his vicinity were there first. Habits gained from bitter experience would not leave him even when those around him seemed harmless.
He was able to account for everyone who was present when he fell asleep. The movements downstairs were those of an intruder.
He rose from his cot with the stealth of long practice. Having used his cloak as a blanket, he had no need to dress or assemble himself. His precious Claws never left him now, and were strapped to his thighs within easy reach of his hands. He seldom traveled with a large pack anymore, subsisting with a small pouch of essentials and living off the land as he found it. He was prepared to be ready at any moment, and so this time he was.
The wooden floor in the hallway creaked at the slightest movement, but Michael had become skilled at making his movements seem like the natural sounds of a building settling from temperature changes. With what speed such stealth allowed, he crept down the hallway past the room of his host and the jolly wife he’d been introduced to earlier. The next door was their black-haired daughter with the gray eyes who had flirted her lashes at him throughout dinner. Across from her was the small boy who had peppered their strange guest with questions, and then the servants at each side of the main stairs. He descended into the darkness.
As he approached the front room, where the Hohkan’s business took place, the sounds became more distinct. Someone was in there, moving things around. There was the distinct sound of something being packed into a bag, and set out near the exit. Someone was stealing from the shop!
Michael had not known Hohkan for a day yet, but he was a guest in this house and he felt certain obligations toward the man who had fed and sheltered him. A burning rage began to rise in him, despite his best efforts to stifle it. How dare someone take from an honest tradesman! Despite everything he had been through, despite every hardship and starving day, Michael had never once stolen from an honest man. He had never vowed not to; his conscience simply would not allow it.
He unhooked the Claws from their leather straps and gripped them firmly in his fists. He felt his intent flow into their long metal blades and knew that, though he could not see it, those blades had shifted color from dull steel to shimmering blue in his right hand and smoldering red in his left. The cloak that enveloped his body caught the cold on one side and the heat on the other, and he knew that whatever was on the other side of the curtain that separated him from the pilferer in his host’s shop, he was ready for it.
He made no more noise than a moth as he slipped past that portal and into the spicy space beyond. He could hear more clearly now the movements in the room. He paused to listen and wait for his eyes to adjust to the change in the texture of darkness here.
He knew from earlier in the day that the shop was filled with curiosities from the jungles of the southern continent, as well as practical items for journeys of a less exotic nature. Coils of rope and bolts of burlap rubbed cheeks with spotted and striped hides of every color, and jars of resin and fragrant oil. Containers of animal tusks and bones rested underneath dried spices and herbs. Silks of the finest weave nestled in boxes of saava – that wood which was now extinct and so much dearer to have at hand. There were riches in this room, indeed. Michael spared a passing thought for why Master Hohkan did not keep it better guarded.
At the very front of the shop, a patch of thicker darkness was moving. It was small and lithe and obviously experienced at its dishonest work. Michael crept forward, barely breathing as he watched the figure set an object on the counter, then turn and begin to cut into a coil of rope nearby. The creature was not only stealing, it was set to ruin goods that it was leaving behind! The rage bubbled farther up until he could feel it heating the pit of his stomach. His muscles tensed as he moved closer so he could have a better angle of attack.
The figure finished its task and bound up the cut ends of rope, then slung the shorter coil over its shoulder, swinging it towards the pack Michael could now see outlined in front of the open door. Enough starlight illuminated the objects there; all practical and none worth as much as the treasures he had passed on his way to accost the stranger. Perhaps the thief was preparing to escape with those riches last…
Michael’s fists tightened on the handles of the Claws as he prepared to end the burglar’s miserable life. His knees descended into a crouch to better match his opponent’s slight stature; a trick he had learned to catch a foe off guard – reveal one’s true size only when required. His muscles pulled together for the final surprising spring.
“You see what you wish to see, and not what is.”
The softness of the voice cut through the burning injustice he felt towards the figure, and he paused for the barest second, wondering if this was some trick. It was a feminine voice, no louder than a whisper, and yet filled with a kind of music.
“You have learned to leap first and ask no questions. This is not in your nature, Mal’i-ni’mal.”
Friend of my friend, she had said, in the language of his desert brethren. She set another object on the counter, which was already filled with such things, and turned to a string of dried meats, pulling it down. She selected another string of meat, and one of herbs, and wrapped them carefully before stowing them in the pack by the door. Michael stayed motionless, tensed at the edge of attack.
“I will answer the question you will not ask, and that is that I am no thief. I come with things Hohkan can sell, and I take what I need until the exchange is even. No more. No less.”
Michael gave no answer, but felt a doubt creep into his mind. His muscles loosened of their own accord. He couldn’t trust this person, but he also felt he shouldn’t mistrust them.
The two figures shared the darkness in silence while the one continued to fill her pack and place things from her pouches and pockets onto the wide counter, until it was full of oddities. Michael could see the sheen of gemstone carvings and the gleam of metals. There was a curve of oiled wood adorned with feathers, and near that an unmarked jar with a plain stopper. His hands were no longer gripping the Claws with white knuckles and his knees had straightened to a comfortable standing position. He watched her continue the bizarre exchange of goods, incurious and unspeaking. After a short time, she finished her work, tied up her pack and turned to him.
He couldn’t tell anything about her in the shadows, other than she was about a head shorter than he was. She wore a short cloak with a hood and long pants rather than a skirt. Her posture was loose and confident and her movements were graceful and efficient.
“You are a chick within the shell, too scared to peck and greet the light.”
Michael felt a flicker of interest at her words, despite the sting of the insult of cowardice she had directed at him. He felt that he should counter her in some way, but found that the words slipped away, and kept him silent.
When he did not answer after several moments, she turned and hefted the pack to her shoulder, gathering the coil of rope under her other arm. She turned to him, silhouetted against the outside. “I go South, if you were waiting.”
Michael suddenly understood. “You are Kailee the Mad!” His voice was like the rough caw of a bird softened with the stillness required by the dead of night.
She shrugged, “There are some who call me so. I am myself and no other; no other is I.” She stepped away from the shop door. “If you are staying, I need to lock up behind me. Hohkan keeps many treasures.”
The tall young man breathed out a sort of relieved decision and slid the Claws back into their leather sheathes, where they became dull metal once again. He took a step towards the door, and then turned back toward the counter. He lay a single gold coin upon the surface and turned again to go.
Kailee chuckled, “He will know that is not from me. I do not deal in coins.”
A sudden unfamiliar perverseness engulfed Michael and he moved back to place another coin beside the first before leaving.
As the woman locked the door behind them, the two coins gazed up at the ceiling like a pair of shining golden eyes in the darkness.

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