I think the best explanation for my actions that night is that, at that age, despite the fact that I had long been a thief, I had still never killed a man.
I was not inexperienced. For a fifteen-year-old I was remarkably good at sneaking around and being nosy, hence I was a good thief as well as an admirable spy. I could stick up for myself sufficiently in a brawl – as I had proven more than once in street wars – and knew what to do with a dagger when I was in a tight corner, but I had never yet killed a man. The thing about being a good sneak is that you're usually able to disappear when the situation gets messy.
Forelli was, of course, a born thief; she was more experienced than me, in more ways than just the one, and less likely to flee the scene without first having a fight with somebody. She had a curling scimitar named, for some reason that she kept to herself, 'Padwa,' and she was not afraid to pull it out of her belt and offer her argument to anyone who gave us trouble. I had seen her kill a man before – some bully-thief that lurked in alleys after dark, who probably thought we were like other females: weak, cowardly, susceptible as prey. 'Padwa will teach him a lesson,' Forelli told me, before she cut him below the belt – she left him bleeding to death in his alley, and I followed her with newfound trust and respect.
I was always following her – even on adventures that were born out of her merest whim. Everything between us was a big joke, every new conquest warranted a laugh. She never wanted to go far outside the city, which was fine with me. The city was my home from birth, and hers for at least four years. She came from some other land, about which she told me nothing. I think she might have come into the harbor on a ship from some far-off island, maybe one of those places where people live above white-sanded beaches and have their houses blown over by wind and swallowed by waves – I always imagined that as her home, what with her dark brown skin and her swimmer's arms. But she lived in the city now, and it was as much a part of her as it was a part of me. The only traces of her past life were her dark-hued skin and the funny guttural accent she stirred into all her words.
Following her had become a habit, but it was an easy habit to live with. We stole food and things to live off of, we stole everything else just for fun and profit, and we were never caught. It hardly surprised me when she said she wanted to sneak into the cloister – the most guarded part of the city, the only fortress within the city walls, and the illegitimate beating heart of the government: it was said that, though the people elected kings and mayors, the true seat of power was in the Tangoda, the secluded chapel of the cloister where the Cliobarch held court.
'But why do we need to break into the cloister?' I asked Forelli – I knew the real reason (just for fun), but she was good at coming up with interesting excuses.
'Well, Dey, you know what they keep in the inner kitchens, don't you?'
'The Cliobarch's bread and meat, I suppose.'
'And,' she added with relish, 'his wine.'
'We're doing all this just to get drunk? Can't we just pinch some ale from a tavern?'
'Steal from drunkards? That's no challenge. We'd only have to smile at them! Besides, the Cliobarch's wine is something special – something sacred that's used in big, important rituals, which only monks and other special men can attend.'
'So we need to defile this wine with our womanly touch?' I said, smirking.
'Won't it be fun? Of course, if they see us in there, we'll either be killed or raped, or maybe both – probably not in that order, though.'
'If you were afraid to break into a building, you wouldn't be as good a spy as you are.'
'I've never tried to break into a fortress,' I replied skeptically.
'It'll all work out perfectly. You'll see.'
I trusted her as always. You couldn't not want to follow her when she made a proposition like that: her eyes sparkled with excitement and ambition at tackling the new and difficult mischief. She probably couldn't wait to be talked about as the thief of the cloister. Forelli's ego knew no bounds.
There was something about the cloister – even the word by itself suggested something mysterious, hidden, locked away – that drew your eyes toward it: the fortress on the hill with its high walls of tan stone, from which monks (stained with thick and complicated blue tattoos) paraded on days of festivals, and where all the men who powered the world would gravitate, when they were in the city. Summits were held there, kings were sometimes held captive there, and rituals of unspoken purpose took place daily – and all of it was curtained off to us, and we knew only that it was a secret world of strangely tattooed, silent, cloaked men.
I think the idea of the cloister as the supreme domain of men is what drew Forelli in; she always had a bone to pick with men who thought they could do anything better than she could. Forelli liked to pick out the most conceited bastard in any group she ran into and strip down his defenses, either in an actual fight or with her biting tongue, and then lay him bare for the world – or the tavern – to laugh at. Sometimes I think that there was something in her past that gave her a grudge against the other sex, but whatever it was, she never mentioned it. She never spoke of the life she lived before she came to the city.
There was more than enough challenge for her in breaking into the cloister – no one who had tried to get into the cloister without the Cliobarch's permission even made it past the outer walls, which were guarded by hired soldiers.
Or, rather, if someone had done it before, no one else had ever found out…
On the outer walls they have hired guards, but inside, the monks (usually the novices) themselves keep watch, on the holy grounds where no one else is allowed except by special permission of the Cliobarch. Within the wide bounds of the outer wall were ornate gardens and little ponds, and one lime orchard in the southwest corner of the compound. It was a green oasis in the urban mess of the city.
In the very center stood the building itself: the tall cloister, whose central towers reached into the night sky like a cluster of barren, dead tree trunks, with bright windows blinking flickering light at the city below.
Forelli had not only convinced me that we could slip into the compound unnoticed, she had also convinced herself that it would be a breeze. 'The trick is that the hired knights on the outer wall only watch outside for intruders, and the monks of the cloister only patrol their halls. So the gardens and whatnot should be safe for us. They aren't even illuminated at night – just the walls and parts of the cloister. For the darkness of the garden, we might as well run underground.'
'But how to get past the outer walls, or into the cloister? And how do we know where the Cliobarch's kitchen is?'
'As for the Cliobarch's kitchen – that's easy. I've seen a floor plan of the interior, courtesy of an ex-monk. We just have to climb up to one southern window – easy enough with the old brickwork – and then we're in some dining room, just a hall's width away from that kitchen.'
'Did the monk tell you how to get over the wall?'
'Yes, as a matter of fact. How to get through it, anyway. We'll use the method that's always worked best for us: we'll cheat. He told me how.'
Suddenly I became suspicious. 'How come he was so eager to offer up all this information, huh?' I asked her, eyes narrowed.
'Well… he never would have offered anything without the promise of payment.'
'And? What does he want? The Cliobarch's toast?'
'Not exactly. Let's just say he's just left his order recently, and doesn't know much about women yet, meaning he actually believed me when I told him how I would repay him…'
'Forelli!' I cried, indignant.
'Well, these men have to learn their lessons the hard way, don't they?'
'That's right,' I said with a sigh, 'No use just telling him you're a ruthless liar, when it comes to men.'
It turned out that our way of getting in was going to be the badly-behaved ex-monk's old way of sneaking out at night. Few monks chose their profession: most were sent to the cloister as children and brought up there under the close watch of elder monks. And many felt the desire to explore the outside world, at least the city. There were probably a dozen ways of getting out of the cloister unnoticed, and a few at least for getting back in.
The entrance we were using was a secret passage cut into the cloister wall. It began in the large, gated drain near the southern portal, in front of which was a large square that was busy during the day, and we, in our dark thieves' clothing, were able to sneak up the canal, a shadowy, damp, and rather smelly place. The canal led straight to the grating at the base of the cloister wall, which was reinforced to prevent enterprising thieves and intruders like ourselves from entering, but Forelli had been told the secret: there was a hole in the tunnel wall, next to the grating, that a skinny person – like a young novice – could squeeze through, and once you were through that, the passage opened up, large enough so that you could stand inside.
Once we were there, Forelli lit a match and began to walk along the passage that was embedded within the supposedly unbreakable cloister wall. 'Where does it come out?' I asked her.
'A portal near the orchard. So we'll have cover there.'
'Won't there be guards inside the cloister?'
'Yes – we'll deal with it when we get there. Killing the monks won't bother me. They burn their enemies without remorse, why should I have qualms about spilling their blood? They call us sinners. They call everyone sinners, and then offer repentance to those that are willing to pay. It's an old trick. They are the real criminals of the world, Dey – holding everyone in their palms, to cast away or make a King – they claim holy virtue, but they are all cold to anything but ambition and power – I hate the whole order. I hate them!'
Her vehemence surprised me. I didn't know what to say, so I just walked behind her in the dark and bit my tongue.
The passageway opened in the shadow of one of the lime trees. We passed the orchard easily – Forelli reached up once and carelessly plucked a lime, stowing it inside her shirt. We made a quick dash to the cloister itself, and then began to scale the walls. Climbing came easily to me – I had been practicing all my life. The cloister was old, and its walls uneven, which made for an easy ascent. You had to have an instinct for it – to know how to feel along for a support, and then balance all your weight on the four fingers of each hand and the tips of the toes of one foot. It was a tricky business for most, but we crawled along easily as ants.
We finally reached the second story dining room window that we had been aiming for. The intricate stained-glass windows were unlocked, of course – no one would suppose that they needed to be locked. These could be opened only because the Cliobarch liked a sea breeze during his dinner. We discovered a sumptuous dining room, decorated in gold linings and red plush upholstery, and a grand table in the middle of it with seats enough for a whole council. A few torches were lit along the walls, but the fireplace was cold. Great portraits and holy scenes stared down at us with accusatory eyes – I felt like the gods were watching, but Forelli hardly noticed. She was busy investigating the guard situation in the hall. She had the door cracked open only enough to squeeze a mirror out less than an inch, so she could see around the doorway. She shook her head once with a laugh, and then switched to see down the other end of the hall.
'There's only one guard!' she said softly.
'Only one guard?'
Forelli whispered her thoughts to me.
'Young… probably a novice… but nothing to worry about. He's no worker-bee. Look at his hands! He's held books and quill pens, but never a hammer or a sword. They were probably having him scrub all the floors in the cloister when the swords were handed out.'
I took her place with the mirror and looked. He was young, and definitely a novice – the only tattoo on his face was the curving, wavy blue line of a first initiate, just in front of his right ear. His chin was bare of any beard, and his head was shaven bald.
'I'll bet he sits in the library all day, copying out old texts,' she went on, 'and once a month they let him out to guard the kitchens. What a sorry life.'
'Why put someone like that on guard here?' I wondered out loud.
'Obviously because they assume that no one will make it in this far, and if someone did, they probably would not be looking for the kitchens!'
We had been expecting some kind of barricade, and all there was between us and the kitchen was a floor-scrubbing intellectual. I grinned. 'In that case,' I said, 'Last one in's a rotten egg.'
We used the oldest trick in the book on him: while he was looking away, we cast a stone down the hallway, and he immediately pricked up his curious intellectual ears and went to investigate this mysterious noise. Meanwhile we walked lightly across the hall, picked the lock on the door, and introduced ourselves to the Cliobarch's kitchen.
There were olives from the finest orchards in the country, piles of foreign fruit (all strange and colorfully lumpy and mildly aromatic), soft white bread, barrels of ale, buckets of almonds and pistachios and other exotic nuts, a tower of figs, mountains of limes, goldmines of mysterious sparkling sweets, and of course a stinking heap of cheese. But the air was full of thick mysterious aromas, maybe from herbal tea and other concoctions made for the Cliobarch's pleasure, and we were as drunk on the atmosphere as we might have been on the wine. It overwhelmed the senses.
We tasted here and there for fun, picking at different stashes until we weren't really hungry. We filled the kitchen with quiet laughter. At last we found the ultimate jewel: the wine cabinet. The lock was a joke. Forelli opened the door, but caught my wrist when my hand reached in.
'It's ceremonial wine,' she said mockingly, 'and so we must have a ceremony! We should toast to lust and women and all the vile fleshy things that monks desire and can't have.'
'No – because girls are sin embodied, impure in form, evil by nature!' I laughed. 'We were put on the earth by the gods only for the purposes of procreation, which is a joke in the mighty gods' eyes.'
'True. Sex is a joke. What a twisted sense of humor the gods must have.'
I mimicked shock. 'Blasphemer! Thou shalt be burnt!'
'They'll have to catch me first!'
'Open the wine already!' I said. 'It's what we came here for, isn't it?'
She popped the cork and poured the wine with drama, hardly concealing her mirth. The Cliobarch, to her, was just another pompous man that needed mocking, and the wine just a symbol of everything he held sacred for reasons that he had invented himself. I couldn't really understand why it should be so important to her – I didn't see past the smile on her face.
She poured the wine into two goblets, and we toasted – and then tasted the most disgusting form of alcohol I have so far encountered. Most alcohol is bitter, but warm in the throat and with secret flavors and scents that could at least be subtly appreciated; this wine was simply putrid and scalding. My father was in the alcohol trade, so I had quite a bit of understanding as to what good wine should taste like, and this stuff was truly reprehensible. I swallowed quickly and gagged. 'Who makes this… this … red pisswater?'
'The monks, probably. Holy hands for holy food. Yuck! And they call it sacred…'
Forelli then did something that shocked me a little: after her one sip of the wine, she looked at what remained in her glass with an unreadable expression, and then spit into it, and then poured it carefully back into the bottle. 'Let them use that for ceremony,' she said, with sparks in her eyes. She recorked the bottle and returned it to its cabinet.
We made ready to leave. I was feeling slightly unfulfilled, understandably – hadn't we come just for the wine? Forelli had gotten me excited for all this irreverent mischief, and it seemed like travesty to leave it at a despoiled kitchen. But I realized that Forelli had come to prove something, maybe only to herself, and she at least was satisfied.
The novice was not in sight when we slid across the hall. 'Why not explore more?' I said to Forelli, just after we reached the doorway to the Cliobarch's dining room. 'It's such a pity, we've come all this way…'
'Next time,' she said.
We slipped into the dining room, now heading straight out, but we stopped suddenly when we heard the boy's voice, as his figure stepped out of the shadow near the great windows. 'Stay where you are,' he said, taking a step toward us, so that his figure was illuminated in the torchlight. His eyes were like saucers, and his arm was shaking, his fingers clenched around an alarm bell. I could have wrestled him and slit his throat, I knew – but he would still have a chance to give alarm first. He was weak, but even so it was a dangerous situation: as you learn early in your thieving career, any idiot can yell.
'Use your knives – I'll get him from behind,' Forelli said under her breath.
I was too paralyzed to answer – all of a sudden I was thinking of what Forelli had said before, what would happen if we were caught here – they would probably burn us at the stake in the end, in public, where my father could see… I felt rage mixed with profound fear: I was just about ready to spring on him and slice his throat open.
He sneered and began to say something, his voice quaking: 'Stop whispering, you, you… you evil…'
'What? Wenches? Witches? Succubi? Pick one!' Forelli cried, her eyes fiery.
The boy, possibly more afraid of us than we were of him (given what he had been told about women), began to violently clang his alarm bell, swinging it at us as if its noise were a weapon – as indeed it was.
'Now!' Forelli cried.
I launched myself at him, but forgot Forelli's little plan, and in less than a moment I had pinned him to the wall, and his little bell had clanged onto the floor a few feet away.
My blood pounded through my veins in a feverish flood, my eyes hardly seeing him. Terror blinded me – I thought only of the monks, mysterious shrouded demons, and what they would do to us if we were caught – or rather, I could not think of it, and that perhaps scared me more. He was pinned him against the wall, and a thin layer of pale skin was all that separated the edge of my knife from the visibly beating pulse in his throat.
This is where I paused and became afraid of myself.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Forelli standing up in the flame light. 'What are you waiting for?' she asked.
I could kill him, yes. It would be easy, not very messy for me, and I would be able to flee the scene immediately. But could I kill him? He was only a boy, even if he was going to be a monk someday. The shaven head and the strange tattoo couldn't hide the fact that he was still human, and probably completely innocent, regardless of the crimes of his church. He could have been one of my playmates that I grew up with in the city alleys. He could have been my brother.
Kill him! Escape! Get out of this place!
He's barely more than a kid – like me.
But he'd kill you, if he could!
My arms were tense like bowstrings, and I could feel cold trickles of sweat dripping from my hair onto the hot skin of my neck, yet I couldn't move. Moments dragged by, and I heard the voices and sounds of soldiers running across the gardens – flocking to his alarm.
'Dey – this is serious – kill him or we'll never get out of here,' Forelli whispered, but my inner argument went on. I was hesitating. I was doubting. I was starting to think I really couldn't do it. My own hands were shaking. Coward, I told myself again and again – but I couldn't move.
I could hear the footsteps of other guards.
Is there no other way? I asked myself, my conscience pleading with me on the side of pity. Must he die? Must he?
What if I didn't kill him? Is there no other way to keep him quiet?
One twitch and he would be dead – even if he screamed, we would still have a chance to hide, and then run. It would be easy to escape, once he was out of the way.
'Kill him!' hissed Forelli.
The novice stared at me in silent terror, his blue eyes wide. He could definitely feel the pressing threat of my left-hand knife on his neck, and the point of my right-hand knife digging into his cloak just over his heart. His hands seemed to be pushing back on the wall behind him, as if longing to be further away from me. His life was probably flashing before his eyes. It probably involved a lot of scrubbed floors and neatly copied texts.
I didn't want to kill him. It was my conscience and my (albeit skewed) sense of justice. He was just a boy, not much older than me, if he was older at all, and he hadn't really done anything wrong. He couldn't be held accountable for his fate and his upbringing in the cloister, could he? I found that my left hand was paralyzed, even as Forelli tried, with panicking whispers, to talk me out of hesitation. Voices of the guards drew closer.
It might have been our only way out – but I didn't want to kill him.
My knife was close to his jugular, and my face was close, too. Inspiration struck me, whether or not it should have. I didn't have to kill him, but I could shut him up –
I kissed him.
I kissed him because it occurred to me that I could kiss him, and sometimes I can be impulsive like that. It isn't hard, I told myself as I leaned quickly, you just put your lips on his, like so…
The inner argument abruptly stopped.
I had never kissed or been kissed before: everything in those moments was new and sudden and important-seeming, and for those moments I forgot where I was (and the fact that Forelli was watching) and I was so afraid – thoughts of the other guards were completely out of my mind – I was now wholly afraid of myself: my stampeding heart, my sweaty palms, my hot lungs, my confused face; and I was afraid of him and the warmth with which, after only a moment, he kissed me back.
It was as if the world slowed its ponderous spin, halted, and then started, first at a plodding pace, to turn in the other direction, accelerating with unrelenting force until it was spinning furiously like a top (as if the gods had plucked a mountain for a toy, and set it spinning on its peak) – all in a few moments of time.
And it really was only a few moments – I kissed him, and a few moments passed, and everything changed, and then there was the guards were nearly at the door – they were calling out to him, growing closer and closer… Forelli grabbed my hood and yanked back so hard and suddenly that I nearly choked and fell backward, knives flailing, but she grabbed me by the arm in time and pulled me to the floor behind the table.
We held our breath when the door opened.
'What is it?' an older man asked the novice, and when the novice didn't answer right away, he repeated, 'Well, what is it? Did you call us all the way up here for nothing, boy?'
I held my breath. The novice stood frozen on the spot, speechless, his stare fixed on the soldier who had spoken. I thought I could see in him the same argument that had gone through my head only minutes ago. At last he spoke, his voice breathless, his tone artificially worried:
'No – I saw someone outside, in the orchard, running to the north gate. I meant to alert you, not call you up here.'
'Gods almighty! Imbecile! You should've just yelled from the window!'
'Stay here – we'll deal with this later,' shouted the older man, and the guards stomped out of the room, now heading angrily for the north gate.
We waited until the echoes of their boot-steps subsided before standing up. Forelli didn't waste any time, but took me by the sleeve and dragged me to the window without a glance at the novice or me. I couldn't help but turn back – but the expression on the boy's face, of which I caught only a glimpse before we slid out the colored windows, was unreadable.
Forelli crept along quickly with her usual litheness, in angry silence, and I was practically in shock. I couldn't believe what I had done, and I couldn't remember what made me want to do it, other than the idea that it would put off killing him for a minute.
We made sure the watchers were preoccupied before we darted across the lawn toward the orchard and the southwest portal, but just before the branches of the lime trees blocked my vision, I stole one last glance back at the cloister – and saw, in a second story window, a silhouetted figure leaning out.
Looking for me.
We disappeared into the orchard, vanished easily into the wall, and were walking through the city streets in only a few minutes.
'Idiot!' she growled.
'It worked, didn't it?' I said shyly.
'Dey, that was just about the stupidest thing I've ever seen anybody do when they're caught – you do anything but that, hear me? Never, ever do it again!'
Her voice was shaking, and she couldn't even look at me. Her honest fury surprised me – I didn't know why it should bother her so much. 'What's wrong, Forelli? Are you mad that I didn't kill him?' That I couldn't kill him.
She shook slightly, then calmed herself and tried to laugh it off. 'Not at all. Why should I be mad at that? Kiss all the enemies you like.'
'He wasn't really our enemy, in the end.'
She laughed too hard at that – I was really becoming frightened. Her mad laughter edged on sobbing. 'We'll just get you a solid lad from the tavern, and then you won't be tempted to lure any more monks into sin, eh?'
'Do you think he'll get in trouble?' I asked, as I realized that this was something he would inevitably have to confess to one of his elders.
'Oh-for-the-love-of-the-gods! Why should we care what happens to him? Don't you dare tell me you're attached.'
Her voice was bitter – she was still not looking me in the eye – and she spat out the last word as if it were a curse.
I said nothing. There was plenty I could have said, but I didn't want to hear her response to it.
So we walked off into the night – and the incident that she had longed to brag about in the taverns became, to her, nothing more than a guilty and unpleasant secret.
I'd really appreciate constructive criticism, if you've got any to spare. This is a complete story – don't expect another chapter.