Notes: Fixed the link in the previous chapter. ^^; Don't I feel silly? It's:

Thanks for your patience, if anyone is still following this! ^^; RL came in and whopped me a good one, but I'm back in gear. Thanks to everyone who reviewed. ^_^

The Fire Dancer Key ~ Chapter 1: Fate Steps In

Peering around the corner cautiously, Aren checked the dimly lit hallway for any signs of life. Gloriously empty, and if luck was with him, holding all manner of expensive trinkets ripe for the picking. Glancing over his shoulder he scanned over the courtyard once again. The two guards were still far across the large courtyard and well out of sight and earshot. The only sounds were the chirping of crickets and the soft rush of water from the fountains. No one to witness his entry save the owl in the tree to his left. He looked up and grinned at the bird.

"You wouldn't tell on me, would you?" he whispered. The owl merely ruffled his feathers in response, and with what Aren imagined was a rather disdainful look, took off silently into the night.

Chuckling to himself, Aren crept into the hallway. He lived for moments like this. The exhilarating rush that came with courting danger, the thrill of knowing success or failure danced on a knife's edge. To him, thieving was more a form of art than a means of living.

Aren let out a low whistle, eyeing the decor appreciatively. The Palace certainly spared no expense. The whole place had an air of elegance to it, reminding him a bit of some prim and proper lady, not a hair out of place. Rich, colorful tapestries adorned the walls. Sweeping archways were inlaid with swirling patterns of gold and silver. Plush rugs lay strategically placed on the polished mahogany floor. Kneeling down next to one, he looked it over carefully. Pirelian make, and worth a small fortune. Unfortunately, they were all enormous. Sighing regretfully, he stood up, running his fingers through his hair. There was no way he'd be able to get one of those monsters out unnoticed.

After a moment of debate, Aren chose one of the right-hand corridors. Making sure there wasn't any late-night wanderers in the halls, he ducked around the corner. This one was bare of hiding places, which made him nervous. Doors lined the walls, and he realized this must be where the Palace's rather famous commodity was housed.

He crept down the corridor slowly, silent as a shadow. Sharp ears listened intently for any signs of discovery while he looked for a likely room. He paused near one of the doors, muted sounds inside catching his attention. Smiling slightly when he realized the sounds were that of someone's late night exploits, Aren shook his head and continued on his way. Most of the rooms he passed were similar to the first; the sounds of someone taking advantage of the Palace's hospitality. Much less common were the the silent ones.

Pausing in front of one of these silent doors, Aren regarded it with a thoughtful frown. Were these quiet rooms vacant, or had the occupants merely turned in earlier than the others? He was certain these suites would yield more than the courtyard and hallway had, and was debating whether or not to give it a go when the sound of voices reached him. Freezing, he listened intently. The voices were coming his way, and whoever owned them would round the corner before he could make it back the way he had come. It looked like the choice had been made for him. Grinning wryly, he pulled open the door and ducked inside just as the two guards came into sight.

"You know what he did then? The little bastard had the audacity to tell me I was wrong. I'm old enough to be that whelp's granddaddy, but he still thinks he's smarter. Imagine...only posting two guards in the courtyard. Do you believe that?"

"It's a sad state. Younglings these days..."

"You're telling me. Why, just the other day-"

The voices faded away, and after Aren was certain they were going to stay gone, he sighed in relief. That had been close. Too close. He wasn't usually so careless.

Aren's eyes widened at a sudden rustling of fabric. He held perfectly still as a voice tentatively called out, "Who's there? Sira? Is that you?"

Aren cursed everything he could think of for his incredibly bad luck. He said nothing, thankful for the cover of darkness, and hoped the room's occupant would believe they had imagined things and go back to sleep.

No such luck.

"Don't bother pretending you aren't there," The voice was a soft alto, male, and thick with sleep. "I can hear you breathing."

Aren sighed. "This completely ruins my whole plan, you know," he muttered. Now that he'd been discovered, getting out of this place with his skin intact was going to be quite a trick. He only hoped he could pull it off.

"Who are you?" The was a distinct edge of uneasiness to his voice

Which was pretty understandable, in Aren's opinion. If he'd had someone break into his house in the middle of the night, he'd be a bit unnerved too. Well, maybe more like amused. He took a step forward, wincing when he banged a shin on a table. "Name's Aren. You?" He figured at this point it didn't matter if his new friend knew his name or not.

"What are you doing here?"

Aren found it somewhat strange that his host hadn't bothered to light a lamp or something by now. Unnerved as the poor thing was, it would only make sense that he'd at least find comfort in being able to see his uninvited visitor. Leaning down, he fumbled around on the table he had bumped into. "Trying to relieve this place of its valuables," he said amiably. "And being terribly unsuccessful at the moment." He smiled when his hand closed around something that could only be a candle.

"You're a thief?" His host asked, voice rising a notch in alarm.

"One of the best." Aren said proudly, digging around in one of his pouches for his firestone. So what if this particular attempt had gone a bit astray?

"Get out!"

"Now, now," Aren said, "That's not how you ought to treat a guest." Finding the firestone, he held it to the candle, whispered a word, and watched in satisfaction as the wick burst into flame. Handy tool, firestones were. Hard to come by, and like most magical items the price bordered on ridiculous, but they were well worth it. Not that he'd actually paid for his of course.

Forgetting about his friend for a moment, he took in the richly decorated room with a smile. Very nice. Expensive looking jewelry, the staple of a thief's existence, lay strewn carelessly on a table. Those, and anything else he thought might fetch a handsome price quickly found their way into his pouches as he explored the room.

He was nearly finished when the glint of light on metal caught his eye. Half buried underneath a discarded shirt was a necklace he had almost overlooked. He picked it up, holding it closer to the light so he could see it better. The curious silver pendant seemed almost out of place among the other, much more elaborate jewelry. It was flat and tear shaped, inlaid with sapphires that formed a tiny rose. It probably wasn't worth much, but he found he rather liked it, and tossed it in with the rest.

Satisfied that he was going to come come out of this botched endeavor with something, at least, Aren turned his attention back on his problem. He'd been strangely silent and was sitting in bed, sheets pooled around his waist and bathed in shadows. Curious, Aren stepped closer, holding the candle aloft. His eyes widened softly at what he saw.

The young man, he couldn't be more than fifteen, was easily the most beautiful creature Aren had ever seen. His eyes, now green, now gold, were large and luminous in a face that could only be described as delicate. Small and slender, his smooth skin was tinged gold by the light of the candle. Long red hair, slightly mussed from sleep, fell around his face and shoulders in waves. The most amazing thing however, were the large black-feathered wings that adorned his back.

"Didn't I tell you to get out?" he said suddenly.

"You did," Aren said slowly, crouching down by the bed, both to make himself look less intimidating, and to put himself on a more even level with the short boy. He felt a bit guilty. This boy looked to be barely more than a child. "That presents me with a bit of a problem though. Because the moment I step out that door you'll have the Palace guards down on my head faster than I can blink."

The boy sighed. "You're the thief. You figure it out. This is what you do, isn't it?"

Aren chuckled, "Yes...well, even the greatest of us run into problems here and there. Any suggestions?"

"I suggest you leave."

Aren grinned, more than a little amused by the absurdity of the situation. "Seems we're at a bit of a stalemate then."

"I don't suppose promising not to call the guards would do any good?"

"No. Not really. You seem like a nice kid, but trusting you to keep your word wouldn't be one of my smarter decisions," he said amiably. "You never told me your name, you know."

He was silent a long moment, and just as Aren was beginning to think he wouldn't reply, he said, "Fiamme."

"Fiamme, hm?" Aren said, testing the sound of it. "Nice name. Unusual, but nice."

Aren realized that Fiamme seemed a little more relaxed. Like he didn't really think that Aren was a threat anymore. In fact, to judge by his tone, he seemed more irritated than afraid. Though, there was something strange about the boy. Something that seemed a little off, but he couldn't quite place it. He stared at Fiamme for a few moments, and was about to dismiss the thought when it stuck him. It was his eyes. Fiamme was looking in his direction, but it seemed as though he was looking through him rather than at him. Raising a hand, he waved it experimentally in front of the boy's face, but Fiamme gave no indication that he saw it. "You're blind, aren't you?" he asked quietly.

Fiamme started, then crossed his arms over his chest defensively. "So what?" he said tersely, "I manage. I'm not helpless. I know my way around my rooms, and it's not as though I'm allowed to leave." The defensive tone was laced with bitterness.

"It was just an observation. I didn't mean to upset you," Aren said soothingly, frowning. Not allowed to leave? He had known that slaves were confined to the Palace, but he had never realized they were confined to their rooms. A prison was still a prison, regardless how pretty it might be. "How sad," he said, more to himself than Fiamme, "To be a prisoner like this."

"You...think it's sad?" Fiamme asked, looking faintly surprised.

"Of course I do," Aren said quietly, "People should have no right to own other people. I think it's a terrible thing. Don't you?" Fiamme shrugged, and Aren frowned. "Don't you remember what it's like to be free?"


"Were you born a slave?"

"I don't know."

"How can you not know?"

Fiamme sighed and pulled his legs to his chest, resting his chin on his knees. "That's really none of your business."

His tone lacked conviction, and it seemed to Aren the boy almost wanted to talk to him. It was almost like he protesting because he felt he should, not because he wanted to. It was sad, really. "You don't know what you're missing Fiamme."

"I don't want to know what I'm missing!" Fiamme snapped, eyes flashing. Aren winced, realizing that he must have tread on forbidden ground. "You can't yearn for something if you don't know it exists. The concept of freedom is as distant to me as the stars. The less you know about something, the less it hurts not having it. I will die here," he snarled, "Most likely at the hand of some overzealous Master. That is my fate. Now get out!"

Aren took this in silently. What must it be like, to have no concept of freedom? To know nothing beyond these rooms? Existing solely for the pleasure of whomever had enough to buy him. If that didn't qualify as living hell, Aren didn't know what did. He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. What was he still doing there? Too much sympathy for strangers could be dangerous. He really ought to just do what the boy wanted and leave.

Fiamme began to fidget slightly when Aren made no move to leave, and after a moment he said again, "Get out." All the force was gone from his voice. It sounded more like a plea than a command.

Aren stood slowly, but couldn't quite bring himself to leave. He didn't want to leave Fiamme there. He wasn't sure what was getting into him; he was hardly the valiant type. However, he just couldn't bring himself to walk out. "All right," he said slowly, resolve hardening. Somehow he knew he was going to regret this later.

Aren grabbed Fiamme by the arm and pulled him out of bed. The boy let out a startled squeak, too surprised to react as Aren pulled him towards the door. "But I'm taking you with me," he said. Fiamme's eyes widened at that, and began protesting loudly, trying unsuccessfully to pull his arm from Aren's grip.

Aren glanced back at Fiamme. It wasn't going to work if Fiamme didn't quiet down. Releasing his grip on Fiamme's arm, he wrapped an arm around the slender waist, clamping a hand over the redhead's mouth. He was about to speak when he realized that Fiamme was still naked, and Aren doubted that he would go and complacently get dressed so he could kidnap him decently. Too late for that now, he supposed. He'd just have to find the kid some clothes later.

Leaning down, he whispered in Fiamme's ear, "This would be a lot easier if you'd shut up."

In answer, Fiamme bit his hand.

Aren winced, then smiled slightly and pulled his hand away, eyeing the trickle of blood where the teeth had broken skin. Looking down at Fiamme, he said, "Feisty, aren't you?"

"Maybe I just don't take well to being kidnapped," Fiamme said, voice dripping sarcasm.

"Then don't think of it as being kidnapped," Aren said, "Think of it as being rescued."

Fiamme quieted briefly at those words, then snorted and renewed his struggling, though much to Aren's relief, without the shouting. Leaning forward, Aren pressed an ear against the door. Once he had assured himself the hallway was empty, he pushed the door open and pulled Fiamme out into the hallway. Sending the goddess of luck a quick prayer, he crept down the hall, pulling Fiamme behind him.

Finding himself fighting Fiamme for every step, it took them twice as long as it should have to reach the main hall. Frustration getting the better of him, Aren hauled Fiamme off his feet, covering his mouth to stifle the startled squeak. If he was going to be difficult, Aren would just carry him. The wings made things a bit awkward, but he weighed hardly a thing.

Aren peered around the corner, and finding the way clear he made a dash for the courtyard, bent on getting out as quickly as possible. As he neared the exit, one of the doors in front of him suddenly swung open and he froze. There was no time to hide. Out stumbled a large man with a neatly trimmed beard and fine clothes in a state of disarray. The man took a few unsteady steps, and fell heavily against the wall. He noticed Aren as he straightened up. The man blinked at him with bleary eyes, then smiled widely, and began walking toward him, weaving dangerously.

"'At's a pretty one ya got there, Jonah!" The man slurred, clapping him roughly on the back. Aren's nose wrinkled slightly as it was assaulted by the strong smell of liquor. "Be sure ta save some fer me!" The man laughed loudly, clapped him on the back again, and disappeared down the hall.

Aren looked after him for a moment, smiling slightly. Who said drinking was bad? It certainly had helped him out on more than one occasion. Shaking his head, he made his way into the courtyard, ducking behind some lilac bushes.

Scanning the courtyard, he quickly located his entry point. It was behind a thick stand of bushes against the eastern wall. It wasn't far, but it was bright as day, the courtyard well lit by the full moon. Aren shot the traitorous sky a dirty look. Blasted thing had to choose the worst time to come out from behind the clouds, didn't it? If he made a dash straight across, he would make an obvious target, and if anyone happened to look out their window, they couldn't miss him. So his only hope was to try the walkway around the perimeter, and hope he didn't run into those guards.

Creeping out of his hiding spot, he ducked into one of the walkways, and was about to make a run for it when he stopped cold. He cursed inwardly. Of all the rotten luck. The guards were heading straight for him. There was no time to run; they could look up at any moment. Quickly ducking into one of the many niches the lined the walkway, Aren hoped fervently that they'd turn around and go back the way they had come. If the guards passed this way, there was no way they could miss them.

He looked down at Fiamme when he felt slender arms wrap around his neck as the boy curled closer against his chest, tucking his head under Aren's chin. Aren suddenly realized that Fiamme had stopped struggling ever since the encounter with the drunken man in the hall. Fiamme had obviously heard the guards, and was holding perfectly still, barely breathing. Aren had half expected Fiamme to call out to them, but suddenly it seemed as though Fiamme also wanted to avoid detection.

Aren stared down at the slight redhead, confused. Did this mean that Fiamme had decided that rescue wasn't such a bad idea? He didn't have the luxury of time to ponder the matter however, because the guards were going to pass their hiding spot at any moment. Nerves tingling, he tensed for a fight, prepared for the discovery that never came.

The guards passed them by, oblivious. One had even looked directly at them without even seeming to see them. Aren poked his head out, dumbstruck, watching them turn the corner and walk out of sight. "How the...?" he muttered, then shook his head. Luck must really be with him tonight. No one was going to believe this.

Not one to waste an opportunity, Aren ducked out of the niche and sped for his exit point as fast as his legs would carry him. The normal thrill he got from moments like this was dulled. He was too worried about being caught this time, because this time, it wasn't just him. Best to get out as soon as possible.

Setting Fiamme down, he grabbed the rope, testing to make sure it was still secure. Satisfied, he handed it over to his companion. "You first. That way, if you fall, I can catch you."

Fiamme didn't move. He simply stood there, holding the rope so tightly his knuckles showed white. At first Aren couldn't figure out what was wrong, then it struck him. Fiamme was blind. He was outside for the first time in what was likely a very long time, in an unfamiliar place. Aren, not really thinking, had set him down and stepped away, leaving him with only a rope to ground him. No wonder he was holding that rope like a lifeline.

Stepping closer, he touched Fiamme's shoulder, urging him forward, taking one of Fiamme's hands and placing it on the wall so he could get his bearings. "It's okay," he said soothingly, like one would speak to a frightened child, "You'll be fine. I'll be right behind you."

Fiamme stared ahead with wide eyes for a moment, then took a shaky breath, pulled the rope taught, and began to climb. True to his word, Aren followed close behind. Fiamme paused when he reached the top of the wall, unsure.

"Just jump down," Aren said, "It's not very far."

"Easy said," Fiamme muttered, but jumped anyhow, spreading his wings to soften the fall. Aren raised his eyebrows, impressed. He hadn't thought those wings actually worked. Usually things like that were strictly cosmetic, not functional. Making a note to ask about it later, Aren followed suit, landing lightly beside Fiamme.

Pulling off his coat, Aren handed it to Fiamme. He looked confused for a moment, before he realized what it was. With a murmured word of thanks, Fiamme pulled it on, and Aren couldn't help but chuckle. He was practically drowning in it. The sleeves were too long, and it fell just past his knees.

They stood in silence for a moment, before Fiamme asked quietly, "What now?"

Aren smiled as he urged Fiamme forward. It wasn't a good idea to stick around for very long. "I don't know," he said, "you're the free man now. You tell me." Fiamme said nothing to that, but Aren thought he saw a smile ghost across his lips. Aren looked up at the sky, studying the stars that peeked here and there through the clouds. He hadn't gotten much of what he had come for, but just maybe, he had escaped with a better treasure altogether.