“Where’s the Exit?”
The sounds of the party faded as Nat made her exit. A flock of gulls gliding off into the distance, far away from the beach.
At some point the chatter always got to Nat, burrowing into her brain like a crab in soft sand. Mingling was part of the job. Gliding amongst the city’s most puffed up gulls with their glossy, perfect feathers and extravagant plumage. Still, the chatter eventually became white noise.
The sharif who’s gala Nat had crashed owned a good amount of the property at the waterfront and most of the boats coming into the bay carrying cargo were also his. And he was occupied at the moment.
Surrounded by attendants and sycophants, everyone sweating liquor, the sharif had his guards busy. They pulled away those guests annoying the greasy man and ushered the prettiest and well liked to his side to recline on pillows and entertain him. And those guards stationed at the exits leading away from the grand room were nearly half asleep at this late hour. Nat had no problem slipping out of the room and down a hallway.
The compound was large, a maze of corridors with polished floors and lit braziers. Nat had pulled her slippers off and was padding through the corridors. Although a twisty, turning mess of dead ends and numerous doors, Nat had memorized the layout.
She found the spiraling stairs that spun up the compound’s main tower.
To the top, she told herself.
For a hundred steps, the tower’s spiraling staircase rose with no breaks. After a dedicated climb, Nat found lavish hallways decorated with art and gleaming bobbles. Doors were spaced far apart, denoting large quarters for the sharif’s most beloved family members.
Still Nat climbed quietly.
She climbed passed another dizzying four level breaks before reaching the top.
The stairs curved and ended at a single hallway, more an entry area. Round and austere except for a pair of giant doors.
Nat tried the handles of those doors. Neither door moved to permit her entry. Locked.
A smile curved onto Nat’s lips.
At least the night will have some challenge.
From her hair she pulled several pins. Anchors and picks disguised as lock picks. Her red locks spilled down her amber shoulders as the fake accessories ceased to hold her hair up.
Nat knelt and began to work on one of the locks.
Within several heartbeats she had the lock clicking and one door swinging open.
Nat’s breath caught in her throat.
The door opened and the sun assaulted her eyes, making her squint.
While the sharif had not gone out of his way to have the foyer outside his personal chambers decorated, he’d saved his ostentatious taste for his quarters. The entire room was open to the world. The day’s sunset reached in and blessed the circular space. Wind from the harbor’s bay blew through, fluttering gossamer curtains, brushing Nat’s skin with briny, chilly air that soured her nose and dabbled her flesh with goosebumps. Every surface in the room reflected the sunset, turning the room a gleaming gold.
Nat stepped into the room at some point and had closed the doors, but she couldn’t remember doing so.
All nobility in the city had estates with tall towers; the better to rise above the stink of the commons and the fish markets, to divine to touch the world of the immortals. Nat had stolen from many. She’d seen many a bedchamber, study, war room… But this sharif had styled himself more grandly than others. Everything was gold or silver, reflecting the light. The ceiling had thinly hammered tiles with intricate swirls and patters. The floor was speckled with stones that twinkled with the light. Ahead of the entrance a fountain gurgled with clear water. Lush plants grew from the corners. Marble statues carved of the most beautiful and unashamed models made Nat blush. There were even carvings of animals. So lifelike.
Nat approached a nearby statue of a striped tiger. The statue lounged near the sunken fountain. She reached out a hand to touch the surface of the stone big cat.
The statue purred at her, its very real fur dancing with the current breeze.
Nat slowly back away from the tiger, quickly noticing with relief the studded collar around the beast’s neck and the chain. Thankfully, the beast hadn’t stirred.
Exhaling a shuttering breath, swiping sweat from her brow, Nat decided she’d best be about her business. No more touring the sharif’s rich quarters.
Get the valuables not nailed down and get out, she told herself.
Nat drifted through the open air apartment. Casually snatching trinkets, gems, and any valuables no larger than her fist. Within moments her arms were full.
A portrait hanging on an inner wall suddenly snagged Nat’s attention as she took up a gem encrusted goblet and poured out the wine onto the floor.
That’s not his wife, Nat concluded as she examined the portrait, her memory running down a list of the sharif’s household.
But the subject of the portrait mattered little. Nat recognized the artist’s hand. From the thick brushstrokes to the use of muted colors, and the soft details. This was a Panero work. The little man never came down the mountains these days, even for the most prestigious of commissions. The portrait was a rare thing.
All at once Nat placed her haul’s burden on the floor and from beneath her scarlet dress flicked out a knife. From where did she take the knife? A lady never tells.
Nat went to the portrait and very carefully sliced the canvas free from its frame.
Somewhere behind her she heard a large yawn.
A glance over her shoulder showed her the collared tiger waking. A black tongue licked its chops and whiskers as it tasted the air sleepily.
Carefully and slowly Nat took down the portrait of the mystery woman and placed it on the floor face up. She put all of her haul on the portrait and rolled the contents with the canvas.
From a glorious four poster bed piled high with pillows she snatched two tethers pulling back silk curtains. These Nat used to bind closed the rolled portrait, the contents within safe. The two tethers she also tied together to make a strap, which she slung over one shoulder.
The tiger noticed Nat by then and knew her for an intruder.
The stripped big cat bounded up to four paws as large as Nat’s head.
Time to go. Nat knew her time when she’d used up her time.
The tiger let out a growl louder than any alarm that had ever chased Nat away from a job. The beast then leaped at Nat without a second warning. She took two steps back but the tiger wasn’t even close to catching her with those big, deadly paws.
Uneasy laughter tickled Nat’s throat. “Not today, kitty,” Nat teased the beast as she planned her route to–
The doors to the sharif’s private quarters burst open.
Two guards dressed in party finery flowed in to the room. Eyes behind smooth, featureless masks scanned the room. One guard raised a scimitar. The second presented the leaf-shaped blade of a spear.
Within less than a heartbeat the guards spotted Nat.
“What are you doing in here?” one asked with suspicion.
In her most lightheaded tone, Nat answered with: “Why, me? I suppose… Well I don’t rightfully know! Dear. I most of gotten–”
The guard with the spear pointed the lead blade at Nat’s shoulder and said, “Hey! What’s that you’re carrying?”
Quicker than his friend, the guard with the scimitar answered: “She’s a thief!”
Nat rolled her eyes and sighed.
Shaking himself awake, the spear guard lunged forward and toward Nat. He was careful not come within swiping distance of the tiger. His spear appeared in the space where Nat had stood a second ago.
She rolled away to safety, the rolled bundle on her back clinking and clattering. She hoped none of the merch was denting.
The blade of the guard’s spear cut the air above Nat’s head, slicing through a couple strands of red hair.
The suddenness of the attack nearly made her miss the scimitar, which the other guard brought down at her. The curved blade’s tip bit into the marble between her feet when she leaned back and away.
With her knife, Nat cut at the guard. He pulled his weapon from the tile flooring and fell back out of the short range. His friend leapt in and slammed the butt of his spear at Nat’s head. The shaft’s end clipped the side of her head and the world tipped, sound fuzzed. She stumbled. The spear guard moved quickly to push his shaft against Nat, intending to press her to the floor and choke her.
Against the tilting of the room, Nat moved, kicking out at the spear and pushing herself away. She danced drunkenly out of the scimitar’s reach. The tiger growled as Nat came close enough to peer into the beast’s slitted eyes.
Nat fell to the floor and into a forward roll, ducking a paw and four claws that grazed the air along her back. She heard a rip and felt the air touch her ice-cold back.
Rolling behind the tiger, she saw the guards closing in on her. The tiger momentarily lost track of the redheaded thief and spotted the guards, who halted in their tracks. The tiger focused on the guards. Strained against its tether.
Nat came out of her roll near the chain securing the tiger to the fountain. The world had righted itself with clarity.
Sudden inspiration came to the thief. Nat slammed the point of her knife into the tile and between a link in the tiger’s chain. The wide blade cut into the metal link. Nat wiggled, levered, and bent the chain until the link’s cut spread and the link snapped.
The tiger didn’t hesitate. Closest to its reach, it pounced on the guard with the spear and began to rip and tear at first armor than flesh. Nat turned away from the blood and gore and focused on the double doors leading out of the posh quarters.
More guards pounded up the stairs to cut off Nat’s exit.
She cursed. She looked around. The only way out was the wraparound balconies and the long way down.
“And me without my ropes and climbing claws.” Nat cursed herself for not having a backup plan. “How did things go so tits up?”
The guard with the scimitar made her decision clear…
He rushed at her with the handle of his blade gripped in both hands, raised high over his head, ready to chop.
Nat came to her feet at a sprint and angled toward the nearest balcony.
She spread her arms as she went through the archway, pushing away the drapery to either side. The last kisses of warmth from the dipping sun touched her skin.
Two feet away, Nat jumped forward and hurtled herself over the stone railing. Behind her she felt her dress pulling, just a tug.
In the open air Nat twisted her body so she looked at the dimming sky and the guard with his outstretched hand reaching in vane for her. In that split moment when the world slows and pauses, Nat grinned widely at the guard with his wide-eyed expression, raised her arms, bent her elbows, and showed him her two middle fingers. Then the air fell out from underneath her. Below she could smell the sea and she took in a deep lungful of air.