Saphir moved with grace and stealth, her closest sisters. It wouldn’t do to be recognized even at this late hour. Nothing but her green eyes and wisps of red hair were readily visible. Her thin frame was wrapped in multi-colored veils that blended with the darkness like the children of shadows.
No respectable woman would stroll the finer avenues of Zarahemla after dark, let alone the river-quarter. Here villains and rogues congregated in taverns, carnivals and drug-dens, all of the filth eventually sliding into the River Sidon with a sickening gasp.
Saphir had no such qualms, it was business. Carrier pigeons brought word of a mandatory meeting with Boaz, “the Profit”, dealer of all things both legal and permanently borrowed. She crept through the door of the usual place, a tavern so old and forgotten only the Three Disciples might remember the name, and they hadn’t been seen themselves in quite some time.
The Profit, sat at his usual table, gulping soup. His bodyguards sat at the table across the aisle. Boaz, a heavy-set man, decorated his long black-beard with gold and turquoise beads woven into braids. His crafty eyes narrowed and a smile spread as Saphir approached.
“Saphir, whose name means beautiful, has a heart, ugly and cold as Desolation in winter,” said Boaz. “It’s a wonder your very touch doesn’t freeze me to the bone.”
“You think I would touch you? The only thing more repulsive is your stench.”
“But here we are,” he said, grinning. “I’ve a job for you, Queen of Thieves.”
The title flattered more than she wished to admit.
“I have it on good account, that a holy relic is to be removed from the Tower of Sherrizah in one week. They’re going to open that celestial vault for the first time in decades, remove its few treasures. This is the last opportunity to steal it before it’s lost, buried in the earth, forgotten,” said Boaz.
“Why do you care? Profit, you’re no believer.”
“Of course I’m not, couldn’t fence the relic if I wanted too, but the Grand Master, wants them.”
“He wants them?” she asked. “Why not use his people?”
Boaz shrugged, “Gadiantons have been lying low these last few weeks. Most are gone from the city.”
“As are the Chief Judges most prized guardsmen,” she added.
“Gadiantons asked for you specifically.”
She bit her lip beneath the veil. Most clients were wealthy merchants and nobles. They would have her steal various treasures to appear more prestigious than each other. Sometimes it was information and on occasion something more. Gadiantons never employed her, too insulted that she would not join them. But why pay a tithe to the order when she could keep it all for herself? She had gotten along just fine without their help or employment, why accept it now? It could only come with hidden shackles attached.
“No, I won’t work for Gadiantons. They want to entice me to join their order with a big score, don’t they?”
Boaz’s smile faded like sunset, slow then dark. “Saphir, enough games. You’ve gone your own way for years, you have a reputation. Things are changing, you can’t avoid them. They want you to do the job and join their ranks or else.”
“Or else what?”
“They know who your family is. Your brothers and sisters, Helaman, Mariah, Gideon and little Ari, they told me. If you don’t do this, Gadianton assassins will pay your family a visit. I always said you can’t keep secrets forever.”
“What do they want?”
“Go to the Tower, retrieve the Interpreter, bring it back. You’ll be paid and ordained into the order. It’s very simple, why fight it? You know which way the wind is blowing.”
“Yea, women aren’t meant to be alone. Think on it,” he said, with a yellowed grin as he groped for her.
With a feline’s grace and speed, Saphir reached across the table taking hold of the Profit’s bejeweled beard with her left hand. Her right hand arced a blade grasped tight and true.
Boaz closed his eyes tight.
Saphir’s knife took the beard from his chin. She dropped the golden braids in his soup and turned to leave. One of the bodyguards got up but Saphir forced him down with a violent wrist-lock. The other bodyguard thought better of interfering.
“If anything happens to my family.”
“You’ll do nothing,” Boaz chuckled to hide his fear. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but Gadiantons already have them. Do the job if you want to see them again.”
Eyes blazing a silent fury, Saphir slid out the backdoor, as Boaz lamented for a barber.
Returning to her home, silence reigned where she should have been greeted with multiple snores. None should have known this was her families home. Signs of struggle littered the floor. They had trusted her to care for them and now their young lives hung in critical balance. Saphir pounded against unfeeling walls before collapsing in tears.
She would do whatever it took for the children’s return. Writing a brief encoded message, she attached the note to a carrier pigeon and released the bird. Packing her special tools and rations for two weeks, she wondered if her dead parents could ever have imagined this dire predicament for their children.
Saphir changed into simple traveling clothes: a white silk blouse and flared black breeches, common enough, if she were a man. She boarded a river-merchant’s ship to take her down the Sidon to the forks, where the Bountiful River feeds the Sidon.
On the journey Saphir calculated she would lose three to four days if luck prevailed, and as much as six days if the rowers were lax. Such ships had a full compliment of men to row upstream when the sails couldn’t do the job. Most men who did such back-breaking labor were not slaves but debtors and released criminals who could find little else for work.
Saphir recalled that if she lacked useful talents she could have belonged to a debtors camp herself. If she failed on this and the Gadiantons let her siblings live, they would certainly end in the orphanage and then debtor camps. There was no justice under the rule of Judges, except perhaps from the fanatical Chief Judge. But she could never expect mercy from the leader of that antiquated church. Thinking of her family held by Gadiantons, Saphir steeled herself not to cry until sure that no one could see.
“What’s this? A doe-eyed girl with tears, such a beauty shouldn’t be weeping,” said a tall dark-haired man with a trim goatee. He wore a fine red cloak and an even finer sword on his belt. “She should be smiling, it’s a fine day.” He smiled but his teeth, white and predatory, reminded her more of a wolf than man.
“Be off, I’ve no time for false swordsmen.”
“But we have only just met on this most glorious day.”
“Or weak poet’s.”
“I’ll tell you one truth or two, dear lady. I am no false swordsman. I know why you are journeying to Sherrizah,” he said with eyes blazing some hidden emotion she couldn’t read.
“Do tell before I call your bluff, you scarlet-coated Nimrod.”
“You cut me to the quick. If only my sword had your tongue’s sharpness. But in truth I am a mighty hunter, sent to keep an eye on you,” he said showing those dazzling teeth.
“Are you to help, hinder or merely report on me…Errand-boy?”
He stifled a laugh. “My name is Mithradates of Antionum. I am a proud son of Zoram. I was to watch and report upon your progress, but I’ve had a change of heart.”
“I thought Gadiantons sacrificed their hearts to Cain on the full moon. Even I won’t hazard a guess at what Zoramites sacrifice.”
His smile dimmed. “I saw the children and knew I could not be a party to that. They look like you, long red curls and bright green eyes. I couldn’t hurt them. I swore to help you, for their sake.”
“What of your bloody oaths? Once a Gadianton always a Gadianton, so they say.”
“Times are changing,” said Mithradates.
“For the worse,” laughed Saphir.
“The Chief Judge vowed to break the Gadiantons into a thousand pieces.”
“You have to catch them first.”
“He will, he is wise, and I’m wise enough to change.”
Her gaze pierced him. “You would risk the blood oath for children you’ve never met and a beautiful thief? You’re a liar, what do you say to that?”
“Trust a stranger I just met? No thanks. I was promised if I completed the theft and gave it to ‘the Profit ’, I’d be inducted into the Gadiantons,” said Saphir.
“Promises and oaths mean nothing but to another Gadianton. They mean to eliminate an embarrassment, the Queen of Thieves, the most successful thief in all of Zarahemla and beyond.”
Saphir laughed, this time with actual humor rather than spite. “Queen of Thieves, paid my vanity more than it ever did in gold limnah’s. I’m not half so wealthy as you might think. I give most all my spoils to the poor of Zarahemla. Those that the rich and haughty trod upon. I rule no one and no one rules me.”
“That’s why you must let me help you. Let us retrieve the Interpreter, get the children back and then cut ourselves from the Gadianton chain. They plan on slaying you once you return,” said Mithradates. “You’re going to need someone on your side, and here I am.”
“You really want to help me? Give me space the rest of the voyage to Beersheba, we can talk on the ride to Sherrizah, agreed?”
Mithradates nodded and left her there on bow alone with her thoughts.
The ship made good time down the Sidon to the junction of rivers, but it was slow going up the east-forking Bountiful River. Nothing for Saphir to do but think, scheme and stroke the ship’s cat. It helped pass the time to mull things over with the scrawny beast. Mithradates was always nearby, but never spoke again.
None had ever succeeded in theft regarding the massive Tower of Sherrizah. There was not a taller building in the Nephite world. It dwarfed even the watchtowers of Bountiful, Manti and Zarahemla. Saphir wondered if she was meant to fail. What if Mithradates was right that the Gadiantons had planned this to eliminate competition? He was handsome and charming, but a darkness speared his soul. Wasn’t it fair to say one darkened hers as well? If only the cat would answer, she mused.
After five days, the ship anchored at the town of Beersheba. Saphir sauntered down the gangplank to complete her journey. It was early and Mithradates still slept. She decided to be rid of him rather than wait. Who needs a lazy man?
Browsing over the stables, Saphir purchased the swiftest horse she could find, a buckskin mare with strong legs. She paid more than she thought the animal was worth, because there was no time to haggle. Preparing to ride south, her friend, the ship’s cat announced herself. Scooping the scraggly black cat up to her waiting arms, the three rode away with all possible speed.
Numerous times Saphir allowed the horse to rest while she and the cat walked. Knowing she could not reach the city of Sherrizah until well after dark, Saphir found a campsite a not far from the road. In a copse of trees she rolled out a blanket and ate a light meal sharing with the cat.
“Tomorrow we’ll be in Sherrizah and I’ll know if my plan will work. If it doesn’t then,” she trailed off stroking the cat.
She fell asleep beneath bleak stars, worrying if her siblings were scared and when she could see them again. Nightmares slithered up beside, feeding off her warmth and fear. In the night she thought she heard the cat hiss once and go silent, but sleep demanded obedience and she submitted.
As the dawn broke grey and dreary, she noticed an unfamiliar shape beneath her blankets. Pulling them back, a flickering black forked tongue and rattle left no doubt.
“That’s a big one,” said Mithradates, out of nowhere.
“When did you get here?” asked Saphir, never taking her eyes off the venomous serpent. Its tongue shot out continually testing the air.
“I just got here. I was watching you sleep. I was about to wake you. This is a good example of why you should have waited,” said Mithradates.
“I thought you could take a hint. I didn’t need your help.”
“So do you need help now?”
Saphir frowned, inching back ever so slightly. The snake coiled closer.
“It wants your warmth,” said Mithradates, drawing his sword. It was a fine silvery blade with a slight curve, an educated fighting-mans weapon. He stalked to Saphir’s right.
The slit-yellow eyes watched, tail rattling furious.
Saphir twitched and the snake faced her, positioning to strike.
Mithradates’ sword, cold lightning in his hand, separated the snake from its wedge-shaped head.
Leaping back, Saphir kicked the serpent’s body away. “Why did you follow me?”
“Is it so shameful of me? I like you,” he said, extending her a hand.
Ignoring the gesture, she stood and said, “You know nothing about me.”
“I know enough.”
She broke camp and he saddled her horse. “Where is my cat?”
Calling for the cat brought no response. Once mounted, Saphir scanned the tall grass and woods beside the camp. A black shape lay lifeless nearby.
Jumping from her horse, Saphir cradled the still thing.
“Looks like the serpent got her,” said Mithradates. He pulled a dagger out and dug a trench. He tenderly took the cat from Saphir, placed it in the grave and covered it over with earth. “I’m sorry. Did it have a name?”
“No,” she whispered. They mounted their horses. “Thank you,” she said, before steeling herself yet again.
“Amazing is it not? Makes the Rameumptom ruins look like a child’s footstool in comparison. And I am a proud Zoramite saying this.”
“I didn’t think saying you were humble as a Zoramite would carry any weight,” laughed Saphir.
They stood on the rim of a great valley, gazing up at the grey stone colossus. The towers shadow forever fell and circled a part of the city of Sherrizah, Saphir imagined the town’s people kept time by the momentous shade.
“Construction began by Sherrizah two hundred years from the sign in the heavens. It took forty years to finish. Old Sherrizah said it would be the greatest temple to the Lord ever. It’s almost too bad the Three Disciples denounced it as a vain abomination to the Lord,” said Mithradates. “But some people just cannot appreciate great art.”
“I know they prophesied it would fall,” said Saphir.
“Nay, good lady, look at it. Resting on the base of a firm hill, its foundation is strong and sure. The tower is a hundred paces square at the bottom and almost twice that in height to the pinnacle, a holy of holies unrealized.”
“Just because Sherrizah built a grand tower doesn’t mean everyone should put their treasures in it,” scoffed Saphir.
“Well, some did. An Interpreter belonging to some old soothsayer or other, treasures of gold and silver, even some records. But it has remained sealed since the builder’s death.”
“It is a monument to nothing,” snapped Saphir. “Everyone knows all the real treasures are hidden elsewhere. All I want is the Interpreter, trade it to ‘the Profit’ for my siblings’ safe return and I’m done.”
Mithradates glanced at her curious. “What about the Gadiantons? They will not let things go.”
“I’ll not let things go either, but first I have to see to their safety,” snapped Saphir. “Let’s ride. I’ve a friend who’ll grant us more information to get inside. If you still want to help me.”
Mithradates smiled. “Of course I do, my lady.”
The Snorting Curelom was not the finest of establishments; torn leather curtains drooped at the windows and an irritating sickly-sweet smell asphyxiated the tavern air. Greasy men played with even grimier cards at all but a few tables as serving girls brought flagons of wine. Pipe-smoke filled the air, nauseating Mithradates and Saphir.
“Why must we wait in this sty?” muttered Mithradates. “This stench may adhere to me permanently.”
“I told my friend I’d be in the seediest tavern, there’s no doubt this is it.” She smiled at his discomfort. “Hasn’t someone of your vocation been in many taverns like this before?”
“Not if I could help it,” said the swordsman. “Look at this fop,” he gestured at a short bug-eyed man walking through the door wearing a ridiculously bright green shirt. “He looks like the deranged offspring of a frog and a Lemuelite.” Surprise struck Mithradates when the man waved to him and came closer.
“That is my friend, Paanchi,” said Saphir. “Be kind to him.”
“Saphir,” greeted Paanchi, “Sorry I’m late. Horses don’t like me you know.” He gave Saphir a hug and eyeballed Mithradates with obvious sourness. “Since when do you need a flamboyant swordsman by your side?”
Saphir frowned. “Paanchi, be nice.”
“Flamboyant? Have you seen your shirt?” shot Mithradates. “And you asked me to be kind to the frogman.”
“Enough, we needn’t draw attention, let’s go outside,” said Saphir.
Paanchi looked down his nose at Mithradates and followed Saphir outside, strutting like a proud hen. They went to the stable to be alone.
As Paanchi pulled scrolls from his saddle bags, Mithradates asked Saphir, “What is his problem?”
“He doesn’t have a problem, he just gets picked on a lot,” she said, as Paanchi opened a scroll.
“This is everything I was able to find on the tower’s plans. I think your usual method will work best, though this is much taller,” he said with genuine concern.
“What is at the top for entry?” asked Saphir.
“The roof is wood, shingled with copper. It’s green with age and could be very slick. I’ll bet you could pull them up smashing your way in,” suggested Paanchi.
“I don’t smash my way into anything.”
“There is a window. I’m sure it’s shuttered and barred, but I know you could get in that way. The top is where the Interpreter should be kept along with any other things of interest,” said Paanchi, pointing at the opened scrolls dust laden drawings.
“Nothing else matters now except the Interpreter and getting the children back. I won’t burden myself with anything else,” said Saphir.
“What is the usual method?” asked Mithradates.
“Ugh, why do you even have this bearded war-monger with you?”
“Paanchi, that’s enough. My business is my own,” snapped Saphir. “He wants to help.” She took the scroll from Paanchi and stared at the ancient inked lines.
Frowning, Mithradates asked, “War-monger? What are you speaking of toadling?”
“You carry a sword,” said Paanchi, shaking his head as if that answered everything.
“So, you are part of the problem. As long as people in this world make and carry swords there will never be peace,” said Paanchi.
Mithradates stifled a chuckle.
“Oh ha-ha, you think I’m funny? He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”
“You forget peace-frog, those who don’t live by the sword can die by them too.”
“Some of us prefer to use our minds. We are above such pettiness.”
“She,” Mithradates pointed at Saphir, “carries a pretty big knife, or didn’t you notice?”
“Knives can be used in kitchens. There is only one thing a sword is good for is maiming and hurting other human beings. I don’t hurt people,” said Paanchi.
“You’re trying to hurt my feelings, peace-frog,” laughed Mithradates.
Saphir had been intently studying the drawing of the tower and realized their argument.
“No more either of you!”
“You know I am here to help you, what role does peace-frog play?”
“He is a resident scribe at the library of Hearthom-Hem in Bountiful, and has assisted my acquisitions for many years. Few know more of ancient relics and artifacts than Paanchi, so please, if you can’t be kind, be silent,” said Saphir.
The two men, polar opposites in almost every way conceivable relented and just gave each other frowns the rest of the evening.
Night unfolded with deafening silence and even the boisterous patrons of the Snorting Curelom went quiet by midnight, drowning in their ale or tears. Three shadows traced from the stables toward tower hill. They crept past dozing city watchmen and raccoons stealing garbage. Somewhere a lonely dog howled a mournful tone of doom.
Avoiding moonlit streets, the three came to the backside of the tower’s log palisade wall. The tower didn’t need a palisade wall to defend it but the practice had been traditional since at least the days of Captain Moroni. The only entrance had a pair of guards leaning upon their spears.
“It will be no problem to use them up,” whispered Mithradates.
“See how he is? Sword-wielders, all they do is lust for blood,” said Paanchi.
“I suppose peace-frog, you would rather I say I cannot handle them.”
“Silence,” intoned Saphir. She didn’t like that Mithradates used the slang of assassins but it was just talk.
“Besides, I never said kill. I could just cripple them.”
“Why must it involve pain?”
“Silence,” ordered Saphir. “We stick to the plan. Mithradates and I will take them out, you will keep watch, Paanchi.” Throwing back her cloak, Saphir handed Paanchi her bag of equipment and took a wine bottle and proceeded to act intoxicated and stumble toward the pair of guards. Paanchi stayed where he was, while Mithradates, still enveloped in night, followed closely behind. It made her feel protected knowing he was there.
“Dear friends,” Saphir slurred, “am I glad to see you. Is this where Judge Zebulon lives?” She smiled waving her bottle slightly. Despite her unkempt appearance, her beauty was not lost on the two sleepy guardsmen.
“Afraid not doll, this here is the tower. You best be getting along,” said the first.
The second was still watching her with appreciation.
“Alright have a little bit of a drink with me first, huh?”
“No thank you, mum,” said the first again, “Its against orders, we’re on duty.”
“Ten years we’ve had this post and in ten years how many times has anything happened?” snarled the second. “I’ll tell you never. We’ve a fool’s job we do. Bring it here lass. I’ll have a drink with you.”
She handed him the wine skin which he greedily gulped. The first guardsman almost protested but could see it was too late.
Smiling at Saphira the guard took another pull on the skin and collapsed in a heap. Before the other could believe his own surprise, Mithradates leapt from the darkness like a panther, pummeling the guard into brutal submission.
Sizing up each of them, Mithradates took the one he struck and stripped him of his cloak and helm. He then tied and gagged the man and moved him around the other side of the wall. He propped the drugged guard against the gate so he appeared to be sleeping.
Saphir was grateful for his willingness and even his jealousy of Paanchi’s friendship. It was new to have a man who looked out for you.
Paanchi arrived putting the cloak and helm on. Not an imposing guardsman by anyone’s standards but in the dark he would at least seem conscious. He placed a blue lens in front of a slot on his lamp so he could signal Saphir if need be.
Saphir and Mithradates raced up the steps. The dark tower reached into the night above them making all seem insignificant before it. A great oaken door was wrapped with bands of iron, rusting at the edges. The lock mocked them, its size was stunning.
“At least we can tell none has opened it.”
“It’s as I hoped,” said Saphir, digging into her pack and producing curious iron implements.
“So that is your secret,” mused Mithradates. “Climbing gear beyond anything I have ever seen.”
“They are my own special design, nothing else is even close.”
Two feet pieces went over her buckskin boots. These had thin forks of iron protruding from the toe kicks. Upon her hands she had gauntlets with claw-like appendages that were still narrow enough to fit into the tiny crevices in the stone tower.
“You have done this many times?”
“Yes, but never anything this tall. It will take all my strength to reach the top.”
“You could let me try.”
“No, my family, my duty. I’ll come down the stairs and out when I’m done.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Saphir didn’t know if she was caught up in the excitement of the greatest thievery ever yet attempted or if she was truly feeling something for him but she turned and kissed him before attacking the wall.
Taken aback he responded in surprise.
All the way up the staggering wall, she pondered why she had done such a thing. Left foot in crevice and why had she done that? Right hand up and pull and what a fool she was echoed again and again.
Twice on the ascent she had to stop and rest, clinging to the cool stone for a few moments. That no one had been where she was since it was constructed, was a sobering thought. Looking down she could faintly see Mithradates watching her. Paanchi was almost invisible beside the lamplight.
In a rhythm she forged ahead, surprising herself when she struck her head on the eve of the overhanging roofline. Having to go sideways about the tower she came to the shuttered window. The green paint was sun-faded rendering it almost unrecognizable.
This was the hardest spot for her to have purchase on the tower and pushing on the shutter almost made her lose balance with the crevices, but then a snap inside sent the shutters flying inward.
Clambering inside, she could see the bar had dry-rotted and snapped with her pressure.
Taking off her climbing gear she adjusted to the gloom and was amazed. The chamber was filled with everything from stacks of senines and limnahs, to chests overflowing from Sherrizah’s investors. More wealth sat forgotten here than she had ever seen before.
Lighting a wall sconce, Saphir gazed over the chamber looking for the Interpreter. Against the far wall a box looked out of place among the treasures. A power emanated from within. Opening the lid, a clear egg-shaped stone lay upon a purple cloth.
Holding the stone up she could see the brass coins hidden amongst the gold and silver, the dross covered by a veneer of precious metal. Near everything here was a counterfeit or fake, even the tower itself was not so sturdy as it appeared. The weakness in the foundation was readily apparent.
She wondered if the stone could show her truth. Saphir felt a shock coursing through her. She remembered her first bits of thievery in the Zarahemla market, the first apple she took, first purse of gold she filched, first kiss she stole. All came in a wave consuming her. She then remembered her parent’s love, their hope expressed when she was young. What they taught her mattered again.
Saphir went down the steps in a daze, until faced with the door. Turning the massive ingenious lock took effort and it spun about as she pushed it asunder. Curious, things could be locked in?
Swinging the door open, she faced Mithradates.
Saphir held the stone up to look and saw the darkness wafting from him like smoke.
“You did it. You took my family away, you even killed my cat,” she gasped.
His face, once a mask of stone, curled into a sinister smile. “That is a useful tool. I was right to plan this.”
“If you desire it, give me back my family.”
“I can’t. I sold them into slavery. They’re down the Sidon by now to Tarshish or Gad.” He laughed and drew his sword. “Give me the Interpreter.”
“No. I need it to find them.”
“Fool girl, give it or die.”
“You mean to do that anyway.”
His lips curled. “Yes.”
They stood facing one another in impasse.
Then a creak gave away Paanchi’s attack. He tackled Mithradates from behind, knocking him forward but by not out of the fight. The bigger man turned, cutting Paanchi across the ribs. Wheeling back to Saphir, he blocked her thrown knife with nary a moment to lose.
“You can’t beat me,” he said kicking Paanchi, while staring daggers at Saphir.
“Why,” she whispered.
“I wanted to see what you could do, so many tales sing of your cleverness and glorify you. I didn’t believe them.”
“Do you now?”
“Ha, no. Queen of Thieves, my Cumom.”
“Alright, you can have the stone,” she said.
“No,” muttered Paanchi.
Mithradates cocked an eyebrow at her surrender. “Keep your hands where I can see them. No hidden daggers or tricks.”
“You see my hands.”
He stepped closer and reached. She flung the stone in his face and took his hand in a wrist lock, wrenching him inside the tower while still dazed. Slamming the mammoth door shut, she breathed and waited. The lock was flipped and Mithradates was sealed inside.
Muffled poundings availed nothing and he went silent.
Saphir picked up the Interpreter then helped Paanchi up. “You alright?”
“I think so, it’s not deep.”
Saphir studied the stone then looked to Paanchi, her eyes a new resolve. “Good. Let’s wake the town to the prisoner inside and be away. The stone says, the children are in Tarshish. We should find them in a week and heaven help their jailers,” said Saphir, brandishing Mithradates sword.
Paanchi nodded. “Where are your climbing shoes?”