‘Than Lesenvlk lives in the “not quite 18th century” of a “not quite earth.” I believe the earliest stated year in any of the stories is somewhere in the 1680s, but the date is meaningless in most respects. Constantinople never fell and due to certain other conditions, most of Europe is organized in small kingdoms which merge local traditions with those of pagan Rome. Constantinople is the seat of Christianity, but it is the blended version that came about under Constantine. Egypt and other locations in North Africa resemble the Arabian Nights tales more than anything else. Oh, and monsters exist. In other words, it’s a great place to be a pirate.‘Than is always a bit short of cash, due to one thing and another, and she has had to leave her ship in pursuit of different treasures from time to time, when plundering becomes less profitable. This is one of those stories.
It was a stupid idea. Even Jack had said so. Anathandra admitted it now, as she writhed her hands in the tight confines of the leather thong that the guard had tied around her wrists.
It was supposed to be easy. Barber had posed as a slave trader and offered her for sale to the Caliph of Al Quahier. Simple. After that, everything else was left up to her. She knew how to avoid a man’s advances. She had been doing it for years. Derian knew that better than anyone. She thought of him longingly and her expression grew soft for a moment. He would be furious if he knew. She would have to keep him from finding out. She would have to live past dawn first.
She sighed deeply. It should have been so very easy. She left the Caliph in a drunken stupor in the middle of the harem. It seemed that the man had a fondness for Gallic spirits and a weakness for women who could cut a deck of cards. She was glad that she did not need musical talent to distract the man. She would have caused all the caged nightingales to fall down in dazed, twitching heaps of feathers, but at least her singing would not have inspired lust. As it was, the last she had seen of him, he was snoring gently amid a pile of silk covered pillows near the gleaming marble fountain.
In truth, she quite liked him. He reminded her of her old friend, Pierre de Roake, who had been hanged for piracy the previous May. If she had met him under better circumstances, she was sure she could have left him drunk and unsatisfied in a myriad of more interesting locations. The man would have made a good pirate. It was a shame he was born hideously wealthy instead. It was more of a shame that he had come to possess the fabled Ruby of Lameroth. The reward that the Albius Free School of Advanced Magery had offered for its retrieval had proven too much for her to resist.
She should have known better. Stealth was not her style. The guards had cornered her not ten minutes after she laid hands on the stone. It was smooth and oblong, in the size of a robin’s egg. Some said it was a drop of blood from a slain god. She knew it for the fortune it represented.
She sighed deeply. The shadows grew pale with the growing light of morning, revealing more of the tiny, grey cell. She was used to cells. She had seen the inside of quite a few throughout Europe and Asia Minor. This one was no more or less squalid than any of the others. In fact, it was quite clean compared to some. A light dusting of grit coated the floor, but at least nothing smelled. She actually had a preference for the prisons of Albion, she realized. The deal she had made with King Henry had precluded any further such experiences. She was glad of that, because Albion’s gallows gave the worst rope burns.
She stood, kicking over the rough wooden stool as the guard rattled the key in the lock.
“Sabahu al hier,” she greeted wanly.
“Not for you,” he smiled without warmth.
She shrugged, “I gathered that. None-the-less, the sun is shining. I refuse to die on such a wonderful day.”
His expression became pitying. “I doubt you will be given the choice.”
She shrugged again.
He pushed her ahead of him into the hall. The Caliph paced angrily in the wide outer chamber. Anathandra squinted in pale light. His bright silk clothing stood out like a candle flame on the dull rock. He had served for ten years among the ranks of the former Caliph’s assassins. His body was lean and well muscled, more out of habit than heredity. She watched him with the same air of appreciation that a sculptor might have shown to a brilliant work. She was right. He would have been quite a pirate.
His deep brown eyes stared unblinking at her from under a fringe of dark hair. “Who are you?” The question reverberated through the hall.
“You have the right to know, I guess,” she said on the end of a yawn. “Most of the world knows me as the Baroness. The rest just call me Death”
He sucked in a breath. “The pirate?”
She inclined her head.
“Constantinople would pay me for your death. Why did you come here?”
A smile curved her lips again. Her bound hand toyed with the open edges of her heavy brocade pants and the filmy material beneath. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that I find you irresistible, would you?”
He barked a short, sharp laugh. “After last night, dear one?”
She chuckled, “I suppose you’re right. I believe you lost forty camels to me in cards last night.”
The look in his eyes was murderous.
“Fine, Ahmed. Sure. I came because I’m not afraid of your assassins and some very powerful wizards want your ruby. Happy?” She arched an eyebrow.
“Did you know that I could cut off your–”
“Hand? Yes, I’m aware of that.” Her fingers twisted nervously in the raven locks of hair that trailed down her back.
He looked faintly annoyed, “You mistake me. It is customary to cut off the body part most likely responsible for the deed. Your devious mind is clearly at fault here.”
“I thought you liked my devious mind,” Eyes the color of glaciers glared at him from under slitted lids.
“That is why it will make me supremely upset to part your head from your shoulders.”
She blanched very slightly, but she held herself still and tall.
“If I asked you to use that wicked intelligence for me, would you do it?”
A look of surprise utterly failed to cross her face, “What would you have me do, Ahmed?”
“You will call me Your Majesty,” he corrected.
“After all we’ve been to each other?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Exactly what have we been to each other?”
She considered for a moment, “I really enjoyed getting you drunk and winning all those camels.”
“I can still have you put to death. I have heard of how often you cheat the rope, but I think you could not so easily escape a blade.” He regarded her with a certain curiosity.
“Of course, I never intended to collect on the camels,” she added hastily.
“No, you just wanted my ruby. It is yours. Have it as payment for what I want you to do. It is worth considerably less than what I want.” He paced a short circumference around her, studying her carefully as if she was a piece of fine art for his inspection. “Skin the color of ivory,” he mused. He flicked her hair over her shoulders with a careless hand. Shiny, pale stripes cross hatched over her back, interspersed with rigid scar tissue.
She barely kept herself from flinching. “I’m not part of any bargain,” she told him stiffly.
His grin was genuine. “I would sooner take a cobra into my bed. No, I want a greater treasure than that. Have you heard of the fabled book of Thoth?”
She started suddenly. She knew it. She had seen references to it in her childhood studies. More, the stories were bound inextricably around her fondest childhood memories. In any case, even the most casual student of necromancy knew the book. It was rumored to have been left behind by the Egyptian god of wisdom. The book had surfaced twice in all of known history. Both times the results had been horrifying. “Immortality?” she gasped. “A petty tyrant like you?”
“Immortality and power over the forces of nature,” he acknowledged. “I knew you would recognize it.”
“I would have to be either an idiot or a lunatic to bring that book to you,” she shook with barely controlled laughter.
He motioned to one of the guards at the back of the room. “Ali, your sword.”
Ali stood over seven feet tall and was built like a major piece of geography. The sword he hefted with thick arms was a heavy, curved blade with an edge that gleamed like a razor in the flickering light. It had just one purpose.
Anathandra swallowed hard. “I’ll do it,” she ground out.
“I thought you would.”
“I never said that I wasn’t a lunatic,” she grinned wolfishly.
“Undoubtedly,” he smiled.
“When do we leave?” she asked casually.
“Of course,” she replied. “When I come back as a blithering idiot, empty handed and with my life shattered, I want you to know why. Besides, you must be getting bored with all this.” She nodded at her surroundings “The palaces, the silks, the army of skilled assassins, the scores of women waiting on your every need, the…dingy prisons.” She sighed and started again. “Look, there is a whole world out there. It hasn’t gone away just because you have become Caliph. You were as much an adventurer as anyone, once. Stop counting your rubies and your magic scrolls and enjoy life, just for a little while.”
The Caliph started, taken aback. “What? How can you…”
Anathandra raised an eyebrow, “All those poor girls in your harem don’t know that what you want most is someone to play cards with you. Perhaps I should tell them. It would certainly make their lives easier.”
“And perhaps I should simply have done with you.”
She gave a wicked grin, “You haven’t done it yet, so I don’t think you will. I have that effect on men. I think it is something of a horrified fascination. Look, forget about this foolishness and I will lead you on a merry chase across the whole of Europe and the seas beyond. With a thousand cultures to explore, I’m sure you will find your immortality from a far healthier source. My old tutor will even give it to you for free, if I ask him nicely enough. Sure, your braised lamb will be far less interesting without the garlic, but the effect is the same.”
He nodded, “So it is true. The Baroness does dabble in unclean magicks. Vampires for friends, werewolves for relatives.”
“And when the moon is full…” she paused for effect. He leaned closer as her voice dropped. “I stay exactly the same.”
A flicker of something, it must have been disappointment, flitted over his features.
“I’m told my personality intensifies.”
His expression changed to one of horror. “I pity the man who is stupid enough to love you.”
“I will give your regards to Derian when next we meet,” she said gravely. “My word is given. Untie me and show me your maps or whatever it is that you have. I will tell you whether or not you are wasting my time once I’ve seen them.”
He slipped a curved dagger from his belt and sliced through the ropes that bound her wrists. “How would you know a fake?” he demanded.
She gave another careless shrug. “I could tell you something about the age and style of paper or pottery, but the truth is, I know where the book lies. My grandmother was descended from the poor fool who found it in antiquity. She told me the stories when I was just a girl.”