Note: If this seems to end abrubptly, it's because it's only supposed to follow Xahra's early life. It sort of ends where I began playing.
Razka Bitezor sat quietly against the wall of the Tink N’Babble as he sipped on his second bottle of Cabilis Pale Ale. The stresses of being a new father were weighing heavily on him, and he often had to take such ‘rejuvenating’ trips to the bar to help him cope. His work had suffered, his relationship with his wife had suffered, and their child’s disposition was getting worse every day instead of better. He found it rather ironic that drinking was what kept him sober.
He was not looking forward to work the next day. He had twelve hours before he had to be there, but he doubted many of those hours would be occupied by sleep. Since little Xahra had been born, he had averaged an hour or two of sleep a night, three if he was inordinately lucky. No, work would not be fun tomorrow. He finished the last of the bottle. He thought about whether or not he should get a third drink. Two was his usual, but he was rather tired tonight, so he stood to get a third from the bar.
“Razka!” he heard from the entrance. “Razka, is that you?”
Razka knew the voice. An hour earlier, he would have been able to place it, but his thoughts were mildly clouded by the alcohol now. But as soon as he saw the tall, proud Iksar who stood in the doorway, he put a name to the voice.
“Xakir? Xakir Shadowscale?”
“I’m pleased to see that you remember me, Razka,” said the other Iksar, a smile playing around his lips.
“How could I forget?”
“Well, it’s been fifteen years, Raz.”
“It has,” he said, still smiling. “Would you mind if I joined you? I’d love to catch up.”
“Not at all, sir,” Razka replied.
“Sir? No, no, Razka. We're not in the field anymore. Call me Xakir.” He paused and chuckled to himself. “Or perhaps, if you insist on formality, Lord Shadowscale.”
“What? You’re a lord now? How did that happen?”
“Oh, politics. It bores me and would likely bore you as well. Some kind of new policy…serve so many years as an officer and they give you another title…all semantics. They just want to get more broodlings to join the service.” He paused again. “You see, I told you it was boring. What about you? What have you been doing since you left the service?”
“I’m working down at the warrior guild,” Razka replied. “I teach the hatchlings how to swing a sword and not cut their fingers off in the process,” he said with a grin.
Xakir laughed. “It’s true, then. Once the military has you, they have you for life.”
“How about you, Xak? Are you still active duty?”
“Me? Oh, no. Not active. I’m a tactical officer…or something like that. I don’t remember the exact title. Overly dramatic, whatever it is.” He sighed, shaking his head as if he was reflecting on past days. “No, I quit active duty when my son was born.”
“Oh, you have a son?” Razka asked.
“I do. Or rather, he has me. It seems like he takes all the attention my wife and I have, put together…and that’s still not enough most of the time.”
“I’ve got a kid too,” Razka said. He laughed. “Hell, that’s why I’m here. I needed a breather.”
“Really? How old?”
“My dear sir, I will buy you the next drink,” he said, deeply sympathetic. “I remember what that first year is like. Every time Xarikel gets into trouble and I despair, I thank Cazic Thule that he’s three and not one.”
The first year, Razka thought. He’d hoped this would only last for a few months. He studied the table as he considered this new advice. A new bottle of pale ale slid in front of him.
“The time gets faster,” Lord Shadowscale said, as if he sensed his friend’s misery. “Trust me, nothing is as bad as the first month or two.”
“Well, it was nice seeing you again, Xak, but I need to be getting home. The wife has been taking care of Xahra all day, and I’m sure she’s looking forward to being relieved of her.”
“Keep in touch, Raz,” Lord Shadowscale said, shaking Razka’s hand. “It was a pleasure running into you.”
“Where have you been?” Razka’s wife, Cythra, demanded as her husband walked through the door. “You were supposed to be here an hour and a half ago.”
“I was at the Tink N’Babble. I ran into one of my old friends from the army…it would have been rude not to stay and catch up with him.”
“Oh, but it wasn’t rude to leave your wife at home with the baby.”
“I’m sorry, dear, but I hadn’t seen Xak in fifteen years – ”
“Fine. Whatever. Here, take your daughter.” She handed him the tiny hatchling, which promptly began to gnaw on his shoulder. Between her absence of teeth and his tough scales, the gnawing wasn’t really painful so much as annoying.
“Where are you going?” Razka asked, watching his wife leave their house in a huff.
“Out,” she answered shortly, without bothering to stop or even turn around.
“Oh, right…out,” he mumbled.
“Your mother’s going out,” he said absently to the child in his arms. “What would you like to do…eat?” Xahra looked at him curiously. She was already starting to show blue flecks on her face, and Razka mused that it was actually quite charming. Xahra was a pretty hatchling when she wasn’t keeping him up all night. “Well, I’m going to eat if you’re not going to.” He found a froglok leg among the food in the kitchen, which he began to eat. He talked to Xahra as he ate, and after he ate. When he went to bed, Cythra still had not returned, so he took Xahra to bed with him, and he talked to her as she drifted off to sleep, however temporarily. As he was falling asleep himself, he thought about how Xahra didn’t seem so bad when he was holding her…
Razka awoke the next morning to Xahra’s high-pitched shrieks. He figured she was hungry, since she hadn’t eaten the night before. Still sleepy, he wondered why Cythra hadn’t fed their daughter yet. Then, the thought shot through his sleep-haze that Cythra had not been home. If she had been, Xahra would not have been lying in their bed.
He had no time to think about where his wife might be; he had a hungry infant and a class to teach in about an hour. He scrambled for the kitchen, where he found a clay jug full of the repulsive earthworm mush his wife bought for the hatchling. Well, she did seem to enjoy it. He scooped some out in a cup and began attempting to spoon feed Xahra. Ideally this would have worked well, but Xahra was immediately uninterested in food.
“Come on, eat,” he said, as if she would be convinced.
Eventually the child ate her fill and was quiet for the time being. But then another, much more unpleasant reality hit Razka. He had to be at work in twenty minutes, and there was no one to watch the child. He couldn’t skip work. The guild master would not tolerate it. There was no excuse for missing work, unless you were dead. Razka thought about how it might be nice to be dead, for a little while at least.
He realized that he could not afford to give the matter much thought, or he would be late for work. Leaving her at home would be most shameful. The next best thing seemed to be bringing her to work with him. Eator might be angry with him initially, but he saw little choice, and hoped that his boss would understand.
He rushed out of the house, nearly running into another Iksar in the process.
“Excuse me – Xakir?”
“Raz! Good morning! And is this Xahra?” he asked, lightly tapping on Xahra’s snout. The hatchling absently snapped at the air where Xakir’s finger had been a few seconds ago.
“It is,” he said with a proud smile. “Well, I’ve gotta get to work, Xak. Sorry to call things off like this, but – ”
“You’re bringing her to work?”
“Yea,” he said, looking at the ground to avoid what he knew was a disapproving glare.
“Where’s your wife?”
“I don’t know. She never came home last night.”
“Oh,” Xakir said, abruptly silenced. “I’m sorry.” He was quiet for an awkward moment, finally resuming the conversation. “Well, I don’t have to be at work for another hour…my wife can probably watch her for you.”
“What? Your wife can watch her?” he repeated incredulously. “You’d…she’d…do that for me?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “If I know Eator, he wouldn’t stand for such a thing. You might lose your job, then how could you feed your little monster?” he looked fondly at Xahra. “Besides, my wife’s always wanted a daughter. I’m sure she’d be elated to watch her for you.”
“Oh, Xak, I don’t know how to pay you back…”
“Nonsense. Go to work.” He took the hatchling from Razka and turned back towards the knights’ quarter.
“Go!” Xak said with a smile and a dismissive gesture. “Run!”
And Razka did indeed bolt off toward the warrior’s guild, full speed.
“…So I told him you would take her,” Xakir explained calmly. “Temporarily.”
Sylva, Xakir’s wife, fretted at the last word. “Oh. You’re sure? I miss having a little lizard in the house,” she said, nuzzling Xahra’s snout with her own as she spoke.
How, thought Lord Shadowscale? How could she miss not sleeping? How could she miss being up every hour to feed the child? Xakir thanked Cazic Thule every for the perseverance to raise Xarikel past infancy. And Xarikel was still a handful. Xakir was confident that after one day, Sylva would be over her desire for a daughter.
And speak of the devil, there he was. Xarikel came out of his room, wiping the sleep away from his eyes. “Hi mom, hi dad, what’s for breakfast?”
“Pickled froglok legs,” Sylva answered without even looking away from Xahra. “On the table.”
“What’s that?” Xarikel asked, as if he had seen something repulsive.
“This is my friend Razka’s daughter, Xahra,” Xakir answered. “Your mother will be watching her today.”
“Oh. Okay.” Xarikel went off to the kitchen.
“Well, I have to be at work, dear,” Xakir said. “Have a good day.”
“I will…you too, dear,” she called after him, still not looking up from the hatchling.
Xakir chuckled to himself. She wouldn’t be thinking that later today, if half of what Raz had told him were true.
“You’re sure she doesn’t mind this?” Razka asked for the tenth time. It had been six months and he had still seen no signs of Cythra.
“No. No, no, no. I’ll take her back there now. Get to work, Raz!”
“Man, Xak, you don’t know how much I appreciate this. I’ll never be able to repay you.”
“Shut up, Raz,” he said amiably. “There is no repaying. I’m doing this for you because we’re friends.”
“Okay…thanks. I appreciate – ”
Razka handed Xahra to Xakir. She was bigger now; her face was solid blue where it had just been flecked before. He smiled at her as the handoff was made. It had been the same thing every day since the very first. A few weeks ago, she had started smiling back. It was so hard for him to leave her and go to work…even though he knew she was in good hands.
The streets were crowded as he made his way to work. The canals were even more crowded, or he would have swum; school was beginning and the younger lizards generally preferred swimming to walking. He sped up his pace a bit more, not wanting to be late.
He arrived at the guild with a few minutes to spare, but went to the training grounds anyway. Most of his students were there already. Tardiness was not tolerated, not from teachers and not from students. He spent his few free minutes retrieving his sword from the weapon rack, and inspecting it to make sure it was suitable for use.
“Well, good morning,” he said after he had deemed his sword acceptable. The silent response was not rude; it was professional and normal. “I see all of you are here today.” It was true. His quick head count revealed that all twelve of his broodlings were here. “That’s good.
“Now, today we will be practicing parrying.” He noted the looks of disapproval on several of the young Iksar faces, although of course no dissent was voiced. “I know, I know. You are all already very good at parrying. But you must remember that defense is at times, much more important that offense. Now, pair off.”
He watched as the exercises progressed, noting with approval that his students really were quite adept now. For nearly half an hour, he walked slowly from pair to pair, offering criticism and advice. He was now at the last pair.
“Zarkor,” he said, “try holding your blade a little higher.” The broodling nodded, raising his hands a bit and changing his stance accordingly. “Good,” Razka noted with approval, smiling. “Much better. Perhaps you should move your left foot a little as well, like this.” He demonstrated, and the young Iksar did the same, as his partner swung the practice sword at him. “Yes, Zarkor, that’s much better,” he said. “You’re doing much better, lad.
“Now…we’ve had enough parrying for one day, I believe. I think we should move on to – ”
“Look out!” came a voice from the balcony above the training area. His reflexes honed by years of combat and combat training, Razka’s eyes instantly flicked to the balcony. There, he saw three of the guild blacksmiths, who had apparently been moving some piping up the walkway. One had slipped, and a large, heavy piece of metal was now flying down towards his students.
“Move!” Razka shouted. Most of them moved, but two remained. One had apparently missed both warnings, and the other looked too panicked to move. “Move!” he shouted again as he ran to push them out of the way. He grabbed one young lizard’s wrist and jerked back hard, leaving him on the ground a few feet away. The other he could not reach, and was forced to shove him while still running. His other student hit the ground. However, his brave actions had sad consequences. He was now directly in harm’s way.
The steel pipe struck Razka in the back, pinning him to the ground hard. The pain was sudden and excruciating. He could barely think. Everything hurt so much. There were people around him, lots of people. His students, the blacksmiths. There were others calling for help. Other trainers were coming. They were all talking, but Razka could not pick individual voices out of the din.
Then the War Baron himself was there, speaking harshly to the blacksmiths. Every so often, he would glance down at Razka, as if to check that he was still alive.
Still alive? Does that mean I’m going to die? Razka thought. Although he had always been a military man, he had never been in a situation like this. He vaguely regretted being at the end of his life, but not for the usual reasons he’d heard around the infirmaries as a soldier. Not because he’d had a lot of elaborate plans for life that would never be fulfilled. Not because he felt his life had been ended cheaply. He was sad because he would never see his daughter again, and she would never know him.
“Razka?” Eator said. “Razka, the mystics have been called. If you have a chance to be saved, it is through their wisdom. Just hold on a little longer, Razka.”
Eator sighed. “Hold on, Razka.”
“Xakir? Lord Shadowscale?”
“Yes. Tell him…look after Xahra…”
“I will, Razka, but you just hold – ”
Razka could hold on no longer. His eyes fluttered shut. He left the world of confused noise and sharp pain for the quiet, painless black void beyond.
Xakir was startled by the knock on the door. He had been deeply absorbed in his work. “Yes?”
“I’ve terrible news.”
All at once, Xakir’s mind went through a hundred possibilities for this news. He pulled out his chair to sit down, preparing for the worst. Something happened to his wife? His son? Both? Fear tied his stomach in knots.
“A friend of yours was killed on the work site today…Razka Bitezor?”
His heart sank. Razka was an instructor, not a laborer. There was no reason for him to die. “How?” he managed to ask.
“Some workers were moving something to the second floor of the guild. Steel piping for a new forge, I believe. They lost their grip on one of the pipes and it hit him. Broke his back, I believe.” Seeing the grief on Xakir’s face, the messenger continued. “Razka died a hero’s death, Lord Shadowscale. He sacrificed himself to save two of his students from certain death.”
“Thank you for informing me.”
“Razka desired that you look after Xahra?”
“Yes,” Xakir said, choking on his grief. “Of course I will.”
“All right. I’ll leave you to mourn, Lord Shadowscale.”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of such grievous news.”
Xakir was silent. His head was bowed, and his thoughts were of his friend Razka. Razka, the stubborn young infantryman who provided a constant challenge for his commanding officer. Razka, the earnest Iksar who passed on his admittedly impressive skills with a sword to malleable broodling minds and hands. Razka, the upstanding citizen that provided for his wife in a most admirable and responsible manner.
Razka, the struggling father who managed to raise his child alone. Who, after an eight-hour workday, somehow managed to lavish attention and love on his daughter.
But Xahra would never know that man.
Xakir shook his head, still not fully believing what had happened to his friend.
The rest of the workday passed quickly. It was not really a blur, which was the expression Xakir would normally have used. It was more of a haze. Sorrow clouded his thoughts; it was difficult to think about anything too deeply or too long. It was not his loss that grieved him particularly, but rather the loss of the child that was now his ward. She was not old enough to understand, so while on one hand she would not suffer much from the event, on the other hand she would suffer in a different way: she would never know her father.
He trudged through the streets of Cabilis, in no hurry to get home and break the news to his wife. When he arrived at his house and opened the door, happy sounds were coming from within. He winced at the knowledge that he would have to destroy the happiness, the excitement. Taking a breath, he stepped through.
“Oh, Xak, you’re home! How was – ” Sylva’s voice trailed off as she saw her husband’s face. “What’s wrong, Xak?”
Xakir sighed. “Xarikel.”
“Take Xahra in your room and play with her for awhile.”
He watched his son take Razka’s child down the hall. He didn’t turn back to his wife until he heard Xarikel’s voice.
“What’s wrong, Xakir?” she asked, obviously dreading the answer.
He sighed again. “Razka died today,” he said huskily.
“What?” she asked incredulously. “How?”
“An accident. Some laborers were moving something up some stairs and dropped a large piece of pipe…Razka shoved some kids out of the way and it struck him down.”
Sylva collapsed into a chair next to the fireplace. “I can’t believe it.”
“He was so young!”
It seemed that a thought occurred to her all at once. “What about Xahra? Who will take care of her?”
“He said that he wanted us to take her.”
She was silent as she gazed into the fireplace. “The poor thing.”
Xakir nodded his assent silently.
“How will we tell Xarikel?”
“He’s old enough to understand,” Xakir said. “And he’s strong. He’ll be fine.”
“Oh, Xak, I feel like this is all my fault.”
“What? Don’t be silly. How could this be your fault?”
“All this time I wished we had a daughter…”
“No. I don’t even want to hear you say that, Sylva. This is not anyone’s fault.”
“I know, but – ”
“No. No but’s. This is not your fault.”
She sighed. “I just can’t believe he’s dead.”
“I know,” Xakir said. “I know.”
The following few years were relatively quiet. That is to say, as quiet as can be expected in a household with two young children. At times Xakir and Sylva despaired, for as Xahra got older, she was able to aid Xarikel in his plots.
Mostly, though, it was quiet.
Xarikel went to the warrior’s guild every day, to learn basic combat maneuvers. This was standard for a young Iksar that aspired to become a warrior or shadow knight. Xahra stayed at home with her adopted mother, learning how to cook and do other “womanly” things. She drove Sylva crazy with her questions. Why is the sky blue, how can we walk on the bridge and not have it collapse, why is Xarikel taller than me, why does water turn into steam when heated, and on and on and on. Sylva experienced a strange mixture of relief and dread when her son returned from his lessons – since Xarikel was nine, he only attended his class until around 2 – because she knew they would start trouble together.
And so they did. She tried to keep them in the house, or at least keep an eye on them, but Xarikel never failed to intuitively know when his mother was not looking. Then he would be outside with his sister, contemplating what they would do next.
On this particular day, Sylva was cooking dinner. Her husband would return home in an hour or so, and none too soon. Xarikel had been a handful today, having brought home a fairly gigantic spider from school, which he immediately showed to his mother. She was not frightened so much as startled; if he had brought it home and not been bitten, it was not dangerous. Her nerves were already somewhat frayed, from enduring a long conversation with Xahra as to whether or not the sky was grey because of the smoke from their kitchen fire. So, she had shooed him out of the house, and he had taken his sister. She wasn’t quite as apprehensive about letting them out alone, because for the past few days, Xarikel had been teaching her to swim in the canal outside their house.
She was far too trusting.
“Come on,” Xarikel called up to his sister. “Jump. It doesn’t hurt. I jumped.”
Xahra looked over the edge of the balcony, not really convinced. “It looks kinda far though. I’m scared it’ll hurt.”
“It won’t hurt. Look, I’ll catch you.”
“You’ll miss. I’ve seen you try to catch stuff before.”
Xarikel looked offended for a split second. “Hey, that was a ball. You’re a lot bigger than a ball, you know.”
“Um…I still don’t wanna jump.”
“Come on, before he finds out we’re here.”
She looked like she was considering it now. “He’s mean.”
“Yea. Now jump.”
“Hey!” came the familiar but all-too-dreaded voice from inside the house. “If that’s Lord Shadowscale’s kids, you’re in trouble.”
“Damn,” Xarikel said. He had learned that word at school, and felt grown up using such language. He still didn’t say it around his father, though. He suspected that his father might be upset at just how fast his son was growing up. “Jump, Xahra. Dad will yell at us if the Toilmaster says something to him.”
She took a deep breath and jumped off of the balcony, closing her eyes in case Xarikel didn’t catch her. She landed safely in his arms, though, and they both dove off into the canal and swam for home.
“Dinner,” Sylva was calling as they were just climbing up out of the water. “Oh, there you are. I was afraid you were off getting into trouble again. Go inside, your father is waiting for us.”
“Yes, mother,” Xarikel said.
“We don’t start trouble,” Xahra said, as she followed her brother.
“Oh, no. Not you two,” she said seriously.
The family enjoyed a meal of picked froglok, with cookies for dessert. Just as dinner was ending, there was an all too familiar voice coming from the front door.
“Excuse me, Lord Shadowscale?”
Xakir looked in the direction of the door, and then at his wife. “Excuse me,” he said, and rose from the table.
Xarikel strained to hear the conversation, willing to run the risk of appearing to eavesdrop. Apparently his mother didn’t notice, but then again he didn’t have to hear much.
“I’m sorry to disturb you during dinner, Lord Shadowscale.”
“No disturbance, sir. What may I help you with?”
“Well, your kids…I caught them near my building again.”
“I see.” Xakir sounded most displeased.
“You don’t sound surprised. I wasn’t either, but just playing near the building isn’t too much of a problem. The problem is, I found the froglok pen open, and some of the slaves are missing.”
And then Xarikel didn’t have to eavesdrop anymore. “Xarikel, Xahra. Please come in here.”
Both excused themselves from the table and came in to see the Toilmaster, looking angry and tired. Xakir didn’t look very happy either, but Xarikel wasn’t surprised. His father had spoken to them about this before.
“Were you at the Toilmaster’s building today?”
“I…uh…” Xarikel didn’t want to admit his fault, but he certainly didn’t want to lie to his father. “Yes,” he finally said quietly.
“And have I told you not to bother the Toilmaster?”
“Yes, Father,” Xarikel said, looking at the ground.
“Twice!” Xahra added. Thanks a lot, Xarikel thought.
“Yes. Twice. Yet you both feel the need to make return trips. Why is that?”
“It’s boring in the house,” Xahra said without thinking about it for too long. Xarikel shook his head, trying not to giggle at his sister’s complete lack of tact. Giggling would be very bad, with their father’s present disposition.
“Oh, it’s boring. What an excellent reason for you to deliberately disobey me.”
“I should hope so. But I’m not the one to be apologizing to.”
“Sorry, Mr. Toilmaster. But I wouldn’t have jumped off the balcony if you weren’t so mean,” she added indignantly.
Xarikel laughed despite himself. His father glared at him, sending Xarikel’s eyes straight back to the floor. Now it would be really hard to sound sincere, he thought. “I’m…sorry for bothering you, Mr. Toilmaster.”
Xakir nodded. “All right. Which of you opened the froglok pen?”
Xahra had, but Xarikel saw no reason to name his sister as the guilty party. Of course, it had been his idea, and she had done it at his urging…
“I did,” she said. “I’m little enough to get over without him seeing me.” She didn’t look very contrite, but rather proud of her accomplishment.
“Not too little to be punished, though,” Xakir said, effectively killing all that pride. “And you certainly aren’t, Xarikel. Now, apologize for opening the pen.”
“I’m sorry I opened the pen,” Xahra said. “And I’m sorry you had to run around and catch all the frogloks. That probably took a long time.”
“I’m sorry I put her up to it,” Xarikel said. And I’m sorry that I didn’t get to watch you run around and catch them all, he thought, managing not to smile at the mental image.
“Well, just see that it doesn’t happen again.” The Toilmaster turned to their father. “Lord Shadowscale.” Xakir nodded politely, and the Toilmaster left.
“Now, what to do with you two.” He shook his head. “Why can’t you just listen? Is it that hard to stay away from one building? There are many other places you could spend your time, not harassing people. Do you enjoy bothering people?” Two mumbled negative responses. “I’m beginning to doubt it. You’ve bothered the Toilmaster on at least four different occasions. I’ve had complaints from the Haggle Baron as well.” He paused.
“Xahra. Since you seem to think the house is so boring, you are to stay in the house, at all times, for three weeks. No trips outside, except for hygienic purposes.” Xahra groaned.
“And Xarikel. Such energy could be much better spent learning. For the next three weeks, and I will inform your instructor of this, you are to remain at the warrior’s guild until six instead of two. Hopefully, this will improve your self-discipline…and when you come home, you will be too tired to cause mischief.” Xarikel groaned.
“I spent over twenty years bringing honor to the name of Shadowscale. I had no prestige, no reputation. A military career has changed that, and all for the better. Now, the name Shadowscale means something. I would much rather you continue to honor this name.
“Both of you, go to bed. We’ll discuss this further in the morning.”
Ten minutes later, they were discussing the day’s events across the room they shared…in hushed tones of course.
“He sounded really mad,” Xahra said. She was still coping with the news that she would have three weeks of not leaving the house.
“Yea, I think he was.” Xarikel was not overly upset with his own sentence. Three weeks seemed like forever to a six-year-old, though. “I wouldn’t be too worried about it, though. He’ll be a lot less angry tomorrow.”
“All we did was open the froglok pen. It’s not like we’ve never done that before.”
“Well, yea, but I think he was more mad cos he told us not to, but we did it anyway.”
“Oh. So we can’t do that anymore?”
He laughed a little. “Sure we can. We just have to wait until he stops being mad. After we get off restriction, he’ll be over it.”
“The Toilmaster is mean.”
“Yea. We really should get him back.”
“Yea. Let’s steal his lunchbox. That will make him real mad.”
Xarikel sighed inwardly at his little sister’s notions of vengeance. “Yea. I guess we could do that. But we should probably do something else, too.”
“Oh, I dunno. We’ll think of something. Go to sleep before he comes up and gets mad again.”
Three weeks was enough time to come up with a Master Plan. The Toilmaster would pay.
Lord Shadowscale’s plan went off without a hitch. For three weeks, he heard no complaints from anyone regarding his children. He was surprised and pleased to hear reports from Xarikel’s instructors of his marked improvement. And, as he had planned, Xarikel was much more tired when he came home from school each day. When he got home, he usually helped his mother with any chores that Xahra had not already completed, ate dinner, and retired around eight.
Xahra’s restriction was not so well enforced as Xarikel’s. Sylva grew increasingly more lenient on Xahra as the days wore on. She felt sorry for her adopted daughter, who often sat looking at the wall hoping for this very effect. She began allowing Xahra outdoors for different reasons. First, it was to gather some herbs for her, or vegetables from their garden. Then, it was to weed and water the garden. The situation benefited them mutually. Xahra thought that she had manipulated her mother into letting her go outside, but Sylva had more time to cook and clean the house. Xakir always arrived home too late to actually catch this, so it continued up to the end of their restriction.
Every night they planned what to do to the Toilmaster. Their plans seemed to go in circles, though. As much as Xarikel tried to think of a terrible revenge to exact, everything he came up with was either too mean, or was recycled from previous terrorizing. And Xahra felt that stealing his lunchbox would be the most detrimental theft possible.
So, although Xarikel had been confident that they would have a Master Plan by the time they were let off restriction, they did not. But perhaps this wasn’t such a bad thing, the young lizard reasoned. The later they committed their crime, the less angry his father would be. Maybe. It was hard for him to anticipate what his father would do.
The very day they got off punishment, they were planning their next endeavor.
“So…what do you want to do today?” Xarikel asked his sister.
“Get the Toilmaster?”
“Um…we don’t have a plan, though.”
“Oh. We could go throw rocks at the Haggle Baron’s shop.”
Xarikel smiled. “Yea. We could do that.”
“Get good rocks. It’s not cool when you use regular ones.”
“I know. Let’s go in the backyard and find some. We’ve gotten some good ones there before.”
Throwing rocks at a building was not something Xarikel normally considered interesting. It was destructive, and there was no benefit from it. The Haggle Baron’s establishment was different, though. It was built from an odd kind of rock; Xarikel had never seen any like it before. His discovery came one morning when he was late leaving the house, and was running to school. In his haste, he kicked a few rocks up as he ran past the Haggle Baron’s shop, and was surprised by a shower of sparks. Instead of hanging around to experiment with the rocks, he hurried to school. His instructors – not to mention his father – would be angry with him if he were late to class.
So, when he got home that afternoon he and Xahra had returned to the store. On the way there he told her what he had seen, and she was quite enthusiastic. When they got there, they sat across from the side of the store, throwing an occasional rock at it. Not every rock made sparks. Xahra immediately assumed that this was because she wasn’t throwing it hard enough, and Xarikel thought it was a valid conclusion…the first time. But when the next throw didn’t make the promised sparks, she threw the one after it even harder. Xarikel started throwing them hard too. He was a good deal older and stronger than her, so his rocks hit with a lot of force. Of course, all this noise inevitably attracted the Haggle Baron, who came down to see what was going on. They heard him coming down the stairs, though, and managed to get out of sight before he saw them.
Since then, they had figured out which kinds of rocks made the sparks, and become adept at picking them out from other rocks. Not wanting to waste any more time before their father got home, Xahra went up to their room and got the basket she had weaved for just this purpose. She’d had to get her mother to help her, but came up with excellent cover: the basket was for gathering herbs. So, her mother was perfectly happy to help her. She came back downstairs with the basket, and she and Xarikel went down the street gathering rocks.
“You should put a piece of cloth or something over that,” Xarikel said, raising an eyebrow at his sister. “Someone’s probably gonna wonder what we’re doing with a basket full of rocks.”
She giggled. “Oh yea.” Not too far down the road, they found a beat up shred of cloth that fit neatly over the basket.
They arrived at the Haggle Baron’s shop, assuming their usual place next to some big rocks by the side of the store. Both lizards sat down behind them, using them for crude cover. When either of them stood, they could see over the rocks, so their common practice was to stand up, throw a rock, watch the sparks, and get back down before anyone saw them. This had worked out ever since the Haggle Baron had seen them in front of the rocks one time, and complained to their father about it.
Xarikel threw the first stone. They had learned that it wasn’t necessary to throw hard, so his throw was leisurely. The rock sailed through the air, collided with the wall, and left a shower of sparks as it bounced off the wall and landed on the ground. The sparks were exciting every time; Xarikel and Xahra were both of an age where fire is immensely interesting. These particular ones were white and an odd shade of pink; Xarikel had never seen it before. He wished he could remember where they’d picked this particular rock up.
Xahra’s first rock struck close to where Xarikel’s had. A spray of red and orange sparks shot out at the ground, mesmerizing them for that split second. Xarikel reached into the basket for another rock, searching it for an impressive one.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he heard from in front of him.
“Looking for a lucky rock,” Xahra said quickly, even before Xarikel could turn around and see who addressed them. He was afraid he knew who was speaking to them. When he finally looked up, his fears were confirmed. It was the Haggle Baron himself.
“A lucky rock? It looks like you already threw two lucky rocks at my building.”
“Oh, no. Those rocks weren’t lucky.”
“I see. Haven’t I specifically asked you two not to throw rocks at my building?” There was no reply, so he assumed that he was correct. “I see I’ll have to speak to Lord Shadowscale again.”
Damn, thought Xarikel. His father would probably be pretty mad now. He swallowed his pride, believing it to be a small sacrifice compared to whatever punishment his father would dream up this time.
“Don’t say anything to him, please,” Xarikel said.
The Haggle Baron snorted. “Boy, I’ve caught you doing this before. Now, I haven’t seen you around for a little while, but I get the impression that it’s because your father stepped in. I don’t have time to tolerate or deal with your destructive nature.”
“It’s not the destruction,” Xarikel said. “Look.” He didn’t ask permission, a risk he had to take. The Haggle Baron didn’t flinch even as Xarikel pitched his rock at the wall. White and bright red flashed out of the rock as it fell onto the ground. “See. Your wall isn’t even damaged. We just like watching the sparks.”
“Heh. That is a rather impressive trick,” the Haggle Baron admitted, smiling a little. “But, the fact remains that your rocks leave these ugly white spots in my wall. See them?” Xarikel did. He had seen them before, but paid little mind to them.
“What if we wash them off?” Xarikel asked. “Could you please not tell my dad?”
The Haggle Baron looked as though he was deeply considering this. “I suppose perhaps we could work out some sort of deal. You can clean the wall, and bring your rubble back to the quarry. I don’t want that trash there; it’s an eyesore.”
“Great,” Xarikel said, relieved.
“And. If I catch you throwing rocks at the wall again, I will tell your dad.”
“Okay, that’s fair.”
“Start now. If you’re not done tonight, come back tomorrow and finish. I’ll be fair; as long as you’re working on cleaning it, I won’t say anything to your dad. But I don’t want to come out here and see you messing around. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” Xahra and Xarikel said at the same time.
“Good. I’ll come check on you in an hour.”
“We need to go in an hour,” Xahra said. “Dinner.”
Xarikel was glad that he wasn’t obstinate about dinner. He knew his father would be highly supsicious if his children returned home late on their first day off punishment.
They worked in relative silence. The Haggle Baron would probably be listening for noise, and Xarikel didn’t want to make him angry after he had generously cut this deal with them. Xarikel took the cloth from the basket, soaked it in the canal, and scrubbed hard at months’ worth of white marks. They didn’t come off as easily as he had expected; he realized this would probably take a few days. Xahra picked rocks up from the sidewalk and deposited them in the rock basket. Her work was easier, of course, her being the little one.
Some time later, they heard the door to the shop open, and the Haggle Baron stepped back to survey their work.
“It looks a lot better,” he said approvingly. “Tomorrow, missy, you can sweep the rest of the walkway and help your brother get out the rest of the stains. You might be able to finish tomorrow, but definitely by the next day. But you should both be getting home now, your dad will be getting off work soon.”
“Thanks for helping us out,” Xarikel said sincerely.
“Oh, it’s not a big deal. I used to be a hellraiser when I was your age. I know you two weren’t being actively destructive. It was just a byproduct. Go on home, though.”
As they headed home, Xarikel took the basket from Xahra. It was pretty heavy now; she couldn’t carry it easily by herself. They deposited its contents at the rock pile behind their house before entering the house.
“Oh, there you are,” their mother said as they walked in. “Where have you been?”
“All over,” Xarikel said, making an expansive gesture with his arms.
“You must be happy to be allowed out of the house again. Come help me finish making dinner. Your father will be home soon.”
Dinner was ready when Lord Shadowscale returned home. Xarikel was pleased, as this was the norm, and everything seemed normal.
As they sat around the table, it was strangely quiet. Though Xarikel barely perceived witholding information as lying, he would not verbally lie to his father. And, as such, he had no stories to tell about what they did today, at least, none that wouldn’t get him in trouble. Xahra had the same mindset as he did, although since she was younger, she was more careless and impulsive. Neither said anything while they ate.
“You two are unusually quiet,” Xakir commented. He didn’t sound suspicious, but rather curious. “Did you enjoy your day off?”
“Yes, Father,” Xarikel said, while Xahra nodded silently.
“And what did you do today?”
“Nothing, really. We just walked around the city,” Xahra said.
“Oh? I’m not going to be hearing horror stories from anyone, am I?”
“Of course not,” Xarikel said. That was true. The Haggle Baron promised he wouldn’t tell their father what they did.
“Good,” he said with a smile. “I’m glad you’ve reformed. At least, temporarily.”
Xarikel breathed a sigh of relief. They’d actually gotten away with it this time. It probably wouldn’t last, but at least this time they'd gotten off free.
“I can’t believe something actually went our way,” Xahra said as she scrubbed at a white mark on the wall. “Nothing ever goes our way.”
“Yea, I know. Dad seems like he always knows when we’re up to no good.”
“Another hour and we’ll be done,” she said, smiling.
“Yea. Looks like…”
“Xarikel? Xahra? What are you doing here?”
The lizards swallowed collectively. What was he doing here? “Good afternoon, Father,” Xarikel said. “We’re…atoning…”
“Atoning? What have you done now?”
The Haggle Baron stepped out then, but Xarikel was not sure if he was happy or unhappy at his intrusion.
“Hello, Lord Shadowscale. How can I help you today?”
“You can tell me what they did this time.”
“Ah, well, in the past they have been known to throw rocks at my establishment.” The glare Xakir was giving his children made them both look away. “They offered to clean up after themselves yesterday. So, I accepted.”
“They offered to clean up after themselves when you caught them doing it?”
“Yes,” he replied. Well, Xarikel thought, so much for getting away with it this time.
“I see,” Xakir said through gritted teeth. “What I don’t see…is why you both failed to mention this to me last night.” He turned to look at them, but both were too scared to reply. “Go home. We’ll talk about this after dinner.”
Dinner was a somber affair, dampened by the ominous air that hung over the young transgressors. They ate silently, trying not to look at their father. Lord Shadowscale was quiet as well, regarding his children through narrowed eyes as he ate. Sylva was only quiet because everyone else was; she appeared to be quite uncomfortable with it. But eventually, it ended.
“Join me in the next room,” Xakir said, his voice deceptively pleasant. They sullenly complied.
“What do I have to do to get through to you two?” he asked. Neither of them answered. “I’ve tried everything I can think of. Whatever I throw at you, you endure and bounce back from. Normally I suppose this would be an admirable trait, but I am less than pleased with your behavior. I had hoped that a month’s restriction would at least slow you down…but no. Less than an hour after I let you outside, you’re throwing rocks at the Haggle Baron’s establishment. I don’t know what to do.”
Xakir sighed, ending his tirade. Xarikel and Xahra looked at each other, wondering whether the heavy silence would end.
“I refuse to just give up on you. You’re good kids for the most part, you just seem to have this…judgment problem. I suppose after such a long record, most people would probably just give up. I won’t do that, though. I worked hard to build this name for myself, for us. My father was a merchant’s assistant most of his life. He was honorable, of course, and I had the utmost respect for him. My years of service to Cabilis put that food on our table, though.
“I suppose what I’m saying is, I don’t want you to disgrace our name. I understand that you may mess up once in awhile, but you need to stop going out of your way to cause trouble. You need to learn some self-discipline. And, I have devised my last resort. I trust that it will work. Tomorrow I am bringing you down to your new guilds.”
“What?” Xahra asked, but he continued talking over her.
“Xarikel, you will be enrolled in the same academy I attended. Don’t look so surprised. You have wanted this since you could walk. I think we both wanted it to come a little bit later, but you leave me little choice, my son. The shadow knights there will give you the discipline you need.
“Xahra. You may be a bit young for enrollment, but I believe if I speak with the Hierophants, they will accept you. You are going to become a shaman. It seems to be the best choice available to one so sensitive and inquisitive as yourself.
“It grieves me to do this to you at your respectively young ages. You are both responsible for your actions. And, you will learn this from the masters here. Now, go to bed. You will both have long days tomorrow.”