A Thief's Tale

A Thief's Tale

A Thief's Tale

By Nigel Gordon

The climb up the canyon wall to the plateau had taken longer than Lo expected.  Now he lay back enjoying the last rays of the setting sun.  Living in the canyon, this was one pleasure the boy missed.  The sun’s rays penetrated those vast chasms that intersected the planet's surface only when it was high in the sky, and then it was too hot to lie out under.

Up on the open expanse of the plateau, it would shine for hour after hour unobstructed by the canyon clouds.  Lo knew, though, that without those clouds and their insulation life down in the canyons would be difficult.  On the plateau, above the protection of the clouds, daytime temperatures rose well above what was comfortable and at night could fall close to freezing.  Now, in the late afternoon, it was comfortable.

Lo drew in a deep breath of fresh thin air.  It smelt clean and pure, unlike the people-scented air of the canyon cities.  Five billion people lived in the teeming metropolises of the canyons, whilst less than a million lived on the plateau, which occupied nine tenths of the land surface of the planet.  It was, of course, a question of air.  The air that was so sweet and fresh to Lo was thin, too thin, for those born in the canyons.  They could live up top, but without months of acclimatization they found life hard.  Even when fully acclimatized, they never functioned as well in the thin air of the plateau as did those born to it. 

Lo was one of the high born, although he attended school down in the City of the Golden Canyon, a full three thousand strides below.  For him the plateau was home.  It was there, till the age of eleven, that he had spent all of his time at his mother's house.  For him the fresh thin air was a sweet change; he wondered if the other boys in his class had known this when they set the challenge.  It was doubtful.  Master Armitist had been adamant that no one in the school should know that Lo was high born.  Fear of the plateau-dwellers was strong in the low born. Few of them ever visited the plateau -- and even fewer of their own free will.

It was not the climb that put them off.  There was no need to take the ancient path of twelve thousand steps, a  path, so legend had it, cut before the coming of the second moon.  Lo smiled at the thought; it was the tectonic movements caused by the acquisition of that body that had opened up the canyons.  No doubt the steps had been cut soon after that event.  At first it must have been the only way up and down to the canyon floor.  Now, however, there were repulsion lifts that made the three thousand-stride journey in less than half an hour.  Lo could have used the lifts -- in fact he often did when going home -- but he knew that the identities of the passengers on the lifts were recorded.  The thing about any theft was to get away with it.  For this reason, there must be no suspicion that he was on the plateau. As far as all were concerned, he was in his room at school.  Only the other boys in his class would know that it was he who had dared to do this thing.

As might be expected, it would not be the first thing he had stolen.  One would not survive long at the school unless one stole.  In the past it had been minor things: cinnamon-scented bread from the baker, or books from the printer’s. This year, though, the whole class had moved up a notch.  Bal, who since they had both joined the school at the same time, was Lo's best friend, had cut a purse of golden thalers from a Synorthian merchant.  Not to be outdone, Lo had sneaked into the temple of the Creator and stolen the alms plate, complete with alms.

The school had made certain that the items were returned, just as they sent payment to the shopkeepers and craftsmen for items lost.  The school’s purpose was to turn out the best thieves in the thousand canyons, not to upset the local population.

In all honesty, the population of the City of The Golden Canyon reveled in having the best thieves in the Galaxy.  Indeed, it was considered to be one's civic duty to be robbed by one of the students -- who always left a receipt for items taken.  Many an up-and-coming family had complained to Master Armitist when, after a couple of years, the students had made no attempt to rob them.  As Lady Shema complained "Do they think that I have nothing worth taking?" and went on to point out that she was a Lady of the Third Rank.  She was also an absolute snob and had gone out of her way to make her mansion as easy to rob as possible, just so she could boast that she had been robbed.  There was no kudos for a student to enter a house where unbarred ground floor windows were left open all night.

Now, Hassam, the slave merchant, was a different prospect.  His premises were closely guarded and there were no windows on the ground floor at all.  The sills of the upper floors’ windows were greased and many a young thief had fallen from them.  Hassam, considerate as always to those who might be future clients, had planted Marron bushes below the windows to break their fall, though at Master Armitist’s insistence, he grew the sharp-thorn variety that meant the lesson was well learnt.

Besides greased sills on windows with rolling bars, Hassam also had dogs and guards.  Both were to be avoided.  Many a young student at the school had scars to show after meeting Hassam’s dogs.  The punishment meted out by the guards was more dark and not discussed, though some of the older students who themselves had dark reputations had been known, once caught, to return to meet the guards again.

Hassam’s place was well guarded and much kudos came from robbing it.  Then there were the rewards.  Whenever a student was successful in stealing one of Hassam’s treasures, the merchant would invite them to a feast to celebrate.  There would be gifts of slave girls or boys according to the thief’s taste, and offers of employment.  Hassam often had work for a good thief.

The ultimate challenge, however, had always been the Garden of the Queen of the Night.  It was not only that it was on the plateau that made it a difficult target, at least for the low born; there was also the fact that it was protected by magical wards.  Normally only the most experienced of students would attempt such a job.  Even then, they inevitably failed, sometimes fatally.  That Lo, still only in his fourth year at the school, should attempt to rob the Queen of the Night verged on madness, except that it seemed to make sense.  Where others stole Hassam’s treasures, Lo had slipped in one night and stolen the guard dogs.

His fellow students had joked that he must have been fathered by Oswald Lightfinger who had stolen fire from the Gods.  Lo had just smiled and kept quiet.  He knew only too well that revealing his bastard parentage would cause problems.  Not that it mattered amongst the high born, but the low born had a different view on these things, just as they did on his having a lover, though that had not got very far and he had not told them that he loved one of the other boys.  He often wondered, though, what his fellow students would say if they knew who his parents were.

It was difficult to say who had first come up with the idea of robbing the Queen of the Night, but as soon as the idea had been mooted it had transmogrified into a dare to Lo, one that he had been only too willing to take on.

Lo stirred. The sun was setting below the distant mountains; it was time to move.  Only in the short interval after the end of the day but before the start of true night did he have a chance.  The young boy stood and moved at a trot towards the verdant grassland that was the home of the Queen of the Night.  To one who was low born the exertion would have been killing; for a high born like Lo it was just a mild effort.

It took the boy only a few minutes to come to ‘the Ditch’,  a steep-sided moat that surrounded the Queen’s estate.  The sides were not vertical -- that would have caused problems when the waters froze -- but they were near enough, with just a slight slant from the vertical to allow the ice to ride up as it froze and expanded.  That slant, however, was enough.  Lo extracted two metal claws from his waist belt.  Lying flat on the ground, he edged forward, face-down, until the upper part of his body projected over the lip of the ditch.  As he had expected there was an overhang.  In fact he had been counting on it, for in the setting sun the area below the overhang was in darkness.

The overhang was not deep, a bare two spans in depth, but for a boy of Lo’s size that was enough.  He hooked the claws over the edge of the lip, pushing down hard on them to make sure they were firm.  Once he was certain, he took a good grip on them and straightened his arms, pushing his body forward.  As he did so, he bent his knees, bringing his heels up tight against his buttocks.  The effect of this move was to move his center of gravity into his upper body.  Now off balance, he toppled forwards into the darkness.  The moment he sensed he was past the point of no return, he flexed his legs.  His body swung over, pivoted by his grip on the claws.  His feet landed on the ditch wall, his bent knees absorbing the impact.  With a minimum of effort he had moved from a position lying above the edge of the ditch to one hanging from the lip against the wall of the ditch, the slight slant of the wall giving him just enough support so that he did not have to carry all the weight of his body on his arms. 

For a few moments he felt around with a small metal spike that projected from the rear of his boot heel.  Detecting the crack between the stones that made up the wall of the ditch he gave a sharp reverse kick and forced the projection into the crack, dislodging moss and dirt that fell into the water below.  Carefully he tested the strength of the support provided, gradually putting his weight onto it and relieving the strain on his arms.  It held; he was secure.

A disturbance in the water below when a malformed creature, attracted by the fall of dirt, surfaced with snapping jaws, demonstrated that such security was relative.  He felt around with the other heel and made that fast within a crack.  Then, carefully, he released the right hand claw from the lip, and moved it as far as he could to his right, relocking it once more on the lip.  Once it was firm, he pulled his right heel out and moved that to the right, followed by the left heel and finally the left claw.  At the end of this process he had moved a stride to the right.  He repeated the sequence again and again, slowly moving along the wall of the ditch, always keeping three points of contact as he moved along the underside of the lip, hidden from the eyes of the guards at the drawbridge by the ditch’s darkness.

The Bridge of Sleep, the single crossing point into the realm of the Queen of the Night, appeared silhouetted against the darkening evening sky.  Lo continued to edge along until he was level with the bastions of the bridge.  The drawbridge was raised, but he knew it would soon be lowered to allow the evening traffic to pass over it.  In the guardhouse above Lo could hear the voices of the Queen’s guards as they looked out across the flat lands of the plateau. 

 

Lo took two metal spikes out of this tool belt and with his right hand jammed them into cracks between the stones.  Then, using a small leather-headed mallet that dulled the sound, hammered them firmly into place.  Each spike had a clip ring in its head.  Through these he threaded a fine cord made from the silken web of a moon spider.  The cord, although little thicker than a twist of wool, could carry the weight of eight men.  This he tied to his body harness, making himself secure.  Once so secured, he was able to release both of the claws.

Lo was now ready to cross the ditch.  He removed a couple of items from his waistband and assembled them to make a small crossbow.  From a slim pocket in his body harness he withdrew an oddly shaped bolt, to which was attached a cord of moon spider silk.  Drawing the bow and latching it safe he loaded the bolt into it, then, allowing the harness to take his weight, relaxed and waited.

The boy hoped that the wait would not be too long.  Already, with the approach of night, the air temperature was falling.  In the ditch the water would stay warmer longer, keeping the layer of air above it warm.  That air would rise, and along with it the deadly miasma generated by the stagnant waters.  Lo could already see, where the light of the third moon fell, the first traces of the mist that would fill the ditch during the night.  Time was of the essence; he had to be clear of the ditch before the morbid vapor rose to the level where he would have to breathe it.  He could detect the first hints of its pestilent stench, and that caused him to want to heave.

He had expected that, and was prepared for it.  From a side pocket he removed a vial, the contents of which he sprinkled on a kerchief that he then tied across his mouth and nose.  The scent of cinnamon and cloves filled his head.  For a moment he felt giddy from the cloying sweetness, and then his head cleared.

He knew that the mixture would not protect him from the effects of the miasma should it reach him but it would mask the sweet rancid reek of death that was preceding the rise of the mist. Without his precautions the sickening stench would have set his stomach heaving and his throat retching, the noise of which would have drawn the attention of the guards above -- an attention just as deadly as the miasma below.

A loud thud followed by the clinking of chains announced the lowering of the drawbridge.  As it descended into place, Lo took aim with the crossbow.  Placement was critical for him.  He waited patiently until he got a clear shot, then he exhaled and in that moment of stillness that follows the evacuation of breath he fired.  The bolt flew true, passing through a narrow gap, less than half a span in width, between two cross beams, and embedding itself in the wood of the drawbridge decking.  Behind it trailed the fine cord of moon spider silk.

As the bolt hit the decking, four spring-loaded prongs opened out.  Lo peered into the darkness to see if the deployment was complete but even his preternatural eyesight could not penetrate the gloom below the bridge.  He pulled the cord tight and fastened it, with arcane knots, to his body harness, then waited, glancing occasionally down into the moonlit part of the ditch to check the rise of the miasma.

That death-bearing miasma was rising as the thunder of feet announced the passage of workers across the drawbridge.

Time passed, the deadly mist rose, and a cold fear began to consume Lo.  Would the bridge be raised before the mist got to him?  Each time the tramping of feet upon the drawbridge slowed he prepared himself for action, then more traffic would arrive and the level of thumping would return to what it had been before.  As each wave of traffic passed over the bridge the miasma in the ditch got closer and closer to him.

Then the foot traffic stopped.  There was a heavy thud as the gate pole dropped into place.  Lo balanced himself on his heel supports and released the cords that held him to the spikes.  Nothing happened.  He held his posture.  The back of his legs started to ache from the strain. Stillness. Silence.

The clanking of metal against metal sundered the stillness as the treadmill clanked to life, drawing in the chains.  For a time, it only took up the slack but once they were taut, the chains took the weight of the bridge.  Ancient timbers groaned in protest, then started to move.  Slowly the bridge began to rise.

Pulled forward by the taut silk cord, Lo overbalanced and swung down into the depths of the ditch, his feet sweeping the top of the still-rising miasma.  Under the weight of the boy’s body, the bolt came loose.  The boy dropped two strides into the deadly mist, before being brought up with a sudden jolt as the extended prongs on the bolt engaged the timber either side of the gap in the crossbeam.  Locked there as a grapnel they held him, as he had intended.

Lo, immersed in the miasma, held his breath. To breathe in now would be fatal. 

The bridge continued to rise.  As it moved, he was pulled upwards, though the ascent was painfully slow.  A tightness swelled in his chest, a pain demanding that he draw breath, miasmic breath, deep into his lungs.  Lo fought against it; refusing to inhale that deadly air.  With the ascent of the bridge he was drawn up and out of the mist.  Once clear he took a gasping deep breath.

Free now from the danger of the miasma he pulled himself up the cord using a pair of running locks.  It was a slow and strenuous job, causing him to breathe heavily, which was why he had not used them to raise himself above the miasma. 

As the drawbridge came to the vertical, he swung in and alighted on one of its crossbeams, then he climbed easily through the crisscrossed beams that formed the underside of the bridge.  He had to work rapidly; he was exposed and visible to any guard who looked in the direction of the raised bridge from outside the walls, although he doubted that any of those in the outer bailey would look his way.  Their job was to defend the approaches from any danger coming from the outside; they did not look towards the castle.  However, it was best not to take any chances.

Rapidly, Lo clambered to the top, where, being small, he was able to slip through the opening between the end of the bridge span and the top of the gate arch.  He was out of sight again...and he was inside the domain of the Queen of the Night.

Lo lay still for a moment, in that small gap at the top of the gate, contemplating what he had done.  A thirteen-year-old student of the Guild of Thieves had obtained unauthorized access to the domain of one of the most powerful of the high born.  He savored the thought.  It was smoothly delicious, like mint chocolate sauce on fresh ice cream.  If he went no further he would have earned a place in the school’s annals.  He would go further, though; he had already selected the trophy that would turn him into a legend.

Carefully, he tested the purchase of the grapnel.  Once certain that it was still secure he started to lower himself slowly down the inside face of the drawbridge.  As he descended he used his feet to push out from the surface of the drawbridge; this was not the time to get splinters.

Beyond the gate was a great paved courtyard, lit by jets of brilliant flame.  The area within the gate arch was in deep shadow, providing Lo with good cover.  He knew, however, that once he stepped beyond its protection, he would be visible to anybody in the courtyard.  This was the point that had given him the most problems when he had planned the theft.  As he landed on the paved path that led away from the gate he pulled a cloak of fine silk out of his pouch.  He kept it folded, shielding it from the light of the courtyard with his body.  Its white colour would show only too well in the gloom of the shadows.  He stood there, motionless, waiting, deep in the shadow of the arch.

From outside the courtyard came the faint sound of a flute, then the rhythmic beat of a drum.  A hundred feet stamped in rhythm with the drum and the flute played a haunting tune.  Gradually the sound grew louder, until, with an explosion of noise, hundreds of white-robed dancers poured into the courtyard.  Rotating in rhythmic harmony with the drum and flute, the dancers spun out across the courtyard like cherry blossom falling on a pond.

Lo slipped the cloak over his dark gray thief’s garb and, copying the movements of the Dream Dancers, spun out of the shadow into the courtyard.  Of the thousand eyes that watched from windows and balconies all around none noticed the extra figure that had joined the twirling throng below.

Thromp, left foot turn upon the drumbeat, drompt, right foot turn on the counter beat.  Stomp, spin and turn the steps went on in drug-induced ecstasy, the dancers a sea of motion processing in a fluid mass across the gray granite stones of the courtyard.  Through this sea, with spinning movements that seemed as random as all the rest, the boy progressed, not with the general direction of the dancers but across the courtyard to the Palace of the Queen of the Night.  He spun past the bottom of the steps and past her wolf guards who stood there in ceremonial elegance.

The mass of dancers surged forward and as they did Lo spun off to the side. Slipping along the side of the steps, he stepped deep into the shadow, pulling off his white cloak as he did and stuffing it into his pouch.  Once more in his thief’s gray, a shadow in a shadow, he pushed himself back against the side of the steps and edged sideways towards the palace.  There, beneath the steps, hidden in the shadow, was a half-vaulted arch in the palace wall.  Set into it was a ground level door which gave direct access to the cellar.

It was Lo’s fervent hope that only a bar or a simple set of bolts secured it on the inside.  He took from a leg sheaf an instrument that looked like a wide-bladed knife, but this blade was far more flexible than that of any knife.  Carefully he slipped it between the door and its jamb, near the base.  He drew it upwards slowly until he felt resistance.  Was it a latch, bar or bolt?  The height suggested that it was unlikely to be a bolt.  They were normally at the top or bottom.  Therefore, it should be either a latch or a bar.  He applied slight pressure.  There was movement. It was a latch; a bar would have been far heavier and would have needed more force. 

Slowly, keeping a steady pressure applied, he moved the blade upwards. Suddenly there was a click and all resistance vanished.  The latch was lifted.  A sigh of relief escaped from Lo’s lips.  At least that was only a simple latch; were there bolts or a bar as well?  Very gently he pushed the door. It moved slightly, then stopped: a bar; bolts would have allowed no movement.

Carefully, he slid the blade upwards.  It went about a single span and met an obstruction.  Lo applied pressure. There was no movement.  He had located the bar.  Using chalk, he marked the position of the blade on the jam.  Then he removed the blade and inserted it slightly lower on the opposite side of the door.  Again, he slid it up till it stopped at the bar.  With care he marked its position and withdrew the blade. 

From his leg pocket Lo withdrew two strips of spring metal, split apart along their length to form wide Vs.  He squeezed the open ends together and pushed one strip between the door and the jamb at each marked point, feeding them through until at least two spans of projected beyond the door. Then, released from the confines of the gap between door and jam, the two halves of the strips sprang apart once more.

Lo returned to his flexible blade.  Along the top edge of the blade there ran a deep groove.  Into this groove he laid a fine thread of silk, weighted at the very tip with the finest sliver of pure gold, hardly noticeable but on such a thread sufficient to cause it to hang true.  With dexterous ease he inserted the blade between door and jam and above the bar.  Once he estimated a good four fingers of blade projected beyond the door he tilted the point down.  Inside the door the weighted end of the silk slipped out of the groove and started to fall towards the floor, while as it did, more thread was drawn through the groove.  Suddenly a piece of cord tied to the end to the thread came up against the groove and jammed.  With a practiced flick of the wrist Lo dislodged the silk from the groove and withdrew the knife.

Taking a small stump of candle, he lit it and, shielding its light with his body, he applied the flame to the end of the spring metal strip.  The combination of metals in the nickel-based alloy was highly conductive to heat, and the temperature rose rapidly along its length.  At twice body heat the metal remembered its true form and snapped back into shape.  The arms of the V closed, trapping the silken thread within its clasp.  Lo withdrew the strip, bringing the end of the thread with it.  Carefully he drew more thread through, and at the same time fed in cord above the bar.  Soon the end of the cord appeared below the bar.  Grasping it, Lo pulled, drawing a good length of cord out at the bottom whilst still feeding it in at the top.  Now he had a loop of cord around the bar.

Lo repeated the operation at the other side of the door. Once completed he had a loop of cord around each end of the bar. He took hold of the loops and pulled up.  After a moment’s resistance, the bar lifted free of its mounts.  Lo pushed the door with his foot.  It opened.

Still holding the bar in the loops of cord, he pushed the door till there was sufficient gap to get through.  Then he lowered the bar to the ground.  He slipped inside, closed the door, removed the cord loops and replaced the bar.

The door had admitted him to a stone-paved passageway that ran off in both directions.  Doors were set into the inside wall at regular intervals.  Lo assumed that these led to basement storerooms.  He had to decide which direction to take.  There was a faint warm smell of freshly-baked bread in the passageway, no doubt emanating from the kitchens that would be on this level.  It was stronger to his right, so he set off to the left. Kitchens tended to be busy places in the early evening and the last thing he wanted was to meet someone.

The only light in the passageway was filtering in from the courtyard via ventilation grills placed at regular intervals along the passage.  It was not much but it was enough for Lo’s young eyes to make out a darker area off to one side. He investigated and found that it was the opening to a set of stairs leading up.  After listening carefully for any sound from above, he ascended, after a few moments coming to a door at the top.  It was unlocked.

With care he pushed the door open a whisker and listened.  There was no sound nearby.  He opened it slightly more and glanced out.  All appeared clear.  After a second glance to double check he pushed the door open sufficiently to put his head around.  The wide passage it opened onto was clear.  He stepped out into what he guessed was a service corridor for the main banqueting hall.  If he was correct there should be stairs leading off to the musician’s gallery that ran around the hall.  He moved along the corridor, keeping his eyes open for an entrance to such stairs, remembering that they were likely to be concealed.  As he passed a rather faded tapestry he noticed a faint movement.  Pulling the tapestry back, Lo discovered a narrow spiral staircase heading up.  Climbing it, he came out onto the gallery overlooking the great banqueting hall.

Pausing for a moment to familiarize himself with his present location, Lo mentally checked it against the plan of the palace he had built up in the couple of guided tours he had taken.  He was on the left-hand side of the hall, so to his right and behind him should be the musician’s stand.  Looking back over his shoulder he confirmed this fact.  The entrance to the private apartments should be ahead, at the end of this side gallery.

Taking care to stay in the shadow cast by the balustrade blocking the light from the candelabrums on the tables below, Lo edged along the gallery.  Twice he had to stop and crouch in the shadow when servants came up onto the gallery: one bringing up the music sheets for the musicians, the other to open the roof vents.  Neither looked down the long side gallery where the boy crouched, stilling his thoughts.  The Tae Bo master Shinza said a noisy mind attracts attention.  Lo did not want to attract attention. 

Slowly the reverberating crescendo of a tam-tam sounded throughout the hall.  Soon the banquet guests would enter and be seated.  That would mean the musicians would come up to take their places.  Lo could not afford to be on the gallery when the musicians arrived.

Quickly, keeping low, he scuttled the remaining twenty or so strides to the end of the gallery.  It was risky; such movements were bound to create noise.  It was a risk he had to take, however.  As it turned out, the increased movements of the servants making the last preparations for the meal on the floor below generated enough sound to cover the slight noise he made.

He reached the stairs at the end of the gallery.  From below came the sound of voices: the guests for the evening’s dinner assembled in the Audience Hall.

Lo ignored the stairs, seeking out a short passageway that ran off in the stairwell. He had spotted this during the guided tours.  From his knowledge of the layout of the palace he judged that it should run along one side of the Great Well, the cloistered courtyard around which the palace was built.

The first few strides’ length of the passage was dark, Lo’s young eyes barely making out anything in the dim light that filtered up from the stairwell.  Then there was a slight bend, beyond which shafts of moonlight shone in through leaded glass windows, each of which was twice Lo’s height.

The second strike of the tam-tam sounded.  The boy paused and relaxed.  The parties would be busy taking their places for the feast in the hall.  As if to confirm this, the first bell-like notes from the musicians sounded in the distance.  He knew there was little chance of anyone coming along this passageway for some time.

He moved to the first of the windows. Climbing up onto the sill, he looked out into the Great Well.  Some ten strides below him he could see the chessboard pavement of the courtyard with its planted islands.  Immediately below the passage, he knew, was one of the cloisters that surrounded the courtyard. Yellow flames burned from torches of night gas mounted on wall brackets that jutted out from the pillars, bathing the Great Well in a pool of light.

Lo opened the window and eased himself out onto the narrow ledge that jutted out just below it.  Feeling the ledge with his feet he confirmed that it ran on beyond the window, as he had expected.  While people scurried across the courtyard below, he began to inch along the ledge, secure in the knowledge that even if anyone did look up into the darkness above, he would be hidden.  The blazing torches below would produce a night blindness effect.

By time the third strike of the tam-tam reverberated through the Great Well, its voice causing the flames to flicker, Lo had turned the corner and was approaching the first window on the west side of the courtyard. Inserting a blade in the gap between window and frame he found and released the catch.  Quickly the boy slipped inside, closing the window behind him.

Standing on the sill he surveyed the scene before him.  It was not a narrow passageway like the one he had left, but a wide-open hallway with a highly polished wooden floor.  This he examined for a few moments before, with a sense of satisfaction and an inward smile, identifying it as a nightingale floor. The precisely cut boards of finest oak were set on springs of beech;  the slightest pressure and they would squeak loudly, the sound amplified by a reverberation chamber set below the floor.  No one could walk across this floor without giving warning of their presence, so Lo had no intention of walking upon it.

Withdrawing and reassembling his crossbow, he loaded another specialist bolt, again attached to a moon spider silk cord.  Taking aim, he shot the bolt into the wooden lintel of the door across the hallway.  From his pouch he drew a tube of tightly woven silk, coated with bactium to make the cloth airtight. One end was closed, and this end he fixed to the cord, using a fine line with a release knot attached to a weighted pulley. The wheel ensured that as he fed out the tube it slowly ran down the cord towards the door.  Once it reached the end of the cord, he jerked hard upon the line, releasing the knot and allowing the tube to drift down, feather-light, to the floor.

There it lay, like some ceremonial carpet, twelve strides in length and a stride and a half in width.  To tread on that carpet would, however, be a mistake; the nightingale floor would still sound. 

Lo took two vials of chemicals and put them in a small box that had a perforated lid.  This he inserted into the open end of the tube.  After carefully sealing the tube, making it airtight, he felt through the cloth and found the box.  There was a lever on the side of the box, which, with some force, he pushed outwards.  The crunching sound of ceramic being crushed could be heard, followed by the hiss of a chemical reaction.  The tube expanded and stiffened as the pressure of the generated gas filled it.  Within a few moments the soft flexible tube had become a rigid platform that would support and distribute the boy’s weight so that he would not set off the sounding of the nightingale floor.

Once he was certain that the tube was fully inflated, Lo crawled forward -- the support was too flexible to walk upon.  Lying flat on the top of the tube he edged his way with a caterpillar-like motion that, despite its apparent awkwardness, rapidly took him across the hallway to the door.

As he had half expected the door was not locked.  Why should it be?  Here in the security of the private apartments, protected by nightingale floors, there was no need to keep doors locked.  Indeed, such an action would impair the efficient work of the servants and so diminish the comfort of the establishment.

Lo pushed it open and glanced at the room beyond.  It appeared clear, so he eased himself off the tube and into the room, being careful not to put any weight on the hallway floor.  He felt confident that not even the Queen of the Night could afford to install more than one nightingale floor.

The room was a small sitting room cum library.  Against one wall was a set of bookshelves.  Lo glanced at them and their contents, which mostly seemed to be first editions.  Lo was not interested in those; he was after something more unusual.  Carefully but quickly he crossed the room to glazed doors that led to a balcony.  These were locked from the inside, with the key in the lock!

He stepped out onto the balcony and looked down into the inner gardens of the Queen of the Night.  Immediately below him was the formal garden with the Maze of Dreams.  To the left was the Dark Forest and to the right of that was -- well better not to go into what lay to the right.  It was what lay beyond the formal garden that interested Lo.  There, past the pond and its fountain, was the private garden and the Temple of Sleep.

Lo climbed over the balustrade and lowered himself down as far as his small form would allow, then dropped the remaining two or three strides to the ground, landing in a bed of night scented flowers.  He paused for a moment, listening, just in case the sound of his fall had been heard, then looked around, double-checking his bearings.  To enter the Maze of Dreams would be asking to get lost.  A similar fate faced anyone entering the Dark Forest, and he had no intention of entering the Nightmare Realm.  Lo’s plan was to skirt round the Maze of Dreams and follow the narrow path that lay between Dreams and Nightmares.

The second moon rose, giving near-daylight illumination to the garden. By this light he made his way to the end of the Maze and found the little pathway that led down by its side.  Keeping carefully to the path he trotted forward, forcing himself not to look into the Nightmare Realm.  Even then his glance was drawn to his right, there to view bottomless drops or grave risen lynches calling to him to enter their domain -- an invitation that they made sound so sweet, an invitation steeped in horror, a horror that drew one inward towards its heart.  Lo forced himself to keep strictly to the narrow path, placing one foot in front of the other, veering neither to the left or the right, determined to not lose himself in either the Maze of Dreams or the Realm of Nightmares.

After what seemed to the boy an eternity upon the path between the two delusions, though in reality it was no more than a few minutes, he stepped out onto the lawn that edged the pond. A pattern of stones, which provided shelter for carp that inhabited those waters, acted as stepping-stones across for those prepared to risk the odd leap or two. Lo was prepared to take such a risk and propelled himself across the chain of stones, even though one, not securely seated, nearly pitched him into the waters.

Once across, he quickly found a weak spot in the hedge that surrounded the private garden. Slipping through it, Lo found himself confronted by a sight few had seen and lived to recount.  A movement caught his attention:  perched on top of a marble column was a Red Winged Fire Drake.  He had expected the Queen of the Night to have a Watch Dragon, so had come prepared. From his pouch he drew a small bottle of liquid, which he poured upon the ground.  A stench of sweating horses and sulfur rose into the air: the scent of a female Fire Drake on heat.  Sensing the presence of a female the Watch Dragon raised its wings, arched its back and seized its tail in its mouth to assist it in performing the mating display of the Red Winged Fire Drake.  Lo smiled at the simplicity of the move.  The enraptured dragon would now go through the whole of its courtship dance. For the next couple of hours, it would be oblivious to all around it, except for a male Red Winged Fire Drake.

Lo moved forward into the garden. He soon found himself crossing a wide paved area that led down to a lake, beyond which rose the Mountains of the Moon. On the far side of a heavy hedge was an extensive wide-open lawn on which stood the pyramid-shaped temple. 

As he moved across the red and gray paving stones, the boy noticed a Golden Horned Unicorn standing regarding him over the hedge.  It reminded him of Ovictus, his own riding unicorn that he kept in his mother’s stables. Ovictus was not a golden horn; in fact, it would have been pushing a point to claim that he was silver horned.  He was, however, Lo’s, and that made him special to the boy.  How many thirteen-year-olds could ride a unicorn?

Of course, it was debatable how long Lo would be able to continue to ride the beast. Unicorn riders needed to meet certain conditions, and it was unlikely that Lo would satisfy them for much longer. In the last few months he had grown quite a bit and already the girls at the Broken Drum were making comments to him when he passed by.  Milly, Ma Shannon’s chief girl, had even offered him a free ride.  Lo had feigned ignorance, though he knew fully what she spoke of, for often had he spied on his schoolmates when they had visited girls at the Drum.  For the time being he preferred to ride a unicorn, but for how much longer? Even as he thought about the question, he felt a stirring in his loins and a hardening of his member at the recollection of Milly’s offer.

The thought distracted him for a moment, so he failed to hear the faint flutter of flapping wings.  The all-seeing winged eye had not failed to see him, however; its alarm had been sent to the guardian of the garden, who, even as Lo approached the prize he sought, slithered silently over the stones.

Glowing in the nightlight it stood: the prize of the garden, the Blue Moon Rose.  A single long-stemmed flower bloomed in all its glory.  Lo walked towards it, drawn by the hypnotic attraction of its splendor, oblivious to the heady scent of the Dragon Vine that grew around the Watch Dragon’s perch -- that sweet, heavy scent which captivated men, first muzzling their senses, then drawing them into a sleep from which they would not wake, or even wish to.

Intoxicated by the scent of the Dragon Vine and captivated by the splendor of the rose, Lo stood still, oblivious to the hooded instrument of death that approached him.  Only when it reared up, hood splayed, hissing ready to strike did Lo notice the King Cobra, Naga Naga. Even then the boy was mesmerised unable to move.

The snake’s head shot forward and down, pinned to the ground by the forked end of an ebony staff.

"Not wise to try to steal my property." A deep, husky, sensual voice stated.

Released from the rapture, Lo turned to face the holder of the staff and looked into the ice-green eyes of the Queen of the Night.

"No, ma’am," he responded.

The Queen bent forward and seized the cobra by the back of its head, lifting it and then dropping it into a bag carried by one of her attendants.

"No, my pets have deadly bites. You have managed to get much further than most who have tried." 

Lo could only nod.

"Now why don’t you try something simpler?"

Lo looked at the Queen, his frustration, annoyance and despair showing on his face.

"I suggest you try stealing the Key of Creation from the All Father?" 

At this suggestion, Lo’s attitude perked up. It was a very good idea.

"Yes, ma’am."

"Very good, off you go then. Try that way out," she pointed to a small gate in the hedge.

Lo started to run across the paved area.

"And Lo," she called after him.

"Yes ma’am?"

"Why don’t you come over for breakfast in the morning?"

"I think I may be a bit busy with the All Father."

"Oh, but I insist."

"Yes ma’am, I will come if I can."

"If he catches you, tell your father that I want you back here by breakfast, and tell him he’d better come over himself."

Young Loki, the God of Mischief, lost a bit of bounce from his step.  A family meal!

"Yes mother!"