Lord Tohln laughed long and hard, that very frightening laugh of a man who has drunk to much, yet is completely sober. A few the courtiers laughed nervously with him. As abruptly as his mirth had started, it vanished completely. The titters trailed off, and in the silence that ensued, he leaned forward slowly from that monstrous thing he called a throne.
The girl who stood before him seemed tiny, alone in the middle of the elaborate diamond designs embedded in the marble of the floor. She was made of stark blacks and whites, just like Lord Tohln with his pale white skin and ebony hair. He was really quite a handsome man -- striking, as were all of his family. The black circle the girl stood upon seemed ready to swallow her into its void.
"You claim to be a Rain Queen?" Lord Tohln drawled. To her credit, she did not flinch under the derision that saturated his tone. In fact, her chin lifted the slightest bit. Eye to eye she met him. A Rain Queen if ever there was one, to a mere Lord of men. The faintest of smiles curved her lips.
Alone, amongst those who would kill her, she smiled. I think I fell a bit in love with her in that instant. But that is another story....
Lord Tohln's eyes were intent as he focused on her. The rest of us did not seem to exist anymore as he said, "Make it rain then, my dear. I give you three days. Make it rain."
A languid gesture of his hand, and the "Queen's escort", as he had so mockingly dubbed them, came to lead her back to the cell. I wanted to follow. I wanted to apologize to her, to say something, but as she passed me, her hair bedraggled and knotted, clothes stinking, her thin face even more wane than I remembered, and traces of her ordeals written in every line of her body, she raised her eyes to mine. In that gaze, I saw that same dancing spark from before, that same secretive glint of self-possession, of dignity...it was all still there. There was something else too. No ill between us, she said with that glance, and perhaps it was the twitch of her lips into what could almost (given the situation) be construed as a smile that eased my heart just the slightest, even as it twisted my gut in bitterness at my own naivete that had thus damned her
But that is not the beginning of the tale. Nor is it the end. I am a historian, and as such, I am used to tales having no beginning or end. True tales are always so -- because they do not exist only when men say "Exist!" but instead are always there...reverberating through time in a dance, a weaving, if you will. Only humans try to contain it with beginnings and ends. To put boundaries on everything simply because our own lives are bounded by birth and death. And thus we can seek to lessen the power of what is immortal. True tales have a power of their own though.
It was late spring, dry even then, already. The market square was an oven of sweltering heat as people scurried about, shouted over the din of vendors, dust from the cobbles flew everywhere to clot the throat, and flies feasted upon the foods spoiling in the sun. I whistled as I strode along, wishing I was anywhere but here. I could have gone anywhere...to Eslil - the City of a Thousand Sails, or Mendarin - the Painted City, or any of dozens other places. Cooler places. And yet, every year, I always found myself back here in this city. Madruj, the Golden City - jewel of the northern deserts with its obsidian walls springing from the shining sands. The secret of Madrujan wealth lay in the gold mines secured by the Lords of the city. Legends said there was once a different reason for Madruj being called the Golden City. It is said Madruj used to be surrounded by golden wheat fields, the most fertile land in all the world. A look to the sun-scorched desert was enough to tell anyone that that particular legend had most likely been conjured by Madrujans with heat strokes, not enough water, and too many dreams.
Madruj was a land of legends though. Perhaps that was why I felt compelled to come back here always. I was a storyteller.
As I made my way through the packed crowds, I felt a tug upon my purse. Quickly, I checked for the ink and parchment I had just purchased. Still there. But not so my coins, or my water. With a muttered oath, I whirled, only to find my little thief had been caught. Two of the Guard pulled away a vicious creature, all teeth and flying legs as she fought to either free herself or knock loose the teeth of anyone who managed to get near enough. Long black hair flew about, obscuring her face, and her clothing was made of tattered strips. Plenty of swearing from the Guard, but silence from their captive, punctuated only by occasional gasps. The crowds had parted a bit, though none made a move to help neither girl nor captors. In fact they all did their best to avert their eyes and ignore the scene even as their wide detours acknowledged the fray. Such is the way of Madrujans, known for their almost impersonal attitude to minding one's own business.
Abruptly, she stopped fighting. The Guards tugged her arms back mercilessly. I glimpsed her face for the first time, and was astonished to see she was merely a girl. No more than fifteen years, I would estimate. Her large eyes roved, as if searching for some escape.
I stepped forward, retrieved the pouch with my coins and the waterskin. In times of drought, water was almost as precious as gold. The weathermages tried, but even they had not been able to create a single cloud. "My thanks," I told the Guards, who ignored me as thoroughly as the passersby. "You may release her now." Her eyes instantly shot to me. Surprise glimmered in their depths, and she regarded me with renewed interest.
One of the Guards finally deigned to respond to me. Curtly, he said, "This is for the Lord's jurisdiction."
"She's a child. Let her go. I have my money back. I don't want to press charges on her anyway." I looked towards the girl. Her face was thin, waif-ish, and she looked more like a fae creature than human. Rich black hair tumbled over her shoulders, framing her features with its wealth, tangled now from the scuffle. She appeared undernourished, but not pitiful. I reassessed my initial judgement of her as a "child". A look in those flaring eyes, and one could ever call her a child. I noticed with amusement that one of the Guards nursed the right side of his face, the eye already starting to swell.
The girl's shoulders stiffened, and she stared around acidly. "Release me. I am the Rain Queen."
The Guards appeared started, and suddenly, the one with the injured face broke into gales of laughter. "Pompous l'il one, isn't she?"
My eyes flickered to her once again. She had intrigued me, if nothing else. "Here," I said softly, pressing several coins into the hands of the Guards. I did not bother to count how much. It was enough. They handed the girl to me. "Come on," I told her. She stared distrustfully at me for a moment, angrily. She spluttered. "You're buying me?!"