The deep passages beneath Chang Lao, the Twice-Built City, stretched for sightless miles under the great metropolis. Like the city above them, the cyclopean construction of these shafts had been recut and repurposed over centuries, so that now little trace of any original structure remained. Here and there worn carvings showed cryptic symbols or unsettling images, but only in pieces, scattered now in unrestorable confusion.
Some said the city had originally been a great temple complex, sacred to a long-lost race of half-human creatures. On the surface the city glittered with spectacular stone architecture, one of the great jewels of the Southern Islands, but far below darkness held sway, and cold inhuman stone sat sullen and resentful.
No one knew more than a fraction of these passages. Ancient construction records showed irregular maps, and the labyrinth beneath the city, its sewage tunnels and catacombs and secret vaults, remained a treacherous and fearsome world that few ventured deeply into.
Dust lay in a heavy carpet before a squatting idol, a grinning amphibian with traces of gold in one eye and silver in another. No feet had stirred the dust in centuries. The idol had sat here in utter darkness, unvisited and unrecognized. Its savage grin did not alter as torchlight flickered, illuminating bas-reliefs that had stood respectfully frozen in utter blackness, bowing unseen towards the immense idol.
“Pah. What a dump.”
The tall, dark woman, her black curls shot through with bronze, strode fearlessly down the corridor, dust rising in a cloud around her sandals. She held her torch up high and glanced around disinterestedly at the wall carvings on either side.
Her companion, a small, compact woman with paler skin and blacker hair, followed more fastidiously, holding the hem of her elegant gown above the dust. She took in the idol and surrounding carvings with a piercing, intense gaze.
“Lord Escrawn was one of the wealthiest nobles of the Early Cannibal Period. This tomb is untouched.”
“Unkempt, you mean.”
“I can find no way to express my surprise that you know that word.”
The tall woman chuckled.
“You’re not the only one to crack a book every now and then, Plum Blossom.”
They reached the idol at the far end of the hallway and the shorter women winced at her companion’s form of address.
“You know I don’t like it when you call me that. Now have you remembered the instructions from Fedakarr? To open the antechamber?”
Another chuckle and the tall woman pulled a drawstring pouch from her sash.
“Remember? Me? You should know me better than that. I wrote them down. Right… here…”
She dug in her pouch with a growing expression of dismay as the one addressed as Plum Blossom watched.
Plum Blossom’s name, given in Imperial, was Siu Wai. She and her companion, Jihanna, had been only a few weeks in the great city of Chang Lao before their money had run out and need had driven them to find a source of income. Possessing few resources other than desperation, they had been introduced to a local antiquities dealer named Fedakarr, who knew where many treasures lay amongst the maze of caverns beneath the city. Fedakarr lacked for desperation, however, and so convinced the two women to undertake an expedition on his behalf, combining their desperate courage with his expert knowledge.
Siu Wai watched as Jihanna searched fruitlessly for Fedakarr’s expert knowledge.
“You know,” said the elegant young woman, “I believe the truth is, although few would admit it, that reliability is the most important quality a thief can possess.”
Jihanna, now holding the bag upside down and shaking it, scoffed.
“Reliability? Pah! What about daring, or quick hands, or a cunning wit? Are not these the qualities that ensure success? Reliability, ha!”
“And yet, were I not reliable enough to have memorized Fedakarr’s instructions, how would we now proceed?”
Jihanna dropped the bag into the dust at her feet, glaring at her friend.
“Oh yes, so very clever, Plum Butt.”
Siu Wai scowled but stepped forward and with a deft hand manipulated certain protrusions on the idol’s bandy legs, then stepped back and bowed as the stone between sunk downwards into the floor, revealing a blackness beyond.
Jihanna was about to step eagerly within when a hand on her arm stopped her. Siu Wai spoke quietly, but her dark slanted eyes were filled with worry.
“You remember Fedakarr’s instructions regarding the antechamber, do you not?”
The two women stared at each other for a moment. Siu Wai’s voice, when she spoke, was flat and controlled.
“Jihanna, do you remember Fedakarr’s instructions regarding the antechamber?”
“Well, not as such.”
“Reliability! Honestly, you cannot possibly survive in this trade, much less succeed if you will not exercise some basic–”
“Why don’t you just tell me, instead of lecturing me on my imagined character flaws? You’re just jealous about that captain back at the Yellow Fox.”
“I had no interest in that unkempt old man.”
“Old man? Pah. Just because you only go after beardless children–”
Siu Wai nearly snarled.
“Fedakarr warned us to touch nothing within the antechamber. Nothing! We are to ignore any treasures we may see, and proceed directly to the tomb beyond. Within the tomb, we are welcome to whatever we find, but in this antechamber we must touch nothing. Can you remember that, do you think?”
“Of course. Touch nothing. What could be simpler?”
Siu Wai released Jihanna’s arm. The two women leaned forward as Jihanna thrust her torch into the chamber beyond the slab.
Glints and sparkles and glitters reflected back on all sides. Heaps and piles of coins, gems and beautifully crafted jewelry lay scattered all about the room.
Jihanna’s amber eyes grew round.
“Nothing, Jihanna. Nothing.”
“I know, I know.”
But as they made their way into the room, following the only clear path through the vast riches, it was Siu Wai who found her eye caught. Lying carelessly atop a miniature hilltop of tangled gold chain lay a silver-handled folding fan, its ribs spread wide showing the glorious sky blue of its panels. The hinge at its base had been worked to resemble the mouth of a roaring dragon, and the ribs, she realised were formed as though the majestic beast’s wings.
Jihanna had gotten a little ahead of her, nearly at the vault door leading to the tomb.
Siu Wai stepped onward, but her head turned back and she stared at the beautiful fan once more. With a single precise motion, scarcely visible in the flickering torchlight, she whisked the fan from its golden cradle and slipped it up her sleeve.
“Hey, you coming?”
Jihanna saw only Siu Wai behind her, motionless for a second, and then the Imperial girl came briskly up to the tomb entrance. The former noblewoman smiled.
“Of course. Shall we proceed? Remember Fedakarr’s words about the guardian within.”
One eye of the idol without, the eye that showed faint traces of silver, winked.
“You said you remembered.”
Jihanna shook her head, and then winced as the motion pulled at her wounds. She lifted a hand to press at the gash in her shoulder.
“I’m not sure I actually said that. Anyway, the thing is dead, and we have what we came for. Let us be off.”
Siu Wai’s headshake incurred no painful expression. The smaller woman appeared to have avoided any injury, although she still held a straight, single-edged longknife in one hand, covered in blood.
As Jihanna carried not only several wounds but also a heavy sack over her uninjured shoulder, Siu Wai lead the way with the torch in her knife-free hand. Thus she did not see as Jihanna’s steps faltered.
The dark-skinned swordswoman stared down, at a golden circlet that seemed to have tumbled down out of a large heap of jewelry. Jihanna slumped and fell to her knees, one hand dropping to the dusty flagstones to steady herself.
The golden circlet bounced at the impact, and Jihanna watched in a sort of daze as it snapped around her wrist, joining the dozen bracelets and bangles already sparkling there.
Siu Wai turned and saw her friend collapse. She rushed back.
“Jihanna! My dear, you are too badly injured to carry all this. Give it to me. Come.”
Outside the chamber there was no one to see as the other eye of the idol, this one glittering with remnants of gold plate, winked.
The bigger woman pushed herself upright and grinned.
“It’s nothing. Just tripping over gold. Pah! Tripping over gold; who will believe this story, huh? Let us be on our way, darling Plum Blossom, and enjoy our rewards.”
The two women passed from the antechamber, out from between the legs of the idol, and before long the light of their torch had entirely faded, leaving the passage in darkness.
Did the idol remain motionless in that thunderous darkness? Did it stand, carved of ancient stone by ancient hands, its grinning expression unchanged? Or did it dance silently, unseen?
Hours passed, without a sound to disturb the silence.
A voice must be a sound, surely. And must emanate from a throat, no doubt. So perhaps there must have been someone in the passage when a hissing whisper sniggered.
“At last. These mortals shall fall to our champions, and our reign shall begin anew.”
There must have been a throat.
“I suppose you’ll want a reliable sort of pleasure this evening.”
“Indeed, I see no reason to take risks at this point.”
Jihanna and Siu Wai stood in the Avenue of the Dog Temple, outside Fedakarr’s library. Jihanna’s wounds had been expertly bound, and treated by a learned friend of the antiquarian, and she claimed to feel no pain whatsoever.
“They say a night at Gavarno’s can change your life. Come on!”
“I don’t particularly want my life changed, thank you very much. I quite like my life as it is.”
“Your reliable life. So what’s your big plan, now that we finally have some money to spend?”
“The Emerald Lounge suits my purposes perfectly.”
They glowered at each other.
“Well, I don’t fancy spending an evening watching you lay about with a pipe, leering at children.”
“The thought of watching you throw yourself at withered old pimps pleases me no more, I assure you.”
Jihanna turned and stormed away. Siu Wai watched her friend head off downhill towards the water, and after the tall lanky figure disappeared in the evening fogs, turned and headed in the opposite direction.