Chapter Nine: A Shadow of Hope

Sapphire crouched in the shadows of the palace dungeon. The large black dog had proven that she could be stealthy, but this effort surpassed anything she had done in the past. Most of the guards in the palace had been easy to creep by; they were only human and saw only what they expected to see. Some of the people in the palace, however, were not human. Those caused Sapphire's hackles to rise when they came near. One such was passing her now, a medium sized appearance and white robes. His unfamiliar stench caused her to bare her teeth silently.

Once that one had passed without reacting to her, Sapphire slipped silently down the hallway toward her mistress. She didn't understand what was wrong, but she knew that something was terribly wrong with Mikey. Sapphire could hear the heartbeat of two humans ahead, one strong and close, and the other muted and uneven. She slinked to the door at the end of the corridor and pushed it open with her nose.

Inside the door Sapphire found a long room with many doors along the far side. There was a table and a couple benches in the center of the room. She could smell two scents: the first was the guard, closer to her, and the second was Mikey. Sapphire was alarmed because she could tell that Mikey was in dire peril, and she blamed the guard for that. Without hesitation, Sapphire burst into the room at a run and leaped up and over the table to attack the guard. The man screamed loudly, but he didn't scream for long.

*     *     *

Mikey jolted back to consciousness at the sudden sound of a struggle not far from her. She could see nothing in the darkness, but she heard fierce snarling and snapping closely followed by screaming and thrashing sounds. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the sounds stopped. Mikey strained to listen, hoping to hear any danger before it approached. There was no light around her, her candles were gone, and she was too weak to fight. Nevertheless, she drew a dagger and held it at the ready. She trembled suddenly, and the dagger fell from her grasp to clatter on the stone floor. Mikey searched for the blade but couldn't find it. She froze as she heard a squeak near her, sounding remarkably like a heavy door. But Mikey knew there were no doors near her, only endless dark tunnels.

Mikey screamed suddenly, her voice a croaking sound bereft of any power. She heard the footsteps of the monster approaching and knew she was about to die. She thrashed and twisted, seeking the dagger she'd dropped and trying to put a wall behind her. She succeeded in finding a wall and pushed herself against it. Then she heard quick pattering footsteps and there came the rasping hot touch of the monster's tongue across her face. Mikey screamed again, certain this was her death. She heard the sound of her dagger scraping against the floor and wondered why a beast would want to use her dagger. She then felt a searing cold touch of metal against her hot skin, and then everything changed.

The most immediate change was the light that pierced her eyes, forcing her to squint and blink. Next she was aware that she was no longer dying of thirst and starvation. She felt strength in her body and sat there feeling like she had just awakened from a very bad dream. She saw Sapphire sitting in front of her, holding Mikey's glowing dagger in her mouth. The big black dog was looking very pleased with herself.

"Sapphire! C'mere baby, I'm so glad to see you," Mikey exclaimed. Sapphire dropped the dagger in Mikey's hand and then began licking her face and wagging her tail so hard it was shaking her entire body. "Now to figure out just where the hell I am…"

Sapphire chuffed at her and went back through the open cell door. Mikey followed after checking to see that her weapons and the Emerald Crown were all where she'd left them. She put the dagger away and drew her sword instead. The glow from Celora's enchantment caught her eye and Mikey began to understand. She'd been ensorcelled to think that she was lost in darkness and dying, but why they'd left the crown and her weapons she hadn't a clue. Then she narrowed her eyes.

Sapphire had somehow figured out that touching the enchanted dagger blade to Mikey's skin would break the charm on her. Celora had said the enchantment would work against demons and she thought the Wraith as well. Maybe it was a Wraith magician that had snared Mikey and then was unable to come near her for fear of the enchanted weapons? They must have decided to let her die first before they tried to retrieve the crown from her. Sapphire stuck her head back in the cell and chuffed again, obviously impatient to move on.

"Alright, I'm coming," Mikey said with a grin. "I don't suppose you brought anything to drink or eat?" The black dog looked at her and cocked her head to one side. Then she lolled her tongue out one side of her mouth and padded over to a small table in the corner of the outer room and looked back at Mikey. Mikey stepped gingerly over the dead guard, shuddering at the damage Sapphire had inflicted, and found that there was a small bottle of cheap wine, some water, and a wedge of hard cheese. She drank the water, pouring a little in a wooden bowl that the guard had left and offering it to Sapphire, and then took the wine and cheese for later. Her body had regained its strength, and she didn't honestly think she'd gone without water more than a few hours, but she couldn't shake the feeling that she was dying of thirst. The water dispelled that feeling for now, and the wine would be welcome when they were in a safer place.

"Now where?" She asked the dog. Sapphire spun and headed for the door. She paused there, sniffing the air and then went on through. Mikey followed her, confident in the dog's ability. The hallway was empty as she'd expected, and they hurried along without meeting anyone or hearing any evidence of human life. They turned a corner in the hallway and Mikey saw a set of wooden stairs ahead leading up. She started towards the stairs, but Sapphire suddenly took her hand in her mouth. Sapphire gently pulled Mikey to one side, and then released her hand. Mikey stared for an instant and then quickly followed the dog under the stairway, reaching the shadows just in time to avoid the guards who came through the door at the top. Without the dog's warning, Mikey would have walked right into them on the steps. She scratched behind Sapphire's ears to show her appreciation. The guards came down the steps and walked on down the hallway. Mikey was suddenly very concerned that they were the replacements for the guard they'd left behind. Sapphire seemed to understand somehow and led the way out of hiding and quickly up the stairs.

They reached the top and continued on through the door. They were creeping down a side hallway when they heard shouting coming from the hallways they'd just left on the floor below. Sapphire chuffed at Mikey, and the two of them ran for the turn at the end of the hallway. Sapphire came to a skidding halt beside a curtain at the corner of the hallway and made a sneezing sound. The big dog sipped into a concealed space behind the curtain and Mikey followed, trying to be careful not to step on Sapphire. They got settled and waited a few seconds. Mikey heard the sound of running footsteps and guards far away calling for help.

The closer footsteps pounded the marble floor directly toward their hiding place, and then rounded the corner and continued on. Mikey waited another few seconds to make sure there weren't any more and then slipped out of hiding and followed Sapphire once more. She could smell food cooking somewhere nearby, which caused her empty stomach to knot, and deduced that they were nearing the kitchens. From memory she called up the floor plan that Niall had sketched for her. If she was remembering correctly, the kitchens were behind the throne room on the east side of the palace. Beyond them were the private quarters where she had entered earlier.

Up ahead along the corridor they were trotting through, Mikey saw an ornate door. That must be the throne room, she thought. I wonder if Gray is there? Her curiosity overcame her common sense and she silently moved to the door. Sapphire stopped and looked at Mikey as saying why are you stopping? Mikey listened at the door for a moment and heard nothing. She supposed that there could be guards standing silently, but she doubted very much that Gray would sit silently when he could be giving orders and playing monarch. She pulled the door open just a crack and peered in toward the throne.

The throne room was magnificent, the many pillars were sheathed in gold and there were drapes of pure blue and green silks. The throne itself sat upon a dais that rose twenty steps above the floor. The throne was carved of a single block of black jade with a golden tiger crouched above its back. A man sat upon the throne, unmoving. Mikey looked around the room as much as she could but saw no guards. Indeed, the throne room appeared empty other than the man on the throne. Mikey pulled the door open a little wider and nearly swore as Sapphire pushed past her and into the room.

The dog wasn't even trying to hide, so Mikey figured there was nothing to hide from. She followed the dog into the throne room, turning a complete circle as she did so, looking for danger. There were no apparent threats anywhere. The figure on the throne didn't move or show any awareness of their entrance. Mikey was becoming very curious over this situation. She thought it must be a trap, and yet she didn't feel any threat, and Sapphire appeared to be comfortable here. She simply walked up to the throne and peered upward.

The figure had once been a living man, but was no more. The features showed the shrunken dryness of a corpse that had been drying for some time. Mikey thought perhaps this was some kind of sick joke at first, but she climbed the steps to have a closer look. The figure was definitely the corpse of a man, dead a long time. She knew the face, now that she was closer. It was, or had been, Zavius Gray.

"What a pity that you escaped my blade, Gray," Mikey said to the dead man. Sapphire chuffed, drawing Mikey's attention to the sounds of guards outside the main doors of the throne room. They ran to the door they'd come in through and listened. The hallway appeared to be clear, so she pushed open the door and they made a run for it just as she heard someone opening the main doors. There was the sound of a man's voice shouting for the guards from inside the throne room. Mikey no longer worried about stealth. She and Sapphire ran as fast as they could for the kitchens.

If she was remembering Niall's description right, there would be a large loading area on the eastern edge of the kitchen where supplies were brought in to the palace. Mikey was thinking that if they could run through fast enough, they might surprise the staff sufficiently to get away. Sapphire had another idea, though. The large black dog burst through the doors a few paces ahead of Mikey and began snarling and snapping at everyone in sight. Mikey heard screams and the sounds of people running for their lives as the kitchen staff bolted. By the time she opened the door and entered, all she could see were the backs of the last people to flee the room. Sapphire lolled her tongue out in a dog laugh and panted.

"Good girl," said Mikey with an answering grin. Together they ran for the loading dock and slipped outside into the shadows of the late afternoon. There was a guard there, but he was too surprised at their appearance to yell, and Mikey took him down with a fist to the side of his head. She grinned as an idea occurred to her. She quickly stripped the guard of his breastplate, cloak, and helmet. She then dragged him farther into the shadow where he would hopefully avoid notice for a short time, and poured some of the cheap wine she'd taken from the guard room below across the inert form of the guard. Mikey quickly donned the guard's gear and then looked at Sapphire. "Well? How do I look?" Sapphire sneezed and then grinned at her. "Critic. C'mon let's go."

Mikey sheathed her sword, and tried to slip back into her male persona. She wanted to look as much like a guard as she could and hope to at least get close to the gate before anyone caught on to her ruse. She could hear plenty of running and shouting behind her in the palace. Mikey grinned at Sapphire suddenly and then ran towards the gate.

"Quickly! Run to help defend the king!" Mikey shouted to the startled guards.

"What's happening?" One of the guards shouted back.

"There are assassins inside the palace," Mikey told them as she got closer. "Hurry and go reinforce the kitchen guard. I'll lock up the gate. Go, man, go!" Mikey shouted at the guards. They took a look at one another and then started running for the palace kitchens. Mikey laughed softly and waited for Sapphire to reach the gate from the bushes where she'd gone to hide. Once she was there, Mikey locked the gate behind them and strolled into the city. She was whistling a cheerful tune by the time she reached the far end of the first block.

*     *     *

Cara was quickly losing patience with Ronin. The man was infuriatingly patient from her standpoint. They had watched helplessly as the crowd of thieves entered the warehouse, and Ronin had done nothing to stop them, he'd only said wait. Cara was worried that her lord and their friends were fighting for their lives below them. She was about to sneak away and take matters into her own hands when she became aware of the sound of someone whistling nearby. She laid a hand on Ronin's shoulder to signal him that she was going to take a look and he nodded.

Cara rose from where she'd been sitting and moved quickly in a low crouch to the far edge of the roof where she should be able to see who was coming along the street below. She reached the edge and found a place where she would be able to get a look at the street without exposing herself too much and she leaned out to look. The whistler was a slender man dressed in the armor of the palace guard, the breastplate and helmet gleamed in the failing light. Cara began to have a feeling that this was a friend when she saw the big black dog come trotting into view beside the guard. That has to be Sapphire, which means the guard must be Mikey, she thought. Cara was still trying to decide how to get Mikey's attention when the figure below stopped and looked up at her. Mikey smiled and then disappeared from view.

Cara leaned out farther to see where her friend had gone and then nearly shrieked as a hand was suddenly placed over her mouth. Mikey pulled Cara back from the edge and smiled at her. "Just what are you doing up here, Cara?"

"Mikey! You gave me quite a fright there," Cara said, trying to still her breathing to a normal rate. "Ronin and I were keeping watch while the others went into the warehouse where that tunnel comes out. But a bunch of men went in after them."

"Oh really? Were they thieves?"

"We think so," Cara replied. "Most of them were pretty scruffy but there were a couple that were well dressed. We think those were the leaders."

"Probably a safe bet," Mikey said. "Lead me to Ronin and let's figure out what to do next."

"What about Sapphire?" Cara asked the thief.

"She'll find me," Mikey said with a wide smile. "She always does." Cara took the lead and Mikey followed her to where Ronin was sitting behind a chimney, watching the alleyway below.

"Well, looks like our rescue mission was unnecessary," he said when saw Mikey. "Hello Mikey."

"Hello Ronin," Mikey said with a smile. "Cara tells me that you saw some thieves go in after our friends. Anything new?"

"Actually, yes," he told the two women. "The whole group just walked out again, and our friends were mixed in with them."

"Were they alright?" Cara asked sharply.

"They were unharmed as best I could tell," Ronin said with a chuckle. "Melissa kept covering her nose and making gagging noises though." Mikey laughed.

"Aye, some of the beggars and street thieves get very ripe," she told them. "I was working on getting more of them to bathe, at least before they came anywhere near me." They all laughed quietly.

"So what do we do next?" Cara asked.

"I think we get down off this roof and go invite ourselves to the meeting," Mikey said. Before they could discuss anything more, they heard a very soft chuffing noise from the alley. Mikey leaned out carefully and saw Sapphire down below. As soon as the dog saw her face, she looked down the alley and then ran out of sight to hide. Mikey leaned back quickly and put a finger to her lips to caution the others to be silent. The three watched as Mikey came walking openly down the alley and without hesitation entered the doorway that the thieves had recently entered. They all had similar expressions of disbelief on their faces at first, and then Mikey grew angry as she realized what they were seeing.

"Wraith stalker," she mouthed to the other two. Once the imposter was out of sight Mikey turned to the others to see doubting looks on their faces. "I can prove who I am," Mikey said. She drew one of her enchanted daggers and laid the blade flat against her bare wrist. Cara and Ronin both nodded, recognizing that a Wraith would be unable to tolerate the enchantment that Celora had placed on their weapons.

"Let's get in there," Ronin said quietly. They quickly dropped over the edge of the roof to the dusty paving stones below. Mikey winced at the noise they made but knew there was no help for it now. She was afraid at first that Cara might have hurt herself, since she landed rather heavily, but she seemed to be alright. Ronin landed like a feather for all of his greater size and age. Sapphire came quickly to Mikey's side and they moved to the entrance to the thieves hall.

"Go silently here," Mikey warned. "And do not go in front of me until I say it's clear. There are traps here for the unwary." Cara and Ronin nodded to indicate they understood and fell into line behind her. Mikey opened the outer door quietly and then slipped inside suddenly. Ronin went next, followed by Cara. When the other two entered they found Mikey standing just inside the door with her glowing dagger point at a young man's throat.

"But you just walked in… Eep!" The lookout squeaked as Mikey pressed the blade against his skin and drew a thin trickle of blood.

"I see the situation differently, my young friend," Mikey said softly. "We are going to see the guild master now and you are going to lead the way. Don't even think about trying anything. I guarantee you I am much faster and have a lot more experience than you with a blade. If you do anything more than walk in front of me, you will die. Do you understand?"

"Y-yes, my Lady," the young thief stammered. Mikey let him go and stepped back to test his honesty. The young thief stood there looking at her. They were a bit startled to see that the man was visibly trembling.

"Lead the way, good sir," Mikey said with an elegant flourish of her glowing blade. The young lookout swallowed audibly and then turned to lead them down a long hallway. Before they had gone more than ten paces, they came to a curtained arch on their right. The young thief slipped through and they heard his feet clattering down a flight of stone steps as he bolted. "This is where things get interesting," Mikey said to her companions. Then she ran through the curtains and down the steps. As Ronin and Cara came through after her they saw Mikey standing at the bottom of the steps, motionless. Cara jumped as Sapphire came brushing past her to stand just in front of Mikey. The dog looked back at Cara with a tongue lolling out in a laugh, and then turned back to the business at hand.

"Mikey! Where have you been, love?" Niall said loudly from somewhere ahead.

"I'm fine, I'm just tired," said the false Mikey. Mikey shivered to hear her own voice from the throat of the imposter. "I've been running all over the city looking for whoever just stole the Emerald Crown from the palace."

"What? It was stolen?" Niall nearly shouted. "But, by whom?"

"I'd thought you had it, but maybe not," the not-Mikey said. "Perhaps one of your thieves, Master Bartolli?" Mikey stiffened suddenly and bit her lip to keep silent. She had to fiercely remind herself that this was not her father and that he had tried to kill her.

"Not without my leave," Bartolli said flatly. "None of them would dare bring the king's wrath down on our heads without leave."

"This has gone far enough I think," Mikey said, drawing her sword. The blade glowed with its golden nimbus, casting shadows around her. She stepped into the room and several things happened at once. She saw Niall's face go white as he saw her and realized he'd been fooled by the imposter. The not-Mikey stood with her back to the real Mikey. The other thing that happened was that several of the thieves in the room began shrieking and clawing their way through the corwd to escape the radiance of Mikey's sword.

"Ronin, don't let them escape," Mikey shouted. The hunter responded instantly shooting two dead in rapid succession. Mikey threw one of her daggers into the back of another. All three exploded into flame, leaving only ash behind. Ingvar grabbed the one that ran by him and lifted him off the ground. The thing, for it was quickly shedding its human appearance, turned and tried to claw at the arm gripping it, but Ingvar's hold was too strong. Celora drew her mace and touched it to the writhing stalker, causing flame to erupt from its skin. Ingvar dropped the thing as the flame consumed it. In a moment all was still once more, though the thieves were wild-eyed at the sudden violence. The false Mikey turned to face the real one.

"So little Rat, here you are at last," It said. "How did you get out of your trap?"

"Oh, a little this and a little of that," Mikey said offhandedly. "You didn't really think that would be a challenge for the Scarlet Rat, did you?" The two began circling each other. The doppelganger seemed irritated by Mikey's casual attitude.

"Mikey, be careful," Celora warned. "This isn't a stalker."

"I didn't think so," Mikey told the priestess. "This one smells worse." Celora chuckled, putting a hand up to her mouth. Mikey began unfastening the cloak and breastplate she'd borrowed from the palace guard, letting them fall to the ground. As she pulled the helm from her head and let it fall, the doppelganger charged, drawing its own sword. The companions shouted a warning, but Mikey was already leaping into the air and flipping over the onrushing blade. They drew apart again, and saluted each other with their swords.

It was eerie for all of them to watch two apparently identical women circling each other with homicidal intent. Niall, in particular, was dumbfounded. He forced himself to remember that one of these women wasn't what she appeared to be so that he wouldn't give in to fantasies of two Mikeys. He watched the swords to keep them straight. The glowing nimbus around Mikey's sword was the only difference. Mikey drew one of the long daggers she normally carried openly at her belt and held it at the ready in her left hand, the sword in her right hand. Her double did the same. Mikey smiled.

"I've heard that even simple creatures can learn by imitation," Mikey said. "Try to learn well." Mikey closed half of the distance in a fast leaping step, and then stepped back sharply as her double tried to match the move. Mikey caught the slash of her opponent's sword on her dagger and then cut a fast, flicking cut at the other's shoulder. Her effort was rewarded with a thin line of fire following the thin cut just below the shoulder. Instead of blood flowing from the wound, there were sparks and pulses of light as though the cut had revealed the fire within the creature. Apparently this demon could heal itself as fast as it was wounded, at least by normal means. The enchantment kept damaging the body but the healing kept pace with the damage. "Interesting," Mikey said.

The two fighters slashed forward again, this time they twisted and flipped as they came together. When they parted again after several strokes on either side, Mikey had a thin line of red across her left thigh, but the demon was showing three more streaks of fire, the one across her abdomen was particularly bright. Niall noticed that the once dimly lit room was now being illumined by the fiery wounds the demon bore. Its face was showing an expression of concentration that betrayed its pain. Mikey, in contrast, looked serene and effortless. They circled each other again, appraising and waiting. The demon was beginning to show signs of fatigue; apparently the bleeding was having an effect. Mikey began a waiting game; she had seen the fatigue as well.

The demon lunged, and Mikey parried. The demon would slash and dart, Mikey would block and evade. Mikey built a pattern of evasion and the demon walked into a trap. The demon was slashing laterally with both weapons and Mikey rolled beneath the blades passing unharmed beneath the steel but impaling the demon's right foot with her dagger as she passed. The demon howled in pain and anger, fire spurting rhythmically in time with the beast's heartbeat. It could no longer move freely; if it bent to remove the dagger, Mikey would strike. If the demon didn't remove it, Mikey could circle and strike from behind. The doppelganger's face betrayed fear and pain, it was desperately looking for an escape now.

"You may surrender now, if you wish," Mikey said quietly and without malice. "No need to yield your life here and now. Tell me what I ask and I will let you leave." The creature appeared to consider her words for a moment. Mikey circled slowly, the demon struggling to keep her within view.

"My lord will not allow me to live if I fail," it said at last.

"And I won't let you live unless you tell me who your lord is and what he hopes to gain here," Mikey said. "It looks like you are having a bad day." Mikey pouted at the demon, taunting it to make a decision. Mikey's double lick its lips and began looking for a way out, its eyes darting to and fro.

"There is no life for me away from my lord," the demon hissed. As they watched it began to strain at the blade that trapped its foot, tearing the wound wider and causing more fire to pour forth. It was shrieking in agony yet still straining for freedom. Mikey darted in and gave it another cut, this time across its back. The creature was losing its ability to maintain the image of Mikey; scales began to appear on its skin in places and it became taller and thinner. In desperation, this thing slashed at its own foot with its sword, almost removing the entire foot just above the point where the dagger pinned it. Nearly free, it leaped at Mikey once more, obviously intent at taking the thief's life at the cost of its own.

Mikey, however, was prepared. The sight of the thing's mangled foot was sickening, but Mikey forced herself to focus pas the nausea. She knew the thing would either bolt for freedom or renew its attack. As the shapechanger lunged in final assault, Mikey whirled slightly out of its line of attack, barely evading the dagger on the thing's left side, and slashing with her sword as they passed one another. They both came to a halt standing a few feet apart facing away from each other. Mikey's arms were extended straight to her sides; her head was bowed like a dancer accepting applause. The shapechanger stood still, its arms hanging limp at its sides, weapons dangling from nerveless hands. A line of bright fire erupted from the thing's neck. The head and body fell separately to the floor. The fire engulfed the entire body seeming to blaze unbearably bright, before plunging the room back into its original gloom as the body was reduced to ash.

No one moved for several heart beats, and then Mikey collapsed to the floor. Niall ran to her side and cradled her to his chest. He turned to see Celora quickly kneeling beside them. "Mikey!" Niall shouted, but she didn't respond. "What's wrong with her, Celora?"

"Lay her down flat, and let me examine her," the priestess told him calmly. Her composure reassured him and he did as she directed. Celora laid her hands on Mikey; head, chest, and finally her leg near the minor wound. "Here is the problem. There was poison on the blade."

Celora opened her prayer book, thumbing through the pages quickly to locate the healing prayer she would need. She stopped on a page and then began to chant softly, one hand holding the book and the other extended directly over the wound on Mikey's thigh. Mikey suddenly stiffened, uttering a soft cry. Niall held her still and Celora kept chanting. They could see a black oily substance oozing from the thin wound now and dripping down the sides of her leg. After several minutes of work, the black liquid ceased to flow from the wound and Celora's chanting shifted to another prayer. The wound closed and the flesh healed. Mikey opened her eyes as Celora stopped her work.

"Wow, I guess she cut me worse than I guess," Mikey said weakly. Celora smiled at her.

"No, the wound was just a minor cut," Celora said. "The real problem was that you were already weakened and the poison from the blade was partuicularly strong. I'm surprised you were able to stay on your feet as long as you did. You're very strong, Mikey."

"That's because I'm a woman," Mikey said with a crooked smile. Celora laughed softly.

"We need to get that poison away from her skin and burn it before it affects anyone else" Celora said. She turned to look for Bartolli. "Sir, can you provide some clean water and some clean cloth to make a bandage?"

"See to it," Bartolli said firmly to one of his thieves. The young man ran from the room and returned within a minute with a basin or clean water and a small stack of bandages. Celora smiled at him and the young man stopped and stared in wonder at her. Bartolli slapped the back of his head and the thief ducked and ran from the room only to peek around the door jamb at Celora once more. "I think you have earned at least one admirer, Lady. Your skills are impressive." He smiled at her as he spoke and Celora blushed.

"I merely serve the Light as my goddess commands," Celora said modestly. She set to work mopping up the remaining poison and then washed it from Mikey's pant leg. Celora carefully set the dirtied rags in a small pile on the stone floor, and then washed her hands in the water. Once she was done she warned the others to step away from the rags, and then spoke a single sharply inflected word. The pile of rags burst into flame and disappeared, leaving no ash or mark on the floor. There were several gasps of surprise from around the room.

"Do you think you can stand?" Celora asked Mikey.

"I think so," Mikey responded tentatively. "But I was kinda hoping Niall would carry me." She smiled up at him and then grabbed his collar and pulled him down so she could kiss him. She let him go after several minutes and he reluctantly broke the contact and looked at her fondly.

"What was that for?" He asked.

"What do you think it was for?" Mikey said wryly. "I missed you, even if you are an idiot sometimes. Besides, I had to stake my claim so no one here would get any ideas about poaching." Mikey looked around at the very few women in the room outside their party. A couple of them visibly sighed and looked away. Niall blushed suddenly as he realized what she meant. Mikey laid a hand on his cheek and turned his head back to her. "I was afraid I'd never see you again, my love. If it weren't for Sapphire, I wouldn't be here now." They kissed again, less fiercely than before. This time, when Niall pulled away he saw tears in Mikey's eyes.

"I will have to think of some kind of reward for Sapphire then," he said with a smile.

"A title perhaps?" Mikey said, teasing him.

"Exactly the thing," he answered enthusiastically. "What about Royal Hound?"

"Or maybe First Dog," suggested Cara, laughing.

"I like Fluffy Butt," Ingvar said. Mikey suddenly covered her mouth and began to laugh.

"Minister of Fluffiness," Niall said. Sapphire whined and then walked up behind Niall and nipped his right calf muscle. "Ow! Okay no more jokes about Sapphire. I get it," he said, rubbing his leg. The others all laughed, until Sapphire growled at them too. Then it was Mikey's turn to laugh.

"Sapphire has a very strong sense of dignity," she said. "Don't you sweetie?" Sapphire began to lick Mikey's face, using her body to push Niall away.

"I think perhaps you have some competition for your lady's affection, Niall," Melissa said quietly.

"If Sapphire continues to look out for Mikey as she did today," he told them, "I think I can share." He stroked Sapphire's back and scratched at her ears. "Sapphire, you were a very good dog."

"Master Bartolli," Melissa said. "Before we continue our talk, could we perhaps sit somewhere more comfortable?"

"Of course," he answered. "Why don't we use the private room? There are chairs in there, and we can talk without being interrupted. And that way, my thieves can GET BACK TO WORK!" He roared at them and the thieves began to scramble about going back to their normal tasks. Bartolli chuckled and then led the way through a side door into another room with a long table and chairs.

Niall picked Mikey up off the floor and then supported her as they walked into the room. She was healed of poison and wound, but she would need rest to recoup her normal strength. As they entered the room after the others, Mikey used the time to surreptitiously observe the man that was the image of her beloved father. He was older, of course, but otherwise he looked the same to her eyes. She wasn't sure whether they could trust him, and yet Melissa seemed to be relaxed around him. Even Niall seemed to think he was worth talking to, which surprised her since they had surmised that Bartolli was the one behind the first attempts on their lives.

One of the women brought in a tray of glasses and then returned a moment later with a pair of wine bottles in each hand, which she left on the table before leaving the room and closing the door after her. Apparently, this was a somewhat familiar process to them since no directions were given. Before anyone could pour a glass of wine, Mikey spoke up. "Is that the ‘special' wine?" Bartolli stopped moving, simply looking at her. Then he smiled.

"Now what ‘special' wine would that be love?"

"I suppose you could call it the drugged wine," Mikey said without rancor. "The wine that is served to unruly guests or people that might be worth more to the authorities?"

"I'm shocked at such a suggestion," Bartolli spluttered. The others around the table fell silent, just watching from one to the other as the two thieves danced verbally. "Why, to think that I, a simple businessman, would ever stoop to such a thing. It's indecent, that's what it is."

"Except for the time you used it on that alleged silk merchant that turned out to be a spy for the king," Mikey said matter of factly.

"Oh, aye," Bartolli said with a gleam in his eye. "We got a handsome profit for that bit of work, indeed. But I'm still wondering how such a charming lass as yourself would know about such things. And how you come to be such a master of the blade work."

"I had a good teacher," Mikey said. "I claim thief's sanctuary."

"But you are no thief," Bartolli said. "For one thing, you're a woman. And women are only good for…"

"If you say ‘whoring' you are going to find out first hand just what a master of blade work I really am," Mikey warned in a dangerous tone.

"I don't recommend saying ‘making babies' either, if I were you," Niall said to Bartolli.

"Niall, hush," Mikey said without looking away from Bartolli's eyes.

"Well, you're too clean also," he finished lamely. "No self-respecting thief would bathe that much."

"Obviously not, judging from the odor arising from your end of the table. But some things do change, given the right leadership," Mikey said. "About that sanctuary…"

"Only a thief can claim it," Bartolli said firmly.

"Normally I would ask you to name your challenge," Mikey told him. "But we both know the one thing you've never managed to steal. What would you say about sanctuary if I produced the Emerald Crown?" Bartolli stared at her for several heart beats, and then tipped back in his chair and roared with laughter.

"No man can steal that and live," he said at last. "That is the only reason I haven't done it before now."

"You're probably right," Mikey said with a wistful smile. "No man could, but a woman?"

"I will admit you have a bold career ahead of you as a story teller, lass," Bartolli said scornfully. "Don't even think about stepping in to things that don't concern you. Drink your wine and let me chat with your man here."

"Are you calling me a liar?" Mikey's voice was very low and soft, and yet everyone in the room froze as though expecting violence.

"Not a liar," Bartolli said at last. "I'm calling you touched. You ain't right in the head if you think you can steal the Emerald Crown."

Mikey surged to her feet and plunged a dagger in the wooden table. "I am the Scarlet Rat, Master Thief of Kor Opan," she said in a commanding voice. "Let no one ever doubt my word or my ability." So saying, she loosed the ties on the velvet bag at her waist and slid the Emerald Crown out into the light on the table before her. Bartolli's eyes went wide in surprise and he sat staring at the crown as if struck by lightning from a clear sky.

"I have always believed that no one but a Bartolli could steal that damned crown," he muttered at last. Mikey smiled at him, releasing the tension in the room.

"I think I might echo that statement myself," she told him. "My name is Michaelina Bartolli. In the world I come from, I am the daughter of Kevin Bartolli, and took his place as Guild Master." Bartolli opened and closed his mouth several times, unable to speak. Finally, he laughed until he was wiping away tears.

"Now that is a fine tale," he said when he could breathe. "I almost believed you. I will grant you sactuary and your friends, too, for the price of seeing that crown taken. I don't suppose you'd be willing to leave it with me for safe keeping?" Now it was Mikey's turn to laugh.

"I don't think so, no offense," she said. "Now. I for one could use some real wine. Why not send for something we could all drink safely? Perhaps some sweet mead?" Celora and Ingvar both perked up at the suggestion.

"Very well, since you have my sanctuary, I will play the kindly host," Bartolli said. He pulled at a bell cord. The door opened at once and the woman came back with a selection of mead and wine and then left with the four ‘special' bottles and closed the door once more.

"How'd she know what to bring in?" Niall asked.

"She was listening at the door, like always," said Mikey. "Bethany's always had a bad habit of eavesdropping." Bartolli was staring at her again, and Mikey laughed at the consternation on his face. She was beginning to enjoy this in spite of her earlier misgivings.

They poured the wine, and Bartolli made a show of sipping some from each bottle to put their minds at rest. Mikey laughed as Niall frowned at his glass without tasting it. She took a drink from her own glass of strong red wine and sighed. "Not bad. Is this some of that red from Sammuelson's farm, three years ago?"

"Aye, and just about the last of that batch," Bartolli said. "With the Wraith camped on our doorstep and spying in the city, there hasn't been a lot of wine made for the common folk. If we insisted on buying it, we probably wouldn't have any at all. The mead's a bit easier to find since most of the merchants don't drink it."

"Why hasn't anyone done anything about getting rid of them, then?" Mikey asked. "It's hard to get any serious thieving done without an ample supply of drink to celebrate the take afterwards."

"That's the blessed truth, lass," Bartolli agreed. "I would love to see the Wraith Army driven out and a decent king on the throne again, but we don't have anyone that can do such a thing."

"Don't look at me," Niall said. "I can't stay and rule this place. We still have work to finish for Melissa. And we have a wedding waiting for us when we return to our Kor Opan." Mikey smiled back at him at the reminder. She squeezed his hand but didn't reply.

"Perhaps we should bring our host up to date on who we are and why we are here," Melissa suggested. "Once he has that information we can discuss what we are going to do with it."

"You can try, Melissa," Mikey said with a wry grin. "He won't believe you, but you can try. After all, he didn't believe me, and I'm his own daughter. Oh the heartache I must endure," she pouted. Cara nearly fell out of her chair laughing, and Ingvar spewed some wine.

"Excuse me," Ingvar said, wiping the remains off his chin. Bartolli looked from one to another in bafflement.

"I wish someone would explain," Bartolli said plaintively. "I fear I'm going mad. That's it! None of you are actually here. I've just gone mad."

"I assure you, you haven't gone mad," Melissa told him gently. "And if Michaelina will restrain herself for a time, I will try to explain our story to you. Niall, if she gets out of hand, I give you permission to take whatever action necessary."

"Un-uh, not me," Niall responded. "I don't want a dagger in my foot, or anywhere else."

"You don't have to use force," Melissa said with exaggerated patience. "You could just kiss her or something to distract her."

"Oh yeah," Niall said. "I guess I could do that, couldn't I?"

"Only if Sapphire lets you," Mikey said with an impish grin. "And I still might use my daggers, you never really know."

"Why me?" Niall said.

"There, there," Ingvar comforted Niall with a pat on the shoulder. "Just drink more. It always works for me."

"Who are you people?" Bartolli asked.

"Well, how familiar are you with the local religions?" Melissa asked. "That might save some time."

"I'm not really a temple-going man," Bartolli said.

"Except when the sermon's about charity to the poor," Mikey said.

"Oh yes," Bartolli agreed. "On those days I'm quite pious."

"Oh dear," Melissa said. "This might be harder than I thought." She began telling their story pausing frequently to sip from her glass of wine for comfort. Bartolli's eyes kept getting wider through the tale, and he interrupted to ask questions several times, but it seemed to be getting through to him. Mikey just sat back and watched, enjoying the feeling of being near her father once more. She only interrupted when she felt like getting another kiss from her lord, which came more frequently as she drank more wine.

Melissa's voice went on long as the day faded and night came on. The door opened several times to permit Bethany to bring food and more drink for them all. Eventually, the door stayed open so that the other thieves could listen too. Mikey wasn't sure that any of them believed it, but she had to agree it made a good story.